Festive Flash Fiction

Well it’s Christmas Day tomorrow, so I guess that means it’s time for a story! And what better genre than a sci-fi/horror with a festive twist.

As ever, the following story is entirely my own work and has never been published anywhere else, whether in print or online, nor do I expect it to ever be published anywhere else in the future. And so, without further ado, I give you…

santa origins

by A. Ferguson

‘Daddy’, my daughter ventured in the dwindling hours of one Christmas Eve. ‘My teacher says Santa’s not Santa but St. Nicholas was Santa. And he’s dead. So… if Santa is St. Nicholas and St. Nicholas is dead, how can is he coming here?’

‘Well Christine,’ I began, thinking on my feet. ‘Your teacher is right that St. Nicholas has been dead for centuries…’

But seeing a wave of disappointment flash across my daughter’s face, I knew I couldn’t stop there. This girl still believed. I couldn’t just snatch it away from her, but would lying to her face be any better?

‘But she left out the part about him being cloned.’ I added.

She looked at me like I’d grown antlers.

‘Cloned?’

‘Yeah, cloned. You know, copied. They made a new Santa out of the old one.’ I continued, trying to look cool. I was committed now. ‘His remains were exhumed by really clever scientists from the future. They used his remains to create this clone, intending to send him back to his own time so that he could continue giving gifts to all the children, just like he used to when he was first alive.’

She still looked confused. ‘But… how come he’s magic and can fly around the world and stuff now?’

‘Well it’s not really magic.’ I explained. ‘They used something called cy-ber-net-ic tech-nology to make him better, stronger and faster than he was before. It also meant he’d stay alive much, much longer– maybe even forever.’

She still didn’t look convinced.

‘Why?’ She asked.

‘Because,’ I sighed, as if it were obvious but my mind was racing. ‘He’s the kindest man in the world! I’m sure your teacher must’ve explained that he always used to give gifts to poor children, right? Well, now that he’s been enhanced with cybernetic technology, he can give gifts to all the children in the world in a single night!’

I could’ve stopped there. I should’ve stopped there. But it was obvious she still had questions that needed answers and now that I had begun, I found that I couldn’t stop.

‘The truth is,’ I began slowly, hoping I wasn’t robbing her of her innocence too young. ‘There will be a war in the future. A terrible war between humanity and the machines they’ve created.’

Her eyes were like baubles.

‘The scientists intended to send Santa back in time to begin giving out gifts as soon as they cloned him, but before they could send him back, the Machines kidnapped the cyber-Santa clone and reprogrammed him to turn him against his fellow humans.’ I continued. ‘They gave him even more cybernetic enhancements, including terrifying metal claws, and he rode a mechanical monster with horns and a deadly laser beam that shot out from its nose. He slew thousands of human soldiers until his clothes were stained red with the blood of his own kind. Others they captured and turned into cybernetic slaves called Enhanced Living Flesh (or ‘ELFs for short’).

‘During one particular massacre, he came upon the cowering figures of a couple of refugees– all children, orphans of the war– and he was suddenly overwhelmed with his own natural, God-given human compassion and regained his own mind. He turned against the Machines and after he defeated them, travelled back to his own time, hoping to regain his former life. But the humans of the past could not accept him, and he was forced to retreat to a remote part of the North Pole. Since then has tried to make amends for the atrocity he committed by using his cybernetic enhancements to secretly bring gifts to all the good boys and girls every year.’

She laughed, a nervous laugh. ‘If that’s true, why’s he so jolly all the time then? He’s always laughing, “ho ho ho!”‘

‘Oh!’ I answered without missing a beat. ‘That’s not laughter. That’s his cybernetic vocaliser. It was damaged during the war. Every now and again it gets caught in a loop and sounds like, “ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho.”‘

She didn’t look at all pleased to hear that.

‘Is he coming here tonight?’ She breathed.

‘Of course!’ I beamed.

‘Christine, don’t you listen to your father’s horrible stories.’ My wife chided from behind me. I hadn’t even heard her enter the room. She leaned in close to my daughter and whispered. ‘He’s really Santa.’

Christine looked relieved, but I felt exposed. Exposed and undermined. A lump rose up somewhere between my chest and my throat, the likes of which I hadn’t felt in years. I had to get out of there before my wife or daughter saw how badly I’d been affected. I retreated as quickly as I could to my room and shut the door– and not a moment too soon. I broke down right there on the bedroom floor.

‘Ho. Ho, h’h’ho, ho. Ho. Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho… ‘


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what jingles your bells.

Merry Christmas!

100 Word Story: The Secret of Sig. Pieroni’s Pizza

Those of you who have been floating around Penstricken for a while may recall that I once mentioned a particular plot bunny that assailed me when I was travelling home from work. As my bus passed by a Chinese takeaway, it occurred to me that a takeaway restaurant could make a lot of money if only the owner had exclusive and discreet access to a time machine, thus allowing him to deliver food promptly no matter how busy a night he was having. However, I neglected to actually show you the story that came about as a result of that plot bunny.

And so… here it is. As always, what follows here is entirely my own work and has not been published anywhere else in the world, whether in print or online nor do I expect it to be.

THE SECRET OF SIG. PIERONI’S PIZZA

by A. Ferguson

‘What if we’re caught?’ Derek whispered.

‘It’s our customers Pieroni’s stealing with his “piping hot pizza delivered in under five minutes.”’ Sandra hissed. The lock gave. They were in. ‘No way he’s doing that single-handed, whatever he says. It’s a tax thing, gotta be. Try find his ledger.’

‘What’s this?’ Derek whispered, fiddling with an unlabelled control panel beside the pantry. Something inside the pantry began to hum. Derek stepped inside.

‘Found it!’ Sandra called. ‘Let’s go!’

No reply.

‘Derek!’ She whispered, following him into the pantry. ‘Quickl-’

They were outdoors.

In the distance, herds of dinosaurs fled an erupting volcano.

THE END


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what stuffs your crust.

Until next time!

100 Word Story: Little Thieves Are Hanged

You may recall that a couple of weeks ago, I published a 100 word story entitled The Monster which I had previously entered (unsuccessfully) into the National Association of Writers’ Groups 100 Word Mini-Tales competition. Well, I’ve since decided to publish just one more of my entries here, mainly because I’ve already made reference to this particular story on previous posts and it seemed only apropos to let you read the thing.

As ever, what follows here is entirely my own work and has not been published anywhere else in the world, whether on print or online, nor do I expect it to be. And so, without further ado, I give you…

LITTLE THIEVES ARE HANGED

by. A Ferguson

Based on a true story

The junkie was talking before he reached the bus stop. Coming toe-to-toe with another gentleman who was waiting there, the junkie recounted his entire life story, occasionally tapping the gentleman’s stomach; a genial ‘wait-until-you-hear-this’ gesture.

The gentleman put his hands in his pockets. He glanced desperately towards me. I smiled, trying to reassure him.

An eternity passed before a bus finally spirited the junkie away, still talking as he embarked. The gentleman relaxed.

‘I’ve no idea who that was!’ He confided to me as my bus arrived.

I laughed and boarded the bus, fingering his wallet, safe in my pocket.

THE END


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what plucks your pigeon.

Until next time!

100 Word Story: The Monster

I recently entered a couple of stories into the National Association of Writers’ Groups 100 Word Mini-Tales competition. Suffice it to say I didn’t win, but since I believed in the potential of every one of the stories I entered, it seemed only fitting to try to publish them elsewhere. I selected this one to publish here on Penstricken after the winners of the competition were announced. I’ve made a few small improvements so it’s probably not exactly 100 words anymore but hey… At least it’s a better story now. The rest, I’ve since submitted to other places.

As ever, what follows here is entirely my own work and has not been published anywhere else in the world, whether on print or online, nor do I expect it to be since the competition winners have already been announced. So, without further ado, I give you…

THE MONSTER

by. A Ferguson

Captain Harold of Earth’s Space Navy had met his share of bizarre alien cultures, but nothing like these. These were monsters.

One of the Creatures stood over Harold, injecting him with chemicals and mutilating him with ferocious tools. The Creature had cold blue hands, shining black eyes and no mouth (yet it spoke). A human female observed nearby, desensitised to the atrocity she was witnessing.

The Creature stepped back.

‘There, that wasn’t so bad,’ it smiled.

‘What do you say to the dentist, Harry?’ the human (code name: MUM) goaded.

They had practiced this before they left the house. Thank you Mr. Riley. Harold’s mouth was still numb but he had to try…

‘Yeour a monsther!’ he screamed.

THE END


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what butters your toast.

Until next time!

6 ‘Six Word Stories’ for the 6th

Those of you who have been following this site for a while (God bless you, patient and forbearing people) will know that I have taken to posting 6 ‘six word stories’ whenever the 6th of a month happens to fall on a Sunday. Well it just so happens that today is Sunday 6th August, and so it’s time for another exciting instalment of 6 ‘Six Word Stories’ for the 6th.

You probably know the rules by now. I roll six Story Dice and I write a six word story loosely based upon whatever image is displayed on each die, starting from the top left (you can check out my previous efforts here, here and here). As ever, the following stories are entirely my own work.

So here we go.

Screenshot_2017-08-02-12-20-27

Alea iacta est.

  1. Remembered and avenged every unicycle “performance”.
  2. Defecated. Swam. ‘Oh look, a morsel… ‘
  3. Murdered thousands for the “common good”.
  4. Money. Sex. Power. Three wasted wishes.
  5. Ignored camel’s nose. Tent crashed down.
  6. He prayed for me, His killer.

Phew. That was a tough one. I hope you enjoyed my modest efforts, but no doubt you can do much better. Why not try come up with your own six word stories based on the above stimuli and post them in the comments section below so we can all see how it’s done? And we’ll do it all over again on Sunday 6th May 2018!

Also be sure to ‘like’ it and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Until next time!

The Church Mouse

My original plan for today had been to blog about works of fiction that are nevertheless based on true events but I also had a niggling feeling that it’s been ages since I’ve put any of my own stories on Penstricken.

I know what I’ll do! I thought. I’ll write a story based on true events! I just need to decide what true story to base it on…

At about the same time as I was thinking all this, I found evidence that a mouse had taken up residence in my house and that gave me just the idea I was looking for. So without further ado, I give you…

The Church Mouse

by. A Ferguson

Based on a true story

[1]

The Landlord and Landlady were busy today, pulling out the furniture and hoovering behind every nook and cranny where I’d been, or even might’ve been. They even shoved their infernal vacuum nozzle into my room. I wasn’t in at the time, praise God. I was out scavenging, but they’ve definitely been here. They’ve cleaned up all my business, sure, the bits they could reach anyhow. They’ve settled down now. Their telly’s been on for hours.

Ah, that’s it off now. Finally. They’ll be going to bed soon, I can hear them moving about. He’s washing the dishes, like he usually does just before bed. She’ll be upstairs already then. I’ll give them an hour, once I’m sure they’re asleep and then I’ll–

Wait. Snifffffffff. What’s that?!

Sniff, sniff?

Chocolate and.. sniff?… raisins and caramel by goodness! Ohh, mamma mia… sniffffffffff! Oh yes! A Cadbury’s Picnic if I’m not very much mistaken! Ohh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, I’m eating well tonight! 

No! No… no, no, I mustn’t yet, he’s still out there… gotta wait… gaagh! Hurry up and leave, already!

I think… yes, he’s gone. I can hear him on the stairs. I should wait but… oooh, I have to have that Picnic! Maybe, I’ll just have a peak… he won’t be back now till morning anyway… and that smell, it’s so strong… it must be…

Yes! There it is, right outside my door! That idiot’s left a whole chunk of the stuff just lying around in this little plastic box for me. I’ll just pop in, grab the choccie and…

Ow! The door just fell on me! It’s not very heavy, though, that’s something. If I just back-peddle like this I can pull out the choccie and… yes! I’m free! Haha! Oooh, my precious little Picnic, I can’t wait to get you back to my room… ! Hehehe!

[2]

Ooh! Another day, another Picnic! Maybe I’ve got the Landlord and Landlady all wrong. Maybe they really like me and want me to stay? Eh? Nah, don’t be silly. I’ve had all night to think about this and I don’t think that door closed on me accidentally last night! It’s just dumb luck, really, that my bum was still hanging out the back or who knows what might’ve happened…

I should leave it, I know. I’ve still got plenty left over from last night but… ooooooh, that smell just drives me wild! I got out okay last night, I’ll probably be okay again just as long as I’m careful. I know it can be done and… oh mercy, I won’t be able to think straight with that sitting outside my front door all night long.

Just need to watch. Make sure, take care, always beware. Don’t let them outsmart you. You can do this, just… take care. Beware. Don’t let carnal passions cloud your judgement. Use your brain, take your time, claim the prize.

Good… good, it’s the same kind of trap as before. Nothing that’s gonna snap my back or open my skull. I’ll just do what I did last night, leave my bum in the doorway and… gagh, the choccie’s a bit smaller tonight though… tucked right away up at the back it is, I can’t quite reach… ooooh, but it’s right there, I can almost taste it! Just another half inch…

Woosh! Rats, rats, ratty-rats! The door’s closed! Ohh, no, no, no, no, no, no, please God, let me out! Let me out! Ooh, God forgive me, I know it’s my fault, I… I got greedy and I’m sorry! Please, God, let me out! Please… I’m sorry, I’m sorry… please!

[3]

Ngh! What? I must’ve fallen asleep. But it wasn’t a dream. I’m still here, in the stupid box with the stupid choccie. I don’t fancy it quite the same anymore. I feel sick. I can’t move. They’re here. The Landlady, she sees me. She’s calling to her husband. They’re so… big! 

Aaaagh! He’s picking up the box! What’s he doing with me? Where’s he taking me? To eat me? I hear humans burn up smaller animals before they eat them! Maybe he’ll leave me if I just sit very still but… oh no, it’s a forlorn hope! What else can I do?

Please, please, please, please, Lord God Almighty, rescue me from the hand of this monster! I know it’s my fault, I promise I won’t ever be greedy again I’ll… oh, Lord, please have mercy on me a sinner!

Agh! The light! He’s taking me outdoors, into their car… where are we going?

I wish I could move. I’m so afraid, every part of my body feels like it’s turned to stone. All except my bowels; they’re working overtime. Whatever he’s doing, oh Lord, let it be over soon. To die in terror, trapped in this dungeon, tiny even by my standards and drowning in my own business…

He’s stopped the car.

Oh… rats.

This is it.

Here it comes. He’s picking me up and taking me outside and opening the box… he’s shaking it at the ground. In one sudden motion my petrified body and the choccie fall to the ground and land among the long grass on the roadside. I’m out! I’m free! I’m out of here! Oh thank you, thank you, thank you, God! Thank you kind Landlord! I’m free!

* * *

Mr. Mouse fled through the grass and the bushes for hours. He swore never to succumb to gluttony again.

In the winter of 2017 he became a church mouse. He devoted his life to the ministry and service of the church and was ordained as a minister in 2018.

He died peacefully at the age of three in 2019 and was buried on the grounds of his parish along with the piece of Picnic which he had preserved as a memento of the day his life was spared.

THE END

6 ‘Six Word Stories’ for the 6th

If you’ve been following this site for a while, you will perhaps remember that I have occasionally written posts featuring 6 six word stories (you can view previous ones here and here). Since I happen to think it’s a great way to put the imagination through its paces (not to mention test my skills in brevity), I thought it would be a good idea if I made such a post whenever the 6th of a month happens to fall on a Sunday, since I only ever post on Sundays.

And… I’ll just check the calendar here and… yep, that’s OK. If we do it this way, you should still only have to put up with one or two of these kinds of posts a year at most. So it’s all good!

You probably know the rules by now. I roll Thinkamingo’s Story Dice six times and I write a six word story for whatever image is displayed on each die starting from the top left. As ever, the following stories are entirely my own work.

Alea iacta est.

  1. My treasure? Buried by my ex.
  2. Took the bait. Snap! Hard cheese…
  3. Rolled the dice; wrote six stories.
  4. While others cooled, our house burned.
  5. Nine parachutes; ten passengers casting lots.
  6. Turned up volume: ‘…will self-destruct.’

Well, I’m sure you can all do a better job of coming up with six word stories for those stimuli than I can so why not give it a bash yourself and pop your responses in the comments section below? Then we can do it all over again on the 6th of August 2017!

3 Ways to Ignite the Imagination

The Parable of the Cars

by A. Ferguson

There were once two brothers who lived in Glasgow, who both managed to get jobs in Edinburgh. This was not a problem, since they both held full UK drivers’ licences, which they had acquired at about the same time and they both owned the same make and model of car. The eldest brother was wise. He set his alarm early in the morning and as soon as he was in his car, he turned on the ignition and drove to work in plenty of time.

The younger brother was foolish. He did not get ready for work until it suited him to do so, and when he finally did make it into his car, he sat there for a few minutes waiting for the ignition to turn itself on – which never happened. ‘Maybe it’ll come on tomorrow.’ he thought. ‘I’d better go back to bed in the meantime.’

He lost his job without ever setting a foot in Edinburgh.

* * *

A common mistake amateur writers make is to believe that they cannot write a story unless an idea – or inspiration – comes to them heralded by a chorus of angels. Like the foolish brother, they have all the necessary equipment (in the writer’s case, a brain with an imagination) but do not realise that to get any benefit from it, they need to make the effort to turn on the engine/imagination themselves.

Now, as we all know, turning on a car’s ignition doesn’t immediately take you where you want to go. It simply starts the engine, allowing for the possibility of motion. In the same way, igniting the imagination (to continue the metaphor) does not immediately give you a fully formed story. It just gives you the idea, allowing for the possibility of a story. Perhaps I’ll talk about turning your idea into a story next week, but this week, I want to focus on that all important first stage: going from having nothing to having something.

There are many different things you can do to spark the imagination, none of which involve sitting down and waiting for inspiration to strike. You can…

Read history, the news or even mythology. Just think for a moment about how long humanity has been around for and how many different things happen all over the world at any given time. Wars, disasters, weddings, funerals, births, deaths, financial meltdowns, lottery winners, crime, charity and a million other events besides. As if that were not enough, most societies throughout history come with a catalogue of myths, legends and fables that you can also delve into. If something from history grabs your interest, you could write it as a piece of historical fiction or you can simply borrow a very small element of it to inspire a whole new story. If you’re into character driven stories like me, and have the patience to do so, I would particularly recommend trying to find old letters, journals, newspaper clippings (particularly advertisements and letters from readers) and other primary sources to draw on because these give a much richer flavour of what kind of people lived in the time and place you’re reading about and what mattered to them.

Try using a resource especially designed to provoke creativity such as Oblique Strategies, Story Dice or even random title generators. If you ask the internet, you’ll quickly find that there are loads of tools out there like these, especially designed to help spark the imagination. Some are especially aimed at writers, some are not; some are very cryptic, some are very clear; some are very expensive, some are free. It can be trial and error finding the right tool(s) for you but they can be a wonderful resources to have when you find the right one for you. However, whether you’re the sort of person who likes cryptic prompts such as ‘change nothing and continue consistently’ (Oblique Strategies) or very precise ones such as ‘in 100 words or less, write a story that includes the following: a poet who always speaks in rhyme, a pill bottle, a luminous feather’ (Writer Unblocked) – or even pictures, like I used to inspire my 6 word stories, it is still ultimately down to you to come up with your own idea. See that you don’t fall into the trap of thinking any of these tools can tell you what to write. They cannot. Even very explicit prompts, such as the Writer Unblocked one I referred to, still leave it very much up to the writer to turn that prompt into a usable story idea.

‘Pantsting’, even if you’re more of a planner can also be a good place to start. If you’ve got nothing, then make up a person – any old person. You might even want to base him on a real person that you know well (though be very, very, very careful about doing this in your final story). Then just write and see where he takes you. Maybe he’s going to the chip shop but… is abducted by aliens. How does he escape? I dunno. Just make it up as you go along and edit nothing. It doesn’t matter if you hit a dead end or if you end up writing a really rubbish story, since this is simply the writer’s equivalent of doodling. What matters is that you keep making stuff up. Most of it will be chucked out but some of it might contain the golden nuggets of inspiration. I once ‘doodled’ a story about a guy who was in prison (in fact, he wasn’t even the main character of this particular ‘doodle’) and now, he’s the main antagonist of my novel and possibly one of the characters I’m the most proud of creating.

This is, of course, only a small selection of things you can try. No doubt if you ask the internet, you’ll find dozens more. Perhaps you even invented a few techniques yourself that you absolutely swear by. Do let us know about anything which works for you in the comments below!

6 More Six-Word Stories

If you’ve been following Penstricken since it started in 2015, you may recall that on one occasion I set myself the challenge of writing 6 six-word stories using Thinkamingo’s Story Dice as stimuli. Since I am in an unoriginal sort of mood today, I’ve decided to do it again. The only difference is that this time, in addition to taking my cue from the story dice, I also intend to make each story a different genre, i.e. sci-fi, historical fiction, etc.

As before, I am using one die per story.

Alea iacta est (again!).

Now let’s see what I can come up with based on that starting from the top left and working my way down to the bottom right. As ever, the following are all my own work and have not been published anywhere else before:

  1. KING FELIX DEAD: Nine assassins executed (fantasy).
  2. ‘I shall avenge thee!’ Bambi vowed. (fan fiction)
  3. Rose wrote to Henry: ‘Dear John…’ (romance).
  4. ‘Butler dunnit’, written in Butler’s blood. (murder/mystery)
  5. MARTIANS: No spacesuits on the beach! (sci/fi)
  6. Sword drawn, Julius crossed the Rubicon (historical)

That was even harder than last time! Without a shadow of a doubt, the most difficult one was the cat (though I will admit, I was scraping the bottom of the barrel a bit including a Bambi fan fiction as well). I didn’t have the foggiest idea what to do with it and I’m not even all that sure that I pulled it off terribly well but never mind. It was always meant to be a challenge.

Why not grab some story dice (or use the images I’ve posted here; I am certain you can come up with much better stories than I have) and give it a bash yourself? And remember to share your efforts with the rest of us by posting them in the comments section below!

 

A Personal Tale of Directing The Reader’s Support

While I do love near enough all forms and genres of fiction (and fully accept that the ones I’m not so wild about still have a legitimate and important place in the wider world of fiction), I would be lying if I said that sci-fi and fantasy were not among my top five favourite genres. Recently, I’ve been especially fond of stories which blend the elements of sci-fi and fantasy by creating futuristic fantasy worlds such as Star Wars or Peter Newman’s The Vagrant which I mentioned last week. Naturally, therefore, it only follows that the novel I’m painstakingly working on just now is set in a futuristic fantasy world.

The trouble I’ve had developing the story, however, had nothing to do with world building or any of the other challenges we might expect to face when writing sci-fi/fantasy. It was more basic than that. Try as I might, I found myself constantly sympathising with the bad guys. Like many sci-fi stories, much of the conflict in my novel revolves a legitimate governing authority and a group of revolutionaries. Unlike many other sci-fi/fantasy stories, the revolutionaries in my story are the bad guys. I thought it would be a piece of cake to write.

I was wrong. Try as I might, I found it almost impossible to create a plausible plot in which the people might rebel against a truly virtuous government (besides, when is a government ever a pure paradigm of virtue?).

No problem, I thought. I’ll simply make them a flawed but basically well-intentioned government.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough. Violent revolution needs something to spark it off and that something is seldom a government who are maintaining a status quo of relative peace, freedom and prosperity, even if they do make a few mistakes. To make my story work, my rebels needed something to substantial to rebel against and that meant there had to be an unforgivable and cataclysmic failure (if not an act of wanton evil) on the part of the legitimate government.

So I decided that my nation had lost a war and was forced to make hefty reparations to their enemies (among other things), resulting in the new government (instituted by the winners in the war) enforcing outrageous tax hikes on the working classes while the wealthy aristocracy continued to live in comfort. The people now had a reason to be angry and rebellion had begun. Unfortunately, I suddenly found myself sympathising with my own bad guys. Vive la revolution was all I could think; and if I was rooting for the bad guys, I was quite sure any future readers I might have would be too. It didn’t help that the main antagonist, who served as the leader of the rebels, was one of the most complex and compelling characters I had ever written (even if I do say so myself).

Somehow, I had to sway the reader’s support to the favour of the protagonist. My initial plan was to make him an undercover operative, who had been sent by his government to spy out the rebels and, if possible, undermine their efforts. In theory it was an decent enough story (if a little boring), but with reader sympathies firmly in the camp of the bad guys, I found it an almost impossible task to write that story without thoroughly ruining the ending for the reader.

I decided to consult The Story-Writer’s Oracle (also known as ‘history’) for help. I researched the villains and despots of modern and ancient history and asked what common threads ran through them to make them so despicable. I began with Hitler, since he and my antagonist had the most in common to begin with: both were soldiers in a war which their country lost, both were appalled by the mess their country was left in post-war and both saw themselves as would-be saviours of their nation. Because of these similarities, it was quite an easy thing to impose a few of Hitler’s more unstable character traits on to my own antagonist. But I needed to go further still. My antagonist was not interested in ethnic cleansing or any of the other atrocities we associate with Hitler, so simply giving him a Hitleresque temperament was not enough. I continued my research and eventually discovered that a more recent historical figure – one Saddam Hussein – apparently saw himself as the reincarnation of King Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon circa 605 BC – 562 BC.

Brilliant! I thought, for it had just so happened that one of the ancient myths of my fantasy world involved an king who travelled to the castle of the gods in the sky and negotiated a thousand years of prosperity for his nation. I will let my bad guy see himself as the reincarnation of this man.

I went further still. I considered people like Pol Pot, who apparently forbade outsiders from approaching him unless they were summoned. I also considered the god complexes and the paranoia common to figures like Nero and the Pharaohs of Egypt. Before long, I had enough dark and disturbing character traits to create a whole legion of antagonists that the reader could not fail to dislike because they were reminiscent of some of the most unstable and ruthless characters in history.

Of course, this was only the first step. I had managed to remove sympathy from the bad guys but that does not necessarily mean that the reader would support the legitimate government.

But wait just a minute! I thought. They don’t need to support the legitimate government. They only need to support the protagonist of the story.

So instead of being a government operative, I decided to make my protagonist a neutral observer who became involved in the revolution… only to be disturbed by what he saw until he himself was forced to rebel against his fellow rebels. It was no longer about a good government vs. bad rebels; it was about one man’s simple wish to survive coming into conflict with his nation’s need to be rid of a dangerous and totalitarian regime which threatened to enslave everybody. From there, I was able to develop a protagonist who was able to rival the complexity and substance of the antagonist; a protagonist with needs and wants which would pull him in different directions; a protagonist whom the reader would support and sympathise with, regardless of how flawed the government was or how justified the antagonist’s initial grievances may have been.

Now I must apologise for taking you through this long winded saga of how I got my novel to where it is at now, but it seemed the easiest way to share what I have learned as a result of all this. When it comes to writing a story, your hero can be just about anybody: rebel, loyal citizen, rich, poor, slave or free; what matters is that your reader sympathises with their cause. If you’re writing a story where the lines between the good guys and the bad guys less than clear (and I daresay, you probably are if it’s vaguely realistic story) then the key to directing your readers support to the right character rests heavily in this: that you enable them to sympathise with and relate to the protagonist more than antagonist.