Throwback Thursday: The Perfect Antagonist

Originally published: 08/05/2016

For me, the antagonist – what we might loosely call ‘the bad guy’ – can make or break an otherwise good story. He is the living and breathing incarnation of the obstacle your protagonist (or ‘hero’, if you insist) needs to overcome. It’s also a good opportunity for the author to create a character who ticks differently from any of the ‘good guys’ and (depending on your genre) you can really let your imagination run wild when it comes to his physical attributes.

Of course, a good author (or even philosopher) will tell you that the good guy doesn’t necessarily wear shining white armour and the bad guy doesn’t necessarily have a swishing black cape… but these conventions do exist for a reason. Just try and imagine what Star Wars would have looked like if Darth Vader had been the hero and Luke Skywalker had been the villain. Picture the scene in your minds eye, if you can: Darth Vader, hanging over a sheer drop and Luke Skywalker standing over him triumphantly:

Skywalker: Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.
Vader: *heavy breathing* He told me enough; he told me you killed him.
Skywalker: No. I am your father.
Vader: No! No! *heavy breathing* It’s not true! That’s impossible!
Skywalker: Search your feelings! You know it to be true!
Vader: Noooo, noooo! *hyperventilating*

See? Ridiculous.

On the other hand, that doesn’t necessarily mean your antagonist should be swishing around in a black cape. What you want is something distinctive that makes your antagonist really stand out. I don’t mean to keep rabbiting on about Star Wars, but before I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I had a gnawing anxiety that no matter how cool the bad guy was, he would never live up to Darth Vader. When I finally saw it, what I got was an antagonist (Kylo Ren) who wore a cape and a mask similar to Darth Vader’s and who used the dark side of the Force like Darth Vader but apart from that, he spent most of the film throwing hissy fits because he wasn’t nearly as good at being bad as Darth Vader was. He wasn’t cool; he was pathetic. One can’t help but wonder if the writer of this film created Kylo Ren as an expression of his own frustrations at the impossible task he had of creating a villain worthy of Darth Vader. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed The Force Awakens, but I think Kylo Ren would have lived up to Darth Vader far better if he had simply not been anything like him.

The most tragic thing about it all is that most of Kylo Ren’s problems were simply cosmetic. Darth Vader was a Jedi who was seduced by the dark side, but Kylo Ren is introduced to us as an antagonist who is drawn to the ‘light’ side. That sounds like the makings of a bad guy who really does stand out from Darth Vader and the Sith. It was little things like the black cape, the shiny mask and the red lightsaber (okay, it was a funky shape, big woop) that made him look like a Darth Vader wannabe. The fact that he really did wish he was Darth Vader didn’t help matters. Personally, I think he would have been a much more compelling antagonist if he had been wearing a bit more colour, no cape, no shiny mask and (dare I say it?) no lightsaber – and definitely no scenes where he is compared to Darth Vader.

Moving on from Star Wars and the outward appearance of the antagonist, another important thing all bad guys must have is a motive for their actions. If you read my Valentines Day’s post about creating a love interest, you may recall how much I underlined the importance of your love interest being a character in their own right, with their own egos, agendas, desires, fears and motives. They are not just there to swoon after the hero. In the same way, your antagonist must be a person in his or her own right. They must have their own beliefs, their own hopes, their own ambitions and their own reason to get up in the morning apart from simply annoying the protagonist. The only real difference with an antagonist is that you might feel a little bit safer in exploring darker motives for doing things, but even then, watch out! Don’t turn them into the sort of bad guy who cackles about how magnificently devious they are and don’t make them bad just for the sake of being bad. Even if they’re mad in some way, there must be something which motivates them; a fear, a desire or a goal of some kind. In the 1993 film, Falling Down, Michael Douglas played a character who had a mental breakdown while stuck in traffic on his way to his daughter’s birthday party at the home of his ex-wife. There’s no denying that his character has flipped. He spends most of the film smashing up various people and places but behind it all, he still has a goal (‘I’m going home!’) and a motive behind his violent outbursts (frustration at the problems, flaws and injustices of every day life). Thus he remains a character in his own right; his existence is not defined by the hero or anyone else.

Your antagonist can be motivated by almost anything. They can be power hungry, racist, misogynistic, greedy, paranoid, psychotic or (better still!) they can even be driven by seemingly noble motives. In the Star Trek franchise, for example, the Maquis are depicted as a group of terrorists but they are motivated by a desire to drive out what they see as alien invaders from certain human colonies. Indeed, even the ‘good guys’ in Star Trek often appear to sympathise with the Maquis’ cause – but ultimately, they oppose them. Having an antagonist who has good intentions can often make for a much more compelling character and it adds substance to your plot. Whatever their motives and however you decide to dress them up, the two most important things you can do with your antagonist is make them unique and make sure they are a fully fledged character in their own right. Give them all the shades of grey that we find in every character and try to avoid clichés. Having said that, I don’t care how cool your bad guy is and I don’t care how much I sympathise with his feelings or his motives…

The bad guy should never, ever, ever win.

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6 Types of Conflict (With Examples)

As anyone who hangs around this blog or who even knows the slightest thing about story writing will tell you, the key to writing a good story is to create a rich cast of characters with clear motives and goals which bring them into conflict with some kind of antagonist or problem.

Last week I shared a list of possible character goals as a (rather belated) follow-up to my earlier post on character motives. And so, in keeping with this theme, I have prepared a list of possible conflicts for your story. These are the problems your protagonist will have to overcome in order to accomplish their goals.

The six main categories of conflict are already pretty well established in writerly circles:

  1. Character VS. Character
  2. Character VS. Self.
  3. Character VS. Nature
  4. Character VS. Society
  5. Character VS. Supernatural
  6. Character VS. Technology

This way of categorising conflicts works pretty well and I saw no point in deviating from it; however, to help you along, I have also included three possible examples of each. This is by no means and exhaustive list and I have tried to keep it generalised, but I hope you find it useful.

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16 Character Goals

A little while ago I published a post about character motives which included a fairly lengthy list of the kind of things that might motivate your characters actions. Of course, anyone who has been hanging around this blog for any length of time will know that I am always banging on about how a character’s motives, goals and conflict together form the basis of any good story.

And so, better late than never, I decided it was probably time for me to knock together a little list of character goals.

Unlike motives, a goal is a very specific thing your character has to accomplish (or fail to accomplish) before the story can be truly considered complete. Sometimes characters may have more than one goal, but more often than not there is usually at least one key thing that the protagonist absolutely has to accomplish. For instance, if you were writing a murder/mystery, your protagonist could be motivated by a sense of righteousness or because someone is paying him a lot of money to solve a crime, but his goal would be to find out ‘who dunnit.’

This list is a lot shorter than my list of motives, mainly because I’ve tried to keep these very general even though goals are usually very specific to the story, but I hope you’ll find it helpful.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

A Protagonist’s Anatomy #2: Backstory

Real people don’t just pop out of thin air fully formed. Everything about them, from the way they speak to the things they believe, to the way they dress and to the decisions they make, is the culmination of what has gone before. This is is why if you want to write a protagonist of any real substance (and you do, dear reader) a strong backstory will be a vital part of his or her anatomy.

So what is a backstory? I hear you cry.

Put simply, a backstory is everything that happened to your protagonist before the events of your actual novel. More precisely, however, a backstory is whatever has happened in your protagonist’s past to make them who they are today. You may recall that last week we discussed character motive; but what is it that happened in this character’s past to endow them with this particular motive? That’s your backstory.

At this point, I would like to sound a note of caution. It can be tempting to write a detailed backstory which documents every single event in a protagonist’s life but this really isn’t necessary. It may or may not be the case that every single day is formative in the development of real life people, but we’re not writing real life. We’re writing fiction and fiction is reality refined to take away all the rough edges. Therefore, focus on what matters.

I find that the simplest approach is think of your character’s backstory like a photograph of the protagonist’s life. If you look at any good photograph (and I realise I’m stepping outwith my area of expertise here), you’ll see two things: the main subject of the photograph which sits in the foreground and the background which surrounds it.

Children holding hands in the foreground; a cobbled road and sunset in the background.

Your ‘background’ is all the basic stuff that goes into a character’s history: where they come from, who they grew up with, education, work, all that sort of thing. This doesn’t need to be too detailed. I find a simple list of basic facts will do for this point. E.g.:

Hometown: Somewhereland
Parents: Betty (deceased) and Bob
Siblings: Tom, Dick and Harriet.
… and so on and so forth.

Our ‘foreground’ backstory, however, ought to be a good deal more detailed. These are key events that have had a significant impact on your protagonist and were instrumental in making him the person he is today. Take Batman for instance. Why does this millionaire playboy feel the need to dress up in a frightening black costume and throw himself night after night into the criminal underbelly of one of the most lawless fictional cities in America?

Because when he was a little boy, he witnessed his parents being murdered. Every single version of Batman I’ve ever come across includes that key moment because that one event, more than anything else, makes Batman who he is. It’s what endowed him with that righteous fury which now serves as the key motivation behind everything he does. Without that righteous fury, he isn’t Batman; and without that painful single moment in his childhood, he has no real reason to be so motivated. It’s worth your while, therefore, writing out events like this in detail, perhaps even in the form of a little stand-alone short story. You don’t need to include this in your published book (in fact you probably shouldn’t), but it would probably be helpful for you as the author to have a detailed record of exactly what your protagonist experienced.

One more thing to remember: your character’s backstory is not the actual plot of your novel. It’s just the history of your character that makes them who they are today. Most of the background stuff will never need to be explicitly stated in the final published version of your story and even the foreground need not be laboured (though it should be gently inserted somewhere non-obstructive). What matters is that your protagonist has a clear origin so their motives don’t appear superficial to your reader, but your readers do not want to read lengthy portions of backstory which interrupt the flow of the actual plot. Click here to read a bit more about presenting a character’s backstory.

Thanks for reading. Be sure to come back next week for part 3, where we’ll be looking at character traits.

Missed part 1? Click here to go back!


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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Figuring Out Foil Characters

Originally published 29/04/2018

We’re all familiar with some of the traditional character types you find in most fiction: protagonists, antagonists, love interests and so forth. But there is another common type of character out there; one which can sometimes be harder to define, though we know them when we see them (intuitively at least). I am talking about foils.

The OED defines a foil in this way:

A person or thing that contrasts with and so emphasizes and enhances the qualities of another.

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/foil

In fiction, therefore, a foil is a character (or sometimes an object or idea) who highlights the traits of another character (usually the protagonist) by contrasting with them. But apart from that, these characters can play just about any role in your story you like. They can even (and often do) fulfil other key roles in your story, such the main antagonist or love interest (actually, as an aside, I often think love interests make great foils; opposites do so often attract, especially in fiction).

There’s a lot of good reasons to include a foil in your story. They can be an excellent tool for emphasising qualities in your protagonist which you might wish to draw out without stating explicitly. They can also go horribly wrong if executed poorly or needlessly.

As is so often the case, I have one particularly important rule I like to stick to whenever I write a foil (though you can apply this rule to any of your characters). Ready? Here it is:

No character should exist solely for the benefit of another.

Yes, a foil character must, by definition, contrast with another, but if that’s their only function in your story, watch out! All people in real life have their own motives, goals and problems and so should your characters. A good story can get along just fine without a foil character, but a character who serves as a foil and nothing else will be nothing but a burden on your narrative. At best they will read like a two-dimensional sidekick.

No one wants to only be a sidekick.
Image source: http://gph.is/257jTXn

I would therefore strongly advise against sitting down to ‘write a foil character’. Figure out who the main players are in your story first. Ask yourself what they all want, what’s preventing them from getting it and why they are necessary for your story. You may well find that your story will benefit from having a foil and it will probably become pretty obvious who should assume that role once you’ve finished most of your planning.

Take Star Wars for instance. Power and its ability to corrupt is a central theme in these movies. Every Jedi, trained in the Force, faces the temptation to be seduced and corrupted by their power. In the original trilogy, the protagonist, Luke Skywalker, faces this very issue in the form of his foil and antagonist, Darth Vader. Both of these characters come from humble backgrounds, both were trained by Jedi Masters and became powerful Jedi themselves. Yet only Darth Vader was seduced by the Dark Side; Luke resists the same temptation and his life takes a completely different path. Cosmetic contrasts such as differently coloured lightsabres also add to the effect.

Darth Vader works as a foil for Luke, because it feeds right in to one of the story’s key themes and draws out Luke’s inner struggles against the Dark Side. Indeed, Darth Vader serves very much as a personification of Luke’s inner struggles. He represents the course of life Luke can but must not choose.

Darth Vader: You’ve only begun to discover your power. Join me and I will complete your training! With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.

Luke: I’ll never join you!

Darth Vader:  It is your destiny. Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son!

Star Wars (ep. 6): Return of the Jedi

Of course, not all foils are antagonists. They don’t even need to be central characters (I’ve even heard it argued that they really shouldn’t be, though I don’t personally agree with that). All a character really needs to be a foil is to draw out your protagonist’s key traits by contrasting with them. But for my money, a good foil should be a fully-fledged secondary character, antagonist, love-interest, etc. in their own right first and a foil second. Perhaps a better way to think of it is to say that a foil is not so much a character type as it is a literary technique; one which just happens to often be associated with one character in particular.


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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Writing Non-Human Characters #2: Aliens

Originally published: 21/05/2017

Last week, I had planned to write a single post talking about how to write non-human characters, such as animals, aliens, mythical creatures and so forth. Unfortunately, it turned into such a long post that I decided to chop it up into a series of posts instead. This week’s post is the second instalment on writing non-human characters and today I’m going to focus on how to write aliens from other other worlds. If it’s animal characters you’re interested in, that was covered in last week’s post, which you can see by clicking here. If, on the other hand, it’s robots or mythical creatures you’re after… well, you’ll just have to wait.

Before we begin, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of the golden rule for writing non-human characters:

Your audience is made up entirely of human beings; therefore, your audience must be able to sympathise with your characters as human beings.

In other words, if you want your audience to sympathise with your character, you need to give them certain human qualities. In doing this, you anthropomorphise your character; that is, you humanise them in the minds of your audience. The more human they are, the more easily they can be related to. So, with that in mind, let’s have a think about aliens.

Unlike animals which are very common and familiar things in real life that science has taught us a great deal about, we know nothing about real sentient alien life. We can’t even be certain that it exists at all. However, if it ever turned out that sentient alien life actually did exist, it would almost certainly have very little in common with us Earthlings. There’s absolutely no reason to believe that they would share human values and culture (or even understand concepts such as ‘values’ and ‘culture’), walk on two legs, communicate with spoken language, listen to music or do any of the other things humans do. Culturally, socially, philosophically, anatomically and in every other way, they would almost certainly seem bizarre to us in the extreme. After all, we humans often find it hard enough to relate to other human cultures, never mind alien ones!

It is, of course, certainly possible to create “realistic” aliens like this for your story. Unlike with animal characters (who you probably will want your audience to relate to), it can sometimes be beneficial to have aliens who are bizarre and impossible to relate to, depending on the kind of story you’re writing. Many have done it already to great effect. However, it is worth remembering that there is a reason these “realistic” aliens are very seldom portrayed as good guys. They’re not even usually portrayed in the same way as traditional bad guys, who will usually still have goals and motives that we can relate to and sympathise with (even if we don’t approve). Instead, such aliens are usually portrayed as destructive (or at the very least, strange and frightening) forces of nature. The aliens in War of the Worlds or Alien are good examples. These characters, while believably alien, are more of a danger to be overcome or escaped than a character to be related to. Because your audience cannot sympathise with them as people, it makes it an almost(!) impossible task to create aliens of this type who fit into any traditional role for a character to play. Remember, the weirder your alien is, the less your audience will sympathise with or even understand them. This can be a great boon to authors who want to create terrifying monsters, but not to authors who are trying to create relatable people.

Contrast this with the types of aliens you are perhaps more used to seeing in popular science fiction such as Star Trek or Doctor Who. They sit somewhere in the middle of the alien-human spectrum. They might have one or two physical features that make them look alien, such as blue skin, pointy ears or strangely shaped foreheads, but they still basically look human-ish with mostly recognisable human body parts in roughly the correct place. They will usually have one or two cultural or social quirks to keep them from seeming too human (for instance, the Vulcans in Star Trek are famous for their logical and stoic minds) but nothing so bizarre that it defies understanding. After all, humans often do appreciate logic; the only difference is that Vulcans have founded their entire culture upon it whereas we have not. This makes them seem exotic, but relatable. Such aliens are not terribly realistic when you analyse them closely, but they’re sufficiently different from humans that the average audience will accept them as aliens while still being able to sympathise with them as people, rather than monsters.

Beware, however, that you do not go too far in trying to make your aliens relatable. Aliens are, by their very nature, foreign in the extreme. Your audience, then, will expect your alien characters to be at least a little bit unusual. If they seem too human, you will have utterly failed in your goal to create an alien character. For example, one of the biggest things that irks me about Supergirl (the TV series) is the character of Mon-El who, having only just arrived on Earth from the planet Daxam, is utterly indistinguishable from the average American millennial in the way he talks, behaves and relates to other characters. This level of anthropomorphising goes too far and robs the audience of their ability to believe that the character they’re witnessing is really from another world at all. Sure, he’s a relatable character but remember, it’s important when writing sci-fi to suspend your audiences’ disbelief. Your audience will not be able to believe in an alien who seems more human than their own family do.

Creating alien characters, then, is all about balance and purpose. Before you begin, ask yourself: what is the purpose of this alien to be in my story? Are they a protagonist, antagonist, love-interest, etc.? Why exactly are there aliens in this story? This will determine to what extent your audience (and indeed, your other characters) will need to be able to understand and relate to them, and consequently, will help you to determine how alien or human they should appear. However, let’s be clear on one thing: this is not the same as creating a balance between how good and how evil your character is. Rather, it’s a balance between the familiar and the strange. Very human characters can still be bad guys. Very alien characters might even be good guys, although it’s unlikely that the audience will relate to them and so I would be very careful about how you go about doing this.

That’s all I’ve got time for this week I’m afraid, but be sure to come back next week when I’ll be continuing the series on creating non-human characters, this time focusing on robots and cyborgs. 

Until next time!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: What Do Your Characters Think of Each Other?

Originally published 19/02/2017

Think about someone you know well. Anyone. A friend, a relative, a colleague, anyone. I bet if I asked you what that person was like, you would be able to easily give me your opinion on what sort of person they are.

John? Oh, he’s loud-mouthed, arrogant and opinionated. He’s not a bad person but he’s a real pain to be around…

Jeanie? She’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever laid eyes on but she’s a liar and a thief. I wouldn’t turn my back on her. 

Willy? Nice guy I suppose, doesn’t say much (but let me tell you, he’s got the sharpest wit you’ve ever come across).

Now ask yourself… would that person’s own mother sum them up the same way you did? What about their spouse? Their boss? Their arch-nemesis? Even though you see John as loud-mouthed, the chances are his mother would focus on some other, more positive qualities, such as how kind-hearted he is. If John has a wife, she would be more likely to emphasis his physical attractiveness than his mother would (or, perhaps, she thinks he’s a lazy good-for-nothing and she can’t believe she married him).

As we all know, characters are the beating heart of any good story. However, no character is an island. How they respond to other characters is often essential in making your plot work (indeed, this arguably is your plot), so don’t be fooled into thinking it’s obvious how your characters will respond to one another. Just because you would respond in a particular way to Character A doesn’t mean that Character B will respond to Character A in the same way you would. Even though you, as the author, know all the facts about all of your characters, you’ll still have your own narrow opinion about what sort of person they are just the same as anyone else. That is why it is vital to know what every character thinks about every other character if you want to create a rich, vibrant and believable story.

Fortunately, it’s easy to do this. Here’s how I like to do it:

Start with a nice blank page. For me, it’s a separate document in my Scrivener project, but whatever floats your boat is fine (if you’re writing on paper, I would strongly recommend having plenty to spare; this could take up a few pages, especially if you’ve got a lot of characters). Now we make a table, as I’ve illustrated below, with as many rows as you have characters and two columns. Only the top row should have a single column, as this will act as a header. In this header, we write the name of the character we are wanting to find out about; Mr. Protagonist, for instance. In the cells below this, we ask every other character in the story for their opinion on Mr Protagonist. I find the easiest way to do this is to write out the answer in their voice, as if they were speaking to me. Even though I’ve only included two other characters to show you how it works, I would recommend you have a much larger table which includes every character in your story so that you get the most out of it.

Mr. Protagonist
Baron Antagonist Mr. Protagonist is a meddler and a constant thorn in my side. We were friends growing up but it is clear now he does not understand the great work I am doing here. His table manners are appalling but he has great taste in single malts.
Lady Loveinterest Mr. Protagonist is ruggedly handsome. His personality is quite charming, if a little brash and uncouth. He has a fiercely righteous (if misguided) streak which almost makes up for his poor breeding. Unfortunately, he drinks a little too much.

Once you’ve done it, repeat the process for all of your other characters.

Baron Antagonist
Mr. Protagonist Baron Antagonist is a snake-in-the-grass. He acts all sophisticated and like he’s everybody’s friend so that he’s got the whole world wrapped around his finger. How do you expose a guy like that? Even the king’s daughter has agreed to marry him. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he beat her.
Lady Loveinterest Baron Antagonist is a great man; a real visionary and a man who knows how to get things done. He’s got the patience of a saint too. I can see Mr. Protagonist irks him sometimes but he has never lost his temper with him, not once. Mr. Protagonist is fortunate to have a friend like the Baron.

Do you see how this can help you to gain a much deeper and fuller understanding of all your characters and the threads of friendship, enmity, mistrust and devotion which bind them together in an elaborate web which I like to call a “Story”?

If you really want to go the extra mile, why not throw in an extra row on each table telling us what each character thinks about themselves?

Mr. Protagonist
Mr. Protagonist I’m a cook and an employee of my former friend, Baron Antagonist. I have to say, I feel a bit out of place living in such a splendid house. The other servants don’t talk to me ’cause I don’t live in the servants quarters. I think that’s why anyway. But I’m more a man of their stripe than the Baron’s. I wish they could see that.
Lady Loveinterest Mr. Protagonist is ruggedly handsome….

Not only is all of this an effective means of fleshing out your story, it can actually be a pretty darn effective means of coming up with a story idea, similar to (in fact, arguably better than) auditioning characters. The above example, for instance, is only that: an example. I made it up as I was going along purely for your benefit. And yet, without intending it, I actually found myself getting quite involved in the story – a story which did not exist before I started filling in those tables. The embryo of a plot began to form in my mind as I learned more and more about each character from the lips of those people who knew them best. Who are these three people? What is the Baron’s ‘great work’ and why is Mr. Protagonist so distrustful of him? Will Mr. Protagonist ever get together with the slightly snobby Lady Loveinterest?

Give it a bash. I think you’ll find it helpful.


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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: What Villains Want

First published: 07/01/2018

For me, antagonists are often the most fun characters to create. However, most of the usual rules apply and it’s especially important (as it is with all characters) that your antagonist’s motive and goals are clearly established in your mind. More often than not, these will form the whole basis for the conflict your protagonist has to deal with, so it’s vital you get this right.

If I was to boil it down to a single rule for antagonists, it would probably be something like this:

An antagonist’s motive can be anything at all, but their goal should bring them into direct conflict with the protagonist.

Let’s start by thinking about the first part of that rule: ‘An antagonist’s motive can be anything at all’. Motives are simply what drive a character from day to day. When it comes to your bad guy, this could be something sinister such as megalomania or it could be something far more ordinary– perhaps even laudable. For instance, in The Count of Monte Cristo, the antagonist, Fernand Mondego, is in love with the protagonist’s fiancee. As a result, he falsely accuses the protagonist of treason so that he can marry Dantès fiancee instead.

So, Mondego’s motive is that he is in love with Dantès fiancee. His goal (in the beginning, at least) is to get Dantès out of the way. Loving a woman is not a particularly evil or unusual thing, nor is it a motive common only to antagonists. Plenty of good guys in other stories (especially romances and romantic comedies) are driven by the exact same motive.

Ahh, but he was in love with the protagonist’s fiancee! I hear you cry. That’s bad!

Well, I agree it’s not an ideal situation, but in and of itself it doesn’t make him an antagonist or a ‘bad guy’. There are plenty of stories out there with characters who refuse to behave inappropriately when they’re in love with someone else’s partner. What made Mondego a bad guy was his goal, not his motive. His motive (which he arguably had in common with the protagonist) drove him to carry out a sinister plot against the protagonist. That’s what made him a villain and an antagonist. It is highly unlikely a good guy would act on this motive the same way Mondego does (though remember, not all protagonists are good guys; some protagonists are bad).

Which brings me neatly onto the second part of our working rule: ‘[the antagonist’s] goal should bring them into direct conflict with the protagonist’. It’s worth mentioning that this is not the same as saying their goals must be inherently immoral.

Oh sure, they can be. They often will be. Personally, I love it when an antagonist is really bad. Murdering the hero(es), stealing something valuable and violently taking over the world are just some of the more common goals antagonists sometimes strive for. But remember, an antagonist is not necessarily defined as a morally evil character; they are simply a character whose goals conflict with that of your protagonist. They can be morally evil, but even then, their function is to present the protagonist with a real and significant problem that cannot simply be ignored. They are, if you like, a walking, talking conflict for your character to face.

giphy
When you’re so evil you want to blow up all reality. Image source: http://gph.to/2AhoZVE

Take C.S. Lewis’ story The Screwtape Letters as a radical example. This story is written from the perspective of a senior devil (Screwtape) writing to his nephew (Wormwood), giving him advice on how to lead a human into eternal damnation– a morally objectionable goal to say the least. In it, Screwtape makes frequent references to their ‘Enemy’ — namely, God. In this story, Wormwood is the protagonist. His motive is his natural diabolical nature and his goal is to secure the damnation of his unsuspecting human ‘patient’. Even though God is clearly not portrayed as evil in this story (C.S. Lewis was a Christian), nevertheless he is still the antagonist because his goals are in direct conflict with those of the protagonist.

“He (God) wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.”

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (parenthesis mine)

Which brings me neatly onto my third and final point: the audience’s sympathies. This can sometimes be a sticky issue when you try to create an antagonist of any real depths, as I previously discovered.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis presumably wanted us to sympathise with God’s goals instead of Wormwood’s, even though God is the antagonist. After all, The Screwtape Letters is as much as Christian Apologetic work as it is a story. Under most circumstances, however, you will want your audience to support the protagonist’s goals instead of the antagonist. I know of only two ways to do this effectively:

  1. Make your antagonist at least a little bit immoral (optional – but usually a good idea)
  2. Create a strong protagonist with goals and motives the audience really cares about (mandatory)

Remember, an antagonist might provide the vital point if conflict in a story, but he is not the sum total of the story. If all you have is a really complex antagonist who threatens to take over the world and some half-baked protagonist to fight him just because that’s what good guys do, you’ll not hold onto your audience for very long. Remember this rule:

Your story is about your protagonist, not the antagonist.

The antagonist is the point of conflict for your story, but he is not the story in and of himself. Take the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. She is a persistent hindrance to Dorothy throughout the film. Without her, it would be a frankly boring film about a girl who gets a bit lost (okay, very lost) then goes home. But none of that would matter if it wasn’t for the fact that Dorothy wants to get home. If we didn’t care about Dorothy and her plight, the Witch would be pretty redundant.


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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

6 Terrible Bad Guy Lines From the Big Screen

If you Google famous bad guy lines, you’ll find there’s a lot of blog posts out there devoted to cataloguing some of the coolest ones. Not surprising, since bad guys often have some of the most memorable lines of dialogue, especially in movies. However, there are plenty of bad guy lines out there that are really not all that good: cheesy ones, cringe-inducing ones and occasionally downright meaningless ones. This post catalogues a few bad guy lines that I personally love to hate.

Just to be clear, this isn’t a list of bad movies or bad characters (though it does feature more than its share of bad movies and bad characters). This is a list of lame lines of dialogue delivered by villains, irrespective of how good or bad the rest of the film was; lines that were probably meant to sound cool and sinister but failed to produce quite the right effect.

I’ve probably missed loads out, so please, feel free to comment below with any others you can think of that make you want to scrape your ears off with a fork every time you hear them.

So, without further ado…

Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director.

Darth Vader in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Darth Vader is, of course, one of the most famous and widely loved villains of all time. He may even be the most popular villain of all time, and justifiably so. He’s my favourite too. He’s also got plenty of other genuinely cool bad guys lines in his back catalogue. There aren’t many characters who could pull off ‘we can rule the galaxy as father and son’ or ‘I am your father’ with quite the same flare Darth Vader does.

Nevertheless, this particular line is a disappointment. In this scene, Vader force chokes a dude, which is usually enough in and of itself to get the fans excited. Maybe it’ll be like that scene in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope where he force chokes Motti and delivers the immortal line: ‘I find your lack of faith disturbing’.

But no, not in Rogue One. In Rogue One, we get a James Bond style pun about choking on aspirations.

Heck, it’s not even a very good pun.

Speaking of James Bond:

Global warming: it’s a terrible thing.

– Gustav Graves in Die Another Day (2002)

Yeah, Gustav, but not as terrible as that bad guy line.

The James Bond franchise has, of course, given us loads of memorable villains with really cool bad guy lines. Lines like: ‘Look after Mr. Bond. See that some harm comes to him’ (Drax in Moonraker) and of course, ‘No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die’ (Goldfinger in Goldfinger).

Unfortunately, Die Another Day did not live up to its predecessors, not by a long mile. It was a terrible movie, with a terrible bad guy and one of the worst bad guy lines I’ve ever had the misfortune of hearing. I wouldn’t have minded so much if Graves was a concerned environmental campaigner (global warming is a terrible thing) but he’s not. Graves smugly uttered this line after believing he had killed Bond by firing a big ray of solar energy from an orbiting satellite (pul-eez!) which, you know… isn’t the same thing as global warming. The worst part is, the dudes he’s trying to impress with Big Sunshine Space Gun respond respectfully to this cheesy line while he stands there with arms folded, an eyebrow raised and leaning slightly backwards as if he’s the cat’s pyjamas.

Don’t you know who I am? I’m the Juggernaut, b*tch!

Juggernaut in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

Even though I knew this quote was very unpopular, I wasn’t actually planning on including it here at first. That was before I learned the story of its origins.

I was aware, of course, that there were an awful lot of memes out there which included this line but I didn’t realise that the memes actually came before the movie. For those memes aren’t based on this (frankly disappointing) movie as I had supposed; no, they are a homage to this little parody video created by My Way Entertainment, which came out four months before The Last Stand (beware: bad language abounds). The movie was actually copying this, presumably because somebody thought it would be funny:

*sigh*

Come to dinner, just the two of us… Or should I say, ‘just the one of us?’

Shinzon in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

Star Trek: Nemesis is widely berated as one of the most disappointing films in the entire franchise, and I’m inclined to agree. This line, however, stands out as one which makes me shiver every time I hear Shinzon utter it.

And by that I mean it makes me shiver the same way I shiver if I accidentally rub my hands together when still they’re wrinkly from being in the bath, or perhaps the way I shiver whenever my fork accidentally scrapes against my plate with a high pitched shriek. It really hurts to listen to. Shinzon had already dropped about a billion subtle-as-a-brick hints to Picard that he is Picard’s clone, and this final ‘dramatic’ gambit only needed a ‘DUN-DUN-DUUUUUUN!‘ and the moment would’ve been complete.

Allow me to break the ice. My name is Freeze. Learn it well, for it’s the chilling sound of your doom.

Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin (1997)

The moment I started to write this post, I knew Mr. Freeze was going to be in it somewhere but I didn’t know exactly which quote of his I was going to use. If you’ve not seen Batman and Robin, do yourself a favour and watch it if it’s ever on Netflix again and you’ll see why I was struggling (I can’t justify asking you to buy the DVD, but remember: piracy is stealing, no matter how bad the movie is).

EVERY line this bad guy utters is a really lame ice/cold related pun. He doesn’t deliver a single cool line (boom boom!). Most of them don’t even make much sense. I (ice-)picked this particular one because it feels like the most honest (but still failed) attempt he makes to deliver a genuinely GOOD bad guy line (I’m quite certain the rest were deliberately bad). It also gives you an overall flavour of what the rest of them are like, because they’re all in much the same vein. I’m not even sure this one is the worst.


Sindel in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)

Need I say more? You knew she was coming the moment you saw the title of this blog and you were right. Sindel’s first, ‘dramatic’ opening line in the sequel to Mortal Kombat will go down in history as one of the most cringe-inducing lame-o bad guy lines ever uttered on the big screen.


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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

On Character Traits

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: characters are the beating heart of every good story. Show me a good story with bad characters and I’ll show you a liar. There is a direct correlation between the quality of a story and the quality of its characters. Good characters are not optional. They are essential.

Are we all agreed on that?

Good. Go to the back of the class if you said ‘no’.

Now I know what you’re thinking: what makes a good character? Well, there’s quite a few things, but if you really want to write a character of substance, you’ll need to give him a few key traits. At their most basic level, a character’s traits can be defined simply as a list of a few critical adjectives which describe the sort of person your character is; for example, cowardly, obliging, sarcastic, compassionate, devout, holier-than-thou, etc. We’re not interested in physical descriptions here, nor are we interested in their thoughts or feelings at any particular point. We want to know what sort of person they are. If you don’t know what I mean, just think about someone you know well; a friend, relative or colleague. Ask yourself what sort of person they are.

‘John is really obnoxious.’

‘Susan is kindhearted.’

‘Peter is fly.’

These are all traits. They are fundamental to a character’s personality and will usually remain consistent throughout the story (with perhaps just a little wiggle room for growth). If you’re struggling, just Google ‘list of character traits’, you’ll find that the internet is simply teeming with lists of character traits that you can easily pick up and apply to your characters. It’s entirely up to you how many you choose, but I tend to go for nine traits for each major character: three positive traits (e.g.: generous), three neutral traits (e.g.: whimsical) and three negative traits (e.g.: censorious).

‘Sounds simple enough… ‘ I hear you cry, with a note of caution in your voice. And you’re right! It is simple. But there’s a way to do it and there’s a way not to do it.

Detailing your entire plot (or worse, writing an entire draft) and then deciding on your characters traits based on what happens to your character throughout your story is how not to do it. This will result in flat, predictable characters around whom the whole world seems to revolve.

Real people aren’t like that. The sun shines on the righteous and the wicked– and on the zealous, the pious, the pitiable and the proud. Life happens to people regardless of what sort of people they are, and we all deal with each situation in our own way, based on the sort of person we are. Therefore, if you take my advice, you’ll sketch out your characters’ key traits before you begin any detailed plotting or drafting, even if you’re a pantser. And stick to the traits you decide on, no matter what events befall your character. These traits will help to define every choice your character makes, everything they say and, perhaps more importantly, how and why they do/say it.

Try to be adventurous when it comes to selecting character traits. Even pick a few traits entirely at random (yep, there are places online you can do that too) and work with whatever you end up with. Don’t worry if the traits you end up with seem contradictory. Real people are full of contradiction too! This will only enrich your character and you can always smooth out any rough edges that seriously impinge upon your story later if you absolutely have to.

When you finally do come to draft your story, be sure to keep your characters’ traits in mind at all times but do not explicitly state your characters’ traits in the narrative (e.g.: ‘Dave was an evasive and brusque man’). Let your reader get to know Dave by experiencing Dave, not simply being told about Dave. Portraying a character’s traits is a subtle balancing act, where you drip feed your reader just the right quantities of each trait at the right time. You don’t need to bring them all out in equal measure all the time, however I would advise making a character’s fundamental traits fairly clear from the get-go. Even shifty, unreliable characters can be portrayed as such through voice and body language. Let’s think about Dave again. Dave’s a bit of an enigmatic fellow. No one really quite knows what he’s planning, whose side he’s on or what his true intentions are. You can portray this to the reader simply by making him guarded or abrupt in his dialogue.

‘Up to much this weekend?’ Pete asked, pulling on his coat and switching off the office lamp.

‘Nothing much.’ Dave sniffed.

‘Why don’t you come over on Sunday? Susie’s doing Sunday dinner and she always makes enough for ten–‘

‘Sorry Pete,’ Dave interrupted. ‘Maybe another week, I can’t this week.’

‘We never seem to see you anymore, is everything okay?’

‘Fine. Just busy that’s all.’

Thus the mystery is not only preserved, but it is also enhanced, because it makes the reader want to know more. Is Dave out killing people at the weekend? Has he got some illicit love affair on the go somewhere? Does he simply dread socialising? We don’t know. One thing we do know: Dave is evasive and Dave is brusque. The narrative doesn’t say it. Dave just is evasive and brusque. Experiment with using characters’ actions and dialogue and especially body language and voice to portray your characters’ traits and you’ll have a vibrant and distinctive bunch of characters before you know it.


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Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.