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!

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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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3 Types of Distinctive Characters

Originally published 20/11/2016

Just about every story has characters. They are the beating heart of any story that’s worth reading. All my favourite stories, whether they be books, films, TV shows, comics, computer games, or any other kind of story you care to mention, feature compelling characters. Characters who are not just believable people (though that is vitally important), but who are intriguing, unusual, captivating and – most importantly – unique. Their distinctive qualities makes them memorable, interesting and appealing (even if they are the most sinister villains) and they don’t slot too neatly into cliched archetypes – damsels in distress, moustache twirling villains, reluctant heroes or any other such thing.

It is, therefore, naturally quite difficult to capture the formula for creating such a character. After all, any examples I can highlight (and I’ve highlighted a couple of my favourites) would only serve to be examples of unique characters who have already been written. You, dear writer, need to think of something new! But I have tried, as best I can, to sort them into three more general categories of the kind of thing you can use to add that distinctive sparkle to your character. Here they are, in no particular order:

1- Man or Woman of Mystery

For me, there’s nothing like a character who doesn’t show you his whole hand. You know there’s more to him than meets the eye because the things he does and says are peculiar. There seems to be method to his madness but you just don’t know what it is. In the opening chapters of The Vagrant by Peter Newman (arguably my favourite fantasy novel of 2015), we are introduced to a nameless and speechless protagonist, journeying to through a hellish fantasy world with a baby, a living sword and a goat.

Who is he? Where does he come from? What does he want? Why does he want it? Who does the baby belong to? Why can’t he speak (or does he simply  choose not to?)? What’s the deal with the funky sword? And where did he get that goat? So many questions!

Of course, the only danger with this approach is that you might make your story boring if the audience feels like they don’t understand anything that’s going on for too long. Fortunately, in The Vagrant Newman manages to keep that compelling spark of mystery alive by tossing us only tiny scraps of disjointed information, little by little. Just enough to keep us interested, but it is only as the story nears its end that we begin to really learn who this Vagrant is, where he comes from and why he’s doing what he’s doing. That’s the trick to making this kind of character work: a steady diet of gleanings of revelation. Each chapter should tell us something, but not everything.

2- Not Your Average Pirate/Priest/Cowboy/Wizard/Secret Agent/Space Cadet/etc…

This type of character is especially useful if you’re trying to create a lighthearted story, though it can be used in all kinds of fiction. Basically, you think of all the typical attributes you might expect your character to have and you reverse them. For instance, the Monkey Island saga is a series of games which follow the adventures of ‘mighty pirate’, Guybrush Threepwood: a slim, blond, mild-mannered, goofy young man who is, nevertheless, a bona fide (even legendary) pirate who sails the Caribbean vanquishing sword-masters, searching for treasure and battling hellspawned demon pirates. Of all the pirates to appear in fiction throughout the years – Jack Sparrow, Captain Hook, Long John Silver and anyone else you care to name – Guybrush Threepwood stands out as unique because he is so not your average pirate. His utter unsuitability to be a pirate is what makes him and his story so unique.

In Monkey Island, this is used to comic effect, but a skilled writer can use it to create non-humorous characters too. In Pale Rider, the otherwise unnamed protagonist is a preacher who rides into town wearing a clerical collar – but this being a western movie with Clint Eastwood playing the role of the preacher, you can be sure he’s more prone towards solving that town’s problems with violence than your stereotypical man of the cloth. Of all the gun-toting ‘shoot-first-and-ask-them-if-they’re-feeling-lucky-later’ characters that Clint Eastwood has ever played, the Preacher stands out as unique because he defies the usual character profile of your average travelling preacher.

3- Me and My “Thing”

I don’t want to rabbit on about Things too much, since I’ve already blogged about it before, but some characters stand out as unique because of a particular Thing they have with them which serves as a kind of trademark. As I mentioned in the previous post, there are many books, films and TV shows out there which include time travellers who use time machines to travel back and forth through eternity, but only the Doctor from Doctor Who travels through time in a British police box. And so, the Doctor is instantly recognisable by the TARDIS (as it is called), which is his Thing. In fact, the Doctor is a prime example of the power of a Thing, because that character often changes both his physical appearance and personality (we’re currently on our thirteenth incarnation of the Doctor, assuming we count the War Doctor) and yet he is always recognisable as the Doctor so long as he is travelling through time and space in a police box shaped TARDIS. If he ever permanently ditches the TARDIS for a time machine shaped like anything else, he won’t be the Doctor anymore.

The one thing you do need to be careful of is that your character’s Thing doesn’t turn out to be nothing more than a cheap gimmick which adds nothing to the story. Remember, everything must help the story to progress. The TARDIS works just fine as a Thing, because it also serves a more primary function – as the Doctor’s only means to travelling from time to time. It doesn’t just add a distinctive trademark to the Doctor’s character; it also plays a vital role in making the story work.

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Your Character’s “Thing”

Originally published 09/10/2016

SPOILER ALERT:

Anyone who still has not seen up to series 8 of the BBC sci-fi/drama, Doctor Who (the series 8 from 1971 one, not 2014), is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

My wife and I are Whovians. Recently we’ve been watching all of Doctor Who from the very beginning (the very, very beginning with William Hartnell) and we’re now on series 8. The Doctor (by now on his third incarnation, portrayed by Jon Pertwee) has been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords. He still has his TARDIS – the space/time capsule by which he can travel anywhere, anywhen – but it has been sabotaged by the Time Lords, who have also put a block on the Doctor’s memory so he is unable to fix it. As such, he’s spent the majority of this series as a scientific adviser to the human organisation, UNIT. The TARDIS is barely seen or mentioned at all in the first couple of episodes.

As much as I’ve enjoyed this series as a show and think Pertwee is arguably one of my favourite Doctors, he seems odd without his TARDIS. The TARDIS is, after all, the Doctor’s ‘Thing’. It’s what makes him stand out as a truly unique character. Many characters in fiction have travelled through time and space; many are aliens; many speak in BBC English but no one else has a space/time capsule disguised as a British police box. If anyone did, we would all cry ‘Plagiarism! A space/time travelling police box is the Doctor’s Thing!’

Almost all of the most memorable characters in fiction have a Thing. It might be a physical object they carry, something they wear or perhaps even something they simply say. When one thinks of James Bond, we imagine a man who carries a Beretta 418 (though in reality, he did occasionally use other weapons) and drinks vodka martinis, shaken not stirred. Batman dresses like bat, drives a Batmobile and operates from a Batcave; no prizes for guessing what his thing is. Even characters from history are often assigned Things that make them recognisable when they are portrayed on stage or on film today. For example, one of the first plays I recall ever seeing included a portrayal of Henry VIII, who spent most of the play munching a turkey leg. Whether or not the real Henry VIII ever had an affinity for turkey is neither here nor there; today, it’s become that character’s Thing. A Thing might even be another character; a constant companion (or nemesis?) whom he is lost without. Sherlock Holmes for example is almost always portrayed with John Watson. On the rare occasions where Watson is not present, he is still almost always referred to by Holmes who is clearly suffering for a lack of ‘his Watson’; even if he is loathe to admit it.

And here it is that I miss my Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he could elevate my simple art, which is but systematised common sense, into a prodigy.

– Doyal, A.C. The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier

In a short, a Thing can be anything but it must be unique.

So, does your character need a Thing? Not necessarily. A well-written character can function just fine within an excellent story without a Thing. What a Thing will do for your character is make them seem more distinctive and memorable. Therefore, it is probably only necessary to give them to your protagonist and maybe your main antagonist; characters you want to make stand out. However, as we have said before, it is important that every element of your story – characters, objects, dialogue, the lot – serves a function in progressing the story. Pointless gimmicks are… well… pointless. I would, therefore, think very, very, very carefully before giving your character a Thing which does not also serve some practical function to move the story along, especially in written fiction where the narrative will be disrupted by your description of the Thing. (You can get away with a little bit more on stage or film. For example, Henry VIII’s turkey leg might serve no practical function, but the story is not interrupted since he simply has to be seen holding it; in written fiction, however, the reader’s attention must be drawn to it with superfluous narrative).

So, before you even think about Things, think about this: what does my character actually need?

In other words, what is required to make the story work? In the case of Doctor Who, a space/time capsule was obviously required, because the whole premise of Doctor Who revolves around an alien who has a variety of adventures travelling to different planets and different points in history. Clearly, he would need some means of transportation, especially if he is bringing human companions with him, as he always does. However, it doesn’t need to be disguised as a British police box. It could be disguised as anything – or not be disguised at all. At this stage, it’s not really distinctive enough to be a Thing, since plenty of sci-fi includes time machines. We’re only interested at this stage in giving our character what he needs to make the story work.

Only once the essentials are in place can we start adding the dressing needed to create a Thing for our character. Remember, that if your story was a five course meal and you were a chef, your characters’ Things would be garnish; not appropriate for every course, and even then, only to be used in tiny quantities as a kind of ‘finishing touch’.

Like all good garnishes, a Thing should discreetly compliment and enhance the character you have already created. The Doctor’s TARDIS, for example, is perpetually disguised as a British police box, regardless of what planet or time it travels to. The fact it travels through time and space is your meat and potatoes, because it is essential to make the story work. The fact it is humorously disguised as a police box is the garnish; passively turning the Doctor’s time machine into something unique, without hindering the pace of the story in any way. It’s unusual enough to make the Doctor (and indeed, the entire Doctor Who franchise) stand out as unique without taking any of the glory away from the story itself. It is everything a character’s Thing should be.

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8 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing

Originally published 25/09/2016

Sometimes, I just can’t say it better than my fellow bloggers, and since it’s been a while since I’ve compiled a ‘list of things I like’ kind of post (in fact, I don’t think I’ve done it since the very first post I ever wrote for Penstricken; sigh) I decided that it was about time I did another one. And what better thing to list than some of the best story-writing related posts from other blog sites that I have found particularly useful or insightful in recent weeks.

In reality, there’s dozens of writing and fiction related blogs I like to read on a regular basis and there have been numerous posts I’ve read lately that I could include in this list. I could not even begin to list them all. This is just a selection of some that I have recently come across (not necessarily ones that were written recently) which proved invaluable to me.

So, without further ado…

C.S. Wilde – Free Basic Scene Planner (especially handy for ‘pantsers’ like me who are working hard to become ‘planners’).

Rachel Poli – Why Fan Fiction is Important to Me (I had to include this, because to be frank, fan fiction was pretty much where I also started writing and I have a sneaking suspicion that a great number of writers today can probably relate to this refreshingly unashamed, reflective little post).

Larry Kahaner – How To Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat (because I want to poke novelists who do this in the eye with a chopstick, too).

Tobias Mastgrave – World Building Part 5: How To Build a People Group – Custom and Tradition (this post deals with one of the most important aspects of world building and is full of really insightful points that most people over look. Yes, I know it’s a couple of years old now but I don’t care; it’s got some important stuff in it. Essential reading for the speculative fiction author).

Kristen Twardowski – The Curse of Rewrites: How Many is Too Many? (useful insights for those of us who suffer from perfectionism).

Jean M. Cogdell – Are your adjectives in the right order? (by all accounts, this is more of a language related post, rather than a fiction specific one, but I think it is especially useful for us writers).

Bridget McNulty – Novel plot mistakes: 7 don’ts for how to plot a novel (actually, there are about a hundred posts on NowNovel’s blog that I could have linked to. The blog at that site is just one of the really useful services they offer to novelists, no matter what their level of experience. I just keep coming back and reading this site again and again… but this was the one I read the most recently about how not to plot your novel).

K.M. Weiland – The #1 Key to Relatable Characters: Backstory (remember that post I did recently about writing a backstory for your protagonist? Well… forget it. This one by K.M. Weiland is better).

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A Few Thoughts on Star Trek Beyond

Originally published 31/07/2016

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not yet seen the film Star Trek Beyond is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’m a Trekkie, so naturally I’ve already been to see the latest offering of the franchise, written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung: Star Trek Beyond. I’ll resist the urge to pull up the writers for the various inconsistencies there were with the original Star Trek universe (suffice it to say, there were some and we’re all very cross about it but let’s be honest, there’s always something isn’t there?) and, as ever, I’ll leave any analyses of the cinematics to those better qualified than I to make any kind of judgement about them (although I will quickly say that Chris Pine is doing a much better Kirk impression these days than he used to). What I want to talk about today is the story-writing in this specific film.

So, first things first: did I like Star Trek Beyond?

It was alright. It was better than Star Trek: Nemesis, for instance, but it wasn’t a patch on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or even Star Trek Into Darkness. If visually spectacular space battles and non-stop action, excitement and danger are your thing then you will probably enjoy it. When boiled down to its basic elements, the plot was a little bit unremarkable: an angry alien (who is actually a human! Dun-dun-duun!) wants to unleash an extra-deadly bio-weapon into the ventilation system of the new Federation starbase Yorktown, which is home to thousands of innocent civilians from different Federation worlds (which is not entirely dissimilar to the plot of Nemesis, where an angry Reman  — who is actually a human clone! Dun-dun-duun! — wants to unleash an extra-deadly form of radiation into Earth’s atmosphere, but I’ll not say anything more about that).

In and of itself, there’s really nothing wrong with that kind of plot if it’s executed well. My main problem with Beyond was the pacing of the plot. It was fast and exciting almost from the outset, but as any good writer will tell you, speed and excitement cannot make a good story alone. Slower scenes, rich in dialogue and other details are important to allow for a build-up in suspense and to keep the audience abreast of what is actually going on. In particular, these slow scenes are essential for adding substance and meaning to a story. I felt like Star Trek Beyond was all action and excitement for the first two thirds of the film and then crammed most of the major plot developments into the final scenes, where it is suddenly revealed that Krall is actually a human who got stranded on that alien planet before the Federation was founded and kept himself alive using alien technology to sap something from the native beings on that planet and now he’s out for revenge – and it’s a real shame, because I think this film definitely did have something to say which was in keeping with the original spirit of Star Trek. Unfortunately, it was hard to hear over the noise of all the explosions, phaser fire and motorbikes.

I think what would have really improved this film would have been more slow scenes featuring Krall himself to give the audience some inkling into what was driving him. After Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, poor Krall had a lot to live up to as a bad guy. He needed to be complicated and I think he had that potential, but unfortunately the pacing of the story was such that he came across as very two dimensional indeed. Perhaps if he had a right-hand man whom he could dialogue with (similar to the way scenes between Shinzon and his Viceroy in Nemesis foreshadowed the revelations which were still to come), it might have made the revelation of his human origins and his desire to avenge himself on the Federation seem a little less random and there would have also been an opportunity for some of his more complex thoughts and feelings to surface.

Speaking of under-cooked characterisation, there is also a subplot concerning Kirk and Spock’s friendship with each other and their respective futures in Starfleet, which is sadly lost amid all the excitement of the main plot. Having said that, I was very pleased to see that the relationship between Spock and Bones was allowed a little bit more room to develop in this film than it did in the previous two. Anyone who has ever watched the original Star Trek series featuring the late Leonard Nimoy and DeForrest Kelley in the aforementioned roles will tell you that their on-screen rivalry was the best in Star Trek history and it is good to see these two characters having time alone together to interact once again (although I did think that their dialogues with each other could have benefited from a few more scathing insults and sharp-witted jibes; it turned into a bit of a ‘bromance’ here and there, which isn’t really the kind of relationship you would expect from Spock and Bones).

All in all… it’s not a bad film. It’s not even a terrible Star Trek film, although it’s certainly not the best one I’ve ever seen. Even if you’re not a Trekkie, go and see it with some popcorn and a large drink in a paper cup and enjoy it for the entertaining escapism that it is.

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The (Im)Perfect Protagonist

Originally published 15/05/2016

Since we talked about creating the perfect bad guy last week, I thought it seemed only meet that we should have a think about the character who (some might say) is the most important in any story: the protagonist.

Traditionally, the protagonist is the ‘hero’ and the ‘good guy’. Indiana Jones, Miss Marple, Romeo, Luke Skywalker, Sherlock Holmes, Matilda, Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Frodo Baggins, The Doctor and James Bond are just some examples of famous protagonists who defeat the bad guy, save the day, get the girl (or boy!) and generally overcome whatever obstacles the author feels like putting between them and their ultimate goal. Some stories, like A Song of Ice and Fire, follow the adventures of multiple protagonists at once. In many respects, this is slightly truer to life than the tradition of having only one protagonist, since there are no true protagonists in life (though we might all feel like we ourselves are the protagonist!) but it also makes for a far more complicated story. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s something to bear in mind if you want to go down the route of interweaving the lives of multiple protagonists!

Whether you want to create one protagonist or one million, one of the first things you would be wise to do is to shelf any notions you might have about the protagonist being the ‘good guy’. Unless you’re writing a morality play, all of your characters ought to be a little bit flawed – including your hero. In fact, it’s all the more important that your protagonist is a little flawed (even in a morality play), because your reader absolutely must be able to sympathise with them so that they can come to care about what happens to them. For example, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress has a lot in common with a morality play in that it’s a highly allegorical work of religious fiction following the journey of a man called Christian making his way from the City of Destruction (this world) to Celestial City (heaven). One might expect the hero of such a work to be insufferably righteous but he is not. He is constantly waylaid, tricked and misled by various obstacles and antagonists such as the Slough of Despond, Mr Worldly Wiseman and the Giant of Despair who imprisons him in Doubting Castle. The reason Christian works as a character is because, despite his good intentions, he represents human frailty and fallibility. Bunyan’s intended audience can relate to this character. Therefore, they care about what happens to him because if he can achieve his goal despite his flaws, there is hope that the reader will also achieve their own goals in life. This goes for all stories, regardless of whether or not they have a religious or ethical theme moral like in The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Like your antagonist, your protagonist needs a goal; something he is trying to achieve. There is no point in creating a protagonist the reader can relate to if that character doesn’t have some goal that both he and the reader badly want him to achieve.  More than any other character, the protagonist’s goal will be the beating heart of your story. If Frodo had just went out for wander instead of specifically trying to get to Mordor to destroy the ring, there would have been no story. Even silly stories, such as Mr Bean’s Holiday are absolutely defined by the protagonist’s single-minded and relentless urge to make it to the beach. Without a goal and a few obstacles which stand in between your protagonist and the goal, there is not much of a story, no matter how interesting and lifelike your protagonist is. If Sherlock Holmes had just pottered about using his gift to impress the other characters by telling them what they all had for their breakfast a week ago, he would not have become one of the most iconic characters in the history of mystery fiction. Sherlock Holmes needs a mystery to solve or the reader will lose interest in him (in fact, many of the Sherlock Holmes stories open with Holmes despairing of how boring his life becomes when he is between mysteries). Even if you take the interesting step of making your protagonist the bad guy (always good fun), he still needs a goal, though you might want to think twice before allowing him to fully achieve it. It’s probably better that he either dies in the attempt or else learns the error of his ways and repents, but that’s just my opinion.

Intricately tied into the protagonist’s goals are his obstacles. What’s stopping him achieving his goal? Perhaps another character in particular opposes his goals (that’s your antagonist, by the way) and is actively trying to hinder him. For example, in The Count of Monte Christo, the protagonist hopes to marry a particular woman and is opposed by a rival for her affections. This forms the basis for the whole plot. In Star Trek: Voyager, the protagonists are trying to make the impossibly long 70,000 light-year journey back to Earth. No one antagonist directly opposes this goal, but the sheer distance they have to travel makes it seem impossible for them to get home. Your protagonist’s obstacles might even take the form of internal conflicts, such as disease, self-doubt or cowardice. Indeed, you would be quite wise to include a few internal conflicts to give your protagonist a bit of believability. A protagonist who is brave, selfless, confident and strong can quickly become two-dimensional, no matter what his goals are and who opposes him.

I’ve got be honest, I find protagonists some of the most difficult characters to create. I also tend to find them less compelling than the antagonist in a lot of stories. Let’s be honest: Darth Vader is cooler than Luke Skywalker. There’s something really fun about booing and hissing at the bad guy, but no one wants him to win. It’s the protagonist we always hope and expect will win, because he or she is the one we have been following the most closely and have come to care about. Therefore, the perfect protagonist will be imperfect so we can relate to him, with good intentions that we hope he will eventually realise and a few demons to overcome. Who cares that Darth Vader is cooler than Luke Skywalker? We never truly relate to Vader or believe in his goals. We do relate to Skywalker and his goals in a way which means we will always be rooting for the good guy to win.

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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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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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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.

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.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Unfortunately, I am unable to take on any more author interviews or solicited book reviews at this time.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

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.

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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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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: