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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Throwback Thursday: Different Seasons (Book Review)

Originally published 21/02/2016 under the title ‘Different Seasons’

SPOILER ALERT:

Although every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read Different Seasons by Stephen King is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’ve never been a fan of horror stories (but power to you if you like them) and for that reason, I’ve avoided the work of Stephen King for far longer than is healthy for someone who claims to love a good story. However, on my birthday at the end of last year, I unwrapped not one but two Stephen King books: Different Seasons and The Green Mile (I also unwrapped Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck and a 9 book collection of Poirot novels by Agatha Christie, but that’s not important just now). I haven’t got around to reading The Green Mile yet but if it’s half as good as Different Seasons then I might have just become a Stephen King fan. It’s a fantastic book.

I would offer one word of caution to anyone who, like me, does not usually like horror but is curious about Stephen King: Different Seasons may(!) not accurately reflect the kind of stories King normally writes. As I read through Different Seasons, I was surprised by how relatively mild the horror elements were until I got to the afterword, in which King (1982, p. 672) comments,

I write true to type … at least, most of the time. But is horror all I write? If you’ve read the foregoing stories, you know it’s not … but the elements of horror can be found in all of the tales, not just in The Breathing Method – that business with the slugs in The Body is pretty gruesome, as is much of the dream imagery in Apt Pupil. Sooner or later, my mind always seems to turn back in that direction.

It’s this little afterword which leaves me wondering exactly how King’s other novels compare to this collection. That being said, the four novellas contained in this collection (Rita Hayworth and Shawkshank Redemption; Apt Pupil; The Body; The Breathing Method) certainly have their own dark threads running through them.

I don’t really want to rabbit on about Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption too much since I’ve already raved about it in a previous post but it bears mentioning. It tells the story of a friendship which develops between two prisoners in the Shawshank Penitentiary and of the final dramatic exit of both men from that prison. It features pretty much nothing in the way of supernatural horror elements but neither is it shy about giving a gritty account of life in the Shawshank Penitentiary, where most of the story is set. There are, for example, a few brutal scenes of violence including rape, though these are not overdone in a way which would make the narrative needlessly crude. In fact, I found there to be something strangely heart-warming about the main plot and the way the story ends. What really made this story stand out for me, however, was King’s superb use of narrative voice, as mentioned previously.

Like ShawshankApt Pupil is a story that does not really contain any traditional horror elements. However, it is very dark; the darkest of the four in my opinion. It is set in the fictional Californian suburb of Santo Donato and focuses on a mutually destructive relationship between an elderly Nazi war criminal, Kurt Dussander (a.k.a Arthur Denker) and Todd Bowden, an ‘all American kid’ with an unhealthy fixation on the Holocaust. Unlike the other three, Apt Pupil is narrated in the third person.

The story opens with the protagonist, Todd, appearing quite uninvited on Dussander’s doorstep, having already learned of Dussander’s previous life as a Nazi and his specific role in the Holocaust. Todd begins by blackmailing Dussander, threatening to expose him unless Dussander tells him gruesome and detailed stories about the Holocaust. The relationship brings out the worst qualities in both characters, eventually leading both to actual acts of murder while their mutual fear of each other forces them to continue their toxic relationship. While this is a little darker than the type of story I would normally go for, I must say that the two main characters are a master-class in constructing complex relationships between characters. Each character is unique, memorable and serves a vital function in the story (as all characters should), yet their relationships are a complex and intricately crafted web of obsession, hatred and interdependency the like of which very few other authors could hope to equal. Despite being darker than the type of thing I would normally read, it is so well written that I would have to say that, along with ShawshankApt Pupil is probably my joint-favourite story from Different Seasons.

The Body, on the other hand, was probably my least favourite of the four. It is written from the perspective of Gordon Lachance; an author, writing about an incident in his youth when he and a group of his friends, all of whom come from dysfunctional families, learned of a dead body which one of their brothers had discovered but not reported to the authorities. Lachance and his friends set out in secret to search for this body so they can ‘discover’ it and become famous. Personally, I found the narrative a little on the slow side compared to the other three novellas and while King’s use of narrative voice in this story was very good, it doesn’t come close to Red’s narration in Shawshank. The ending was also a bit of a let down. On the plus side (if you don’t like anything too dark), it is comparatively light on the physical and psychological violence found in the previous two stories.

The Breathing Method is a story within a story and is probably the closest thing to a supernatural horror to be found in the collection, though any supernatural or fantastic aspects to this story are only hinted at. The story opens with David, the protagonist of the frame narrative, being invited along to a mysterious men’s club by his boss where the members mostly read, tell stories and play pool. The rest of the novella takes the form of another character, Edward McCarron, telling David and everyone else at the club a story about an unmarried pregnant woman he once treated who was determined to have her baby despite the social and financial difficulties this would have caused her. He also tells them about an unconventional method of controlled breathing which he teaches her to use when she goes into labour, which allows him to save the baby’s life when the woman is involved in a fatal traffic accident.

All in all, Different Seasons is an excellent collection and is probably a great place for a first time reader of Stephen King to begin, especially if you’re not wild on horror. More importantly than that, the quality of the writing in all four of these stories testifies to the fact that – no matter how famous he might be for writing horror – Stephen King is no one-trick pony. Different Seasons may be a little on the dark side at points but I would still highly recommend it to even the most avid of horror-dodgers.

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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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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

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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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Should You Use Profanity in Your Story?

Originally published 21/01/2018

I’ve been reading Tom Hanks’ Uncommon Type: Some Stories. It’s not really my intention to review it here today (not least of all because I haven’t read it all yet), but I will say I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of his writing. It doesn’t read like an actor trying to make a few extra quid by writing a book. It reads like something written by a professional author who knows a thing or two about writing quality stories. In short, I’m enjoying it. But something else about it surprised me: the language. There’s a lot of profanity in there and for some reason, I expected Tom Hanks’ work to be a little bit more family friendly. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s just because I’m hearing it in Woody the Cowboy’s voice.

Anyway, this all got me thinking about the use of profanity in fiction. We authors walk a fine line between realism and rudeness, especially when it comes to writing dialogue. Where do you draw the line?

Well… it depends.

The first and most obvious thing is to consider your audience and what they expect from your story. Certain audiences tend to go for certain genres, and as such, the level of profanity in your work will often be largely dependent on your genre. If you have a real aversion to using any profanity whatsoever in your writing, the simplest way around this is to stick to those genres which tend to have less profanity in them. Alternatively, you can always sit down and watch the soaps for inspiration. Really, I’m serious. Emmerdale, Eastenders and Coronation Street are simply chock full of characters having heated arguments about adultery, betrayal, crime and all sorts of other grim subjects without a single f-bomb being dropped.

giphy
Image source: http://gph.is/1c3k48L

However, let’s assume you are willing to use some profanity in your story. There might be lots of reasons why you use bad language in your story. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Spock makes frequent (mis)use of mild profanity in a vain attempt to fit in with 20th century human society. Here it serves a very simple function: comedy relief (even though The Voyage Home is pretty light-hearted anyway). It also works, because it’s done in a fairly subtle way. Bad language is also often used to add a sense of anger or urgency to a character’s dialogue. It is, therefore, an undeniably useful tool for some authors.

A word of warning, however: profanity has the power to augment your story or to utterly ruin it, perhaps more than any other technique you might use. A measure of bad language may or may not be appropriate if you’re writing for adults, but bad language is not the defining characteristic of a good adult story. It is simply a tool that you may decide to use or not use as you see fit. Overusing it, as with any other literary technique, can destroy your story. The fact is, profanity loses its power very quickly. The more often bad language is used, the more desensitised the reader becomes to it. What began as a striking technique with which to shock or amuse the audience quickly becomes nothing more than a few pointless extra words which ruin the flow of the narrative.

‘But in real life, some people do swear ten times in a single sentence!’ I hear you cry. ‘How can I make my dialogue realistic if I water it down?’

It can be tempting to think this. On the surface it seems perfectly rational. However, any seasoned author knows that dialogue in fiction is actually very different from the way real people talk from day to day. Dialogue flows. Dialogue makes sense. Dialogue is to-the-point. Even when sub-text is used, what is said remains clear and advances the story in a very definite direction. For this reason, profanity may sometimes be necessary but it should be carefully measured, lest it lost its power.

In real life, people talk rubbish. They say things they don’t mean. They’ll change the subject. They’ll utterly misunderstand the subject and, you know, they’ll like… how can I put it? They’ll, I don’t know, they’ll– respond in inappropriate ways. You know, like, you’ll say something and they’ll say something back and it’s obvious they’ve not understood you because what they’ve said back doesn’t make any sense. Like that time I was talking to Sandra about fly fishing and she… [insert long winded, irrelevant anecdote here]. They’ll misuse pacific words, mishandle slang and make such a mess of their utterances that it frankly beggars belief that humans are able to communicate verbally at all.

In the same way a real person might swear twenty times per sentence, but if you want to fictionalise that person, you’ll probably want to tone down his language lest it ruin the flow of your narrative.

One last thing to bear in mind: You’re never going to please everyone. What matters, therefore, is you, your story and your intended audience (not necessarily in that order). Ask yourself, why am I using profanity here? Is it really necessary to make my story work? Am I comfortable using it? Will it produce the correct response in my intended audience (forget your ‘unintended’ audience; you can’t possibly please everyone), or will it bore/offend them? Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself what’s appropriate. Personally, I find less is usually more when it comes to profanity, but maybe that’s just me.


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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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: 5 Ways to Write a Terrible Novel

Originally published: 18/06/2017

You might recall, if you’ve been putting up with this blog long enough, that I once wrote a post on how to avoid becoming a writer. Of course, if you are a writer, you’ll know how insistent that little Inner-Writer’s voice can be, constantly banging on about the different ideas he’s come up with that you absolutely have to write. You might find it simply impossible not to write.

But fear not, ye who are enslaved by the urge to write. Your salvation is at hand. If you dread becoming a full time author, but cannot resist the urge to write, there is another solution: write badly.

It’s easy to do. Just follow these simple steps.

1. Use Dry Descriptions; Avoid Figurative Language

How you describe things can often be the difference between an excellent story and a terrible one. I can’t labour this point enough. Using metaphors, personifications and other forms of figurative language can turn even the most unexciting passages of narrative into a thing of sheer beauty, whereas dry descriptions can make even the most intense scenes seem duller than the Phone Book. Allow me to demonstrate using the first few lines of John Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold:

All afternoon the wind sifted out of the black Welsh glens, crying notice that Winter was come sliding down over the world from the Pole; and riverward there was the faint moaning of new ice. It was a sad day, a day of gray unrest, of discontent.

Steinbeck, J. (2000), Cup of Gold, Penguin Classics, UK. p. 1

This is what you want to avoid. All Steinbeck is doing here is describing the weather, yet it’s so chock full of figurative and poetic language that it’s an absolute joy to read. It flows beautifully and really makes you feel like you’re there, in the Welsh glens, feeling the cold of winter rolling in from the Pole. If you write like that, everybody will want to read your novel. Instead, aim for something like this:

It had been windy all afternoon in the black Welsh glens. You could tell it was nearly winter. In fact, the river was starting to freeze. The sky was grey and the mood was sad. There was a bit of a breeze and a bad feeling in the air.

Considering the above paragraph is only two and a bit lines long, you’ve got to admit… it’s a tedious read. I got bored writing it! You can be sure your reader will get bored if you write your whole novel that way.

2. Use Stock Characters

You know how I’m always saying that characters are people, and should therefore have all the wonderful complexity and contradiction that make up a real person? Well… forget all that. If you want to write a bad story, you’ve got to make sure your characters are as flat, predictable and stereotypical as possible. So, you might have characters like this:

Johnny Famous (our dashing hero). He’s strong, noble and righteous in all things. He neither smokes nor drinks, has no skeletons in his closet and knows neither fear nor selfishness.

Emperor Zorg (dark lord of all). Wears a black cape and wants to conquer the universe. Thinks love is a weakness. Lives in a black castle, or maybe an underground base.

Daisy Divine (love interest). Stunningly beautiful and serves no function in the story except to be rescued by and fall in love with Johnny. If you must give her a back story, don’t let it be anything that might interfere with her living happily ever after with Johnny.

3. Use ‘deus ex machina’

Even the most well written story can be ruined at the last minute by deus ex machina (‘God in the machine’). This is a technique writers sometimes use (usually when they can’t figure out how to progress the story in a way which is believable and satisfying) which essentially involves a random, improbable or otherwise unsatisfying solution to your story.

Just the other day I was watching an episode of Star Trek: Voyager called ‘Twisted’ in which a spacial implosion ring is slowly twisting and crushing the entire ship from the outside in. Eventually the regular cast find themselves trapped in the one and only unaffected room on the ship and are desperately trying to come up with a solution to save themselves before that room also implodes. Finally, they accept that they can do nothing but accept their fate. The implosion ring enters the room and begins to crush the remaining crew…

Then it suddenly disappears and everything is fine. Turns out the implosion ring wasn’t nearly as deadly as it seemed. In fact, it was trying to communicate.

I wasted an hour of my life watching that. Take note: deus ex machina is a great way to make your readers hate you forever.

4. Employ Numerous Cliches

Actually, just between you and me, you can sometimes include a tiny amount of small, carefully camouflaged cliches in a story and still end up with a good story… but as a rule of thumb, the more cliches you have and the more obvious they are, the more terrible your story will be.

There’s an almost endless list of possible cliches you could use to make your story extra-awful, but a few examples include:

  • The Chosen One: Our hero thinks he’s just an ordinary guy but it turns out he is actually the fulfilment of an ancient prophesy and must save the world because it’s his destiny (in a good story, the protagonist will act in a way which is in keeping with their own motivations and desires).
  • Love conquers all: Just when all seems lost and the world is doomed, the bad guy’s evil plans are utterly thwarted because someone performs some great act of love (usually either involving sacrificing oneself for another or just plain old fashioned snogging).
  • The Final Battle: The whole story culminates in final dramatic fisticuffs between the noble hero and the evil dark lord in which, after a bit of a wobbly start which is supposed to make the reader think all is lost, the noble hero inevitably wins.

5. Info Dump

To understand what is going on in your story, your reader must be aware of certain facts. Characters’ backstories or particulars about how your fictional world works, for instance. Good writers feed this information to their readers in small doses and, where possible, will subtly weave it into the narrative so as not to drag the pace of their story down to a tedious belly-crawl.

But you don’t want to be a good writer! You want to write a terrible novel, so make sure your novel reads like a textbook of facts and figures about the history of your characters and the world they inhabit. Ideally, if you can devote the first chapter or two entirely to providing facts and backstory without getting down to telling the actual story, you can be sure your reader will put your book down without finishing it. If that seems too hard, try to info-dump in a character’s dialogue instead. For example,

‘I was born on the 29th of May 1982 at the Queen Mary Maternity Hospital to Jean and Philip Jones.’ said Peter Jones. ‘I lived with them in the leafy suburbs of Anytown all my life until I met Miss Backstory who broke my heart and now I can’t handle adult relationships at all…’

Follow even just some of these steps and I can guarantee you, you’ll never write a good story in your puff. No matter how many manuscripts you complete and submit for publication, you can still return to your tedious office job day after day, secure in the knowledge that you’ll die at that grindstone before you ever have to take the plunge to become a professional, full time author.


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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:

A Protagonist’s Anatomy #4: Surface Details

Well it’s the fourth and final instalment in this little series entitled A Protagonist’s Anatomy. Over the last three weeks we’ve looked at endowing your characters with motives and goals, backstory and character traits to create that ‘believable person’ that you’ve always dreamed of writing about. Now there’s just one final detail: the surface details.

This is all the stuff you were probably tempted to write at the beginning but were wise not to. But don’t let the word ‘surface’ fool you. This isn’t unimportant stuff (in fact, it’s all potentially crucial stuff). It’s absolutely vital if you want to give your protagonist that perfect finish. It’s just not the beating heart of your character. Therefore, there is one key buzzword I want you to remember as we consider these things: relevancy.

I’ve separated these surface details into two broad categories: basic demographics and physical description. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Basic Demographics

You’ll want to have a page of demographics tucked away somewhere in every character profile you write. I tend to have it right on the front page though it details only the most basic information about your character. I find a simple list is the best approach to this, e.g.:

First name: John
Last name: Smith
Middle names: Matthew, Mark, Luke, Bob
Age: 42
Sex: Male
etc., etc.,

There is almost no limit to the kind of stuff you can include in this section. I’ve seen some authors detail everything from the character’s favourite brand of biscuit right through to the names of all the character’s aunties, uncles, cousins and dogs.

Personally, however, I think there is something to be said for setting sensible limits. By all means, be detailed. You’re making a person. This should be a reasonably long document and there are certainly some basic details which you will certainly have to include such as the character’s name, age, nationality, etc. But do try to restrict yourself to details those details which are vaguely relevant to your story. If your protagonist’s childhood goldfish is never mentioned in the story, nor does it ever enter into the thinking of your protagonist then what is the point of naming it here?

Physical Appearance

Ah yes, the ever contentious physical description. Some authors love them, some authors deny their existence altogether. There’s really two things to consider here: how your character looks in your mind and if/how you describe their appearance.

First, it’s a good idea to have a fair idea in your own mind what your character looks like. I find it helps me to visualise what I’m writing if I feel like the characters have vivid, recognisable faces that I am familiar with. I wouldn’t waste a lot of time on this, however. I usually either base it on someone I know personally or else I find a picture of someone I don’t know on a free picture site like Pixabay and attach it to my character profile just for my own sake (I wouldn’t ever publish this of course!). I might write out a character description for my own use if I have the image clear in my head already but I don’t waste a lot of time on this.

The real question is whether or not you should include a character description in your actual manuscript and if so, how?

I return to our buzzword for the day: relevancy. Believe it or not, lengthy physical descriptions are a big boring boring-ball with boring sprinkles. They drag the pace of your narrative down to crawl and the audience is frankly not likely to remember most of it.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have physical descriptions, but it does mean keep it relevant. Focus on those aspects which tell us something about the character’s backstory (e.g., Harry Potter’s scar) or their personality, e,g.:

A huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides, but hung loosely and only moved because the heavy hands were pendula.

John Steinbeck, description of Lennie in Of Mice and Men

This description works perfectly because it focuses so little on the tedious details of eye and hair colour but instead emphasises aspects of Lennie which are crucial to the overall plot: specifically that he is physically big and strong and that he is somewhat mentally vacant, moved by the world around him by doing little to influence it himself.


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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:

A Protagonist’s Anatomy #3: Character Traits

Well it’s already time for part 3 in this little series of posts collectively entitled A Protagonist’s Anatomy. Over the last two weeks we looked at the importance of creating a strong set of motives and goals for your protagonist and how crucial their backstory is in creating a motive which is understandable and believable. This week we’ll focus on adding another important layer which will take the words on your page and make them read like the written record of a real life person: character traits.

Character traits are those little personality quirks that will not only influence the kind of things your characters will do and say but also how they do and say them and you can have lots of fun playing about with different traits to see which ones work the best for your characters. On a more important note, having your character’s traits firmly established in your mind allows you to show your reader exactly what sort of man your character is without ever having to tell them. You don’t need to say ‘Bob was a cold-hearted man.’ You can show us what a cold-hearted man Bob is by the way he interacts with other characters and the kinds of decisions he makes.

There’s no exact rule for determining your character’s traits, but I personally find it helpful to give each of the main players in my stories a balanced mixture of positive, neutral and negative traits, irrespective of whether your character is a good guy or a bad guy. However, while it is a good idea to mix a handful of different traits together to create a reasonably layered and complex character, try to practice a little bit of moderation too. You wouldn’t make soup with peas, brocolli, beef, onions, pasta, cheese, pork, cake, pizza, chicken, tomatoes, salmon, cod, haddock, oranges, bananas and avocados. All of those things might taste nice when combined with the right ingredients, but mixing them all together would be unpalatable. The same is true of character traits. Find ones that compliment each other (without necessarily matching each other) and try not to add too many.

There is, of course, almost no end to the list of possible character traits you might use, but I’ve listed a few below:

Because a character’s various traits must work together to form a single personality, it’s a good idea to experiment with them to see what works. I find writing little zero drafts or character auditions helpful for this process. While some traits may appear to be a more obvious fit for your character based on their motives and goals, there is something to be said for making more unlikely choices. A bitter old man, a hopeless romantic, a loudmouthed blowhard or a mild-mannered introvert may all be motivated towards very similar goals such as the pursuit of love, revenge, justice or whatever other motive you care to mention. The way they pursue their goals and deal with the ensuing conflict, however, will vary greatly. So for example, let’s pretend our protagonist is motivated by a desire for true love and his goal is to woo Jeanie, whom he is in love with. Jeanie, however, only sees him as a friend.

Our bitter old man will respond to Jeanie’s ‘friend-zoning’ with a certain level of resentment. While he may still harbour affectionate feelings for Jeanie, his hurt will likely be manifested in cruel comments and unkind behaviour. Our mild-mannered introvert, by contrast, will disguise how he feels with an easy-going manner and an apparent willingness to be a really nice ‘just friend’ for Jeanie, even though inwardly he still dreams of marrying her. Same motive, same goal, same problem, completely different results.


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.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

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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: Fiction- Reality Refined

Originally published: 05/11/2017

There are two kinds of story in this world. Those that are not at all true to life and therefore are completely unsatisfactory, and those that create the illusion of being true to life but, in fact, are not. Very few stories (even those meticulously and faithfully based on true events) accurately reflect real life once they’ve been structured in a way which allows them to be communicated, because real life is far too much of a jumble for that to be possible.

‘But wait just a minute here,’ I hear you cry. ‘I read a book/watched a film/attended a play/played a game just the other day there and it was the truest darn thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life!’

Well of course it’s true that if you’re writing a story, you’ll want it to be true to life in the sense that it must accurately reflect the human experience. A skilled author can (and should) attempt to communicate far more fundamental truths than this about life and death, war and peace, society, philosophy, religion or whatever it might be in their stories. And of course, stories based on true events must remain faithful to history. No one is denying any of that.

However, in real life, events are disjointed and random. Things happen for no reason. Reality must therefore be refined in order to turn it into a digestible and entertaining story. For instance, you might be writing a novel (based on the true story) about your holiday to France where you met your future wife and fought to win the respect of her disapproving father. Now while you were there, you also bumped into Mr. Donald, your former maths teacher. It turns out he’s there to attend the Fête de la Musique because (to your surprise) he’s ridiculously enthusiastic about music and will travel far and wide to attend music festivals all over the world. You make polite conversation about this for twenty minutes and then go your separate ways. You put the event out of your mind. Life goes on. It never comes up again. All that you have learned about Mr. Donald, his passion for music or that there is an all-day music festival that happens in Paris every June neither harms or benefits you in any way, at any point in your life, ever.

So… when you come to write the novel about how you went on holiday, met a girl and won the respect of her father, you’re not going to include that event, are you? Because in all story telling, everything happens for a reason. Meaningless events only serve to break up the flow, rhythm and pace of the story. Have you ever been watching a film and noticed that nobody ever says goodbye to anybody else, even on the telephone? Or that nobody ever walks into a room and forgets what they went there for, or forgets what they were about to say. And no one ever needs to go to the toilet, unless there’s a mad axe murderer in there already poised and waiting to kill them. This isn’t true to life at all! In real life, people always forget things, usually do say goodbye on the phone and, more often than not, have uneventful visits to the bathroom.

Not only that, but in all good stories (even those based on true events) there is a clear and identifiable structure, sometimes called the ‘story arc’ or ‘narrative arc’ (a simple definition and description is available here) and all the events in your story should contribute in some way towards its construction. This is not true to life, but it is good story telling. In real life, you meet new people all the time. They enter your life, do or say so many things and then leave your life, often without ceremony. Many different events happen all at once and are often never fully resolved. Good story telling isn’t like that. In good story telling, A leads to B which leads to C and in the end, all the loose ends are tied up. They might not necessarily all live happily ever after, but the story comes to a neat end. Our questions are answered and we are happy to assume that life goes on (at least for the survivors).

If all of this is teaching your granny to suck eggs, let me draw your attention to one more point: dialogue. In dialogue, you walk a fine line between creating a distinctive and believable voice which tells you something about the character and constructing your dialogue in a way which allows your narrative to flow.

It may be difficult to do because we’re all so used to verbal communication, but next time you’re having a verbal conversation with someone, listen to the words they use. Don’t just listen to their meaning. Pay careful attention to every utterance. You will notice that, more often than not, the rules of grammar go out the window. New sentences are often begun before the previous one is finished. People interrupt and talk over one another. Sometimes misunderstandings will derail a conversation (‘Do you like coffee?’ ‘Oh yes I’d love one, thank you!’). Words are often misused (for instance, when people say ‘pacific’ instead of ‘specific’). Sentences are often punctuated by non-sensible utterances (‘erm…’, ‘uhh…’). The list goes on.

Seriously, I encourage you to try it someday. Make a precise transcript of a real-life conversation in exactly the order it is spoken and read it back to yourself. You will marvel at the fact human beings are able to communicate at all when you see just how muddled up our verbal communication is.

In fiction, however, your dialogue can’t be like that. You can add dialects, accents and perhaps even the odd bit of bad grammar to your heart’s content but the flow of the conversation still has to be clear for the reader. Dialogue, just like the rest of your narrative, has a purpose. It drives the story on, and therefore it must accomplish its ends. Still, it must sound believable. You as the author, therefore, walk a fine line between making it sound so implausibly perfect that your characters seem wooden and so realistically imperfect that it reads like meaningless waffle and drags your story’s pace down to a crawl.

Not only that, but you also have to beware of making the content of a conversation sound too contrived. It can be all too tempting to use dialogue as a place to info-dump. E.g., ‘I visited my sister, Andrea McLaren, 24, who lives just around the corner from the butchers on Western Road’.

Real people don’t talk like that. If Andrea’s full name, age and address are important, they need to be worked in with subtlety and believably. There are many techniques you can use to lend credibility to your dialogue, but I’ll come back to that in a future post.


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:

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!


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.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

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: