Tag: Literature

The Importance of Imperfection

This is likely to be cross-posted on my brand new blog about roleplay (both tabletop and freeform). If you’re interested in the subject of tabletop gaming or freeform roleplay, please consider subscribing!

So, I’ve talked a lot about characters and their development on here, but I wanted to address something that is important to a character whether you’re writing them into a novel or playing them around the table during a game of Dungeons and Dragons: flaws. Too many times people try and make perfect characters, and those characters always fall short.

Real people aren’t perfect. We have bumps and warts and bad hair days. But when I’m talking flaws, I also mean more substantial than, “too pretty/handsome for their own good!” They should have real flaws. Flaws being things that challenge them, that make them grow. Things like anxiety, depression, PTSD, a terrible temper, or maybe they’re judgmental. Things that aren’t so pretty and may not be a great deal of fun to be around.

Let me give you an example taken straight from one of my works. My in-progress science fiction novel currently titled “Vigil” is about a character who starts the story as a coward. He’s hiding from what he can do and hiding from everyone in the world. He’s not particularly attractive, he’s not the smartest guy in the room, and by midway in the book he has PTSD. He’s not perfect, and he knows it. That said, he grows and changes and develops over the course of the story.

The fact that he starts the story imperfect makes him a little shake-worthy by some readers. Which is exactly what I wanted. He’s an IT guy who gets thrown into something way bigger than him and is scared of it. For good reason, too. Those things are terrifying!

So, when you design a character, edge away from perfection or perfection disguised as a flaw. Mary Sue characters are never fun for people to read about because what development can there be for someone who is already perfect?


The Ethic of Evil: Realistic Antagonists

I apologize for missing last week’s blog entry, I have been fighting with deadlines to get Dragon’s Teeth finished in time for us to copy-edit it and get it to the printers! The good news is that it looks like we’ll make it, the bad news is that it means I don’t get to sleep. But that’s alright! I’m excited about that book and have enjoyed it and working with the author, Suzanne.

I got an email today that I just have to comment on because it is so grossly irritating that I want to inform authors not to make the same mistake that this individual did. I received a query for an “adult novel” from an individual whose novel was interesting and clearly about a romance affair between two individuals. The author referred to it as an “adult novel” in the subject line of the email and in my (apparently meager) experience, the majority of the time when one specifies that something is for “adults” it suggests erotica. Thusly we have “adult toy stores” and “adult videos” and “adult magazines” and so on. It’s a pretty common usage of the term and since our authors come from all walks of life and experiences, I decided to ask the obvious question: is your novel erotica?

The answer I received surprised me. Not because the answer was that, in fact, the author was not writing an erotica novel, but because the author decided to demean me and insinuate that I am a base, illiterate monkey. That sort of rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it’s because my cat died this morning and at 2am I was burying her in the rain, but making that sort of assumption about someone in a position like mine is rather insulting. I won’t bore you with my credentials and my reading list, but I assure you that the Orestia, the Illiad, the Odyssy, and the entire, collected works of Shakespeare are on it. They rub shoulders with modern contemporaries and other classical giants. The author then proceeded to insult my sentence structure and Divertir.

Now, I will fully admit that I am human and am just as capable of making grammar mistakes at 2am as anybody else. But that certainly doesn’t preclude me from being able to do my job very effectively. And even if I hadn’t read the Orestia or Shakespeare, I’m still the person deciding whether queries get further investigated or go to the junk pile so being rude to the gatekeeper isn’t the best way to get into the castle.

Please, authors, remember that not only are the people reading your queries human, we have reasons for what we do, even if you don’t understand those reasons. I am not a robot, I’m not some sort of corporate toady slurping coffee from my 52nd floor office as I chortle about the “little people”. In fact, as I write and edit, I’m sitting at my desk in the corner of my bedroom fighting with my cats for dominance of my work area and I do, in fact, have a day job that I work at very hard, and I promise it’s not glamorous.

Anyway, on to the meat of what I was going to talk about today: Antagonists!

Many people in the world think that all a good guy needs is some bad guy to hate. And that the bad guy isn’t the focus of the story and isn’t all that important. The truth is that the bad guy is vitally important. Without a good bad guy to hate, you can’t really root for the good guy. And a good bad guy makes the reader feel something.

Some examples of very effective antagonists are:

Loki from Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods”
Darth Vader from Lucas’ Star Wars movie series
The Borg from Star Trek (my nerd is showing, I know)
The Hands of Blue from Joss Wheedon’s “Firefly”
Dolores Umbridge from J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series

Now, not all of these antagonists are of the same breed – however they are all good examples of what we look for in a bad guy. Umbridge, particularly, inspires a deep HATRED in me and I just want to reach into my TV (or into the book) and snap her neck so many times… And that’s a good reaction. However, there are several different kinds of antagonists that I’d like to cover:

Cunning Predators: Antagonists that are crafty and keep you worried and guessing.

Tragic Antagonists: They are doing the wrong things for the right reasons, or are unable to really do anything but be the ‘bad guy’ because they’re not given a choice.

Clashing Civilizations: Not necessarily “evil” but certainly not helpful to what the protagonists are looking to accomplish.

Sympathetic Turncoats: They’re the bad guy until the very end when they realize the error of their ways (a la Darth Vader) and decide to aid the good guys.

Unsympathetic Turncoat: A character who is a good guy until a pivotal moment, where he displays his true colors.

Monsters: Sentient or not, these people (or creatures) are simply monsters acting on their most base instincts – this also covers psychopaths and inhuman creatures like aliens.

Evil Overlord: A boss of a large group of people, be it an organization, a country, or a family, who has many resources and avenues of control. And he will use all of those to get rid of the protagonist.

Now, these aren’t the only types of villains out there, some might be mixes of all of the above, some might be none of them. It’s just the way it goes. However, that said, most villains fall into those roles or a mixture thereof. Why is this important? Because the type of villain you have is important to the type of story you’re writing. I’ll use the example of a cop drama since I’m steeped in those (by choice!) and give a few examples.

A cop drama is usually a cop (and maybe his partner) going after “the perp”. The Perp can be a criminal mastermind in charge of a drug cartel (Evil Overlord), a cross-country serial killer with a sadistic, but brilliant mind (Cunning Predator) or could be a grotesque, psychotic killer (Monster).

In addition, his partner might be working for The Bad Guys ™ and could be any mix of the Turncoats and the Tragic Antagonist (maybe they’re holding his family hostage and will kill them if he doesn’t turn on his partner). All of these elements make for an interesting, potent plot.

Beyond mixing the types of antagonists and doing so with an intentional mindset, you have to make sure that the reader cares about the antagonist. Whether they pity for the poor bastard (like Alex Mahone in Prison Break, or Haywire from the same series) or loathe them to the depths of their being (like the aforementioned Dolores Umbridge), the reader needs to have their emotions riled by The Bad Guy ™.

The protagonist, naturally, needs to be the focus of the work, but the antagonists should get equal attention from the author, if not equal screen time. They need to be fully three-dimensional characters with needs, wants, and dreams of their own, even if those dreams are sadistic. If a serial killer is running around wreaking havoc, an author should spend time meditating on his reasons for doing so and have those as complete, and thought-out, as the reasons the protagonist is chasing him to the ends of the earth.

This post is getting a little long so I’ll elaborate on this in further blogs, but I just wanted to start drawing some attention to this much-overlooked bit of literary focus.

Why *not* to “kill your babies”… Yet!

Many books (and stories) end with characters that the reader has grown attached to biting the dust, be it for dramatic purposes or otherwise. In some cases, that’s fine! However, keep in mind that some of the best revenue that you, as an author, can get from book sales is if you create a series. Not every book is material to write a series with, and not every author really wants to write one. But a lot of the time, authors don’t even consider it so I’m just going to suggest to you that killing off your main character for a poignant ending might not be the best decision you’ve ever made.

Now, can you create a series after killing off a main character? Absolutely! There are places and points in time where killing off a main to be replaced later or to have another character hunt down and avenge the killed character is just fine! But I will say that killing off someone that we’ve grown attached to and to even love is always a rough thing for a reader. We get all emotional and sniffly. Okay, well at least I do, but that’s beside the point. Some readers might even be angered by it, so just be careful about how you go about that. There does come a time in a character’s life when it’s good to let them go (Sherlock Holmes, for example, died in the end of his series – spoiler alert) but generally speaking, try and hold onto them to create some sort of door for a series.

Does a series require a singular character to be the main focus? No. Not at all. Look at the world created by Raymond E. Feist as a great example. While there are trilogies set within that world that do include all the same characters (and many of the other books have brushes with them as well), the whole series has many, many different viewpoint characters and overall is an extremely dense and rich world. He also does kill off main characters in some of his books and the reader is usually sniffing about it (I’m a girl, I’ll take that hit). But in the cases where he did, it wasn’t in such a manner that either angered the reader or crippled his ability to continue the series.

These comments aren’t mandatory, of course, if there’s a book that you just want as a singular story, then by all means, kill your babies. But before you do, just consider the marketability and usefulness of having a main character (or a group of main characters) that create a series because that’s really where your income and readership will come from (at least in Fiction, that is).