Every writer struggles with criticism. A friend of mine breaks out the M&Ms every time she gets a revision letter from her editor. All of us handle it differently, but like grief, it tends to follow a pattern.
It's easy to get stuck between anger and bargaining. Anger gives us a sense of purpose. In workshop, this is often when we start to think or say bad things about our critiques, because that's better than believing bad things about our writing. My friend (see above) is more likely to breeze past anger and jump into bargaining (right after the very trope-ish but true dependence on chocolate). Me, I like anger, so if your first response is to launch into a vehement and often silent argument with your critiquer? I get you.
But at some point, hopefully, I chill out enough to move to depression (no chocolate, just deep self-loathing). Finally, I get to the more balanced response of acceptance: Ok, so they don't get my genius. It's not their fault, because my vision doesn't unfold on the page. What do I need to change, fix, delete, add-to, in order for the reader to get me?
As you review any criticism, consider how you can move to a more balanced and emotionally-healthy response. Acceptance isn't acceptance that your writing is bad. Acceptance is the realization that you're human and your writing isn't perfect. Acceptance is the realization that your critiquer--be it teacher, classmates, or editor--may have a point.
See my YouTube video about some typical responses to workshop: Seeking Blessings for the end of the world
AWP is Association of Writers and Writing Programs, with the conference open to faculty, students, and writers (independent of a college) held in San Antonio this year. So here's some cool new stuff on the relationship between persona (typically discussed in regards to creative nonfiction) and character.
[As background, I have both an MFA (fiction) and an MA (creative nonfiction) in creative writing]
When I went through my MA, I started with a personal essay class because my mentor needed one more student for a particular class to go. I fell in love with the genre and proceeded to take every class I could. In the personal essay class, we studied Dinty Moore's book on the topic. In my memoir class, we studied Sue Williams Silverman's Finding Innocence and Experience: Voices in Memoir. The first personal essay I polished and submitted won a contest and a Pushcart nomination. Jill Christman was the judge.
So, imagine walking into a workshop where all 3 of these writers were presenting. It was surreal, and wonderful, and educational. :)
Persona isn't something we talk about in fiction, because we know the characters are fiction. There's no need for a persona, but in CNF, the writer is on the page, yet it's not fully the writer. It's a persona. It's a piece of self without the whole being.
Dinty Moore, during the presentation, said that persona is the embodiment of self but tidied up. “Constructed of the truth but not fully the truth,” creating a more consistent character than the self. "Persona is a consistent and engaging personality on the page." Persona is a glimpse of who we are. We dial it up, emphasize, and stretch" without embellishing or misleading.
[the same can also be said of plot in CNF... Books have a consistent plot, but real life does not.]
Jill Christman clarified more: "The I is a mark on the page. It is not you on the page. You can try to make it a version of you, but your 3-dimensional self is a multitude of I’s. The persona will not contain all your selves."
Ok, so how can we use this information in fiction? On the face, there is no tie, because we're not writing about flesh-and-blood people, but when we look deeper, persona ties directly to characterization. It's very easy to write flat characters, those one-dimensional beings who are there to serve the needs of the writer and the plot, but easy doesn't equate to good. In this case, a flat character annoys or bores the reader, so the same elements in selecting character traits also applies to fiction.
If you want a round character, you have to demonstrate their roundness. You need to find those ticks and traits that you want to demonstrate. The character must remain consistent (a thief doesn't suddenly become a priest... at least without motivation/change), but the character should show some of their different traits when encountering different situations.
Here's an example I use with my undergrads. You use a different voice on Facebook (where grandma can see it) than you do in Snapchat where it's just your friends. You know, often intuitively, what type of posts you can get away with on the different social media platforms.
The same is true of persona. As the writer, you can adjust the character's behaviors based on who is around, so a character in a thriller might act one way with a client, another with a coworker, and yet put on a different persona when they're dealing with criminals (or suspects). Give your characters some depth, some roundness, by pulling out true-to-life traits and personas.
If you're struggling with a character, consider what some of his/her traits and personas might be and how they would manifest within the story. If you don't like the character, or feel they're flat, consider giving them different personas that makes more sense for the story.
In the end, fictional characters will never be wholly human, wholly realistic, but we can give them multiple dimensions so they're interesting and full. How can you use persona in your work?
Every time, and I mean every time, I submit to my publisher and/or an agent, they ask for comp titles. Don't get caught flat-footed. Do the research before you get ready to submit. Know where your book fits into the literary marketplace. When a publisher sees the comp titles, they start to figure out where to market your book.
If you're struggling to find comps, ask one of your critique partners or BETA readers as they may have a more objective view of your story. Or, do the research:
So, how do you do that? Well, reading voraciously helps. I sometimes offer comp title suggestions to my students, and I can do that because I have read a wide-variety of books and I notice similarities. Note that comps work when the similar work is well-known. If you give a comp that's obscure, you're giving the impression that there's no market for your book. Eek, that's not what you want to do!
In the end, comparable-titles are a way to demonstrate your knowledge of your genre and the literary marketplace. They're also shorthand for a longer discussion on market, niches, etc. If you have to do the research, and for reasons beyond me you don't ask a librarian, at least have fun with it!
Post your comp titles in the comments below.
No work is perfect. That's the truth and the liberation from our perfectionist tendencies. No one expects perfection from you.
So don't expect perfection from yourself. No perfect writer exists, which leads to what I want to discuss today. Editing and revision in the course of writing and publishing.
Most books go through several rounds of editing and revision before publication. At one time, I had heard that a famous author of epic novels had a non-editing clause in her contract. I don't know if this is truth or internet rumor, but I can assure you, such a thing would be a mistake. Every work can be made better.
Last year I gave a keynote address to a women's group, and at the end, during Q&A, someone asked me what editors do. Oh, I could go on and on, but it boils down to this: an editor makes the work better. Writing and editing are collaborative processes. Editors are an asset, not gate guardians (although they can be).
So let's talk about the many ways your book will be polished and improved before publication, because this will demonstrate that every book on the market has gone through multiple stages of editing. What you see on the page is the result of finely honed editing and collaboration skills, not inherent genius (although for some writers that may also be true). So don't compare your drafts to someone else's published novel.
1) Self-editing and revision prior to submission. You are probably editing and revising as you work. You'll receive critiques, feedback, and workshop commentary to improve your original submissions. You'll read/revise/edit after you finish the first draft. And once you think it's polished, you'll send it to an editor/agent. What follows are the steps in their process.
1.5) Revise and resubmit. Some publishers have a little test between the "we like the work and are considering publication" and publication. That's called a revise and resubmit letter. The editor sends you a letter in which they say they are interested in contracting with you, but they need you to make some changes before they will go to contract. I had one of these early in my career, before I jumped onto the mommy-track, and I didn't realize that the editor wasn't saying she hated my work. She was saying she liked my work, but she wanted to see how well I took correction. How well I could make required changes. Obviously, past-me failed that test. If you receive a lovely or not so lovely revise and resubmit, you're working without guarantee of contract, however, the editor took the time to evaluate the work and list what would improve the work and ready it for publication. They wouldn't waste their time if they weren't interested.
If you get this letter, run-don't-walk to your computer and make the changes. They're serious about your work, but want to see how you handle the revisions. How long does it take you? What's your attitude about the changes? (please don't argue with an editor/agent at this point... save that for when you have a standing (professional) relationship). How well did you make the proposed changes?
2) Content edits. These are larger revisions. Once you sign the contract, your book will go into a publication schedule based on a timeline your publishing house has preset. SO, you may not get edits for awhile after signing the contract, because it's not on their production timeline. When it is, your direct editor will send content edits. This is big picture editing that focuses on inconsistencies in character, plot, etc. My editor broke it down by chapter with about a paragraph of suggestions for each chapter. Others will use the comments and track changes in MS Word. HOW you make those changes is typically up to you. And they can be annoying. I once had to change a character name because they'd just published a book from another author whose character had the same name. Do the work anyway.
2.5) Managing editor comments/Q&A: After content edits, the work goes to the managing editor for that line who does a similar set of suggestions based on the needs of the line/publishing house. This ensures the continuity in their published works.
3) Line edits. This is what I thought about when I thought of editing. It's when the editor adds comments and questions at the paragraph and sentence level, typically using comments and track changes. It's done after content/Q&A edits are completed and in the production timeline of the publishing house. Translation: It feels like there's a lot of wasted time, but while the editor is working on your line edits, they're also working on someone else's content edits. The process feels a bit like an assembly line, and each time, someone else wants you to make a change. It's all part of the process.
4) Copy Editor: The copy editor is the grammarian and style guide for the publishing house. Here's a for instance. My publishing house has a style sheet that italicizes sounds like boom, bang, clack. The copy editor makes those changes, but is also an expert at grammar and Chicago style who makes the grammar-approved changes so your high school English teacher doesn't email you with a list of grammar errors in your work.
5) Proofreader: Changes everything the copy editor did. :) Sorry, I couldn't help myself. It certainly feels like this is true, because the copy editor will add a comma, and then the proofreader suggests removing the comma. The real goal of the proofreader is to catch the final errors in the galley before it goes to print. When you consider that the work has gone through multiple edits with multiple people, the potential for dangling strings is high. This is why you sometimes see double-typed words or unfinished sentences in a published work. They're often pieces left over after changes during the line editing stage. The proofreader's job is to catch those and more. Most publishing houses have a hard rule against major editing or revision at this stage, because the work is in the final stages and you don't have time to do another proofreading of the work.
Ok, so what you see above is how much work is put into editing and revision before a book is published. The goal of sharing this with you is to demonstrate that you can't compare your draft to a published novel. Your work doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be a compelling story. The rest can be fixed in the editing process.
I'm a big fan of turning points. Well, not in real life, because in real life, turning points are messy things. Turning points are the chaos leading us inevitably into the storm.
My father died when I was thirteen. It was life altering before I was old enough to understand the implications and repercussions of such an event. From that point forward, my life was broken into before and after.
Before my father died:
Turning points are messy things because of the effects they have on our character's lives, as they had in my life, as they have in your life. Turning points are story events that cause the story to turn in a new direction.
The new direction in fiction is typically caused by a choice the character makes (or doesn't make) or a dilemma they face, such as if my mother had chosen to keep living on the "good" side of town by getting married rather than going back to college.
These turning points should lead your character into something new and significantly different. If the choice your character faces is whether to eat dinner at a Chinese restaurant or Taco Bell, that's probably not a turning point, but if the trip to the Chinese restaurant leads our character into China Town where she is faced with a life-changing choice--find the treasure your boss stole or your best friend dies--that's a turning point.
The crossroads in this fake story is the character's before and after, and like those traumatic before and afters in your own life, the character's life will never be the same.
For instance, the protagonist who was just going to dinner with a friend is there to discuss a job offer because she can't work for a dishonest so-and-so any longer, but after her friend is kidnapped, she has to stay with the employer to find the treasure and save her BFF. So the dinner in China Town becomes one of the character's turning points.
In real life, turning points are traumatic, but isn't that exactly what we want for our characters? If the character is not faced with significant turning points and equally disastrous choices, then we may not have a turning point that will keep the reader reading.
In the opening of this post, I said turning points were the chaos leading us into the storm, but the storm is where our character will grow. Give them that opportunity by giving them a worthy turning point.
Some thoughts on how and when to build your platform
This is an honest and complex question. So many publishers, editors, and agents say a writer needs to "have a platform," which is a lot like the need to have credit to get credit.
How do you build a platform before you have a product to put on that platform?
When I first met my publisher face-to-face, having a contract and a release date in the far distant future, I asked her the number one thing I could do to set myself up for the release. She told me to get active on Twitter. My response (not wise, considering... publisher) was "I hate Twitter."
She had the marketing department scour my website and social media pages to give me suggestions. Not all publishers do this, but it was invaluable. They sent me a 6 page report on what I was doing right and what I should improve. The good news is that traditional publishing takes so long you have time to build before the release. The bad news is that every editor/agent who is serious about your work is going to ask about your platform. Do you have a website, a FB page, a Twitter handle, etc?
I have since reevaluated my opinion on Twitter, as I'm fully an addict, and I now despise Facebook, but I also think the publisher is both right and wrong about "get active on Twitter." Twitter is great for many reasons, but Twitter is not the place to sell books. Mind you, people try, but it's really just yelling into the wind. Facebook is a good marketing tool for writers, but the targeted advertising is part of what makes Facebook a burr under my saddle.
Where do I begin? How do I put myself out there when I hate "selling myself."
The biggest thing pre-publishing is to get onto your preferred social media platform and start making connections. Follow authors in your genre (as your writer page). Join conversations in Facebook groups or follow Twitter hashtags like #writingcommunity or #amreading. On Insta, it's #authorsofinstagram. You're not selling yourself, not yet, what you're doing is forming bonds and friendship with people who like books and your particular genre. You're building an online network.
Minor digression on the value of online networking
I graduated from Regis University with an MA in creative writing in 2015 (Regis now has an MFA program). A fellow student at the time just released her first book of literary nonfiction. She reached out to me on social media. I shared her release to my readers. I shared articles about her release on everything from social media to LinkedIn. This isn't a quid-pro-quo, as I don't expect anything of her in return. It's just the right thing to do to support fellow writers. You can do the same with published authors before you're published.
How do I "sell myself" as a writer before I'm published?
You're not bringing attention to something you haven't done yet, you're bringing attention to the thing you love: books. My publisher gave me a list of 15-20 top influencers in the form of bloggers and book reviewers that I should "get to know" or connect with online. I found that too artificial. Instead, I engage with other writers and readers. I like/share/retweet other writers whose work I like/love to build good will with others, and even if they don't directly reciprocate, I figure I'm growing my good karma (and that it will come back to me in some way in the future).
When is the best time to build a platform? Pre or post contract?
There's no "right" time to build a platform. Honestly, and I mean this, writing comes first. Let me say that again:
Writing. Comes. First.
It's easy to get sucked into the social media mud pit and get stuck, but if you're already active on a certain platform, getting to know other writers and readers shouldn't be too big of a stretch to start with. Things like a website or a blog can wait until the book is finished, but social media takes time to grow, so starting now would definitely be a move in the right direction.
Where do I start? Social media is overwhelming.
There's so many ways to get active in a way that is authentic, which I think is what you should focus on. Don't think of it as selling yourself. Writers for the most part aren't really good with that. Instead of "selling" or "marketing" which are dirty little words, consider social media as community building. You're finding a community to interact with, and you can do it no matter where you live, no matter your publishing stage... as long as you have Internet.
As for where to start, ask yourself: What social media platform do I prefer?
I know some publishers push you to be active on all platforms. Good luck with that. Although I do have someone help me with Facebook (she posts what I send to her onto my writing page because I don't have a personal account on FB), I don't have the time or money for a personal assistant, so spending an hour a day building my social media isn't in the cards, but I do focus on being active on Twitter, because I'm there anyway, and I enjoy the interactions. I even use it for my undergrads instead of online discussions (see one of my Twitter hashtags to see what they post).
Follow writers. Stephen King is on Twitter, and full of all kinds of fun posts from directly related to writing (like when a new book or movie releases), but he also posts pictures of his dog, retweeting other writers (including his son) and generally posting several times a week. JK Rowling used to be much more active, being quite vocal about things that matter to her, but seems to have slowed off the last year of so. Still, she's a good follow. Start with those writers you love, and even if they don't respond, you can interact with those commenting on their posts. And guess what? Those people are probably readers.
But it makes me feel like a fraud
Posting to someone who is not your family or friend is weird at first, but I promise, you're not a fraud. You are a writer. You are writing. You are connecting with readers and writers.
Remember the line from Field of Dreams. "If you build it, they will come."
Quick intro to say I'm posting this for previous students, current students, and any writers who may check out this part of my website for writerly content. The video mentions a file toward the end, however, in respect for the presenter, I'm not sharing that publicly...only with my current creative writing students. Sorry, Charlie. :)
Video post w/ transcript
. Good afternoon writers. I am recording live from the Rocky Mountain fiction writers conference in Denver, Colorado, I'll be here until Sunday afternoon. And I just wanted to touch base with you guys like you know I'm not going to be on much, but I'll try and add some value in the course announcements with things that I'm learning from the conference. So today I got to be just an attendee. Tomorrow I have two presentations, an agent appointment, and my publisher is here so I'll be able to have conversations with her. But today gets to be just attendee day. And one of the workshops that I really wanted to go to is by Marie Force it's about book series, she fluctuates between series I think she said she has a total of six different series happening at one time. One of them's like 21 books into the entire series, and I know several of you guys have either mentioned the fact that you are in the middle of a series or you're hoping to write series. And so I went in there to figure out how she manages that so you'll see my notes. They are very much bullet point notes as she is talking and they're very organized because she presented the information in an organized way.
That's one benefit for you guys for me being here and then the other one is just to talk a little bit about what you do it conference. Conferences about learning craft learning workshop, learning, the business of writing meeting editors and agents and publicists and the people who can assist you in your writing career. And then there's a huge, huge chunk of networking which isn't always easy writers tend to be very introverted and so the idea of getting out there and networking is very stressful. I will say book signing is a lot like trying to go to a networking event where you don't know anybody. So I have a friend of mine coming she's from my MA program at Regis. I had my MA program at Regis and the MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University. So I have two masters in creative writing, and my MA was here in Denver so she's coming I haven't seen her in several years. We'll catch up see what each other's doing learn a little bit about where we are industry wise where we are academically. And I also have somebody that I know is going to be there for my book signing that we can kind of riff off of each other so it doesn't feel so awkward because book signings can be awkward it's sort of a big long row of authors that are presenting that will be doing book signings tonight so it gives me a chance to catch up with her and do the book signing and network, all at the same time. Tomorrow I'm presenting so I won't probably have a lot of notes about the conference, but I'll try to check in at least once with you guys so that you get some benefits from having a professor who's at a conference. I hope you're doing well. I will check with you.
My mother quoted both Shakespeare and Newton and others I have yet to divine, and as a child, I was completely unaware. It's completely shocking to read a work of great literature, or science, and hear my mother speaking the lines from decades past.
When it came to Newton's laws, her recitation tended to follow a complete kid klutz moment. For instance, putting books onto the dining table, push back, spill milk across the dining table. Mom would spout Newton's 3rd law:
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
I guess that was better than yelling at us for spilled milk.
But here's the thing. Newton's laws apply to people and characters as well as the universe. Newton's law of inertia, states that an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside source. In this example, the object at rest is our character before the story begins.
Jennifer Brody, in Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, writes:
[momentary pause wherein I acknowledge my mother's genius]
In this analogy, the character is the object at rest. The character is living their happy or unhappy life in stasis, or as Christopher Vogler (The Writer's Journey) calls it, the Ordinary World.
The character may be unhappy, but they're not unhappy enough to move. Take Luke from the original Star Wars. He's completely unhappy working for his uncle on the farm at the far end of the universe, but he's there anyway, plugging along, dreaming about leaving, "some day." He has the desire, but not the actionable force. It takes a droid, a crazy old hermit, and the death of his aunt and uncle to "force" him from his Ordinary World. Vogler called this the Call to Adventure, but in Brody's version, the events that take place are the equal and opposite force that compel the object at rest into an object in motion (or, a Character in Motion).
Once the character is in motion, their wants and goals keep the plot moving.
When a hero wants something, it sets them in motion. It gets them off their butt and into the action (Brody 13).
As the story progress, the equal and opposite force that Brody discusses can come to life through either conflict or a nemesis (antagonist). It is the equal and opposite force that acts against the character in motion.
It's the question "[w]hat is standing in the hero's way?"
The force standing in the hero's way must be strong enough to push him off course. For instance, think about what it took to force the Millennium Falcon close enough to the Death Star to get captured? And yet, isn't that where Luke and Han were destined to go?
Think about your current work in progress (WIP).
I never stopped to consider that something in science, one of my least favorite subjects, could impact my writing world. That was a deficit in my viewpoint. Everything in the world and on our planet can impact our writing world. From years ago, my mother was teaching me how to apply universal laws to my life, and I am the better for it.
Now, if I could just find that outside force to get the rest of my life in motion.
One of the most common suggestions I make to students in the MFA program is to include more analysis of the works they read. There is a difference between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer (and learning to analyze). An MFA is not simply a writing degree. Of course, MFA students will be writing, and are writing, quite a bit, but the most time is spent on reading and analyzing what other writers have done. Stephen King has famously said "[i]f you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write."
Being a writer is first being a reader, and many (most) writers learn through their reading to become writers. In an MFA program, we focus on the valuable work that reading does to writing skills. During my MFA, I read and wrote critical analyses on three books each month for the first two years of the program. I was numb by the end, but I learned to be quite efficient and effective at reading critically. It has taken me longer afterward to incorporate what I learned into my writing, but that element is equally valuable.
We read critically, we write analytically, and then we reflect on the elements and apply them to our own writing.
Summary (a brief description of the plot) is lower-level learning. Analysis is higher-level (or critical) reading and writing. And genre doesn't matter. From romance to literary fiction, writers need to analyze what other (sometimes great) writers have written.
But all reading is not created equal. When we read for pleasure, hopefully we can actually enjoy the work without picking it apart (I really struggle with this). But when we read as a writer, our job is to pick the work apart. We should read slowly to see the brush strokes of the writer we're studying. We should ask questions of the text.
First, Taylor D wrote:
For most stories, conflict drives the characters and plot while causing readers to become invested in watching it all play out. In The Left Hand of Darkness, the conflict arises during a meal the main character has with someone they had trusted. Over the course of the dinner conversation, the main character comes to feel utterly alone in this strange world, realizing that their allies may be more foe than friend. As the main character attempts to understand how the person he trusted to help him, and who had been doing just that up until this point, he continues the conversation in hopes of discovering what has caused this shift. “He looked at me curiously. ‘Well, then, to put it this way. There are some persons in court who are, in your phrase, in favor with the king, but who do not favor your presence or your mission here’” (Le Guin 15). This sets up the conflict in the book, that the main character is attempting to make changes to a world where he is not welcome.
The way in which Le Guin creates and reveals the conflict, through a conversation between two acquittances, one who has all but betrayed the other, is something I want to explore in my own writing. As the reader, this intrigued me, and I wanted to read more to find out what exactly the main character was doing on this planet that would cause others to not want him there. I found the way the conflict between the two characters gave way to a large conflict in the book and it is something I will attempt in my own writing, using my characters and their conversations as a way to create and reveal conflict, both interpersonal and on a larger plot scale.
Taylor provides a summary of the scene to provide context for the initial conflict, and then looks at evidence from the book (quotes), and finally, discusses how Le Guin's technique impacted her (Taylor) as a reader, and then figures out what exactly she has learned from the reading.
Now, let's look at what Candace M. wrote:
It is only right to look at storytelling elements first because they are vital and occur in all stories, Adeyemi and Rosoff are not exempt. In Children of Blood and Bone, the reader is thrown into the mind of Zeile. We are able to experience her desperation and hope that she will be chosen for the graduation battle, “Its all I can do not to scream. I dig my nails into the marula oak of my staff and squeeze to keep from fidgeting. Beads of sweat drip down my back, but I can’t tell if it’s from dawn’s early heat or from my heart slamming against my chest” (Adeyemi 3). These opening lines quickly and effectively clue the reader into the inner desire of an unnamed character. He or she is nervous yet excited and desiring to be selected for what we will soon know as a graduation combat match. Conflict is presented off the bat at the possibility that our narrator may not be chosen. Adeyemi goes on to mention that our narrator has been passed over for “moon after moon…,” thus verifying what the reader has been led to believe; participation in this match is a must (Adeyemi 3). The excitement of a combat match also aids in creating pacing and suspense.
Here, you can see that Candace's style of analysis is different. She has a back and forth between her discussion and evidence (quotes) from the book. She reaches a conclusion in this paragraph without discussing how she (Candace) will use this information. Later, however, Candace adds her own analysis about her writing:
Although Rosoff’s lack of dialogue is a showstopper, Adeyemi’s use of dialogue to reveal conflict, details about her characters, and bring the fictional land of Orisha to life is nothing to sleep on. Prior to reading Adeyemi’s work I really tried to find equal balance between dialogue and narration, I saw this as a rule to writing. Adeyemi, doesn’t seek to balance dialogue with narration but uses her dialogue in a meaningful way so it doesn’t feel overwhelming. My current project could greatly benefit from a revision that focuses more on meaningful dialogue and narration so that they are being used to drive the plot rather than fill the space.
While most writers won't need or want to write an academic paper analyzing a work of fiction, the act of analyzing is an invaluable tool and can be accomplished while reading. Writers should consider writing techniques as they read them, and then consider how and in what ways the reading and analysis can impact their own writing.
Embrace analysis. It will help set your writing on fire.
ADDENDUM:This kind of analysis also helps writers to critique other writers. Once a writer has torn apart a book by someone like Stephen King, they should have the skillset and vocabulary to help critique and improve the work of their critique partners.
King, Stephen. On Writing. Scribner, 2000.
An anti-hero by any other name would still kick ass and go home bloody
I had a great question about villains as heroes that I wanted to share for those of you working in the dark arts section of the card catalog (i.e. dark YA, speculative fiction, horror, etc).
Writers often struggle with creating a nonconventional hero. I first became interested in this when a 74 y.o. librarian I worked with at the public library told me about her favorite TV show "hero" who was a serial killer. The show was Dexter, based on a novel by Jeff Lindsay entitled Darkly Dreaming Dexter (2004). I was fascinated by the concept that readers could love and root for a serial killer. Essentially a villain with an unhealthy dose of rationalization. I wanted to know HOW the writer was able to make a serial killer sympathetic for (mostly) law-abiding readers/viewers.
If you struggle with a nonconventional hero, anti-hero, or Byronic Hero, read on...
STANDARD DISCLAIMER: First and foremost, this is one person's opinion. Publishing is an interesting industry in that there is no ONE right answer. Some is up to genre, some to publisher, some is up to current trends, and some to reader expectations.
Some traits of a tragic hero (aka villain as protagonist aka anti-hero aka Byronic hero aka dark hero):
They're more full-bodied rather than perfectly imperfect (no one really likes the villain with no redeeming qualities...it's too trite). Giving characters imperfections/weaknesses/tragic backstories makes them more rounded, interesting, and relatable.
As definition, an anti-hero is a central character in a story who lacks conventional heroic attributes.
The great thing about Wick is that he's a badass assassin for the mob who got out of the business when he married, but when his wife dies [tragic backstory] and someone kills his dead wife's dog [motivation], Wick comes back with a vengeance, kicking ass and killing pretty much everybody involved.
Wick is in no way a conventional hero. He's a criminal, he's violent, he's ruthless, and yet he has a certain code of conduct. He has loyalty to friends (many of whom do not reciprocate his loyalty). But Wick does have weaknesses. I mean, he can kill with impunity, so his weakness isn't physical (even when he's majorly injured, he still wins), and yet his trust in friendship and loyalty causes many complications. Remember complications? They are the cornerstone of conflict, and conflict is story. If Wick had no weakness, the story would be over in 20 minutes:
Sad death of dog. Kill everyone. The end.
But instead, the writers give him complications and weaknesses that they exploit to make his life more difficult and the story more fulfilling. Readers want the complications. In addition, the weaknesses humanize a character that the average reader may find unrelatable (i.e. a serial killer or mob hitman).
So, to summarize, two possible reasons for giving the villain a weakness are 1) to humanize him and 2) to complicate the story.
If a villain can explode a planet without complication (think Darth Vader in the first Star Wars), where's the conflict? But Vader has many weaknesses hidden behind a horrific mask, and some seriously tragic backstory. For that matter, think Snape from the Harry Potter series (that scene makes me cry every damn time, and for more than half of the series, I hated Snape).
Here's a YouTube video from Troped! that talks more about anti-heroes:
But wait, there's more...
As long as we're discussing nonconventional heroes, let's talk about the Byronic Hero with info from the fabulous site TV Tropes (honestly, you should check them out, but be forewarned, it's a pretty deep rabbit hole):
Byronic heroes are charismatic characters with strong passions and ideals, but who are nonetheless deeply flawed individuals who may act in ways which are socially reprehensible because he's definitely contrary to his mainstream society" ("Byronic Hero" par. 1).
As a general rule, they're highly conflicted heroes (think the comic hero in Grosse Pointe Blank) who ponders and wrestles "with his struggles and beliefs" ("Byronic Hero" par. 1). They often have a tragic back story (sound familiar?). In literature, think Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (the monster or the creator) or The Count of Monte Cristo.
As the earlier video demonstrates, the anti-hero is quite popular in movies, books, and comic books at the moment. Why that's true is open for debate, but I think that the anti-hero exists when we, as a culture, begin to feel that we're getting the shaft (economically, culturally, familial, etc.). We need the anti-hero who doesn't want to or have to obey society's rules/laws. He makes his own rules, and whether you call him villain, anti-hero, or Byronic Hero, he's fascinating, and readers want more of him (or her... think the heroine from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
If you're inclined to read and write dark stories, here's where you can find out more about the dark/anti/Byronic hero.
Writer Reference (Blogroll)
Show Don't Tell
To Be verbs
Wired for Story
Genre by any other name
He for She
A Little is Enough
Writing 17 minutes at a time
The Unlisted List:
The best women nonfiction writers.
Aubrey Hirsh' Beginner's Guide to publishing with format templates and more
Agent Query 15 posts on writing query ltrs
Platform Action Plan
Writer, college professor, lover of story, fan of all things bookish. Plus chocolate, because who doesn't love chocolate.