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.
As a general rule, and of course there are exceptions, writers are introverts, but even extraverts acknowledge that writing is a solitary act. It's easy to get stuck in our heads and in our stories rather than live in the real world. It seems easier, I think, because our families--no matter how supportive--don't really get writers.
Last semester in one of my undergrad creative writing classes, I asked the students why they write. A young lady, about sixteen (we have dual enrolled high school students on our campus) with long hair and thick glasses spoke up. She's rather shy, and this may be the most she spoke in class. She said, "I write to shut up the voices in my head." Immediately several people nodded in agreement. When I told this story in a faculty meeting, several of my colleagues looked at me like I'd lost my mind, some suggesting that maybe it was time to refer the student to behavioral intervention, because they really don't get it. If our families struggle with understanding our writing world, the people in the math department really don't understand creativity.
So we go to writing groups, develop writing communities, and eventually go to a writer's conference, because the only people who understand writers are other writers. Once or twice a year, we need to step out of our writing cave and visit with the only people on the planet who do understand.
Writing conferences have personalities just like people. If you go to the ThrillerFest, you'll be surrounded by thriller writers and will likely have workshops on law enforcement procedures, autopsies, and forensics. Mystery writers surround themselves with stuff of mystery, romance writers talk relationship building and romance tropes, while YA authors talk about everything. A general writing conference might have tracks for fiction writers, poets, and another for creative nonfiction. There might be someone who talks about memoir and another who talks travel writing.
So when you pick a writing conference to go to, make sure that they're your people. For instance, writing poetry is not my jam. SO if I ended up in a poetry-writing conference, I would be out of my element, which is the exact opposite of what we want in a writing conference. So do your homework and make sure the conference covers the topics that are of interest to you and your genre.
Once you sign up, or as you're signing up, you'll have to answer questions about food choices (yes, most conferences support vegan or gluten-free eating), but then it gets down to the nitty-gritty. Do you want an agent or editor appointment? Who with? Spend some time researching the agents/editors who will be there so you know which is most likely to appreciate your book.
For an editor pitch, this is a great way to get past the slush pile to submit directly to an editor. Make sure, however, that you've checked to see if they accept un-agented work/writers. Do your research and know what they publish, what lines they have, and what their current submission guidelines are.
For instance, at dinner during the conference last weekend, a writer at my table said the editor she pitched to was really nice and helpful, but "she doesn't edit horror." While the editor did make some recommendations for next steps for this writer, the writer should have known going into the conference that this editor wasn't an editor for a horror line. That's basic research that would have given the writer better options for her one pitch appointment.
If you're considering an agent appointment, figure out why you want an agent. There are oh so many reasons, but here are some from "How to Find a Literary Agent:"
If you're looking to pitch to an agent, here are some things to consider as you pick who you want to pitch to:
One of the interesting things I've noticed the last couple writing conferences is how my attitude and expectations from the conference have changed over time. When I first started going, I was all about the workshops, spending hour after hour in a clogged hotel conference room absorbing information, but as I've progressed in my career, those workshops hold less appeal. Of course there are exceptions. The two hour workshop presented by a coroner talking about dead bodies (DB) and the kinds of evidence we can retrieve from the body was the most amazing workshop I've ever attended, but typically, the workshops are things I've worked on through my coursework and my reading, and now I'm looking to focus on publishers or agents, so I know who the industry players are.
Which leads to the next reason every writer should go to conference: to network.
Yes, dear introverted writers, I know this sounds like hell. For some of us, networking is worse than hell, but we need to know who works for which publisher. Did they move, did they change to a different line, did they become agents or move to Hollywood? These are the kinds of details you really only get by becoming involved in a writing community and going to a writer's conference.
Last summer I attended RWA's conference because it was in Denver, so I didn't have to pay for travel expenses, which makes many national conferences an expensive proposition. Before my kids were born, I had been highly involved with RWA, even acting as president for my local RWA chapter, and I went to conference every year. I absorbed the workshop materials, enjoyed hanging out with my friends at the bar (every writer's conference ends up in the bar), but I didn't do an agent or editor pitch because I wasn't ready for it.
But when I went to RWA last year, I wasn't interested in the workshops (except the autopsy one and another on self-defense for writers), because I was there to make industry contacts. A good friend of mine, who has been even more actively involved than myself, took it upon herself to help me network. I didn't realize this until halfway through conference when I legit hadn't attended a single workshop... But she had me at lunch with one group of writers, drinks with another, and after hours with yet another group. She hosted a tarot reading so I would get to know yet another group of writers all in much more advanced stages of their careers than myself. She was like a publicist who was getting my name out there and connecting me to industry professionals. It was a fabulous (and exhausting) conference.
When to go to a writer's conference is a personal and financial decision, but when you do take the plunge, know why you're going and what you want to get out of it. This last conference at Pikes Peak Writers, I had two goals.
First I wanted to grow my writer's resume by building a reputation as a presenter and speaker. This worked out well for me and has led to another conference gig this fall at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Second, I wanted to pitch to an agent. My publisher didn't require an agent (some do), and since I had researched my publisher's contract terms before signing with them, I didn't *need* an agent, but now I'm at a crossroads with my career. I have 6 books and a novella out in the world, and I really want an agent to take some of the business stress off my shoulders so I can focus on writing. Because I knew my book, my goals, and my pitch so well, the agent asked for the proposal within two minutes of me walking into the pitch room. That gave me the last eight minutes to simply have a conversation and decide if I think this is the person (or the kind of person) that I want representing my work.
Writer's Conferences are amazing opportunities for writers at all stages of the writing career. They build your writing skills, your industry knowledge, and your networking options.
The only question left to ask is when are you signing up for your first conference?
On Saturday, I participated in a mini-conference and book signing at the local library. It's free, a writer's favorite word, and had 2 panel discussions and a keynote speaker. Between sessions, readers and writers were able to talk to local writers who signed books. All proceeds benefitted the Friends of the Library. I love doing this event. Book sales are light, but it's a great way to network and stay connected to the local community. Plus, I worked for the library for years, and they take good care of me. I want to give back.
Now, for the interesting stuff.
The first panel had a publicist, an agent, and an editor. They talked specific to the business side of writing.
The keynote speaker discussed something no one likes to talk about. The dark night of the writer's soul when the words won't come. Writers tend to avoid this discussion out of some strange taboo, but every writer will go through it at some point. Stephen King threw out his initial notes on the book Carrie, convinced it was a dud. His WIFE was the one who believed in it enough to literally pull it out of the garbage. Take the time to go read that article about Stephen King. Trust me, it's inspirational.
The speaker pointed out that it doesn't matter if it's your first book or your eighth, all writers experience this moment of doubt. Hang in there.
Finally, the best part of the day was seeing one of my former students signing books! She took my novel writing class two summers ago. She said "your class is what gave me the final push and helped me put it all together." She has 2 books with another due out in June. I'm so proud! Her name is Adriana Carlson and you should checkout her website.
That's it for my notes for now. Hang in there. You're doing great!
First, a confession...
When I first started writing, a decade or two (ouch!) before I actually published, I wanted to be a historical romance writer. My favorite stories to read were Regencies and, because I read them, I wanted to write them.
Historical romance in general, and Regency in particular, has very demanding fans. Get something wrong about the Regency era, and the readers WILL haunt you. And, as much as I loved to read them, I really didn't want to do that kind of research.
Years later, I worked in the public library system in the reference department (yes, I see the irony). And I really do love research now, but I no longer want to write Regency. :)
I learned a few things in the process, though.
Most of it is fun. Often it is distracting from the real work, but necessary all the same.
The best advice I can give, however, is to enjoy the ride. Research can and should be mentally engaging. It should be interesting and intriguing.
Consider it playtime. Have fun!
Years ago, as a new single mom, I got a job working in the optical department at Wal-Mart. First off, that’s a really weird and unexpected place to find a writer, and second, it wasn’t exactly in my career plan, but I needed a job, and Wal-Mart was hiring.
We had to go through a week of classes and group discussions with other new hires back in the HR section. One discussion asked us to introduce ourselves and say why we wanted to work at Wal-Mart. Note the phrasing: wanted. Along the way, we each told socially acceptable lies about why we wanted (not needed) to work at the big box store in the sky. One young man, with messy dark hair and sad eyes, broke the mold, however. He looked around the table at the eight of us sitting there, and said, “I graduated from college… and then… life didn’t go as planned.”
Truer words, my friend.
That moment when life doesn't go as planned? That's conflict
Conflict “arises because something is not going as expected” (Kress 13). Conflict belongs in the early part of your story, so readers want to know what happens next. If nothing happens, if life goes as planned, where’s the conflict? Where’s the interest? “But no matter what kind of conflict your story explores, its nature should be hinted at in your opening, even though the development of the conflict won’t occur until later” (Kress 13).
Let’s take a look at my favorite Harry Potter. There is an implied conflict from the outset as Professor McGonagall, who we don’t know much about yet, says that the Dursleys are the “worst sort of Muggles” in the movie version, and that you “couldn’t find two people who are less like us” (Rowling 13) in the book. Readers see the conflict developing within the first chapter, and that conflict between Harry and the Dursleys goes until the last book in the series.
Along with that conflict, the larger conflict with Voldemort is implied here as well. McGonagall mentions that the only one Voldemort is afraid of is Dumbledore. She relates that Harry’s parents have been killed, by Voldemort, and somehow, a baby—Harry—survived. He was the boy that lived.
As writers, we need to establish that conflict early so the reader wants to stick with our story. We don’t always know—going in—the various layers of conflict within our story, so once we finish the draft, we need to evaluate the level of conflict and where it begins.
The novel I’m working on now is a straight fiction novel (as opposed to romantic suspense). The first time through, in the original draft, I wrote quickly and recognized some of the conflicts right away, but it wasn’t until I finished the novel that I recognized the conflict that wound from the beginning to the end. On the rewrite, I’m adding in hints of this conflict throughout, including the first chapter, so I can ensure the conflict is enough to sustain the reader.
Looking back at our Harry Potter book, we see conflict in the first paragraph: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense” (Rowling 1).
The implied promise here is a conflict between the Dursley’s expectation of “perfectly normal” and the “strange” and “mysterious.”
For your own writing:
Kress, Nancy. Elements of Fiction Writing – Beginnings, Middles, & Ends. Writer’s Digest Books, 2011.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic Press, 1997.
You're only human
Many (although certainly not all) writers are perfectionists. We (as I include myself in that number) want everything to be perfect.
But, there's that whole "human" thing going on behind the scenes is messing with our stats, and not a single story, poem, song lyric, or novel will be as good as that "perfect" image in our head. And it will kill us if we don't let it go.
No, I'm not exemplifying hyperbole. The kind of stress perfectionism places on the human psyche has real consequences on our health.
Amanda Ruggeri writers in February of this year, "The rise in perfectionism doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re getting sicker, sadder and even undermining our own potential" (BBC.com), and the physical manifestation of our perfectionism includes depression, anxiety, self-harm, OCD, binge eating, anorexia, PTSD, insomnia, fatigue, headaches, and early mortality.
I have a writer friend with far more publications than my own, and who writes for a major traditional publisher. Each time this writer gets edits from the editor (sometimes numbering in the thousands of comments in MS Word), this friend goes into a deep depression and can't even finish reading the revision letter before running for the M&Ms. And I completely understand that level of angst.
I was raised with the middle-class work ethic of my parents and grandparents, to whom complaining was weakness and giving compliments to their children was coddling. Obviously, they had some serious issues to work out (or they were editors in the making), but the idea behind their work ethic has remained an indelible part of American culture. Work hard, play hard, write hard, create as fast as you can.
But creativity doesn't work the same way as body building or climbing the corporate ladder.
In past posts I've mentioned my crazy publication schedule, which, BTW, was my own dang fault. I had already gone through an MA program and was in the process of shopping a novel when I joined my MFA program. The book sold, and was coincidentally released while I was at my first MFA residency in the summer of 2015. Between 2015-2017, I completed all my coursework while maintaining an intense publication schedule that included writing and publishing 6 novels and a novella, in addition to my creative nonfiction essay collection which I am currently submitting to publishers.
In many ways, that crazy publication schedule while attending school AND working up to 4 jobs and raising my kids was a result of my upbringing and the expectations of a strong work ethic. It was also the result of fear. Fear of failure, fear of success, impostor syndrome... The list goes on and on.
And once I graduated with my MFA, I crashed. There was no creativity left. I had expended it all and didn't take the time to refill my well, as Julia Cameron would say (The Artist's Way). I had attempted to impose my middle-class work ethic on my creative muse, and she was not amused. The creative crash was the natural result of my actions.
Writers everywhere struggle with perfectionism. In a perfect world (pun intended), we would continue to write as we struggled for elusive perfection, but in reality, perfectionism stifles our natural talents and creative impulses into what some would call Writer's Block.
So let's stop seeking perfection. Let's stop worrying about perfect grades, perfect essays, perfect stories, and perfect lives. None of those things exist, or if they exist (as in a 4.0 GPA), they will injure us in the process of attainment.
The result of chasing perfection is a creative coma, and we are better off to write at a slow and steady rate than to burn in the fire of frantic production.
As you head into the next season of your writing, and whatever that entails for you, consider the cost of perfectionism. Of course we want to write our best, we want our editor and publisher to like our work, but we can't control their feelings. We can only control the work.
The goal here is not perfection. The goal is growth.
What perfectionist tendencies do you have? Which perfectionist goal can you leave behind and replace with creative growth?
Reading as a writer changes us, both as writers and readers. When I first started writing (but a decade before I was published), I would read and re-read my favorite author to try to get a feel for her rhythm in pacing, sentence length, paragraph length, and chapter length, but the reading and re-reading wasn't active enough, so I started typing out the first 3 chapters of her book to try to get a sense of her pacing at the opening of a novel. Since I'm a fast typist, I started to get an intuitive feel for her natural patterns. She was an historical writer, and at the time I thought that's where my interest lay, and it helped me in big ways and small. I still have a natural feel for chapter length, scene length, and how to start a book.
What I was doing wasn't mimicry, but more like a painter who learns the brush strokes and techniques of a master painter before s/he is ready to paint her/his own masterpiece.
When I went into my MFA program, we had to read and write a critical response on THREE books each month (for two years). At the time, I was so exhausted, I didn't see what I was learning until it was over, but it taught me to read critically and in such a way that it's hard to turn off. I honestly don't want to read every text critically. Sometimes, I want to shut off the writer-mode and enjoy a good book in the same way I enjoy Rom-Com and Action Adventure movies. I just want to enjoy them for what they are. They're not critically acclaimed think pieces, but they give me some much needed laughter and relief from life stresses.
Years after I started the writing process, I finally acknowledged that I wasn't an historical writer. I wanted to be, and I still enjoy reading them, but I don't have the right voice and tone for historical, and it took years of trial and error to find my true genre home. I still read widely, as I did when I worked for the library, in nearly every genre (except horror...because I would never sleep if I did). When I've gone through several disappointing "new" books, I often turn to my favorite authors and re-read novels that I enjoyed, but when I'm reading them for the second time, that little writer voice in my head comes out and starts intruding on my reading time. I catch myself mentally editing, or noticing that particular writer's tic. And it dampens my reading pleasure.
I've learned my writing craft--honed my writer's toolkit--by reading and re-reading books and passages, but when it comes time to simply read, I often have to find a new book so I can read purely for enjoyment. Eventually, I'll get around to thinking about the book as a writer, but sometimes, a writer simply needs to turn off the criticism and enjoy the book for what it is.
In what ways has reading as a writer changed you as a writer? As a reader? And is that a good thing, or bad?
Happy Writer Wednesday. I'm cross posting a video this week as I'm on the road taking my daughter to college (cue crocodile tears). See my video and follow up with the link below for questions you can ask when you're critiquing or being critiqued.
Happy Wednesday, writers!
This is probably the most controversial part of my RWA conference round-up, so I thought I'd put it first. :)
While at RWA, during the Rita ceremony (the Rita's are the romance industry awards), Suzanne Brockman gave a speech that polarized and edified at the same time. (minute :56 if it doesn't autostart in the right place).
And this additional acceptance speech by Kristin Hannah (I saved this at 1:53. I tried to get it to auto start there, but I'm not sure that translated).
Brockman had very specific and personal complaints about the way in which we shy away from diverse characters in the romance writing industry, as did Rita winner Kristin Hannah (see 1:53 in the video).
I do value diversity and believe we have to work to create a diverse environment in our real world and our writing world. In addition to my teaching at SNHU, I also teach at a community college. We deal with some of these same issues, so I start every semester with the video below. I want my students to know my expectations for the ways in which we treat each other based on "labels" that cannot begin to define a person.
Writer Reference (Blogroll)
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.