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.
National Novel Writing Month is when deranged writers commit to writing 50,000 words in November or die trying. Okay, maybe not the die trying part, but the crazy stuff is fairly accurate. I mean, what kind of loon signs up to write 1,667 words a day for 30 days? Oh, that's right. Me. And thousands like me.
I wrote Untouchable for Nano in November 2011. It was published in 2015. In October-November-December of 2015, I wrote a book each month. The October book--Unforgettable--is being released in December. The November book--Unstoppable--is set for April, 2017, and the December book--An Untouchable Christmas--is scheduled for November 14th of this year. In fact, most of my books were written using the Nanowrimo techniques. For me, that boils down to writing 12,500 words per week.
Although I didn't "win" Nanowrimo the first time I tried, I did eventually, and the skills I learned writing fast changed my writing life. To win Nano, start with believing that writing a book in one month is possible. Many have done it before. Here's a list of published novels written during Nanowrimo. And here's a list of fast writers.
So if you're one of the few, the proud, and the crazy, here are 8 guidelines for Nanowrimo:
1) Say yes to the dress: Oh, wait, wrong show. Say yes to the crazy. Make a commitment. Spread the news. Make it so you can't backdown.
2) Say no to your favorite vices:
3) Don't change your process: If you have an establishing writing pattern or ritual, now is not the time to change it. If you don't have a writing process, here's the chance to start a new one. Thirty days is long enough to start a new habit.
4) Before you start, plot your key points. Here's a quick refresher on the 3 Act Structure. Even if you're not a plotter, it's wise to know your inciting incident, first turning point, midpoint, second turning point, and climax. You'll thank me in December.
5) Writing sprints will help you write quickly. I sprint with two other writers, either in person or online. We set the timer and write. I put on a headset and play fast-paced music while I write. At the end of the 30 minutes, we compare our output. I write it down in my calendar. Working with other writers holds me accountable. As an added bonus, the competitive aspect helps me write faster.
6) Write 1000 words before 10 AM. Truthfully, this one comes from a member of my sprint group, and I must admit, I don't do this, because I'm not a morning person, but if you are a morning person, you've done more than half your word count for the day before lunch.
7) Keep the writing fresh: Know your next scene so you don't get stuck. AND Stop writing mid-scene and mid sentence. Knowing what happens next will make it easier to get started your next writing session.
8) Don't go it alone. Being around other writers helps build creativity. Whether your writing friends are just down the street or online, keep each other accountable for writing (and for staying off social media).
Good luck! Post comments below if you're planning to join Nanowrimo this November.
Always on the lookout for new sources. Here's one from Beth Rhodes on the psychology of characterization.
Read more about it
Syd Field ... Screenplay
Victoria Lynn Schmidt ... Book in a Month
Next month in writer's group, we're talking about plotting. And coincidentally as these things sometimes happen, my friend Beth stumbled across this video. Plotting 101.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone (Southwark) surprise an NYU class.
Guest author Beth Rhodes
At our April Meeting of the 21st Century Writers, we had the honor of guest speaker Beth Rhodes. Beth is one of my writing friends who joins me multiple times a week for writing sprints, which have honestly changed my life and my writing productivity. Her stories are full of life, family, and love. You can find her reading just about any genre of romance, but her favorites are fast-paced suspense, where life is on the line and love is the only saving grace. She wants a book that makes her heart pound and her pulse race.
Here is her outline about writing dialogue:
A. You can do a Google search and find everything. These are not “MY” rules; I merely subscribe to them.
B. Your work is amazing! Never forget that. My work is amazing! And that’s why I’ll be using a few examples from my books. Learn to talk about your writing, use it in workshops, be confident and proud.
1.Dialogue in fiction must contain CONFLICT:
2.Dialogue has purpose:
4.Read your Dialogue out loud
Below is Beth's movie clip with a good example of well-written dialogue.
In a recent online forum, the plotters and the pantsers were at it again. Plotters insisting that you must, absolutely must have an outline. The pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants) insisted that an outline destroys the creative process. The plotter rant (several paragraphs in a social media post with indignant followups) went something like this. No pantser will ever finish a novel. Only someone who can dedicate themselves to creating an extensive outline (over a significant amount of time, because writing should be hard) will EVER succeed in fiction.
When questioned--and come on, of course he was challenged, because all-or-never statements are designed to attract dissent--the writer said his guru (I honestly had never heard of the guy who changed this writer's life), who was super famous and had such-and-such credentials, was absolutely right. Long paragraphs filled with his rules much like a religion.
And I get it. When a new idea changes our lives, we're all in. Sign me up for the Kool-Aid baby!
First, I gotta say...
I fall in the middle. I'm somewhere between a plotter and a pantser. I write using the three act structure and Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, but I don't have an outline that fleshes out every action/reaction/chapter/scene. For me, the joy of writing is the unknown, When my subconscious makes a connection that is an obvious "duh," that moment is creative gold. For me (and that's the key), the writing process is a balance between reaching the plot points and finding the surprises. I fall in love with my characters and then build a plot around them. Again, that's all me. The Writer's Journey changed the way I think about writing, especially in the early stages of a project, but, big BUTT (Like "baby got back" butt), I don't expect everyone to drink the Kool-Aid. Vogler isn't for everyone.
FYI, Stephen King is a pantser and James Patterson is a plotter. Neither writer is wrong.
Who is your guru
Writers and other creatives are inherently insecure. When we find a process that works, we think, that's it. That's the only way. And then we seek out people with credentials to validate our position. And then we tout our new guru's "rules" as law and claim them as the only way to success. Because it worked for our guru, it must be right.
I get it. I'm working on my second masters degree, this time an MFA in Creative Writing. I'm learning more than I can possibly encompass in my writing, but the truth is, I didn't start the program because I love academics (although, truly, I enjoy school). No. I joined because I wanted validation. After years of studying the craft of writing, I still needed those initials after my name to validate my knowledge. It's no different than spouting the rules and laws of your favorite writing guru. In the end, that's not truth. An MFA doesn't make me a writer. Neither does following someone else's path.
Writing isn't a mathematical equation. Thank God, because I suck at math. We need to believe in a path to success, a corporate ladder to climb and steps that lead to ultimate writing nirvana (best selling land). But no matter how "perfect" your process, how it worked for Author X, there is no simple mathematical equation for creative success.
Reading and studying are always beneficial, they inform our writing and make us better at our craft, but no one has the perfect cure for creativity. Even your guru.
Friends, we are on our own
Friends, we are on our own, and that's a wonderful place!
In the gospel according to me (and I'm as faulty as any other writer), the path to success isn't in someone else's "seven secrets to writing success," but rather, the path to success is embracing who you are and accepting that not everyone is on the same path. We're driving different cars and hauling different baggage. We cannot follow the same path to the same results, because we're starting with different equipment and in different locations.
Several times a week, I meet up with friends from my publishing house. We all follow different paths (plotter, pantser, and middle of the road), but we're all creating works of fiction for publication. As in, someone pays us to write. None of us are wholly right or wholly wrong. We can only be "right" and truthful as it relates to our personal writing process. The danger of a guru is that we're following someone else's path and not trusting our internal compass.
Part of that is the learning process. We need to learn about the writing craft and the industry and the process, but after filling our head with more ideas than can possibly take root in our brains, it's time to decide. What is our process? It may be similar to our mentor, our favorite teacher, or our guru, but it may be a radical departure. And that's cool.
Embracing someone else's rules means we're not confident in our own abilities yet. That's okay. We'll get there. The plotter who insisted his way was the only way should be commended for his passion, but his insistence in it being "the only way" is tragic.
Chart your own path. You might make mistakes, but that's where you learn the most.
Have a wonderful writing week, my friends, and embrace who you are as a writer and a creative. If you're so inclined, let me know your process in the comments. It helps to define it for yourself.
And enjoy this 1 minute video: "That's it. That's the reason." How we feel when someone validates our opinion.
Character Driven Novels –Versus- Plot Driven Novels
Story, for me, stems from character. "If you allow them to do what they’re going to do, think and feel what they’re going to think and feel, things start to happen on their own" (Andre Debus III). How do we get there? First, recognize the difference between character-driven stories and plot-driven stories, because once again, your genre determines how much or how little of your character's story happens within the character and how much is external. Then, learn to characterize your hero, observe human nature, and immerse yourself in the characters you create.
“If you aren't familiar with these writing styles, here is a quick overview: Character-driven writing is focused on the characters and the internal change, more so than the events and situations that take place while plot-driven writing is focused on the actual happenings and the external changes of the story” (Dorrance Publishing, 2014).
Character driven novels are stories that emphasize:
Most literary fiction is considered character driven because the emphasis is not on the action, but on the choices the character makes and how it affects the world/people around him.
Recently I came across Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke in which he posits that all writing boils down to one story: “A dangerous monster threatens a community. One man takes it upon himself to kill the beast and restore happiness to the kingdom.” A character driven story will focus on the hero (or the monster). Why does he go after the monster? What internal struggles bring him to take on the beast? How does his journey affect his relationships, say with a team, family, or love interest?
Examples of character driven books: The Fault in Our Stars; The Help; Catcher in the Rye; To Kill a Mockingbird.
Plot driven novels are stories that emphasize:
These stories follow an interesting dilemma. Going back to our Yorke quote, how does that affect the plot driven novel where the story focuses on the action? What plot twists will surprise the hero? Think Star Wars: “Luke, I am your father.” The external conflict is saving the world and avoiding death and dismemberment by the beast. We don't look very deep into Luke's psyche to see how that changes the character and how he deals with it internally.
Examples of plot driven novels: The Maze Runner, the Harry Potter books, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Bourne books.
A Healthy Combination:
Most novels are a healthy combination. As the Kristen Lamb quote says, “The key to creating better plots is a deeper understanding of character.” People do not act randomly but out of their own history. Understand the character, and you’ll understand the choices he makes. In fact, the worse the choices, the better the conflict.
Most of my suspense work is very plot driven, yet I always start with the character. Why? If you’re going on a road trip, don’t you want to know the driver first?
How to improve characterization
Just as a method actor immerses himself into a character for film, a writer can and should live the story from within the character’s skin. Doing so allows you to skip the dilemma of “what would this character do,” because you’re living the story, what you see, the words you choose, the setting, mood, and tone, all begin with that character you envisioned.
Rather than a writing prompt, in the group this month, we did a short meditation and wrote where the words took us.
Close your eyes. Let the picture surround you. A person stands at the edge of a lake. You decide what they look like, gender, age, location. Immerse yourself in this character at the edge of the lake. What time is it? Season? What do you notice about the environment? Now go deeper. What brought the character the edge of the lake? Now you notice they're holding something in their hand. What is it? What happens next.
After a few minutes of meditating on the image, write for ten minutes and post your result in the comments. For those in writer's group this week, you can post it here and for those who missed, here's your chance to "mingle" with your 21C writers. Feel free to comment on other writer's work.
February 2016 Workshop
Frost had a valid point. Emotion originates within the writer. The most efficient—although not the easiest—method to achieve authentic emotions in writing is familiarity with your own emotions. The writer must be open to exposing his emotions in order to elicit them in the reader. Write what you know very specifically applies to emotions. If a writer can’t or won’t expose a raw nerve, the narrative could read as disconnected. If the writer isn’t feeling the adrenaline rush of an action scene, or the heartbreak of a tragedy, it is unlikely the reader will feel those emotions.
It’s important to remember that when we’re scared, we’re rarely thinking: “I’m freaking out here.” We are experiencing emotions in real time, within our own skin. What are your symptoms for fear, anger, sadness, or depression? Use those “symptoms” to show the reader the emotions of the character. You might never have experienced being chased through the streets of Amsterdam by a crazed killer, but you have been scared. You know the symptoms. You can imagine the fear and the rush and the panic (or lack thereof). Live the scene and the reader will as well.
In the Bourne books, for example, the reader feels the time crunch, the action, the adrenaline of the main character. Robert Ludlum doesn’t spend pages of narrative telling the reader. The reader experiences the story through Bourne. It’s fast-paced, and while not overly emotional or melodramatic, the reader has a visceral experience through Bourne.
We recognize anger and revenge and self-preservation without the author telling us that the character feels those things.
To a certain extent, the amount of emotion you include in your writing is governed by your genre and your character.
Character: There is a balance between not enough and too much emotion in a novel. I recently read a book by a NYT bestselling author. In a later chapter, a male character spends six to eight pages “telling” another character his emotions. As a female, if my best friend goes on for the equivalent of six to eight pages, I’ll make appropriate noises of compassion, but by the sixth page, I’m ready to suggest therapy. If a male friend went on for six pages, I’d have to swallow my tongue to keep from telling him to man up.
Conversely, characters who feel too little on the page come across as emotionally stunted.
My characters rarely have their personal shiz together. I like them a little off balance, but I run a fine line between creating characters that are emotionally reserved and presenting a character that the reader can not relate to. I have a novel that I cannot sell for the life of me, because the editor/agent doesn’t like the main character. I absolutely adore her. She’s broken and numb and emotionally jacked, but if I don’t show enough emotion at the outset, in order for the reader to connect, that book will stay on my hard drive.
Your characters need to behave in a way that is authentic to their gender and their persona.
Genre: I cannot express this enough. You need to know your genre. Read extensively across the line to see the level of emotion present in the genre you want to publish. Thrillers spend a lot less time on emotional details than a romance. Where’s the line? Read, read, read. There is no substitute. Stephen King has said, “If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Now to specifics. The best novels present emotional details in much the same way we do setting.
1) Reveal emotion through body language. Body language is something a writer should study. People-watching is a valid writing activity. Let the movement of the character through the scene suggest an emotion that you don’t specifically name. The reader may interpret the body language differently than the writer intends, but that’s okay. The same happens in real life when one person recognizes depression while another assumes apathy. The reader brings their observations and experiences to the story.
The Emotion Thesaurus is a good place to start for specific movements related to different emotions.
As the character moves through the scene, have him notice little details. The witness’s hand is icy cold, despite her calm demeanor. The suspect’s flirtatious laughter is high and false. The guy at the table keeps looking at the door. Is he waiting for someone or searching for a quick exit? Let the character experience and witness details organically in the story.
Like setting, emotions shouldn’t be dropped into the scene in a large info dump. Drop nuggets into the active scene as the character encounters it. That way, the reader doesn’t skip around or get bored.
2) Reveal emotion through a character's level of experience. A hardened detective will notice signs of avoidance or outright lying by a suspect, but he’s probably not what we’d call emotionally sensitive. Not cruel, but he’s probably not going to be moved by a witnesses tears. If he spends six pages of narration talking about how lonely he is, we are going to do the equivalent of telling him to man up. We’re tossing that book aside.
A victim, on the other hand, probably won’t notice the lying, except in hindsight, perhaps. Instead, the victim experiences the shock of betrayal. How does that look or feel? If you’ve been betrayed or lied to or cheated on, you know how that feels. Describe the symptoms not the emotion.
3) Reveal emotion through the mood of the story. As the article on setting Four Ways to Bring Setting to Life expressed: “Filtering a scene through a character's feelings can profoundly influence what the reader sees.”
Word choice is key to setting the mood and emotion of the story.
4) Reveal emotions through the senses. Smell pulls memory from a character. They’re walking down the street and smell pizza from the nearby pizzeria and are reminded of their first breakup. They pass an alley and smell urine and rotting garbage. They pass a florist and remember their grandfather’s funeral. You don’t have to tell us the mood (emotion) of these characters, because the details the character notices do that for us.
Remember from our lesson last month:
To focus on emotion in a scene, ask yourself these questions:
Look at the following pictures. What emotions do you see reflected in the image? Does it matter what genre you’re writing? Your character? NOW, ask the ten questions above, and write a short segment (approx 100 words) to evoke that emotion based on the photo of your choice. Feel free to post your writing prompt in the comments below!
This is exactly what we were talking about last Thursday! I found it here. I find it fascinating what other writers think on the same topic...nearly simultaneously. Very cool. Anyway, best line for me on The Importance of Writing from the Heart by Scott D Southward: "Heart is the one thing that truly can’t be taught in an English or writing classroom, but it is also the most important thing a writer will need. And if used right by a writer, it can change opinions, stir a reader to act, and even make people cry or laugh. It is what takes a jumble of words and turns them into a message." We have to be willing to take risks and expose our mangled heart when we write! Enjoy the article. :)
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.