The Stuff of Legends—Creating a Character Apocalypse
My friend Piper Bayard is away for a few days and she asked me to pick up the Apocalypse Torch for the week. It is so tempting to write more about zombies and Kardashebola or Sharknado and maybe we will. But, today, we are going to talk about the apocalypse—what it is and what it means for really great writing.
When we hear the word “apocalypse” we think of doomsday prophesies, Mayan predictions, global catastrophes, and Mad Max movies. It conjures images of the end of the world. Yet, if we look to the original Greek word, an apocalypse, ?????????? apocálypsis, from ??? and ??????? meaning ‘un-covering’, translated literally from Greek, is a disclosure of knowledge, i.e., a lifting of the veil or revelation (via Wikipedia).
When it comes to writing a great novel, the apocalypse must be present externally (plot) as well as internally (character growth). The story problem, created by the antagonist, is what provides the crucible that leads to change. There is an unveiling on two levels. First, the solution to the story problem (unveiled over time) and secondly, the protagonist has an opportunity to grow from regular person to hero.
Protagonists Need Baggage to Become Heroes
Most of us have done this. We begin with the uber-perfect protagonist. She is beautiful, speaks twenty languages and saves kittens in her spare time…and she’s utterly boring. Why? First, we can’t relate since most of us are far from perfect.
But why the uber-perfect character is dull is there is no room for an apocalypse. There is nothing to shake her out of the stupor of existing and introduce her to living. There is nothing personally at stake because there are no fears to face. A fully-evolved character has no room to GROW.
An apocalypse is most interesting when there is massive change we witness. For instance, if a tornado hits a junkyard, it just rearranges the existing mess. But when it wipes out half of Joplin, Missouri? We are moved and emotional because change is on such a large scale.
Now reverse this. If our character is too perfect to begin with, when the apocalypse happens….eh *shrugs*.
In Normal World our characters flaws are working for him, or so he believes. It’s the story problem that reveals the error of his thinking, that there is more inside him than he believes. The more baggage a character is carrying, the more interesting the transformation.
One of my favorite examples of this is Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer. Mickey Haller is a sleaze bag defense attorney who operates out of the back of a Lincoln Continental. He defends the worst of the worst because nothing frightens him as much as representing a truly innocent man. The guy is a total bottom-feeder who knows how to manipulate the justice system. But what happens when he comes face-to-face with real evil? Can he live with who he is?
Now, if Mickey Haller was a crusader who’d been fighting for justice since he was a small boy playing Superman in between earning badges as a Boy Scout? Boring. But a guy who defends drug dealers, murderers and pimps and can still sleep at night? The guy with no apparent conscience? THAT is an interesting character and one ripe for an apocalypse.
In The Lincoln Lawyer, not only does the story unveil an evil unimaginable, but it also unveils the most unlikely of heroes. The person who’s always been perfect to defend the bad guy now is the only one who can take him out.
Picking the Perfect Story Problem
This is one of the reasons we discussed beginning with the antagonist first this past Friday. If we begin with the antagonist and then create the story problem, it becomes far easier to envision the flawed protagonist who is the perfect guy or gal to solve the problem (and know precisely how this character must grow along the way).
When it comes to The Lincoln Lawyer, who better to destroy true evil than the guy whose been making a fortune defending evil? What is the threshold that causes someone as low as Mickey Haller to change? And since he believes he’s a slime ball, what can happen to change this internal belief so that, in the end, Mickey rises to be a hero?
Another great example is Ree Dolly in Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Ree lives in the trailer park and has no interest in her future. She’s too locked in the hell that is her present. Unlike Mickey Haller, Ree is a good person. She takes care of a mentally ill mother and two much younger siblings, living hand-to-mouth while her father is in and out of prison for cooking meth.
What is her flaw? She keeps her head down and doesn’t make waves.
There is an unspoken rule in hillbilly culture. Family is everything. Never turn on family. But what happens when family turns out to be the enemy? When Ree’s father doesn’t show up for court, Ree finds out he put up their home and the land it sits on as part of his bond. She must find her father—dead or alive—to save her mom and siblings from losing everything. Yet, to find her father she’ll have to take on the most terrifying adversary of all…her own family.
She can no longer keep her head down and get by. She has to make waves. For Ree, this is a personal apocalypse.
But again, notice how creating the antagonist/story problem reveals who the protagonist is and the precise way to create a hero. We begin with a hillbilly culture, steeped in secrets, and pit one of their own against them. The conflict is deep, intimate, ugly, personal and all the right ingredients for an award-winning story.
I am running an on-line class this Friday about antagonists. Use the WANA15 code for 15% off and the class is recorded if the time doesn’t work for you.
If your story isn’t moving, you’re stuck, plotting is making you want to OD on brownies, it might just be you need to alter or strengthen your antagonist. We will also talk about scene antagonists to keep the momentum increasing in your novel.
What are your thoughts? Questions? What are your favorite character apocalypses from books or movies? Why did they inspire you? Do you use these to inspire your writing?
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