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The Stuff of Legends—Creating a Character Apocalypse

"The Lincoln Lawyer" by Michael Connelly

“The Lincoln Lawyer” by Michael Connelly

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?

Crisis point.

Crisis point.

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 BoneRee 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.

Stirring the pot can be fatal.

Stirring the pot can be fatal.

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.

Seeking the truth is painful...

Seeking the truth is painful…

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.

To Help

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?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of July, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.

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    • amyskennedy on July 22, 2013 at 9:38 am
    • Reply

    You know how you know things, or you think you know things, and then someone (Kristen Lamb) explains it in a way that makes your brain engines sputter back to life and the mad scientist in your frontal lobe shouts, “Eureka!” Yeah, that. Thanks, Kristen Lamb! Gotta go have a date with my white board…

    1. Yup, having one of those moments. Letting it stew.

      *stewing*

  1. Great Article again Kristen. I am enjoying your book as well and learning lots! Thanks.

    • Debbie on July 22, 2013 at 9:55 am
    • Reply

    Hmm, so if in most stories the protag is flawed and changes, does that mean a tragedy begins with a wonderful, loveable character and despite everything they are capable of doing to affect a situation, it all just blows up on them?

    What about lit fic…are views, ideologies, and philosophies the antagonist more often than not?

    1. Every positive quality has a dark side. In my current WIP, my character is kind and likable. She believes the best in people, but that is precisely what gets her into trouble. She is naive. The plot is to show her that rose-colored glasses are a good way to get killed. She needs to grow into a person who still sees the best, but is not naive to evil.

  2. Donald Maas calls it finding the one thing that your character would never, ever do, then creating the circumstances that make them do that one thing. It’s pretty powerful. I like the imagery of a character apocalypse. Very nice.

  3. Thank you so much for your posts. I enjoy reading them so much. Always inspiring or insightful and beautiful artwork. I am so pleased to be following you ?

  4. Awesome as always! You’ve nailed it. I’ve got some characters that are kinda blah and it’s driving me nuts that I can’t come up with a way to make them more interesting. This idea might be just hte thing to get the ball rolling.

  5. Great post again Kristen! But you know what? I might be a funny kind of writer, but my characters always start out less than perfect, to stumble and fumble around until they find their footing (with a little help from me guiding them on the right path).
    There aren’t really any characters from movies or other books I use as an underlying idea or something similar. Instead to me it always seems as if the actions throughout my work forces the character’s decisions and sometimes turn them into completely different persons than I had intended for them to become.
    But I do like the premise of a character apocalypse.

  6. Came over from Piper’s. Enjoyed the post

    • Chrstine Ahern on July 22, 2013 at 11:05 am
    • Reply

    Creating the antagonist is one of the hardest aspects of story telling for me. I want all of my characters to be the good guy. Just like in my life! So much fun to create the quirky ones though. Thanks for always steering us in the right direction.

    • Josh Taghon on July 22, 2013 at 12:22 pm
    • Reply

    Great article. :3 What I’ve learned is always have some sort of conflict/antagonist in each scene. I picture each scene as a machine with a wrench thrown in to jam it. The jamming creates the conflict in what should run smoothly. I guess it makes more sense in my head.

    I started planning the story I’ve been working on for about 2 years with the antagonist. The protagonist came up second. :3 So I guess I started on the right track?

  7. Thank you for another great post! Creating conflict for my characters is the most difficult thing for me. But I’m getting better at it – especially when I keep reading your stuff! 😀

  8. Yours is one of the only blogs I read, and this post about character apocalypses is one of the reasons why. Thanks!

  9. I’m looking forward to class Fiday because I will be done with my first draft by then and in need of intelligent help to get things moving when I start the rewrite.

    • Cate on July 22, 2013 at 2:32 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks Kristen… your unveiling of ‘an apocalypse’ provides an epiphany!

  10. “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”

    Now you have something. I was thinking more you meant that a lot of people could continue to die and historical buildings were destroyed – GIANT land shark, as big as Godzilla. Dondone.

    It was a suggestion to enroll in Greek Literature to be more knowledgeable about the craft and even on-line learning. Your WANA classes could add What You Can Learn from the Greeks – the Ancients.

  11. Reblogged this on Life is a story. Write it. and commented:
    Kristen Lamb’s blog constantly offers insight into writing…it’s a regular visit for me, which I highly recommend to any author.

  12. Quite simply: well done. 🙂

  13. Great article as usual. I have a question though. Can you have a perfect person initially ,who falls to pieces , when an apocalypse occurs?

    1. I think we need to learn to have a tough skin in this business and learn perspective. And no one is perfect. I think that’s what we are all wise to remember. We ALL have bad days. We never know what the other person is going through. It’s why ideally, we don’t create a mess to begin with, but if we do? Just take the lesson and move forward. People are far more forgiving if we own our mistakes. And if they aren’t? Then we did our part and that’s their choice. We should make sure to not make a habit out of tromping on others, though with human interaction? It’s guaranteed to happen at least more than once ;), so good to know what to do when we do err.

    2. Superman

  14. Good post! I’m struggling with “who’s the antagonist” in my WIP. I have invented a bad situation for the protagonist, but it has no living (human or alien) face. Obviously I need to correct that. I like Pauline’s comment about finding the one thing your protagonist wouldn’t do and then making them do it. That could work for me…though that still doesn’t put a face on the antagonist. Is one needed?

    1. No antagonist, no story. Sorry :(.

      1. Actually, following through on Pauline’s comment about Donald Maas’s advice, I realized I only needed a minor tweak to a character to turn him from chaos factor to antagonist. Suddenly the first 5 chapters have much sharper focus in my mind! I feel happiness.

  15. First off, I can’t help myself – GREETINGS from Joplin, Missouri! 😉

    I *know* I have antagonist issues. And did you know that yelling at the atagonists, “WHAT DO YOU WANT?” doesn’t actually help? They just think it’s terrible funny…

    So, anyway, I can’t wait for the antagonist workshop! I already know it’s going to be so helpful for me.

  16. Great post, as usual it’s something I can work with to keep my story strong.

  17. I’ve always known there needs to be character growth, but your explanation of the apocalypse and the contribution of the antagonist helped me understand how character growth works in a novel. Thanks.

    • El on July 29, 2013 at 9:51 am
    • Reply

    Kristen,

    What a great post…just trying to wrap my brain around it. Thanks so much for this!

    Would it be correct to say that the ‘antagonist’ doesn’t always have to be a person? I write very character driven contemporary romance and sometimes there isn’t ‘a bad guy’, or an asshole boss, etc, but maybe a crappy situation that’s been thrust upon the character that they have no choice but to deal with.

    Thoughts? 🙂

    • Splinter on August 1, 2013 at 9:40 am
    • Reply

    Well. Now I see where my work needs umph. Thank you for the clarity.

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