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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Categorized: Antagonist

bad people, Kristen Lamb, unlikable characters, storytelling, writing a novel, characters

Bad people make better stories. Why? Because I cannot say this enough, ‘Fiction is about one thing and one thing only—PROBLEMS.’

Who better to create a lot of problems than damaged, broken, unlikable, foolish and possibly even unredeemable human beings?

***I use the term ‘human beings’ for all characters because aliens, otherworldly beings, and any ‘thinking’ creature will possess anthropomorphic (human-like) qualities.

So why do ‘bad people’ make better stories?

Perfect people, first of all, are unicorns and don’t exist. Secondly, they are boring.¬†Thirdly, we can’t relate to them because we aren’t unicorns (just deluded we are ūüėõ ).

What’s the story killer with perfect people? To be blunt, these characters have nowhere to grow. Since ‘perfect people’ handle every crisis with a level head and can be trusted to always do the right thing, the reader won’t ever worry.

If the reader never worries, guess what kiddies?¬† You don’t have a story, you have a lot of words.

Villains are a whole other post. So is the Big Boss Troublemaker (our core antagonist responsible for creating the overall story PROBLEM).

Today, what I want to address is HOW to roughen up our MC and supporting cast in ways that will ratchet tension and drive the character arcs of everyone around.

We need a change agent who will turn pages, without turning off readers.

***Please keep in mind, it is impossible to write a story everyone will love. Knowing this, get in and get dirty.

Bad for the Sake of Bad

One of the most common mistakes newbie authors make is that they lack the confidence to make any character (who isn’t the villain) flawed at all. From the perfect hair to the perfect outfit, these literary paper dolls do all the right things.

After enough rejection or feedback from critique partners, the emerging writer might start realizing that perfect equals dull.

What then happens is they can go to the other extreme and overcompensate. They create a character so abrasive and awful, readers can’t root for them. Always remember, that artists don’t craft a bad character solely to be bad.

Every character—even a ‘bad’ one—serves a purpose.

There are going to be some possible spoilers in this post, but I’ll work hard to maneuver around that. Usually I strive for older movies and series, but after almost two thousand blogs, I need fresher examples.

‘Bad People’ Make Great Mirrors

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John Malkovich in the Netflix original movie, ‘Bird Box.’

I read Josh Malerman’s novel ‘Bird Box’ and also watched the Netflix original movie. Both versions are excellent. The movie did a fabulous job (which is pretty remarkable in and of itself).

Even though the movie is very different from the book, it did a great job of maintaining the core idea.

***In this post, I’ll refer mostly to the movie version for simplicity.

I mention Bird Box because Douglas was one of my favorite characters. When chaos is unleashed and the world is very literally ending, our MC Malorie has no choice but to take shelter with a group of strangers or die.

Douglas is one of the founding members of this group, and he is not happy to add the very pregnant Malorie to their numbers.

Douglas is rude, selfish, acerbic, and blunt and one of my favorite characters because he is precisely what Malorie needs if she has any hope to survive and evolve. He’s a mirror.

What do mirrors do?

Mirrors show us what IS, not what we want.

When I look in a mirror, I’d love to see a hot babe with six-pack abs, the legs of a dancer, hair that rivals and an anime character…and flawless, wrinkle-free skin. But this is delusion, not reality.

A mirror shows me what IS. It shows me what’s good—that outfit is BANGIN’! But, it also shows me what I need to work on—maybe lay off the carbs. Ultimately, it shows me what I need to learn to accept and embrace—smile lines are a privilege denied to many.

Douglas minces no words. He doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what he is…a mean bastard who expects the worst and is usually right. Though it isn’t nice to say, Malorie IS soft (in more ways than being pregnant).

She’s been coddled by a modern world she took for granted. Malorie expected her sister to always be there, for her to simply have a doctor and hospital to give birth to a baby she doesn’t want. She’s transitioning into a world where a two-mile trip to get groceries costs lives.

Douglas shows her a new reality she must see if she has any hopes of living longer than a week.

To paraphrase Douglas, there are two kinds of people—@$$holes and the dead. The reason we ‘like’ him is he isn’t wrong. Civility is of zero value when civilization has collapsed.

Douglas also demonstrates a really painful truth.

Not everyone who smiles at you is your friend.

Stephen King’s “The Shining.”

While Douglas is ‘mean,’ he’s so much more than that. He’s a pragmatist, a survivor. According to Douglas it makes no sense to take in every person who begs for shelter, not in a world with limited resources.

It also makes sense to be extremely wary of WHO is allowed into their inner circle. Sometimes you have to make the hard choices for the greater good even if that means leaving a stranger outside to possibly die.

***Time will prove out how right he is.

If the goal is to survive when all hell breaks loose, then choose the party wisely. They no longer have the luxury of making bad choices, and not everyone is who they claim to be.

Douglas is very forthright and honest about who and what he is. He makes no pretense that he’s a miserable S.O.B. Yet, this is a quality that I found endearing.

When lives are at stake, truth is the most precious currency, even if it stinks.

‘Bad People’ Drive Change

Douglas minces no words about how he feels about Malorie. She is blind long before the blindfolds. She’s weak, soft and a liability. Mirrors show us what’s wrong, what we need to fix. Is our fly down? Do we have the back of our skirt tucked in our underwear?

Is there a giant glob of spinach between our teeth? Has a pigeon pooped in our hair and no one has told us because they ‘didn’t want to embarrass us’?

The mirror might show a lot of what we don’t LIKE, but it offers us the clearest vision of what must change. The same goes for our MC (and all characters if we do our job properly).

In¬†Bird Box, Malorie has to toughen up emotionally and physically to make it through. Yet, at the same time, one of the reasons she doesn’t like Douglas is because he reminds her of her father.

She doesn’t want to be like her father so she’s dismissed any quality her father possessed as ‘bad’ and ‘unwanted.’ The story will show her that the qualities she hated in her father (and in Douglas) are the very attributes that will ensure her survival.

Ah, but what she will ALSO learn (arc) is there is a time and a place for these ‘negative’ qualities.

Before the end of the world, Malorie’s dad irreparably damaged his marriage, family, and his two daughters. Even Douglas admits his personality flaws and his drinking cost him two marriages and any meaningful friendships.

What Malorie learns is to not summarily dismiss these attributes as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because these qualities have a time and a place.

When she’s fighting for survival, she can’t afford to be soft. Paranoia, ‘cruelty,’ emotional distance and a sociopathic level of compartmentalization keep her and those she cares about alive. But, once the storm has passed, the need for these ‘bad’ attributes fades away.

There’s a time to trade the plow for the sword and vice versa.

Should Malorie make it to safety with those in her care and FAIL to put away her father and Douglas’s attitudes and approaches? She’ll be alive, but won’t have a life.

Crafting ‘Bad People’¬†

Sometimes, as we just discussed, a character might be ‘bad’ to force change in our MC. What makes Douglas such a fantastic example is that, as awful as he can be? He makes sense. We (readers) can see that he makes very good points.

If they take in too many people, they will starve or increase odds of dying because they’ll have to venture out to resupply more frequently, etc.

When it comes to your story, how can we use ‘bad people’ to strengthen the MC?

What is your MC’s greatest fear? Her greatest shame? What does your MC believe is true, which is, in fact, a lie? A lie that is holding that character back from actualization?

For this, we’ll look to the Netflix series¬†Stranger Things.

¬†If you haven’t seen the series, I strongly recommend it because it’s one of the best examples of superlative storytelling and complex characters I’ve ever seen. I will work diligently not to spoil anything.

In¬†Stranger Things the focus isn’t solely on the lead MC. The party is the protagonist (much like¬†Joy Luck Club, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Lord of the Rings,¬†etc.) and if the party fails, then so will the ‘MC’ Eleven, a.k.a. ‘El.’

What gives SO much depth and texture to this series is the complexity, the interlocking of all the supporting players. In the first season, one of the most interesting characters isn’t even (yet) part of the group of heroes.

Steve Harrington is the ‘popular kid’ trope from every 80s ‘Coming of Age’ movie. He has the great hair, the designer clothes, and drives a Mercedes. He’s a top jock from an upper middle class family surrounded by the standard superficial cronies we’ve seen in countless movies.

Steve is the CLASSIC rich @$$hole.

He’s self-centered, shallow and, ironically…he became one of my favorite characters.

It’s the story problem in Season One that makes him realize he’s shallow and that he’s surrounded himself with counterfeit friends (who are also miserable people). He has to choose between the keeping old him (popular Steve) or let go of that life and pursue Nancy.

Nancy isn’t vapid arm candy like all the other girls he’s dated. When facing the enemy, Steve finally realizes he wants more. The struggle offers clarity about who he’s willing to fight for, and he also learns what true friendship really is.

The transformation in Steve Harrington is nothing short of miraculous.

In Season Two, there was a different challenge.

Steve had changed…but not enough. He HAD to grow even more if the group had any hope of surviving Round Two with the enemy.

Steve’s greatest fear is being a nobody and his shame is that deep down, he really believes he has nothing of substance to offer. In Season One, the story problem forced him to see how he used his popularity, money and status as armor.

But what happens when all THAT is stripped away, too? When he can’t rely on being Mr. Cool to keep Nancy? How does he respond to being treated the way he treated others in Season One?

What does Steve DO when HE is the object of ridicule?

Steve can’t ‘level up’ unless he willingly lets go of the ‘old self.’ But, like most of us, Steve isn’t aware of the ‘old self’ and even if he is, it’s comfortable so he’s unlikely to give it up easily.

It will have to be STRIPPED away.

No better way to do this than to bring in a replacement. When the explosive Billy Hargrove screams into the school parking lot in his new Camaro—easily stepping in as the high school’s new Alpha male—Steve undergoes a personal extinction.

Billy Hargrove ‘Stranger Things’ Season Two.

Not only does he see who he used to be—and have to make peace with that shame—but he also sees what he is not. He’s no longer the strongest, the best, the baddest. This forces him to make hard choices.

‘Bad People’ Force the HARD Choices

Will Steve dedicate himself to fighting to regain the old, or will he evolve to something better? When he’s kicked in the confidence, can he find a better source of courage than great hair and status?

Without the almost sociopathic Billy Hargrove’s influence, it is fairly obvious Steve wouldn’t have a hard enough push required for meaningful change. Steve cannot hope to survive the story problem—the REAL PROBLEM—if he continues to care about that which doesn’t matter.

Billy is a VILE human being (though not without his own baggage and dimension I’m sure we’ll see in Season 3). He’s over the top in everything—his car, hair, clothes, sexuality, and especially his temper (RAGE).

But, Billy HAD to be virtually irredeemable for Steve to even see the message let alone ‘get’ it. Billy strips away Steve’s armor and this means Steve has to become stronger in who he is. If his insides are iron, he won’t need the external protection that can be so easily taken away.

In the End

‘Bad people’ make for amazing stories, and this goes for the MC too. If our characters don’t have flaws, weakness, blind spots, and shame, then they’re not ‘real.’ Readers connect with weakness, not strength.

We know pride, envy, fear, estrangement, insecurity, vulnerability, and anger. We’ve all been poseurs, pretenders, and done and said things we wish we hadn’t.

In your story, just make sure these ‘negative’ attributes serve a purpose.

Nothing lives in a great story rent-free.

‘Bad people’ don’t have to arc if they’re not the MC (or part of the protagonist party). Billy is a character that they ‘could’ kill off in Episode One of Season Three. It would be okay because he did his job in Season Two—he forced Steve’s character arc.

I hope they don’t do this because he’s too good of a character to waste. Also, there’s no better story than a redemption story. But, truth be told, it won’t harm the overall story if Billy isn’t in this narrative for the long haul.

It didn’t hurt in the movie¬†Bird Box. Douglas didn’t evolve because he wasn’t supposed to. His¬†purpose was solely to change Malorie.

On the other hand if your ‘bad person’ IS your MC or a major player (part of the group protagonist), then there will have to be something sympathetic/redeemable among all the grit.

We spend most of Season Two loathing Billy Hargrove, but there’s ONE scene that maybe could change some minds about why he’s the way he is and possibly who he could become (good or bad) in the future.

BUT, we’ll have to wait and see.

Suffice to say, all people are ‘bad people.’ Unless we’re a psychopath, we are all very well aware of where we fall short. Most of us struggle with habits, weaknesses and have a laundry list of what we’d like to change, remove or improve.

As authors, when we roughen up our characters, these flaws generate resonance. Personality collisions create the tension that drives the story and forces change in all the players.

Shiny and perfect is all right, but people pay fortunes for items with wear, that are ‘distressed.’ The dings, nicks, and stains show they’ve been through some stuff, have some stories to tell.

Their’ damage’ and ‘wear’ makes them all the more interesting…and valuable. So be bold and go do some damage! Bad people make better stories. If you need some more instruction on HOW to do this…

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narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

Every story begins with an idea. Alas, stories can only be created when at least two vastly different ideas collide. The place where they meet is the BOOM, much like the weather. Storms erupt because two very different bodies of air meet…and don’t get along.

Only one will win out. In the meantime, lots of rain, lightning strikes and maybe some tornadoes. After the powerful storms, the landscape is altered, lives are changed, some even lost.

It’s the same with powerful stories. Yet, instead of weather fronts colliding, differing ideas are colliding.

It’s wonderful to have a great story idea. Alas, an idea alone is not enough. It’s a solid start but that’s all. Loads of people have ‘great ideas’ and that and five bucks will get them a half-foam latte at Starbucks.

Ideas are everywhere.

What differentiates the author from the amateur is taking the time to understand—fundamentally—how to take that idea and craft it, piece by piece, into a great story readers love.

Building Ideas into Stories

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

Stories have key components required for building, and I promise we’ll get there. My goal, this go-round has been to elevate the teaching and deep-dive in a way I hope you’ve not experienced before.

I always found craft teaching either was so simplistic I was all, ‘Got it, sally forth.’ *taps pen* Or, the instruction was so advanced (assuming I was far smarter than I was) and it made me panic more than anything.

Like the ‘write your story from the ending.’ Sure, meanwhile, I’ll go build a semi-conductor.

There was this MASSIVE gap between X, Y, Z and why I was even doing X, Y, and Z. Why not Q?

And all to what end? How did I make all the pieces FIT? *sobs*

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

Anyway, this is why we’re taking things SLOWLY. I want to fully develop these concepts so you can create incredible stories far more easily. Yes, this is master class level stuff, but hopefully I will help mesh with 101 concepts so even beginners will feel challenged (as opposed to utterly LOST like I did).

For those new to this blog or anyone who wants to catch up, here are the lessons so far:

Structure Matters: Building Stories to Endure the Ages

Story: Addictive by Design

Conflict: Elixir of the Muse For Timeless Stories Readers Can’t Put Down

The Brain Behind the Story: The Big Boss Troublemaker

Problems: Great Dramatic Writing Draws Blood & Opens Psychic Wounds

How to Write a Story from the Ending: Twisted Path to Mind-Blowing End

Ideas as Character Catalyst

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

When we discussed the BBT, I showed how all BBTs are an IDEA. This IDEA might manifest as a villain or as a core antagonist. The core antagonist only different from a villain in that this person’s goal is not inherently destructive, evil or nefarious. Their idea(s) simply conflicts with what the protagonist’s idea(s) and what the MC believes he/she desires.

This antagonist generates a core story problem BIG enough to shove the protagonist out of the comfort zone and into the crucible. This pressure (problems) creates heat which is the catalyst that creates the cascading internal reaction which will fundamentally alter the protagonist.

These internal changes are necessary for victory over the story problem via external action (choices/decisions). The MC cannot morph into a hero/heroine carrying emotional baggage, false beliefs, or character flaws present in the beginning. Why?

Because these elements are precisely WHY the MC would fail if forced to battle the BBT head-on in the opening of the story.

The story problem, and what it creates, is like a chemical reaction. Our protagonist, by Act Three should transform into something intrinsically different…a hero/heroine (a shining star instead of a nebulous body of gas). The problem should be big enough that only a hero/heroine is able to be victorious.

Villains as BBT

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

Villains are fantastic and make some of the most memorable characters in fiction whether on the page, stage or screen (Joker, Buffalo Bill, IT, Dr. Moriarty, Cersie Lannister, etc.). A common misperception, however, is villains are ‘easy’ to write. No, mustache-twirling caricatures are easy to write. But villains, villains that get under our skin, who poke and prod at tender places take a lot of preparation and skill.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter is extremely dimensional. We, the audience, are conflicted because he’s horrible, grotesque, cruel… and suddenly we find ourselves rooting for him.

That seriously messes with our heads.

Dr. Lecter has an IDEA of polite society. Act like a proper human and be treated like one. His IDEA of what a human is entails all that separates us from animals, namely manners and self-control. Act like a beast, and beasts–>food.

This cannot help but conflict with any FBI agent’s duty to protect all lives (deserving or not), and help mete out justice in all homicides (even of those horrible folks we’re all secretly happy Hannibal made into a rump roast).

All I can think is thank GOD Lecter is fictional or half the folks on Facebook would now be curing world hunger.

Anyway….

Superb characters are never black and white, right or wrong because that’s an inaccurate reflection of humanity.

We (the audience) sense the falseness of such a simplistic character, and, while one-dimensional characters (villains included) can be amusing for a time, they’re not the sort of character that withstands the test of time. They don’t possess enough substance/dimension/gray areas to elicit heated debate and discussion among fans for years to come.

But villains are not ideal for all stories or all genres.

Core Antagonist as BBT

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

There are what people call character-driven stories which don’t require a villain. I twitch when I hear the term ‘character-driven’ because too many mistake this as a pass for having to plot. NOPE. We still need a plot ūüėČ .

Plot is what will drive the character change.

I’ve used the examples¬†Steel Magnolias and¬†Joy Luck Club¬†in other posts so we’ll pick a different one today.¬†The Mirror Has Two Faces is one of my favorite examples.

The BBT in this story is the IDEA that physical beauty is bad.¬†This IDEA is manifested in the story problem, which is created by Professor Gregory Larkin. He believes he knows why he’s always been unlucky in love.

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension
He’s attracted to her…mind.

Being an analytical Mathematics teacher at Columbia he gets a bright idea. He believes superficial attraction and sex is what has ruined all his relationships (and is partially correct).

He theorizes that physical attractiveness always undermines authentic intimacy. Thus, he postulates a solution. Find and date a woman he finds completely physically unappealing. Then he’ll find true love (Story Problem).

Enter in Professor Rose Morgan, a shy, plain, middle-aged professor who teaches literature also at Columbia. Ah, but Rose also happens to have a stunning older sister and a mother who was model-gorgeous in her heyday, a mother who always has to be the center of attention.

Gregory Larkin believes he can only find love without physical beauty, that physical attraction has only a bad ending.

Close, but No Cigar

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

Rose Morgan also has issues with beauty, though is not actively aware of it initially. Her mother’s obsession with her own beauty has propelled Rose to demur and become a wallflower. She dresses in frumpy clothes, wears no makeup, doesn’t exercise and does nothing with her hair.

Namely, she doesn’t want to compete with Mom. Mom’s distorted overvaluation of physical beauty has created an equally distorted devaluation of physical beauty in Rose.

When Larkin asks Rose out and the relationship blooms enough for them to marry, it seems his theory is sound. Rose wants to believe she’s okay with this. That she is okay that she was picked because she was utterly unattractive on the outside.

Sure, it stings, but in the end, does it matter? They are close, share similar interests, enjoy each other’s company and she’s no longer terminally single.

Only once married, does Rose realize she’s sold herself short in a big way.

She didn’t believe she longed for Puccini and romance and lust and for a man (her husband) to want her. That was for ‘pretty girls’ and she was lucky to even be picked at all. Right?

Right?

Wrong

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

One night, Rose presses Gregory for sexual intimacy and he freaks out. He rejects her advances, and is angry at her for upsetting his tidy formula for lasting love.

This crushes Rose.

Rose believes she repulses him, but is very wrong. He did want her, probably more than any woman ever before. Yet, he still clings to his false IDEA. He remains undeterred that physical attraction/relations will ruin true love. He leaves right after this disastrous night for a lengthy lecture tour.

Rose finally faces her fear of being pretty and her false beliefs that she a) is not pretty and b) does not deserve to be pretty. She cleans up her diet, gets her hair done, changes her wardrobe and wears makeup. She feels differently and notes others treat her differently, too.

Gregory also does some soul-searching and starts pondering he might be wrong.¬†Maybe¬†outer beauty does not instantly negate inner beauty. Perhaps beauty, physical attraction, lust wasn’t the problem. He was.

Maybe.

Showdown Between the Ideas

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

Gregory returns to NYC and sees¬†Rose has bloomed. She’s a very different wife inside and out. Not only is she stunning, but she’s now confident and knows what she wants, what she deserves.

She apologizes for her part in the problem. Confesses she never should have agreed to a passionless marriage. She thanks him for helping her see her own cowardice, but in truth she wants passion and Puccini, love and sex and more than marriage melba toast.

Gregory is dumped…again.

This forces him to take a hard look at himself and his ‘theory.’ He’s forced to choose between his ‘flawless theory of perfect love’ or Rose.

Will he let Rose dump him and go in search of an even more physically unattractive female? Or will he ditch his theory and woo Rose back?

Ideas as Weather Fronts

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

What happens when a cold front meets with a hot front? A STORM! Same in stories. This is why it’s critical to understand the BBT and the proxy carrying out the idea. It’s why it’s just as vital to understand the protagonist and his or her IDEA to be challenged.

Like in weather the colder and drier the cold front and the hotter and moister the hot front, the bigger the BOOM.

Thus once you’ve selected the IDEAS that will clash and what sort of characters will serve as the delivery mechanisms, make sure to choose who will suffer/change the most. The higher the stakes the better the story.

Also ask (for both sides):

What does he/she want? Why does he/she want it? Why now? What happens if he/she fails to get what they want?

When we articulate these and craft these ahead of time, we can make sure to pack as much punch into the plot as possible. No reader wants to invest 12-15 hours into a story where there are low stakes or no stakes. Where no one changes. ZZZZZZ.

Y’all might laugh, but I’ve edited many a work with no stakes. When I asked the writer, ‘What happens if she doesn’t find out the secret?’ Usually, I got, ‘She um…just doesn’t?’

Nope. That isn’t a story, it’s a sedative.

√Ä la fin…

narrative structure, ideas for stories, Kristen Lamb, writing tips, generating conflict in fiction, dramatic writing, how to write a novel, writing tips, The Mirror has Two Faces, story tension, dramatic tension

Ennui Cat says love is for fools and brings only pain. He’s judging your book…and you.

But mostly you.

In the end, think how many weather metaphors we use when talking about people and conflict.¬†A storm’s brewing. Lightning rarely strikes twice. Could feel the crackle in the air.

If conflict is thought of like storms, then reverse engineer this. How do storms work? What makes them bigger and nastier? Use this to help add power to your plot problem.

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my On Demand Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY.¬†Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like ūüėÄ .

Or to make stabbing motions at my head with a pen. Die! Die! Kristen we loves you but hates you!

I also am offering my Bullies and Baddies: Understanding the Antagonist¬†on March 29th (7-9 EST) recording included with purchase if you can’t make it. This class is for in-depth training on how to balance all types of antagonists for maximum impact.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Does this help make plotting a tad less intimidating? Are you perhaps seeing where/why your previous idea floundered? Didn’t realize you needed at least TWO for a story?

Where do you struggle? Because we ALL do. What you want to know more about? Where you get stuck, etc.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Where do you most commonly get stuck?

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of March, for 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 novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

***Will announce February’s winner next post.

By the way, yes I also offer classes, and so does my partner-in-crime USA Today Best-Selling Author¬†Cait Reynolds does, too. We both want y’all to write amazing books because that means more word of mouth sales, and a world with better books.

Alas, we still should learn the business of our business so I hope y’all will check out the classes below.

NEW CLASSES (AND SOME OLD FAVES)!

Check them out at W.A.N.A. Int’l.

writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction, narrative structure, novel structure, story structure

Problems are the essential ingredient for all stories. All forms of dramatic writing balance on the fulcrum of problems. The more problems, the better. Small problems, big problems, complicated problems, imagined problems, ignored problems all make the human heart beat faster.

Complication, quandaries, distress, doubt, obstacles and issues are all what make real life terrifying…and great stories captivating.

Face it, we humans are a morbid bunch. Most of us see flashing emergency lights on a slick highway, and what do we do? We slow down to see…while deep down desperately hoping we don’t see.¬†We sit in a fancy restaurant and a woman throws a glass of red wine in her date’s face? Oh, we ALL pay attention.

writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction, narrative structure, novel structure, story structure

Screeching tires, glass breaking or even a spouse on the phone muttering¬†Uh-oh and our chest cinches. We must know what’s going on. Humans require resolution in order to return to our ‘happy’ homeostasis, even if deep down we know that ‘resolution’ is a lie. Delusion is inherently human, and so is neurosis which is good news for writers.

Can you say ‘job security’? *wink wink*

Humans Wired for Drama

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

If we take a moment to ponder people, it makes sense why problems make for excellent stories. First, all humans are wired for survival, thus any potential threat to survival makes us pay attention. We’re biologically designed to be egocentric. Thus survival is not a problem, it’s a given. It’s also why this conversation makes my left eye twitch:

Me: So what is your protagonist’s goal?

Writer: To survive.

Me: *face palm*

Survival is Not Story

Here’s the deal. We ALL have a goal to¬†survive. If, at the end of the day, I am NOT DEAD? I consider that a pretty good day. My genetic desire to survive is why I don’t blow dry my hair in the shower, take up bear-baiting, or see how far I can drive backwards on a highway.

Survival isn’t interesting. Whatever¬†threatens survival? That’s what’s interesting.

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

Secondly, humans possess a deep compunction to assign order in a world brimming with chaos. Remember our first lesson, when we discussed cause and effect? Our desire for order is directly related to survival. If we believe A + B = C, then when A +B =Z, we’ll drive ourselves nuts to know why.

What changed? Did we do, say, think something differently? Does this deviation mean anything? Is it dangerous?

Every superstition ever imagined hinges on human desperation for order and control.

We won the game when I didn’t wash my underwear and lost when I wore clean ones. Dirty underwear=winning.¬†

Thirdly, humans are innately selfish. This proclivity for selfishness makes us all psychically vulnerable. For instance, we develop neuroses of varying degrees of severity. Neuroses, fundamentally, are false beliefs regarding cause and effect.

I smiled at the clerk and she was extremely rude. So it is true. People don’t like me.

Or, the clerk caught her boyfriend in bed her mother minutes before heading to work and—in truth—we (the neurotic customer) have nothing to do with her bad attitude. Aside from being in the blast radius of the poor clerk’s Jerry Springer drama.

Chaos Abounds

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

When we factor in that humans a) are wired to survive b) crave order and c) are innately selfish, it makes sense why we are a story species. Stories are what discharges that leftover psychic energy left over at the end of every day.

Life rarely makes perfect sense, but stories do. Reality has no set order, but stories do. Every day bad guys win, good people die, and ‘stuff’ happens for no apparent reason which freaks us out.

These are the main reasons why stories are the balm that eases our jagged thoughts and weary heart. In well-written stories, we might not like the outcome, but it makes sense. The play or movie might not set well, but there is integral order. In dramatic writing, even when the good guy loses, he still wins.

Life can’t say the same.

The point of any great dramatic writing isn’t some canned message or ‘good guy always wins’ soma, or even some thinly veiled morality tale/lecture/pontification. Drama—when boiled down to its essence—is to feed the innately illogical and selfish id what it desires.

Entertainment.

But not simply any entertainment. Entertainment that speaks to the primal realms of the mind and offers release. Enter in…PROBLEMS.

A Hero Must Decide

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

Ever pay attention to the word ‘decide?’ De-cide. What other words end in ‘cide?’¬†Homicide, fratricide, sororcide, matricide, herbicide, pesticide,¬†and y’all get the gist. Cide¬†implies killing. Something, someone must die.

When we look to story, this is the point of a solid core story problem, because death is the ultimate objective. I know, I know. Missed my calling writing inspirational greeting cards, but bear with me.

In our last lesson, we unpacked my created literary term Big Boss Troublemaker, which is the BRAIN behind the core story problem in need of resolution. Strong BBTs make for stories that endure because IDEAS are impossible to completely destroy.

Like weeds of the human condition, we might eradicate a problem in one story but then POOF! It pops up again in another. Over and over, again and again.

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

This is why there are no new stories, only new ways of telling the same stories. All human stories are about the same things: love, betrayal, greed, acceptance, etc. These are emotional touch-points that imbue story immortality.

Same but Different

This is why Shakespeare’s plays are as relevant today as they were a few hundred years ago. It’s precisely how Baz Luhrmann can take a story about two star-crossed lovers trapped between two feuding families and set it in modern-day Verona Beach…and our brains don’t explode.

We accept Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as Romeo and Juliet. We accept beach duels and gunfights, and John Leguizamo (Tybalt) spouting, ‘Peace? Peace. I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.’¬†We accept the Montagues and Capulets circa 1996 and oddly? We’re cool.

THIS makes perfect sense….

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

And this…

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

Not only does this make total sense, and speak to our souls…it is AWESOME. Romeo & Juliet is a play that is hundreds of years old, that tells a story we witness every single day. TODAY. We see these same dramas play out in our lives daily, whether in person, on-line or in the news.

The point of any story is the hero (heroine) has no choice but to de-CIDE. Ideas must die or victory is lost. Romeo and Juilet physically die in the end, but the IDEA that love can triumph over hate wins. Granted it’s a Pyhrric victory, but the IDEA that hate is more powerful—that might makes right—is ultimately defeated.

***It also proves Shakespeare’s sardonic point that romantic love leads to terminal stupidity, but that’s another post.

The Problem & Push

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

In any good story there are at least two IDEAS at war, meaning lots and lots of problems. There is the BBT’s (opposition’s) central idea, which will inevitably collide with the protagonist’s central idea.

As we discussed last lesson, ideas are relayed via the corporeal and this happens by proxy.

The proxy has a plan that forces the protagonist out of the comfort zone, and eventually gives the MC no choice but evolution or extinction. It’s do or die, whether that is a physical death, a psychic death, or both.

DEATH is always on the line. Whether we are writing comedy or tragedy, genre fiction or literary this maxim is universally true.

The MC must change internally (the IDEA) as well as externally (behavior), since talk is cheap. Action is what matters, because action is belief made manifest.

Problems at Play

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

Let’s use an example. Today, we’ll look at Zootopia. Sure, it’s a kid’s movie but a fabulous example how we don’t have to be writing Hamlet,¬†There Will Be Blood,¬†or Glenngarry Glenn Ross to write terrific drama with depth.

Judy Hopps is a bunny who dreams of going off and being a cop in Zootopia, a place where all animals coexist in perfect harmony and are not prejudged based off species or history.

Sure.

Zootopia (like all utopian ideals) is vastly different from the pretty picture, as Judy soon finds out when she enters the police academy. Then she gets an even harder dose of reality as a rookie cop. It is true—Zootopia is a wonder for sure—but it also has its fair share of prejudice, stereotyping, and mistrust.

The BBT is the IDEA that prejudice is inevitable and dangerous and there is only one option—eat or be eaten. Our proxy of this IDEA is the seemingly meekest and most helpless of all creatures—a sheep (Bellwether)—who’s the ‘hapless/spineless’ assistant to Mayor Lionheart (a lion, of course).

Bellwether doesn’t believe prejudice can ever be overcome, that all creatures will eventually resort to their baser natures. As a sheep, her kind have always been prey. Unless she uses her wits, she and her kind will remain perpetually in danger, a permanent menu ‘option.’

Granted, it’s a manufactured danger (neurosis), since predator and prey animals have managed to coexist in Zootopia without anyone being eaten for generations. Yet, her argument is compelling because her belief is grounded in authentic fear.

It is Bellwether’s perceived inevitable reversal¬†that compels her to force ‘fate’s’ hand. She cannot endure the stress that she (and other prey animals) could be the daily special any day. Thus, she takes action to ensure prey animals are in control. TOTAL control.

Great Antagonists Actually Make a Good Point

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

This is what separates deep, layered antagonists (and villains) from caricatures. When we open our minds and think from the opposition’s POV, they kinda make a good point…which is what messes with our heads.

***FYI—Id, being primal and freaky, totally digs mind games and is still unsure if Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a villain or anti-hero. Sure he¬†eats people, but only the ones who kinda deserved it.

Moving on…

Bellwether devises a scheme to ‘prove’ predator animals cannot be trusted, and thus must be contained for obvious public safety reasons. By inflaming deeply held, but politely hidden, beliefs among the animals, she will have all the justification needed to oppress those considered a threat (predators).

In the beginning, Judy Hopps naively believes she’s devoid of prejudice, completely enlightened, and without fear. Predators are not a threat. They don’t view her and her kind as food, but as fellow citizens and friends. All that being hunted and eaten stuff is ancient history.

This is Judy’s IDEA and it cannot help but collide with Bellwether’s IDEA that¬†prejudice is inevitable and dangerous.

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

Desperation forces Judy to ally with a fox (historically known for enjoying rabbits as munchies) in order to solve the mystery. Predator animals really are going berserk, seemingly reverting back to their wild natures. Why?

Strong Protagonists Face Personal Extinction

Deep down, Judy believes the animals of Zootopia have evolved and can coexist (though is now facing escalating doubts). Problems bash Judy’s IDEA repeatedly, harder and harder.

A psychic sledgehammer slams into her beliefs, testing their actual strength. No matter what she does or tries, the evidence mounts that she’s delusional.

Everything she sees and experiences only seems to affirm predators are dangerous, cannot be trusted, and must be contained.

The core story PROBLEM—Why are all the predators suddenly going berserk?—gives Judy only two choices. She can give up or be brave and to take a hard honest look at herself.

Is she really as devoid of prejudice as she once believed? Really all that evolved, all that enlightened after all? Or deep down does she actually agree with Bellwether?

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

In the beginning, Judy believed Zootopia was perfect, but by the end of Act 2? Judy doesn’t even know why she’s THERE. All her psychic wounds are open and bleeding.

Eventually the story problem forces Judy to de-CIDE. One idea must die. Either Zootopia dies or the notion that prejudice is inevitable and dangerous must die.

For that to happen, Judy Hopps must expose Bellwether’s true colors and stop her nefarious plan, or Zootopia implodes. The old ways return only the roles reversed (prey in control) and all progress goes up in flames.

À La Fin

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

Both sides, antagonist and protagonist have their own unique IDEA. The story is the crucible that fires out the BS, and reveals truth. Problems batter both sides until one side finally wins. Just as a suggestion, in commercial fiction, it’s a sound plan for the protagonist (hero/heroine) to win. Otherwise it’s called a French film ūüėõ .

La mort est inévitable. Pourquoi se battre? Boire du vin.

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my On Demand Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY.¬†Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like ūüėÄ .

Or to make stabbing motions at my head with a pen. Die! Die! Kristen we loves you but hates you!

I also am offering my Bullies and Baddies: Understanding the Antagonist¬†on March 15th (7-9 EST) recording included with purchase if you can’t make it. This class is for in-depth training on how to balance all types of antagonists for maximum impact.

What Are Your Thoughts?

I do love hearing from you. Where you struggle, because we ALL do. What you want to know more about? Where you get stuck, etc.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Where do you most commonly get stuck?

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of FEBRUARY, for 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 novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

By the way, yes I also offer classes, and so does my partner-in-crime USA Today Best-Selling Author¬†Cait Reynolds does, too. We both want y’all to write amazing books because that means more word of mouth sales, and a world with better books.

Alas, we still should learn the business of our business so I hope y’all will check out the classes below.

NEW CLASSES (AND SOME OLD FAVES)!

GASKETS & GAITERS: HOW TO CREATE A COMPELLING STEAMPUNK WORLD

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $65 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: FRIDAY February 23, 2018. 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST

Who doesn’t love some steampunk cosplay? Corsets, goggles, awesome hats‚Ķ

Steampunk has become one of the hottest genres today, crossing the lines of YA, NA, and adult fiction. It seems like it’s fun to write because it’s fun to read.

However, there’s a world of difference between the amateur steampunk writer and the professional steampunk author, and the difference lies in the world they create.

Is your steampunk world historically-accurate enough not to jar the reader out of the narrative with anachronisms?

Does your world include paranormal as well as steampunk?

Are the gadgets and level of sophistication in keeping with the technologies available at the time?

Steampunk is not an excuse to take short-cuts with history. Good writing in this genre requires a solid grasp of Victorian culture and history, including the history of science, medicine, and industry.

This shouldn’t scare you off from writing steampunk, but it should encourage you to take this class and learn how to create a world that is accurate, consistent and immersive.

This class will cover a broad range of topics including:

  • Polite Society: Just how prim and Victorian do you want to get?
  • Science, Technology, Medicine, and Industry: How to research these without dying of boredom?
  • Creating the Blend: How to drop in historical details without info-dumping, and how to describe and explain your steampunk innovations without confusing.

GET READY TO ROAR: THE BUSINESS OF THE WRITING BUSINESS

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, March 1st, 2018, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

Being a professional author entails much more than simply writing books. Many emerging authors believe all we need is a completed novel and an agent/readers will come.

There’s a lot more that goes into the writing business…but not nearly as much as some might want us to believe. There’s a fine balance between being educated about business and killing ourselves with so much we do everything but WRITE MORE BOOKS.

This class is to prepare you for the reality of Digital Age Publishing and help you build a foundation that can withstand major upheavals. Beyond the ‘final draft’ what then? What should we be doing while writing the novel?

We are in the Wilderness of Publishing and predators abound. Knowledge is power. We don’t get what we work for, we get what we negotiate. This is to prepare you for success, to help you understand a gamble from a grift a deal from a dud. We will discuss:

  • The Product
  • Agents/Editors
  • Types of Publishing
  • Platform and Brand
  • Marketing and Promotion
  • Making Money
  • Where Writers REALLY Need to Focus

AMATEUR HOUR IS OVER: SELF-PUBLISHING FOR PROFESSIONALS

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $99.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, March 2nd, 2018, 7:00-10:00 p.m. EST

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Are you going to go KDP Select or wide distribution with Smashwords as a distributor? Are you going to use the KDP/CreateSpace ISBN’s or purchase your own package? What BISAC codes have you chosen? What keywords are you going to use to get into your target categories? Who’s your competition, and how are you positioned against them?

Okay, hold on. Breathe. Slow down. I didn’t mean to induce a panic attack. I’m actually here to help.

Beyond just uploading a book to Amazon, there are a lot of tricks of the trade that can help us build our brand, keep our books on the algorithmic radar, and find the readers who will go the distance with us. If getting our books up on Amazon and CreateSpace is ‘Self-Publishing 101,’ then this class is the ‘Self-Publishing senior seminar’ that will help you turn your books into a business and your writing into a long-term career.

Topics include:

  • Competitive research (because publishing is about as friendly as the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones)
  • Distribution decisions (because there’s actually a choice!)
  • Copyright, ISBN’s, intellectual property, and what it actually all means for writers
  • Algorithm magic: keywords, BISAC codes, and meta descriptions made easy
  • Finding the reader (beyond trusting Amazon to deliver them)
  • Demystifying the USA Today and NYT bestselling author titles
  • How to run yourself like a business even when you hate business and can’t math (I can’t math either, so it’s cool)

Yes, this is going to be a 3-hour class because there is SO much to cover…but, like L’Or√©al says, you’re worth it! Also, a¬†recording of this class is also included with purchase.

The class includes a workbook that will guide you through everything we talk about from how to do competitive research to tracking ISBNs and distribution, and much, much more!

Time is MONEY, and your time is valuable so this will help you make every moment count…so you can go back to writing GREAT BOOKS.

EVEN MORE CLASSES…

Check them out at W.A.N.A. Int’l.

Kristen Lamb, villains, craft, writing tips
Kristen without makeup, LOL….

Many of us have been there. It’s late. We know we have “adulting” to do in the morning (which is in two hours). Our sensible self has been nagging us to get our @$$ to bed so long we smothered it with a pillow around midnight. Whether it’s a book, or Netflix or HBO or FX…we tell ourselves just one more episode. One more chapter. We can stop binging any time we want.

Suuuuuure…

Uh huh.

What is it that makes us lose all sense of responsibility and common sense when gut-hooked by these stories? By and large…VILLAINS.

But what goes into creating a truly terrifying villain? Or a villain who steals the show? Perhaps a villain who gains more fans than the HERO?

Excellent question.

To be blunt, villains are the soufflé of the character world. Preparation must be handled with utmost precision and care or it all goes FLAT.

Villains are among the most popular and memorable characters in all of storytelling history from Grendel to Darth Vader to Ramsay Bolton.

Yet, though these characters are extremely powerful, they’re (strangely) ridiculously tough to write. Villains can too easily become one-dimensional mustache-twirlers, too dumb to live, too boring to care, or just plain silly and unsympathetic.

I.e. Kylo-Ren, or as I like to call him, “Darth Emo”.

But, when writers do things right? It is the glorious Villain Souffl√© writers are proud serve and readers/audiences cannot wait to devour….and then flat out stuff themselves half to death.

Face it, the hero is only as good as his/her opposition. The better the villain, the better the story. The better the story, the deeper the GUT HOOK. Want an audience who binges on your stories? There are many ways to do this, but nothing works quite like…

VILLAINS.

All righty, so today? Three critical ingredients for the perfect villain. Even though the villain character has limitless variations, we can at least address some NECESSARY ingredients that cover most every memorable villain.

Sort of like if you wanna make banana pudding, bananas are kind of a big deal. Yes, there are infinite variations of banana pudding but some ingredients have to be there or we don’t have banana pudding, we have something else entirely.

Villains are much the same.

Ingredient One—“Noble” Qualities

No blog worth its salt can discuss legendary villains without at least a nod to Game of Thrones. In fact, I could blog on villains for the next year using GoT and barely scratch the surface (of course it helps that George R.R. Martin has a cast of 2,312 characters).

Ah, Cersei though.

How we love to hate her. Yet, why does she resonate? Why does her character strike such a visceral chord? What makes her dimensional and real instead of a paper doll mustache twirling caricature?

First, she has “noble” qualities. She LOVES her family (her brother perhaps a bit too much for our comfort, but whatever). She’s a mother and will do anything for her kids to help, assist, promote, protect or even AVENGE them.

Literally.

She is fiercely devoted to her children (even a child as terrifying as Joffrey) and heaven help anyone who messes with her cubs. She’ll melt you with wildfire…then drop a city on you.

For reals. She did it

*Cersei drops mic then half of Westeros*

Most of us have kids, family, friends, loved ones, or even pets who we’d turn insta-psycho to protect…which is why we connect with Cersei. We share this powerful emotional vector which makes us hate her then root for her then hate ourselves for rooting for her.

Ingredient Two—A Sympathetic Viewpoint

Believe it nor not, Cersie possesses a highly sympathetic viewpoint. She’s a woman in a man’s world. Of all the Lannister children, SHE was the only one who paid attention, and who outpaced her brothers by a million miles regarding¬†Rule with an Iron Fist/Throne 101.

SHE was the Lannister most qualified to rule, but instead, her father hands her off like chattel to marry a fat, sloppy, philandering joke of a leader, King Robert Baratheon (which explains a lot of why she chose Jaime *shivers*).

And it is this ever-pervasive powerlessness generated by the world she had no choice being born into that pisses her off more than a little (and rightfully so).

Her one brother Jaime has more interest in prancing around the country playing knight when he’s not in bed with her (*twitches a tad*) and the other brother Tyrion–in the beginning at least–is a drunken, womanizing, hard-partying dwarf she blames for her mother’s death.

She’s surrounded by men more “qualified” to rule from the Iron Throne and by “qualified” I mean they have man parts. The lion’s share of Cersei’s insane desire to gain the throne for one of her sons can be largely attributed to the fact that she believes she can rule vicariously through them and the requisite “man part.”

Of course after Season Six she’s there to blow $#!& up and she’s all out of children. High Sparrow is now a smoking crater glowing hotter than a Cherynobyl Ferris Wheel.

And that “Rule by Man Part Mandate”? She melted that, too…

The simple lesson is if Cersei had been born a man instead of a woman in a man’s world, a villain never would have manifested to begin with.

Remember this when crafting your villain.

In fact, though often we loathe Cersei, a lot of us gals can kinda sorta sympathize. Some of us wouldn’t have minded a few caskets of wildfire to unload on the last sales meeting.

You know the one.

That meeting where the boss’s drinking/golfing buddy who’s never had an original thought in his life stole your idea then landed your promotion solely because he possessed Mystical Man Part Powers.

Yeah.

And for the guys? Despite the Mystical Man Part Power, you have your own version of this “powerless and %$#ed over” scenario, which brings us to…

Ingredient Three—The Villain is the Hero of His Own Story

Moving away from Game of Thrones…. *pries fingers loose*

Why do we SO love Loki? Because Loki kind of has a good point and is the hero of his own story. In ways he is the male version of Cersei.

Bear with me.

For those who’ve slept since Thor¬†released in 2011, Thor¬†is the movie where we first met the Tom Hiddleston Loki we all know and love and hate…but mostly love.

In¬†Thor, we’re tossed into a tale as old as time—sibling rivalry.

In the movie, Odin has created a fragile truce between Asgard and the Ice Giants. When the Ice Giants make a sudden play to retrieve the Casket, Thor (about to ascend as the new king)¬†directly disobeys his father’s orders and runs off full of himself, all half-cocked and ready to do some damage.

Thor has zero concept of this little thing called “consequences.”¬†Loki, however, does appreciate consequences both for Thor and the realm and his family, and is actually a far better choice to rule Asgard.

Loki, ever loyal, genuinely loves and cares about Thor (and the kingdom), and goes along with Thor’s raid on the enemy…all the while trying to talk Thor out of being a dip$#!t.

Alas, Thor’s asshattery creates a mass mayhem and places the kingdom in peril. Thor makes enough of a mess that Odin essentially puts Thor in the Asgardian version of TIME OUT—which apparently involves New Mexico.

This “punishment” only further demonstrates Odin isn’t truly punishing Thor, because everyone knows Lubbock, Texas is the far superior location for an Asgardian TIME OUT if Odin was serious about making Thor miserable.

Odin also decides to take a nap instead of putting Loki in charge, even though Loki’s still left¬†to clean up the giant mess Thor made.

Giant mess, get it? I kill myself. Moving on…

In the midst of all this, Loki discovers his whole life is a lie, including his identity, and he experiences betrayal coupled with personal extinction.

He resents Odin for a vast number of legit reasons, but mostly he hates Odin for ever considering a selfish buffoon like Thor to rule Asgard. Thus, Loki sets out to prove his worthiness to his real father and place the realm under New Management.

With all Loki has endured, how he’s been betrayed, and his goal that the realm be ruled by “cooler” heads—pardon the pun—we the audience find it tough not to see Loki has some seriously valid gripes.

We see he really IS the hero in his own story.

In the End

I’ve given y’all three basic, but critical ingredients for a villain readers will love to hate or maybe even love. Villains are incredibly fun to write, but since they’re by nature unstable, volatile and often combustable, they need to be handled with care.

I’m teaching a brand new class¬†Villains and Anti-Heroes TOMORROW and that’s where we get time to deep dive the really cool stuff, so I hope you will join me! I have been STOKED to teach this more advanced class and had to move it due to losing my voice last week, so y’all got another shot at signing up (recording is free with the class if you can’t make it in person).

I LOVE HEARING FROM YOU! And I am NOT above BRIBERY!

What are your thoughts? Does this help you understand how to give depth to your villains? Who are some of your favorite villains from the page or even the screen, small or big?

Which villains resonated with you and WHY? Which villains do you remember years later? You never get tired of re-watching the show or movie or rereading the book? What villains make you binge watch? Trade gas money for Netflix?

What do you WIN? For the month of September, for 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 novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

We are in the process of moving classes around due to the two MONSTER hurricanes so a fresh class list will be available next post. You can also dash over to W.A.N.A. International to check out what’s coming up and get your spot!

 

 

 

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Before we get started, I’d like to remind anyone who wants a WAY better chance at winning my 20 Page Death Star Critique, that I have started the Dojo Diva Blog and we are talking about Beginnings, namely giving ourselves permission to be NEW.¬†Comments and trackbacks on the Dojo Diva count double and, since it is a separate contest, there is a LOT better chance of winning.

Moving on. VILLAINS!!!!

The antagonist is the most critical part to any story. No antagonist, NO story. Villains are only a type of antagonist and though this type of character has the power to be legendary, often what we see in books, series and movies are mustache-twirling caricatures. Villains can easily become one-dimensional plot puppets.

As writers, we must get in the head of our villains as much if not more than the protagonist. The reason is that eventually our protagonist must eventually grow to become a hero, and this is not possible if we fail to appreciate the goals, conflicts and motivations of the villain.

Plain and simple: The villain creates the STORY problem and provides the crucible that will create a hero.

No Sauron and Hobbits remain in the Shire wishing for adventure. No Darth Vader and who cares about Skywalker? No Goblin King and Sarah never faces the Labyrinth and her own immaturity.

I recommend studying movies to understand story structure, but I feel TV series are better for understanding the character development of villains. The reason is that series are far more similar to full-length novels. We (the audience) have more TIME to understand the villain and see him or her at work.

Today, I’d like to talk about ways that we can give villains depth. Great villains have some similar “components.”

Remember, the villain is always the hero in his own story. Wanting to “rule the world” just to “rule the world” is for cartoons. If a villain is wanting to rule, control, destroy, etc. they should have a really good/plausible/sympathetic reason for doing so.

In fact, when we do a great job at creating the villain, our audience will struggle with who to root for.

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Granted, we do run into great characters like Joker (Heath Ledger) who are chaotic evil, but though this type of character might be great for a Batman movie, he will be really tough to cast in a novel. Even then, I’d go so far as to say that Joker DID have an agenda. Whether it was trauma or madness, we get a sense that Joker believes there is no good in the world and is on a mission to prove any goodness can be corrupted.

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Give the Villain a Sympathetic Goal

Remember that the beating heart of a story is CONFLICT. Antagonist wants X and Protagonist wants Y. Their goals¬†conflict and only one can triumph at the end. No cheating. In act three the Big Boss Troublemaker must be defeated. Period. None of this¬†well the reader meets my antagonist in Book Two…

Every story has an antagonist responsible for the story problem and he or she must be defeated or the story isn’t complete.

***In series, the protagonist will defeat proxies of the core antagonist. Each proxy serves as the core antagonist for that story.

To help you guys wrap your heads around what I am talking about, let’s look at television shows. I highly recommend the series¬†Justified for dimensional villains. In every season we are introduced to a new Big Boss Troublemaker. Season one is the Skinhead Bank Robber Boyd Crowder. Season Two is the Hillbilly Mob Boss Mama Bennett. Season Three is the Detroit Mob Boss Robert Quarles who’s been exiled to Kentucky to fill the vacuum left by the defeat of the Bennett clan.

What I LOVE about Justified is that the characters are¬†dimensional and interesting. Also, each season nicely dovetails into the next with authentic human problems. This isn’t just a series for those interested in writing about crime. There are genuine human problems in this series.

Today, though, I want to hone in on what I feel is one of THE best villains I’ve ever seen: Mama Mags Bennett.

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What is Mags’ goal? Yes, she wants to rule Harlan, Kentucky and surrounding areas with an iron fist (and make a healthy profit), but deep down, she believes she is taking care of her flock. She maintains order in a world riddled with chaos. The area is steeped in poverty, endless economic depression, addicts, jailbirds, absentee parents, lost youth, and troublemakers and she provides authority, protection and structure.

Yes, she is taking advantage of the people, but believes she is the lesser of evils. Her family has been on that mountain for generations and have been there to pick of the pieces every time a corporation has raped the area after promising prosperity. She believes that there will be predators, so might as well go with the devil you know and the one who isn’t going to take all the timber, strip mine the minerals and ruin the land with slag.

And frankly, she has a good point.

Also, because the area is riddled with addicts, she knows that bigger predators have their eyes on the area (I.e. Miami Mafia and Mexican cartels) and have no concern for the people. Yes, she provides weed, meth and oxycotin, but also provides jobs and protection. She also protects members of the flock from smaller predators. For instance, she will NOT tolerate a child molester and goes biblical on anyone who crosses that line.

Thus, we as the audience see she kind of has a good point. The area will likely always be lawless, so why not be ruled by a local who cares for the community?

Contrast

Great villains have contrast. Contrast makes a villain sympathetic. If a villain is always torturing people and doing bad stuff simply to do bad stuff, the audience can’t really connect. We have to have some area where that villain is human.

The entire season (series ) is¬†loaded with contrast and there is no character more conflicting that Mags Bennett. First of all, let’s just look at some of the¬†surface contrast.

Hillbilly Mafia

Dixie Mafia

These words don’t go together. When we think of Mafia, we often think of black suits and shiny Lincolns. When we hear “Dixie” we think of line-dancing, moonshine and banjos. We don’t default to dirty flannel, banjos and ruthless drug enforcers.

Yet, one element that has always made mob members so intriguing is their loyalty to family.

Helloo? Ever heard of the Hatfields and McCoys?

This area of the country is steeped in a profound loyalty to clan and family, thus it unexpectedly makes the perfect mob story.

Mags is so interesting namely because we can never seem to get a bead on her. When we meet her, she seems to be this sweet, gentle grandmotherly figure (which she is). She runs a country store and makes sure the local families can use their food stamps and welfare checks to put food on the table.

Yet, this same matronly character is later seen breaking her son’s fingers with a hammer because his bad decisions have jeopardized their larger operations and brought the attention of federal marshals. Granted, she cries the entire time and hates having to “correct” her son, but she knows if she shows any weakness of favoritism with her own kin, she will lose power and respect.

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Thus, we SEE this woman do terrible things, but she always has a sympathetic reason (as to point above). Yes, it is awful that she breaks her son’s fingers, but she is genuinely afraid her son’s idiocy will get him killed or imprisoned, thus her “chastisement” is the far less severe of the consequences.

In her mind, she is saving him from himself.

The Villain Fires the Conflict for the Protagonist

Great villains torment some part of the protagonist’s soul. For the protagonist, it can be black and white to take out a bad guy, but that isn’t nearly as messy. In the case of¬†Justified Raylan Givens is a federal marshal who also grew up in the area. He knows Mags and even likes her. He is torn between his duty to uphold the law and his personal history and feelings.

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Taking out Mags is emotionally messy. And, though Raylan is the perfect person to shut her down, he kinda wishes someone else could have the task. Mags brings back old guilt, memories, shame, regrets and baggage.

Make The Villain’s End a SAD Thing

In¬†Justified we hate Mags, we are rightfully afraid of her, but we also feel for her. She does a lot of really awful things, and though we want her stopped, we want her undoing to be appropriate. She’s like a man-eating bear. Sure we want the bear to be put down, but caging it and putting it in the circus seems unreasonable and unfit.

When Mags is taken down, we walk away feeling that her end was just and appropriate to the apex predator she was.

What are your thoughts? Do you think series are better for exploring villains and antagonists? Do you think they are a better cross-comparison with a novel? What are some series with memorable villains? How did the villain leave you conflicted? Did you find yourself rooting for the villain and little bit sad when he or she lost?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, 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 novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of¬†my latest social media/branding book¬†Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.¬†

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