Inspiration from Clever Television

I choose my television and movie choices carefully (most of the time). If I listed my favorite tv series, a pattern of character-driven plots will emerge (Pushing Daisies, The Office, Gilmore Girls, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, Dead Like Me…). This makes sense because my fiction is character-driven. Maybe I should watch shows that are more about the plot, so I don’t have blindspots? In any case, today I’m writing about one show and one movie that inspire me, and I hope you’ll share yours!

Pushing Daisies, on ABC

Pushing Daisies is a delightful, narrated mystery show about a man named Ned who can bring the dead to life with the touch of his finger. There is a catch, however: a second touch will kill the person forever. And it turns out that if Ned lets the person stay alive for more than a minute after his special touch, someone else must die in their place. Things get juicy when he brings his childhood sweetheart back to life. If he lets her live, someone else must die in her place. If he touches her once, ever, she will be dead forever.

Would you believe me if I said this was a comedy? I love this show because of how clever the writers are with Ned and Chuck’s situation (Chuck is short for Charlotte). Thanks to the narrator, the mood is reminiscent of the most recent movie rendition of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Really, it’s like sitting down to story time every week. Look for it this fall, I bet you’ll like it.

Penelope, starring Christina Ricci

Now in terms of movies, am I the only one who saw Penelope, that movie starring Christina Ricci? And loved it? This is a fairy tale about a girl cursed with a pig’s nose until she is loved and accepted by one of her own. This movie is straight-forward, and some claim it failed at teh fairy-tale attempt, but this is a movie of characters, each with a motive, each with something to learn. Everyone learns something in this movie (all the main and secondary characters, anyway).  I found it charming and refreshing for the simple reason that the heroine is her own hero.

So here’s something I’ve always wondered about my fellow writers/readers. They always say writers should read a lot, a statement I heartily agree with. But what about other media outlets? Do you feel television and movies can inspire you, or does it blunt your creativity? Are there certain shows you watch precisely because it sparks your imagination? Tell all!

Developing Villainous Characters – Part 3

Just coming into my three-part series on developing villainous characters? Make sure to read my suggestions in part one and part two!

Give your villain/character a fatal flaw.
There are multiple movies that showcase this trick (Pulp Fiction, Scarface, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone), and often it is the fatal flaw that brings the villain to their downfall, rather than the hero being the ultra-smart, ultra-handsome hero that we know he is. It adds complexity if the villain is the reason why he doesn’t win. Here is a great list of phobias to help you.

Give the villain a good side.
Surprise your reader by showing the softer side to your villain so that they’re not so sure he’s such a bad guy after all. If he can show he has a good side, then he gains the reader’s sympathy and suddenly makes things more complicated. Now that’s putting some twists into the mix.

Finally, maintain control over your villain.
Don’t just let him disappear at the end of the book! Give your reader a sense of closure, even if you’re writing a series. Your villain must suffer some sort of punishment/consequence for their actions, fitting to their crimes. Or, better yet, let them get away with a couple of things so the reader gets blindsided.

Thanks for participating! I hope to have another set of series about setting and research, two of my favorite topics. If you have a topic you want to discuss, contact me about guest posting!

Do you have any other tips and hints for developing villainous characters? Leave a comment and let everyone know about it!

Developing Villainous Characters – Part 2

Just coming into my three-part series on developing villainous characters? Make sure to read my suggestions in part one!

For part two, we’re going deeper into the mind and actions of the villain. We’re going to try to see the entire plot from the villain’s perspective, push ourselves to the limits, yet attempt to moderate how far we push our villain’s actions. So let’s get going! First and foremost, here is something that really helped me get into the mind of my villain: I suddenly realized that…

The villain in your story is the hero of his own story.
We always hear how we should write each scene from a single point-of-view. That is, no head-hopping to get multiple perspectives within a single scene. This fact helped me realize that if I were to switch around each chapter so that I told the story from the villain’s perspective, rather than the hero’s, I would have a greater, more realized understanding behind the villain’s actions.

By doing this, I grew to love my villain almost as greatly as I love my hero (that is, heroine), and sympathize with him as things didn’t go his way. As I wrote one of the villain’s climaxes, which happens to be different from the heroine’s, I wrote it with tears in my eyes because of the unfairness of it all. Yet, when I wrote the same scene from the heroine’s perspective, I felt sad, but justified.

Which leads me to my next point…

Don’t be afraid to go beyond evil in describing the villains actions.
It seems to me that, as writers, we tend to write what we want to read. At least, that seems to be what I do. And for some reason, readers like to read about particularly bad people and see what happens to them.

I used to be the sort of writer who didn’t make my villain to mean, or his actions too hurtful. I thought there was enough evil in the world, why should I write about it? And then it occurred to me that it is how we face evil that defines the good in us. That led me to writing villains who really do hurt others. But I still held back. I could write the scenes no problem, even chuckling along with the villain as his plans unfurled.

Which meant I wasn’t making him villainous enough. Rather than chuckling, I should have been shaking my head in dismay, because that is the sort of villain I like to read about. I want to see a villain that is cruel, and suffers the consequences for it… but it needs to be bad enough to warrant said consequences. So if you’re cringing while writing a scene, or reacting in some other way, you’re probably doing something right.

That being said, don’t overdo it, either.
Only make your villain as evil as he needs to be for your plot, and no one else’s. A sweet romance like Bright Arrows doesn’t deserve a Hannibal Lector, the same way Barnaby Barnacle from Babes in Toyland wouldn’t do Silence of the Lambs any justice. Determine the theme and purpose of your work to define the level of evil and goodness which should occur. Certain actions and motives won’t work for young adult, others won’t work for inspirational fiction, etc. Read books in your genre to get a feeling for what is appropriate.

For part three, I’ll finish my series on developing villainous characters by helping you flesh out your villain even more by adding unexpected details.

Do you have any other tips and hints for developing villainous characters? Leave a comment and let everyone know about it!

Developing Villainous Characters – Part 1

Due to finals, graduating, and spending time with the extended family, I’ve missed about 75% of Eliza’s villain month over at Tales of a Fantasy Scribbler. I did want to participate, but couldn’t commit due to my, uh, other commitments. So here is the first of my three-part series on developing villains, as my way to contribute.

First, research villain archetypes and decide which is the basis for your villain.
To do this, read Stella Cameron’s wonderful villain archetype summary or Tami Cowden’s sixteen villains, and pick your villain’s basis to your heart’s delight. Every character, and therefore villain, most likely fits some sort of generic archetype, at least to help you begin molding.

Now, the nice thing about Stella Cameron’s villain archetype summary is that it suggests generic back-stories that help explain why the villain is the way he is. Use this to your advantage by using this as a template and adding your own details to the mix. Tami Cowden’s sixteen villains, in comparison, has brief descriptions of the villains based on their generic motive and how they might pursue their villainy.

Keep in mind that the best characters have the most detail. For example, we’re fascinated by Hannibal Lector because he is so precise, and unbelievably detailed about his heinous crimes… it is art to him, the ultimate luxury. The luxurious and sensual nature of his descriptions about murder and cannibalism are what fascinate us, despite ourselves. Such a little detail, but a defining one.

So once you’ve determined your archetype, the next step is to add details that make the villain believable, rather than shallow and silly. To do that, you need to…

Give the villain a motive.
This is very similar to #1, but now you actually have to provide the details behind the archetype. Are they a spurned lover? Were they thrown out of their family/job? Do they just not take insults very well? Or all three? Personally, I think the more motive you give the character, the better.

It’s not enough to say he is the ignored second son, for instance, if you’re writing about a bitter villain out for revenge. Sure, maybe the family didn’t treat him the way they treated the firstborn. That happens. But what if the firstborn stole the villain’s girlfriend? Or actively turned his parents against his younger brother, depriving the brother of nurturing, thus turning the younger brother into a villain?

Then again, sometimes it’s nature rather than nurture which turns our character’s villainous. Maybe your villain, for some reason, feels entitled to everything, and when she doesn’t get his way, it’s a personal insult. Or, perhaps she is just the jealous type, and never learned how to control it.

Of course, now that we have a skeleton, of sorts, that gives us an initial definition of your villain, here comes what I think might be the most important step when working on your villain. You need to make sure to…

Devote as much time defining the villain as you do the hero.
The hero and villain are supposed to be antagonists of one another, right? (You should be shaking your head yes.) A synonym of antagonize is “oppose,” meaning they must be opposite and balance one another. But if one character is weaker, then the duo is weak altogether. If you spend three months developing the hero, I hope you’re doing the same for the villain, for the following reasons:

  1. One strong character cannot carry an entire plot.
  2. If you over-develop your hero and under-develop your villain, your characters will fall flat because of the lack of balance.
  3. One weak main character can ruin your plot.
  4. When your readers ask why your character did/did not do something, it’s better to pull out a journal full of details about the character, rather than to sit there blinking.
  5. It’s fun to develop the villain! My next post will go into more detail about why this is, even for those of us who don’t like to hurt our characters (therefore making our villain weak and laughable).

Do you have any other tips and hints for developing villainous characters? Leave a comment and let everyone know about it!

Five Tips on Character Building through Adversity

We don’t remember Scarlett O’Hara for her beauty, we remember her because she survived countless marriages, a war, childbirth, poverty, sickness, the end of the world as she knew it, and heartbreak on a monumental scale. And she’s flawed, boy, is she flawed. And a brilliant character. You either love her, or hate her. So how do you make your own Scarlett?

It should be cliche at this point: Know your character. Sometimes you will only know your character after you’ve thrown a couple of bad situations at them. I really do suggest sitting somewhere with a journal, and ask yourself, “What if…?” What would she do? Who does she turn to? Inward for self-reflection, or outward for comfort?Don’t know what to throw at her? That’s okay, I’ve also provided you with a list of bad things that you can use as a starting point…

  1. Physical adversity. Death, dismemberment, sickness. Everyone will go through at least two of these in their life, so your character better have some experience with at least one of them.

    Sometimes this is the worst thing that can happen to your character. But what if it isn’t? Don’t be afraid to pile on the adversity. The worse the situation is, and the more empathetic your character is, the more you hook your reader.

  2. Unfulfilled desire. No one ever gets things the way they want all the time, every time. What if your character is used to getting her way, and one day doesn’t? What if this moment completely alters her understanding of herself and the world around her? What does she do? Does her desire destroy her, does she rise above it? Does she ruin the lives of those around her in her quest to satisfy her desire?

    Note this desire doesn’t have to be romantic in nature. In fact, if it isn’t, and you’re writing a romance, what a great twist to your story! Suddenly you’ve added a new dimension to your romance, making it all the more believable. No one in the real world has time to only worry about their romantic life, so why should your characters?

  3. Haunting past. Regrets about things you didn’t do. Regrets about things you did. Each of us is interesting because we have personal histories. For instance, many think I savor my food, or that I just eat slowly. I do this now, but it started because my baby brother choked many times as a child, and one time I panicked instead of remaining calm. My father had to perform the Heimlich even though I’d been trained by the Red Cross. From that moment, I realized how easily it is to be careless and put your life in danger.

    See how much you learned about me just by hearing how I eat? The moral of the story is: Don’t discount the little things. They are the collection of moments that create our personalities and fill the prologues of our lives.

  4. Use the time period to your advantage, and against your character’s. The women of today are strong-willed and ready to shout it from the rooftops. The women of yesterday were just as strong-willed, but required the mastery of subtlety or they might suffer the rule of thumb. If your character wants to do something that she just wouldn’t have done in your chosen time period, don’t give it up for the sake of the time period.

    Use the frustration to build your character, showing the reader just what sort of a person she is.

  5. Go with it. Sometimes you’ll surprise yourself with the scenarios you create. Actually, I hope you surprise yourself. In fact, you better surprise yourself. If your scenarios don’t surprise you, you won’t surprise your reader, and that’s bad.

    What’s really great is when a character surprises herself. But again, you need to know your character well enough to know when she can surprise herself. As a hint, use your research to spark your imagination. Read old newspapers and be amused and shocked by what happened back then. Truth really is stranger than fiction.

I’m using all of these techniques against my character, and while it pains me to write scenes where my character suffers, I’m also ridiculously proud of her stamina against adversity.

So tell me, what is the worst situation you’ve thrown at your characters? And how did you feel while writing those scenes: timid, worried, daring, jubilant?

Book: North and South

Title: North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Genre: Classic Fiction
Length: 452 pgs

Summary: Margaret Hale, a English southerner who migrates to Milton, a northern industrial town, is shocked by the working and living conditions of the cotton mill workers who provide the wealth of the young man her father tutors, Mr Thornton. Her determination to help the mill workers puts her at odds with the charismatic Mr Thornton, who dismisses her concerns as the ignorance of highly-bred woman who cannot understand the political and economic reasons why things are the way they are.

Excerpts:
pg 17 – If the look on [Margaret’s] face was, in general, too dignified and reserved for one so young, now, talking to her father, it was bright as the morning,–full of dimples, and glances that spoke of childish gladness, and boundless hope in the future.

pg 62 – Mr Thornton was in the habits of authority himself, but [Margaret] seemed to assume some kind of rule over him at once. He had been getting impatient at the loss of his time on a market-day, the moment before she appeared, yet now he calmly took a set at her bidding.

pg 322 – Oh, how unhappy this last year has been! I have passed out of childhood into old age. I have no youth–no womanhood; the hopes of womanhood have closed for me–for I shall never marry; and I anticipate cares and sorrows just as if I were an old woman, and with the same fearful spirit. I am weary of this continual call upon me for strength.

pg 336 – [Margaret] sat quite still, after the first momentary glance of grieved surprise, that made her eyes look like some child’s who has met with an unexpected rebuff; they slowly dilated into mournful, reproachful sadness; and then they fell, and she bent over her work, and did not speak again. But [Mr Thornton] could not help looking at her, and he saw a sigh tremble over her body, as if she quivered in some unwonted chill. …He gave sharp answers; he was uneasy and cross, unable to discern between jest and earnest; anxious only for a look, a word of hers, before which to prostrate himself in penitent humility. …She could not care for him, he thought, or else the passionate fervor of his wish would have forced her to raise those eyes, but if for an instant, to read the late repentance in his.

Why should you read this book?
I never thought it possible, but this book supplanted Pride and Prejudice as my favorite romance, reasons being that it brings outside philosophical, political, and economic pressures into the romance. The romance is not just that there are misunderstandings and ruined reputations, but that there are actual lives at stake; entire towns that could fall if the mill workers refuse to work; people could be killed in riots; there is communal strife and an inability to communicate between the social classes.

This is an ambitious work that I am head over heels in love with because the prose is poetic, the themes are strong, and the characters sympathetic. Gaskell gives the secondary and tertiary characters all the love, compassion, and motive that is usually reserved for main characters alone. I could go into a detailed analysis of the writing tricks Gaskell uses to appeal to her audience (the sympathetic Victorian woman), such as describing the illnesses of those around Margaret, the way Margaret’s eyes sometimes exhibit a childlike wonder or surprised pain (see pg 336 excerpt above), and the way Margaret shoulders the problems of those around her for that is her role as the daughter in the family (really, this is a brilliant piece of Victorian literature), but I won’t.

I will tell you that if you like reading classics (my childhood was defined by classics, and I desperately miss the feeling of losing myself in that world), you must read this book. If your writing tends toward the classical style, this is a great example to take note of. There are moments when Margaret almost reminds me of Jane Eyre in her contemplations of her role as a female in the world, which makes sense because Mrs Gaskell was actually a sort of social friend of Charlotte Bronte’s. In fact, Mrs Gaskell wrote the first biography of Charlotte, and helped create the rather mythological story behind the woman who wrote such great works as Jane Eyre and Villette.

P.S. The BBC made a two-part miniseries of this book in 2007, and it is excellent. Things have been changed, obviously, to fit the book into a four-hour showing, but it is a great adaptation and the reason why I read the book in the first place.