Tag: 2012 A to Z Challenge

Evolving villains

A couple months ago I participated in the 2012 A to Z Challenge.  Being a nice reciprocal blogger, I also read blogs by others taking part in the event, which basically consisted of writing a post for every letter of the alphabet.  Many had posts like mine – completely random – but author Christopher Starr over at Crooked Letterz focused on villains, including in-depth analysis of what makes them tick.  Even if you’re not a fan of comics or movies, I highly suggest you read his insightful posts on what makes someone bad.

I recently had a brief conversation with another writer about the decline of chivalry.  He lamented that girls go for the jerks who treat them like crap, passing over the nice guys who would never hurt them.  I countered that perhaps girls see something redeeming in those jerks, something that no one else sees that makes them worth being with.  For example, I knew a guy who generally came off as arrogant, abrasive, and crude, and overall annoyed the hell out of me.  But one-on-one with him, he was conscientious of my thoughts and feelings and instinctively protective of me.  He shared his backstory with me so I could understand his motivations, and after that it was very difficult for me to see him as a one-dimensional bad guy.

I just finished the Hunger Games series.  I’ll try not to spoil the ending, but one thing that stuck out is President Snow’s behavior at the end.  President Snow is despicable, no question about it, but at the end he reminds Katniss of a promise he made to her, a promise that brings him a bit of redemption.  In other words, he evolves from a horrible excuse for a human being to a, well, slightly less horrible excuse for a human being.

My whole point with this – if you want a memorable, effective bad guy, don’t make him a completely one-dimensional bad guy.  Like President Snow, have him kill villages of people without hesitation but keep a promise he made to a young girl.  Like my friend, make him insufferable to be around but loyal to his principles.

To be a good villain, I think the bad guy needs to be someone we can identify and sympathize with, and someone the protagonist can connect with as well.

Christopher Starr asked, in the comments of one of his posts, “Ed, what do you think about the responsibility of making the villain evolve over time? Do we have more compelling villains if they have similar emotional/developmental arcs?”

I responded, “I think they are more compelling, because it becomes a moral lesson for the audience. Two similar characters at some point branch out from the same event – a shared childhood, a trauma, a disappointment. Faced with two choices, one aims for morality and the other for base revenge. It’s a choice we all have to make, and I think it makes the villain that much more terrifying, because we realize how easily we ourselves could be that villain.”

And that’s the key, I think, to writing a good antagonist or villain: “we realize how easily we ourselves could be that villain.”  And in order to connect with that villain, in order to see that, we need them to have redeeming qualities, because no one thinks of himself as all bad.  We need common traits, like love of orphans or kittens, or chivalrous behavior, like holding doors open.

If we know the villain can be good, it leads to the question, what about us?  What’s keeping the protagonist or us from turning into that villain?  If you want your story to stick with people, I think that’s an important point to address.

Who’s your favorite villain, either literary or in movies and pop culture?  Do they have any redeeming qualities, and how does that affect their relationships with the protagonists?

Z is for Zamyatin #atozchallenge

Day 26 of the Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic:  Yevgeny Zamyatin and creativity.

Last day!

Once upon a time, there was this guy who wrote a book about a dystopian society where the government controls every aspect of life.  The main character falls for a woman, which is against state law, and they sneak off to a place they think they won’t be watched.  Outside the city are people thought to be beneath the citizens of the police state.  The main character is eventually caught, lobotimized, confesses everything so that his girlfriend takes the blame, and falls in line with what the government teaches.

I know what you’re thinking.  “That’s 1984.  Big Brother.  Doublespeak.  Where we get the term Orwellian.  Everyone knows that.”

Well, kinda.  The book I described is We, written in Russia in 1923.  The book you’re thinking of was written in 1949, about a year after Orwell wrote a review of We and said he’d use it as a model for his next novel.

My whole point with this, I guess, is that maybe there aren’t any new ideas out there.  No matter what you write, someone will have covered it prior. 

So find those ideas.  Read, and read widely.  Experience life as much as you can, vicariously and armchair-ily to fill in the gaps, and discover those ideas.

Then take a new angle with them.  Add a twist, a different POV, a different theme.  Write it in your voice, colored by your own experiences.  Make it your own.

And maybe, someday, yours will be the one that’s remembered.

(Note: I really wanted to work in how Godsmack completely ripped off Metallica, but unfortunately it didn’t quite fit.  So I’ll just add it here at the end instead.)

Y is for YA #atozchallenge

Day 25 of the Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: YA.

I don’t write YA.  I probably could, if I tried, but I like adult themes and depth and language.

But I like reading YA, especially books my students can relate to – drugs and gangs, parental abandonment, relationship issues, etc.  I have a display on my classroom wall of books that I recommend.  I’m slowly buying copies as I come across them in used book stores, so I can loan them to the kids if they’re interested.

It’s almost summer, and I’ll have a lot of time to read.  What are some issue-focused YA books you’d recommend?

X is for eXtreme Writing #atozchallenge

Day 24 of the Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: extreme writing.

My colleagues and I (and yeah, that includes you, Scott-who-thinks-I-made-up-being-a-writer) have been talking the past week about saying no when we’re overwhelmed and asked to take on a new project. I’m pretty good about voicing my opinion on this subject (too good, maybe; I’ve been told I can no longer send group emails), as well as pretty good at holding to my convictions.

And as I’ve posted several times this month, I’m kinda overwhelmed with projects at the moment, both in regards to writing and to the rest of my life.

But then I heard about the May StoryADay Challenge.

It’s a form of what’s called “Extreme Writing,” which emphasizes quantity over quality.  It’s about pushing yourself to do something, to get off your butt and, well, sit on your butt and write.  Kinda like NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, in November), but for short stories.

And I, of course, signed up.

So starting May 1st, I’ll be writing a story a day.  Many will be flash pieces, probably between 500-1000 words.  Most will probably suck.  All will be rough drafts, to sit patiently in the cloud and wait to be edited or deleted.

I won’t be posting the stories here, because that counts as publishing them and I’d rather publish them for real, but I’ll give weekly updates as to my progress.

For the writers out there, wanna join the insanity and write a story a day too?  For the nonwriters, any suggestions for story prompts?

W is for Writing Goals #atozchallenge

Day 23 of the Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: writing goals (topic kindly stolen from Jessica Loftus).

At the beginning of the year, I set myself some resolutional goals (making up words was not one of them).

One-third of the way through the year, and with summer break fast approaching, it’s time to reevaluate and revise.

  • Get an agent (which means stop picking at my novel and just send it out already).

I’ve sent out queries, and this weekend I’ll send out more.

Ain’t happened.  I’m on chapter 10 and got sidetracked.  But I’m focusing on this novel with a writing group on Scribophile, so hopefully that’ll be the impetus I need to get going.

  • Have at least fifteen stories out on submission at any given time – currently I’m at nine. 

I was lucky enough to have a string of publications recently, so right now I’m at five out.  I have six half-written stories I’d like to finish, as well as several that need some tweaking.  If I can get them out soon, I’ll be able to meet this goal as well.

If you’re a writer, what are your goals for the next few months?

V is for Veracity #atozchallenge

Day 22 of the Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: veracity.

In his book The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes,

“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” 

This has stuck with me as a writer, because often I’m writing about things that I haven’t personally  experienced.  And obviously I want these things – events, characters, themes – to resonate with the reader.  A big chunk of why I write is so that someone who doesn’t write will read something of mine and think, “That’s exactly what I would say.  She gets it. She gets me.”

O’Brien’s book is written as a memoir of his experiences in Vietnam.  Only the characters never existed, and their actions never happened.  But does that make them less real?

Our perceptions color so much of our lives.  What if we remember something differently than how it happened: different motivations, different reactions?  It was real, but it happened completely different than we thought.  What if I as a writer portray something that never happened, but could have?  But should have? 

What if I can discern your motivations and thoughts and express them in writing, even if you don’t even know why you’re doing something?  What if I can make something real for you?

I think that’s what we look for when we read, or watch a movie, or look at a painting – can the creator articulate what we can’t?  Can they make it real for us?

U is for Unbelievably Tired #atozchallenge

Day 21 of the Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: unbelievably tired.

I’ve fallen behind by a couple days, but I swear I have a good reason: that other half of my life, the nonwriting part.

This week has been super busy.  Monday was a teachers’ inservice day.  For those of you not familiar with the teaching world, just because the kids have the day off doesn’t mean the teachers get it off.  Teacher work days are actually a misnomer, because we rarely get any work done.  Instead, we sit through meetings.  Lots and lots of meetings.  So on Monday I met with the other teachers in my program in the morning, and then in the afternoon we had a meeting with a bunch of people to figure out our summer work plan (yes, although I teach I also technically work during the summers).

Tuesday I was roped into chaperoning a field trip, of all the juniors in the district going to a day of career and college workshops.  It was fun, but quietly threatening to separate talking kids wore me out.

And then yesterday I went with a busload of kids to the state capital for a day of job skills competitions.  I made my first wake-up call at 4:45, picked up the first kid at 5:00, and was on the bus at 5:30.  The last kid was dropped off about 8:00 pm, and I was asleep by 9:00, mostly because I was up until 1:45 that night finishing up stuff we needed for the competitions (because I procrastinate).

Tonight I’m still tired, but I’ve been sucking down Pepsis all day so I have at least another hour in me until I crash for the night.

How do you get through the day when you’re super tired?

T is for Television #atozchallenge

Day 20 of the Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: television, or the lack thereof.

I’ve never been a huge TV person.  For as long as I can remember, I’d usually multitask while watching: crocheting something, working on homework or later paperwork for a job, playing a computer game; something (I even take something to crochet with me to the movie theater).  I can’t just sit there.

After I graduated college, I became a teacher.  Teachers aren’t known for their high salaries, nor their massive amounts of free time, so one of the things we decided not to get was cable.  There was enough to watch on regular networks, and then along came Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, etc.  All was well in TV Land.

But then I noticed that shows started changing.  Aside from all the pointless reality shows, it was no longer possible to watch sporadically.  Episodic shows like Bones, House, and even comedies like Scrubs needed to be watched every week or you wouldn’t understand what was going on.

As people who know me can attest to, I can be stubborn.  If you flat-out tell me what to do, chances are I’ll oppose you just on principle.  And I felt that TV was forcing me to watch, week after week, so I stopped watching.  Simple as that.

When I moved last summer, I donated my massive old TV to Goodwill, and for the last ten months I’ve been TV-free.  I still have a computer to watch videos on, but I really don’t do that very often.

And I gotta tell you, it’s great.  I don’t want to say I’m necessarily more productive, but I’m more productive on certain things, like writing.  I can’t see myself getting another TV any time in the near future.

Could you give up TV?

S is for Six Sentence Sunday #atozchallenge #sixsunday

Day 19 of the Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: Six Sentence Sunday.

Okay, first, yes, this is probably against the rules of the A to Z challenge, seeing as how I should’ve posted this on Saturday and not Sunday, but you know what?  This is my blog, and I’m lazy.  So, here it is, my six sentences for the week.

This week’s chunk is from my a novel I’m working on, A Handful of Wishes.  An elderly shopkeeper has given Zeke an odd-looking bottle.

“Promise me, Ezekiel.” The man’s voice was stern, commanding, as was the stare he leveled upon the boy.

“I promise to take good care of what’s in this bottle.”

Cornelius reluctantly handed the bottle to Zeke, who immediately took it and ran up the street towards his apartment. “Not what, my boy. Who!” the shopkeeper called after him, but Zeke was too far away, too excited, to hear his words.

Post a link to your six sentences blog entry, or join the fun at the Six Sentence Sunday website

R is for Reading #atozchallenge

Day 18 of the Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: reading, and specifically my April “Books that made me Love Reading” Challenge blog post.

For April’s entry into Emlyn Chand’s “Books that made me Love Reading” Challenge, I reread Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time books (the first four).

I remember that I read those books, maybe in fifth or sixth grade.  I remember witches and a 2-dimensional dimension, and Noah and nephilim, and a regenerating starfish.  Other than that, I couldn’t tell you anything; plot and characters and overall summary drew a complete blank.

But I also remember that the fourth book inspired my first epic story, complete with map.

In sixth grade, we switched from a pure reading and grammar class, to a twice-a-week writing class.  Up until this point we’d written stories, of course, and poems, but never in their own class.  Unfortunately nothing has survived from this period other than memories, but I was super productive: a fan letter to Ann M. Martin (no relation), author of the Babysitters Club books; a crappy poem about baseball that won a school contest and was published in the local paper; and my epic, which was twelve pages, confused/bored the hell out of my classmates when I read it aloud, and was a pretty solid rip-off of Many Waters, complete with desert girl who may have had the same name as the MW girl and god-like lion (tribute also to The Chronicles of Narnia).

So, here are my impressions of the books:

  • A Wrinkle in Time:  book one, in which the Murray children travel to a distant planet to rescue their dad, a physicist studying time/space travel.  The characters were at times pretty simplistic and straightforward for a kids’ book (Calvin the boyfriend especially – he pretty much existed to just explain what was going on, and he accepted everything way too fast), but the message was pretty decent: when confronted by an evil communist super being, selfless love’ll save the day.
  • A Wind in the Door:  book two continued the message of selfless love, and this quote pretty much sums it up: “Love isn’t how you feel. It’s what you do.”  The MC, Meg, realizes that everyone has some good in them; it’s just a matter of finding it.  She travels with her boyfriend and her principal (huge implausibility issue with the principal, but whatever) into her brother’s mitochondrion.  Everyone ends up sacrificing themselves to save him, hitting home that message of selflessness.
  • A Swiftly Tilting Planet:  book three, which deals with time travel.  Urgh this one irritated me.  I’m of the school of thought that you can’t go back in time and change the past to change the future, but Madeleine doesn’t agree with me.  The story message was good, and the multigenerational plot line was very engaging (although there were a ton of confusingly-similar names), but you can’t change the past to change the future. That pushes you into a parallel universe.  Sorry.  (Tangentially, Futurama explored this pretty well.)
  • Many Waters: probably my favorite book of them all.  This one is completely different, and it tells the story of Noah and his daughter, with seraphim and nephilim thrown in for good measure.  As I said in a previous post, this is why I love history – the stories.  L’Engle does an awesome job of sticking to the biblical-ness of the details.  I wish she’d written this as an adult novel, because there are a ton of themes and subplots that could be explored.

Overall, despite not remembering these books they held up pretty well.  The science is still sound (except the time-travel bit).  The themes – our choices help in the battle of good vs. bad, selfless sacrifice, and love for everyone despite them being jerkfaces – are just as relevant now as they were when the books were written.

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