Posts Tagged antagonist

Self-editing masterclass snapshots: bland friend and upsetting antagonist

guardThis week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure and endings. Today it’s two questions about difficulties with characters.

heyjowwhereyougoingwiththatguninyourhand

The bland friend

One romance writer had a character who was the supportive friend for the protagonist. She worried that, in all the scenes of tea and sympathy, the friend was bland. I suggested giving her a rough edge that showed the limits of this tolerant soul. I drew inspiration from Dave’s mother, easily the most accommodating person I ever met. But she couldn’t abide spiders, and would not have been bothered if you squashed one while removing it from her presence. Suppose, I said to my romance writer, your nice lady is so mortally afraid of spiders that she always stamps on them?

The antagonist you’re afraid to write

Another lady had an antagonist who made her feel inhibited. She knew he should have more darkness than she had written but she feared to explore it. She also recognised this was cheating the book. What if, I said, she put that worry into another character, let them act out her discomfort? Would that free her to unlock the antagonist? She seemed to feel that would do the trick. I also encouraged her to look for the kernel of good that let him feel positive and justified about himself – and maybe even disturbed him.

nyn2 2014 smlContradictions are a great way to make two-dimensional characters into compelling story-people. I’ve written about it at greater length here. And of course, there’s even more about characters here.

Thanks for the pic, heyjoewhereareyougoingwiththatguninyourhand

Tomorrow: accents in dialogue

I’m really curious about this question of the character who upsets us so much we feel inhibited when we write them. Have you had experience of this? Let’s talk.

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Your story needs two hearts

heartsStories need two hearts. I’m going to call them the warm heart and the dark heart.

The warm heart is the bond we feel with the central characters. It is the pleasure of spending time in their company. I hesitate to call it liking; it may not be so simple. Our attachment may be to just one person and their flaws and troubles, or it may be to a web of relationships. It is affection, but rough-edged. It is warm, but it might not be cuddly. It’s push and pull, trouble and strife, idiocies and idiosyncrasies. But it is where the reader feels at home.

And then there is the dark heart. The dark heart is jeopardy. The shadow at the end of the alleyway. The characters may have other problems in the story. They may fight miscellaneous foes. But the dark heart is an ultimate disturbance that will demand a day of reckoning.

Two long-running TV shows illustrate this in action. Fringe has both hearts. The central characters form a story family. Some of them are bonded by filial ties: the father, Walter; the son, Peter. There’s Olivia, the FBI agent who becomes Peter’s lover. There’s Astrid, a lab assistant sidekick who becomes a close friend. They are the warm heart of the show; the humans who have real and complex relationships and sally forth to do battle. And Fringe has its dark heart. The characters are on borrowed time; every day brings them closer to a confrontation they cannot escape.

One heart down

By contrast, Doctor Who, whose title character actually has two hearts, only has one of them working.

The story’s warm heart is in good shape. The Doctor and his TARDIS companion always have a vibrant relationship that brings us back week after week. We also get drop-ins from the extended story family: the Doctor’s wife; the occasional friendly alien he befriended while saving them. Previous companions are also available. This creates a galaxy family bonded by experience and affection.

The warm heart beats strongly. But the dark heart does not.

Now that might seem like nonsense. Doctor Who is all about getting into danger and fighting monsters, right? But they don’t treat these as seriously as they treat the character universe.

The threats are often negligible. Too often, the Doctor wins with a gadget, some fast-talking, an asspull or a vague wave of the omnitalented sonic screwdriver. He never has to raise his game to win. And the scriptwriters frequently bend the rules of their own show – thus disrespecting their own universe.

Although each series has an overall arc, which is where the dark heart should be beating its dreadful rhythm, it is false. It never produces a confrontation that will really put the Doctor on his mettle, or that could credibly destroy him. Even if the writers trick it up to look like that, he’s usually freed in one bound, and does not have to go through the wringer.

Because the writers don’t make us believe in the dark heart, the warm heart loses some of its power. You could say this demonstrates that we need the story to be taken as seriously as the characters are. Controversial.

fringeTwo hearts beat as one

Fringe goes one step further to genius. Here is why: the warm heart created the dark heart. Walter Bishop committed a crime that started an epic war. His son died, and so he opened a wormhole to a parallel universe and stole him back. The flawed warm heart let the dark heart in.

In a great story, the warm heart and the dark heart pump each other with life. The dark heart makes the warm heart more precious. And the warm heart makes the dark heart more terrible.

Thanks for the hearts pic Joselito Tagarao and the Fringe pic hherbzilla

Let’s discuss some stories – film, TV or prose – with warm and dark hearts. Buffy, anyone?

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Bringing the dead to life… Why novelists should read obituaries

obitMany years ago, my writer friend Cathryn Atkinson told me she found inspiration for characters by reading obituaries, especially those in the Daily Telegraph. By gum she was right, and I was soon curating my own file of the fascinating dead. I called it my morgue, of course.

Reading obits is still a habit, and not just to discover queer folk. I’m inspired by the way obit writers tackle certain problems we also have in novels.

Physical descriptions

Although famous people obviously get obits, so do obscure achievers.

For the writer, it’s easy to describe a person who is already well known; you just tick their recognisable characteristics. For Elizabeth Taylor, reference the violet eyes, voluptuous proportions and bawdy persona – and that’s enough to summon their physical presence.

But the obit writer often has to describe a person the reader hasn’t seen before. Which is also what the novelist does.

Crucially, they don’t rely on visual descriptions. Blue eyes and a crooked front tooth don’t mean much if the reader doesn’t already have a mental picture. So the obituarist adds another dimension – the sense of what it’s like to be in a room with the subject. One of the earliest entrants to my morgue file was an eminent female chemist who always had a worried expression, as though she feared a catastrophe was happening in the next room. I’ve long forgotten her name or what she was responsible for (alas), but I still know what it would be like to spend time with her. Another unforgettable was the religious leader who had the disconcerting habit of closing his eyes while he spoke.

nynfiller2Dignity, even for villains

The obit’s subjects may not always be nice or heroic.

Take The Economist’s obituary of UK reality TV star Jade Goody. She was infamous for squalid incidents, astonishing ignorance and racist remarks. She was also a shameless publicity hound. The obit didn’t whitewash any of this, but their unsparing portrait also uncovered her battles, hardships, goals and happinesses. The result gives her remarkable dignity.

This is so interesting for novelists. Even if we’re writing nasty characters, they become more potent if we approach them with respect and curiosity.

Back story and context

Obits generally follow a formula. First they hook your interest – tell you why the character is significant, conjure up a conundrum that gets you curious. Then there will be defining incidents from their prime. Details about childhood don’t come until late in the piece. After we have read about the achievements or ignominies, we are shown how the person started with similar stuff to ourselves – parents, a local library or sports ground, school teachers. There they are, just like we were, unaware of their destiny.

It might be peculiar to follow that backwards chronology in most novels, of course, but it’s a reminder that back story works because of context. Deployed in the wrong place, back story will be boring. In the right place, it can be humanising and even powerful.

Are there any non-fictional places you go for inspiration, such as obituaries? Why do you like them? Share in the comments

GIVEAWAY Don’t forget you can win a signed print copy of one of Tabitha Suzuma’s award-winning novels if you comment on her Undercover Soundtrack on the Red Blog!

nyn2covsmlAnd PS… if you enjoyed this post, you might like the next Nail Your Novel book, which is all about characters. It’s due for release in May, so if you’re interested to know more, sign up for my newsletter.

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Characters: choose their enemies and friends wisely

The magic happens when your characters are together

Your characters don’t exist in a vacuum, but as a complex ensemble. So choose their friends and enemies carefully

There’s a game going round on Facebook – write down as fast as possible 15 fictional characters who have influenced you and will always stick with you.

This is the list I rustled up:

1 Cordelia (surname probably Lear)

2 Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights)

3 Jill Crewe (from Ruby Ferguson’s Jill pony books)

4 Doctor Who (Jon Pertwee incarnation)

5 Charles Ryder (Brideshead Revisited)

6 James Bond

7 Lucy Snowe (Villette)

8 Bathsheba Everdene (Far From The Madding Crowd)

9 Eva Khatchadourian (We Need to Talk About Kevin)

10 The narrator of Tanith Lee’s Don’t Bite The Sun

11 Alexa (from Andrea Newman’s eponymous novel)

12 The gay vampire in Fearless Vampire Killers

13 Ray (hitman in In Bruges)

14 Robert Downey Junior’s Sherlock Holmes

15 Purdey (The New Avengers)

I thought of the list in a hurry, as per the rules, and as you can see some of them have nothing to tell a serious student of storytelling. But my choices aren’t the point of this post. The point is, I found the exercise surprisingly difficult.

Characters in a story are like an ensemble

Only one character?

In each case, I didn’t feel it was fair to single out one character – because their memorable, influencing journeys relied on other characters too.

A character makes a lasting impression because of the other characters they spark off.

To look at my list, who is Cordelia without peevish Lear, scheming Goneril and viperous Regan? Who is Eva Khatchadourian without the terrifying Kevin, sweet Celia and straightforward Franklin? Who is Charles Ryder without his dreary father the divine Flytes?

Characters in a story are like a choir. It takes the whole ensemble to bring out what is in the MC and they deserve the credit too.

What about Lizzie Bennett?

Some characters are so iconic that you could argue they deserve the spotlight to themselves. Lizzie Bennett, for instance – where was my head when I left out her? She’s good value wherever she goes. But we see that only because her sparring partners are so well chosen. Indeed in that respect, Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh are even more delightful than the essential Mr Darcy.

No character operates alone

No character goes through a story alone. Part of the writer’s fun is putting characters with others who will bring out the best, worst, be their opposites, nemesis, thwart them, push them to the edge and put their arms around them.

Who makes your main character most interesting? Who makes them do things? Who gets under their skin? Who completes them – or might destroy them?

So let’s play this game my way. You’ve seen who some of my favourite character combinations would be, and why – tell me some of yours.

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