DIGITAL INK: WRITING KILLER FICTION IN THE E-BOOK AGE
Today, novelists Bonnie Hearn Hill and Christopher Allan Poe are sharing an excerpt from their co-authored book on writing in the digital age. Bonnie has a long list of publications, including six thrillers from MIRA Books (which will soon be available in audio) and four young adult novels, and Chris is finishing his second novel and has been accepted into the International Thriller Writers Debut Author Program. They are members of the same critique group, speak at writing conferences across the country, and they are both Type A, high-energy authors who frequently finish each other's sentences.
They wrote the book because they believe that in the stampede to get published in today's market, too many writers are focused on marketing instead of craft. Over many cups of coffee and frequently Bonnie's taco soup or Poe Lite Potatoes, DIGITAL INK was born.
"I learned how to write and sell by studying books by Jack Bickham, Gary Provost and John Gardner," Bonnie says. "Although my early books were about writing nonfiction, I've been busy writing novels for the last ten years, and DIGTAL INK would not have happened without Chris Poe. It has been a perfect partnership, a joy really."
Chris, a distant relative of Edgar Allan, says that writing the book was hard work but extremely rewarding, because each of them went the distance for the other. He also created the book's video trailer. https://vimeo.com/44621266
"Our voices complement each other," he says. "Those who know us say it's just like hearing us talk to each other. Not even my wife could tell which chapters are mine and which are Bonnie's."
The authors will be joined by humorous astrology writer Hazel Dixon-Cooper for a free workshop on craft and publishing, Saturday, Aug. 4, at A Book Barn in Clovis. They can be reached at www.digitalinkbooks.com, www.bonniehhill.com and christopherallanpoe.com.
From DIGITAL INK: WRITING KILLER FICTION IN THE E-BOOK AGE
Bonnie Hearn Hill & Christopher Allan Poe
YOUR ANTAGONIST: THE BIG BAD
Now that you know how to get or keep your protagonist tuned and revved up, it’s time to take a look under the hood of your antagonist. This is the primary villain of your story. The Big Bad.
We’ve already mentioned that problematic manuscripts usually begin with flimsy protagonists. So what’s the second most common problem with novels? Yep, a weak antagonist. Your villain is not exempt from character development just because he does things that make you uncomfortable. In fact, he needs to be as believable as your protagonist, more so even, because his actions will certainly be outside of accepted behavior.
“I’m more likely to lose my temper on a film set than almost anywhere. Often the level of idiocy is so exalted that it’s impossible to comprehend.” –John Malkovich.
Can’t you just hear Malkovich’s voice in every word? His tone drips with condescension. No wonder he plays exquisitely evil guys. Clearly, the dark part of his psyche is a welcome friend. As an author, you need to be just as close to your inner Malkovich. You must understand what motivates your antagonist. Live and breathe his desires. Only then, will your reader fear his every move and marvel at his unbelievable cruelty.
In countless workshops and writing groups, we’ve run into a similar scenario. The author, let’s call him Jim, has been paying attention, and his story is just starting to get good. Big Bad’s on a killing spree. The protagonist is on the run. But wait a minute. Something’s not tracking.
“Hey Jim,” we ask the author. “Why did your villain just stab that pedestrian? She posed no threat.”
“Because he’s evil,” Jim replies.
“She wasn’t even in his path though. He ran across the street to kill her.”
“He did it because he’s crazy.”
With a human population approaching ten billion, there’s no shortage of actual stories of human cruelty to pull from. The ten o’clock news is proof of that. Malevolent behavior can be confusing to understand, so let us explain what bad guys don’t do.
They don’t break people’s hearts for no reason.
They don’t kidnap elderly folks for no reason.
And they sure as hell don’t kill people for no reason.
Are you starting to see the pattern? Banking tycoon and hated Wall Street giant of his day, JP Morgan said, “A man generally has two reasons for doing a thing. One that sounds good, and the real one.”
A great villain usually skips the one that sounds good, but he always has a reason for his dirty deeds, at least in his mind. Justifying your antagonist’s actions by saying that he’s evil or crazy (or both) is sloppy writing at best. What it really means is that you don’t know your character. Evil implies a state of being. We learn the word in the first grade along with good, happy, and sad, and the description usually accompanies stick-figure drawings.
People aren’t evil. They’re frustrated, angry, jealous, and hurt. Their desire to inflict pain can be motivated by revenge for past injuries. Their thirst for power can stem from the helplessness they felt as children, but nothing was predetermined at birth. Even “crazy” serial killers have reasons. Some of them involve reenacting their childhood trauma, or even sexual release, but the reasons are there.
So what motivates your antagonist? His abusive stepfather? The girlfriend who packed up and left while he was away? Maybe your protagonist wronged him in some way. When you explore your villain in depth and know what led him into darkness, you open the doors of your mind and let him breathe in the real world, a place where bad decisions have consequences.
Better yet, your reader can relate, at least a bit. We’ve all made poor choices in life that could have led down a dark spiral. Your reader might even feel a flicker of sympathy for him, until her logical brain steps in and recounts all the other people with similar sad stories, who didn’t start slinging dope to school children.
Two more ways to beef up your antagonist
If he’s not crazy, and he has to be a real person, how can you take this person and give him a reason for all of the horrible things he’s going to do? Here are two techniques.
Place him on a mission.
Stan Lee is widely regarded as the godfather of the modern superhero. He described his antagonist Erik Lershner—Magneto for the comic book geeks among us—as someone who wasn’t a villain. He only wanted to defend mutants. Society was not treating them fairly, so he was going to teach society a lesson.
People justify terrible acts in the name of a cause. They rationalize and even feel good about their actions. Think of the atrocities committed in the name of religion, nationalism, or the advancement of science. The Crusades and the Tuskegee experiments come to mind. In Rwanda in the early ‘90s, the Hutu generals believed that cleansing the Tutsi population was a moral imperative. Otherwise, they might not have been able to stomach the millions of bodies left in muddy roadways as they passed.
History books are filled with such stories, which is why it feels real when our antagonists use a cause to justify their actions.
Go beyond pure evil.
Many authors create antagonists who are selfish, greedy, conniving, ruthless. Yet Steve Jobs exhibited at least one of those traits when he created Apple. Does that make him evil?
Every sin and virtue exists somewhere in the spectrum between light and dark. We humans occupy that gray area. All of us. No exceptions.
“Not my little Walter,” you might say. “He makes honor roll and donates his time to the Red Cross.” We assure you, the sexual depravity that occurs every five seconds in the mind of your teenage son would bleach your roots, and let’s not get into how teenage girls treat each other. Shades of gray. This is what it means to be human. Hell, even Gandhi lost his temper a time or two.
Just as perfect protagonists are a problem, so are perfectly heartless antagonists. Always remember that villains are people first and monsters second. Bad guys don’t think of themselves as the bad guys. A woman doesn’t drain her ex-boyfriend’s bank account because she’s made out of concentrated evil. More likely, she’s been hurt in the past, and she uses that experience to justify her actions. That doesn’t mean she’s any more likeable, but it does humanize her. What are her positive traits? Better yet, what are her reasons? A character-driven reason for your antagonist’s vicious actions will always tilt the balance into dark gray, just enough to make him more believable.
So where does that leave us? The good have flaws, and the bad have reasons. Remember, no one gets up in the morning thinking, “I’m a rotten jerk, and I can’t wait to mess up someone’s life today.”
You want an antagonist, not a caricature, a human being, not a cartoon. In short, you want O’Brien from George Orwell’s 1984, not Lex Luthor from Superman. If you give your antagonist reasons, he’ll immediately become more real to your reader. That, in itself, makes him scarier. Isn’t that what all authors are searching for in their stories? One big giant bad guy to keep your readers up turning pages all night.