Villainous Words

Let’s start Monday off with a little reader participation. I want to see what you think are the best lines/monologues/taunts ever spoken by a fictional villain. Often, stories are known for their villains, sometimes more so than their protagonists. Just think about The Dark Knight, Star Wars or even Wacky Races. In fact, in a lot of comic-book movies nowadays, people care more about which villain will be showing up, rather than the hero’s story. And why not?

So, here are my top 3 most villainous quotes ever!

I’m not a comic book villain. Do you seriously think I would explain my master stroke to you if there were even the slightest possibility you could affect the outcome? I triggered it 35 minutes ago.

~ Ozymandius (Watchmen)

I ate his liver with fava beans and a nice chianti.

~ Hannibal Lecter

Stop kitchen scraps to orphans and lepers, no more merciful beheadings……..and cancel christmas!

~ Sheriff of Nottingham (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves)

Right! Let’s hear it. What are your favourite villainous quotes? You can leave a comment below.

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What is a (Modern) Hero?

People nowadays tend to steer clear of using the word “hero” when talking about stories, whether that’s a novel or a movie. The correct word to use is “protagonist” or “central character”. It’s funny, because back here in the real world we’re quite happy to call soldiers, doctors and teachers “heroes” (which is funny, because most people don’t actually like being labeled like that). I know that sometimes protagonists are not necessarily heroes. Sometimes the antagonist is. But the point is, where have the heroes gone?

Heading back to fiction, take a look at comic books and the movies spawned from them. They feature superheroes and supervillains and they often enjoy being referred to as such. The problem, I think, is that fiction has tilted towards realism and “grittiness” rather than the lighthearted, carefree (campy, even?) fun that seemed to be popular before. This means that heroes now have to have a great deal of depth and, usually, a tortured, dysfunctional past. If you disagree, look at Nolan’s rebooted Batman franchise, the new Amazing Spider-man or any modern war movie or spy thriller. These are modern heroes.

James Bond

We no longer have James Bond ordering martinis and hanging around in exotic locales in cream trousers. He’s now grim, determined, no-nonsense and very violent (not that I don’t love Daniel Craig’s interpretation). I guess it’s good, in a way. People are focusing more on story and substance now than flashiness and style. But, I still think it’s good to remember things that have fallen out of favour–one day they most likely will make a glorious return. Everything goes in circles, including the world of fiction.

Any character who goes out of their way to help or protect others is a hero. How many ordinary people do you know who would endanger their own life for a complete stranger? Any character who resists the pull of greed, selfishness and hate is a hero. Any character who’s made mistakes and has done terrible things, who can make a change and redeem themselves is a hero.

What is a modern hero? The person who decides not to be a sheep and makes a choice to make a difference. The person who stands up for what they and society really believe in. The person who is still standing after the weight of the world is piled on their shoulders.

Marvel Heroes

Next time you hear someone refer to a protagonist or central character, tell them its okay to use the word “hero”. We can always use more heroes.

I’d just like to remind you that these are just my opinions. If you disagree, agree or have something else to add, please feel welcome to drop in a comment.

What To Do When You Lose Interest

It’s happened to all of us. You get a story all planned out, you create the world, the characters, the set-pieces and you storm through the first few chapters. ‘Excellent,’ you say, ‘this is really going somewhere.’ But then it happens. You lose interest.

Then what do you do? You start writing something else. Whoa, hold on! That’s the last thing you want to be doing. I should know, I’ve done it more times than I can count on an octopus’ fingers (if they had fingers).

I want you all to be honest. If you’ve ever done this before, leave a comment on this post with a simple “Yes”. The first step to breaking this nasty cycle is admitting that you do it.

The second thing you need to do once you’ve acknowledged your habit is to go back to that story that you now supposedly “hate” and find out where it went wrong. You may think you don’t need to do this, but you really do. What you need to do is run through this checklist and make sure that your story has all of these things:

  1. A clear theme (e.g. betrayal, the human spirit, love)
  2. A plan for a beginning, middle and end
  3. At least one central character who is interesting to read about
  4. A conflict that makes people care about the outcome
  5. A change/progression in your main characters

If you feel that your story was missing any of the above elements, go back and fix it.

If none of those things were missing, then there might be an even simpler solution: swap something around. This can often make all the difference. Here’s an example:

Hero A is honest, charming and kind. Villain B is selfish, impulsive and brooding.

Now, if we change things around a little, things become a touch more interesting:

Hero A is brooding and impulsive but also kind. Villain B is honest and charming but also selfish.

Immediately, we’ve blurred the lines between what’s “good” and what’s not and made the characters much deeper.

So, next time your story starts to flounder and you feel yourself switching off, try the techniques above and play around with what you have. Remember, just have fun with it!

Reblogged: A Few Essential Tips on Character

Just a few essential tips that I found in a really great article you can read here. We all need to remember a few of these from time to time.

Act Upon The World Rather Than Have The World Act Upon Him

Don’t let the character be a dingleberry stuck to the ass of a toad as he floats downriver on a bumpy log. We grow weary of characters who do nothing except react to whatever the world flings at their heads. That’s not to say that characters shouldn’t be forced to deal with unexpected challenges and left-field conflicts — but that doesn’t prevent a character from being proactive, either. Passivity fails to be interesting for long. This is why crime fiction has power: the very nature of a crime is about doing. You don’t passively rob a bank, kill your lover, or run a street gang. Simply put: characters do shit.

Boom Goes The Dynamite

Blake Snyder calls this the “Save The Cat” moment, but it needn’t be that shiny and happy. Point being: every character needs a kick-ass moment, a reason why we all think, “Fuck yeah, that’s why I’m behind this dude.” What moment will you give your character? Why will we pump our fists and hoot for him?

Nobody Sees Themselves As A Supporting Character

Thus, your supporting characters shouldn’t act like supporting characters. They have full lives in which they are totally invested and where they are the protagonists. They’re not puppets for fiction.

How You Succeed Is By Not Having Them Succeed

You as storyteller are a malevolent presence blocking the character’s bliss. You must be a total asshole. Imagine that the character is an ant over here, and over there is a nugget of food, a dollop of honey, and all the ant wants is to trot his little ant-y ass over to the food so that he may dine upon it. Think of the infinite ways you can stop him from getting to that food. Flick him into the grass. Block his path with twigs, rocks, a line of dishsoap, a squeeze of lighter fluid set aflame. Be the wolf to his little piggy and huff and puff and blow his house down. Pick him up, put him in the cup-holder in your car, and drive him 100 miles in the opposite direction while taunting him with insults. The audience will hate you. But they’ll keep on hungering for more. Will the ant get to the food? Won’t he? Will he find his friends again? Can he overcome? Primal, simple, declarative problem. You are the villain. The character is the hero. The audience thirsts for this most fundamental conflict of storyteller versus character.

Beware The Everyman, Fear The Chosen One

I’m boring. So are you. We don’t all make compelling protagonists despite what we feel in our own heads, and so the Everyman threatens to instead become the eye-wateringly-dull-motherfucker-man, flat as a coat of cheap paint. The Chosen One — arguably the opposite of the Everyman — has, appropriately, the opposite problem: he’s too interesting, a preening peacock of special preciousness. Beware either. Both can work, but know the danger. Find complexity. Seek remarkability.

A Tornado Beneath A Cool Breeze

A good character is both simple and complex: simplicity on the surface eradicates any barrier to entry, and complexity beneath rewards the reader and gives the character both depth and something to do. Complexity on the surface rings hollow and threatens to be confusing: ease the audience into the character the way you’d get into a clawfoot tub full of steaming hot water — one toe at a time, baby.

Get All Up In Them Guts

Know your character. Every square inch. Empathize, don’t sympathize. Understand the character but don’t stand with the character. Get in their skin. The closer you get, the better off you are when a story goes sideways. Any rewriting or additional work comes easy when you know which way the character’s gonna jump. Know them like you know yourself; when the character does something under your watch, you know it comes justified, with purpose, with meaning, with intimate knowledge that the thing she did is the thing she was always supposed to motherfucking do.

What’s In a (Fantasy) Name?

So, what’s in a name? That’s the question I’m going to explore today. I’ll give you the answer now: everything, that’s what. How can I write an article about a question I’ve just answered? Answer: I can’t, but it does lead me nicely into an article on fantasy character names.

Let’s get down to the topic at hand. Names. If I’m being honest, names are one of those aspects of writing fantasy that I both love and loathe. You may remember an article I put together on this subject a while back (And Don’t Call Me Shirley) which dealt more with coming up with names. What I want to talk about now is how names affect the characters they are pinned on.

Take the example below:

The great sorcerer, Gob Blackfist, reached into his robes and produced a wand. He beckoned to his servants, a brutish warrior called Amiah LaFontaine and a pretty young she-thief called Alcandameus the Pale.

Please feel free to send in your messages of adoration; it’s a masterpiece, right? But seriously, there’s something really wrong with the names in that snippet. Now, there’s nothing wrong with calling your sorcerer Gob Blackfist, so long as you explain why he’s called that. Why do you have to explain your choice of name? Because it’s non-conventional and the reader will question it.

Here’s another example. The names are now as you might expect:

The great sorcerer, Alcandameus the Pale, reached into his robes and produced a wand. He beckoned to his servants, a brutish warrior called Gob Blackfist and a pretty young she-thief called Amiah LaFontaine.

‘Yes, master?’ Gob asked.

Alcandameus grinned. ‘I think I have finally solved this accursed problem with our names!’

See, that was better, right? No strange names where they shouldn’t be and no orc-type names for our great sorcerer. If you came across an author of bloodthirsty, epic fantasy on the bookshelves and his name was Clarence Pink, you’d be a bit turned off from reading his work. If, however, he used a pen name like Alex Steel… well, bring on the violence!

In the same respect, it’s strange to come across a person whose surname matches their job. A traffic warden called Ian Fines, a firefighter called Rob Burns or how about a jeweler called Mr. Goldsmith? It’s true that surnames originated in this way. Your local medieval blacksmith might earn himself the highly imaginative name “Blacksmith”. If you use names like this in your writing, however, it can come across as a little bit childish and silly.

The best thing to do when assigning names to your characters is to speak it out loud and maybe put the name into a few lines of dialogue. See how it sounds and if it sounds wrong, go back and try something else until it feels right.

Don’t forget that tomorrow I’ll be posting our second ever author interview. Don’t miss it, it’s going to be great!

Stuck? It’s not you, it’s your character!

Traits

When I start writing something new, whether it’s a new story or the first chapter for a new character, I occasionally find myself not fully getting into the writing. Usually, it’s a case of going back and doing a little more plotting, character development or just taking a break to collect my thoughts. On rare occasions, though, I realise what the real problem is… the character.

I ran into this problem recently, in fact. I had two main characters that I was intending to use to tell the story. They were both fully formed in my mind and I felt that I knew all about them and knew how they would speak, react and live. The only thing was, one of the characters didn’t seem right. I felt like I was writing a sub-plot (and not a very interesting one). I thought about ways to change this character’s story around and make them more interesting to follow. In the end, nothing worked. I knew that this character needed to be in the story, but he just wasn’t a viewpoint character.

So, I took another character that I had been developing and explored him in more detail. He was a little older, grittier, more bitter and had something to prove to the world. Now this was the kind of character that I could really do something with. What’s more, he was the opposite of my other viewpoint character and I could already see conflict emerging between them.

I can’t give you any concrete advice on spotting whether your character might be wrong. It’s instinct, really. Try writing a chapter with that character and see how it flows. Read it back to yourself and see if you like the character and believe their motives. If not, strip it back down and try another tack. When you’ve exhausted all possible ways of salvaging the character, then you can start thinking about a new character. Don’t just throw characters away straight off the bat, though. They need development and time to grow in your mind. If you’re struggling to come up with characters who excite you, try thinking of a negative trait and a positive one and then amplifying them for the purposes of your character. Conflicting traits are present in real people and they provide great inner conflict for your story.

Character Depth

I was browsing through the FantasyWriters section on Reddit earlier and I came across a comment that really made sense to me. I can’t remember who posted it or which topic it was posted on but here it is:

 

In my experience the key to interesting characters is making them have a least three layers of depth.

The first layer starts with what everyone sees, the way your character is expected to act. The image they try to show everyone.

The second layer is a more personal side. This is where they show there’s more under the surface. This is the image they either don’t show often or are afraid to show.

The third layer is what they will become. This is the end product of their story, the person they are when all is said and done. This is the hardest layer because chances are even you won’t know where they end up.

 

I think this is really good advice for character development. While I’m on the blog, I also have some really exciting news for you. Next Friday, I’m going to be featuring another author interview! I’m hoping to make this a regular feature on the blog and get a really nice collection together. If you know of any writers out there who would be interested, please get in touch.

~ James

Building a Wiki For Your Novel

Recently, I’ve been working on a new method of fleshing out the finer details of my novel-in-progress. I like to call it a Wiki, even though it’s not necessarily hosted online anywhere. I spent a couple of hours looking at various wikis for such worlds as Westeros, Midkemia, Warhammer 40K Universe and Middle-earth. I looked at character pages, location pages and other miscellaneous pages for objects, historical events etc. Now, I love looking through wikis, Wikipedia being my favourite, and I love the way that the information is presented. It’s easy to read, quick to find important information and fun to explore.

Here’s a nice example from A Wiki of Ice and Fire:

Jon Snow

Jon Snow is the bastard son of Eddard Stark, by a mother whose identity is a source of speculation. He was raised by his father alongside his true-born half-siblings, but joins the Night’s Watch when he nears adulthood. He is constantly accompanied by his albino direwolf Ghost. At the beginning of A Game of Thrones, Jon is fourteen years old.

Character and Appearance

Jon was raised by father Eddard Stark, alongside his true-born half-siblings. Eddard always treated Jon the same as his trueborns and Jon got on well with his half-siblings, particularly with Robb and Arya. Jon always had issues with his bastardy and eventually chose to join the Night’s Watch, where the circumstances of his birth were of little importance.

Jon has strong Stark features. He has a lean build and a long face, with dark hair and grey eyes.

History

Ned brought Jon back after he returned from Robert’s Rebellion and insisted on raising him with the rest of his family. Jon got along with most of the Stark family, but Catelyn always considered him an outsider and his presence served as a constant reminder of her husband’s infidelity.

Yada yada yada…

As you can see, there are nicely defined sections, the information is concise but descriptive and in just a few paragraphs we already have pretty much a decent character profile. Depending on which character I am dealing with, I like to have an additional section on Equipment & Attire, too. As I write the wiki page, my character is growing and forming in my mind and I can gradually add more details about them as I go along. As I develop my story’s plot, I go back to the wiki and add the individual characters’ progression through the plot. Check out the example below:

Recent Events

A Game of Thrones

When the family encounters the direwolf pups after Gared is executed for deserting the Night’s Watch, Jon takes the albino pup, as it is an outcast from its litter. Jon’s position both inside and outside the family subtly chafe him over the years until, when he nears adulthood, he joins the Night’s Watch.

Tyrion Lannister accompanies Jon to the Wall, and their friendship is fostered by their shared position as noble outsiders. Jon is initially resented by the other Watch recruits because of his noble background, but he eventually learns to fit into the crowd. His actions towards his fellow recruits exacerbate the lasting enmity from the caustic master-at-arms, Alliser Thorne. Jon also protects Samwell Tarly from bullying by some other recruits.

Lord Commander Jeor Mormont appoints Jon as his personal steward and squire in order to groom him for command. During a wight attack on Castle Black, Jon saves Mormont’s life and receives serious burns on his hand. Mormont gives him the Valyrian steel bastard sword, Longclaw, of House Mormont, and has a direwolf head engraved onto the pommel in honor of House Stark.

Although Jon has learned to fit in with the Watch, he has difficulty separating from his old life. At the outbreak of the War of the Five Kings, he tries to desert to join Robb’s army, even though the common penalty for deserting the Night’s Watch is death. His new friends bring him back, however, and save him from this fate. Jon finally decides to honor his bonds and abandon his Stark past.

I go through a similar process for non-character pages. Let’s take an example from the LOTR Wiki on the Rangers of the North:

Rangers of the North

The Rangers of the North, also known as Watchers or simply Rangers, were the last remnant of the Dúnedain who had once populated the Northern-kingdom of Arnor.

The Rangers usually wore grey or dark green cloaks with no identifying ornaments except a six-pointed cloak-clasp in the shape of a star. Another identifying feature was that all of them wore a green longcoat. Equipped primarily with swords and bows, they were quick, versatile, and experienced riders.

History

Characteristically elusive and enigmatic, the Rangers spent most of their lives in the wild, visiting towns and villages only on rare occasions. The Rangers were led by Chieftains. These Chieftains could trace their lines back to Isildur himself and his father Elendil. Though the Chieftains were designated figures of authority for the Rangers, the scattered people had no official headquarters or capitol after the disintegration of Arnor and possibly lived in temporary camps scattered about the wilderness…

Etc. etc. etc…

The pages for events, organizations, weapons or ideas are much shorter than that of a character’s, usually. They contain less sections and sub-sections because characters are usually much more complex than objects, places and concepts. Usually.

Once I’ve completed the individual wiki pages I like to combine them all into one file and keep it on my hard drive with my other project files. If I ever need to look something up or add a detail to my world, I just open the wiki and do what I need to do.

At some point over the next month I’m going to put together my own method of making really nice antique fantasy maps in GIMP, a free Photoshop clone. I guarantee you won’t want to miss it!

~ James

A Bullet to the Brain: Writing Like a Sniper

I read an interesting article the other day about how snipers think when they’re carrying out an assassination (linked at the bottom of this post). They interviewed the sniper with the ‘most kills’ in the world and he said that being a sniper is a very intimate job.

Camp Hansen, Okinawa, Japan (May 21, 2004) - A...
Image via Wikipedia

You spend ages watching the target, getting to know their routine, their personality, their habits. This got me thinking that writers are really not so different to snipers.

When creating/getting to know a character, a writer gets only a small scope to use to look into their life. Anything outside of that circle is pitch black and invisible. We patiently watch the character going about their daily routine, learning what motivates them, what scares them and everything else in between. Occasionally, we will leave them for a while to look around their surroundings, getting the lay of the land and understanding the local culture. Once this is done, we return to learn more about the character, their family and their friends.

I thought that this was a good analogy and it sums up how I go about creating a character. I wonder if anyone who’s reading this has other methods that work well? Are there any other ‘sniper writers’ out there?

That’s all for today. Roll on Friday and the weekend!

 

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And Don’t Call Me Shirley: Part One – Character Names

Leslie Nielsen
Image via Google Images

Deciding on a name for a character can be like trying to decide which sandwich to have for lunch. Sometimes you know exactly what you want and it works for you (Chicken and Bacon). Sometimes you struggle and you end up with something that doesn’t quite sit well (Crayfish and Rocket). In rare cases, you abandon the pursuit altogether and slack off while your novel (stomach) screams in protest (McDonald’s).

When I first started writing, I was working on a typical ‘epic’ fantasy story. The story was predictable, the creatures were stolen (elves, dwarves, giant eagles) and the hero was a self-obsessed arse. But the names were good. At least, I thought so. I’d always loved history and the English language, which gave me the drive to create names while borrowing from different periods in time.

For example:

Thail – Heavily influenced by Norse mythology and naming. Thor, anyone?

Mithas – Maybe influenced by Tolkien‘s fictional ‘mithril’?

Drall – A bad guy. Definitely influenced by the word ‘droll’ (curious or unusual in a way that provokes dry amusement).

Of course, these characters had no surnames or had names like Mithas Dragonslayer. It’s a fantasy cliché that I now steer clear of as much as possible. In a way, it’s historically accurate. People in Ancient Greece didn’t have surnames as such, instead going for the Tolkien-style ‘Aragorn, son of Arathorn‘ or Michael Moorcock‘s ‘Elric of Melniboné‘. The sad fact is, these sorts of names often, but not always, bring attention to an immature or inexperienced fantasy writer in this modern world of gritty superhero movies, gritty reboots and Mr. Tarantino.

The rules that I apply to my naming conventions nowadays are as follows:

1. It should have roots/stem from a historical name in reality. If not, it must mean something in the language(s) of the fictional world.
2. It must be consistent with other character’s names from the same region/country in the fictional world.
3. It should include a surname/family name/title. If not, there must be a cultural/personal reason why.
4. It should be easy to say out loud and easy to read.

Here are three good examples from my fairly recent writing:

Drust Ironmane – A Celtic-style name. Drust was a real-world name. The character’s family earned the name ‘Ironmane’ because of their wiry, dark hair.

Decimus Sulla – A Roman-style name. Both were real-world names. The Romanesque names have been rehashed and put into a table I created so combinations are consistent.

Tomas Gadden – Tomas is a real-world name (more unusual than Thomas). The surname was invented and just came to me at random. Further regional surnames follow the conventions of ‘Gadden’ so they are consistent.

I suggest using baby name websites/books sparingly. It’s best to read plenty of fantasy and non-fantasy fiction, read up on a bit of history that roughly relates to the general feel of your fictional world/region and be on the lookout for unusual words/names in your day-to-day life.

Next Tuesday, I’ll cover place names in the final part of this article. Hope you can join me then and thanks for reading!