Monday, October 24, 2011

What do you want to be this year?

Happy Halloween!

On the night before Nanowrimo, many of us are going to dress up in a cool costume and go to a party. We might be vampires, ghosts, devils, aliens, robots, anything at all. For one brief evening we get to play pretend. Real witches celebrate a religious holiday, Samhain, but may still enjoy dressing up as something else to go to a party too just as many Christians enjoy Santa Claus as much as the Nativity Story.

Then we get to play pretend all month as we roll on into our novels.

I posted an illustration of a black cat for this one because that's the most Halloween related image in my art files. Maceo is actually a sweet and loving cat who belongs to my friend Lisa. I painted his portrait. Any cat lover will see a big, regal, loving, affectionate fluffy cat who's in a friendly good mood. Any superstitious reader will see a scary black cat looking boldly at you.

Show your scariest character from the inside. Show the fluffy boy as well as the scary feared black cat. Who does he love? Why? What does he care about? What does he enjoy? What did he do that made him a villain? Is he a villain in his own eyes?

Maceo has a name. He has a loving meowmy. He's sweet and affectionate if you get to know him. But how would you feel about him if you were a mouse and he was a character in a children's book? At least at first, you'd fear him. How would you feel if you were a superstitious character who honestly believed that black cats had magic powers and were emissaries of the devil?

What if he caused bad luck on purpose? Not to his loving human, but to people who cross him in ways a human couldn't begin to understand. Like say, smelling of a big dangerous cat-eating dog, or being afraid of black cats and smelling hostile? Is he a villain or an angel in disguise?

If he's an angel in disguise, is he blessing the house of people he likes by sending them an abundance of small game - mice, interesting bugs, small tasty birds and frogs? Hey, a cat would think of that as good luck.

Sometimes prey-part decorating is a cat's way of showing he cares, a responsible cat doing her part feeding the family. Sometimes it's a bit of home terrorism and the cat understands the human's response perfectly well. You've gotta be there and know the cat in person to tell the difference.

Today's topic is monsters and villains because you've probably got one in your novel concept. You have an antagonist. Odds are that you, the author, don't agree with your antagonist about little things like way of life, what's right or wrong. Or your villain is a straight-up villain who agrees with the hero on what's right or wrong and simply chose Wrong as the more fun way to live.

Most villains don't believe they're the bad guy. Do that in depth and you have a grand Homeric conflict with powerful heroes on both sides. Think about anyone from the Odyssey showing up in the modern world with modern armaments and you have a serious invading-enemy problem.

Homer's losing Trojans were the "bad guys" because Helen of Troy ran off with her lover. Helen ran off with Paris because Aphrodite wanted to reward Paris with the most beautiful woman in the world and the love goddess didn't care that she was already married, so it was fate.

Trojan heroes defended their wives and kids, who wound up dead or slaves to the good guys. Trojan women killed themselves and their children rather than let themselves and the kids get carried off into slavery.

That would be Greek Tragedy for you - nice guys do get their city sacked and family destroyed because life's like that sometimes. Heroism is standing up to it as much as you can. Not as popular in the USA as a happy ending but a good writer can make it work even today. It'll sell better in the UK unless it's horror - horror doesn't have to have the happy ending.

But why doesn't horror need a happy ending?

Comeuppance, pure and simple. There's a whole stream of horror where the monster gets to do what the reader fleetingly wishes he could out in real life. Petty, aggravating people, someone with an irritating laugh or a snotty fast food server, gets a ridiculously huge comeuppance when the monster reels out his guts. Horror-humor is full of this kind of overreaction, Usually the monster makes fun of the victim too.

So who's your villain?

Get into his skin. Write some backstory. Your serial killer probably isn't starting out with Victim One at the start of your novel. Heck, if he is, my hat's off to you - that would be a searing, incisive portrait of a decline into madness. If so, what led him or her to become a serial killer?

Was it a chemical imbalance? Did this kid grow up with good parents and a happy childhood, nothing wrong in his life except that he just... doesn't... get it? That's a valid type of antagonist. He's even more dangerous if he decides coldly on the basis of his own self interest that serial killing isn't worth the legal risks, so he'll just destroy other people's lives to amuse himself. Put him in the boardroom or any position of authority and he's going to be a far greater menace.

Was it vengeance? Is she poisoning abusive husbands as a vigilante heroine? That's a well known pattern for female serial killers. She'd make a good villain, she has a Cause and she's willing to kill for it.

One of the most powerful things you can do as a writer is to give your protagonist and antagonist a similar background with similar challenges before the book even starts. A good published example is the difference between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort - it's all character. Both were orphans raised in harsh circumstances in the Muggle world. One was a selfish thief and bully, the other a young man almost pathetically good, desperately trying not to be as rotten as his cousin Dudley.

Harry had empathy. Voldemort lacked it.

Imagine what it would be like not to feel empathy at all. To understand other people only clinically, coldly, be able to read their emotions - and just not feel that one yourself. Or if that's not your antagonist, what about this?

Some people aren't really people. They don't deserve the consideration and rights that decent people do. They're enemies, out to get you, poor treatment is defense of self and others. Give them what they want and they would just destroy everything. That's not Voldemort, that's the Malfoys.

Half of the people in the world are xenophilic. They like people who are different. They enjoy meeting strangers, welcome them and feel intensely curious about their ways of life and ideas about everything. They're broad-minded, generous and ...

Naive, soft-headed, gullible when it comes to opening their doors to dangerous people. They just don't look at the risks. They're the ones who would let a serial killer stay overnight when they've got a teenage daughter and pay for it with their lives. You can't trust everyone you meet. They're out to get you. Xenophobic people are the other fifty percent.

Those tendencies are both there in most people. Extremes are rare and often dangerous. Conflicts emerge between those types and that provides a balance between accepting diversity or accepting it so far that you enable foreign atrocity in the name of accepting diversity. Life is never that simple except in a short story.

Nanowrimo isn't a short story.

Nanowrimo gives you the big picture. You can work out the guts of your conflicts during this last week. Figure out your antagonist in depth. Find out some backstory. Warming up with some offstage writing can help you sail into the beginning with a lot more confidence even if like me, you're a 100% pantser who hates working to an outline.

Come on, it's just like doing a sequel. You can write up stuff about the characters' backgrounds and get a running start. Pretend you're the character you like least in your upcoming book. Get dressed up and scare yourself and others. Get some idea why your villain became a villain and whether he thinks he is or is a self-righteous ass with a deadly black and white idea of virtue.

Write this exercise in first person. It doesn't need to be publishable unless it turns out to be. If it is, you have half the work done on an interesting sequel and it's very easy to turn first person into third person intimate. "I hated my abuser" turns into "He hated his abuser."

Maybe you want to write a vampire book. What would it be like to get into the head of a Van Helsing, a hunter who dedicated his life to wiping out these vile inhuman creatures - your sympathetic vampires. Remember, your whole vampire community are not gentle creatures who never kill (unless they are and the theme of your book is that the real monsters are humans). Odds are that even in a peaceful enlightened vampire community, someone will be a murderer. That one might have killed someone Van Helsing loved.

Or some kid, drunk on immortality and new superpowers, pranked him when he was small. Didn't kill him. Just jumped out and said "Boo." Wore a cape. Swanked around. Scared a child. Not a nice thing to do.

You write that and when your young vampire grows up as a prankish lover-not-killer, you have the makings of some Greek Tragedy. Small mistakes can become critical ones. Comeuppance is sometimes way out of proportion to the crime.

Have you ever known someone who says "I'm a loser, I'm a failure. I'm no good and I know it. I'm just a mean, worthless drunk and I try to be good but I just can't do it. It's all the bottle. You better give up on me because I'm poison." Pretty good excuse for anything horrific. Common everyday villain usable in any novel, at any level of society.

That villain can show up as a side character or star as the central antagonist, roaring through the novel like Hurricane Katrina through everyone's lives, property, families, relationships. He can even bottom out and start the long road toward sobriety and acting like a human being, a member of society again instead of a self-declared loser.

There's at least one anthropologist who studied the drinking patterns and behavior of other cultures and tested it by creating fake drinks for test subjects. They acted drunk on nonalcoholic taste-alikes when they believed it was real alcoholic beverages.

There's also an idea that alcoholism is genetic and chemical, an alcoholic will inevitably become addicted to the substance if he or she ever tastes it. But I would lay odds that even if that's true, how alcoholics behave is culturally determined. The one trait of craving does not in and of itself cause alcoholic behavior - or caffeine addicts and chocoholics would be as dangerous to self and others as alcoholics.

Those of you who crave chocolate have a different set of behaviors associated with it and can keep a healthy weight by choosing quality over quantity - a dark chocolate truffle a day may be healthful. But the conflict of a chocoholic in society and his or her behavior is very different from an alcoholic, because we expect alcoholics to act uncontrolled and impulsive while we expect chocoholics to be happy when they eat it and at most, feel guilty about their weight.

Chocolate is sin, chocolate is alcoholism in miniature.

By developing your villain's backstory, you're going to get a new perspective on the theme of your novel. You may even define the theme before you start by exploring it in this unofficial prequel.

So there's my suggested exercise for pantsers, to warm up during the week before Halloween and Nanowrimo. Dress up as the scariest character in your book and see what he or she did before the story began. If your novel is 100% Man Versus Nature, maybe write up your natural disaster's predecessors. Look at what deserts do to some minor characters before the protagonists come on stage. Look at the ghosts of those who died in previous mine cave-ins or tornadoes.

When I wrote Sabertooth last year, all my characters were animals. The bad guy male Smilodons were a rival family not that different from my beloved Musky and Elder's pride. Psycho Cat's big difference was violence even to females the triplet brothers tried to claim. He wasn't the leader of the Terrible Trio. Just the meanest.

Musky, by a significant factor, was an unusually sociable cat with stronger social bonds. Psycho Cat was the opposite extreme, a cat with low social bonding. His normative brothers took care of him and kept him in the pride because they loved him. Their untold story could have been written in October without disturbing the process of the book at all. It's a foil to the real story from the point of view of Psycho's Bigger Brother, the real leader of the Terrible Trio.

Smilodons take care of their own. That was the theme of my book. It was reflected as much in the opposite extreme example of my cats as in the protagonists' pride.

So who's your monster?

What are you going to be this Halloween? Who's going to be the biggest problem your main character has to face on the morning after Halloween? Dress up and have fun.

You'll hit the ground running with a daily writing habit. Your word count will soar and your theme will deepen. Your plot will gain complexity before it even starts. Have a go and enjoy it.

Next week's post will be Kickoff Day. I'm excited. If you're scared, give your villain a ticking clock and a nastier deadline in this prequel. It'll give him motive and you some confidence as well as enriching your book.

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