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How to Write Memorable Antagonists

Memorable Antagonists

Ed Harris, as General Francis X. Hummel, is one in a long line of memorable antagonists in stories.

ANTAGONISTS fulfill an indispensable function in stories. They act as spurs to protagonists forcing them to achieve their true potential.

In The Rock, Stanley Goodspeed, a chemical warfare expert working for the F.B.I. is sent on a mission with a former British spy, John Patrick Mason, to prevent General Francis Hummel from launching chemical weapons into San Francisco from Alcatraz Island.

The General demands one hundred million dollars in war reparations to be paid to the forgotten families of slain servicemen who died on covert operations. His actions, therefore, stem from his sense of duty to his men and their families, whom he believes have been abandoned by the country they served.

A well-crafted antagonist is more than a mere technical device. He is also a flesh-and-blood character with a personality, a belief-system, and a goal of his own.

How many times have we seen the villain doing villainous things, but can’t understand why?

This is because he is merely a cog in the writer’s plot. Since the antagonist and protagonist form the essential narrative unit that drives the story forward, a poorly written villain will stall the engine.

Nailing your Antagonists

Generally speaking, many of the aspects that apply to writing a credible character apply to the antagonist, but one in particular aspect warrants special mention: The villain believes he is the hero of his own story. He believes he is justified in doing what he does because of some past injustice, injury, or misconstrued sense of duty.

In The Matrix, agent Smith despises human beings. He hates their smell, their sweaty bodies, which he sees as prisons of meat. His job is to rid his perfect world of anyone who threatens it. He is intelligent, determined, skilled — in his own mind, a hero with a cause. It is partly this self-belief that makes him such a memorable villain.

Summary

Give your antagonist a powerful cause, operating within a self-consistent value system, in order to lend him credibility and depth.

A Good Plot Entails Cause and Effect

The Good Plot in Stories

The Good Plot in Stories

EVERY good story needs a good plot.

The English novelist E. M. Foster defined plot as a series of causally linked events. One of the surest ways to strengthen your plot, therefore, is to ensure that your scenes are tied together through cause and effect.

Aristotle referred to this important aspect of a story as unity. He believed that if a scene makes no difference to the characters of a story then it has no place being in it. Unity, or causality, is fundamental to the well-written tale.

What is Good Plot, Anyway?

‘The father died and then his wife died’ is not a plot because although the two events follow upon each other they are not causally linked. ‘The father died and then his wife died of sorrow’, however, is a plot because the first event causes the second.

Plot is at its strongest when it stems from a character’s goals, needs, wishes and desires pitted against those of an opposing character or force.

In my award winning novel, The Land Below, for example, the hero’s desire to explore the world beyond the confines of his underground existence drives the plot. It explains his actions and reactions to events around him.

Fledgling writers sometimes believe that a series of action-packed scenes makes for gripping viewing or reading – that pace and action is what people want from a story.

Although this may be partly true, it is not all that people want from a tale. If characters have no higher purpose other than to beat each other up, if scenes provide no new information, if scenes fail to deepen or explain character, or if characters survive only to repeat the same action in a different setting, they will fail to generate plot because of a lack of consequence.

Linking scenes through cause and effect in order to show that actions have repercussions, therefore, is indispensable in generating a good plot.

Summary

A good plot is generated through linked scenes that are driven by characters with conflicting goals, wants, needs and desires.

Elements of a Great Story

Herman Melville, master of the great story

Herman Melville is the author of the great story of Moby Dick

Well-crafted writing occurs when the writer is able to integrate narrative elements so that each element functions perfectly, and in its place, to produce the symphony that constitutes a great story.

True geniuses, as opposed to talented writers, do so spontaneously without continuously having to think about the inherited machinery of their craft since their work so often breaks the mold, forming a new blueprint from which additional instances are generated.

In his influential 1962 Writer’s Digest article, Are Writers Born or Made, Jack Kerouac writes:

“Writers are made, for anybody who isn’t illiterate can write; but geniuses of the writing art like Melville, Whitman or Thoreau are born.”

The good news is that once we have mastered the techniques, once those neuron pathways have become entrenched through practice, we too can fulfill the requirements needed for a great story.

The truth is that for most writers the fluency and depth that are the hallmarks of a great story stem from the countless of hours spent cultivating their craft.

Elements of a Great Story

Take the relationship between the protagonist’s weakest trait and the climax of the story, for example. Could you tell me what that relationship is? And could you use that understanding to write a well-crafted ending worthy of being called the climax of the story?

Asking these questions might lead you to say that since your protagonist’s weakness is that he suffers from arachnophobia, it might be best to have him face his antagonist in a chamber filled with spiders, an antagonist, who, by the way, happens to love spiders – breeds them, keeps them as pets.

The scales of the final confrontation, even with other factors not withstanding, are now tilted even more in the antagonist’s favour. Tension is higher as readers and audiences fear for our hero’s fate.

But what then might cause our hero to defeat his nemesis? This can’t be forced lest our protagonist appear to be a marionette at the mercy of the plot.

Well, how about checking through his list of positive traits for a clue? His rediscovery of some half-forgotten talent? His ability to fight blindfolded, developed through a childhood spent sword fighting with his brother, perhaps? Add to that a talent for hitting small targets from a distance acquired through flinging stones at coke cans, again, as a boy?

Might he not knock out the light in the chamber, grabbing the advantage from his adversary while simultaneously avoiding seeing the spiders?

This example, simplistic as it is, does illustrate how thinking about character traits in an integrated way might put us on the path to finding a fitting context for those traits to operate in—in this case the climax.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, I use precisely this integration technique at the story’s climax to allow Benjamin’s backstory and his unrelenting love for his family to generate a fitting but surprising response to the life-threatening challenge presented to him by tropical cyclone Yasi.

Summary

Learn to integrate the various narrative components to produce a story that is well-crafted.

Character, Plot and Verisimilitude

Character,  plot and verisimilitude in Edge of Tomorrow

Character, plot and verisimilitude in Edge of Tomorrow

HOW do you achieve verisimilitude in stories?

Make your story a consequence of character instead of making your character a mere pawn of the plot. In other words, have character, typically your protagonist, drive the story forward in a convincing and germane way.

This is not as complicated as it may seem if you ensure that your protagonist’s traits are in keeping with his actions at the nodal points of your story.

In Edge of Tomorrow, for example, Major William Cage initially refuses to do his job of filming the allied landing in France against the alien invaders. This action aligns with his trait of self-preservation.

But when the General orders Cage to the front as a private, an encounter with the enemy results in alien blood being spilled on the major. This endows him with the power to keep returning to the moment of his death so he may take a different path.

Through trial and error he learns to use this power not only to survive in a personal sense, but to try and defeat the enemy in order to save humanity, and specifically, the woman he has fallen in love with. His focus on self-preservation has expanded to include the preservation of the human race.

His heroic actions at the end, when he loses the power to return to the moment before his death, reveals that he is willing to sacrifice his life in one last-ditch effort to save the world. The trait of selfishness has given way to the hitherto hidden traits of self-sacrifice and duty, awakened by the endless series of hard knocks he has endured. His actions at the nodal points, therefore, are determined by his inner traits and are part of his character arc.

Similarly, in The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos’ choice between seeking safety in his cyclone-resistant house, or letting the storm end his life lies in the tension between his sense of guilt for the death of his wife, and the love he bears his parents.

Ultimately, a third characteristic, his gift of intelligence, arbitrates between the first two warring traits. His decision, an inevitable consequence of his character, results in appropriate action and is a major turning point in the story.

Summary

Make your protagonist’s actions an inevitable consequence of warring traits. This will help lend your story verisimilitude.

Turning Life into Great Writing

Great writing

Turning life into great writing

Great writing, in my opinion, embodies two indispensable but distinct sets of skills.

The first arises from the writer’s own life: empathy, intuition, observation, inquisitiveness, moral compass, and the like.

Some skills within this first set are surreptitiously acquired over time, simply by living one’s life; others are innate and spring from the writer’s general and emotional intelligence.

The second is learnt more quickly. Knowledge about the craft, such as how to fashion the theme of a story, how to make characters engaging, how to weave plot and subplot together so that they compliment each other, is easier to acquire.

Much of the writerly advice offered in books, blogs, and courses emphasises this second set of skills. Mention is made of the importance of the first set, a writer’s powers of observation, or the need to be inquisitive, but the emphasis lies squarely on how to work with technique. The reason is simple.

It is far easier to teach someone how to use a turning point to spin the story around than it is to align that turning point with some astute observation about the human condition.

I often advise my students to think about both sets of requirements simultaneously; to try and integrate them into the writing process from the get-go.

The information needed to produce great writing is all around us—in streets, shops, restaurants—if only we can learn to observe, relate, and recognise its relevance in our work.

Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to be teaching at a college in Australia, which was situated a few hundred meters from the art gallery at Brisbane’s South Bank. I would often spend my lunch hour there browsing through its many treasures.

Turning life into great writing

I remember on one occasion being captivated by a painting of a young woman in a floral dress. She was leaning against a tree and seemed rather forlorn.

I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, that someone else was studying the painting intently. A glance revealed that this person, an elderly man with deeply wrinkled skin, was working his top lip with his teeth. Another glance revealed a trace of tears in his pale eyes.

I crept away so as not to intrude, but my imagination raced with narrative possibilities. Did she remind him of his own daughter that had, perhaps, passed away? Or, had the young woman been a lover who had rejected him?

I tucked the image away in my mind for use in some future story, perhaps as a minor beat, perhaps as an inciting incident or turning point.

I have, as yet, not exactly done so, although I did locate a few important scenes with a very different character at that very gallery in my second Scarab novel.

The point is that one’s readiness to absorb a spectrum of experiences, to remember the small details that breathe life into memory, and to allow for their narrative possibilities to take hold of the imagination, is a wonderful way to broaden one’s skills in life and in writing.

Summary

Great writing requires the integration of two distinct sets of skills. The one stems from living and observing life, the other from mastering the techniques that transforms life into stories.

Integration in Storytelling

Integrated storytelling

Integration in storytelling

I have written many articles on the craft of storytelling over the years.

Certainly, the web is chock-a-block with free and paid advice on the subject in the form of more articles, books, and courses.

Given the availability of this learning material and the willingness of students of writing to read it, we should all be absolute masters of the craft.

So, why aren’t we?

The truth is that much of the material presented in books and courses lacks a pointed approach to the storytelling craft, a focus on effective integration of the various story elements.

Yes, we learn that stories comprise of a three, four, or five act structure. And yes, we are told what an inciting incident, a turning point, a character trait, and the theme, are.

But do we truly understand, at a deep, almost subconscious level, how they work together to produce a successful screenplay or novel?

Without an intimate and near replete understanding of how one narrative component flows into another to produce a network that is bigger than its parts, we will always fall short of mastering our craft.

Having covered the most important narrative elements, often more than once, we will now turn our focus more sharply than ever before on the relations that exist between them.

Integrating your Storytelling Elements

For example, can you describe in detail the flows that constitute the relationship between theme and character? Or character and backstory? Or how the inciting incident is related to the first turning point in a story?

The answers to these and other questions are important if we are to achieve an integrated understanding of our craft.

If you’ve answered no to some of these questions, be sure to watch this space.

Catch you next week.

Summary

Integration refers to the deep level understanding in storytelling of the relations that exist between the narrative elements that form the structure of a story.

How to Make the Backstory Relevant to Plot and Character

The backstory is essential to plot and character in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

The backstory is essential to plot and character in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

I remember reading somewhere that in order to write a great character you first have to know that character’s backstory in great detail.

Only then, it was suggested, would you be in a position to know how the character ought to respond to certain situations. Only then can you think about developing the plot.

My gosh, how daunting. It’s like asking me to plow a large field with a spade. If I took that advice I’d never finish any story.

 

“The point is that the backstory is important only insofar as it sheds light on a character’s responses to the challenges posed by the plot.”

But how could we possibly know that in advance?

Yes, it might be interesting to note that your hero smokes cigarillos on his birthday if that quirk will enrich his character, but do I really need to know that he wore red scarves as a child if that observation might be of no significance to the story?

It shouldn’t be that complicated, folks.

Drilling Down to the Essentials of the Backstory

So, where does one begin looking for significant events in the backstory, especially when the story is not fully determined yet?

Let me tell you what works for me.

Because I sit halfway between being a pantser and a plotter, I begin with a sense of what my protagonist needs to achieve in the story—his goal.

Nothing too specific yet. Perhaps he needs to defeat an adversary from his past. Perhaps he needs to arrive at a certain destination at a specific time. I know he will encounter external obstacles in trying to do so, but I do not need to know exactly what they are yet.

I also know that I need to challenge his ability to achieve his goal by complicating his decision making process through a dilemma, or some inner flaw.

These clues come from thinking about the plot and character simultaneously, and in general terms—nothing too specific, at this time.

Let’s say my protagonist suffers from agoraphobia or is recovering from an addiction to alcohol or drugs.

This immediately forces me to think about what incident in the past might have given rise to this condition. Such an incident is truly worthy of being part of the backstory.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, my protagonist’s addiction to smoking directly affects the plot of the story. Indeed, his desire to have one last pack of cigarettes before boarding the Sidney ferry with his wife is the chief cause of his predicament.

This realisation led me to sketch in some background regarding his smoking.

Thinking about your character’s goal and relating it to his positive and negative traits, then, encourages you to come up with that part of the backstory that sheds light on why your character might have those traits in the first place.

Think of this approach as a goal-trait-backstory triad of techniques that helps grow the story in a more integrated and economical way.

Summary

Find the story goal. Relate it to your protagonist’s flaws and traits. Come up with the backstory that explains them.

Writing Distinctive Dialogue

Distinctive dialogue in The Simpsons

Distinctive dialogue in The Simpsons

ONE of the most common mistakes we make early on as writers is that we do not give each of our characters distinctive dialogue.

All too often Tom tends to sound like Dick and Dick like Harry. There is little separation in tone, style, idiom, colour, let alone subtlety or shading. We mistakenly concentrate on having the dialogue promote plot, rather than simultaneously using it to reveal character, too.

Yet, dialogue, when written well, is one of the most efficient ways of establishing texture and variety in our characters. Watch any episode of the Simpsons and try to redistribute the dialogue between characters. Close to impossible to do. That’s because each utterance belongs to that character and that character alone.

“Distinctive dialogue brims with life and individuality. It transmits the values, manners, texture, idiom, and unique personality of each character in the story.”

The Power of Distinctive Dialogue

In Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers provides us with this example, taken from his adaptation of The Summer Fletcher Greel Loved Me, by Suzanne Kingsbury:

MAN ON A SODA MACHINE
(auctioneer fast)
I’m doing good. Annie May’s on the phone this mornin’, her son
Walter he run around with that little Peterson boy. The Petersons,
they can’t hold themselves together. Big James Earl Peterson,
that’s that boy’s daddy, he gone shot himself through the mouth
last month. Just last Sat’day, that little un done the same thing, .22
on his tongue, and pulled the trigger. Walter gone and have to watch
it. He ten years old.

RILEY
Son of a bitch.

MAN ON A SODA MACHINE
That boy’s fat as a hog, too. Dead fat kid on a back porch in this heat’s
a Goddamn buttache.

Compare this to the career diplomat who’s appalled with America for lying to the South Vietnamese:

MCKILLOP
I’ve been here five years…
(looks at Ellen)
This is my home…And now we’re just running out…
(this kills him)
Nobody asked us to come here. We told those people we’d save
them from the boogie man. And now they trusted us…And now it’s
over…Just shot too pieces. We came in here with our “we wear
coats and ties, we know what we’re doing here folks” attitude, and…
we didn’t…And now… and now, we’re just leaving them like a thief
in the night…leaving them… in such a mess… and, and… I’m so
ashamed and so sorry…

The pace, idiom, texture, and speech patterns between the two is clearly very different, as is the attitude to life. Each character sounds like himself and no other. Try to emulate this in your own characters and watch them spring to life.

Summary

At its best, distinctive dialogue conveys, in a subtle way, the values, texture, idiom and unique personality of each character in the story.

Perseverance and the Writer

Writer, Steven King

Writer, Stephen King received many rejection letters before gaining traction.

THEY say it’s lonely at the top. But the truth is that it’s even lonelier at the bottom.

It’s also more frightening and more frugal. Unfortunately, the bottom is where many writers spend their most formative years.

Getting published or having a script made into a movie has always been hard for a writer.

Steven Spielberg brandished the script of E.T. for several years before he convinced financiers to let him make it. Writer Stephen King’s rejection slips could fill an entire wall before he became one of the world’s most popular writers.

These sorts of accounts are legion.

But then, in 2007, something changed, for novelists anyway. Amazon’s kindle came along and the sun broke through the clouds.

The idea of reading stories on tablets proved contagious. Other companies followed suit with their own brand of e-readers. New writers flooded the market. Some were really good, launching sustainable careers. Others, not so much.

Still, writers could publish their work on these platforms and get feedback from their readers in the form of reviews. Sales, some sky high, some closer to earth, followed.

Then, something changed again. Amazon began to tighten the screws. Algorithms were altered, making it harder to get noticed. Reviews became subject to all sorts of restrictions – some justified, some not. Sales plummeted.

Some writers lost steam. Others gave up on their dream of becoming writers altogether. It was too hard, too lonely, at the bottom.

Sound familiar?

“The truth is that writing screenplays and novels, and attempting to get them made and read, is as difficult as winning a medal in a long-distance marathon. It may sound like a platitude, but it takes strength, endurance, and an unflinching belief in yourself to finish in good time.”

There are many moments during a race where it seems easier to give up than to press on. These moments become even more tempting as the race drags on and you find yourself alone on the road and gasping for breath. You need something special to keep you going.

But perhaps the solution is all around you.

How a writer beats the blues

Do you fear not finishing? Simply giving up? Then use that fear to drive you on.

Concerned that you are not good enough to produce high quality work? Then read the blogs and articles on how to improve your craft and put them into practice.

But even more importantly, try to remember that magical moment that first got you writing. There is something timeless and powerful in that moment — an antidote to doubt.

Become familiar with it. Learn to conjure it up at will. Use it to inspire you when you need it most.

That moment, together with a sense of what life might be without your dream, might just help keep you in the race.

Summary

Keep writing. Keep learning. And never give up.

Emotion and Story Engagement

EmotionAS my mentor, the veteran South African filmmaker Elmo De Witt used to say, if we don’t feel emotion for our characters then we won’t care about their stories.

And if we don’t care about their stories we won’t care about the ideas behind them.

It is as simple and as complex as that.

Simple, because once we come to feel for the characters we will come to care about their fate and its meaning. Complex, because it takes great skill to find the words to make it so.

“The point is that emotion prises us open like an oyster. It shines a light on ignorance and prejudice. It discovers that precious and timeless wisdom residing inside the most shuttered heart.”

Primarily interested in communicating lofty, existential, philosophical concepts about the nature of reality and the human condition? Go write for a philosophy or psychology journal. Don’t focus solely on making your characters vehicles for conveying ideas. If you do, be prepared to have diminished success.

The Primacy of Emotion

Emotion that supports profound insight, however, makes a story unforgettable. Consider the following passages:

“Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.”
― Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray

“Sometimes pain is so unmanageable that the idea of spending another day with it seems impossible. Other times pain acts as a compass to help you through the messier tunnels of growing up. But pain can only help you find happiness if you remember it.”
― Adam Silvera, More Happy Than Not

“Leaning against my father, the sadness finally broke open inside me, hollowing out my heart and leaving me bleeding. My feet felt rooted in the dirt. There were more than two bodies buried here. Pieces of me that I didn’t even know were under the ground. Pieces of dad, too.”
― Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory

Moving, insightful, stuff and a reminder to writers that insight and emotion go hand in hand.

Summary

Use emotion to force your readers and audiences to care about characters and ideas.