Sometimes when you’re dreaming up a story, you create plots for the characters and begin casting players for the role. You’re pretty clever and rather pleased with yourself. You think you’ve got it all figured out. But then you begin writing the thing…
It’s interesting how a character will start to steer its own course. You realize you really have no control over the matter, and are resigned to figuring out the character’s purpose now that it has taken a complete about-face.
What we discovered during these moments is a truer spirit with the character we’ve created. They were never meant for the role we’ve assigned them, and they have taken it upon themselves to tell us so. Now we must take greater care discovering their new role so we don’t botch it up.
Perhaps the most extreme case of this I have experienced (because I’m a pretty good judge of character) is the Madam Raven. She was meant to be a traitor. She was quite vile and vicious. But just as I was leading up to the glorious moment, she paused on stage – mid sentence – and her red lips did that thing they do when she’s displeased.
“No,” she said quite plainly. “That’s not how it goes at all.”
Do you know, I’ve been writing for 13 years and still struggle with passive voice? It’s a dilemma for many writers. You shouldn’t feel down and out of you get feedback on it.
This is where editing comes in to play. Editing really is a lot more fun than people give it credit. A writer can finally come back to her work and read it almost as if for the first time. She might have been a speed writing demon for months and forgot half of the punch lines she worked in. Suddenly stumbling on them again, she realizes they were pure magic.
Editing can be fun. I thoroughly enjoy the process of tweaking, fixing, and rearranging my books. At first, it used to hurt if I had to delete whole scenes – some I dearly treasured. But after a few years, you come to realize the story is too important to allow a few fun scenes drag it down.
Editing gives me a chance to really hone in on my characters. I want their actions to make sense, and I want their personalities to feel real. It gives me time to get to know them. I’m forced to stop and think and evaluate whether a word or a deed fits with the overarching makeup of the plot. It’s also fun just to spend time with them – some of whom I love, some I love to hate.
Editing provides the experience of viewing the book as a whole. When you’re writing, it tends to come in leaps and bounds, jumping from one scene to the next. With editing, you can smooth out those transitions to make them seamless. It really is a wonderful step in the creative process, and the better you can edit yourself, the less others will edit over you. That’s not a promise, but it’s a pretty good assumption.
When you use your personal life experiences to develop a character’s struggle.
Don’t underestimate the connective power of your own story – your personal testimony. People connect to emotions. This is why teenagers (and certain moody writers) listen to sad music, angry music, heart-breaking music – because they desperately need to feel connection.
It’s no different with readers. If they’re going to pick up your story and thumb through the pages, they’re looking for a spark of connection. When they read the author section in the book aisle and inspect the summary, they’re weighing the odds of whether this will be a story worth their dime.
If you notice, the people who get the most attention and subsequently the most followers are those who exposed themselves to the world. They’re not ashamed of their struggles because they know the hardships make them strong. People gravitate toward honesty and strength.
What you must ask yourself is what do you have to offer the world? A really good story of success? Or a great testimony of survival?
I’ve bounced around an idea of starting a series of blogs titled “We’re Here!” – the search for characters and what makes a character-driven story.
Today, I thought we’d focus on villains. What makes a villain and what makes a good villain so bad.
In our very first post for “We’re Here!” we’ll explore villains from multiple angles and discover the antagonists all around us.
PS LOVE the new additions to the WordPress app. 😀
Bad to the Core
There are, of course, people in the world who are simply bad. They seek only to please themselves. They run after pleasures of the flesh and the physical, always chasing that which they believe will make them feel happy and fulfilled.
You can use this in a story. You can have a villain who is simply selfish, and every reader will understand their motive and cringe at the injustice of it all.
There are other levels to selfishness too. Some people have a specific skill set, such as gambling, swindling, lying, stealing, and they take pride in those skills. Give your villain a defining skill, something to make him realistic in your reader’s mind.
Bad by Default
Wouldn’t you agree some people just strike on bad luck? They were born in the wrong place at the wrong time. This can be discouraging for the human soul, which strives to believe everything it does is for good.
Now this villain needs a place to belong. They’ve given up on life and got caught up in whatever racket has been chasing them down. It could be a gang. Maybe they’re a follower for an evil ruler. Maybe they’re simply so hurt, all they care about is hurting others. Hurting people hurt people.
So give your villain a strong emotional connection on the negative side. Make them angry or bitter, resentful, unfulfilled. But try to strike for something specific – their father left them/beat them/etc. Their only friends were the neighborhood gang who treated them terrible but promised them a place to belong. Be creative, but try to stem from real-world examples if you can. Maybe they were kidnapped, human-trafficked, or simply raised by plain old mean people.
Usually these villains can have a great redemption moment. Play with that. Maybe in your story, you want to save people, not simply create an environment for your hero to be heroic. We all love stories of forgiveness.
Bad for the Sake of Good
This is a tough one. There are people in the world who believe what they do is for the good of humanity. Conquers of old were good examples of this. In those days, it was conquer or be conquered. So as ruler, you sent out to battle local countries to display your power. This in turn kept your own people safe, because no one dared challenge you.
This villain believes they are good. They are completely justified in their mind. One could almost write the story from their point of view and make them the hero!
One of the best ways to write this villain is to make them so believable even the hero begins to falter. Make your readers question everything they thought they knew about right and wrong. This is a powerful villain, because if the readers believe for even a second that their hero could fail, you’ve added the perfect element to any story – RISK.
A good way to find villains is to look at people, politicians, religious leaders, and anyone you don’t like. Dig into questions of why you don’t like them. Do they challenge your way of life? Do they cause you personal harm? Are they resisting your cause for good and well-being?
Now hop the fence and study your personal antagonists. Read up about them and their values. Discover why they do what they do. Why they believe what they believe. In doing that, you’ve just researched material for a great villain.
Me: I can totally finish editing this book by tonight!
*Glances down at page bar. Pages read out of total page count – 53/147.*
Also me: I’m never going to finish…
A WORD ON EDITING
Editing is when a writer becomes inundated with her own work. The read-through, rereading, excessive reading, looking-up/looking-back/looking-through, not to mention shipping it off to an editor who will instruct you to go through his edits carefully, after which you really should follow up with a polish read, then send off to a beta reader (or two or three – not all at once, mind you. You really should only send to one beta at a time in order to keep all edits concise.) Once they’re through, you’ll find yourself going over their edits, which means more reading.
Does it ever end?
This part can be discouraging for writers. It’s a well-known truth that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. You might find yourself getting bored with your own work. Certain scenes may sound useless and trivial. The ending might feel muddled, confusing, or just plain bad. It’s tempting to give up sometimes. But sometimes, this is where the rubber meets the road and you’re faced with the awe-inspiring realization that you have created something spectacular.
This is the moment every writer lives for. Acknowledgment for oneself that the work is indeed good. You might think the “moment every writer lives for” is when readers first get their hands on a copy of the book, but I say that’s an inaccurate statement. In order to believe what others might say about us, we must first believe it for ourselves.
A hundred people can call you pretty/handsome, but until you look in the mirror and believe it for yourself, those compliments fall on deaf ears.
Your parents may call you brave and stalwart, but until you face down your own fears and see the hero within, you will simply think “they’re being nice.”
A teacher might say that you’re intelligent, creative, but until you review the work of your hands and see the product for what it is – intelligent, creative – you will say, “They’re just trying to be encouraging. They don’t believe it.”
Believe in yourself.
Because this book I’m working on is the sequel in a two-part series, I reread the first book to refresh my memory on the characters and working of the plot. It has been perhaps two years since I published the first book, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I had forgotten. It took me three days to read it.
Maybe that’s a small book. Or maybe I simply couldn’t put it down.
Arrogant? I think not. There’s nothing wrong with getting excited about your own work. If you don’t, no one else will. There’s a difference between bragging excessively and wanting to share something you are passionate about.
Forgetting and rereading the first book cemented in my mind that, yes, I had created something spectacular. You see, after publication, I revert to this overwhelming phobia that my work wasn’t polished up to par, or that I didn’t describe the world well. Sometimes I fret that the characters aren’t true to themselves, or that readers will discover all my plot holes. I became paranoid. My work wasn’t good. My writing was terrible. Now everyone will see it.
(Admittedly I would like to polish up the first book more, just because I’ve learned so much about editing in the past two years, and I would like to fix the esthetic appeal of the read.)
In my rediscovery, I found the story flowed exceedingly well. I was impressed with my own characters. I cheered for their growth and successes. My heart began to pound everytime they encountered danger, and the horror of the cliffhanger left my palms sweaty and my hands shaking.
This was everything I dreamed it would be.
Now I’m 53 pages into the second installment. I have been meticulously editing, molding, and reshaping the words so that they are their clearest, so that they speak their best, describe their best, and read their easiest. I have been merciless, cutting out anything that detracts from the story. And the most surprising realization is that there is no pain in editing.
People like to say that editing feels like your heart being torn out, but I’ve never experienced that – thank the Maker. My purpose in writing is to tell a story and introduce these characters – these delightful little people I’ve imagined – to the world. I want them to look their best, so I wipe off their smudges, scrub the dirt off them, polish and shine them, and proudly look on as they make their way across the stage.
Editing should not be all painful.
Editing should be the proudest moments of your project. When you can honestly look down at the work and say, “Yeah. This is really good. And it can be better.”
I want to encourage you – whatever you’re working on – that this can be an exciting and rewarding time. If you enter the editing mode with grudging and fear, you will experience grudging and fear. But if you enter with positivity, excitement, and hope, then you will experience those feelings instead.