Dueling Myths

Before I start the post, just want to let you know that, with help, I’ve become more active on social media. If you’re interested in more of me than this blog and my website offer, you can find me on Instagram at gailcarsonlevine. You’ll see my dog, my husband (though he’s camera shy), our backyard, and what I’ve been up to, including a little about the summer writing workshop, which just ended.

On July 5, 2017, Moryah wrote, I have a situation and an issue. There’s this object, and two groups of people lay claim to it. Both think their claim is legitimate, and my protag is trying to find out the truth (more or less). The object is fairly ancient and steeped in myth on both sides. My problem is that I don’t know how to write a myth, much less two that conflict in just the right places and therefore lend credibility to two different claims. Also, I don’t know what, precisely, the object does (though I know what it is) or what the two groups THINK the object does or why the two groups want it. (You can probably tell I’m not a planner.)

Lots of you had ideas.

Inktail: Well, imo, there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to write a myth. If it’s a sort of creation myth, I would recommend the book In the Beginning by Virginia Hamilton. It’s a collection of old creation myths from all over the world. If it’s not a creation myth however, that is a bit trickier to recommend a book for. There are many types of myths. I’d say, go to your local library and just do a search for myths. Many will most likely come up; grab whatever seems like it would help!

Jenalyn Barton: I’ve never really had much trouble writing myths, so I’ve never really thought about it. But in my experience, myths are usually stories: stories made to explain something, like a phenomenon or how something came to be, stories that were originally true and grew to be bigger than the actual event (like Paul Bunyan, King Arthur, etc.), and stories about what may happen. So if you approach it as a story (which you definitely have experience with), then you should at least have a starting point to go off of.

Jenalyn Barton (again): I forgot to include examples for myths about what may happen. These are stories like Ragnarok, life-after-death stories (the Egyptian afterlife has quite an interesting story to it), and stories about prophecies.

Christie V Powell: You might consider rereading (or reading for the first time) how J. K. Rowling introduces the Hallows in Harry Potter 7. She uses a myth that she created, the tale of three brothers. I used a couple of myths in my series:

1. http://www.thespectrabooks.com/apps/blog/show/44519445-may-bonus-story-earth-s-creation

2. http://www.thespectrabooks.com/apps/blog/show/44078340-the-legend-of-aiyana

Angie: An example that comes to my mind is the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. It’s treated rather like a mythical object, physically powerful, yet metaphorically as well, and people want it for different purposes. The story revolves around what happens to the ring, yet the characters become the meat of the story. Ultimately the object (and the way characters respond to its effects) embodies the themes of the whole series. I also agree with the suggestion to consider the Deathly Hallows and accompanying myth! The myth surrounding your object can be layered and exciting when you start thinking of the different ways people respond to it, or uses they would have for it. It would be a great way to dig into your individual characters.

Song4myKing: Another good book that includes myths is The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. The story centers around an object, and, while the characters travel to find it, those who know the stories tell them to the others. The myths are Greek style, with gods and goddesses and all their squabbles.

I’m planning to write myths into one of my WIPs. I have two characters from different cultures, and I want them to have different explanations for something that happened long, long ago. I want them to each have part of the truth but not all. I have the “real” happening mostly figured out, and hope to write it someday in its own story. So I take that “real” event and try to run it through the lens of a couple thousand years and a cultural bias. I’m not sure yet how each character will tell it, but I have some ideas. One culture might be quick to attribute the strange events to magic, while the other might attribute them to the cleverness of a few of the people involved (along the lines of Br’er Rabbit). One culture might see the results of the event as a curse, and the other culture might see it as a blessing.

Now for ideas about your myths. Is it possible that your two groups of people might think the object will help them in their rivalry against the other? (e.g. In Redwall, they looked for the sword that was supposed to help them defend the abbey. Also, Cluny thought that the tapestry of Martin the Warrior was helping the defenders, since it was giving him nightmares). Think about your cultures – what is valued and what is wanted. Think about how the object could give what is needed. Once you know what the object does, perhaps you can figure out its “real” history, then tweak it for each group based on how they would view it and pass the story on.

These are great, and Moryah probably used everyone’s ideas and solved her problem long ago.

I want also to shout out my favorite source of myths, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, which I first read when I was little and still go back to. Hamilton includes Norse myths, but most of the book is devoted to Greek and Roman myths, and her love of them is infectious.

I’m with Jenalyn Barton’s comment that myths are stories. When they undergird a different ongoing story–in this case one with two groups claiming an object because of the disparate meanings it has for them–they’re a kind of backstory. To take Angie’s example of the ring from The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien didn’t show the forging of the ring or Sauron’s loss of it in forward story time. The reader finds out about the myth from the wizard Gandalf, but that backstory is the reason for the whole plot.

(I’m not sure, though, if the ring is really a myth in LOTR, since it’s fundamental to this entire world, and its powers and history are real. But it functions as a myth and is certainly backstory.)

I confess I’m not familiar with all the examples you guys raised, but I am a fan of Megan Whelan Turner. So I don’t know how most of the myths operate in these books. Since I know it, let’s compare the ring saga in LOTR with, say, the Robin Hood myth. The entire world of LOTR depends on the ring’s backstory, and everyone’s future depends on the success of Frodo’s quest. In the Robin Hood myth, by contrast, the thief’s adventures affect only those close to him, and most of medieval life goes on and will continue to go on, with or without him.

If we’re using myths, they need to be part of our world building. So a consideration when we think about creating them is how fundamental they are to the universe of our story. Our world certainly has to accommodate the myth. At the very least, it has to be comprehensible to its inhabitants, but they don’t all have to know the story. At the most, it needs to be woven into the fabric of every life.

We get to choose which. If our story needs a myth for two different groups, the myth’s importance can be different for each. Or the same.
I love this stuff! So much opportunity for invention!

Lots of myths start out as religions. The Greek and Roman myths (which are related) and the Norse myths are examples. If that’s the case in our world, we have to create a religion, too, which doesn’t have to be fleshed out in our story–we don’t have to develop a creation myth, for example, if we don’t need one, but we have to make up enough of the religion for our own use to imagine what the mythology might be. For example, let’s imagine that the supreme god of one group is a dragon and the other group worships a pantheon of heavenly chivalric knights. The object might be an enormous round steel plate. The dragon worshipers regard it as a scale from the dragon’s neck, while the pantheon believers believe it’s the breastplate from a suit of armor of their most major god.

Some myths are cautionary tales. Christie V Powell’s second link is an example. Fairy tales, which can be seen as a subset of myths, often resolve in a moral: be kind; knuckle under; be beautiful–and all will end well. As another example, “Little Red Riding Hood” is a thinly veiled warning about talking to strangers. One of the groups can have this sort of myth attached to the object. Their system of morality can depend on it.

I love myths as exaggerated history. An example in our own hallowed history is the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, which I learned as factual when I was in elementary school. First published in 1806, it lasted as truth in New York City at least into the 1950s. It’s a reassuring story about virtue in our leaders.

If we’re going to invent this kind of myth for one of the groups, we need to think about what the myth does for the population. Suppose that famine is common here. Well, we might want a myth that exaggerates the feats of a Johnny Appleseed sort of figure, a farmer with the analog of an enormous green thumb, and our object might be a rake or a scythe. A scythe is a nice choice because the shape is simple and can lend itself to a different meaning by the other group.

Then there are myths that support the dark side of humanity. I’ve been researching the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and have begun a historical novel set in this time period. In my reading, I’ve come across the underpinnings of modern antisemitism that culminated in the Holocaust. Some of these roots take the form of myth. For example, there was the myth that Jews poisoned the wells Christians drank from. This one rises out of the spread of the plague. Recent research suggests that plague pandemics were spread, not by rats, but by airborne bacteria, and Jews suffered less than the general population–because they were confined in ghettos and had less contact with infected people. Also, Jewish rites incorporated a lot of washing, which was protective. But no one knew about bacteria at the time, so the well myth rose up to both explain the disease’s seeming selectivity and to pin the scourge on an already despised people. The myth of one of the groups could operate in this negative way.

The well-poisoning myth is a dark example of myths to explain natural phenomena, like volcanos, earthquakes. As a further subset, the myth might personify a feature of the environment. A mountain may be believed to be angry, for example. In my mystery Stolen Magic, a replica of a mountain keeps the mountain from erupting as long as the replica is kept on its stand.

So there’s a lot to choose from.

Here are four prompts, but you can build plenty more on the myth variants above:

∙ Invent two different myths about a scythe, and give the scythe two different powerful effects.

∙ Write a story in which the myth operates as a sort of villain, much as the well-poisoning myth did in European history.

∙ Write a contemporary story about an MC on a quest to prove that elves really exist.

∙ Write a cautionary myth that warns people against squandering money. Then write a counter myth that warns people against being miserly.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Starting a Shift

Seems like yesterday, but in November, 2015, Kitty asked a question about how to write a prison break and avoid cliches. In January, 2016, I wrote a post on the subject–http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/2016/01/20/lemme-out-convincingly/–and recently the universe responded with its own solution–peanut butter! You may have read about this. More than one prisoner was involved, which is not what Kitty was looking for, but from the description, the break could have been carried out by just one, and it certainly avoids cliche. Happily, all prisoners have been returned to jail. You can read about it here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/01/us/alabama-inmates-escape-peanut-butter.html?_r=0.

And this lovely, in-depth article appeared recently in the HuffPost about the twentieth anniversary of Ella Enchanted. You can read about it here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ella-enchanted-feminist-nostalgia_us_597bb2e7e4b02a8434b6866e.

On to this post. On July 5, 2017, Bookfanatic wrote, Does anyone have any ideas that will help me with the beginning of my story? My MC went to live with the fairies when she was six but I’m not sure how to write the transition from living with her aunt to living with the fairies.

Samantha wrote in response, How about a prologue?

And I suggested that Bookfanatic read The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw, which I’ve mentioned here before. In The Moorchild the process goes the other way. A half-elf whose mother is an elf is banished from the elves’ Mound and sent to grow up in a human family. McGraw begins with the grandmother in the human family who suspects that Moql (elf name)/Saaski (human name) is a changeling. After this start in current time, McGraw seamlessly transitions on page 13 to a flashback that provides the backstory. The writing is superb, and the temporal change works.

But I’m not a fan of either prologues or backstories if we can avoid them. Prologues worry me because some people (like me sometimes) skip them.
And I’m not crazy about flashbacks because they divert attention from the action moving forward. That diversion can–briefly–weaken readers’ interest, and, in a split second, we can lose them.

On the other hand, some readers and writers love them. Readers may feel a backstory lets them in on a secret, which has more than enough charm to make up for the distraction. And writers may feel they’re giving the reader a peek behind the story curtain.

So take your pick.

However, in this case, straightforward telling (and showing) seems called for. Our story can begin with our MC–let’s call her Lacy–in her aunt’s home, engaged in her ordinary routine. Let’s say she’s eating breakfast.

We don’t know if the aunt in Bookfanatic’s story is a good character or a villain. If she’s bad, Lacy’s breakfast may be half a slice of burnt toast. If she’s good, it may be a ripe peach, a fried egg, and oatmeal with cinnamon and brown sugar, which would have been my favorite if I had been a sensible child. In fact, my fave was six slices of white bread with the crusts removed, which, inexplicably, my parents let me eat day after day.

Let’s imagine that the aunt is bad. The fairy materializes in the kitchen, waves the burnt toast in the aunt’s face and intones in a mellow fairy voice, “This is what you give my godchild?” Before Lacy’s startled eyes, the aunt becomes a toad.

The fairy smiles fetchingly and waves her wand, and Lacy finds herself seated at the fairy’s fairyland dining table. A napkin unfolds in the air and settles gently in Lacy’s lap. Breakfast appears on the empty plate.

The fairy beams. “Dig in, darling child.”

The scents are unfamiliar, but Lacy picks up her spoon, fearing that if she doesn’t eat she’ll become a toad, too.

And so on. Breakfast can be delicious or odd. We move onto the progression of Lacy’s first day, using showing to reveal her disorientation, her mistakes, and the differences between the two worlds. We can use telling to reveal the reasons, beyond burnt toast, that explain why the fairy swooped in. If we’re writing in first person, Lacy’s older self, who’s narrating the story, can provide the answers. If we’re using third person, the narrator can reveal the reasons. This explanation can be woven into the showing, a sentence here, a sentence there.

Or we can start even earlier, say in Lacy’s infancy, again using showing to set up the conditions that will lead to the fairy’s intervention. If we approach it this way, we won’t need the narrative explanations.

(Obviously, what I’ve invented probably has nothing to do with Bookfanatic’s plot. The fairies themselves may need the child. Or a zillion other possibilities.)

If the main story takes place a long while later, say, when Lacy is sixteen, we may want to use telling to sketch in a few events in her life between then and now, so that the hop doesn’t feel abrupt.

When we bring the story into the present, we can echo the original situation. Lacy, older now, is eating breakfast across from the fairy and pouring caterpillar milk into her grass-seed cereal from a china pitcher in the shape of a toad.

Lacy and the scenario I’ve laid out may be charming, but it won’t really start the story unless we introduce the central problem of the tale early. We want to get the reader worried as quickly as we can, if possible in the first scene–not full-blown, but in a less emotion-packed way. Suppose the central conflict is a lack of understanding between humans and fairies. Well, we see evidence of it in the fairy’s failure to notice Lacy’s terror when her aunt was turned into a toad.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Write the first scene in the Lacy story with no flashbacks, just forward action.

∙ Write the first scene using a flashback.

∙ Write the scene when Lacy leaves the fairy’s dining room and enters the wider world of fairyland. Show the differences, Lacy’s confusion, her false assumptions, her missteps.

∙ Write the beginning scene in your telling of “Rumpelstiltskin.” Go back in time as far as you need to in order to write the story without flashbacks, which may be the birth of Rumpelstiltskin or something in the life of the king, the miller, or his daughter.

Have fun, and save what you write!

As It Turns Out

A little good news–for me, anyway–to start the post. HarperCollins’s marketing folks have approved Ogre Enchanted as the title for the Ella prequel. This is lucky, because I’ve never felt as strongly about a title. So, hooray and woo hoo! And thanks to all of you on the blog who’ve helped me with titles in the past.

On June 4, 2017, Samantha wrote, My work in progress is about ice hockey. In a nutshell, my MC’s parents died a year before the story takes place and he has to struggle with life, adolescence, friends, and… well, his life. Anyway, in the end his team ends up wining the series in the finals. I’m wondering if it is too dramatic to make my MC score the winning goal.

Christie V Powell responded. I don’t think it would be too dramatic, but it is a touch predictable. I love how Pixar’s ‘Cars’ played with the archetype–you expect McQueen to win the race, when instead he wins in a different way. There is a whole subgenre of sports stories, but I’m afraid I’m not very well read in that genre. You might want to try to check some out and see how they end. The last couple I’ve read (about dog agility and 4H) both ended with the main characters being disqualified but reaching some personal goal or important character growth. Maybe that’s become cliche now and delivering the winning goal is new again.

I agree with Christie V Powell that it doesn’t sound too dramatic. If there’s going to be drama in a story, the ending is the right spot for it.
It’s been decades since I watched the movie Rocky (the original–I haven’t seen any of the sequels), but my recollection is that, in the end and against all odds, Rocky Balboa wins, and the audience is delighted. I think the reason the ending works is that so much is stacked against him. Since victory seems impossible, when it comes, we’re surprised. In my opinion, there’s a trick here that our minds play on us. We go to the movie pretty sure it’s going to come out okay. We may even choose it for that reason, but when the action starts, we drop the belief and abandon ourselves to the unfolding story.

So a complete happy ending can works if the route to it is full of surprises. In some cases, we’re disappointed if the happy ending is at all tarnished. Some of you may have seen the musical Into the Woods. I confess to loving the happy first act and hating the unhappy second act when everything falls apart.

In a way, most plots are like sporting events. Something important is at stake, and, in the end, the MC either succeeds, utterly or to some degree, or fails, utterly or to some degree.

Take Hamlet, for example. ***SPOILER ALERT*** It’s a tragedy. However, Queen Gertrude and King Claudius’s successful conspiracy to kill Hamlet’s father is exposed. They die, and the ghost is avenged. In a grisly way, those are positive outcomes. Hamlet’s death isn’t.

Or take my beloved Pride and Prejudice. ***SPOILER ALERT*** again. The main romance ends happily, but Lydia has to suffer the consequences of her disastrous flirtation. Even Elizabeth and Darcy in their married bliss have to put up with that bounder Wickham forever.

We may–because anything is possible in writing–be able to write a satisfying, unpredictable, believable ending in which everything goes right and there is no shadow. Try it as an early prompt. Your MC is a member of a team (you decide the sport, which can be a real or a fantasy sport) that has lost for ten straight seasons. His grandmother is very ill. His dog has bitten someone and may have to be put down. He is failing biology in school. His best friend isn’t talking to him. Write the story, or the final scene, and make every single thing come out well.

After those spoiler alerts, I want to mention this interesting report I heard on the radio that is at least tangentially related to predictability. Research was done that shows that people enjoy a story more if they’re told in advance how it ends. Turns out, those of us who peek ahead and turn pages in books are really heightening our pleasure.

I don’t know if the study can be replicated, so it may not be true, but the way I understand it is that a spoiler doesn’t spoil the details, the character development, the flow of the story, and readers still have the delight of discovery–untainted by the anxiety of not knowing how it will all wind up. I get this. Sometimes I’m tense enough about what will happen that I don’t take in a lot of the story in my desperation to reach the outcome. That’s why a second read is often rewarding, because I slow down and really pay attention.

We certainly don’t want our endings to feel improbable. No matter how much  luck contributes to success or failure in real life, in fiction, it can’t. Luck can come in earlier, but not at the end. If Samantha’s MC scores the final goal because, as luck would have it, the opposite team’s best athlete is injured late in the game, the reader is going to bellow, “Foul!”

So we’re going for believability. Our MC’s character has to justify the end. If Samantha’s MC, again, is so lost in depression that he doesn’t drag himself to practice very often, the reader isn’t going to buy his win.

He can be depressed! He can finish practice every day and wonder if it’s worth his effort. But he has to practice. He can even throw a game, or his part in it, earlier in the story, so that the reader can fear that he will throw this final one, too. She can believe that throwing the game and really going after it are equally possible. She’ll be stiff with suspense.

If we’re not sure about an ending, we can bring in my favorite weapon: the mighty list. As I said in an earlier post, lists are predictability poison. We can list possible endings, including scoring the final point. We can decide to list at least twelve options. And we have to remember that no possibility is too stupid to go on our list. Our brains can be exploding from effort by the time we reach number seven, but we must soldier on, because, after we exhaust the obvious, the surprises pop up. The ending that appeals to us most may arrive as number eleven, and we’d never have gotten to it if we hadn’t slogged forward.

Here are two more prompts:

∙ Shannon, your MC, has the job of guarding the crown prince against both the enemies of the state and his own bad proclivities. Problem is, Shannon, a staunch patriot, doesn’t think much of the prince and is convinced he’ll make a disastrous king. Matters come to a head at a reception for the queen of the neighboring kingdom, with which relations have lately been tense. The prince often behaves badly during ceremonial occasions, and there’s intelligence of a plot against him. Write the story or the final scene.

∙ Pick one of these: “Sleeping Beauty,” “Snow White,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and rewrite it as a tragedy. Moreover, make the sad ending come from something in the character of the heroine or hero. I don’t mean they have to be evil in the slightest–their own goodness can do them in. Or some other character trait that’s neither good nor evil. (This can, by the way, be comic-tragedy, if you prefer.)

Have fun, and save what you write!

Swallowing the Wallowing

On April 6, 2017, Writeforfun wrote, I love to explore people’s emotions when I write – love to – to the point that, as I look over my stories, I realize that the majority of my writing is spent detailing what is going on in characters’ heads. I enjoy writing because I get to put them in dangerous situations or scar them emotionally, and then explore all of the conflicting and interesting emotions they experience (my favorite characters to write are those who are sensitive about something). That sounds terrible, doesn’t it?

Anyway, it’s so much fun (for me!) but I realize that it often overshadows the action and other important details. Has anyone else had that problem? How do you rein yourself in from including too much emotional exploration? I try to cut back on the detail I’ve included… but it’s too interesting to me to give it up! How to find a balance between what is going on in your story and what is going on in your characters’ heads?

And Christie V Powell wrote, I like using the action and plot to show the emotion–possibly in the present, possibly with a mini-flashback. Usually when someone is feeling emotional, there is a specific image or phrase in their heads (if I’m in the car and afraid, I probably have an image of a car wreck in my head). I like “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen as an example–I think I “inherited” some of his style and only recently noticed the connection. He uses short sentences, even one word sentences, and line-breaks for emphasis. His main character Brian’s survival story is both inside his head and in action, as he develops the attitude to survive as well as the ability.

Here’s a section from my WIP that includes a more emotional moment, but it also pulls in a little plot, a secondary character, and some backstory:

“Had anything to eat yet?”

Keita jumped. A round, friendly-faced man stood beneath the closest cottonwoods, holding out a turtle-shell bowl of thick brown stew. A refusal was halfway out of Keita’s mouth when she remembered to bite it back. Not today.…

At last he asked, “This your first meal in a season?”

“Thereabouts,” Keita said without looking up. Her last meal had been just like this. The day was cold but crystal clear, and the stew sat warm in her stomach. Trees towered over their valley home, unscathed by the future fire that would roar through weeks later. Her father, strong, busy, alive, threaded through the crowds, while dancers proved that though winter came and Earth slept, life would come again. Now the whole valley slept, and Keita had been gone from it three seasons. Nine months. No food.

The man was still watching. Keita attempted to smile as she scooped a square of root vegetable into her mouth.

Warmth. Crunch. Salt. Savory flavor of summer richness, of festivals gone by, of happy days that would never come back. The bowl slipped from her fingers and thudded to the ground.

Warm gravy spattered her toes. The children gasped, and Bract’s eyes widened. Waste of food was sin.

Song4myKing weighed in with, I don’t generally get too detailed with emotions – I stem from a fairly stoic family :). I generally rely on memory flashbacks and things like songs, and on external details like body language. I lean toward the observable, not by a decision as much as by what I’m comfortable with.

But I do have a problem showing too much of the thought processes when a character is trying to decide what to do. I guess I feel I have to make the decisions understood, but I think I go overboard. It’s like I can’t leave any stone un-turned. I try to show every angle the character might take.

I was taking a writing class when I wrote Ella Enchanted. Every week, our beloved teacher, Bunny Gabel (now retired), would select a chapter of a novel or an entire picture book from two or three students and read them to the class for discussion. She never said who’d written the piece, and the person whose work was read wasn’t allowed to say anything, not even to ask a question. The idea was that if the words on the page didn’t communicate what the writer had in mind, no amount of explaining could help.

*SPOILER ALERT!* If you haven’t read Ella, you may want to skip the next three paragraphs:

Bunny read the chapter after Ella’s mother dies, and everyone said I hadn’t gone nearly enough into Ella’s sadness. I remember thinking resentfully, Her mother just died! Duh! Of course she’s sad!

But I revised, and when I did, I recognized the improvement.

It isn’t true that Ella would have to be sad. She could be angry. She could blame someone. She could be numb. She could even be happy, depending on the kind of mother Lady Eleanor had been and the kind of girl Ella was.

I was converted by that experience. When something important happens, I always go into my MC’s feelings about it. When something minor happens, I sometimes do, too.

I was converted as a reader, too. If I’m reading a novel and the main character seems not to be reacting emotionally, I notice. If this character happens to be stoic and I know that about her, then I want at least an indication that emotions are concealed but churning. Stoic or not, if her reaction is delayed by even a few paragraphs, I notice that too and wish the author had managed to move the feeling up.

Same goes for thoughts. Decisions seem abrupt if I’m not told the reasons behind them, and characters seem wooden, robotic.

Merely telling the emotion doesn’t do it for me, either. Emotions, if they’re significant, call for showing, another lesson I absorbed, this time from an editor, which. I wrote about years ago in a post called “Fear of Flat.” Christie V Powell’s dropped bowl is a good example of such showing. Often, we can nail the feeling by including something physical: tight throat, squeezing stomach, etc. For a character–other than our POV MC–who is gripped by powerful emotion, we can have another character describe his reaction: his expression, voice quality, stance. We can search online for images of facial expressions, like “sad face,” “angry face,” something I’ve done many times. When I look at a photo of a sad person, I see details I wouldn’t think of purely out of my imagination.

By now you’ve realized that I, too, love to delve into feelings!

But of course it’s possible to overdo. I agree that we don’t want to overwhelm our story and bring it to a halt. However, if we enjoy writing about feelings, I think we should let ourselves go in the first draft. That’s the “have fun” part at the end of every post.

One way to contain our emotions-writing, in any draft, is to use time or setting or other characters to get the action going again. We can deny our character the opportunity to wallow in feeling. Suppose our MC Melanie has just discovered that her best friend, Janice, who has passed herself off as an orphan, has two perfectly good parents and three siblings. Melanie has believed herself to be the only one who cares about Janice and has lavished energy and sympathy on her. She feels betrayed, foolish, furious, and possibly several other emotions. She wants to rant and pound her pillow and go into her closet to scream. And we want her to! But we’re aware of our propensity to dive in head first, so we put her in a car with her family when she finds out the truth. She can’t let herself go there. Maybe her younger brother wants to talk about something or play a game. Her stomach can churn; she can take it out on the brother, which will have consequences that move the action forward. For the rest of the day or week or until the two confront each other, her feelings can simmer, but circumstances keep the story moving.

The example above involved setting–a car–and other characters–Melanie’s family, especially her brother. Time can do the job, too. Melanie makes the discovery about Janice five minutes before she goes on stage in her local community theater. She has to finish getting into her costume, take a last look at her lines, and get to the wings in time for her entrance.

So if we engineer the arrival of our emotional triggers, we can contain them.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write the confrontation between Melanie and Janice from Melanie’s POV. Make it emotional for both of them and show the feelings of each, one from the inside, one from the outside.

∙ Interrupt the confrontation with something urgent. Continue writing. The feelings remain, but they’re background.

∙ Your MC is learning to be a mountain climber. The stakes are high. She will be part of a team climbing to the realm of the sentient snow leopards who have wisdom to impart that can save her family. But her balance is bad, and she isn’t progressing as quickly as she needs to. She’s frustrated, frightened, angry at herself, but giving into these feelings is a luxury she can’t afford. Write the scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Some Comfort, Maybe

On March 2, 2017, Christie V Powell wrote, “The problem with querying is… that supply exceeds demand. There are more good writers out there than there are reader eyeballs.” I came across this statement by an agent recently and wondered what you thought about it.

I asked my husband, and he mentioned a study of song popularity. There is a threshold of skill, he said, but once this is surpassed, which song “makes it” and which doesn’t is completely random.

This was not comforting.

Sadly, I think this is probably mostly true. And true of all the arts. Humans are drawn to art, and many of us are good at it and love to make it. There aren’t enough readers, theaters, concert halls, museums, art galleries to provide all of us with an audience, let alone a living.

Once the skill threshold has been reached, luck becomes important. Agents’ slush piles teeter to their ceilings. The interns and junior staff who read them–I’m guessing–find no easier to say than yes.

Many of you know that it took me nine years to get a manuscript accepted. I may also have written before that at one point in my long trek it occurred to me that if I had set out to become I brain surgeon, I would already have been one (aside from the fact that I’m too squeamish even to remove a splinter). This thought jumped to the fore when I met a doctor who had given up his practice to try to write for children. Yikes! I thought. I hope he knows what he’s getting into. Yikes! I hope he has savings!

During my pre-published time, an editor visited one of my writing classes. He said that the way to get published was either to write something great or to write about something that few were expert in. The only subject I was expert in was welfare programs for people who were healthy enough to work, and that topic didn’t seem promising for a children’s book. As for great, I felt defeated right off.

Hence the nine years.

Now, let me try for some comfort.

When I talk to kids about the nine years, I ask them for the moral of my story. Hands pop up, and the answer I get is, “Never give up,” which was true for me. If you give up, you don’t get published. You also may stop writing, and for some of us, that’s like cutting off a limb.

Okay, maybe not comforting. I’ll try again.

There’s another moral. During those nine years, I took adult ed writing classes and read the Newbery-and-Newbery-honor-winning books of the prior twenty or more years. Both helped me become a better writer and one who could write for the readers I wanted. In my classes, I met other wannabe writers. We supported each other. I joined and formed critique groups and made friends. Turns out, this was one of the happiest times of my life, even though achieving my goal still seemed more a dream than a likelihood. So the second moral is: While you’re never giving up, find a way to have a wonderful time. Which will help you stick with it.

Also, a critique group and classes gave me a (tiny) audience, and one of my most important reasons for writing was to be read. 0thers were self-expression and to learn a skill.

So these are comforts, I hope, for continuing to write, regardless of the eventual outcome, which, unless we have a crystal ball, is unknown. And I still find them valid. I’m published now, but I don’t know if a particular book will catch on with readers. My audience for any one book may be small, but I’ve still added to my skill set by writing it. I still have writing pals who sustain me. This, as I’ve said here before, is especially true of writing poems.

But there are things that we can do to increase the odds of luck smiling on us. Some of these, alas, don’t apply until you turn eighteen.

Go to conferences, if you can afford to. At many writing conferences, the editors and agents who are speakers and panelists will preferentially treat participant submissions, which means your work won’t be placed at the bottom of the slush pile.

If the conference includes a critique option from an editor or an agent, sign up for it, even if there’s an extra fee. Frankly, these industry readers (I’ve been one) will see a lot of work that falls sadly below any reasonable threshold. Writing that rises above will be a relief. The editor or agent will be so happy not to have only bad news to deliver to the writer. You may begin a relationship that, if not immediately, may result in an eventual acceptance.

When you’re there, move outside your comfort zone. Introduce yourself to editors and agents. Talk about your work. Do not mention your uncertainty about its worth.

Also, for the comfort of community, speak with other participants. Make friends, if any of them appeal to you. Share experiences. Get tips.

If you’re old enough and you’re writing for children or young adults (which these days extends into college age and a little beyond), join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (www.SCBWI.org), a great organization for people just starting out–in terms of its focus on getting published as well as on craft. Get involved in your local chapter, where there may be meetings and may be a regional conference that’s much cheaper than the national one.

Send your work out! You can’t get published if no one is looking at your stories. I once heard of a critique group where the person who got the most rejections in a year got an award–because the one with the most rejections is the one most likely, after a while, to get the most acceptances. I recently went through my files. My folder of personal rejections is about three inches thick! I didn’t keep the form letters, or we wouldn’t be able to get into the basement.

Don’t get in your own way!

For example, a woman in my favorite writing class was working on a book I adored. I don’t know if she’s finished it, twenty years later. I know it isn’t published, and I also know she’s shown it, or parts of it, to this friend or that. She keeps fooling around and not getting to the point, and the world is deprived of a great story.

If you do send something out and get criticism from an agent, take the criticism seriously. Try out what’s being offered to you, and do it relatively quickly. After you’ve revised, ask this person if she’s willing to see it again.

Before you send work out, proofread it obsessively. It should be free of typos, spelling errors, and grammar mistakes. If it isn’t, you won’t get much of a reading. If you’re not good at this skill, ask someone who is for help–not with critiquing the story, in this case, just checking for these sort of mistakes. Same for query letters. With something as short as a letter, read it backwards, which will help you notice the itty-bitty things.

End of lecture.

But here’s a little more comfort: According to my favorite podcast, Planet Money, fiction writers are unlikely to be replaced by robots. Chances are better than ninety percent in our favor.

And new people break in all the time, and debut books come out constantly. Yours can be one of them.

So–since I have no prompts to offer this time–have fun, and save what you write!

End of the Road

On February 18, 2017, Angie wrote, I recently completed my second manuscript, and am deep into the revision stage. Something I’ve struggled with in both of my novels is writing a final, satisfactory ending. Once my characters’ stories are resolved and every plot point is checked off, I have serious trouble working up an appropriate send-off. I’m just done. I’ve received feedback that the ending in my current manuscript feels abrupt, and am struggling to rectify that problem in subsequent drafts. I’d love some help working through this end-of-the-road roadblock!

First off, congratulations on finishing not one but two manuscripts!

When I was taking writing classes and in the learning stages of becoming a kids’ book writer, the advice I heard most often from teachers about endings was, When you’re done, get out. So it’s possible that the criticism Angie received was just one person’s opinion and the ending is fine.

But let’s assume, for the sake of having a post, that the critiquer is right. What to do?

If every plot point has been checked off, have they all become equal? If yes, that evenness may give our ending a flat feeling. To break it up, we can think about which conflict is at the heart of our story. Fundamentally, what’s our story about? That conflict, the one the story turns on, should stand out in our ending, and we can look for ways to amplify it, perhaps make it come last.

Along the same lines, have we made our plot points’ success–or failure–hard won enough? If the solutions are too easy, the ending again, can feel flat or abrupt. In revision, we can go in and beef up our MC’s struggle. We can give our villains or our opposing forces more power, a few more weapons in their arsenal.

An ending doesn’t have to be unpredictable. As I’ve said here many times, when we’re working from a popular story, a fairy tale or a myth, the end is known. And even if we’re not, most stories follow arcs that readers are used to. The interest lies in how we get to the end of the rainbow. We can surprise the reader and make the ending more satisfying by throwing in lots of monkey wrenches–twists that aren’t predictable–along the way.
We can think about what feeling we want the reader to be left with. In a tragedy, for example, we want hankies to come out. Have we made our readers care enough about our MC to weep for her? Have we shown why her losses are devastating? (If I know someone has to die in a story, I usually make that character–like Ella’s mother, like Dave’s father in Dave at Night–super lovable.)

In an adventure story, we probably want a feeling of satisfaction. Our heroine has accomplished what she set out to do, with great difficulty, probably at some cost, and she’s grown along the way. We have to make sure those things have happened.

In a happy love story, we want rejoicing. Our MCs have been foolish; they’ve made mistakes; they’ve misunderstood themselves and each other. But finally, the blinders have come off their eyes. They’re together at last. We have to deliver on all the mishaps along the way to make the ending feel earned.

What else makes a satisfying ending?

My mind travels to the TV mystery series Bones (high school, possibly middle school, though I’m not sure). The series, which wrapped up recently, was episodic, meaning that, mostly, each mystery got solved in the episode in which it was introduced. In later seasons, when the mystery was solved and the murderer dealt with, the final scene almost always took place in the home of Temperance Brennan (Bones) and her husband, Seeley Booth. Chit-chat happens; often a minor spat between Brennan and Booth is charmingly resolved. The audience feels settled.

We can do something similar. After the blood has been mopped up and the main conflict resolved, we can end with a smaller scene that gives the reader time to collect himself. If we like we can use an epilogue, as I’ve done more than once, to hint at the uneventful futures of our characters.
I’d call that an order-is-restored ending. Shakespeare used this kind of ending in his tragedies, as I was taught in high school. The problem of a play, like Hamlet, is so grave that the balance of the universe is disturbed. Storms result. A ghost walks the earth. Madness afflicts Ophelia. But at the end, following the death of Queen Gertrude and King Claudius, the stage littered with bodies, good governance can resume, and all will be well.

There’s also the circular story, which I devoted a post to years ago. The circular story ends where it began, and that return provides the sense of completeness. Lord of the Ring and The Wizard of Oz are examples of stories that begin and end in the same location.

Not every book ends neatly. Take Gone With the Wind–or my understanding of it. Rhett Butler says his famous line and decamps. He understands himself better than he had before, and we readers understand Scarlet, but she doesn’t understand herself, which we realize is her fate. We know that her future life will be full of events and turmoil, whatever they may be. (I haven’t read the sequel, so I don’t know what the modern writer has dished out for her.) Still, despite the lingering possibilities, Margaret Mitchell’s ending works, I think because of the way the characters become resolved.
And there’s “The Lady and the Tiger,” which I’ve talked about before here and which is a short story rather than a novel. Look it up if you don’t know it, because it ends with a question mark, and the reader has to decide what happens. I’m not sure if this would be satisfying in a novel, but it’s great in this particular short story. The story raises a big question and then asks the reader for an answer, and the answer is more revelatory of the reader’s character than of anyone in the story itself.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Rewrite the unsatisfying ending of a book that frustrated you. Make it work!

∙ This is an old and silly joke that I may have told before here: A congregation’s rabbi is dying. His most important congregants gather around his deathbed to hear his final words of wisdom, which are “The world is a barrel.” His listeners are shocked. What are they to make of this? They beg him to explain. He lifts his veined eyelids. His watery eyes go from face to face. His chest heaves. His wheezes sound painful. Finally, he gasps out, “So it isn’t a barrel”–and dies.

Make the barrel world be true for at least the youngest person around the bed. Write an adventure in this barrel world and bring it to a satisfying ending, which can be the same or different from the ending in the joke.

∙ Pick a moment in history–an assassination, the fall of Rome, an election, the purchase of Manhattan from its original inhabitants, whatever. Go into it in detail, peopling it with real or imagined characters. Ignore the historical outcome and follow the characters to an ending that flows from their conflicting wishes.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Vastness of Us

On February 7, 2017, Mikayla wrote, I tend to base my MC’s off of myself, and I was wondering if you (or anyone else on here!) had suggestions for how to deal with this, such as precautions, tips, or ways to separate myself from my MC.

The Florid Sword wrote back, I have lots of trouble with this. Usually what I do to make my MC different from myself is I take one aspect of myself, such as a hobby or a negative trait, and say, “How can I change this from being myself?”

So, for example, I like to draw. The book I’m writing right now is based on my own experiences and the main character has to be kind of like me, to react in a similar way. However, I decided to take my hobby of drawing and make my character a cook.

I also tend to get very annoyed by even the tiniest things, but to change that I made my character very longsuffering but also gave her a habit of exaggerating everything.

Clever ideas, Florid Sword!

In a way, all our characters come from aspects of ourselves, or we couldn’t dream them up. Sure, some are based on people we know and characters we’ve read, but inevitably, unavoidably, they’re reinterpreted through our experiences and our innards. Most of you know how much I adore Pride and Prejudice. I’ve gone to Austen more than once for character inspiration, even for my MC. However, I doubt that the real Austen, while spinning in her grave, would recognize my creations as having any connection with hers. We may not be aware of how we’re spinning our characters, but we are.

We’re vast. We who write fantasy, and even we who don’t, have entire universes whirling between our ears–because even the world in a contemporary, realistic story differs from writer to writer. And the world we create in one story varies from the world in another. And we manage to people all those worlds! Though I may usually live by routine, I can, with effort, dredge up occasions when I acted spontaneously. Though I think I don’t have a hair-trigger temper, I remember occasions when something has set me off like a match to kindling. Within me exist spontaneity and routine, calm and fury.

Suppose we decide, to write an MC entirely based on ourselves, exactly like us, down to whether we sleep on our back or our side or eat our favorite foods first or leave the best for last, I doubt that others would agree with our representations. If we’re self-critical, we’re likely to paint a darker picture of ourselves than friends and family experience. And vice versa, if we fail to see our faults. Virtues and faults, however, are only part of it. We don’t know how our faces look when we feel this or that. We rarely hear our own voices, and when we do, the occasion is special, not the ordinary. We may not be aware of how much we change in the company of this person or that, or we may think of ourselves as chameleons and exaggerate our reinventions.

The Florid Sword mentions giving her MC a different hobby from her own, cooking rather than drawing, which I think is a fine idea. However, there is an underlying assumption that this MC, like Florid Sword, has a hobby. Not everyone does. And, if Florid Sword knows nothing about cooking, she’ll have to learn a little or research cooking, which she’ll have to do in her own characteristic way. We can’t escape ourselves!

Coincidentally, in my historical novel Dave at Night, I gave Dave a talent: drawing, because, before I started writing, I drew and painted as my hobby. I picked drawing deliberately so that I could use something I already knew. We don’t always want to cut ourselves off from material that will make our task a smidgen easier.

One more thing. Our readers who don’t know us will read the character we believe to be exactly like us through the prisms of their own personalities. This is particularly true of our MCs, whom our readers will enter. Our identities will merge with theirs.

I think I often do this here–urge you not to worry. Above are all the reasons I think you needn’t. Now for my method of building characters. I do it to a large degree unconsciously, but this is how I believe I do it.

My stories arise out of ideas rather than characters. My new book, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, begins Rapunzel-ish, with an abduction. (I’m not giving away anything that you won’t learn in the first few pages.) Lady Klausine takes my MC Perry to raise as a member of the Lakti nobility and to learn the ways of their Spartan, warrior culture. When I developed Lady Klausine I considered what Lakti mothering might be like and modeled her on what I came up with. Then I thought about how her very-tough-very-little-love method might form her daughter. Both characters grew to a large degree out of these ruminations–which have nothing to do with my own past or my own personality.

You can do the same. Think about your story. What’s the world like? What challenges will your MC face, according to your plot as you’ve imagined it so far? Who will the other major characters be? How will they affect her? In an MC, we’re looking for traits that will allow her to survive but that will also force her to struggle and suffer. We can list possible traits and virtues and flaws, like greed, intelligence, friendliness, jealousy. How will this one or that one help or hinder her as the story moves along?

We can see how this works in reverse and how our MCs can naturally be unlike us. Try this: cast yourself as the MC in a fairy tale or a book or movie you know really well. For example, how would you behave if you were Snow White and the evil queen’s hunter left you alone in a forest? Further along, how would you co-exist with the dwarves? Would you stay with them?

Let’s say the answer to the last question is, No way. Their cottage would make you claustrophobic. You might like them or hate them, but remaining there would drive you crazy. You like to take control of your fate. Sadly, you would make an impossible Snow White. So, if not you, what sort of character would be able to do what the story requires of her?

Let’s turn this into the first prompt. Write the scene in the forest with the hunter with you as Snow White. You may need to check out the original Grimm version for this. If you can’t get with the program, figure out who would be able to. Put that new character in and revise the scene. In Grimm, Snow White is no more than a pawn, but make your MC more three-dimensional.

Here are two more prompts:

∙ Keep yourself as Snow White. You can’t act as she would, so change the story in sync with your nature. Keep going. See what happens.

∙ Use the characteristic that Florid Sword gave her MC. This Snow White exaggerates everything. Write a scene from her sojourn with the dwarves.

Have fun, and save what you write!


First off, thanks to all of you who came to an event on my tour, some of you traveling impressive distances! You asked the best questions, and it was a joy to meet you!

And, since I’m just getting the hang of social media, I’ll say now what I should have said a few months ago: If you like, you can follow me on Instagram at gailcarsonlevine. Not much there about writing, though. At the moment it’s mostly spring flowers, and you can see some of the beautiful places I happened across on my tour, like a prairie river walk in Naperville, Illinois, or a bird sanctuary-nature preserve in Petaluma, California. And a silly selfie of my condition when I returned after a redeye from California–as a dead tree!

Now for the post!

On December 23, 2016, Poppie wrote: I have a fairy MC whose idea of excitement is a pile of books. But life in the modern “people” world is often unpredictable and full of dangerous machines and creatures… the things he avoids as much as possible. He’s forced to confront his fears when he is recruited with other young fairies to form a society, where the main object is to rescue fairies from danger.

The problem is, how do I make him cowardly, without him coming off as whiny or annoying?

Two of you weighed in.

Christie V Powell: Give him a reason: Is he afraid because he once witnessed something tragic or scary? Or does he have a big goal or dream that he wants to stay alive and well for? Was he betrayed by someone? If he has a reason, I think his fear would be more relatable.

Another idea: When have you felt afraid? Pull from that experience. I sometimes avoid conversations because I dislike conflict. If I were writing a cowardly character, I could use those experiences, probably by showing some thoughts (‘I could say something friendly, but what if she misjudges it and thinks I’m being forward or condescending? Best say nothing.”).

Song4myKing: If he knows he’s cowardly, I think it can help. Whiny and annoying characters are the ones who think the world owes them something, or think they are somehow great, or somehow exempt from doing the grunt work everyone else should be doing. Your fairy may whine and be annoying to the fairies as a front, but if the readers know that he sees his own shortcomings, they’ll be less likely to want to slap him.

And acknowledging his timidity (especially if he’s telling the story) can sprout opportunities for humor – which helps make just about any character likable.

I’m with both of you. And humor is great for likability.

Thanks, Christie V Powell, for sharing your fear. Here’s one from my life, which you can use however you like. During the year when Ella Enchanted, my first published book, was going through the publishing process, I became convinced I would die before it came out. When I had to fly during that year, I was paralyzed with terror. I know there are scientific reasons that explain why planes, loaded with people and luggage, get off the ground–but I don’t understand them. Intuition says, Impossible!

A friend whispered a Jewish superstition to me that’s supposed to keep you safe, which, while not believing in it any more than I believed that planes really could fly, I adopted. I can’t tell it here or it will stop working for me, but if you know a Jew who has a great-grandmother or if you are a Jew with such a great-grandmother, ask her to whisper it in your ear. That superstition has kept me calm on flights ever since. I haven’t used it in any additional circumstances, though there are others that scare me too, but the practice is a little uncomfortable and inconvenient and I don’t want it to take me over. If you find it out, don’t publish it! It’s secret!

I don’t think I’m being whiny to make the confession above. People’s fears are often interesting. Readers are likely to be drawn in rather than put off. Imperfection humanizes characters–even if they’re elves!

In this case (unlike mine), the elf has a real reason to be afraid. The mission of this society is to rescue elves from danger–so the danger isn’t imaginary. Not being afraid would be odd. His fellow elves are likely to be afraid, too. How do they handle their fear? This is a great opportunity for character development, because we all process, manage, and give in to fear differently. We, the writers, can experiment with lots of ways on our characters and decide which will best suit our MC. We can try to write a minor character whiny elf (probably not easy) and give the whining to him or her.

Is fear whiny if it’s just in thoughts? To me, a whine involves an annoying sound, and it needs repetition. If he rarely speaks of his fear, he’s unlikely to be whiny. But I think he can talk about it often and still not be whiny. As Song4myKing suggests, he can be funny. Comedians often turn their foibles into humor. This elf can do that, too.

His nattering on about his fears may even set his companions at ease. He’s far more frightened than they are. And they may also feel less alone.

In characters and people, there’s nothing wrong with fear. A person or character entirely without fear is exceptional if not troubling. What one does with fear is what counts. If, out of fear, our elf lets a friend go into danger alone, the reader may not like him, and his talk of fear may then sound unpleasant.

Of course, he can let the friend go into danger alone the first time–and redeem himself later, and I believe the reader will forgive him.

I’m charmed by this MC’s love of books and wonder if that might be another tool to address the whiny factor. He can remember his favorite fictional characters and bring their strengths in to help him, with varying results. Humor may be discovered there, too.

Also, as is always true, we can fix whining–and see more clearly whether it is or isn’t whining–in revision. When we gain some distance from our story, its flaws become evident–and fixable–and so do its virtues, like the perfectly nuanced fear of the MC we thought was whiny.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your technophobic elves discover a high-tech bomb ticking away in their home, the basement of an office building. If the bomb goes off, they and hundreds of people will die. Each is struck with terror. Describe their behavior. Write the scene.

∙ Your (human) MC discovers, at the riding camp she begged her parents to send her to, that she’s afraid of horses. She knows no one at the camp. Going home is not an option. Write a scene. If you like, write the story.

∙ If we’re discussing fear, we can’t skip a haunted house. This one appears on an island in the middle of a lake where the day before there were only trees. Light burns in an attic window, and black smoke issues from three chimneys. The smoke wafts to our MC’s town. People choke. Babies can barely breathe. Someone has to enter the house, get to the source of the smoke, and stop it. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Why so bad?

Last day of my tour! I was delighted to meet those of you I met! Thank you for coming! Remember, I have more events coming up in my local area, so I hope to see even more of you. And then, after that, there’s the rest of our lives…

On November 23, 2016, Failed Villain wrote, What about the motivation for an antagonist? They’re always harder for me because I personally have no desire whatsoever to kill someone or rule the world, so I can’t figure out how to express those motivations. Or are they even realistic motivations? Sometimes I get stuck because my villains seem too pure evil. I try to give them some sort of backstory, but again I can’t really relate to that. It’s one thing to write about a character with a dark side, but it’s another to write a character that is pure (or mostly) evil.

I’ve noticed a disturbing side in many of you here on the blog: mrah-ha-ha, you love to write about writing villains! And I love to, too. Does this make us… evil?

Hmm… I’ve selected a few from your pages of excellent responses.

Melissa Mead: Maybe they started with ordinary motivations that got out of hand. For example: “I’m tired of being pushed around. I want some control over this bullying.”
:Punches out bully:
“What a rush! That bully will never bother me again. But there’s this whole gang of bullies…”
:Plan to stop bullies lands the whole gang in the hospital:
“Well, I stopped the bullies, but now the whole town’s mad at me, and I can’t stand it, so…”

And one bad choice leads to another, and another, until the villain’s so caught up in his bad choices that he feels like the whole world’s out to get him, and the only way to make it stop is to rule the world.

Or when he punched the bully, the bully fell and hit his head on a rock, and eventually died, but the villain-to-be was the one who called 911, so no one suspected him. And the next time it was easier to punch harder…

Jenalyn Barton: My favorite villains are the ones that have noble intentions, but go about them the wrong way. Some good examples are Darth Vader (he wanted to save Padme), Light Yagami from Death Note (he wanted to rid the world of evil), Zuko from Avatar: the Last Airbender (he wanted to regain his honor; although he does eventually become a good guy, he starts out as the antagonist), Professor Callaghan from Big Hero 6 (he is bitter over the loss of his daughter and wants revenge). But don’t forget that even the “pure evil” villains have something they want. Captain Hook wants to defeat Peter Pan and get revenge for the hand Peter cut off. Shere Khan hates Man. The Firelord from Avatar: the Last Airbender wants to expand the territory of the Fire Nation. Hans wants to rule his own country. Syndrome from the Incredibles wants to be a superhero. The possibilities are limitless.

StorytellerLizzie: We also hate Old Toad Face because, as it was explained to me once, Voldemort is like a serial killer you hear about on the news: scary but distant. Toad Face is that co-worker that you can’t get to like you, the Manager who gives you extra work because they can, The boss who made you work on Thanksgiving: scary/mean/evil and up close and personal.

I love that, StorytellerLizzie!

Not sure why I’m remembering this, but it seems somehow germane. A fellow children’s book writer once asked me if I would rather be a victim or a perpetrator, if those were the only options. At first, it seemed to me that the only ethical choice was victim, but the more I thought about it, the more I came around to wanting to be the perp. The victim is acted upon, the perp is the actor. Most crucially, the perp gets to pick the crime, which can even be victimless. I can be the perp who decides that my crime is to jaywalk! My crime can be to remove the label from a mattress that you’re warned never to remove!

Suppose my crime is to park my car in front of a fire hydrant and, in a rare tragedy, a fire starts and the fire truck can’t get to the hydrant and people die. Of course I didn’t mean that to happen. How do I move forward? The fault is mine. Do I grow from a perp into a villain?

If the perp isn’t me but a character named Phil, we have the beginnings of a story.

Since Failed Villain asked about motivation, I think this is one that’s easy to get inside. A judge recognizes that Phil didn’t intend to kill people and gives him a mild sentence, say probation and community service. One way–a common way, I believe–our formerly run-of-the mill Phil can turn into a villain is if he doesn’t accept responsibility for what he did–and doesn’t forgive himself, either. These two go together, I believe. We have to accept we did something wrong before we realize there is something to forgive. Maybe since the judge didn’t take his crime seriously, he decides he doesn’t have to–but I don’t think anyone can really disregard an event like this. It burrows inside. It becomes a kernel with a hard shell around it. Tentacles push out from it.

There may be someone on the planet who has never done anything bad or unkind, but I am not that person. Though I’m not a villain, I’ve let a friend or two down. I’ve been thoughtless, rushed, unkind. When memories of these failures bubble up in my mind, I feel awful, and I try not to repeat–but I have to recognize that someday I will. Maybe next time, though, I’ll be better at apologizing or better at making things right, better at taking responsibility immediately. Or not. I’m no world-destroying villain, but neither my acts nor my motivations are always pure.

Back to Phil when he blocked the fire hydrant. Let’s imagine that he has been driving around for twenty minutes looking for a parking spot, and his date is waiting for him, and she’s going to be mad if he’s late again, and his cell phone has died, so he can’t call her.

What can we conclude about him? He runs late, gets people mad at him, doesn’t think ahead sufficiently, doesn’t want people to be mad at him, doesn’t want to face the consequences, tends to do what’s expedient, is perhaps self-centered. He may also have wonderful qualities, be generous, kind to people in trouble, may run late because he can’t refuse to help anyone.

The backstory I provided two paragraphs ago doesn’t go into past trauma or childhood experiences. It’s minimal. We don’t need much back story, if any, for our villains or our other characters, in my opinion. I don’t think I know the back stories for any of my villains. For example, I have no idea why Sir Peter, a minor villain in Ella Enchanted, is so calculating. I sure don’t know what makes Lucinda tick. If it helps us, we can figure out our characters’ pasts, but the reader doesn’t have to see our discoveries unless they come into the story. I don’t even think we need to know or understand our good characters’ motivations, except for our POV’s, whose head we’re in. Back to Lucinda. She ruins people’s lives, not for gain, not really to please them with her gifts. I don’t know why she does it.

Can I find myself in her disastrous gifts? A little. I like to be right as much as she does. I can be a tad impulsive. But I would never ever do any of the horrible things she does, even if I had the power. I can still write her, without knowing why she does anything–or without wanting to ruin people’s lives, too.

As we saw with Phil, our starting point can be the first bad act, whatever it is. As we work out the consequences, we can decide how Phil will respond to them. Through his actions we’ll figure out his personality, which will move us forward into our story’s future with a character who gets more and more complete and real.

When it comes to a purely evil villain, unless we’re writing from her point of view, we don’t have to know her motivation. We have to know only that in a given situation she will go for the worst outcome. Naturally, we do need to know her purpose–what specific harm she hopes to impose and on whom. Our other characters can speculate on her motives and methods so they can come up with strategies to thwart her, but they and we don’t really have to know.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Turn Phil into a villain. List five ways his careless (and selfish) act develops into villainy in his life. Pick one and write a scene or his whole story.

∙ Go the other way and write about Phil coming to terms with what he did and becoming a better person. Make this hard. Have him stumble. If you like, bring in family or friends of one or more of the people to whose death he contributed.

∙ Make Phil’s story really complicated by mixing it up with the circumstances that led to the fire in the house he parked in front of. If you like, a more deliberate villain can have been at work to start the fire. Have Phil get involved.

∙ Expand Phil’s future so that he becomes supremely bad–threaten-the-survival-of-the-universe bad. Write his story along with the story of your MC, who, through small acts of decency, becomes the force for good opposing him.

∙ Take a minor bad characteristic, maybe something that drives you crazy when someone does it. For example, could be tickling people whether they want to be tickled or not. Make it bigger and write a scene or a whole story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Hear ye!

I’m interrupting the flow of the post to announce that The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre is out! When you read it, please let me know what you think.

It’s also the twentieth anniversary of Ella, which is crazy.

And I’m touring for both, and at almost every signing there have been blog people, whom I’ve been so happy to meet. One more signing to go, this one next week in Petaluma, California. If you can, come!