Archive for May, 2011


Protagonist

The last couple of weeks, we’ve talked about our antagonist. I know. . . . You identify with your protagonist, not your antagonist. That’s natural. The protagonist is the good guy. In fact, don’t tell anybody, but in a lot of our work the protagonist is actually us. Oh, you didn’t realize we knew that?

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Yep, that swashbuckling hero or drop-dead gorgeous doll is very frequently the author. I don’t want to picture myself as the little skinny guy on the beach getting sand kicked in his face by the bully. I want to see myself as the handsome, macho lifeguard who steps in and chases the bully away. Since we find ourselves very interesting, we can’t wait to talk about ourselves. . . . Oops. I mean our protagonist.

Okay. It’s time to do just that. Conflict, primarily created by the antagonist, drives the story and keeps the reader turning the pages, but the protagonist IS the story. There would be no one trying to overcome the antagonist—and therefore no story—without the protagonist.

We said a couple of weeks ago that the antagonist doesn’t have to be a serial killer or a sadistic rapist. He just has to have a goal that’s in conflict with that of the protagonist. Likewise, the protagonist doesn’t have to be some kind of angel. He can be a colossal screw-up or annoy people. She can talk too much or spend too much time touching up her lipstick. In fact, if this character is some near-perfect vision, no one will be able to accept or identify with him or her. He or she must have warts. The main requirement is that he or she can win the reader’s sympathy.

Well, he or she must also have a worthy and positive goal. The goal probably isn’t apparent at first—even to the character. That usually begins to jell after the inciting incident, which we’ll discuss in a future issue. The point is he or she can’t be just wandering through life willy-nilly. And the goal must be positive.

For instance, the goal can’t be trying to avoid being obliterated in a nuclear explosion. That’s a negative goal, and it won’t make into a story. It’ll fall flat on its face.

On the other hand, joining a special ops team to go behind the lines in some rogue nation and destroy that nation’s ability to wage nuclear warfare is positive. The goal is to accomplish something, not merely to avoid something.

And our protagonist must be incapable of achieving the goal. Whoa. Wait a minute, David. This is the hero. He’s supposed to win. What are you talking about?

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Our protagonist cannot be Superman at the beginning of the story. There’s nowhere to go from there. He must start out as Clark Kent. Through his dealings with the antagonist he grows to become Superman, but he can’t start out that way.

If he had a battle with Lex Luthor at the beginning of our story, Lex Luthor would have to win. Our boy must have an arc, beginning in relative weakness but growing through the conflicts along the way to become stronger and stronger until he can defeat Lex Luthor.

One of the books I wrote which the publishing industry managed to miss out on was about a fourteen year old girl who lost her parents in the War Between the States and had to make her own way in life. But I had her start out being able to out-smart, out-shoot, and out-bluff everybody from page one. She defeated robbers, rapists, murderers, card sharks and all manner of bad guys right from the start of the book. No arc. No real conflict. No story.

Okay, so we’ve got this character in mind. Now we need to build a profile just like we did with our antagonist. This is where we make this character an identifiable person with his own distinct personality, character, habits and so forth. Our reader should be able to tell from this person’s behavior and manner who he or she is. This can be accomplished only through the building of a detailed profile. Refer to the things we discussed about the antag’s profile. The protag’s profile needs all those same things spelled out in detail.

Next week we’ll get into some of the other major characters. Meanwhile, have a good week.

Ø What differences do your antag and protag have in appearance, voice, manners, habits, and so forth?

Ø What flaws or weaknesses can you give your protag at the beginning of your story that he or she can overcome along the way?

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Antagonist’s Profile

Last week I mentioned that the characters in my earlier—and rejected—novels were all plastic, one-dimensional characters who looked, acted and sounded like me. Sound familiar? Surely I’m not the first writer to make that mistake.

Since I neither smoke nor drink, none of my characters ever lit a cigarette or had a drink, but they all ate frequently and drank a lot of coffee—just like me. Fascinating as I may consider myself to be, apparently readers not looking for stories populated with David clones.

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Okay, how do we avoid that? We’re going to have to create interesting characters with their own identities and personalities. Their personalities and backgrounds are going to have to contain the seeds for their behavior in the story.

It may help to visualize a movie star or other public figure when we create a character. In fact, lets go to IMDb and find a photo of the person we’re thinking of, and lets put that picture at the beginning of the character’s profile. There’s no law that says we must do that, but at Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp, we’ve discovered this can be a big help in keeping a character in focus.

Okay, so we’ve got a photo. What else? What is our character’s height and weight? Eye color? Hair color? These physical characteristics can affect his behavior and thinking. If he or she is small or ugly or fat or skinny, that could result in a chip on the shoulder that makes him or her mean, testy or defensive.

Let’s build some personal history, too. Any siblings? Single-parent family? Father beats the mother? Loving aunt or uncle of particular importance? All of these things affect a child growing up, and we need to see where our character’s behavior comes from. We probably need a page or more of this background information before we proceed.

How about mannerisms? Does this person always let a cigarette burn until the ashes fall off without flicking them into an ashtray? Wave hands to illustrate or emphasize oral communication? Squint or blink a lot? We can use these little mannerisms to make this guy distinct and separate from our other characters.

How about fears? What things keep him awake at night? Prevent him from taking an action he may want or need to take? Drive him to do things he maybe shouldn’t do?

What are his dreams?

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Does he see himself in a multi-million dollar mansion? Owning a private island with a bevy of women serving him? Running a criminal empire? What moves him and gives him long-term motivation?

What are his stressors? A stressor is something that triggers a fear or a reminder of some important bad experience. If our guy grew up in an abusive family, seeing someone yell at or strike a child might be a stressor. If he grew up in abject poverty, old run-down shacks or clothes with holes in them could be stressors. These things will cause a strong reaction in our character.

How about his manner? Is he boisterous and obnoxious? Quiet and calculating? Kind? Polite? Rude?

What is his inner conflict? What does he really want to do or really want to be but he can’t because . . .

What are his goals? NY Times Best-selling Author Bob Mayer (http://writeitforward.wordpress.com/) suggests asking these three questions: What does he want? What does he really want? What does he really, really want? We should have three different answers to these questions, each a little more revealing about our character.

What blind spot prevents him from being able to see his path clearly?

What is his main problem in the story?

We might be able to come up with a few more things to put into his profile, but this gets us a pretty good sketch to work with. One of the things we accomplish by building this profile is that we can see in the course of writing our story what sorts of things this person would or would not do. Anyone who will be involved in beta-reading or critiquing your novel should have access to this profile to help you stay within the character’s personality and behavior.

How about our other characters? Let’s talk about them next week.

Ø Think about the cast of your favorite television show. What things so completely identify one character as opposed to another that you don’t even have to see them to know which is which?

Ø What things can you do to create such distinctive identities for your characters?

Antagonists

If you ask the typical layman who the most important person in a story is, he would probably say the hero, or protagonist. A lot of writers would say that, too. Until we got into Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp, yours truly would have been among them.

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We would have been wrong. The protagonist is the person we want our readers to love and identify with. He or she is the person we want the reader to pull for—the person we all want to see win. But the protagonist does not drive the story.

That’s the job of the antagonist. His or her agenda is at cross purposes with that of our protagonist, and that is where the conflict comes in.

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When we first began talking about antagonists at WWBC, we all had the idea this person had to be a mass murderer or serial rapist—or at least the guy in the old movies who always tied the heroine to the railroad tracks. Had to have a skinny handlebar moustache and skulk around going “Bwa-ha-ha!” in an evil voice.

Not so. An antagonist can be Adolph Hitler or John Wayne Gacy or the Unibomber, but he doesn’t have to be. An antagonist is simply the person whose agenda conflicts with that of the protagonist, causing the conflict that drives the story.

In the movie Double Jeopardy Ashly Judd is the protagonist. She was framed by her husband to take the fall for killing him. Knowing she was innocent, she figured he wasn’t really dead, and when she was paroled from prison she set out to try to find him and either exonerate herself or kill him.

Tommy Lee Jones is the antagonist. He’s not a serial killer or anything like that. He’s her parole officer. When she violates her parole, he goes after her. Not a bad guy—just a man doing a legitimate job. But his job is at cross-purposes with Judd’s agenda, which makes him the antagonist and creates the conflict driving the story.

In the movie You’ve Got Mail Meg Ryan is the protagonist. She owns a small independent bookstore and just wants to run her own business and maybe find love.

Tom Hanks, the antagonist, is not a villain. He just happens to run a family-owned chain of bookstores that puts independents out of business whenever it comes into a neighborhood. When he begins exchanging emails with Meg Ryan, he has no nefarious scheme in mind. He’s also seeking love, just like she is. Two basically good guys with conflicting agendas that drive a good story.

Your antagonist may be a thoroughly despicable criminal, like Alan Arkin in Wait Until Dark, or Patrick McGoohan in Silver Streak, but he or she doesn’t have to be. All that’s needed is that the antagonist must have a goal or purpose that keeps the protagonist from achieving his or her goal.

Since our antagonist is the driving force of the story—the one that makes the reader continue to turn pages—we need to be careful in designing his or her character. No room for playing by ear here.

Remember those seven novels I told you about? The ones the publishing industry failed to snap up and turn into mega-million sellers? Want to know how I built my antagonist in those stories? I didn’t.

That’s right. I didn’t. I just sat down and began to write the stories, giving little or no thought to what kind of people my characters were. I ended up with plastic, one-dimentional characters who all looked, acted and sounded like me.

To avoid making this blog too long, we’ll wait until next week to talk about how to build an antagonist with his or her own character traits. Someone with his or her own distinct personality, who doesn’t look just like you or like your other characters.

Have a good week, and we’ll meet again next Monday.

In one of my earlier blogs, I mentioned that I had written seven novels the publishing industry was too myopic to see the brilliance of. Maybe you have one or two of those manuscripts hidden in your storage shed, too.

What prevented publication of these jewels? Well, don’t know about yours, but probably not over a thousand things in my case. Let’s start with what makes a reader turn pages and keep reading.

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Pretty prose and impeccable grammer will get us to the head of the class in a high school English class, but it won’t do much to get someone to read our work. Assuming we get our novel into the hands of John or Jane Q. Reader, we must interest him or her in actually reading the book if we want that person to buy any more or recommend ours to friends.

The thing that will cause someone to read our book and continue through to the end is CONFLICT. My rejected novels all started with a handsome hero or beautiful heroine who moved through the story gaining wealth or happiness without opposition. To my amazement, everybody except me considered that boring. There was no conflict.

Wait a minute. In one book, the heroine’s parents both died during the War Between the States. In another, the hero’s father was wrongly accused and found guilty of a crime. That’s conflict, isn’t it?

No, that’s not conflict. Those are BAD SITUATIONS. Sad to the characters, but boring to the reader. Conflict has to involve two characters whose objectives are at cross purposes to each other.

If my heroine had wanted to operate her father’s farm after he died and discovered another character owned mortgage papers from a loan he’d advanced her father, and if this other character wanted to repossess the land for his own purposes, there would have been the basis of a real conflict. I’d have had something that might interest a reader in turning from one page to the next.

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If my hero had tried to find evidence to exonerate his father only to run up against the criminal who had actually perpetrated the crimes his father was accused of, and that criminal worked actively to keep the father from being exonerated, I would have had a conflict that might have been worked into an interesting story. An agent of publisher might have seen some value to it.

Conflict is the driving force that keeps a reader interested and makes him or her want to read more. Without it, we’ve got a term paper or a family history or just some ramblings.

We need to have conflict in every scene—real conflict, not just bad situations. There must be an overall conflict, such as the criminal keeping my hero from finding the truth or the mortgage holder keeping my heroine from succeeding in her attempt to farm her family land successfully.

But an overall conflict is not enough. We can’t have a scene here that is driven by that conflict and then the next scene just showing a happy family eating dinner together. Each scene must involve some sort of conflict that prevents the hero from achieving some part of his goal, or at least a conflict that temporarily sidetracks the hero and keeps him too busy to pursue the goal.

How do we insure that conflict? Where does it come from? We’ll take a look at that in our next blog. Until then, keep on truckin’.

Ø Think back over the fiction you’ve written. Is it driven by real conflict, or do you just have characters going throug bad situations?

Ø Think about the novels you’ve liked best. How did the author work an overall conflict into scene-by-scene conflicts to keep you interested?

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In our last blog, we discussed goal-setting. No sense starting to write unless you know what your objective is. Now that you’ve decided you not only want to write but want to become a professional writer, what’s next?

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Unless we’re experienced columnists or reporters for newspaper or magazine, in which case we would have made the decision about becoming a professional a long time ago, we probably need some help. Very few of us were born with the knowledge of how to write, much less how to market ourselves and our writing to agents, publishers or the reading public.

Where can we get that help? If you’re a recent graduate with a teacher or professor who has real knowledge of writing and the publishing industry and with whom you have established a strong rapport, you might seek him or her out.

If your aunt happens to be Nora Roberts, or John Grisham is your brother-in-law, you might go to them. If you can catch them with the time to sit down and talk to you.

Most of us don’t happen to number people like that among our relatives and close friends. What do we do? Where can we turn for help?

How about a critique group? We can find them in most major cities—and a lot of small towns—across the country. Surely we can find one, even if we have to drive to the next town for the meetings.

But wait—are all critique groups created equal? Unfortunately, no.

So, how do we decide what group, if any, to join?

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Who is in the group? Are there any writers who are successfully getting published in the field we’re interested in? If everyone there writes poetry and we want to write novels, the group probably isn’t going to be that helpful.

Okay, here’s a group over here where everyone is working on a novel, but the only one who has one published is a guy who self-published and has sold 300 copies in the two years it’s been out. Do you think we’ll find the kind of expertise we need from that group? Somehow, I doubt it. If it’s the only group around, it may be better than nothing. We might find help editing our typos and misspellings, but that’s about it.

We need to find a group comprised of people working on the same sort of thing we want to write—preferably one where at least one member has had some success at it. If our bag is short stories, we need a group with several short story writers.

Oh, I forgot—you wanted to be a novelist. Okay. Good choice. So you need to find a group that includes knowledgeable and successful novelists with a handle not only on how to write a novel but also on how to market it.

Unfortunately, we’re not likely to find a group that includes J. K. Rowling. What should we do? One place we can start is to attend some writers’ conferences. We can Google them and find what’s available in our area. Then we can attend and rub elbows with the other attendees, asking questions about writers’ groups in our area.

We can talk to the speakers who present sessions at the conference. Most of them are friendly and willing to speak to us. See what suggestions they have to offer.

We can also friend people like Kristen Lamb (http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/) and Bob Mayer (http://writeitforward.wordpress.com/) on Facebook and follow them on Twitter. Both are successful authors who understand today’s market and can offer a wealth of insight.

Kristen Lamb, my Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp co-founder, has an on-line group. She also leads our local group which meets weekly, and there’s a lot of progress being made in both groups. In fact, one of the members of the on-line group, Donna Collins Newton (www.donnanewton.wordpress.com), has been in Hollywood recently working out the details for a tv series based on her screenplay.

Another valuable tool is reading blogs of other writers. We can take advantage of the experience (read mistakes) of others and make the way for smoother sailing for ourselves.

Writers used to live in caves, isolated from the rest of the world, but we no longer have to be hermits. Nowadays, we are not alone, to steal from the title of Kristen Lamb’s best-selling book, We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media. As writers seeking to break through, we need to take advantage of every opportunity for help we can find.

Ø Are you taking advantage of all the help available to assist you in reaching your own personal goals?

Ø Is there a local critique group that is right for you?

Ø Do the group members help one another with characterization, plot and so forth, or do they just critique a few pages of your prose?

Ø Interested in joining Kristen Lamb’s online group? Start following her blogs at http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/, as well as following her on Twitter and maybe friending her on FB. Then send her a DM or a FB message inquiring about joining.