Some time ago I read a draft of a story written in the point of view of the villain. Let me say upfront that I was entirely judging this character to be in the wrong, and I wanted to explore the character’s actions. I wanted to consider the story from her perspective.
The author began with an objective voice. It was great…for the first few paragraphs. Then something happened and my interest waned. I closed the book. Later, I asked myself, “Where did that story go wrong? It started out promising!”
It doesn’t matter which character’s eyes I’m seeing the story through; for a bad guy to be, well, good, I need some questions answered.
1. When I meet Cruel Bob, I will ask him,
“What’s Your Last Name?”
There’s a scene in the movie Galaxy Quest where the guy, named Guy, knows he’s going to die because he has no last name. He panics because he has no hobbies, no love interest, no back story, nothing. He knows he’ll be the first to go. As Captain James Hook would say, this is “bad form” for any villain who is going to be around for a while.
Cruel Bob’s a cardboard character (aka, the two-dimensional chump) who needs context, or he won’t matter to me. I want to know his temperament, his tendencies, his surroundings–anything that will help me understand who he is right when I meet him. I want to relate to him, if only to roundly hate him.
Even a drunken, violent character has his times when I can see the struggling person inside. The manipulative liar has his weak moments, when I see his doubts creep in. He’s still the bad guy, but a bad guy with a human element.
2. I will ask that devious Madame Vitriol,
“What’s Your Problem?”
In real life, it would be much easier if people would go around with “bad guy” and “good guy” signs, but in reality everyone chooses what he/she will be. They have a past and a reason for doing what they do. It’s often the motivation from their past that helped create their present path. We all have a motive. What is the catalyst for your baddie’s behavior?
For a writer, motives become characters in themselves. A trickster can make a bad motive look like it’s good, and, sometimes, even a character with a good motive can behave in a bad way. So, tell me about those interesting events early on in Madame’s life that changed her. This helps me to better understand her and want to keep reading.
3. Then I will ask Mr. Eville von Furioso,
“Do You Come With Commentary?”
There are characters who are clearly wrong in what they do and think, but an author who uses the narrative to harp on this is really doing the reader a disservice. The story I mentioned at the beginning of the post is a good example. The author didn’t keep the objectivism. The emotion welled up before my eyes as the lines progressed. At first, the character waited patiently, set things in order, considered the merits of her work, etc. Then the phrases and words changed. Her ‘lip curled in disgust,’ she ‘ordered,’ and she ‘demanded.’ The author’s perspective took over the story.
I don’t want to be told your baddie is cruel, manipulative, delusional, misguided, or fiendish. This isn’t persuading me, it’s hitting me over the head with a thick Board of Obvious. What if each book drew a bright highlighter through the bad guy’s every action by using adjectives with negative connotations? What if each encounter with that character was weighted down with biased phrases? A good story should give me the pieces to help me draw that conclusion for myself.
In life I have to exercise my critical thinking skills to protect myself because the world has some people who are not nice living in it. Those who have the greatest influence on the way I think are the ones I’ve come to know personally. When I meet a real, living mean person, who is sometimes warmly sympathetic and sometimes cold and heartless, I have to learn to see past emotions and realize when that person is doing something wrong.
The book characters who mimic real-life people are the ones with whom I become emotionally attached. Mr. von F can’t resonate if he comes with the author’s complimentary “view my character this way” specs. I won’t remember him. So, please, leave the Board of Obvious at home and help me work my way through Eville’s schemes organically.
Being a fan of the character-based novel, I’m looking for a good bad guy. He/She must have (1) Context, (2) Motive, and (3) No Complimentary Commentary. I’m not saying the world would be a better place if authors did this, but I can think of a few books that would be better books.
I have two copies of the first book in The Bobbsey Twins series. One is a 1961 edition, and the other is from 1989. My kids and I found, while reading along with these two versions, that an adjective from the nicknames of the youngest set of Bobbsey twins had been removed. Flossie is nicknamed “my fat little fairy” by her father, and Fred has the loving epitaph, “fat little fireman.” “Fat” was completely missing in the 1989 version.
After the kids and I discovered this, we had a good laugh. The connotation of “fat” in the U.S. is much different from its harmless meaning fifty years ago. How about centuries ago? Wasn’t fatness a desired quality during the Renaissance? One risked being considered impoverished and easily susceptible to disease without a healthy display of bulk.
My kids are slender. They are all good eaters, but I have a child who tends to lose weight easily when she’s sick. I’m always trying to plump her up with cheese and spoonfuls of peanut butter. She often requests to melt the peanut butter with chocolate chips. That works for me.
Sometimes she will ask me if a food she enjoys will help her get fat.
“Mom, are these Kippers good for making me fat?”
“Mom, can we get those Little Debbie domino brownies at the store?”
I can’t stand those.
She knows it, so she adds, “I think they will help me get fat.”
In our fat-phobic society, a nickname like “my fat little fairy” or “my fat little fireman” is tottering on abusive language. If you use a similar phrase as a term of endearment, you might be blamed for your child’s years of therapy. So, don’t do that. Just stick to something noncommittal, like “nice” or “sweet.”
What about using “fat” as a writer? Do you find you avoid certain words and phrases merely because they could be offensive to that reader whose pet pug is going to need a dog whisperer because you didn’t think anything of naming your main character’s dog Pudgy Purple Pug? Or have you ever wondered what harmless adjectives, names, or even ideals might be offensive in later years?
When I’m in the throes of a story, I will question sometimes whether I’ve become obsessed. There’s something very insistent about a tale all wrapped up in my head. It will entreat me to pay attention to it at the most inconvenient times. My thoughts trail away to a scene, and the characters begin to interact, whether I’m in a position to listen or not.
It’s no wonder that some of us writers grow emotionally attached to our stories. They become part of us. And when they are written and we close the book, it is a painful separation. An inexplicable grieving period follows that no one really shares or understands. Connecting with other writers is a way to find support for that intense connection that a writer can experience with his/her story-child.
When a writer hands over that treasured story for another to read, it’s a gift—even if it may seem more like a white elephant. Many writers are looking for someone willing to read their manuscript with an objective eye and to give insightful feedback. It is an opportunity to be supportive, not only of the work but of a writer’s heart.
Fanfictionallows you to observe a writer’s style and temperament before you agree to invest your time. Last summer, I discussed my great experience with my first critique partner. It worked out well, but it was definitely more of a blind search than getting acquainted with a writer through his/her online work and corresponding through private messages. I’ve reviewed and touched up many works from fanfic writers I got to know beforehand. I became interested in supporting the writer and his/her style first.
Here are some tips for encouraging meaningful interaction that can grow into that supportive writer relationship:
Give thorough, honest reviews
Receiving a thoughtful review is everything to a serious writer. He/she will seek you out for genuine feedback because he/she is not there simply to amass reviews. (I’m not saying it wouldn’t be nice, mind you.)
Writing a thoughtful review is also a writer’s advertisement. This is true for blog comments, isn’t it? It’s the primary means I use to find writers whose work I’m interested in reading, whether it’s through blogging or online fiction.
Volunteer to be a beta reader
Being a beta reader, that second pair of eyes, is a ton of fun, but it requires sacrifice. It’s important to make the most of what you can offer a writer and prioritize, considering the time you will spend on the work. It’s necessary to be selective. One can’t be a beta reader for every writer who makes the request, but it’s worth it when you’re interested in a writer and/or the story. And beta reading isn’t just a service, it’s a learning experience. It helps a writer reason through the stream of someone’s work objectively, and it develops awareness of one’s own storytelling weaknesses. In my opinion, the object of a beta reader is to give a writer the assurance that the story flows and speaks to the reader. Honest assurance.
When I’m the writer, I try to be considerate of my beta reader, both of his/her time and feelings. I want to create a relationship in which it’s okay for my beta to respond, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure about this” when expressing a gut feeling. Sometimes a reader’s intuition benefits a writer more than textbook corrections.
Be a mentor for a less-experienced writer There are different ways to go about this–there are organizations, of course–but you can do this on fanfiction sites, too.
The lengthiest fanfic chapter story I’ve worked on was 25 chapters, and I accepted redrafts of each chapter. The story was written by an advanced high school student. It was a magical adventure, and her passion for improving her work made the whole experience magical for me. I started from scratch and returned to writing basics. Instead of cleaning up grammatical errors, I was allowed to help her restructure her sentences for better impact and flow. (You can’t do this with many writers because repeating a simple rule of grammar can come off belittling.) I brainstormed with her for ways to make her characters more than actors under her pen. The ideas came from her own head, and I just prompted her to decide the mood or conclusion she wanted and to think about ways to communicate that. She taught me so much! She completed her fanfic, and we’ve kept in touch. She’s in college and writing for her university’s paper. It makes me happy to know she still loves writing, despite my critiques.
In case you’ve missed a post or two, here are the points I’ve mentioned in the Fanfiction Experiment series:
All Fiction is Fan Fiction.
is a ready-made setting for all types of writing exercises.
can help you realize who your audience is and how to talk to them.
inspires a writer to develop crisp characterizations.
can help you learn to write what your inner reader wants to read.
challenges writers to hold a reader’s attention.
sites can help you stay accountable, motivated, and focused.
allows writers to filter through the trends.
allows you to observe a writer’s style and temperament before you agree to invest your time.
I hope something I’ve touched on in this series has inspired you to think outside the box about ways you can develop your craft. Granted, fanfic readers aren’t editors, nor are they versed in all things considered marketable by the publishing industry. The majority of readers read what they do because they like it, not because they’ve analyzed the trends or they have a good eye for the best opening line. But it’s eye-opening for the writer who considers his/her craft a journey. No matter how much one learns, there is always something more to be gleaned. There is always room for growth. Keep writing!
My taste is so bad! I just begin to realize it, and I am feeling my ‘growing pains,’ like Gwendolen in ‘Daniel Deronda.’ I admired the stained glass in the Lincoln Cathedral the other day, especially the Nuremberg window. I thought Mr. Copley looked pained, but he said nothing. When I went to my room, I consulted a book and found that all the glass in that cathedral is very modern and very bad, and the Nuremberg window is the worst of all. Aunt Celia says she hopes that it will be a warning to me to read before I speak; but Mr. Copley says no, that the world would lose more in one way than it would gain in the other.
Every writer has to start somewhere, and the journey from that somewhere is strewn with embarrassing moments where we realized what we thought was good writing fell miserably short. I think it’s because writers tend to take writing advice quite literally. It can result in an avalanche of same-sounding, soulless stories. It’s good to follow the Writer’s Golden Rule on this one:
“Don’t bore others by emulating the things that bore you.”
Duplicating what’s already on the shelves doesn’t help a story to resonate. There are bazillions of blogs that advise writers to try new techniques and methods. Remember the tip about describing your character through traits of a specific animal, like a cat, snake, or bird? I’ve noticed an influx of this in stories lately. Overused techniques are bullets aimed at a writer’s foot. Readers like variety; so when I read about a new approach, I ask myself, “Is this something that will fit my style naturally? Can I make it distinctively my own?” If not, I chuck it. There’s a fine line between mimicking and capturing. One isn’t really me, and the other becomes part of my style. In the long run, this will help me retain my originality because thousands of other writers read the same advice.
Social networks have made trending and trend-following much simpler, which means the time frame for a trend can peter out much faster. Fanfiction allows writers to filter through the trends, making it a great way to track what’s still catching your reader’s eye and what everyone is over and done with.
It’s a useful sieve for stale dialogue tags. I think of dialogue tags being like photo memes. Take Grumpy Cat for an example. A common reaction is shared among viewers when they see this “I’m not amused,” crusty, frowning cat. Phrases and words can trigger the same reaction, describing the character’s state succinctly for the reader. Once readers connect to a commonly used tag, it’s golden. For a time at least.
Here are some dialogue tags that connect with readers:
Shifting Strands of Hair
She curled her knees to her chest, pushed back a loose strand of hair, and waited.
“You don’t know, do you?” Charlie said with an amused expression. He reached up and brushed a strand of hair from her cheek. She met his eyes as the realization of what he meant crept over her.
Moving strands of hair away from the face denotes an emotionally charged moment. It can be an act of vulnerability, frustration, or a display of tenderness.
To Clench or Ball the Hands
Carmen laughed as she tore my flyer in two. “Who’d vote for you, Schizoid?” she said, tossing the pieces at me and prancing into the classroom. I stood in the hallway, my hands clenched tightly, not sure whether I wanted to scream or cry.
Making fists with one’s hands means the person is trying to keep control in the midst of strong feelings, usually negative ones.
Here are two more tags that are somewhat overused:
“She bit her lip.”
“His jaw tightened.”
What do these tags mean to you?
Common phrases and words used in everyday conversation, or in blogs, can make it into the thoughts of fanfic characters. Remember ‘I digress?’ How about reading ‘ebullition’ and ‘pedantic?’ Those were tripping up easy-read blogs a couple of years ago. I’ve been tempted to use ‘pablum’ and ‘caveat.’ It’s my theory that most of these words come from the workday environment—because sales pitches at business meetings aren’t complete without digging up a seldom-used word to redefine in commercial terms. I imagine there’s some Words With Friends designer using Tipping Point strategies to highlight one word per season. He/she muses over things like, “Hey, I wonder how many people I can get to use the word ‘ycleped?’”
A manuscript can be edited for dialogue and wording, but what if the story is based on something most readers don’t want to read about anymore? It would be good to know that in advance, since the story might not be given a chance by a publisher. I might poll readers to ask them what subjects they are tired of seeing on the shelves, but I think it’s better to observe what they flock to and what they avoid. As a fanfic reader and writer, I can tell you what I’ve grown tired of and what I’ve avoided writing. And I thank you for asking.
Vampires. Top of the list. I won’t make any of my characters vampires. I will find some other way to denote his/her charismatic personality and deadly intents.
Pouty Princesses. This includes pouting teens who don’t know they are princesses and learn it later in the story. I will give my heroine value and recognition without the bejeweled crown, and without the puckered lower lip.
Snarky Sorcerers. (Yes, I mean witches and wizards, but I like the catchy alliteration.) I will leave the spells at home and help my character explore new ways to exert power or influence over others and learn self-control.
Also, there’s some serious oversnarkensation going on in children’s and young adult literature. (That portmanteau is supposed to remind you of ‘overcompensation.’ Get it? Heh.) Snarky dialogue is like lemon juice. It can give a story zest in small doses.
Zombified and Angsty Dead People. Okay, what is this obsession with having died a few hundred times? I’m not saying I wouldn’t be angsty if I were dying over and over, too, but what was once supposed to be gruesome is quickly becoming old and stale. Kinda like zombies. Has anyone noticed that zombies are vampires without the magnetic charm?
Skimming the current fanfics to find out what everyone else is writing about ad nauseam can help you avoid these pitfalls. Conversely, if you’re not nauseated by it, and still interested in reading it, it could mean others are still interested in more books on that topic, too. So, say you have a manuscript already written about a snarky zombie who learns he’s actually an emperor of wizards. Do you hold on to it for a bit? Should you wait for readers to forget about zombies and wizards so they can be all surprised and thrilled at its reentry? Or is now the time to introduce “Fitz Mulroony, Magic’s Really Rotten Royalty”?
Bottom line: Trends come and go. I’m going to love my book for itself. I won’t be embarrassed to introduce it without tricking it out in the latest look or painting it over in the season’s hottest colors. I’ll glory in its quirks. Didn’t I labor over it and call it names and throw terrible fits and tell it I never wanted to see it again? My book and I have come a long way together. Both of us can just be ourselves now.
Friday’s last post in this series will focus on what a writer can learn from supporting other fanfic writers.
(Disclaimer: My opinions on vampires, princesses, and zombies are purely my opinions. You might still enjoy reading about them. No, of course I’m not rolling my eyes! Well, yeah, my fingers could have been crossed while I denied that.)
There was no ‘One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?’
One of the most difficult and annoying issues that plagues writers—and readers!—on free online writing sites is the inability to complete the story. There are tons of incomplete works of fanfiction, along with furious readers and apologetic writers. Let’s face it, writers can lose impetus, especially when there isn’t any monetary motivation involved. Plus, waning interest and plot bunnies come complimentary with storytelling genius. Many writers cater to them, leaping to a different tale without rescuing poor Sheila, the Little Mermaid’s sister, from the clutches of Korth, King Triton’s evil twin. Readers want writers to be reliable.
It’s not easy to be a steady serial chapter writer. It’s even harder to finish the story. Diligence is a muscle a writer has to exercise. Sense and Sensibility was originally written as a series of letters and read to the family. Think about that: It’s probable we wouldn’t have Elinor and Marianne and their beautiful love stories if not for the support of Jane Austen’s family to keep her writing. Unfortunately, not everyone has a family like Jane’s.
Fanfiction sites can help you stay accountable, motivated, and focused while writing your story. Every writer craves encouraging reviews, but they won’t keep a story going if the writer doesn’t have a purpose for continuing. So, begin with a purpose statement. ‘What?’ you might say, ‘Can’t a writer just write for the fun of it, to free one’s adventuresome spirit?’ Actually, a writer always has a purpose statement because no one writes without a reason. Some purpose statements include: “I want to try a ghost story,” “I want to explore a political theory of mine,” “I want to exorcise a harsh time from my past,” “My teacher says I have to write this,” or “I want to see how much of this story I can complete if I make a goal of posting two chapters a week.”
When beginning a story, writing down my purpose statement is like insuring my work. It’s my fallback. Without it, my story can become like a game of Telephone; I start with one idea and the story mimics flypaper, gathering plot bunny carcasses until I can’t find the original idea at all.
Here’s an example of a purpose statement:
I am writing Backwash, My First Job at a Dentist’s Office because I need closure on this most disgusting experience in my life, and I need to defend my decision to brush my teeth fourteen times a day.
I try to be as descriptive as I can. If I’m writing to a specific person or audience, I include that as well. This helps me refocus on the reason for writing the story, should I get sidetracked, say, by deciding to change the plot midway through. (Fanfic reviewers can have very tempting ideas, by the way. It is easy to get sidetracked, especially once a writer begins to receive good feedback.)
It’s just something to consider if your original reason for writing is important to you to stick to. Changing the story to accommodate a different purpose isn’t necessarily bad, but changing your motivation can change your work. It can also usher in a bad case of writer’s block.
There’s a general consensus that J.K. Rowling wrote Deathly Hallows with her fans in mind because there are nods in the 7thHarry Potter book, and it reads differently from the giddy, sky’s-the-limit feel of The Sorcerer’s Stone. After reading book seven, my sister and I discussed our theories on how the book would have differed without the influence of Potter fans everywhere. We’ll never know.
L.M. Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables, wrote the other books in the Anne series after there was a demand for more. The rest of the stories in the series are great, but it is my opinion that there is something very precious and delightful when you first meet Anne that you don’t find in the rest of the books. Did this affect the sales of these books? I doubt it.
To clarify, your purpose statement is not the premise or the story outline, which are excellent ways to keep a writer focused, too. Some writers work best when following a premise or outline, while other writers like to wing it; but all of us have a purpose when we first begin writing the story, be it simple or complex.
Monday’s post will be about fails at originality. And next Friday’s post will be the last in the series.
(Disclaimer: Something about opinions and experiences. Writing this post distracted me, and I forgot to write it down.)
You may think that fanfic writers—especially the serial chapter sort—are a wordy bunch. Maybe…and maybe not. One thing I know: Fanfiction writers are challenged to hold a reader’s attention. Fanfiction has a fickle audience. You have to keep your readers intrigued without resorting to posting one explosive scene after another. Here are some ways I’ve learned to do that:
Be Segue Savvy Writers can’t wait to write the scenes that build the conflict, but the story between these scenes deserves just as much love and attention. Writers—this includes the traditionally published ones—make the mistake of losing story momentum, along with their readers’ interest, by neglecting the between-scene transitions. It’s easy to become too intent on getting to the next big plot highlight instead of keeping the plot toasty all the way through. If you’re depending on these major scenes in your story to persuade the reader to keep reading, you are not writing a story; you’re writing an outline. You, as a reader, know this when you read it. And fanfic readers don’t hang around for, “Wait! You haven’t gotten to the good part yet!” A fanfic writer learns to give the story drawing power amidst the valleys, or risks losing his/her audience.
Don’t Drown in the Details There’s a tendency in the born writer to dwell on things that have no bearing on the plot. I can’t help writing them, but at least I can see them for what they really are and remove them. I have this little file where I dump—I mean, keep—those lovely jewels. I pretend I will come back, promising to find the right place for them. That rarely happens, but it helps soothe my ego, which loathes deleting anything that might be somewhat witty.
For the fanfic writer, the back story and research are compiled for you by the original author. This is the ideal way to begin. You will know immediately whether dwelling on tangents will be your nemesis when you start writing long passages describing the contents of Bella’s backpack, rather than explaining how Jacob clandestinely returns the backpack to her after their midnight motorcycle ride in one of your “Lost Scenes from Eclipse” chapters.
Resist the Urge to Research As a research slave, I can attest that it does not aid a writer’s sanity to do any research when writing the first draft. With fanfiction you have a short window in which to update your story once it begins. Pausing to spend a month studying up on Viking water crafts to make your warship a little more realistic for that How to Train Your Dragon fanfic is probably a bad idea. It is better to do any research before, to inspire your pen, and wait at least until that first draft is written before going back through to fill in the blanks and rework the misconceptions. Just let it go while you are in the midst of writing. It’s a terrible time hog, and one of these days I’m going to heed my own advice. 😛
Writer’s ADD is planned for Friday.
(Disclaimer: My opinions were not sufficiently researched while writing this post. My research has never, ever been sufficient, only copious.)