In the mid seventies, the FBI had just begun to consider undercover work as a way to catch criminals. Enter Agents J.J. Wedick and Jack Brennan, ambitious Odd Couple officers about to pose as con artist apprentices to the slippery and charismatic Phil Kitzer, international financial fraud.
I can see why Robert Downey, Jr. wants to star in the film version of Chasing Phil. It’s got elements of American Hustle (the 1970s glam/sleaze ), The Wolf of Wall Street (the train-wreck appeal of obscene greed and hubris), and all of the movies and shows featuring Ponzi scheme artist Bernie Madoff (the adrenalin ride of the charming liar about to be caught). Also, there’s the parallel rush of G-Men Wedick and Brennan, seduced by Phil’s powerful personality even as they work on a knife’s edge to catch him. It’s got mounting tension, especially as the two FBI agents clearly fall under Phil’s spell, and grow to genuinely like him while he ruins the lives of multitudes of hapless businessmen. It’s got retro-spy tech, and edge-of-the-seat moments. This is a tale for those who enjoy peering into gray areas within the human heart.
At times, I got bogged down in the plethora of details and mini-reversals, and started to lose the emotional arc. I suppose that is a built-in hazard of the reportage style of storytelling employed by author David Howard. The details are impressively wrangled, but I wish some had been pushed to endnotes.
If I were writing the movie, I’d beef up the conflict between Agents Wedick and Brennan, so the stakes are not just about bagging Kitzer, but about saving their friendship, making this a buddy story. And my film version would present Kitzer as the projection of every boy’s ideas of success, and the evil that comes from the ruthless pursuit of riches, careless of the cost to others.
As I read this book, I got a bit queasy about the moral and ethical merits of the world of finance in general, especially during this era, so close to the Savings and Loan plundering of the 80s, among other scandals of fiscal malfeasance. This realm of pricey meals and hotel rooms, and binge drinking, of wheeling and dealing, could seem glamorous, except that it ruined the lives of honest people.
And Phil got off, became an informant, a consultant, and finally, the FBI’s pet white collar crime professor. He continued to live high on the hog. So, does crime pay, so long as it’s white collar, and you get caught first? And if so, does that end merit journalistic neutrality, especially these days? I would have appreciated more of a moral stance. Phil is clearly a sociopath, so what are we to make of the FBI agents’ hero worship and friendship for him?
A fun and fascinating read, expertly compiled, organized and spun out, with enticing themes, and a vivid sociopath at its heart. There’s room for an enthralling filmic retelling, and when it comes out, they can take my money.
This post is under construction, but will launch soon with more robust and useful content.
The gist of my graduate lecture for the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults Masters program is this:
As writers and artists, to make art, we need all aspects of our psyche working together. It is when we fail to attend to the challenges of each aspect of ourselves that we can run into fallow periods and writer’s/artist’s block.
Carl Jung conceived of alchemy, a proto-science, as a useful metaphor for self-transformation.
I use the 5 elements of Alchemy to talk about each aspect of the self:
Air – the mind and belief system, where we can revise negative beliefs and replace them with a belief system that supports us as artists
Fire – the passion, will, and inspiration we get from all kinds of art
Water – emotions and the challenge of healing fear with love for our inner child – our greatest creative ally
Earth – the body, and daily habits. The needs exercise, and just taking regular walks can help clear our minds and let new ideas through. Creative people benefit from doing their creative work daily, and they can greatly improve their work by targeting their weak spots using the techniques of Deliberate Practice.
By attending to all these aspects of ourselves we can shorten fallow periods in our creative productivity. Another way to say this is, we can beat writer’s block.
I’m going to post much more on how this works, including practical actions to take.
For now, below is the PDF of the lecture hand-out. More information soon!
I love going to local children’s book festivals like Pasadena Loves YA. It’s a small event, but mighty in author power.
Now, I have a massive packet due to my advisor at Vermont College of Fine Arts on September 20th. I got me some serious writing and revising to do. So why would I take the time next Saturday to attend this festival? Why should a writer who doesn’t currently have a book to promote spend precious time at an event like this?
The Power of Small Book Festivals
Inspiration: I look at the authors on the panels. They did it. They got there. So can I. I use the panels as a chance to practice my self-supportive affirmations. I pay attention to my inner monologue, and if any kind of negative thoughts come in, I revise them right away. Yes, I can. I will. I am doing it.
PanelTips: Not every writer gives good panel, and you can tell the pros. Public persona is a vital part of being an author, especially for children. We are our own press agents most of the time. Striking the right tone of approachability, cool, humor, subtle self-promotion, and safety is a fine art. Kid lit authors like Margie Stohl, Brendan Reichs, and Veronica Roth have mastered it. I go to panels at book fests to watch and learn, and imagine myself sitting on those panels and being just as awesome as those guys.
Check Out the Market: What just came out? What did publishers buy about two years ago? What has been done, and where are the gaps? What do the latest book covers look like? What is the copy on the cover? Going to book fests helps me keep track of all this.
Check Out Your Target Audience: Teen and kid book fans go to these festivals. Many of them get up and ask fun and interesting questions that show you where they’re coming from. Wait on line with tweens and teens for book signings, and you’ll overhear some great stuff. If you don’t have regular contact with the target audience of your books, here’s a way to see and hear them in action.
Because I love YA, too. I keep lists of what to read next on Evernote, and maybe it’s obvious, but going to book festivals is one way to find out about that book I may not discover otherwise. See below for three great books I wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t gone to festivals.
Great Topics: Children’s and YA Authors are smart folks, and they care about what’s happening in the news. At kid lit festivals you’ll typically find panels about newsworthy topics: diversity, bullying, abuse, and gender equality. Sure, there are also usually talks on unicorns and magic. Anything goes in YA, and Middle Grade is pushing the boundaries, too, so you are in for some fascinating panel discussions that are fun for writers and non-writers alike.
Great Books I Found at Book Fests
Here are some great books I may not have read if I hadn’t gone to book fests:
A great near-future dystopian sci fi with an awesome romance. Terrific high concept, and unforgettable action from a master.
This heroine must tell the truth to her family in order to get back her power. A dreamy and evocative tale with razor sharp characterization.
The truth is a moving target when hindsight is twenty-twenty. Who are the mean girls, and who are your true friends? This book challenges assumptions.
Book Festivals I Love
If you have the chance to attend any of the book festivals below, do it! These are in my area in Southern California.
Yallwest: from the amazing folks who brought us Yallfest. Don’t miss your favorite bestselling authors reading their juvenalia. You can pick up some free ARCs here, too. Usually happens in April. Yallfest is in November this year (2017).
Los Angeles Times Festival of Books: This mammoth event at the USC campus hosts so many panels on kid lit alone, you can spend all weekend listening to your favorite authors. See them all for free, or buy a VIP pass and register for your favorite talks in advance, avoiding the lines. Usually in March or April. I didn’t go this year because Yallwest was so close to it in time, and I know folks at Yallwest. Because I’m fancy like that.
Pasadena Loves YA: This is the smallest and briefest of the three, and the easiest to get in and out of. Great authors, too. At the Pasadena Central Library, where the architecture is lovely. Happens in September.
What are your favorite book festivals? Any you’d like to try? Comment below.
Harry Potter fans, take note: I hope lots of people out there are reading AkataWitch by Nnedi Okorafor.I have been reading kid lit books like crazy for my VCFA MFA writing program, and this is one of my favorites so far. How many books? At least 100 books per year for the past two years. Phew!
When they call Akata Witch the Nigerian Harry Potter, they are right. Except I like it even better than Harry Potter.
Why will the Harry Potter fan Enjoy Akata Witch?
a fascinating and fully realized magical system
a brilliantly portrayed magical world for you to escape into
vivid curmudgeonly mentor characters with great quirks
tons of action and excitement
a strong sport-related theme
fun scary-but-not-too-scary villains
friendship between strong characters
middle school characters who learn how to do magic together and have to pass many tests along the way
a fast and engaging read, therefore, wonderful for reluctant readers
What makes me like Akata Witch better than Harry Potter?
It’s set in Nigeria, a place I want to learn more about. It’s got the transporting fun of a travel book.
The magical world of Akata Witch is just as rich as Rowling’s, and it is a fresh magical system, treated with creative, yet cozy whimsy.
There’s almost a video game feel to some parts of the magic. Bonus!
The main character has real internal flaws to overcome in order to master her magic, and herself. She has to struggle, which means the stakes are high.
Akata Witch has humor that arises from character.
The heroine is bicultural, having grown up in America, and being NIgerian by blood. This gives her yet another difference to overcome.
The action happens onstage rather than being discussed second-hand, or overheard by spying younglings. Overall, a masterful handling of exposition.
The protagonist is female. (Being female, I like that. I’m ready at any moment for Rowling to write a whole new set of adventures starring Hermione. She can have more of my cash for that!).
The protagonist’s albinism gives her an extra dose of difference, and injustice to battle.
Characters’ mistakes lead to real consequences.
We need diverse books—boy, do we ever right now, and this is a great one!
Seriously, everyone who loves middle grade and fantasy, no, actually, just everybody who enjoys good stuff needs to check out this book.
The sequel, Akata Warrior comes out October 3, 2017, so happy birthday to me, in advance!
Have you read Akata Witch? What do you think? What other books fit in that Harry Potter sweet spot for you? Please comment below!
Myth: You Need Talent to Be Great Truth: Deliberate Practice is the Only Path to Greatness
Common Sense and the Talent to Be a Great Writer
Recently, when I shared the title of Colvin’s book with an art student of mine, he made a “You crazy!” face at me. He was sure the only thing he needed as an artist was talent, and without it, he was sunk. I don’t think he is alone. It seems to be common sense that only talented people succeed as artists, as writers, as cyclists, as chess masters, as business moguls, as great leaders, as anything. So many people believe this. Maybe you had a teacher who told you to give up on your dream because you didn’t have the talent. Everyone knows getting good takes talent.
Turns Out, Everyone is Wrong
Don’t you wish people trusted science more than they trust common sense? I do. Look around. Watch the news. I really wish… but, anyways….
In Talent is Overrated, Colvin, building on the work of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, debunks the role of talent. He says that even Mozart, that poster child for the power of talent and divine inspiration, got great through something called “Deliberate Practice.” After all, Mozart started making music at the age of three, and his father was not only a highly respected musician and composer in his own right, but a taskmaster with crazy high standards, and an astute teacher.
In the world of psychology and business, there is a field of study called the “Science of Expertise.” It has already upended the eminence of inborn talent. Experts in this field have studied not only sports figures and chess masters, but musicians, artists, and writers. What they found is that early ability did not yield greatness.
What did? Deliberate Practice.
What is Deliberate Practice?
People say “Practice makes perfect,” but it’s not just practice that yields great work. (Plus, there’s no such thing as perfection, and I think it is a damaging concept for artists. I’ll probably do a future post on this.)
Art teachers like me say you have to make a thousand bad drawings before you can start making good ones. But it isn’t just making a ton of crappy work, or playing the same set of scales every day that does the trick. It’s a particular kind of practice. Colvin describes these key characteristics of Deliberate Practice:
It is focused specifically on improving performance. This means working on the stuff you don’t do well. You need feedback to figure out your particular weak spots . If you’re playing tennis, you may already know the forecourt backhand is your Kryptonite. But as a writer, you need a critique from a trusted source to know that dialogue or character development, or plotting, or sentence structure is not your strong suit. Designing your practice to improve your performance also means breaking down skills into their component parts. Only by breaking it down can you improve. For example, if my main characters are weak, I have to go micro to figure out what isn’t working. Is it my POV voice that doesn’t feel specific enough? Is it that my character is always reacting instead of taking action? Does their dialogue sound wishy washy, or like every other’s dialogue? Does my word choice make the reader feel patronized, or is my tone too distant, creating a big psychic gap between protagonist and reader? Do I have the real sense of what the character is feeling, all of it, in all its complexity? Once I know what isn’t working, I have to design a repeatable practice that improves those skills. More on that below.
It must be done repeatedly. This is the part where the Carnegie Hall cliché is correct. Where it’s about putting in the work and stacking up the hours. O, Grit, why is there no substitute for you? There just isn’t. We know it instinctively as storytelling creatures. A tale with a hero who doesn’t have to learn, to try repeatedly and fail, well, that story doesn’t feel real to us; it lacks gravitas. We know anything worth getting takes work.
It requires continuously-available feedback. Feedback can come from a teacher, or from a source that is easy to interpret. Benjamin Franklin, seeking to improve his essay writing, studied a publication called “The Spectator. ” He read an essay from it, then put it aside, summarized the main points, rewrote them in his own style, then compared his version to the essay, noticing specific aspects of his writing that needed improvement. Franklin used “The Spectator” as his master teacher, and his own well-honed objectivity. Not all writers, I find, have that objectivity. Franklin was also a scientist. Personally, I love having a mentor. I also love having feedback from other writers whose work and opinions I respect. And there are particular craft books that I keep rereading.
It is highly challenging mentally. Learning builds new neural connections in your little gray cells, which means it is mentally taxing. Therefore, most people can’t do Deliberate Practice for more than 5 hours per day. Often, they do it in sessions around an hour to ninety minutes, say the scientists. For writers, who often need day jobs to stay solvent, this is good news. Five hours per day is a lot, but it’s doable with a day job, or with a family (probably not both).
It isn’t fun. This is the bad news, but it’s an important point, because if a skill is fun for you to practice, it means you are in your comfort zone. And you don’t learn in your comfort zone. You also don’t learn in the panic zone, where the task is hard enough to strike fear. You learn in a special zone where the task is difficult, but still doable, with a bit of work and grit. This is called the Learning Zone by Professor Noel Tichy. I’ve heard it called the Growth Zone, but whatever you call it, you know you’re there when you are more satisfied having done it than you were while you did it.
Nobody Said it Was Easy
Maybe the reason people persist in believing in the myth of talent is because hard work is hard. If getting great were really all about talent, then you either got it or you ain’t. Done and done. Go watch Game of Thrones and pop a cold one.
Deliberate practice is difficult. But the hugely good news is, it can be done. And, since it is hard to do Deliberate Practice, not everyone will do it. That gives those willing to do it a competitive edge.
Deliberate Practice for Writers
So what would deliberate practice look like for a fiction writer? Veteran writing teacher Barbara Baig has an incredible set of lessons on her blog. She has based them on the precepts of expert performance studies like Ericsson’s. Definitely check out her lessons, and her books. They can help you build your own writing Deliberate Practice regimen.
Here is my brief summary of the Deliberate Practice steps I am testing out as a writer. Try them for yourself, and see what you think:
What do you need to improve? Get feedback on your work from a trusted source: a mentor, an editor or author who is willing to read your work critically and give you details. I don’t think there is any substitute for experience here. Find a master, if you can. It’s worth it. That is part A. Part B is being able to take that sage advice. Taking feedback is a special skill in and of itself, and it’s worth a post on its own. For now make a list of the skills you want to improve.
Design your practice. My practice has a warm-up, which I do every day, and when do it, I put a sparkly sticker on that day in my wall calendar. I kid you not. Rewards are important, and my Inner Child enjoys sparkly stuff. The warm-up is the morning pages, which is 3 pages of free-writing. Morning Pages come from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to be creative. After the warmup, I work on exercises focused on improving my character development. I do side writing, in which I speak directly with my characters. I ask them pointed questions. I ask them about what I need to do next. I brainstorm ideas with them. I also hang out and ask them about the meaning of life. Really. I have this one vampire character who is so wise about many things. I do all this in addition to getting words on the page that are meant for my draft. Cool things can happen. Sometimes I’m writing scenes in my morning pages. I let it happen. I type them into my side writing in Scrivener. Or they might even end up in my draft. Why not?
Make a schedule, commit to it, set up rewards, and do it! Since talent doesn’t matter, why should inspiration? Life is unpredictable, so I get my writing done first thing in the morning. Every day, with very few exceptions. I get up, grab coffee, and start my morning pages.
Get feedback. I review my work critically a few days after I have drafted it. I know my weaknesses by now because I’m getting expert feedback in my MFA program. Once I graduate, I will be in a weekly critique group. I take the feedback, cry if I need to, give myself a bit of time to recover, then try again.
This is how I do it. How do you make sure you are improving? Comment and share below.
Also, next time your inner critic tells you you don’t have the talent to do this, tell them that Barbara Baig, Anders Ericsson, Geoff Colvin, and I said they’re full of it. Because you don’t need talent to do this, or anything, with excellence!
Top 5 Writing Craft Books, because who doesn’t live a good top 5 list?
I am hard at work on a middle grade novel set in Bermuda, and my graduate lecture for VCFA on The Alchemy of Radical Self-Belief, and it’s fun! And tough. And fun!
For my lecture, I’m reading a particularly eye-opening book. Although not a writing craft book, it has powerful info on how to be a high performer in any field. It involves something called “deliberate practice.” Check it out by clicking below:
The List of Top 5 Writing Craft Books
Now that you have the bonus recommendation, right up front, here is my list of great writing craft books, in no particular order:
Straightforward and usable. Brings clarity to the revision process. Many aha! moments lie within these pages. Think you understand show don’t tell? Read this and you may be in for a surprise. Great stuff on leaving space for the reader to collaborate with the story.
Especially helpful when you are mulling your story over before getting it on paper or into the computer. Says it’s for kids, and it’s great for adults, too. Simplest and clearest description of plot and conflict I have ever seen.
This is the most intuitive approach to plot structure I’ve found. Plus it includes the writer herself in the hero’s journey. Stories, Alderson believes, are about the writer going on their own hero’s journey. How else can we bring the reader along?
How to take your favorite books and learn exactly how the author did a particular thing, then do it yourself in your own work. You can learn to write crowd scenes like Tolstoy, or Omniscient POV like Rowling.
If you don’t feel close to your characters, you can’t expect your readers to.
When you think of a friend, you don’t imagine what makes them like everyone else, do you? No, you remember their quirks, their contradictions, their particular turns of phrase, their noble traits, their flaws. These are the things that make you laugh, wonder, and bring you close.
But as a writer, how do you discover vivid character traits that ring true?
Creating Strong Characters
I’m reading a wonderful craft book that is helping me get in touch with my characters from an unusual creative source—acting.
Many writers find they can build strong characters through side writing. Side writing is anything you do as a writer that isn’t designed to go into your final draft. It’s the study, the inner exploration that helps you build your story world, the psyche of your characters, and the relationships between them that drive the conflict.
Side writing for a novelist is akin to an artist’s sketchbook. An artist tries out all kinds of techniques in their sketchbook. They draw studies of their subjects, they doodle, mess around, use pencils, or ink, or whatever medium they like, they tape in ideas. Sketchbook work doesn’t have to be good. It’s all fodder and inspiration for the final polished art pieces.
Your side writing should be your playground, where you flesh out and test your ideas.
Try this: Main Character Interview
Set aside at least a half hour to try this exercise.
Do a brief meditation in which you try to picture your main character. Close your eyes and visualize them sitting in front of you. Just take a few minutes and focus your energy on your protagonist. When you start to feel a little ridiculous, and like, wow, we writers sure are eccentric, then open your eyes and start writing.
You can try writing by hand, or typing into your writing software of choice. If you are having trouble feeling in touch with your main character, I recommend trying doing this by hand, at least at first. It makes you slow down and pay attention.
Start by greeting your main character like he or she is a real person. (This is a game of let’s pretend for grown-ups.)
Then start having a conversation in which your goal is to chat and get to know each other.
As you go along, get to the heart of what you really want to know about your character. Why are they so bent on revenge? Why are they so mad at their best friend? Whatever unanswered questions you have, ask them. You may not always get answers. Deflection is interesting, and you may want to ask again later.
Get more specific and pointed as you go. Ask questions that will help you know the character’s big sticking points, their big terrors, their deepest most secret yearnings.
Here are some suggested questions for after you are past the small talk: What would you die for? What do you live for? What is your biggest fear? If you won a billion dollars tax free, what would you do first? If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? (Big questions like these can help you see what matters most to your main character.)
What to Do with the Interview Text
Once you are done with your interview, you may find you like the process. You may want to begin each writing session with one of these, to warm up, to get into your character’s voice. Great!
Keep everything and refer to it later, before you write scenes from this character’s point of view. You can start a writing session by asking a character what they want in this upcoming scene. You can even ask them advice on how to write future scenes.
This side writing exercise has a distinct advantage over the commonly recommended character questionnaire. In this exercise you are talking to your character directly, so you get to speak and hear their voice. And you are answering as your character, so you will get new information about how they feel. They may even share new secrets with you.
Your novel’s world and people begin to live inside your imagination long before the plot swings into action. Side writing exercises the one above can be a terrific way to start sketching out that world and those people, so that your main character starts off vivid and strong.
This January I will graduate from Vermont College of Fine Arts with my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. If you are considering this program, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Unfortunately, my work there has kept me from blogging here.
Until today, that is. Look for a new post with a fun writing exercise tomorrow around noon!
“Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others—or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf.”
—Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect
Think back to you middle school English classes and you may remember there are many kinds of conflict. There’s hero against nature, hero against God, hero against society, hero against himself, and hero against someone else. Antagonistic forces like storms or totalitarian governments can destroy your protagonist’s world. If these kind of antagonistic forces are powerful in your story, you may not need a villain. Plenty of stories don’t have one.
In The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin, there is no villain. The antagonistic forces are the protagonist’s overwhelming grief and guilt tied up in the death of her friend, the divorce of her parents, and her own inability to connect, possibly because of an undiagnosed neural diversity.
In Neil Shusterman’s Challenger Deep, 15 year old Caleb Bosch is losing his mind, caught between a dream world of a voyage to the Marianas Trench, and the increasing menace of his own real world paranoia and disorganized thoughts. The captain of the voyage at first seems like a mentor character, and slowly transforms into something darker as the story progresses. Here the author has chosen to personify the main character’s dilemma, creating a kind of villain, but through most of the story, the hero’s mental illness is the main antagonistic force.
The human mind finds it easy to externalize evil, and as writers we gain many advantages by putting a human face on our antagonistic forces; by creating villains. Want to rail against what you hate? Want to show what’s wrong with a certain philosophy of life? Give it a human (or alien, or unicorn, or dragon, or Ewok) face.
Javert, Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, Voldemort, President Snow, the Wicked Witch of the West, Professor Moriarty, Joseph Stalin, and Hitler—all vital to the stories in which they appear. Try to imagine Harry Potter without Voldemort (he’d be a boring little kid, and his lack of specificity as a character would be more glaring than it already is). Who would Clarice Starling be without Hannibal Lecter? (Just an FBI trainee—would she even be in the story if Jack Crawford hadn’t needed to dangle her like bait in front of Lecter, the real crime fighting master sleuth of Silence of the Lambs?)
QUICK SELF-QUIZ ON VILLAINS
Write down your top five villains. It may be someone who rubs you the wrong way, or someone who just personifies evil.
What makes the villains you listed memorable?
WHAT A STRONG VILLAIN CAN DO FOR YOUR STORY
Drive the plot
Push the hero to the breaking point
Keep the muddle in the middle from getting too mucky, e.g., to fight Act II sag by getting busy doing bad things.
Keep your tension rising
Provide a foil for your hero’s life philosophy
Provide a dark mirror for the hero’s dilemma
HERO AND VILLAIN – A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN, OR HELL?
Sometimes heroes and villains are exact opposites, and sometimes, often in Noir stories, they are dark and light mirror twins. One could argue that Harry Potter’s closest relationship, especially in the later books, is with Voldemort. There’s a lot to be made of what is different and what is the same between hero and villain.
To go deep on this vital relationship, do some side writing:
Pretend your hero and villain are in couples counseling. You be the therapist and see what happens – write down what everyone says.
Write a scene in which your hero and villain meet before the villain has gone bad. What if the one guy helps the other out of a bad situation, and they end up taking a road trip to Vegas? (not possible with the unreasoning relentless kind of villain or the Satan trope, which is just pure evil).
KINDS OF VILLAINS
The Extreme Philosopher – Great theory, taken too far – Javert, who loves the law and rationalism so much it blinds him to compassion and complexity. Javert realizes that he’s made himself a villain and jumps in the river. Tommy Lee Jones in the The Fugitive, who becomes the ally.
The Anti-Villain – this guy or gal helps the hero solve the crime or right the injustice. Lecter is also this guy. Godzilla, who in the sequels kills worse monsters to save humanity.
The Unreasoning Beast/Machine/Monster/Zombie/Alien/Supernatural Whatever – This character represents the urge to destroy, is utterly irredeemable and unstoppable. He just keeps on coming. She never sleeps. Nosferatu, Jekyll, Yul Brynner in the film Westworld, The Terminator in (not uncoincidentally) The Terminator, the girl in the well in The Ring/Ringu. All those Walking Dead gray guys. The Martians in War of the Worlds.
Doctor Evil – Basically he has a nefarious plan to take over the world and he will monologue about it. Hans Gruber in Die Hard, Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects. If you’re going to use this trope, you may want to give it a comic edge, or find ways to go for more depth (see below), or spin it in a surprising way, because it has been done to death, to the point at which it begs to be lampooned with great relish. See Doofenshmirz in Phineas and Ferb, see Brain in Pinky and the Brain. See, of course, Dr. Evil in all the Austin Powers films. The Charming Sociopath – Hannibal Lecter is a variant of this form. So is Moriarty. So is the Frank Langella or Gary Oldman Dracula, not the Bram Stoker variety. This guy you often don’t see coming because his social skills go to eleven. The Social Darwinist – Anyone so sure of his own superiority that he is bent on genocide. Dr. Mengele in Boys From Brazil, Sir Lawrence Olivier in Marathon Man. The Wounded Villain – Roy Batty in Blade Runner. (Until the last scene he seems to be the Machine.) The Phantom of the Opera. The Petty Bureaucrat/Flunky/Minion/Thug – Agent Smith in The Matrix, Gil Lumbergh in Office Space. They love to torture others with the rules. They enjoy just following orders. The Bully – Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, All the Heathers in Heathers. Nurse Ratched, Ace in Stand By Me. This is a type we all meet in life, so their easy to hate. The Stealth Villain – Thought your best friend was on your side? Surprise! He’s been plotting your downfall all along. The best friend character in The Truman Show. Norman Bates is this for a little while. Tommy Lee Jones in Laura Mars. Oops – Dissociative Identity Disorder. The Corrupted – Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, Gordon Gecko in Wall Street, Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. These guys used to be idealists, dreamers, but not any more. Often they serve as a warning to the protagonist by showing the results of bad choices. The Disturbed – Annie Wilkes in Misery, Norman Bates in Psycho. Major Axis I Diagnosis.
The Ultra-Hot Villain – The hero should be terrified, but instead, he’s hot and bothered. The Darkling in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, any femme fatale in any Noir, Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction Pure Evil. Satan, Sauron, Lucifer and variations. The personification of Evil. The Wicked Witch of the West. Max Cady in Cape Fear. Villain as Protagonist Dexter in Dexter – a psychopath who fights crime. Humbert Humbert, American Psycho, Alex in A Clockwork Orange Unintentional Villain – Frankenstein’s Monster, King Kong, Claude Rains’ Invisible Man.
MY VILLAIN IS FLAT AND BORING. WHAT DO I DO?
Give them higher stakes. Why ruin one person’s life when you can destroy the world?
Give them a fun backstory, a wound that they might try to heal with vengeance. A wound can make your hero and your reader empathize with the villain. This can be a wonderful complication. Check out the origin stories of comic book villains. What turned your bad guy bad? Could it have gone another way?
Give them a heart. In The Phantom of the Opera, the disfigured Phantom falls for Christine, then starts murdering people to help her get ahead. He is a monster, but he can love and be hurt.
Give them a contradiction. The human mind is fascinated by things that don’t fit a neat pattern. Hannibal Lecter is a vicious cannibal who can murder without his pulse going over 80 beats per minute, but he also has a great sensitivity to beauty and the highest kind of culture. (Harris is probably making a big point there.) He gets out of prison but doesn’t go after Clarice because “he would consider that rude.”
Give them a rationale. Remember, everyone is a hero in his own life, and every great philosophy, when taken too far, can lead to horror and dystopia.
Give them a sense of humor. Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the first Tim Burton Batman movie won moviegoers over with this bit of dialogue in which he describes his former boss, played by Jack Palance, “He was a thief, and a terrorist. On the other hand he had a tremendous singing voice.”
Give them a secondary role in the story, like mentor, or love interest, or surprise ally.
Weapons and Furnishings. Give them an object that they always carry around. Give them a catchphrase. “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” “Yippe-kiyay!”
These books and websites have some great material on Villains:
One of the most daunting tasks a writer ever faces is to outline their work. We’ve spent so much time creating the fictive dream, developing our characters, crafting dialogue and description, that to reduce it all to a play-by-play, point-by-point overview of plot can seem an overwhelming challenge.
Somehow it hurts to boil it all down. And, let’s be honest, with everything going on in your story, it’s hard to know what to include and what not to.
Ya Gotta Do It
Still, outlining is necessary. Agents and Editors will thank you for a good chapter outline. It helps them give you notes, and sell your story to others. You’ll need a clear, tight synopsis when you’re querying agents and editors, too, and without an outline, you’ll be stuck weeding through your text page by page.
So, fellow novelists, let’s roll up our sleeves and learn how to outline.
A Quick Method for Outlining
Put each story element on file cards
put them in the order you want
go through and tell the story to several people. Voila—story feedback without having written one word of prose! (From Robert McKee’s book Story)
If you have a limited amount of time and need an outline before you write, this is a great method. I used it myself before my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).
In 10 steps, The Snowflake Method will give you a wide array of useful tools once you’re done. You’ll have an elevator pitch in the form of a one-sentence log line. You’ll have a full page synopsis. You’ll tackle character description, three-act structure, and you’ll really get to know your characters, including your villains, super-quick. Check out Randy’s website above. He also has a full-length book on The Snowflake Method.
Dan Wells’ 7 Points Method
Dan Wells, (author of the John Cleaver series), along with Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, and Howard Tayler, has a FANTASTIC PODCAST CALLED “WRITING EXCUSES.” He also has a useful method for outlining. You can find it on YouTube here. Using a Star Trek Role Playing game manual, Dan worked out how to outline any storyline in 7 points.
I love this one because it’s relatively easy to remember what the 7 points are, and how they work. It gets complicated when you realize that each of the story lines in your novel should have its own 7-point arc.
A Brief Breakdown of Dan Wells’ 7-Point Method
Here are the 7 Points:
Hook – The hero has a sad boring life.
Plot Turn 1 – Hero becomes a NEW ROLE.
Pinch 1 – Bad Guy attacks.
Midpoint – Hero learns the truth about SOMETHING and swears to defeat the VILLAIN/ANTAGONIST.
Pinch 2 – Companions fail the Hero, and Hero is left alone.
Plot Turn 2 – Facing VILLAIN, the Hero discovers the power is within him.
Hook – Luke is misunderstood farm boy who longs to be a star pilot and have adventures.
Plot Turn 1 – R2D2 plays Princess Leia’s distress signal to Luke. Luke brings the ‘droid to see Obi-Wan Kenobi, who gives him his father’s light saber and offers to teach him to become a Jedi. The Force is strong with him, and Luke is now a Jedi in training.
Pinch 1 – Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are killed by Imperial Troops.
Midpoint – Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are dead; Luke decides he wants to rescue the princess and join the rebellion and become a Jedi like his father.
Pinch 2 – Obi-Wan Kenobi is killed in a duel with Vader.
Plot Turn 2 – Luke turns off his targeting computer and uses the Force to drop the proton torpedo into the ventilation shaft and destroy the Death Star. The power is within him.
Resolution – Death Star is destroyed. Rebel base is safe. Time to hand out some medals!
Wait, Didn’t A Lot More Stuff Happen in Star Wars?
Now, obviously, there is a lot more going on in Star Wars, A New Hope than the 7 points listed above. There’s Han Solo needing to escape Jabba the Hut. There’s the ‘Droids plot line as they squabble with each other and try to survive on Tatooine, being captured by the Jawas and sold to Luke’s Uncle Owen. There’s the plot line of the Rebels, and the stolen plans for the Death Star. There’s Princess Leia’s plot line in which she is captured and tries her best to save her home planet, but to no avail. Darth Vader even has a plot line of his own, in conflict with the more modern approach to evil represented by Governor Tarkin. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s plot line is important as he faces Darth Vader in an old school sword battle. He represents the entire world of the Jedi Knights. Star Wars was planned by Lucas to be an epic, so its plot lines are sprawling. But you get the idea.
A Fancy Spreadsheet For You!
I have used Dan Wells’ 7 points to create a Google Sheet. In it you’ll find the 7 points for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Star Wars: A New Hope, The Wizard of Oz (the movie), Pride and Prejudice, Othello, and The Telltale Heart. This shows how the 7 points can work for all genres. The only major genres missing here are Mystery and Suspense. At some point I’ll add those in.
Chapter Outline Technique from the Editor of Harry Potter!
The chapter outline is a useful tool for when you are submitting a final manuscript to an editor. It will help them track all kinds of information in your story, from ages, to dates, to conflicts, to plot points. It will make the editor and the copyeditor your friend. You can also use it as a tool to refine and polish your manuscript before submission.
Plot like this on a spreadsheet:
Name of Chapter
POV Character – only one.
Day, Date and Time
Chapter Question – what question keeps the reader turning pages?
Key Plot Points Revealed
Fill in each of these for your chapters, one chapter per row, or, if you have complex chapters, one row per scene. Then go back through. It’s going to be easy to see if you don’t have enough conflict going in a chapter or scene. If you don’t, think about summarizing that section of the story, and saving the scene for the more dramatic moments.
For more on this method, see Arthur A. Levine Books Harry Potter editor Cheryl Klein’s Second Sight and her podcast (with knowledgeable screenwriter James Monoghan), the Narrative Breakdown. Cheryl is a rock star editor, and this podcast has wonderful stuff on all aspects of storytelling.
Best of luck plotting your stories! Do you have Outlining methods you recommend? Share them in the comments below!