Showing posts with label dresden files. Show all posts
Showing posts with label dresden files. Show all posts

Saturday, June 28

Jim Butcher On How To Write A Suspenseful Story Climax

Jim Butcher On How To Write A Suspenseful Story Climax

Someone once said to me: The first few pages of a novel sell that novel, the ending of the novel sells the next novel.

I believe that.

Endings are important. If I like a book but hate the ending I probably won't read another book by the same author. 

How does one create an exciting, satisfying, ending?

Yesterday, as I worked on the ending for my WIP, I wondered: Is this any good? Is it interesting? Exciting? How can I tell? What makes an ending good? Bad? Indifferent?

So I did what I usually do at times like those, I went to my digital library (also known as the internet) and re-read Jim Butcher's essay, Story Climax. It's an informative, easy, read. And it's funny. (Sometimes I think humour is like the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.)

Jim Butcher is a funny, brilliant and wildly successful author--a #1 New York Times bestseller--so I'm going to try and dip into his well of wisdom and talk about a few of his thoughts about what goes into creating an exciting, couldn't-stop-reading-if-you-wanted, ending.

What do readers want?

I think that the key to success in writing is to figure out what your readers want and give it to them. So, what do readers want? 

The ending should be vivid.

Jim Butcher writes that if you've gotten your readers emotionally invested in the story then, "when you reach story's end, they are INVESTED in its outcome. They want to SEE what happens, preferably as vividly as they possibly can."

The ending should be satisfying.

Jim Butcher writes:

"By the time you've reached the end of a story, a good writer has got their readers on the edge of their seats, at 3:30 in the morning, and the pages are tearing every time they turn because the reader is so excited.

"You've made an implicit promise by getting your reader so bound up in the story. You've /got/ to deliver on it, or that reader is going to freaking /hate/ you for doing that to them. They are gonna go away from that ride all hot and bothered and frustrated as hell. That's what catharsis is: the release of all that tension and sympathetic emotion that the reader has built up because of the writer's skill at weaving the story. Done right, your readers will cheer and cry and laugh out loud and dance around their living room."

We can see that a lot is riding on writing a vivid, satisfying, exciting, climax. This just intensifies my need for an answer to the question: How does one go about doing that?!

1. A specific, concrete, event should mark the start of the climax.

It's all about dominos. 

About two-thirds of the way through a story, right after the great swampy middle, there's an event that is akin to the first domino dropping, an event that sets in motion a cascade of rising action that sweeps the reader inexorably on toward the conclusion of the story.

2. The conclusion, the climax, of a story has six parts.

Jim Butcher writes:

"The actual climax itself, the absolutely peak of it, though, is what I generally refer to as the Showdown or the Throwdown or the Beatdown, depending on my mood and testosterone levels at the moment. The most dramatic point is the actual confrontation between your protagonist and antagonist, where they are directly contending with one another, and where both of them know that the story question is about to be answered.

"For THAT confrontation, there several structural components that you can use to organize it that will be really helpful, much like the components used in a Sequel [...]."

These are:

a. Isolation
b. Confrontation
c. Dark moment
d. Choice
e. Dramatic reversal
f. Resolution

Let's go over each of these in turn.

a. Isolation

At the end, the hero should meet the villain by himself without backup. Jim Butcher writes:

"At the end of the day, your protagonist stands alone. That's why that character is the protagonist. Oh sure, there can be other people around, but the one who really COUNTS is your protagonist. The more alone he is, the higher the tension levels are going to be, and the more satisfying the climax is going to be for the reader."

b. Confrontation

Your hero, your protagonist, should bring the fight to the antagonist. He or she confronts the Big Bad, the Nemesis. Butcher uses Inigo Montoya as an example: 

"Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

Best. Scene. Ever!

c. Dark moment

As Butcher writes, the confrontation between hero and villain "Does Not Go Well." The hero finds out he's completely outclassed and, moreover, that what he thought was the worst possible outcome wasn't. The cost of losing is actually much, much, worse.

Jim Butcher doesn't use this name, but this beat has also been called "All hope is lost." He writes:

"In the recent Narnia movie, that moment was at the death of Aslan. The Great Lion is gone, the White Witch has made fashion accessories out of his mane, the bad,guys have them outnumbered and outgunned, and there's just no way to win the fight that's coming the next day--but the folk of Narnia need Peter to lead them."

d. Choice

Here's where Jim Butcher's books really shine (IMHO). It's all about choice. He writes:

"Your protagonist has to CHOOSE whether or not to stay true to his purpose or to let himself be swayed by fear, by temptation, by weariness, or by anything else. In that Dark Moment, he has to make the call that ultimately reveals who your protagonist really is, deep down. And the choice has GOT to be a BAD one. If it's an easy choice, there isn't any drama to it--no tension, no release for the reader."

The first time I read that I was thrown. Bad choice? What did Jim Butcher mean by that? Should my protagonist go to the dark side and start torturing kittens? 

No. Of course not. A bad choice is a choice that any rational person would consider crazy. Insane. Here's Butcher's example:

"'Use the Force, Luke,' urges ghost-Kenobi's voice. 'Let go, Luke!' Luke visibly makes a choice, turning off his targeting computer, putting his faith in the Force to make the shot that the whole galaxy is literally riding on, the way a Jedi should. He's alone, with the baddest guy in the movie hot on his tail, and even his friends are telling him he's nuts. 'His computer's off. Luke, you've switched off your targeting computer! What's wrong?' 'Nothing!' 
says Luke. 'I'm all right!' Not ONLY is he about to get blown out of the air by Vader, but he might miss the shot, too. Luke is about to do something INSANE. He's about to sacrifice his life to take a literal shot in the dark."

Luke's choice wasn't a bad choice, it's the only choice that would have worked, but it seemed completely crazy, insane, to all his friends and allies.

By the way, here's where all that character development you've done comes in handy. Your readers need to know the hero well enough--their personality, their traits, their quirks--that taking the crazy high road is believable. At the end of Butcher's Dresden File books I often shake my head and think, "That's insane. That's so Harry." 

e. Dramatic reversal

When I pick up a new Dresden Files book I know one thing: Harry's going to wipe the floor with some bad guys and he's going to come out of it okay. (Yep, Ghost Story threw me for a bit of a loop.) So we know that the crazy thing the hero does--the bad/insane choice he makes--is going to pay off in the end.

You'd think that that certainty would leech the story of its suspense. You'd think the certainty would make the eventual rosy outcome less than satisfying. But it doesn't. Why? 

I think there are several things involved here. 

First, although we strongly suspect the hero is going to come out of this just fine no matter what risks he takes, others might not. 

Second, we don't know exactly how the hero will triumph. (Often there's a bit of mystery involved.)

Third, poetic justice. Jim Butcher writes:

"The intrinsic nature of the story or of the protagonist's character influences or causes the events of the confrontation to be changed in an unexpected way, causing an outcome that is in harmony with the principles of poetic justice."

Great storytelling is all about developing believable characters readers care deeply about, putting them in jeopardy and then, as in a magic trick, making it all work out in the end--or not.

f. Resolution

This is where everything gets wrapped up. Butcher writes:

"Time to hand out the medals, kiss the girl, go to the wedding, put the star on the Christmas tree, raise the curtain on the rock concert, attend the funeral, or otherwise demonstrate that with the conclusion of the story, some kind of balance has been restored. The catharsis is complete, the tension eased, and the reader can catch their breath now.

"My advice to you on resolutions: Keep it short. Once you've gotten through the Showdown, write as sparingly as possible to get to the end, and don't draw anything out any more than you absolutely must. You've already kept your poor reader up until 3:30, you heartless bastard. Let them get some sleep before they have to rush off to their shift in two hours!

"Then you get to type the most satisfying words in any book you'll ever write: T H E  E N D"

I urge you in the strongest possible terms to read Jim Butcher's articles over at if you haven't already. Not only is the advice sterling, but his articles are easy to read and delightfully funny.

Photo credit: "Falmouth" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, December 13

Roleplaying Games And Writing, Does The One Help The Other?

Did you know that Dan Wells, Chuck Wendig and Jim Butcher, three wonderful and wonderfully successful writers, not only are avid gamers but also create roleplaying games?

What is the connection--is there a connection--between between a successful writer and gaming?

Jim Butcher

Did you know there's a Dresden Files role-playing game? That's right! Jim's also a LARPer and avid role-player. He goes so far as to, at least occasionally, take the his world-building-ideas on a trial run with his weekly gaming group.

Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig of Terribleminds needs no introduction. One thing I didn't find out until recently is that he is an avid gamer as well as game designer.

About a year ago Chuck wrote an article entitled Twenty-Sided Troubadours: Why Writers Should Play Roleplaying Games. Trust me on this, even if you would rather try and cross the North Pole naked than try a roleplaying game, his post is a great read. Here are a few highlights:

Writers should playing roleplaying games because:

1. The essence of roleplaying is characters in conflict.

What is at the heart of great storytelling? Character driven conflict.

2. Pacing

Pacing is tricky. It's not the easiest thing to get right. Too slow and it'll be easy for your readers to put your book down, too fast and you'll burn them out. As Chuck writes:
Constant action is naught but the electric cacophony of a single guitar chord blasted over and over again.
You have to ease off the gas sometimes and let your readers breathe a little.
This becomes abundantly clear at the game table. ... Let the characters talk to one another. Even the tried-and-true “our characters walk into a tavern” schtick reveals this, to some degree: they don’t kick open the door and start throwing punches. A tavern fight starts simple. Drinks. Laughs. A goblin says some shit. A paladin encourages restraint. A warrior gets all up in the goblin’s business. Someone throws a bottle. And then — explode. Spells and swords and shotguns and goblin venom.

3. No Such Thing As Writer's Block

You can't get writer's block when a goblin spits in your face. You have to do something. Anything.

4. You Have A Built In Audience

Gaming is a group activity. You can tell immediately if what you're doing works.
This [gaming] isn’t something you do in isolation. ... You’re in the thick of it. Your words — whether as a player or, more importantly, as the game master — are the central focus. You can tell when you’ve hooked them, and can tell when you’re losing them. You shuck and jive and duck and weave and do any kind of narrative chicanery to keep the momentum going, to ensure that the table doesn’t spiral off into restless side-conversations (“Do you think an Alchemical Exalted would be able to beat Jesus, if Jesus were wearing like, Mecha Armor given to him by the Three Wise Men?”). ....

Your story is the story of the moment, and it reminds you just how important it is to keep the audience in mind — not just your intent as storyteller but their interests, their needs, their attention.

It also reinforces the cardinal rule:

Never be boring.
Chuck Wendig prose is definitely not boring.

I encourage you all to go and read Chuck's article. It's great, I love his use of language, sometimes even the spicy bits: Twenty-Sided Troubadours: Why Writers Should Play Roleplaying Games.

Dan Wells

Last, but definitely not least, we have Dan Wells. You might know him as a bestselling horror writer, or from, or from his YouTube videos on how to write a short story or, well, the list goes on.

Here's Dan's connection to roleplaying: Dan's 7-point system for how to structure a story was drawn from a Star Trek Roleplaying Game Narrator's Guide.

But that's not all. Dan is designing his own game. (See: My Game Design I Keep Talking About)

Dan has been designing games since he was a kid. He writes:
I consider game design to be very similar to fiction writing, at least in terms of why I do it and what I get out of it. Both are creative outlets that let me tell a story and craft an experience for my audience. If I can get you to feel something while reading my books or playing my games, I’ve done a good job; if I can get you to feel something specific, I’ve done a great job. (My Game Design ...)

Could Roleplaying Games Make Us Better Writers?

Could be! Only one way to find out. :-)

Have you played a roleplaying game? Did it help your writing? Does writing help your gaming?

Other articles you might like:

- How To Write A Twitter Story
- The Dark Art Of Critiquing, Part 1: What Makes A Story Good?
- How To Earn A Living As A Self-Published Writer

Photo credit: "fairies never die" by kait jarbeau is in love with you under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, November 28

Jim Butcher's Advice For New Writers: Write Every Day

Jim Butcher's Advice For New Writers: Write Every Day

In a recent interview with Sword & Laser, Jim Butcher described his Dresden Files series as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer starring Philip Marlow".

How perfect is that?!

As my title promises, Jim Butcher also gave great advice to new writers, but I'll save that for the end. Everything needs a hook, right?

Jim Butcher & Live Action Role-Play (LARP)

Want to meet Jim Butcher? Grab your cape and blasting-rod--a sentence I thought I'd never write!--and head out to Independence Missouri.
When he's not writing Butcher is an avid Live Action Role-Player, or LARPer, playing under the name of Longshot.

He invites fans in the vicinity of Independence Missouri to come out and kill some theoretical monsters, be beaten into theoretical unconsciousness and even be 'theoretically killed'.

The Idea That Started The Codex Alera Series 

Apparently the old saying, "Be careful what you wish for," applies to bets as well.
In 2004 Butcher was challenged by a member of the Del Ray online writers workship to write a good story based on a lame idea.

Jim took the bet and the challenger gave him the lame idea of a lost Roman legion and Pokemon.

The story Butcher wrote became the first book in the Codex Alera series.
I'd be interested how Jim pitched that series to his editor!

Jim Butcher's Advice For New Writers

You've been more than patient, so without further delay here's Jim Butcher's advice for new writers:

Question: Can you give advice to any new writers in our audience?

Jim Butcher's response:
Write every day.

Even if you only write a little bit, even if you only write a sentence or a word, write. Because, even if you've just written a word, you're one word closer to the end of the book than you were at the beginning of the day, and that's progress.

Writing is about momentum, so get that momentum, set your time aside every day and stay honest.
Awesome advice!

Jim Butcher shares great information in the interview--memories, anecdotes--that I haven't mentioned. The Sword & Laser (episode 16) video is well worth watching.

Thanks to K.B. Burnfield for sending out a link to this interview.

Other articles you might like:

- Making Time To Write
- Simon & Schuster Partners With Author House To Create Archway Publishing
- Editing: Make Sure Your Story's Bones Are Strong

Photo credit: "Super Troopers!" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, August 28

Jim Butcher: Cold Days, The Next Dresden Book, On Sale Nov 27th, 2012

Jim Butcher: Cold Days, The Next Dresden Book, On Sale Nov 27th, 2012

I'm jumping up and down right now! Okay, not really. It's too early for that. I'm finishing up the dregs of my first cup of coffee after getting four hours sleep. The only thing that's going to make me jump right now is if I sit on a tack.

Jim Butcher is my favorite author and his Dresden series is one I've followed for years. Usually a series will go downhill over time but Butcher's Dresden series has gotten better. Ghost Story was great but Changes (the second to last book) was amazing.

Update (Aug 31st):

If you want to read the blurb for Cold Days scroll down.

Cold Days is available for pre-order. Here's the blurb:

After being murdered by a mystery assailant, navigating his way through the realm between life and death, and being brought back to the mortal world, Harry realizes that maybe death wasn’t all that bad. Because he is no longer Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard.

He is now Harry Dresden, Winter Knight to Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness. After Harry had no choice but to swear his fealty, Mab wasn’t about to let something as petty as death steal away the prize she had sought for so long. And now, her word is his command, no matter what she wants him to do, no matter where she wants him to go, and no matter who she wants him to kill.

Guess which Mab wants first?

Of course, it won’t be an ordinary, everyday assassination. Mab wants her newest minion to pull off the impossible: kill an immortal. No problem there, right? And to make matters worse, there exists a growing threat to an unfathomable source of magic that could land Harry in the sort of trouble that will make death look like a holiday.

Beset by enemies new and old, Harry must gather his friends and allies, prevent the annihilation of countless innocents, and find a way out of his eternal subservience before his newfound powers claim the only thing he has left to call his own…

His soul.
To read more about Cold Days visit Jim Butcher's website.

Jim Butcher is not only an excellent writer but he gives marvelous writing tips and advice.
- Jim Butcher: How To Write A Story
- How to build a Villain, by Jim Butcher

I feel like a little kid waiting for Christmas!

Photo credit: Unknown

Tuesday, June 19

Jim Butcher: How To Write A Story

Jim Butcher is a writer I have a lot of respect for. Not only because I love his stories, but because time again he demonstrates a level of skill in his writing I can only aspire to. Thankfully, Mr. Butcher has been generous, penning many articles about the writing process and giving folks just starting out--or perhaps even well on their way!--many useful tips.

I'd like to talk a bit of about one of Mr. Butcher's articles, "Putting It All Together: How to get your story started," or "Organizing this frikin' mess."

Honestly, when I read this article I felt he was writing to me, this was just what I needed. So I thought I'd pass it along.

So, what are we waiting for? Let's write a story! Here's what we'll need:

1) A story question

2) A protagonist and antagonist

3) A turning point in the middle

4) A story climax

Sure, we need a lot of other things too, but this should help us get started.

1) The story question/The Story skeleton
 Jim Butcher writes:
The story skeleton (also called a story question) consists of a simple format:


For instance, look at Storm Front. (Yes, I'll use my own books as examples, because I'm just that way. ;) Also, I'm more familiar with them than I am with almost any other writer.) Storm Front's story question:

When a series of grisly supernatural murders tears through Chicago, wizard Harry Dresden sets out to find the killer. But will he succeed when he finds himself pitted against a dark wizard, a Warden of the White Council, a vicious gang war, and the Chicago Police Department?
Why does it seem so easy when he does it?

2) Protagonist and Antagonist
Jim Butcher writes:
Simply put, a story is a narrative description of a character (the protagonist/hero) struggling to attain an important goal. In general, the protagonist is opposed by another character (the antagonist/villain).

The protagonist sets out to achieve his goal and faces problems and opposition to his intentions along the way. His risk of loss increases as the narrative proceeds, and casts an element of doubt over whether or not the protagonist will attain his goal. Then, in a final confrontation of some sort (the climax), the protagonist either succeeds or fails, based upon his own choices and actions.
Jim Butcher gave an interview not long ago in which he spoke about how to build a villain, so I'm going to let you follow that link and not talk a whole lot about the antagonist. Kristen Lamb also has an excellent post about this: Spice Up Your Fiction–Simple Ways to Create Page-Turning Conflict.

3) The Great Swampy Middle: Turning point
Jim Butcher writes:
Here's the nutshell concept: Plan a great big freaking event for the end of the middle. You want it to be a big dramatic confrontation of whatever kind is appropriate to your genre. The fallout from your big bad Big Middle event should be what boots the book down the homestretch to reach the story's climax. Really lay out the fireworks. Hit the reader with everything you can. PLAN THE BIG MIDDLE EVENT. Then, as you work through the middle, WORK TO BUILD UP TO IT. Drop in the little hints, establish the proper props and motivations and such. Make sure that everything you do in the middle of the book is helping you build up to the BIG MIDDLE.

(I've used the Big Middle concept in EVERY book I've ever published. It works. It ain't broke. It ain't the only way to do the middle, either, but it's one way.)
I love Jim Butcher's name for the often amorphous middle part: The great swampy middle.

4) Story Climax
Jim Butcher writes:
A story climax is, in structure terms the ANSWER to the STORY QUESTION that we talked about earlier.

There, see how tidy that is? Simple! Again, not EASY, but simple!

For example, the overall Story Question of Lord of the Rings:

When Frodo Baggins inherits the Ring of Power from his Uncle Bilbo, HE SETS OUT TO DESTROY IT before its evil can wreak havoc upon Middle Earth. BUT WILL HE SUCCEED when the Dark Lord Sauron and every scary evil thing on the planet set forth to take the ring and use it to turn the entire world into the bad parts of New Jersey?

And the story climax of the Lord of the Rings:


See? ANYBODY could have written Lord of the Rings!

.  .  .  .

Remember earlier, how we talked about ways to hook your readers and get them emotionally involved in the story? Well, if we've done that right, then when you reach story's end, they are INVESTED in its outcome. They want to SEE what happens, preferably as vividly as they possibly can. By the time you've reached the end of a story, a good writer has got their readers on the edge of their seats, at 3:30 in the morning, and the pages are tearing every time they turn because the reader is so excited.

You've made an implicit promise by getting your reader so bound up in the story. You've /got/ to deliver on it, or that reader is going to freaking /hate/ you for doing that to them. They are gonna go away from that ride all hot and bothered and frustrated as hell. That's what catharsis is: the release of all that tension and sympathetic emotion that the reader has built up because of the writer's skill at weaving the story. Done right, your readers will cheer and cry and laugh out loud and dance around their living room.

EVERYTHING YOU DID IN YOUR BOOK LEADS UP TO THIS. Deliver on the climax or die as a working writer. Simple as that.
Okay? Got it? Ready to write that story? Well then, what are you waiting for!

Oh, and if you want to read some of the best writing on writing--that just so happens to be free--head on over to Jim Butcher's livejournal. All the excerpts on this page are from

Friday, August 19

Jim Butcher: How to build a Villain

Jim Butcher: How to build a Villain

I love Jim Butcher's series, The Dresden Files. I marvel at his well-rounded characters, his engaging fight scenes, the way he chains together scenes and sequels to create reader engagement, and the way he seamlessly weaves in backstory. Oh, and his fight scenes are epic. And that's just off the top of my head! Now that's my kind of writer.

Given that lead-in, you can understand why I get excited when I find an article Jim Butcher has written about the craft of writing. Today was a very good day. I found, "How to build a Villain," on a the site: Magical Words: Writing tips and publishing advice for aspiring novelists.

So, how do you build a villain? Jim Butcher writes:
One of the most critical skills an aspiring writer needs is the ability to build a solid villain. Even the greatest protagonist in the world cannot truly shine without an equally well-rendered opposition. The converse of that statement isn’t true, though—if your protagonist is a little shaky but your villain absolutely shines, you can still tell a very successful story.

How to Build a Powerful Villain:

1. Motivation 

"Your villain has to be motivated even more strongly than your protagonist, to move in a direction that is opposite to your protagonist’s goal. The drama and tension of the entire story is based upon those two opposing forces. Buffy versus vampires. Sith versus Jedi. Spy versus spy."

2. Power

"Your villain has to have enough power, of whatever nature, at his disposal to make him a credible threat to your hero. Personally, I believe that the more the villain outclasses the hero, the better. David wouldn’t have gotten nearly the press he did if Goliath had been 5’9” and asthmatic."

3. Admirable Qualities

"Every serious 'big bad villain' you write ought to have facets of his personality that are desirable, even admirable. Perhaps your villain is exquisitely polite and courteous, extremely perceptive, remarkably intelligent, or possessed of a skewed sense of honor that makes him something more than a simple black-hat. In point of fact, a villain might be loaded down with admirable qualities, all of which should serve to only make him even more dangerous to your protagonist. Think of the Mayor of Sunnydale in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Except for the part where he was trying to turn himself into a giant demon and devour the graduating class, he was a great guy!"

4. Individuality

"A good villain needs to be instantly recognizable to your reader, so that even if he hasn’t appeared in a hundred pages, your reader will recognize that character instantly. You can achieve this pretty effectively using Tags and Traits, identifiers for a character which reserve particular props, personality traits, and words to associate with any given character. You can find an article that goes into them in greater depth on my livejournal at"

Above, Jim Butcher mentioned an article he posted on his Livejournal site. He has actually posted quite a few excellent articles to that blog.

Jim Butcher goes on to say:
"I have a standard operating procedure for creating characters. I keep a dossier on each of them. When the character is created, I open a new file and fill in name, goal, description, tags, and traits. I write down a brief summary of what their capabilities are, and more fully describe their goals and motivations. If it’s a recurring character, I keep a running log of their development: how have the events of the story world affected them? How have they changed as a result? What are they likely to want in the future?

"If you’re going to take anything away from this post, it’s this: Villains are even MORE important to build well than are heroes.

"Spend every bit as much time and effort crafting your villain as you do the hero, and make sure that you motivate your villains every bit as thoroughly as you do your protagonist, or your story risks a lack of depth and contrast. In other words, it’ll be the one thing a fiction writer cannot afford to be: boring."
That is the end of the article but in the comment section Jim Butcher continues to give helpful advice to writers.

Question: “I’m intrigued by this idea of Tags and Traits. I’m guessing these are like the natural evolution of Homeric Epithets?”
Jim's Answer: I haven’t heard them described in those terms, but yeah, that fits, though the goal is to use it with a little more subtlety. Tags are words you use to physically describe any given character. Traits are aspects of their personality.

For example, the tags for Karrin Murphy in the Dresden Files are words like “tiny,” “cute,” and “blond.” Her traits are words like, “tough,” “smart,” and “fierce.”

The goal is to create a kind of mental signature for any given character, so that the reader need not consciously labor to identify who is speaking, and so that a very clear impression of the character is created when that character is introduced.

It all feeds into the idea that the goal, as a writer, is to create a kind of virtual reality in the head of the reader. That works best when the actual mechanics of words and sentences are as transparent as you can possibly make them. Part of making them transparent is to identify a few words or phrases so strongly with a given character that the reader doesn’t really notice the words themselves–they only see the character to which you’ve connected those words and phrases.
Question: “I wonder how important it is to reveal outright the villain’s weakness? Or is that revealed by the demise of the villain in the story process?”
Jim's Answer: Who says the villain has to /have/ a weakness? Though if you are going to go for a villain with a 2-meter exhaust port vulnerable to photon torpedoes, you can certainly do that. I did it with the Loup-garou in Fool Moon, after all. But most of the villains in the Dresden Files don’t have a silver-bullet weakness. It makes their takedown (if they’re going to be taken down) a little too simple and predictable.

“But there are plenty of great villains that don’t have anything admirable about them. They’re just freaking monsters. Like The Joker, or Darth Sidious. I do prefer admirable villains, but i’d be lying if i didn’t enjoy the occasional complete monster. Are they just the exception that proves the rule or what?”

The Joker is crazy brilliant, literally, and he has style. It’s a bombastic and cartoony style, much of the time, but it’s still style. And Darth Sidious just wasn’t all /that/ great a villain, at least in my opinion–but even so, he was intelligent, eloquent, and a capable administrator. I mean, he conquered a whole galaxy. You don’t do that without at least a little talent. :)

“when I write a villain character, I seem to get so into “it” that I sometimes find it hard to not keep wanting to take it further and further (great for future books), but once I get to the point where “hey, it’s time to end this book”, how do you cut yourself off an say enough!”

Just remember that the end of your story is the answer to a question: will your hero succeed in his goals when the villain gets in his way? If your hero has achieved his goals, you’re done, that’s it, wrap it up and start on the next story.

“Is it dangerous to spend too much time with the villain/antagonist up front like this? I have a strong and familiar archetype for the protagonist and I keep saying “ah, he’ll be no problem when I get to his part”, so I keep putting off the details of his development. Conversely, the antagonist, being an immortal, figures heavily into the state of the world and the trials that will be put before the hero. Am I falling into a noob-trap here?”

Possibly, but it’s not one that can’t work out well for you. I mean, look at how well that one went for JK Rowling. When you think about it, Voldemort shaped absolutely EVERYTHING that happened in the Harry Potter books, right down to the scar on the hero’s head and his mysterious ability to speak with snakes. Why did it work? Because Voldemort, with his own actions, forged Harry into the means of his own demise. Harry, meanwhile, is sort of unremarkable as a hero, in a personal sense. He’s brave, but no braver than many other folk in the HP universe. He’s smart, but not the smartest around. He’s not even the best at magic. Voldemort made everything about him that was truly remarkable.

That said, I think it’s /far/ smarter to build your hero with every bit as much attention as your villain. Batman versus the Joker works so well precisely because they were designed with one another in mind, as champions of order and chaos, respectively. More importantly, it gives you double the audience appeal potential. I’ve read books where I just couldn’t stand the heroes, but loved the villains, and so continued. But the books that stay with me the longest are the ones who are solid all the way across the board, who fully engage me with their entire cast.
Question: “What is your approach, or rather your thoughts so I don’t make you feel all spoilery, on hinting at the big bad’s fingerprints in the early parts of your story arc without jumping the gun and revealing too much about them and their agenda?”
That’s mostly a matter of taste, but do yourself a favor and assume that the readers are smart. They are. Drop hints without being too overly dramatic about it, if you’re going to keep the identity of your villain hidden for a while, and make sure that you’ve got a villain to defeat in effigy before the end of the story. Think of, oh, Darth Maul and Palpatine. Palpatine may have been briefly stymied by the Jedi, but Maul got chopped up and thrown down a killin’ hole. His death was symbolic of Palpatine’s demise–literally, since Palpatine got thrown down a killin’ hole too.

“Having read all of the Dresden based novels, I am quite aware that your protagonist is deeply flawed and often those who act as antagonists display character traits that are admirable. Given this near equality, how does one avoid having everyone be candidates for “villian” status?”

Storytelling craft is not about making moral judgments of the relative values, ethically or otherwise, of your character’s actions. The readers will do that for themselves. For craft purposes, the protagonist is the one who is going after his goal. Your antagonist is getting in the way of that goal. “Hero” and “villain” are both separate terms which can overlap with protagonist and antagonist, but they aren’t absolutely bound together. Think of The Fugitive again. Sam Gerard is a perfect example of an antagonist who is, in fact, personally heroic. Artemis Fowl and Megamind are good examples of a protagonist who is personally a villain.

But don’t try to make the call for your readers. Just tell the story. They’ll do the rest on their own.
That's it! If you like my content please consider supporting me on my Patreon account. If you support the blog for just one dollar a month I'll send you my book, "The Structure of a Great Story."

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Thanks for reading and I'll talk to you again soon! :-)

Monday, August 15

10 Must-Read Fantasy Novels

I had someone (@AEMarling) ask me on Twitter yesterday, "What about fantasy most speaks to you?" Of course I took that as an invitation to reveal my inner cave man -- or cave woman in this case -- and replied, "All the cool stuff you can do!"

In fairness to me, I've been re-reading Jim Butcher's excellent Dresden Files series and what I like the most about Harry is his smart-aleck kick-butt ways combined with his, at times, irrational refusal to be bullied even if it means certain death. I then asked Marling how he would answer the question. He came back with:
Fantasy unhinges confining reality, manifesting age-old human dreams and desires. The early Homo sapiens might have paused in crushing each other’s skulls (30% of adults died of homicide back then OUCH!) and seen birds flying and imagined taking wing themselves, and this desire to fantasize, to daydream impossibilities may be written in our DNA. I suggest this tendency to entertain the absurd is our greatest adaptation. Without it, I do not for a moment believe we would have achieved air flight, learned how to restart a stopped heart, or cooked the Oreo pizza. (The last one proves fantasy can be used for evil…delicious, delicious evil.)
[Read the rest of the article here.]
I'd been owned. I had to laugh. That's a way better answer. Here's another one:
Fantasy of any kind tells us that the world we know is not the only one, nor the most enduring — and that truth can be anything but an escape or comfort.
That quotation was from David Orr. In that spirit, Lev Grossman has given us 10 fantasy novels that he says everyone should read. The first one is The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, one of my personal favorites. Click here for the others.