Showing posts with label villain. Show all posts
Showing posts with label villain. Show all posts

Thursday, February 11

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and the Hero's Journey (Part 1)

In the last few posts I’ve discussed a story’s setting. Today I want to discuss a story’s setting and how it changes in the context of the hero's journey.

Setting Reflects Changes

The setting of a story changes as the story progresses. Often, the setting for each scene mirrors the hero’s arc. (If you’re unfamiliar with the notion of the hero’s journey, I’ve written about it here.) 

Just in case all that is clear as mud, let me give you a few examples of what I mean.

Setting Reflects Story

Dichotomies: Tagging the hero and villain

In the movie, The Matrix, Neo, Morpheus and Trinity are dressed in black while their opposition wears business suits. 

Here the opposites are agents of order versus agents of chaos. The agents of order (and, yes, they were actually called Agents!) are dressed in business suits and are part of an irredeemably corrupt system.

The agents of chaos, the ones wearing black, are trying to tear down that corrupt system. It was clever to subvert the audience’s expectations and have the good guys wear black. This nicely illustrates that aspects of a setting, such as the clothing/uniform each side wears, helps with characterization. Or, at least it can. 

On the topic of business suits, in The Matrix the enemy was an outside force but often the enemy is closer to home, sometimes it even wears a seemingly friendly face. In the movie, The Firm, Mitch McDeer’s opposition was the people he worked beside everyday and they all looked alike. They wore the same thing, they had the same kind of house, the same kind of car (expensive!). They were “one happy family”™. The sameness was part of what made the opposing force so insidious and scary.

Setting Reflects The Protagonist's Need

In general, at the beginning of a story the protagonist has a weakness, a need. For instance, take Susan. She has a weakness that prevents her from realizing her full potential, something that prevents her from living a life that is as meaningful as it could be. In order for Susan to meet this need, she must change. But this is mixed news for Susan because there is no change without destruction, without sacrifice, and that brings turmoil, pain, and possibly death.

The storyteller’s goal is to construct a suitable crucible for heroes-to-be like Susan, one that will challenge her and, ultimately, singe off the bits that have to go to make room for new and improved bits.

The Hero’s Desire

A story world should explain the hero's desire for their goal. In “The Firm,” Mitch McDeere's desire is to never, ever, be poor again and his specific goal is to make partner in a wealthy law firm. At the beginning of the film he’s poor and working as a waiter while still receiving top grades from one of the best law schools in the world, Harvard Law School. That nicely illustrates Mitch’s ambition and intellect. 

Here’s another example. (I know I used this example too much!) Luke Skywalker was a skilled pilot but, while his uncle kept promising he could leave the family’s moisture farm and attend the academy, something always came up to prevent it. A droid would break down, the crop wouldn’t be as big as expected, and so on. This meant they couldn’t afford to hire someone to replace Luke, so he felt obliged to stay.

Another thing. I see Luke’s landspeeder as a representation of this conflict between Luke and his family. It reminds us of Luke’s desire to become a pilot as well as the sacrifices he has to make. (That, and landspeeders are just plain cool!)

The Opposing Force

A story wouldn't be much fun if the protagonist wanted something then, without further ado, got it. They must be opposed. This is the job of the antagonistic force that opposes the protagonist in their attempt to attain their goal. 

There is a symmetry between the hero and villain. Whatever the hero’s specific goal is, it needs to be something that both the villain and he want, but which at most one of them can achieve. Both can fail but both can never win

The Hero Confronts Death

At some point the hero will suffer a devastating setback. It will seem to him that his quest is over. It is at this point that the hero often has an epiphany, a revelation. 

How could the story world reflect this, both the danger and the epiphany? 

This is going to sound obvious because it is obvious… I could say ‘dead obvious’ but I think that would be going too far! ;) Anyway. Often the hero confronts death in a setting that brings death to mind. So, how do we do that? What makes us fear? Well, the dark. So caves, dungeons, crypts, pits--sometimes even one’s bedroom at the witching hour! What was that noise? Footsteps? But no one’s home! 

In Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke and his allies are nearly crushed in a trash compactor. Countless movies have the hero visit a creepy old house, or abandoned insane asylum. Perhaps the hero is lured into a cellar, or a dark and musty basement (the Paranormal Activity movies), and then is brought close--even symbolically--to death. (Also, sometimes at this point one of the hero’s allies dies. In a mystery this will often give the hero/sleuth a valuable clue.)

That said, the hero could confront their mortality anywhere; for example, in a law office or as the hero runs through a crowded city. There are no hard and fast rules. The only thing you can take to the bank is that if you don’t write anything you’ll never have a story! So write!

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I think that’s a good place to stop for today. I’ve only blogged half my chapter, so I’ll try and get the second half up tomorrow. In the meantime, good writing!

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

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Wednesday, May 1

Creating The Perfect Murderer

Creating The Perfect Murderer

I've always wanted to write a murder mystery. I read them all the time but I've never written one. I'm hoping to change that.

Over the next few days and weeks I'm going to publish a series of posts (not all at once, though!) about writing a murder mystery. I think that in order to really truly learn a subject one must teach it--I know that sounds strange, paradoxical even--but I think it's true.

In what follows I make certain broad statements, please take these with a grain of salt. I'm talking about the kind of murder mystery I'm interested in writing, which is also the kind I usually watch. If something I say doesn't seem right to you, please ignore it. Better yet, talk to me about it in the comments! :)

The bare bones of a murder mystery

Although there are a number of variations, this is the bare bones of a murder mystery: the murderer/villain kills someone. The murderer is then pursued by the hero/sleuth who will, before the end of the story, solve the mystery and bring the murderer to justice.

Secondary arc

In a murder mystery there is generally a main arc--the story of the hero solving the mystery and bringing the murderer to justice--and a secondary arc.

The secondary arc is often a story that has some intrinsic interest and that is interwoven with the main plot. For instance, in Scott Turow's excellent murder mystery Presumed Innocent, the murder investigation happens against the backdrop of an election for County PA.

The secondary arc often poses a problem for the hero, the solution of which he uses to ultimately solve his primary problem: how to bring the murderer to justice. For instance, this sometimes happens on the TV show Castle; the solution to the secondary arc/dilemma has to do with his family and it will provide the solution to the problem of the main arc.


The secondary arc is often tightly related to the setting. For instance, I mentioned Castle. In that show the secondary arc almost always involves Castle's interactions with his mother and daughter and much of that show takes place in his penthouse apartment where they live.

The key: Create a place where dramatic things are happening besides the mystery.

Main Arc

The story's main arc will be about a sleuth investigating and solving a murder and, ultimately, bringing the culprit to justice.

The first thing we need to do is figure out who our murderer is.

Why the murderer and not the sleuth? Because the murderer is the one who plans and executes the crime. A murder mystery is really all about the murderer, about why he/she committed the crime and about his/her identity.

Meeting the murderer

What is the murderer's ruling passion? What does he/she love? Everyone loves something above all else--often ourselves! What does our murderer love enough to kill for?

Let's make something up.

Chances are our murderer has killed more than once. The murderer could have committed the first murder for plausibly noble reasons; for example, to protect someone he cares about.

In Columbo, 'A Deadly State of Mind,' a psychiatrist kills his lover's husband while defending her from him. It was self-defense but the killer doesn't think the police will believe them so they make it look like the husband was killed by a burglar. When Columbo sees through that story the psychiatrist kills again, this time murdering his lover in cold blood in a vain attempt to cover his involvement in the crime and pin everything on her.

Motivation: self-interest

The main point is that the murderer acts out of his/her own self-interest. In the example, above, perhaps the first killing was done for someone else, but the second was cold and calculated.

The murderer doesn't appear evil

The murderer will not seem evil to those around him. Perhaps he will appear to be a good family man/woman, a member of the PTA, a respected business person, someone liked and looked up to by those around him.

Or not. Perhaps, as in Presumed Innocent, the murderer will be someone quiet, subdued, controlled. Still, though, they are generally the last person one would suspect.

The murderer will appear clever and resourceful

The murderer must appear clever and resourceful. After all, if the murderer isn't clever and resourceful then it's not going to be much of a mystery. The antagonist/villain/murderer has to seem to be at least as clever and resourceful as our sleuth.

Deep psychological wound

The murderer (this will be true of the hero as well) will have a deep psychological wound. For instance, perhaps the murderer has a deep fear of being alone, of being friendless, shunned. They would do anything to be popular. They are rabid for approval.

This point ties into the next one which is that ...

The murderer must be extreme

For instance, the deep psychological wound must be severe and potentially debilitating. This will help explain why he murders, his deep inner motivation.

Characteristics: Physical, mental, social

- Is the murderer male? Female?
- Tall? Thin?
- In good physical condition?
- Does he have physical injuries? Scars?
- What color is his hair?
- How old is he?
- What kind of a childhood did he have? Who raised him? What did his parents do for a living?
- Did he like school? What kind of grades did he get? Did he finish high school? Did he finish college?
- How does the murderer currently earn money?
- Does he have a violent temper?
- Does he find it easy to make romantic connections?
- What does the murderer find easy? There is one thing he is exceptionally good at. What is it?

That's a partial list. There are many wonderful character sheets on the Internet that can help with character development.

I will pick up this topic again and, next time, we'll talk about our sleuth/hero and start developing that character.

Happy writing!

#  #  #

For the past few days I've been reading through notes I made at (it looks like) a workshop on how to write mystery stories. Unfortunately I didn't write down where it was, when it was, and so on, but I'm going to share them with you anyway because they're too good/helpful not to.

Question: What do you think is the most important characteristic for a murderer/antagonist to have?

Other articles you might like:

- 25 Tips For Writing Great Sex Scenes
- 4 Ways To Get An Audience To Love Your Story
- 3 Steps To Better Prose

Photo credit: "Untitled" by Mark Wooten under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, April 21

How To Create A Villain Your Readers Will Love To Hate

How To Create A Villain Your Readers Will Love To Hate

Have you ever had the experience of suddenly seeing something everywhere after you begin studying it? Of having something 'on your mind'?

That's what's happening to me with antagonists/villains.

A few days ago Larry Brooks wrote an excellent article, The Flipside of Hero Empathy, about the importance of crafting an antagonist your readers love to hate, and how that generates narrative drive. I thought it was brilliant so I'm sharing it with you. It's all about the basics of the craft, but those are strangely easy to forget.


"Your reader needs to feel something for your hero."

We know this. We want our readers to care intensely about our protagonist and about whether he/she will achieve his/her goal.

Dramatic Tension

The antagonist is "the obstacle to the hero's question. Therefore a good antagonist will help build dramatic tension or what I call narrative drive.

The Antagonist

The antagonistic force tries to prevent the protagonist from acquiring his/her goal, often because the antagonist wants it, or something it would lead directly to.

Also, the antagonist is often very much like the protagonist but with one crucial difference. For instance, Luke and Darth Vader were both strong in The Force and both trained as Jedi Knights. One could say that they both wanted what was best but they had very different ideas about what that was.

Similarly, Dr. Belloq was Indiana Jones's antagonist in Raiders of the Lost Ark. They were both archaeologists, they were both passionate about finding and bringing back relics and they both liked Marion Ravenwood, Indiana's old flame. The big difference? People were more important to Indie than relics.

Empathy & Narrative Drive/Dramatic Tension

Larry Brooks holds that if readers have both a) empathy for your protagonist and b) a strong desire to see the antagonist get what's coming to him (/go down in flames) then your story will have oodles and oodles of narrative drive, that couldn't-put-it-down-if-they-tried quality which most of us would like our stories to have.

After all, if readers desperately not only want the hero to achieve his/her goal but want the antagonist to go down in flames then they will keep turning pages until that happens.

The Following

Larry Brooks writes:
I mention this killer (literally) television program [The Following] because it offers one of the most compelling, interesting and deliciously hateable villains, maybe ever.
I haven't watched this series yet, though it's on my to-do list.

Which antagonist(s) do you love to hate?

Other articles you might like:

- Joe Konrath Is Having A 99 Cent Sale
- Dean Wesley Smith Writes A Novel In 10 Days
- How To See Through Your Character's Eyes

Photo credit: "Snow" by Luis Hernandez - under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.