The 10,000th Hour



Malcom Gladwell is often misquoted that, ‘You need 10,000 hours to become an expert in a field.’  It’s not what he said.  What he said is, ‘You need 10,000 hours to become a phenom in your field.’ An outlier, whose very name is synonymous with what you do.

Misquoted or not, the point of Dr. Gladwell’s statement rings true: The key to mastering a skill is practice.  It makes sense, if you want to be good at something, you have to do it, and do it again, and do it one more time, and when you think you’re done, do it one more time just to make sure.  A version of the quote comes from the show Cheer: ‘Do it until you get it right, and then do it until you can’t get it wrong.’

Writing and writing well is a skill.  Like any skill, if you do it on a regular basis you get better at it.  Talent is wonderful, and if you have it, I congratulate you, but talent will only get you so far.  If you don’t have the drive to practice, to keep yourself sharp, to keep your talent growing, then eventually talent will be overtaken by someone who’s put in the time.

The first thing I ever wrote was shit.  I mean, it was probably okay for my age, and my enthusiasm, but compared to where my writing is now, it was a steaming pile.  The point is, I’ve been putting in the time since I was an adolescent.  It doesn’t matter how you put in the time.  Some people go to university and get a degree, and if you can do this, grand.  However, it’s not the only way to get better.  One of my writing professors, and I’ll never forget this because it was mildly insulting, said, in a discussion about becoming a better writer, ‘you can lock yourself in a room and write for three years, and at the end your writing will be better.’  So, really, it’s up to you how you get better.  If you don’t have the time or money to go to university, that’s not stopping you from writing, and if you’re writing you’re getting better at writing. 

And so, I ask you: What are you becoming an expert at?  Binging internet series?  Video games?  Procrastinating?  Or are you working your way to being an expert in the thing you say you love?

Until next time: Be yourself, be well.  Write yourself, write well.  


A Year in Review


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Well, here we are.  Another year behind us.  Another NaNoWriMo in the history books.  We’ve all had some times these past three hundred and sixty-five days.  We’ve lost some people, some things, some beliefs, some ideas.

Firstly, I hope everyone got through things relatively unscathed, and if you didn’t…Let’s just say, good thoughts and wishes to you.

I do want to use the last couple of years to illustrate my point this new year.  We got through it.  We made it to the end.  We finished.

There is an underrated significance in finishing in the writing community, I feel.  There is no trainer pushing us to write every day as in sports.  There is no cheering crowd to push us along the path, handing out encouragement and drinks as we reach the halfway point.  There isn’t even a finishing line to cross when we complete a novel, though there is a finishing line.  If we’re lucky we have that special someone in our lives that congratulates us when we’re done, and if we don’t, well, there’s even less fanfare.

And even then, the process of writing isn’t “finished”, what with the editing and re-writing, and the trying to get published, and then the editing and re-writing.  Of course, there’s the strategy of having more than one project going at a time, which can make it difficult to focus on one, or feel like you’re done with anything, hard.

But there is a significance in finishing.  In knowing that you’ve come to an end.  I want you to know that that half-finished novel, the barely started short story, that “completed” one hundred and fifty pages of NaNoWriMo, I want you to finish it.  I want to know how it ends.  I’m cheering you on.

Ours is a solitary job, calling, journey, and ending, so I’ve found it’s fun to have a ritual for the ending of a story.  Like James Cann’s character in the movie version of Misery, who has a cigarette at the end of a novel.  Sometimes I’ll buy myself a book, sometimes a new pen or notebook, most of the time I just have a soda and sit in silence for however long it takes me to drink it.  It doesn’t have to be a big thing.  I would balk to even call it a celebration.  What I would call it is an acknowledgement of being done, of finishing.

All things, good, bad, indifferent, come to an end.  Shouldn’t your stories be one of them?

Until next time: Write yourself, write well.  Be yourself, be well.

Hello World!  Part III 


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Hello World!  Part III

Here we are, the last way to introduce your world to your readers.  It is not so much a technique as it is a writing style.  The third-person omniscient narrator. 

You will find plenty examples of this type of writing in epic fantasy novels (J.R.R. Tolkien, and Sarah Douglass are good examples) and space operas in the science fiction genres (forgive me for not naming names, but I’m not familiar with this type of sci-fi enough to recommend).  The techniques for introducing the world to the readers are rather straight forward, but bear mentioning because that’s what this is all about. 

The first technique is sweeping, extravagant description.  I would like to point out that description is a big part of writing, and appears in every story no matter what the point of view.  In first-person point of view and third person limited point of view, the descriptions are confined to what the main character can see and what they would notice, adding to the characterization of the character.  For instance, the hardnosed detective is going to notice quite different things than the college student who just discovered magic is real.  With third person omniscient narration a good place to start thinking about descriptions is the bird’s eye view, the long-distance view.  This p.o.v. isn’t anchored to one, singular spot or person, but sees everything.  It is also not anchored to one spot in time either, so these sweeping, extravagant descriptions, can start with how something might have looked in the past, or how it will look in the future before settling on the present and coming down to what the characters in the story are doing.  In looking at the world from above, from different times (past and present), a writer can freely introduce a reader to the world.

Another technique of the third-person omniscient narrator is switching to different characters.  Being everywhere and all-knowing, the narrator can focus in on several different characters to show how different pieces of the story fit together or operator in synch (or at least tandem) with other parts.  Again, this opens up the world of the story for the reader.  If one of the characters you follow is upper class, and another is poor, it shows two different versions of the world in which the story is taking place.  Every new character that a third person omniscient narrator follows shows off another facet of the world of the story. 

I would like to state that each of these narration styles that I’ve mentioned in the past three posts have their strengths and weaknesses.  The obvious weakness for the first-person point of view and third person limited is the fact that if the main character isn’t there then they can’t know about something that happened, but then that can be strength in the adding-suspense-part of the story.  Where as third person omniscient narration can seem detached from the story, and authors run the risk of inserting their own voice and opinions into the voice of the narrator. 

Ultimately, you should pick the type of narration that works for you and your story.  Play around with each, experiment, and it’s okay if the choice changes throughout your writing life, or even from story to story.

Be yourself, be well.  Write yourself, write well.

Hello World! Part II


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The next perspective I want to talk about in introducing readers to your world is, the grizzled veteran.  This character can be a veteran cop, or soldier, or knight, or private detective, or wizard, or private detective/wizard.  It doesn’t really matter what their profession is, what matters is they have lived and worked in the world of your story for some time, enough time to be an old hand at everything that’s going to happen.

As with the S/I/O technique, this technique is best from the first person and third person limited point-of-view.  The Harry Dresden books, and the Hunger Games series are good examples of the grizzled veteran P.O.V.  Pay attention to the Hunger Games suggestion, because it illustrates that “grizzled veteran” is just a turn of phrase, as Katniss Everdeen is a teenage girl, not “old” in any sense other than in the context of her story, but she has lived in the world of the story for some time and knows about everything in it—which makes her a “veteran” of the world.

DISCLAIMER: This P.O.V. can be exceedingly fun to write in the first person, but you have to be careful with it.  The grizzled veteran, first person P.O.V. is the stuff of noir and neo-noir detective novels and movies, and as such can come off as campy or parody very easily if you don’t have a strong grasp of character voice for it, and a plot that can sustain it.

Moving on!  Unlike with the S/I/O, the veteran introduces us to the world not by having it explained/taught to them, but how they react to it.  If, while on a case/mission/walk through the neighborhood, they encounter a hellhound and they are accepting of it (note: they can be surprised to see it but still accepting), then this tells the readers that hellhounds, and associated other demonic beings, are a part of this world.  During the course of the encounter, the veteran struggles to x, y, and z to banish/kill the hellhound, then the readers now know that x, y, and z can kill/banish a hellhound and that similar things can be done to banish/kill other demonic beings.  I would like to point out that it must be clear what the veteran’s reaction is and what they do to resolve the situation; it must be clear because those are the things defining your world.  If either one of those things is vague or confusing then your world is vague and confusing.

Sometimes, to ease the burden of this character being the sole thing defining your world authors will provide them with a partner.  When I say “provide”, I mean the author put in the partner, but story-wise there could be any number of reasons this person has latched onto the main character.  In the Harry Dresden example, he is a consultant for the police, and has to have a police detective with him at all times.  The presence of the partner is a release valve for the author, allowing them to explain to the partner certain bits of the world taking some of the weight off the back of the veteran and the storytelling.  Be careful with this however, because too much explaining to the partner can lead to a flipping of the perspective, giving us an inverted student/initiate/outsider story.  The partner should be competent individual in their own right, able to take care of themselves, if lacking in certain knowledge to do that effectively.  To bring back the hellhound example, and saying the partner is a police detective, they can shoot the hound, staggering, but not stopping it, slowing it, but not killing it, and fending it off long enough for the veteran to find x, y, and z to deal with it permanently. 

One of the ways to ramp up tension in this story is also the scenes of separation, (1) the unintentional split-up, and (2) the proving myself scene.  Many of these stories have the plot device of partner/client/chosen one/loved one that need some form of protection (even the partner in this case).  The unintentional split-up is usually a trap in order to separate the veteran from the thing they need to protect, but can also come as a twist of fate, or as part of a desperate last stand where the veteran and the thing must be separate for “safety”.  The proving-myself-scene can be any of several things, but usually comes from a “I-work-better-alone” attitude, or “they’d-know-you-were-a-cop-from-a-mile-away” setup.  Whatever the reason the veteran is taking a risk by going somewhere by themselves.  Which can lead to one of two things or both; (1) it’s a trap for the veteran, (2) it’s a lure for the veteran so the “villain” can take a shot at the thing the veteran needed to protect, (3) both of these. 

Of course, you don’t need a partner/client/chosen one/loved one to protect to ramp up tension in the story with the veteran.  Another way to do that is, the “something new” approach.  With this approach, the grizzled veteran who’s seen it all runs into something they’ve never seen before.  The reason for this can be as varied as the story your telling, the threat could be ancient, or so rare as to be thought of as a myth, or could just be so gruesome or inventively sadistic that they can’t seem to wrap their mind around it.  Let’s look at the show Supernatural, the premise being, there are monsters (werewolves, ghosts, and the like) in the world, and humans, called hunters, that hunt them down and kill them.  Sam and Dean, the main characters, were raised to be hunters by their hunter father, and they are good at it, but every once and a while they ran into something they never fought before and would have to research it.  In this story they are two grizzled veterans, and partners, and brothers (loved ones).

One of the most interesting ways to make a story with a grizzled veteran interesting, and to ramp up the stakes to eleven, is to have the antagonist another grizzled veteran.  This is a person that is just as smart/tough/world weary as the protagonist, and thus can out think them.  A story with a grizzled veteran antagonist is multi-layered, with the protagonist unraveling one plot only to find out that it’s there to obscure a much darker one.  Probably one of the most famous G.V. vs. G. V. relationships in media is Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty.  Two men, one a master detective, the other a master criminal, both geniuses, dark reflections of the other.  The beauty of a Sherlock Holmes mystery was the, “how is he going to solve this one” pull of the character, but…If he solved a case, only to find more threads underneath, the reader knew Moriarty was afoot, and then the pull of the story was if he solved it. 

Be yourself, be well.  Write yourself, write well.

Hello World! Part I



You’ve decided who your main character is, and whether or not this is going to be in first person or third point of view, you’ve done all the research.  All the brainstorming!  ALL the outlining!  ALL THE PREPARING!   All that’s left to do is the writing. 

Today, I want to talk about worldbuilding.  That is, how you introduce your world to the readers.  There are several techniques for this, but today I want to talk about, probably, one of the easiest ones.  The technique of the student/initiate/outsider.

The S/I/O technique is common with the first person point of view and third person limited point of view, where you’re following just one character.  Even though I’m calling the student/initiate/outsider technique they don’t literally have to be these things.  Though, in the case of Harry Potter, he is a student, in the case of Shadow and Bone, is an initiate, and in the case of The Dark Elf Trilogy, he is an outsider.

Let’s be honest here, “outsider” is a pretty broad term anyway.

The point is, the character that the story follows is introduced to your world at the same time the reader is, they are learning as the reader learns.  This sets up a clear path of information: 1) something happens to the character that they can’t explain; 2) someone explains it to them; 3) the character and the reader now know more about the world they’re in.  It takes the pressure off having to dump all the information on the reader from the start. 

This technique is also great for ramping up tension in the story.  For instance, when “something new” happens to the main character there’s no way for them to know how to deal with it, allowing you to show how brutal or forgiving you’re going to be.  When the dog’s shadow tears itself off the wall to attack your character will they end up in a fight, left bleeding and for dead in the middle of the street, or after a harrowing game of cat and mouse does your character escape.  Both scenes add tension and show how (un)forgiving your story is. 

Another great tension starter is the scene of separation; which happens after the character happens upon their mentor(s).  Two of these scenes stand out for me: 1) the unintentional split-up, and the 2) proving myself moment.  The unintentional split-up happens when the character does what they’re told, but somehow gets separated from the group.  Suddenly, they are stuck in a situation without a safety net or backup, through no fault of their own, but still they’re suffering due to the unpredictable nature of the world they’re in.  The proving myself moment is much more pro-active on the part of the character.  Being flush with new found knowledge/power/confidence, the character sneaks away to kick the ass of the (thing that must not be named), only to find out it’s laid a trap, or what they thought it was is wrong and it’s something they aren’t prepared to fight.  Again, both scenes add a sense of tension, but also highlight just how much the characters need to learn.

Another benefit of the controlled aspect of information is the tension of mystery.  If there’s no one around to tell the character what’s happening the mystery of it, the tension of the unknown, can drive the story.  The fumbling through the world, the hands-on learning, can be the fuel for the story.  The need to acquire knowledge to survive the overarching plot. 

Be careful with this technique though, because it can backfire so easily.  You have to make sure you’re providing enough information to keep the reader interested in learning more, and you have to time the chunks of information to maintain the interest and deepen the understanding to keep a reader wanting to be in your world.

Be yourself, be well.  Write yourself, write well.

PS: It is time I admit to my hypocrisy.  I have felt uncomfortable for some time in following my own advice that being ‘being myself.’  For years I have written under a pseudonym, that of “Samuel Eden”.  From this point on, though, I wish to write as myself, and thus shall be continuing under my true name: Faust Samhain Amazing.  

Thoughts in the Key of ‘qwerty’


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This is the title to my memoir.  I called it!  You can’t have it.

I recently read a piece of writing advice that inspired this post.  I’ll give you the piece of advice so we all have some context for things.  The advice is: Have more than one project to work on; that way while you’re waiting for edits and notes from your agent/publisher/partner/reading group you have something to keep you busy, to keep your mind ready and writing. 

First, I love this advice!  I have this blog (where I try to share helpful thoughts and lessons I have/learned in my lifelong journey writing).  I also love to pen and paper roleplay (I know, big surprise), and I’m usually the Game/Dungeon Master so I’m the one coming up with the scenarios.  Even my hobby is writing, because I just can’t enough. 

I’m not crazy!  You’re crazy! 

Anyway, if you look at the archives there is a post about over preparing, and this one is going to be in the same vein as that. 

My wife has a work associate with which we’ve spent some time.  She works part-time and considers herself a writer.  To be fair to her, she does write.  She’s participated in NaNoWriMo a few years in a row, and has several partial novels from that, as well as a couple novels between 50 and 100 and some pages that she just felt inspired to start.

Can anyone see where this is going?

As far as I know, as of this writing, she hasn’t finished one project I’ve ever heard her talk about.  While it’s great she has so many ideas-SHE HAS TO FINISH THEM!  Seriously, just like in the “preparing post”, this lack of finishing even one project speaks to a fear of failure.  We’ve all been there, half way through a story and the thoughts creep in…

What if it isn’t good?

What if it doesn’t make sense?

What if no one wants to read it?

What if I can’t get published?

What if…

What if…

What if…

What if…

What if it’s fucking good?!

What if it’s the next great novel of our generation?!

What if it inspires someone else to follow their dreams and they become a doctor and cure ignorance?

The point is, you, we, us will never know any of that if you don’t FINISH. 

Which, I guess, if you’re continuously not finishing the stories you start that’s what you want.  You’re scared that people won’t like your story, that people won’t like you, that you’ll fail, but if you never finish a story you never have to share it, share yourself.  I can understand that.  My survival instinct, the way I approach every situation even now, is to not make a big deal out of things, to not make a big deal out of me.  I fade into the background, keep my head down, and live and let live.  At the end of the day though, I yearn to have a voice, to be heard, and so, I write. 

Failure can be scary, but I have to let you know: Failure isn’t not making it; failure is to stop trying.

So, finish.  Finish your story before someone else does.  I want to hear as many voices as I can. More!  I want to drown in a sea of voices sharing their stories, sharing themselves.

Write yourself, write well.  Be yourself, be well.

Empty Beauty, Plain Possibility


Alright, for this one you’re going to need a visual aid.  I’d like you to get out a blank piece of paper, lined/unlined doesn’t matter, as long as there’s zero writing on it.  (Those of you who are paperless, first off congratulations, I want you to open a Word document, and leave it blank for this.)

Now for a minute, two, five, ten, I want you to stare at the blank piece of paper.  Try to keep your solely on the paper.  Breathe slow, don’t worry about what you might write, or what else you could be doing. 

I’ve heard some writers, those going through a block, and some beginning writers say they find an empty page intimidating, a challenge, even frightening.  If I tilt my head and squint, I can see they’re point, but that’s never been my experience.

I’ve only ever seen a blank page as beautiful, like a snow-covered landscape, inviting, serene.  Far from intimidating or frightening, I’ve always seen a blank sheet of paper as a friend.  It won’t comment on your appearance, or how much money you make, or criticize you for what you’re doing with your time.  Instead, all it does is listen.  It is, in fact, the quietest echo chamber in the world, only giving back what you put into it.

When there’s an empty sheet of paper in front of me, I get excited about what it could become.  The words on it could make it a romantic-comedy, or a science-fiction romp, or a science-fiction-romantic-comedy, or it could be an accomplice in a murder mystery.  Your friend, this piece of paper, will accept any of these or all of them, and it won’t even correct your grammar.

I have many sheets of paper with Hello as the first thing written on them.  Sometimes it’s a statement, sometimes it’s a question, and sometimes, rarely, it’s an exclamation.  If this doesn’t immediately start the creative juices flowing, I’ll follow up with a, How are you?  I find this strangely comforting, and if nothing else gets me writing.

So, take out a friend and sit with them for a while, and then tell them a story. 

Until next time: Write yourself, write well.  Be yourself, be well.

In Good Company Part 3


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So…We’re here for the final part, the part where we look at heroes and anti-heroes. Yes, I know I’ve gone over the whole protagonist/antagonist thing, but it is exactly these terms (hero/anti-hero) that I want to dissect and talk about, so that’s what I’m using.

Now, before we go any further, I’d like you to go look at an article from waaaaay back in 2006. You’ll find it here. The article will give us a base to start this dialogue. Go ahead…It’s a short article…Ready?…Okay…

The gist of the article is: how can we tell the difference between an anti-hero and hero in these uncertain times, when heroes stand on crumbling pedestals and anti-heroes are hard pressed to be “anti-” anything when it’s hard to solidly define what’s right and wrong.

Not to poke holes in another person’s writing (especially when I sent you to it), but I feel that the article starts with a false premise: that in the early 2000’s we finally have reached the age of the anti-hero. We have anti-heroes throughout the history of writing. To give you some examples: Hercules, while a “hero”, was renowned for having a berserker rage, during which he killed his family, and had to perform his twelve labors to exonerate himself; and in the original Sleeping Beauty story it was labor pains that woke her from her sleep (some true love’s first kiss). Peter Pan was a child thief, taking Wendy because she didn’t want to grow up, herself an anti-character for fighting the established order of nature (not wanting to age). Sherlock Holmes, so popular in the mainstream now, was a heroin addict. Paladin, the main character from the series Have Gun-Will Travel. Almost all of John Wayne’s characters, and about half of Louis L’Amour’s. And more, all the way up to Jack Bauer of 24 and Dr. Gregory House of House MD, possibly the two characters responsible for the “age of the anti-hero” that got everyone up in arms about the whole thing.

Let’s take a look at Jack and Greg for a moment to try to piece together what made them anti-heroes. Jack is a family man, who gets taken from his home with his family by terrorists, who he then tracks for a day, and, ultimately, foils their plans. Along the way he does kill some people, though they were trying to kill him too; he does torture some people, though the terrorists did rape his wife and are planning to kill everyone in a city (or was it kill the president?). As the article I had you read stated being an anti-hero means you’re against something (anti-), so what is Jack anti-? Is he against terrorists? Yeah. Is he against the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people? Yeah. Is he against the rape of women (specifically his wife)? Yeah. Is he against people trying to kill him? Yeah. To be fair, the anti- in anti-hero means the character is against some established norm/laws/mores, but Jack is a character in a post 9/11 America, where the Patriot Act gave sweeping powers to law enforcement when it came to terrorists and their activities, making what Jack did legal if not exactly morally right. So, some people might take exception to the means and lengths Jack went to to accomplish his job, but I don’t know many.

Greg is another anti-hero to look at, a doctor, a man suffering from an injury that causes him constant pain, and someone addicted to pain killers as a result. Now, Gregory House is supposed to be an allegory of Sherlock Holmes, a drug addicted detective, but I think the character is much more than that. First off, his addiction comes from a genuine place (as opposed to being too smart), an injury that causes him pain. The fact that he became addicted to the drugs he needed to live his life is a statement on the pain-killer industry, and something that happens to hundreds of people a year. Also, he’s not just solving riddles of rich people who have been killed, or have missing jewels, he’s saving lives. Given Greg’s intellect, he could have been anything that could have kept his mind busy, but he chose to join a profession that saves lives. To be fair, he is more anti- than Jack, in so much that he hates all the rules he has to follow in order to do his job. In which case, he truly is an anti-hero for being anti-rules, but I think more in the case of Dr. Gregory House people are using the term anti-hero to mean asshole.

The point of the article I had you read is: it’s hard to pin down exactly what it means to be a hero. The point I’m trying to make, and maybe I’ve proven it, is that people enjoy complex characters; they prefer their heroes to get their hands dirty, or to have flaws. Not only does this give them depth (makes them believable), but makes them (I think) better examples than there pristine, “I’m-with-the-status-quo”, counterparts, the heroes. Because at the end of the day, it is the “heroes’” job to maintain the status quo, to make sure everything stays the same, or to, as quickly as possible, return things to “normal”. Which is fine if you’re in the top of the status quo, but something different if you’re not. From that point of view, the hero is actually the villain.

And thus, we come back to people like complex characters, and the terms hero and villain are too narrow and childish for many stories. So, the next time you start a story don’t think hero and villain, try to think of your main character as your protagonist and see how the story develops after that.

Until next time: be yourself, be well; write yourself, write well.

In Good Company Part 2


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I started this off (last post) by saying that I like villains. Then going on to say I like complex characters, and going on about making characters three dimensional.

Now I’d like to shine the spot light on the villains themselves.

There is an old saying: you can judge the character of a person by the quality of his enemies. While trying to find who said this, I came across several origins, from an Arabian proverb, to Oscar Wilde, to presidents who have all said this. With so much history behind the quote, you’d think most writers would pay more attention to it.

It’s always a shame when reading a good story to find that the villain has been added seemingly as an afterthought. As if the author was half way through the story before thinking about who the villain would be, waiting until they had to reveal them before looking at them. These paper doll villains are often caricatures of themselves, either easily beaten, often comically so, and are often just there to show how good/powerful the hero is.

This is a shame, because, done right, villains bring a whole story of their own with them. A story that, many times, parallels the hero’s story, and makes the villain a dark reflection of the hero. Yes, the villain’s presence shows us how good the hero is, but only because they are held up to the comparison of how bad the villain is.

You may be saying to yourself: That’s all well and good, but how do I make a good villain?

I’m so glad you asked, and I would like you to keep this in mind. This is a quote from John Barth that several of the people in my writing group liked to toss about. “Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.” To put it another way: everyone is the main character in their own heads. And to connect it all the way back to this post: the villain doesn’t see themselves as the villain, to them they are the hero.

Let me break it down for you (because quotes are all well and good, but advice is better). The villain should have their own reasons and motivations to be in the story than just, ‘I hate the hero’. Let’s do a for instance, (I love these).

For instance, in the story of Aladdin, the evil vizier is trying to find a mystic lamp to grant him power. Aladdin isn’t even the start of the story, he’s pulled in by the villain, and only after that do the two become at odds. It’s not even that the vizier hates Aladdin; it is only that Aladdin is in the way of the vizier’s ultimate goal. So, the vizier is in the story even before the hero, it is his motivations that begin the story, not Aladdin’s. To point out the dark reflection stuff: both characters are stuck in their positions due to society’s rules, though one seems happy with himself if not his position, while the other lusts for more. Both characters steal, but one does it to survive while the other does so to increase their own power. Both want the mystic lamp to elevate themselves, but one is humbled by the elevation while the other sees it as overdue.

That’s just one aspect of: the villain should have their own motivations for being in the story.

Remember though that the quote says we’re all the heroes in our own minds. So, let’s look at a story where the hero is the bad guy and the villain is the good guy. I am, of course, talking about the classic of eighties cinema, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. If you haven’t watched it, you should…Right now…I’ll wait.

All caught up? Did you love it? I bet you love it. Good. I love it too.

But Mr. Eden, sir. Ferris is the hero of the movie and Principal Rooney is clearly the villain.

To that I say: Really?!? Is that how it is?!? Okay.

Let us examine the two characters of Ferris Bueller and Principal Rooney. Let us go over what the characters do in the movie. One character: lies to his parents, ditches school, hacks the school’s computer and deletes files, he then convinces his friends to ditch school, steals a car, steals an expensive lunch (because you bet they couldn’t afford it, and just put it on the man’s expense account), and disrupts a parade (a heritage parade), commandeering it for his own adolescent ego. The other character is just trying to do his job, making sure a minor under his charge gets the education they are required by law to receive. Does he go a little overboard? Perhaps, but he keeps getting the shit kicked out of him by life through the whole movie; you’d break too I’m sure.

The beauty of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, of any good literature, is that the stories can be told from multiple character viewpoints. This can be done because each character has their own motivations for being there. In the Ferris Bueller example, we see Ferris as the hero and Rooney as the villain because it’s from Ferris’s point of view. We could easily have a movie from Rooney’s point of view where he’s the hero. (In fact, I believe that movie is called Election ironically starring Matthew Broderick as the Rooney character that time around.)

It is for this reason that I’m not a fan of the terms, ‘hero’ and ‘villain’.

But you said…

I know I said I like villains, and I’ve been using those terms through this whole post. As the Ferris Bueller example illustrates, as the quote that’s the meat in this essay sandwich states, the terms hero and villain can be tricky and complicated. Luckily there is a handy piece of literary jargon for just this situation. The terms are, ‘protagonist’ and ‘antagonist’.

If you’re a fan of my writing, you’ll know I don’t write your traditional “heroes”. For one thing, I have numerous stories from the point of view a villain/bad guy. For another thing, my “heroes” aren’t exactly the best people. That’s why I like the terms, ‘protagonist’ and ‘antagonist’. Protagonist means the person that the story follows, and antagonist means the person/thing that opposes the protagonist. I like these terms because the allow for the grayness, the muddied waters, that writing (and life) can get into. So, Ferris Bueller is the protagonist of the movie without necessarily being the hero, and Principal Rooney is the antagonist of the movie without actually being the villain.

I will leave you with that.

Remember: be yourself, be well; write yourself, write well.

In Good Company


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I like villains.

Everyone who knows me just let out a collective, and sarcastic, ‘nooooo’.

Let me explain. I like complex characters. I like characters with layers. Characters who, if you get to know them, would be nice/interesting/kind people, if it weren’t for that homicidal streak/drug problem/superiority complex/emotional distance.

You hear it all the time, so-and-so is a one-dimensional character; or, so-and-so is a Mary Sue/Gary Stue.

To clarify: one-dimensional characters are exactly what they look like and nothing more. Horror movies (mainly from the 1970’s through mid-1990’s) are loaded with one-dimensional characters: the jock, the nerd, the cool kid/popular one/rich one, the criminal, the emo/goth/psycho one, the airhead, the innocent one/virgin. A Mary Sue (for a female character)/Gary Stue (for a male character) is someone who’s just great. They’re smart, good looking, kind, athletic, in short, they’re good at everything including being a human being.

Here are the problems with one-dimensional characters. One, they’re unrelatable. I’m sure there are those of you out there who know a jock. You might be thinking: Why wouldn’t the jock I know relate to the jock character? Well, and here’s the second reason one-dimensional characters are bad, because people, real people, are more than one thing. That jock you know could also be a father, a loving husband, a klutz, have a great sense of humor, they could write poetry. That air-head could be a great and selfless friend, a good cook, have a wonderful singing voice. The third problem with one-dimensional characters is that by boiling characters/people down to one thing you make your audience care about them less. Why should I care if the jock dies in a horror movie? But if Billy, the boy dedicated to his girlfriend, who lives with his grandmother, who happens to be on the football team dies I would care more. For instance, who’s going to tell his grandmother, and who’s going to take care of her now?

Mary Sues and Gary Stues have the same problems, but for the opposite reason. Mary and Gary are just too much of everything. They’re unrelatable because no one can be that many things. When was the last time you met someone who was good at everything? And a great person? They’re unrelatable because your readers can’t see themselves rising to the occasion and stepping into their shoes. It’s also hard to care about these characters because it’s hard to put them in danger. That locked door? I’ll pick the lock. That file we need from the computer? I hacked it. The killer is almost on us. Them? I doubled back and tricked/trapped them, we’re good now. There’s no rising action and climax, for the audience, because they know that Mary/Gary will definitely get out of it. This also renders the other characters in the story obsolete, giving them the role baggage or witnesses, just there to slow down Mary/Gary or to see how great they are.

The thing to do then is give your characters depth. Sometimes this means giving them a flaw or two. Sometimes this means letting your audience get to know them. Sprinkle in information about them and their lives outside of the story in the story. Mostly this means giving them more personality.

A couple movies you could watch that take the ideas of stereotypical roles (the jock, the criminal, the nerd, the emo/goth/psycho chick, the airhead, the innocent) and turn them on their heads are The Breakfast Club and The Faculty. In one the stereotypes are thrown together in a detention scenario and throughout the day we learn more about them, giving them depth. In the other the horrific crisis that the group goes through forces them to change and adapt. Plus, both are fun movies.

Another thing you can do is people watch. When you see someone assign them the one-dimension (jock, nerd, airhead, etc.), and try to identify what about them made you pick that. Then give them a backstory. Give them depth. Why do they look sad? Did their favorite team just lose, or did they just go through a breakup? Of all the sports, why are they into water polo? Were they the star of their high school water polo team, or was their father/mother a famous water polo player and that’s how they feel close to them? Of all the teams, why are they into that one? Is it the hometown team, or is that the team their grandfather worked for as a groundskeeper for their entire life?

Put simply, the way to stop writing one-dimensional characters is, instead of asking ‘What are they?’ you ask ‘Who are they?’.

Remember: write yourself, write well; be yourself, be well.