Creating A Great Antagonist

The antagonist or antagonists of a story are often the central driving force to the story or what causes the central driving force to come into being. That being said, a lot of thought has to go into creating an antagonist, especially the central antagonist. In fact, for horror novelists such as myself, it’s often one of the first things we come up with in a story, and what we often use to describe our stories to others (ex. “an evil clown demon terrorizes a small town”, “a cult leader with horrifying dark powers and those who stand against him”, “two children fall through a doorway to a world where the demonic ruler has a terrifying interest in the young boy”).*

When designing antagonists (human or otherwise), there are a few things I try to keep in mind in order to make them as evil/terrifying/monstrous as possible. Here’s some of them (the ones I’ve identified, anyway. I’m still new at this and I’m still identifying what I do, what works and what I should probably stop doing):

1. What does your antagonist want? I’m going to use a villain from a hypothetical novel, because I don’t think this is the best place to advertise any of my own books(as fun as that might be). And since I’m watching Once Upon a Time while watching this, I’m going to say…my villain wants to take over the magic kingdom. Why does this villain want to do it? Perhaps he’s a sociopath (I’m going to make it a male villain) who just wants power, mayhem and murder. Perhaps he’s the illegitimate child of the King’s eldest daughter, there was a really bad scandal where they murdered to keep things under wraps and he’s got some mommy issues. Or maybe he’s thinking he’s doing the kingdom a favor by trying to avert a prophecy about the current regime and the destruction about the kingdom, so he’s willing to do some very terrible things to avert disaster. Any of these or even a combination could work. This is also a step where I try to create as much backstory as needed to explain how my villain came to be, though if I need to I can hold that off till much later in the story, when it becomes much more relevant to the story to explain why my villain is so evil and screwed up.

2. What are my villain’s means of getting what he wants? Every villain has a means of getting what they want. Maybe he’s a very dangerous, highly-trained assassin. Perhaps he has magic powers, or a mercenary army with enough magical weapons to do a miniature Chernobyl. It can be anything, as long as you can make it plausible in the universe of your story.

3. Who opposes my villain? I’m going to assume the protagonist. Perhaps it’s the crown prince of the kingdom, who just found out about his elder sister’s illegitimate son and sworn to stop him but bring him back alive for the sake of his sister, who has always regretted letting her child go. Or maybe a knight who wants to protect those close to him by going off to slay the great evil. Perhaps it’d be more interesting to see if an orphan of humble background (or perhaps not; s/he is an orphan, so s/he could have any background I please) could go up against this great threat to the kingdom. In any case, the antagonist needs someone to go up against him, so I have to create that person at some point early on.

And now that we’ve come up with the antagonist’s motives and who’s going to try to stop him. Here comes the fun part of designing the antagonist:

Family values, loves cookies and miniature golf…and he does horrifying magical rituals to become a terrifying demon. What’s not to love?

4. Design your villain’s character. Perhaps my villain will be a full adult, or perhaps a teenager or even a young boy, to drive home that he’s the son of a princess, son being the operative part here. I could give him a dark, sadistic personality. Or maybe he’s like one of my favorite villains, Mayor Wilkins III from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who always had a smile on his face and acted like your typical 1950s sitcom dad even up until the moment he killed you. Maybe he’s got a hobby that indulges in while he’s not busy planning the destruction of the kingdom. Does he actually care for anyone besides himself? Maybe that person would give him someone to interact with besides his despicable followers. All these options and more are at my fingertips, and I can mix and match as I please in designing this villain.

This is basically how I design villains. And it works for all types of villains, from primary to tertiary in importance of plot and in all types of stories. I could also use these steps to design a sultry heiress hell-bent on doing some nasty stuff in LA’s best social circles. Or maybe a company president with some very cruel plans for a Native American community in the Amazon. It even works on zombies and vampires, too.

However you create your antagonists though, if it fulfills your need to create a great villain to go up against your hero or heroine, then it works. I’m just trying to give helpful suggestions, and if these help you, then my job here is done.

Also, if you get inspired by the hypothetical story I created above, by all means write a story about it. I just came up with it on the spot and I have enough on my plate without another story to write. Go ahead. It’s yours.

*Only one of these examples is a story I’ve actually read, and that’s Stephen King’s IT. The other two, if there are stories that are like that, I haven’t heard of them. Let me know if you have.

How to Do a Flashback

Flashbacks appear in many novels, comic books, television shows, and movies, yet they are some of the most difficult sequences to write in all of fiction. After all, how does one take a reader from the present point in the story to a former point in the story and then back again without a visual dissolve and a strange tint or border to the scene followed by another dissolve like they do on TV? It’s not easy, and it requires some practice to get any good at it. And even with practice it can still be a lot of work writing a flashback sequence. I’ve done some flashback scenes myself, sometimes several in a single novel, and I always wonder how to go about doing it.

I’m not sure if these tips will work for everyone, but here are some I’ve picked up over the years, and I’ve found each and every one of them helpful in writing flashback scenes. Some I’ve learned from other authors, others I’ve learned on my own, and a few I cannot remember where I picked up, but wherever they came from I’m grateful for them. And if you have any tips for doing flashbacks, please leave us a comment. I’ll add it in at a later date.

1. Is a flashback necessary? I know it seems silly to add this one in, but it’s one I learned the hard way. In the first draft of my novel Reborn City, I had a character flashback to a romantic encounter she had six months prior to the events of the novel. I nixed it from the second draft though for two reasons: one was that I already had enough flashbacks in that novel, so it seemed like I was spending too much time in the past, and the second was that this one scene really didn’t add anything to the characters or to the story. So asking if a flashback is necessary isn’t always a bad idea. It can actually save you some time.

2. What does the flashback do? You may be thinking at home, “It tells us a past event in the story or in the character’s life”. That is correct. So my next question is, if the flashback is the event in the past that needs to be told, why does it need to be told? Does it explain something vital about the character? Does it explain why the world of the character is the way it is? These are important questions, and every time I do a flashback, I always consider this question so that I know one-hundred percent whether or not I should use the flashback.

And now for actually implementing the flashback after deciding it’s necessary. Here’s some ways to start and end one:

3. Start a new chapter. This is the method that usually works for me. In the previous chapter I say that the character has just realized something that relates to a past event or that they’ve been knocked out and are dreaming of the past, or their thoughts have wandered and they found themselves looking to the past. Then I’ll start the flashback in the next chapter. By the next chapter I’ve gotten them back to the current events to connect the flashback to what’s happening now, or they’ve woken up with a terrible headache, or they’ve come out of their thoughts and they’re wondering how they got into the hospital’s ICU and no idea where the exit is (I’ve actually written that last scenario).

4. Use a transition mid-scene. I’ve seen this method in a few novels, but the one that always sticks in my mind is the many flashbacks in Stephen King’s IT. His flashbacks usually went something like this:

“…Beverly bent down next to Eddie. She couldn’t believe this was happening. Eddie was one of them, he was their navigator, he was the first one…

…he was the first one to come to her. He was shorter than her, nervous, but he was ready.”

The important thing with these sort of transitions is not to jar the reader too much. It takes a real expert at flashbacks to do a flashback mid-scene that goes “Bob was running while bullets flew around him and it reminded him of his time working for the CIA when he became embedded in a terrorist cell” without making the reader go “What the heck just happened here?”

If you do decide to do a mid-scene flashback, a change in font or using italics to differentiate between the present and flashback, or a series of identical symbol before and after the flashback (popular symbols include *** or ~~~) can help readers transition more easily into the flashback and help the story flow more easily.

5. Have your character tell the event to someone. This isn’t always considered a form of flashback, but I consider it one. It’s useful for books where the idea is a fictional person writing down his/her memoirs or telling someone their life story, like in a psychologist’s office. And in my opinion, it’s a method for those memories that a character is uncomfortable with. For example, in my novel Snake, the titular character relates his first kill to another character this way because he’s not proud of the way that event went down and tries not to think about it. Telling it this way offers a unique chance for a character to tell the events in his/her own voice, rather than the voice of a third-person narrator. The only difficult part is, if you’re not using this method for the whole book, then for the brief time you’re using it, keeping the flashback in the voice of the character rather than in the voice of the third-person narrator.

6. Use a video or a diary or something along those lines. I didn’t think much of the novel Catching Fire, but I did find it ingenious that the way Katniss and Peeta found out about their mentor Haymitch’s Hunger Games and the traumatic experiences he suffered was through a video. It was very well written, and it explained a number of things about Haymitch that had been left up to the imagination at that point. Using a recorded medium like a video, diary, poetry, or other means is a great way to do a flashback without directly involving the character the flashback may be about, such as the case with Haymitch.

7. What tense and POV? My final point is on questions some writers have on tense and point of view. People often worry about tenses in flashbacks, if it should be changed or different just for that particular scene. Sometimes they’ll even change the point of view for a flashback. I think the best way to do it is not to worry about the tense too much while writing the flashback and just use the same tense you’ve been using the whole novel. If you have been using past tense third-person omniscient narrator, continue in past tense third-person omniscient narrator. If you use present tense, second-person point of view, continue with second-person point of view. If you really have to change the tense though, then do so, but consult with another writer, an editor, or a beta reader on what tense would be best before doing so.

 

I hope you enjoyed these tips and found some of them useful. Flashbacks are great ways to tell back-story, develop characters or plot, and use exposition in a novel. Some flashbacks can even become the most memorable scenes in a novel, if well written and executed correctly. They’re difficult to do, but with enough practice, an author can incorporate them into most novels and enhance the story greatly through their presence.

The Synopsis – Opinions wanted!

The other day I had a conversation with fellow author David Knight regarding synopsis for non-fiction books. Long story short, there is an opinion floating around the cyber universe that beginning a synopsis for a non-fiction book with the book’s title is “amateurish”. Example (synopsis for the fictional book Trading with Trolls):

Trading with Trolls takes a look at how you can trade with the hairy creatures who live under the bridge. Though trolls may look scary, inside they are soft and warm and filled with the same hopes and dreams as the rest of us. One only has to discover what a troll is seeking…

etc. etc.

So what do you think? Does starting the synopsis with the title of the book mark it as “amateurish” or are we just sweating the details too much? I’m interested to hear your opinions!

 

Transferring the Rights from One Smashword’s Author to Another

For the last year or so I’ve offer Smashwords formatting services. Many authors ask me about pictures in Smashwords books, and it was a pain to try to find one they could look at for free so I dusted off an old children’s book I’d written back in 2001 (complete with those pesky images) and uploaded it as a free read. That way, I could show curious people what it would look like. Fast forward and, to my dismay and surprise, one day I notice that this free kiddy book has not only “sold” over 400 copies , but it has reviews on B&N as well as Smashwords and was even featured in a blog!

I have other kiddy books I wrote at the same time and with all the downloads I thought “hey, maybe I should upload them too.” But, I don’t want to be known as a children’s author. I have a tough enough time trying to convince people that my vampire books are not YA (There is a rape scene in the first book, for crying out loud! this is not twelve year old material), so linking that same author name to books that ARE child friendly… well, that’s what you call cross genre nightmares.

A pen name fixes the problem, but what about the book that’s already uploaded? The one that has reviews and links to it? Smashwords allows authors to transfer book rights to Publishers, and from publishers to authors, but what about author to author?

Turns out yes, you can do that.

I sent a mail to Mark and he explained that they have to do the switch manually (Neurosurgery, he called it) but that if you send the links to the book and both author pages – the one the book is now under and the one you want it moved to – either he or Bill will make the swap for you.  How handy is that?  Just another example of the excellent customer service aspect to Smashwords.

Thought I would share this as I’m sure I’m not the only one something like this has happened to, and this method is a lot easier then un-publishing and re-uploading.

When to Reply to Reviews

Books
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It’s a pretty established rule in the world that you shouldn’t respond to negative reviews, but as Lauralynn Elliott asked, what about good reviews? Should you thank the reviewer?

I was curios what everyone else thought about this. I think if it’s a review site, or someone you asked specifically to review your book, then you should drop by and thank them even if the review isn’t great because they took the time to read and write at your request.

But what if it’s a random review somewhere else? Have you ever looked someone up to thank them or offer them a coupon for another book? Or have you just commented back? If so how did it go? Inquiring minds want to know.

How NOT to React to a Bad Review

There have been many posts about how to deal with a bad review, how to pick up and move past it. But what, oh what do you do after you’ve gone off the deep end?

http://booksandpals.blogspot.com/2011/03/greek-seaman-jacqueline-howett.html

The review is not a great one, (as in not great for the book) the backbone of the argument is that she uploaded the wrong copy, one with typos and errors, and then reuploaded the correct one and that the reviewer, Al, did not redownload the new version.

Whether he did or not, the author’s conduct is absolutely ludicrous! From comments like “The book is out there doing well without your comments. My first book is great! and I intend to promote now without your ball…I want this review removed or its just considered abuse.” to “You are a big rat and a snake with poisenous venom.” and the most eloquent “%$#@ off”, I think Jacqueline Howett has demonstrated a definite what NOT to do when you get a bad review!

I have to say, this is one book I won’t be reading, not based on the review, but on her conduct. Ye-ouch.

Short Stories?

I’ve noticed that a lot of authors fill in the time between their novels with short stories – or in some cases only publish short stories – and I’m curious about other people’s viewpoints on this.

I’ve been a “novelist” since I can remember and I’ve always sort of looked at short stories as the lesser cousin to the “full” story. Though I have submitted a few to various contests, like poetry, I’ve never taken them seriously.  That is, of course, unless it’s in a short story collection. Then, and only then, did I consider them to be lengthy enough to qualify as “something”.  Otherwise, they’re that bit of fluff, that afternoon snack while you’re waiting for dinner.

Regardless, I can’t help but notice the large – and ever growing – number of short stories available at Smashwords and even Amazon. Some authors write nothing but and, rather than publishing them in a collection, they put them up one little story at a time, for $.99 a piece.  The question I have is: Is this actually worth it? As a reader, do you spend your $.99 on a short story when, in some cases, you can get a full length manuscript for that price? As an author if you do this, do you actually make any sales?

As you might guess, I’m asking collective opinions for a reason – three of them to be exact. 1) I’m curious to see other people’s feelings on this. 2) I am working (slowly) on a short story collection, and have contemplated putting them up, one 3,000 word story at a time, until they’re all done when I will then slap them together and 3) I have a LOT of random short stories laying around. Is this cash in the bank I’m not utilizing?Or does publishing a lot of short stories just brand you as a “short story writer”?

I look forward to hearing what you guys think!