Once upon a time, there was a very large dog who was absolutely certain of his job in the world: making sure Big Blue Intruder did not break into the house. He protected the house every day, rain or shine, by barking furious threats at Big Blue and when Blue had been chased back into his van and driven off cowering in fear, Dog peed on the fence posts around the yard to make sure everyone knew this was HIS yard, and woe unto him who tried to enter.
As you might imagine, Fence Post didn't see things quite the same way Dog did. Fence Post knew his job was to keep Dog IN so that the postman didn't smack him on the nose and pepper spray him. Fence Post was pretty good at his job but the peeing was really getting annoying. And kind of wearing him down frankly.
So one day, when Mr. F Post had had just quite enough of Dog P, he tilted. Just enough to let Dog out, and right when the Big Blue Intruder arrived.
Sure enough Dog got a snoot full of pepper spray, a not soon to be forgotten smack on the snout, and Fence Post got a good laugh.
To this day, Dog has no idea quite what happened. And no idea why. And hasn't even thought to ask Fence Post. Dog is kind of a doofus, I'm sorry to say.
The reason I mention this is because where you are in the story, post or pooch, makes a difference in who the good guy is. And yet, as a reader, it's so very satisfying when you can see the world view of both the good guy and bad guy. Thus: the antagonist is the hero of his own story, much like Dog is the hero of his.
When I get queries for stories with one or two dimensional characters, particularly the villain, I lose interest.
How do you convey three dimensions? Words of course. What's said, what's not said.
And honestly, you're the writer here. You probably can figure out a dozen ways.
And honestly Janet, you're the writer here too.
So, when is a book by the Queen gracing bookstore shelves? I'm serious my friend, serious as a sodden fence post.
Thanks Janet, I am going back to revise my novel yet again.
Point taken. Thank you for the laugh this morning. That was a lovely story!
gasp, you mean...readers want well-rounded characters?
This has been one of my challenges. I have a cultural institution that is the antagonist for my WiP but I also a person and her sidekick who represent the culture's biases. It is helpful that I know the main antagonist's childhood stories and what makes her who she is as an adult.
I was wondering where this story would end up!
Here's my favorite post on writing antagonists for anyone who might find it useful: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2012/07/24/25-things-you-should-know-about-antagonists/comment-page-2/
I had a dream last night I received a rejection on a query. Literally all it said was:
I guess that would still be better than a no response means no?
Love this story! What a perfect way to make your point. And I'm sure that Dog getting his come-up pace was the reason why the Duchess of York allowed you to write about Dog in the first place? :)
(Whoops - sorry!)
Lucie - you get a query response that is just 'no', that's gold! You'll be milking that example for comic effect for years. :)
I swear some of you people start refreshing Janet's blog at 6:55am (ET). And 2Ns took just 7 mins to read the post, comprehend it, and write a comment. That's impressive! :)
And this is a good point well made. You don't have to make your antagonist sympathetic. Fence Post was clearly vindictive, and took pleasure in Dog's suffering when he was only doing his job. In that moment, Fence didn't care if Big Blue Intruder was a postman or a robber, as long as Dog got his comeuppance. The point is, you can see Fence's point of view.
Do you have more of these, Djanet? I can start a collection of "Shark Tales: Parables for Writers" for the Treasure Chest. :)
Lucie: I would say absolutely, a simple "no" is much better than a NORMAN. Maybe not particularly satisfying, but at least it's an answer. Closure. No need to track with hopeful heart. Hope has been dashed; move on. :)
Oh and Djanet, may I court Carkoon with an editorial comment? This line:
"So one day, when Mr. F Post had had just quite enough of Dog P, he tilted."
I would have said: "So one day, when Fence P. had had just quite enough of Dog P, he tilted."
But that's the kind of writing I like... :)
A interesting word cropped up a few posts ago, contrarian I think Janet coined it. It's an apt as a label for a particular character trait, because while I recognise that the, rounded character stuff is all good, I feel the way it's reflected in received wisdom, is a mite simplified. It's possibly redundant stating so, because I think commenters here will be aware, that the greatest contention that surfaces with fiction, arises over the perceived vindication for characters with unpleasant traits or an antagonistic role in the narrative. Likewise, while callous, cruelty and depravity are exceedingly common traits in reality, having a hero expressing such behaviour--oops, that's a thorn that will prickle a few readers. Writers being writers, wiry curmudgeons railing against tyranny and convention, have a long history of rebelling against this kind of prescription, with a certain success it must be said. The thing is though, the good/bad dichotomy is so profoundly intrinsic to narrative convention, that the pressure to conform, never abates, even for authors with proven success.
Hahah. Good story. The picture is exactly how I imagined the dog.
My issues are the opposite. I get so in the heads of my antagonists that if I'm not careful, the story becomes the protagonist just reacting. i.e. boring character. It took me a long time (and I'm still figuring it out) to make a list of the characters and write down all their motivations at all turns of the story. Then it gets fun AND believable.
Lucie - lol
So I take from this, the use of a Snidely Whiplash type mustache doesn't cut it?
DeadSpiderEye makes a valid point. The eternal struggle between good and evil, light and dark, absolutism and relativism are inescapable.
However, these struggles should not confine a narrative to stock and archetypal characters. All of us are pits of diachotomies struggling for dominance, and capturing that in your characters can only improve a story.
I love Janet's clever little tale. Do you think she works as her own agent? She should have a robust offering of humorous children's books like the story above and all her adventures with the Duchess of Yowl. Can you imagine how popular the series The Queen of Everything and the Duchess of Yowl would be? Just saying.
This would make a great picture book for Sean Ferrell.
Very visual reminder. Thanks.
Since Colin's editorializing, I noticed a tiny typo... "when the the Big Blue Intruder arrived.
I believe, in my writerly heart of hearts, I've done justice to my bad guys. My favorite is still Haskell Stiles - the antagonist in the one and only hard crime novel I'm ever likely to write. Le sigh.
OT: I recently posted a video on FB of Little Dog and the mailman - coincidentally. There's something about a four lb dog chasing Pedro (our mail guy) that simply cracks me up. And Pedro messes with him to boot, so double the hilarity.
Little story here: There's another mail guy who fills in when Pedro is off and one day, my husband stopped him and said he'd go ahead and get the mail and save him a stop. This other mail guy said, "What's the address?" My husband gave it to him, and the mailman thought for a minute, and then said, "Oh that's Mister's house!"
Little Dog has a reputation with the Postal Service here in town and he's determined to keep it up.
Oh, here's Lucie's link:
Sorry for overlooking that, Lucie!
Penelope the Publishing Pup and Gossamer the Editor Cat have a pretty well established groove with one another. They are not snuggly budddies, but they are not antagonists except for fun and exercise. I leave 'em alone for the most part, occasionally tell Penelope there is to be no eating of the kitten, just as occasionally tell Goss to stop hitting Penelope on the head so hard I can hear the echo, and we all hang out.
Outside the house, of course, Penelope is a Great Protector. She has kept my yard free of any wildlife but the tiniest bugs and occasional slugs for four years. It's a bunny free zone, which may be for the best (she's better for scritchin' anyway).
Goss decided to take a stroll under the camellias one day (he is rarely an outdoor cat, but every now and then I sense he needs to explore, so I sit close by and let him). He was six feet from the fence.
And Penelope LOST HER SPIT. The same cat she knows and gets along with fine inside the wall not ten feet from Her Yellowness had suddenly become THE ENEMY.
And also hilarical.
As an adult, I'd already begun to realize the depth and interest of villains. And then I read an article about the Disney movie, Aladin, titled something like "Jafar was right." And damned if they didn't make some good and fascinating points. As a result, "what if the bad guy was right" is the driving concept of one of my unfinished fantasy novels. It's also my only tale to date which has a prologue.
Elka once licked a FedEx guy on the ear. Judging from the way our psckages, even 7 years later, sometimes just get lobbed at the porch, I'd say our house has a reputation!
Lucie: I'd take "no" over the 8 7 NORMANs I apparently selected! Oh, I'd be pissed about it, after making sure names were spelled correctly, genre was within interest, etc. etc. but it's always better to know than to not know. For instance, right now (because apparently I like the torture), I have a short story submitted to The Atlantic magazine, which may not respond in case of rejection and does not want you to simultaneously submit. What does a writer even do with that? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I agree with Carolynnwith2Ns. Janet, you've said before that you're not a writer but that's just not so. That tale of the dog was purely poetic. Thank you.
Donna, I love Mister. And Jennifer, I'd take an Elka kiss on the ear with glee ... and maybe a washrag to the ear later on.
One of my best friends is becoming an auntie today, and the sun is out. I never forgot its face, but it is beautiful to see. A long weekend is coming. And you guys are OSUM. Y'all ALL rockest mightily with thy bad selves.
And, Lucie: I have but one word for you, miss ma'am.
Ha! I love the dog story, especially having had a few of those myself. I love how the storyteller spins the tale. And Janet protests she isn't a writer.
A Confederate general had a big gray horse named King Phillip who despised Yankee blue. Once a sutler made the unfortunate mistake of coming into camp wearing a blue frock coat and the horse broke his tether, grabbing hold of him by the jaw and shaking him by the shoulder. They finally got the poor fellow loose, but not before the horse broke his shoulder.
Even many years later they had to keep him in a pasture away from the street because he kept attacking postmen. One day some old Yankee veterans decided to pay the old general a visit wearing their uniforms. King Phillip was in the yard grazing. Well, of course, he treed them or put them over the fence and they had to be rescued.
Oddly enough, likeable villains was the exercise on writers forum this month. Write a snippet that makes you empathize with the villain or at least makes him or her more sympathetic.
I watched a movie a few days ago called Field of Lost Shoes a few days ago. They did a pretty good job of portraying different viewpoints. Nothing was really cut and dry. It's the story of some cadets at the Virginia Military Institute in 1864 and the Battle of New Market. The Confederates desperately need reinforcements and can't get them in time for the battle so they reluctantly call in the 250 cadets to hold in reserve. The boys see the lines are being shredded by cannon and take it upon themselves their way to charge into the face of cannon fire to take the line. It breaks the attack and the Union army flees.
My only quibble with the writers was putting Sherman's words in Grant's mouth. Sherman was the one who asked Lincoln permission to kill every man, woman, child, and dog in the south and burn them out until they surrendered. Grant was hard core, but he wasn't in favor of massacre.
Anyway, the writers did a tremendous job of creating realistic and empathetic characters in a short span of time. I haven't wept like that in ages. I was glad I was watching it alone. When writers can make you laugh, cheer, cry, and cuss in the same piece, they've done a good job.
DeadSpider Eye - I think a lot of it has to do with motivation. You can have heroes doing horrible acts if you can show the logic their motivation. Your readers might not agree with their means to an end, may not even agree with their goals, but they will get the struggle your hero is going through. Because, haven't we all had to face those situations?
I have a villain who risks starting a war in order to get closer to an estranged son. Of course, what he wants to do with that son is pretty vile, but then that fun's reserved for next book. :)
So, we have to show this three dimensional depth in a query? It's hard enough to get it right with 100,000 words! Oi! Anyone have some tips on how to squeeze a protagonist, villain, plot AND depth onto one sheet of paper?
I'm ever the fan of intriguing, multi-dimensional villains. My problem is that I always get bummed when they lose! Some of my favorite villains are actually from the TV show Supernatural, where the heaven vs. hell war is really (really) complicated and Earth is caught in the middle. So you meet some pretty awesome villains that you can absolutely sympathize with, but still love to hate. It's a fine line!
For instance, I want to know more about the mysterious villain-agent in Lucie's dream! What would possess an agent to send a one-word answer? Could it be her query brought up some painful, repressed memories that the agent didn't want to think about one second more than necessary? Does he/she have a long standing prejudice against anyone whose name starts with L?
No: The Complicated Story Behind the Simple Answer.
Hermina - I was sort of wondering the same thing too and forgot to write i. In my query I talk about the protagonist and don't really go into motives of antagonist at all. It's a mystery to the protagonist in the story for the majority of the novel, and I've heard that you're supposed to craft the query from the first ~1/3 of the novel.
I do give a one sentence plot summary in the house keeping section so a query reader won't be confused as to what the story is actually about (antagonist hunting protagonist for named specific reason). Janet - would that be acceptable?
Thinking about it, I recently read a good, complex protagonist--someone who is clearly the good guy, but not necessarily good-and-wholesome through-and-through. I hesitate to mention the book because it's by another Shark client, but I will: TRICKSTER by Jeff Somers. Lem's ethics won't let him bleed others to perform magic, yet he's perfectly willing to use his own blood to manipulate people if he can justify the ends. And on occasion, Mags is willing to bleed for him, and Lem will let him. I'll be reviewing TRICKSTER soon--it was a good story.
Yes, I read novels by Janet's clients. They aren't the only books I read. But they tend to be some of the best. And I'm not saying that just to stay away from Carkoon. :)
Firstly I am glad that it wasn't a query I had written that caused this reaction.
Really, every query is a different beast. In one of my manuscripts I see no reason to mention the antagonist at all. It seems to be enough to know what he has done and how it blindsides the protags. In another the larger agenda of the antagonist needs to be explored in the query because that agenda starts with an assassination contract against the protagonist. This antagonist is the true antagonist of the other MS but is only a name at that point.
In other words, use your 250 words of query to define your story arc. If that causes a character to fall as a two dimensional cut out consider going around that character instead of through them.
... oh, and if my little insight into one of Jeff's characters makes you want to know more about, or even read, TRICKSTER, then maybe that's a clue as to how you show a protagonist with depth in a query? :)
So much to learn here! The temptation to enter this virtual community and classroom is too strong to resist.
Professor Janet, whose story grabs you with the very first sentence and clarifies oft heard critiques, Carolynwith2Ns’ spot on comment-not a word wasted, Lucie’s link to another way of looking at the antagonist topic (NSFW), and on and on.
That Plot needs Character and Hero needs Bad Guy and Bad Guy needs depth is so important and so hard to do and do well. Maybe today’s writing session (torture and treat) will move the project a little closer to where a reader can’t put it down. Someday, sigh…
OT- Colin’s TSFM review on Amazon and his blog will absolutely make anyone whose walked through the Classical wing of a museum or sit through a week of Lit Hum & The Histories by Herodotus (Custom is King, every third page) want to read the book!
And Janet, if there were room at the back of the line for a glimpse at the next book in the series, it would be a prize worth baking for (I’ve tried the first born thing, but they keep sending him back).
I think my favourite villains ever are the Cardassians, for that very reason. They are always antagonists, but as you learn their reasons for what they do, and get to know each as individuals, they become far more sympathetic than many.
I have an unfinished fantasy novel--written from the POV of the villain's apprentice--where the villain turns out to be the good guy all along and his antagonist is just misguided. My writing has improved so much over the last year that I might be able to do the idea justice now.
But the third draft of Blood Makes Noise is calling to me.
Dogs aren't the only ones who don't like mailmen.
Back in the old days when queries went out snail mail, I actually did gets some back with a simple no. However, you will be getting, "Oh, my, yes. Send that baby!"
I agree. I would prefer a no to no response means no interest. I received a very nice (sad how we grade rejections after a time) rejection apologizing for the length of time in responding and asking me to remember them for future work.
I had already highlighted the submission in red for rejection, assuming it was a no response.
I can already tell today is going to be one of those days when I run off at the mouth. God save us all.
I miss the days when I had a dog who understood the concept "We are not good people" are out there. Gage the Wonder Dog thinks everyone is his friend. It doesn't help that he's deaf as a box of rocks, but when people come up, they have to step over him and he might wake up long enough to say, "OMG Someone to pet me! YES! YES! YES! I'm so excited. Can I show where something is? Food? Valuables? Money?"
I think one thing that helps writers create living stories is to realize you aren't creating characters, you're creating people. Characters are cardboard, two-dimensional things we hang paper clothes on. We want living, breathing people with emotions. Who are they? Do you know who their families are? Even if none of this hits the page, you should know their history because it shapes who they are and what they do. Write a biography about them and you'll be surprised at how much you learn that goes beyond the superficial descriptions.
All right, I'm back to explaining grits to Yankees.
Given recent re-watching of the Battlestar Galactica reboot: Gaius Baltar. Not only is he flawlessly performed, he's perhaps the most intriguing character in an addictively intriguing show. Hilarious by turns, utterly guided by self-interest, somehow sympathetic while never actually being attractive. And once we learn about his history and childhood, all the more understandable/maddening/layered/sad.
Joss Whedon has a way with a villain, too.
My WIP doesn't deal much in the good-guys/bad-guys thing, but it *is* written in an almost ensemble style (not sure "multiple POV" is quite right). So remembering that we're all viewing life from within our own tunnel is important, even if I don't have to remember that no villain ever believes themselves to be evil. In THE AX AND THE VASE, though, the entirety is written from the perspective of a figure who might well be considered a villain, and that was a part of the POV throughout.
Julie: "... you aren't creating characters, you're creating people."
I don't know that I've ever read this said as succinctly, and in a way that gets straight to the point. Brilliant.
One of the best multi-viewpoint stories I've read recently is Six of Crows. It's an ensemble heist story (how did I miss that people write fantasy heist stories for so long!), and most of the characters are half villain. Not all of them. She also does a brilliant job feeding crumbs of information from each perspective so that you see the whole story gradually, refracted through a prism, almost.
My favorite villain of all time is Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. She's not particularly complicated, but she's so bold and charming that it's impossible to look away.
I had no idea where today's post was going.
It makes me feel better. In the big overhaul of my novel I decided to add a few chapters showing what the antagonists were doing instead of waiting until the protagonist encountered them. Coincidentally, I'm in the middle of drafting one of those chapters today.
Go Bad Guys Go.
This is why I follow the lead of Flatland and make my whole world one-dimensional.
Then even a two-dimensional villain is larger than life.
I've always been fascinated by the different perspectives characters and people have. My current WIP actually started with alternative POV chapters to show the how the characters' interpreted events differently, but I realized finally that didn't work for this story. It's still a book I want to write, though.
I was also thinking how nice it would be if people in real life took the time to consider other perspectives. You know, instead of moving immediately to "You're different. You're wrong. You're stupid. I hate you."
SiSi: And in related news, Trump just published his guidelines for foreign relations... ;)
While I understand there are people out there who don't want to be licked by Elka, I may never understand why they don't want to be licked by Elka ;)
(neither does she, for that matter)
So.....I just got a short story acceptance! Not from The Atlantic, but I guess it was some kind of lucky that I invoked their proclivities? I'll ask about the project publication date and let you fine folks know.
WOOHOOO!!! Congrats, Jennifer!!!! :D :D :D
Gorgeous writing, and I'm inspired by Mr. F. Post enough to wonder if he needs his own set of short stories.
And congrats, Jennifer! That's fantastic!
Karen: I believe Mr. Post has a high-stakes drama in the works. This is quite a big deal since, only a few years ago, he was stumped for ideas...
Colin Colin Colin.
Don't mock Mr. Post. Someday you might need to lean on him. And where would that leave you?
Joseph: Mock? Mock?? I have the utmost respect for Mr. Post! Indeed, in a former life, he used to be a scarecrow, and a really good one, at that. In fact, it was often said he was outstanding in his field.
Congratulations to Jennifer! Huzzah and a cuppycake for all!🍾🎂🍰😄
And Colin, is really that part of the day when we descend into PUN-ditry?
PiC: I don't know. If PUN-ditry's what you need, I don't mind PANDA-ing to your cause. ;)
Congratulations! Well done.
What if Jafar was good all along?
Jennifer's right, this is well worth the read.
I have a plethora of villains, both human and dragon, scattered across my series. I have everything from Pure Evyl[tm] to amoral and somewhat distateful to treacherous to likable to "on the other side but it looks like good to them" to simply misunderstood. Some are insane. Some you understand, whether you like them or not. With some I never understand the motivation.
Seems pretty much like real life from where I sit.
Also, Janet- as awesome as she is- did not coin the word "contrarian". It should be in any English language dictionary that Dog didn't eat the "C" pages out of. Unless she coined it back in 1963. I doubt Janet was even born; I was 7 and certainly don't recall seeing her around then. (The world was much younger and smaller back then.)
Gosh, Colin, Mr Post a scarecrow outstanding in his field.
That's so corny.
I liked it.
Joseph: Not as corny as his field!! Ha ha ha... okay... I hear the Jaws soundtrack. I'd better quit while I'm ahead. Besides, this short story won't edit itself. And I've started another! :)
Hermina Boyle: I get your point about vindicating actions through motive. My interest is in more concerned with why characters express virtue or malice, not as a consistent trait, necessity or through provocation, but on a trivial level through personal interaction. How the inconsistencies in that expression, reflect upon things like hypocrisy, narcissism, primitive urges and mental processes within the character, related to a social or more personal context like a family.
Motives are interesting though, usually I see two means by which a character will reconcile their motives. The first is self interest, usually ennobled by some specious incoherent reasoning. The other is flat denial, the kind of person who rewrites history, not just for others but a person gripped by self delusion. There is a third, more rare occurrence, where a character will manifest evil, apparently without motive. My conception of such characters is modelled by a few personal encounters, in each case the expression of malign behaviour was facilitated by circumstance rather than the subject of motivation. That is: they had an opportunity to express particular behaviour and they exploited it to manifest that behaviour, for no other reason than the opportunity itself. As a lay person, my explanation for such behaviour is psychosis, either temporary, maybe brought on by drugs alcohol etcetera, or a more profound permanent condition.
Such characters are difficult to incorporate into a narrative, why is he doing that? is the question that comes up, people don't behave like that. Yeah? well they do, it's just that if they're around for very long, they've learnt to utilize that very incredulity, along with some acquired skill at social interaction, to divert suspicion.
Jennifer - congrats!
You all are too kind with your "yes" replies to my dream.
About 1/3 of the agents I've queried so far are Normans. It seems up from 2014 (last time I was in the trenches). I agree, I'd take the "no" over the silence any day.
Excellent post, as always. Every bad guy has to have a moment in which he or she becomes sympathetic. It's as old as Vader removing his helmet and breathing like he needs a ventilator. Oh, wait. It's way older than that.
Now, how to convey that, plus stakes for your protagonist, plus who your protagonist is and what makes him/her sympathetic in a 250 word query...now that's the trick. If I had to write a query for Star Wars I'm not sure I'd manage to work in Vader's interesting side. As a matter of fact, it seemed as if it almost wasn't there at first, and built later in the arc.
Of course, that's a movie series, and almost fifty years old to boot.
Very interesting indeed. Until I read that I thought the strategy was to define the good guy very thoroughly so the reader thiuks s/he knows him, and the bad guy more nebulously so the reader did not develop sympathy for him. Sort of like not fraternizing with the enemy in wartime. You have given me much food for thought. Food for thought does not usually substitute for food from the fridge, but in this case I don’t need my usual raiion of yogurt this evening.
Jennifer:- fantatic news! Congratulations.
Colin:- I would have missed Julie's comment if you hadn't pulled it out --- Julie: "... you aren't creating characters, you're creating people." Subheader Nom!!
I'm clutching at straws to join in the pun jokes ;)
"What's said, what's not said."
For those wondering how to convey the antagonist in a query, think about the second part of that line. Remember a while back when we talked about the cliched stupid blonde bombshell character? Same thing with the antagonist. Don't describe them in such a way that it's a caricature. Think about who they are, what they want and why they want it. What are the consequences of failure-- that's key. Same as you would for the protagonist.
One good description I've heard (multiple sources) is that at the beginning of the story the antagonist is stronger and more capable than the protagonist. During the course of the story, the protagonist gains XX (whatever is needed: wisdom, strength, knowledge, courage) and by the end of the story is changed to the point they can succeed in the final battle/conflict, whereas the person they were at the beginning would have failed. Your protagonist has to live up to your antagonist, so make sure you do a good job with that.
Then there are aberrations like my dog absolutely love the mail carrier (and vice versa). So the fence post would be the true villain of the story, keeping two friends apart. So the fence posts well-thought out motivations.
One of my favourite antagonists of all time is Irina Derevko from 'Alias'. I'm still not sure about her to this day.
Some days are the wrong days to miss at the reef. But how do you tell a client who wants to make a bunch of (ridiculous) revisions that you'd rather be spending your time reading a blog post and subsequent comments?
Well, you don't, of course. Because clients pay your mortgage, so their (ridiculous) revisions are really, really clever when seen from that light.
I can tell it was a great day in the neighborhood. I'm a go back 80 years and hang out with Alan Furst, y'all.
If anyone cares, Miles O'Neal = Roadkills-R-Us. I have got to just pick one account and stay logged in with that. (Legacy stuff.)
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