Life, in Short

A dad, using a wadded gum wrapper to play tabletop hockey with his young son…

The mom playing a game with that boy’s toddler sister about using a “real” cup rather than the normal sippy one…

A grandmother, at the next table over, embarrassing her middle school grandkid with stories from her younger, wilder days…

Two guys, both in Lions gear, up at the bar arguing Michigan versus Michigan State — just when it gets heated, they remember they are both Lions fans and the commiseration starts…

A young boy and an old man, both doing the same pee-dance on their way to the restroom…

One observation.  A few words.  That’s where the characters — and their stories — start.  That’s it, one simple observation.  You take that observation and build from there:

That dad, he remembers his own father.  He remembers the distance — the distance not of neglect, but of absence due to work and need.  He won’t let that happen, not to his son.  His wife?  As she plays, she remembers the miscarriage, and the tears they shared for her lost child…

The grandmother wants to connect, wants to build something real with her granddaughter, but the distance is so vast.  Was it really so long ago that she herself was twelve and embarrassed and confused by her grandmother?  Death came before that gap was bridged, and she had long ago promised herself to be more than a memory, distant and faint, to her family…

The boy worships his grandfather.  The boy wants to be his grandfather.  He copies everything the old man does, every move and mannerism.  He can even mimic his voice.  He knows nothing of the pills and medical bills.  He knows nothing — not yet — of the memories, either.  Nothing of the nightmares that still haunt from time to time.  Nothing of the sound of the guns, nor the loss of platoon-mates…

There is something to be said for a “scenes of life” story.  For a story that uses the protagonist as a sort of voyeur to follow — and get sucked into — the lives and dramas of those around her or him.  An old shared-universe fantasy series had the Vulgar Unicorn; sci-fi had Quark’s Place; the good ol’ days of style and mystery had Rick’s Cafe…

The temptation to build a story out of vignettes has a lot of power, to be honest.  Look, you all know that I love characters.  Stories, to me — good stories, stories of meaning and power — are about characters, rather than plots.  As a writer I believe firmly that the plot is there to move things along, yes, but in service to the development of the characters,  The plot provides the conflict and stress, the climax and resolution, that our characters need to grow and change and become more than they are.  When the plot is the be-all, end-all — when the plot determines everything — well, then you have…nothing.

That grandmother I mentioned above?  She doesn’t have to save the entire freaking world to have a story to tell.  No, she just has to have a story that resonates.

I freely admit that I much prefer to write about characters because it lets me focus on the flawed and the broken.  And, look, we are all flawed and broken in one way or another — some just happen to be more so than others.

Arguably, the characters in the tiny vignettes I posted above are all broken in their own way…and that is what we writers need to both understand, and work with.

I hated him in high school, when I was forced to red his stuff, but the more I read and learn, the more I appreciate the insights of a certain “staple” writer:

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”

Oh…that writer?  Charles Dickens, in Great Expectations.

{Musical Note — a bit of old school becuuse, well…hell…why not?}

Yet Another Post That Started With A Point, But Lost It…

I’ve been busy over the past week or so.  Oh, not too busy to think and write, but still busy nonetheless.  The fact that it is a business of my own creation and choice makes it a thing very different from those days when “busy” meant running to meetings I didn’t want to attend, with people I didn’t want to talk to, in places I didn’t want to be…

In that life, busy meant miserable.  Busy also meant trying to pass the day ever more quickly so I could get to those few hours of “non-busy” in the brewery taproom, spending time with those with whom I did want to talk.  Compared to those days, nothing will ever be “busy” again…

Thank God.

This busy-ness — the busy-ness of the last few days — has been a thing important to me on both a personal and a professional level.  And, no, before you ask, I have not shared it here on the blog.  It isn’t yet time.  When that time does come, however, you can rest assured that I will talk — probably non-stop! — about it here.

Even in the midst of all that busy-ness, however, I have been making time for myself to do more reading.  Now, as is usual for me, I have been focusing that reading on history.  I know, I know…you are very surprised by that.  I mean, who would ever have thought that I read history?  My God, before you know it I’ll be talking about crazy shit like astronomy and cosmology!

Ahem.  Never mind.  Let’s just /sarcasm and move on…

My reading of late has gone back to what is perhaps the greatest well in all of European history for stories of power politics and intrigues and ruthlessness: the English Wars of the Roses.  Look, there is a reason why Shakespeare’s most impactful characters and plays comes from his cycle about this period.  Hell, it was for the very same reason that modern writers take the Wars of the Roses as the basis for something like, oh, a million stories.  Shit, every single bit of Game of Thrones came from this freaking period!  Even the dragons!

Err…well…maybe not the dragons…unless, of course, you want to postulate early canons and artillery as “dragons”!

Err, sorry about that.  Give me a moment to /nerd too…

There, that’s better.

So, I’ve been reading about the Wars of the Roses and, well…shit.  What writer can not think about characters and plots with that particular bit of history in front of them?!  Even better — or worse, depending on your point of view — I’ve been diving back into the stories and details about the death of Edward IV; the machinations of his queen, Elizabeth Wydville; the ambitions of his brother, Richard of Gloucester (yeah, I pretty much refuse to give him the royal styling of Richard III — sue me, I’m convinced of his guilt); and all of the ruthlessness and maneuvering around the fates of the Princes in the Tower.

If you don’t know, by the way, that final phrase refers to the 12 year old King Edward V, and his nine year old brother Richard, Duke of York.  Now, no work of history can get into the reality of those two boys because, quite simply, all we can definitively say about them is that their uncle imprisoned and murdered them in order to seize the throne.  And in that simple sentence I just typed there lie literally millions of words of stories and characters and conflict as inspiration for a fiction writer!

The Princes in the Tower

There is a record, from a contemporary writer unaffiliated with either political faction of the day, about how people used to gather across the Thames from the Tower to watch the imprisoned princes come outside to play everyday.  Then…one day…the boys just never reappeared.  It was only after that disappearance that everyday, average Londoners turned against Richard Gloucester.  It was only after that disappearance that people began to question whether a man so popular and respected could be so ruthless and evil.

I’m sorry, but just how can you not take something like that and run with it?

One of the things I find most compelling about the whole story is the fact that not a single one of the players involved gave a damn about anything other than their own power.  Elizabeth Wydville was a grasping, ruthless woman committed to cementing her own (unofficial) power and influence over the government of England at all costs.  Richard of Gloucester had more official and legitimate claims to power — as regent, not king — but that most certainly wasn’t enough for him.  Hastings and Buckingham (if you remember them from your Shakespeare!) wanted desperately to cement their own power…

And not one of those people, trusted with the care of two young boys unable to defend themselves as much as they were trusted with the care of England itself, cared one whit for any of their charges.  Nor did they, to get more to the point in terms of today’s world and politics, ever bother to pause and think about what was best for the nation or the people.

And in all of that you have…everything.   You have characters who are sympathetic, and characters who are detestable.  You have conflict and tension on multiple levels, from the personal to the international.  You have scheming and murder; evil deeds and cowardice; manipulations and mistakes; hell, you have a dude executed by being drowned in a barrel of wine (!). You have, when you get right down to it, an illustration over just a few short months of everything that makes humanity so fucked up and miserable…and so very human.

Richard III

Oh…also…if you extend the window out a bit, you do get a touch of justice, too.  Hastings and Buckingham were executed by their former master, Richard of Gloucester.  Not much later, Dicky 3 himself died at the hands of a man whose claim to the throne was laughably thin; a man who barely spoke any English; a man whose grandfather was nothing more than a Welsh groom with the good luck to marry a (former) queen…

That man, who became Henry VII, had his faults and problems, but let’s be honest here — he not only killed Richard of Gloucester, he married the dead princes’ sister and gave eventual rise to a magnificent grandchild in the form of Elizabeth I.  So well done, Hank.

Err…on a pointless history-is-complicated note: Hank7 didn’t actually turn out to be a terribly nice guy.  He wasn’t a hugely bad one, mind you, but he was certainly no shining, chivalric hero.  His mother, on the other hand, was one of the strongest and most remarkable women you’ll ever come across.  Which leads inevitably to a whole separate character-inspiration rant.

*sigh*

Anyone who says history is simple, and writing easy, is either crazy, or lying their ass off.

Good Bad Guys

I love a good villain.

No, really…a proper villain, whether in print or on the screen, is a thing of beauty.  It is also, unfortunately, a thing generally under-appreciated.  And far too often, a thing woefully shortchanged by its creator.

47149118-7742-46A0-811C-75B1ECFD5531Think about it.  Would the original Star Wars trilogy have been as memorable without Darth Vader?  He touched a nerve with his initial presentation as faceless, anonymous evil.*  After the inane bullshit of the prequels, and the more recent “final three”, there is a definite reason why my fellow geeks and I completely nerded out at Vader’s scenes at the end of Rogue One.  It wasn’t just the return of that voice, it was the return of, well, iconic evil.  The perfect villain.

*James Earl Jones’ magic freaking voice didn’t hurt, either.

It goes beyond that, however.  Bad guys — truly memorable, truly powerful villains — have to have a depth and pathos to them beyond even that of the hero.  Ask yourself, then, how often does that happen?

Not often.  Or, at least, not often enough.

And, no, just putting a different accent on a supposed villain — British, German, Russian, Arabic, etc… — doesn’t do the trick.  That’s not clever writing or directing, that’s just a cheap shortcut that does nothing but put the bad writing up in the freaking neon lights.  “Oh look honey, he’s Arabic, he must be the bad guy!”

That’s right up there with, “He’s Indian, he must be a software guy!”

Harrumph!*

*”Harrumph” is, if you’re wondering, Latin for “motherfuckingstupidassbullshit”

1D0B7C5E-362E-48DB-9D1C-690D7F18CFD1That’s why most, if not all, Bond villains are so pointlessly forgettable.  Each and every one has been nothing more memorable than a bad accent, a fake scar and an over-the-top performance that borders on freaking camp.  Liberace would have been a more memorable villain than Blofeld, for God’s sake!

What most writers — and editors, directors, actors, fill-in-your-own-blank-here — tend to forget is that villains can’t be just…well…bad guys.  Truly memorable, effective villains can’t just be evil for the sake of being evil, they have to have their own motivations and backstory.  They have to have an end goal, and a reason for that goal.

0063B53B-9048-4C27-83DA-3997BA8099AEA NO, extorting a government for one million dollars* isn’t a legit end goal.  Something has to be driving that person to be a ruthless asshole, or the whole house of cards that is any story’s plot and character development falls down.  The truly great movies and books explore that motivation.  The best, even, blur the line between good and bad.  Can we all say “Michael Corleone” here and just acknowledge that character as the Holy Grail of blurred lines and gray areas (not to mention an epic fall from grace…)?

*And, yes, Dr Evil IS on my list of “good” villains, primarily as a wonderful parody of crappy, mundane, bad ones…

It’s idiosyncratic as hell, but one thing that also really resonates with me is dissonance in villains.  One example comes immediately to mind here, mainly because the actor just died: Wilford Brimley.

11156713-A904-45AC-8343-DAEC61E099F6The man was most kindly, grandfatherly archetype you can imagine.  He looked like freaking Santa Claus, for heaven’s sake, but when he played a bad guy…  When he played a bad guy, it resonated because it was so dissonant with who he appeared to be.  It was the functional equivalent of Mr Rogers running a meth lab in his basement.

And, yes, before you ask, that whole “dissonance thing” has significant history in the real world, too.  Some of the most memorable — and most evil — psychos in history are embodiments of that very thing.  Just to name the few that come immediately to mind: John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, and the grandfather of them all, Adolf Eichmann.

How, then, do we make villains worth the name?

Give ‘em love.

No, seriously — give them the same love, the same effort and focus, that you give to your protagonist.  If your villain — if any villain — is not at least as fleshed out as the hero, that story is going to be a forgotten one-and-done read (or watch).  If that villain is a plastic, two-dimensional, over-the-type caricature, your work may not even make it to the “and-done” part of that phrase.

There is a reason, after all, why we still read stuff like Paradise Lost.  How can we flawed and broken humans not identity with motivation like “it’s better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven”?

Make your readers, then, see a little of themselves — or, at least, of who they could be — in your villains.  Make your villains real.  Make them memorable, and you’ll find that they’re even more fun to write than the “good guys.”

P.S.

I want freaking bonus point for managing to put pictures of Darth Vader and Liberace in the same post, dammit!

Panic at the…Err…Story!

So, I was working on a scene this morning. I was working on a scene and I screwed myself…I screwed myself because, while I was writing, I wasn’t thinking. The particulars of the scene in question aren’t important, not nearly so important as what I failed to think about when I was writing: panic.

With all due deference to love and hate, panic — pure, blind, incapacitating panic — is pretty much the strongest emotion we humans have. As someone who has seen and done things that many folks simply read about, I can honestly say that panic has killed far more people than stupidity and hate combined.

When someone is flailing and thrashing in the water, it is not the lack of skill at swimming that drowns them, it is the panic — they waste all their strength and energy, not to mention whatever opportunities for salvation may come, in that panic. When folks get lost in the backwoods, it is not the unfamiliarity that kills them, it is the panic — they wander and run, they make bad decisions and do stupid things, all because of panic.

That list of examples could go on and on, by the way. From the fields of combat to wandering city streets at night, from facing down other humans to dealing with wild predators, the one who stays calm can survive, where the one who panics will die. It has nothing (really) to do with fear — fear is a healthy, natural response to dangerous situations — but has everything to do with control.*

*I once wrote a smaller example of this, in a post about “navigating small.”

Now, the reason I had to think about panic while writing is that, for all my planning and envisioning of the scene in question, I had left no room for that particular failing. And it needed to be there.

Oh boy, did it need to be there.

My characters were in a situation where 99% of humanity would suffer at least a bit of panic…a situation both strange and terrifying. As usual, when I finished writing, I did a quick read-through to check what I had come up with. That read-through left me with a sense of wrongness that I just couldn’t shake. Hell, I couldn’t even figure out what was wrong, at first…

4FD5CD32-00DA-4791-84F0-145E8ACDD7B8…until I put myself into the scene. I would’ve panicked, I decided. Shit, I would’ve skipped Go, and gone straight into holy-shit-I’m-fucked blind panic.

Now, look…I’ve faced bears and wolves in the wild. I’ve been lost among hills and valleys with no sign of a trail or another human for fifty miles. I’ve had scuba diving accidents a hundred feet down. I’ve jumped out of airplanes.  And, with everything I’ve seen and done, still I would’ve panicked in the particular situation I was writing about.

But, as the writer, I didn’t think about that. No…instead, my characters all stayed calm. My characters all kept their heads. My characters all did what they were supposed to. And my scene had no urgency or sense of danger. In the end, it had no reality or authenticity.

Even when we plan and build our characters with all the depth in the world, even when we take into account faults and problems and weaknesses to go with their strengths and triumphs, it is FAR too easy to forget that they have to be people first. Confining the “reality” of a character to a good backstory and a set of parameters for personality and skills doesn’t give you a true character, it just gives you words on a page.

No, to move beyond mere words…to move beyond the flat, two-dimensional characters that plague so many stories, you have to get to reality: your characters have to be people. They have to eat and sleep. They have to piss and shit. They have to have bad breath from time to time. When you get right down to it, they have to panic.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go back to Square One with my scene…