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So bad, yet so good…

Bill is currently watching a Netflix series about a Columbian drug lord, which has led to several conversations about what makes a good villain. Since I’m currently brainstorming ideas for my next novel, this is a very timely discussion.

A good villain is one of the main pillars of fantasy storytelling. In many stories, the villain drives the plot. She puts some nefarious plan into action, which disrupts the hero’s normal life and forces him to take action. The villain usually starts out more powerful than the hero–and may remain so at the end of the story–so the plot is shaped by the actions needed to close that gap. The villain has flaws, and the hero must find a way to exploit them, often by facing and overcoming his own, similar weaknesses. Many times the villain and the hero want the same thing, but for different reasons, and they’re willing to do different things (or ARE they?) to reach that goal. This leads to an exploration of motives and morals, a comparison that explores basic questions about human nature and experience.

For the most part, in the fantasy genre the hero and the villain have reverse story arcs. The hero’s arc has setback dips, but in general it’s a rising trajectory with an eventual triumph. The villain will rack up victories along the way, but he is destined for defeat. The hero learns and grows, which is interesting, but the villain’s rise to power has already occurred. This is one of the reasons why the villain is often more compelling, at least at first. He is usually older, more experienced, with skills and knowledge beyond the hero’s grasp. There’s a complicated implied history. The reader’s desire to gain some insight into all of this keeps the pages turning.

Stories provide entertainment, but on a very deep and fundamental level, we read to learn. We want to experience other points of view and see how certain decisions play out. The notion of a “fatal flaw” is particularly powerful. We want to know what makes things go wrong. A villain starts out holding nearly all of the cards. Logically speaking, he should win. And during the course of the story, he should almost win. The reason why the villain loses is every bit as important as the reason why the hero wins.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be spending a lot of time contemplating villainy.  As part of the thought process, I’ll be posting about some my favorite villains and antagonists, and why I find them so compelling.


A musical rant in F# minor, to be read sotto voce with a gently mezzo-sarcastic mien

One of the things about contemporary choral music that makes me crazy is the composers’ need to tell you all about the music. Imagine Beethoven telling a chorus, “Friends! This piece is about joy and brotherhood! As you sing, think about someone you like! And smile, so the audience will get the point!” But no. He trusted the words and music, silly man.

These days, composers leave nothing to chance. They will tell you when a piece is “joyous, celebratory,” just in case you weren’t clear on the meaning of “Alleluia.”

Even the otherwise wonderful Leonard Bernstein gets into the act. At one point, the sopranos and altos are instructed to sing in this manner: “Blissfully unaware of threat.” Huh. I ask you, were the female singers more blissfully unaware of this threat before or after the composer pointed it out? The melody here is gorgeous, and I’d be all kinds of blissful just singing the thing and since the text is in Hebrew I’m feeling suitably unaware. But now that I’ve been TOLD to be blissfully unaware, I feel like a participant in that psychology experiment where people were told to not think of a white bear. “Threat? What threat? I’m blissfully unaware! Yes I am! No, really! I’m not thinking of a threat at all and OMG THAT TENOR IS COUGHING UP A LUNG AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO GET AN EXOTIC STRAIN OF THE FLU AND DIE.”

And then there’s Eric Whitacre: “(This piece) is a ceremony, a celebration of the unleashed kinetic energy in all things. The mood throughout is reverent, meditative, and centered. This does not imply solemn or calm; it simply means the performer must take the spiritual journey with total respect for the power of the water and profundity of the regeneration.”


I suppose this sort of prose is to be expected of a man who used to sell life-size cardboard standees of himself on his website, but still.

And while we’re on that topic, seriously, WHO DOES THAT? Not even Donald Trump sells life-size cardboard standees of himself. Though if he did, I’m sure KellyAnn could move a few hundred units in one of her impromptu press conference commercials. Maybe have a toll free number scroll across the bottom of the screen. That would be so, so great. Tremendous. Most presidential standee in the history of the country. And I’m sure someone could write a choral piece to accompany the commercial, complete with detailed notes so the singers would know how to feel about it.

The Completion Habit

Here’s a link to a post on the GIDIG blog that addresses a key aspect of habit formation, which also happens to be one of my personal challenges: focus and simplification.

I’m currently going through the process of focusing and simplifying several areas of my life, including writing. One of my primary tasks for February is figuring out what I want to write going forward, and THAT includes breaking the habit of wanting to do All The Things, All The Time.


WRITING UPDATE: Wrapping up January, diving into February

January in review:

  • Wrote and submitted an essay to an anthology.
  • Revised a short story written a couple of years back and submitted to two markets. (One rejection, awaiting response on second submission.)
  • Revised and submitted a previously published short story to a reprint anthology.
  • Read materials for a commissioned short story, pitched story premise to editor. (Premise approved. Awaiting Kickstarter results.)


  • Nearing the finish line on a short ebook about habit acquisition
  • Researching a non-fiction book for middle readers; more info coming soon
  • Wrapping up a short story for a themed anthology


  • “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” reprinted in the ebook anthology Memento Mori by Canadian publisher Digital Press

Submissions: 5

Acceptances: 1

Rejections: 1

February plans:

First off, I plan to hit my February 6 deadline for a solicited short story. I’ve got to put the finishing touches on another solicited short story, and I’m on track to complete the first draft of the habit ebook. Research for the non-fiction book is an ongoing, long term project; this month I’ll be reading two or three history books and working on the outline. A major February project will be deciding what novel to write next, and mapping out a long term plan.


Memento Mori  is Latin for “Remember that you too must die.” This cheerful reminder kicks off a collection of dark fantasy and horror tales with death as the central theme. My contribution is “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” a ghost story set in colonial Newport, Rhode Island.  It was originally published in Sails & Sorcery, an anthology of sea-themed tales by Fantasist Enterprises. The narrator is a pirate of limited intellect, a powerful fighter who perceives far more than he understands. It’s one of my favorite stories.  If you haven’t read it–and if this collection sounds like something you might enjoy–now’s the time to pick it up. For the next several days, the ebook will be on sale for $.99 on Amazon.com.  Here’s a link to the book’s page.


Recording Dan Forrest’s REQUIEM FOR THE LIVING

A lot of items on my bucket list get put there after the fact. I’ll do something interesting and think, “Hmm… That really should have been on the list.” This weekend, I’ll be participating in my first commercial recording with the Providence Singers and a professional chamber orchestra.

There’s a dress rehearsal with orchestra tonight, and all day Sunday we’ll be recording in Mechanics Hall in Worcester. The acoustics there are excellent; to give some perspective, last weekend YoYo Ma was recording there.

Looking forward to it!

So. Here’s January.

The plan for this month is very straightforward:  Lots and lots of writing, followed by lots and lots of revisions, followed by hitting the SEND button.

Short fiction:  I’ve committed to two short stories. One will be finished and submitted this week, the other is due by February 1.

Non-fiction:  Finishing up a short ebook focusing on habit acquisition, with the goal of e-pubbing in early February.

Submissions:  So far, I’ve shipped two things: an essay and a short story.  There was very little writing involved, since the story was written a couple of years back and just needed a quick revision, and the essay was a revision of a blog post, also from a couple of years back.

Writing for and about games

Gaming is a big part of life in Chez Cunningham. My kids were raised with games. By the time Andrew was six, you couldn’t beat him at Connect Four. (This pattern persists: These days, it’s pretty tough for anyone to beat him at anything…)  They played Magic the Gathering, Warhammer and 40K, all kinds of  board games. Since I wrote for Wizards of the Coast for years, we had a substantial library of RPG books. Andrew was a DM for his friends and also for Sean and his friends. For several years, the three of us ran an after-school game club for grades 4 and 5.  And both guys were avid video gamers.  Over the past few years, my husband Bill has become an avid board gamer, and we play board games with Andrew five or six nights a week. The three of us usually attend the twice-monthly game nights at Rivendell Books & Games in Rehoboth, and Andrew has his own game groups.

So, yeah. Playing games is a thing around here. Oddly enough, it only  recently occurred to me that I’ve never listed my RPG writing credits and game-related articles on my website. So one of my goals for this week is to compile that info. I’ve added a new place-holder page to the website, and added Games to the Categories drop-down menu (click the Search icon to access Categories.)

One of my goals for this year is continual improvement of my website content and functionality.  Small steps…