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Conflict and desire

This weekend we watched the first episode of Dexter, season 1, and I was struck anew by how good the writing was in the early part of that series. Intriguing characters, unusual premise, colorful setting, and the volume is turned way up on two crucial aspects of storytelling: conflict and desire.

Starting with the latter, these are people who want things, and want them in a big way. Dexter is compelled to kill. His sister Deborah is desperate to solve a case, not only because she wants out of vice and into homicide, but also to protect “her” hookers. An amorous lieutenant has her eye on Dexter. One of the homicide detectives is disgruntled about working on Friday night because that’s date night in Miami and he “has needs.” Not all desires are straightforward. Rita, Dexter’s radiant but damaged girlfriend, is afraid she’s losing him, and because she wants this nice, kind, “normal” guy in her life, she is prepared to start a sexual relationship she really isn’t ready for.

That last bit is also a source of conflict. Dexter is wary of this new development, which would change their relationship and take it into unfamiliar and possibly risky ground. But where conflict is concerned, he has a lot bigger fish to fry.

The primary conflict, of course, is the tension between Dexter’s need to kill and the fact that he’s surrounded by people who are trained to catch killers. One of the detectives senses that there’s something “off” about Dexter and is very open about his distrust. The friendly woman in the records room risks her job to give Dexter cold case files. We’re not sure why, but we’re pretty sure she’s starting to wonder what’s going on.  There’s the implied conflict of Dexter’s back story, and the hidden reason why he is what he is. Then there’s the new serial killer, who is “inviting Dexter to play” with friendly overtures such as tossing a decapitated head at his car and leaving a dismembered Barbie doll in his apartment’s fridge. As one does. Seriously, who just picks up the phone anymore?

This is a lot of desire and conflict for one episode, and it all propels the story forward. It’ a good reminder that compelling stories focus on characters who want something, but will have a very challenging time getting it.

Villains as protagonists

Creating great villains is always a challenge, but things get even more complicated when they’re the story’s protagonist. We’re not talking about anti-heroes here, but sociopathic killers and criminals, such as Dexter Morgan and Tony Soprano.

First, let’s establish which Dexter we’re talking about. The Dexter of the TV series was more human than the Dexter in Jeff Lindsay’s novels. The “original” Dexter was far more sociopathic, less introspective, and more violent. He didn’t just kill his victims, he engaged in joyful, creative vivisection. In the novels, the first person narrative is witty and glib, depicting a man who is utterly self-absorbed and so lacking in self-knowledge that he seems oblivious to the self-loathing bubbling just under the surface. In the TV series, Dexter was constantly examining his values, motives, and actions. He was capable of genuine love. He felt remorse. You often get the sense that he was created, not just by his early trauma, but by the perception and training of his adoptive father, and that with the right guidance and therapy, he could have lived a normal life. There’s not a hint of this in the novels. Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan is a monster. But since he’s working with the “good guys” during the day and going it alone at night to stop criminals who slipped through the legal net, in the context of his story, he’s the lesser of two evils.

So is Tony Soprano. In the first episode, it’s hard to see how a philandering criminal and murderer could possibly be sympathetic. Then we meet his family. His mother is pure evil. She and his beloved Uncle Junior conspire to kill him. His nephew/protege is an idiot and an addict. His sister is batshit crazy and so incredibly selfish that when she decides to marry a recently widowed mobster, she terrifies his children with “messages from their dead mother” to convince her mark that it’s time for him to let go of his wife and move on, for the good of his children. And then there’s his other Family, which he accurately describes as a pack of jackals. Tony has to sustain, support, and survive two untenable social situations. He’s definitely a bad guy, but just about everywhere you look, he’s the lesser of two evils.

Every protagonist needs antagonists. If your protagonist is a bad guy, you have to put him up against people, or situations, that are even worse.

But it’s not enough to be the lesser of two evils. Villainous protagonists also need to have positive traits, qualities that readers and viewers admire and value.

Dexter represents vigilante justice, which is a powerful theme in the American psyche. In many ways, he’s an updated, grittier version of an American folk hero. He personifies rugged individualism and distrust of established authority. When “the system” falls short, Dexter is there to move in and balance the scales. He’s physically powerful, a fit and disciplined fighter. He’s ruggedly handsome. He even follows a code. Replace the Hawaiian shirts with a Stetson, and what you have here is a classic outlaw hero.

Tony Soprano fits another American archetype. He’s a tough guy who has power and money, and there’s a lot of people who find those things more valuable than character. Those same people don’t just shrug off the fact that he objectifies women and has no sexual boundaries, they applaud it. He’s a Real Man, and that’s what Real Men do!  He’s incredibly vulgar, but also capable of a certain charm. He routinely screws over people, but hey, that’s business. He’s a family man with a pretty wife and kids who will probably enter the family business, so he’s got to be doing something good, amiright?  Tony Soprano is a horrible human being, but he’s successful by his own definition of success. We’re fascinated by people who rise to the top, even if–perhaps especially if–what they’re climbing is a toxic dungheap.

Also, Tony has a soft spot for ducks, so there’s that.

When your protagonist is a villain, he still needs to be a human being, with all the messy, complex issues that any hero or anti-hero will be expected to face.

Being a villain does not exempt you from moral dilemmas. TV Dexter was horrified to learn that he’d killed an innocent man, which broke Harry’s Code. Tony Soprano agonized over whether or not to kill his cousin, a decision that forced him to choose between family and Family.  Villains are going to do bad things, and most of the time it’s not going to weigh all that heavily on them. But they do have limits. When your protagonist is a villain, you’ll spend a lot of time finding and testing those limits.

Being a villain does not exempt you from heartache.  TV Dexter came to genuinely love his wife Rita, and he mourned her death deeply. He loved his son and feared that he might have passed along his “Dark Passenger” curse to little Harrison. Most of all, he loved his sister Deborah, and what finally broke him was confronting his part in her fate.  Tony Soprano, worn down by Uncle Junior’s perseveration-level repetition of his youthful failings, burst out with an agonized, “Don’t you love me?” For some villains, the ability to love is a source of pain. For other, it’s the lack of love.

Being powerful does not exempt you from weakness. We want the bad-guy protagonist to win, but they need flaws that will make those victories more difficult and less certain. Dexter is compelled by the urge to kill, and this compulsion can be…inconvenient. He sometimes feels that his Dark Passenger might actually be in the driver’s seat. Tony Soprano’s world is a shark tank, and he knows that his tendency to faint during times of stress is like throwing blood in the water. He needs to appear in control, but being seriously overweight and out of shape tells a very different story.

Bad-guy protagonists can be compelling and even likable, but they come with a built-in dilemma for the storyteller. Given the long-established assumption that Good Will Win, how the heck are you going to END these stories?  Does the protagonist find redemption?  Survive insurmountable odds and come out on top?  Is he brought to justice?  Do you kill him off?

None of these solutions are completely satisfying. We want the villain to succeed and thrive, but we also feel that his karmic debt should be paid. We’d like to see him find redemption, but we also like him as a bad guy.  We want a sense that his story will continue, but we also want closure. We really don’t want to see him in a jail cell, but we know he belongs there. We don’t want him to be killed, even though we know the world would be better off without him. So what’s a storyteller to do?

There’s a reason why Tony’s story ended with an ambiguous Fade To Black. No single choice would have made everyone happy, so the writers let people choose their own ending.  The ending of TV Dexter’s story was almost as ambiguous as Tony’s. (The novels had a very different ending, and I think Jeff Lindsay made the better choice.)

Ambiguity is a fairly common storytelling decision, and in many ways it’s effective. It spawns online debate and water cooler conversations, but it also violates the unspoken contract between storyteller and audience. A story promises several things: Character, Conflict, Resolution. When you deny your audience any real closure, they’re going to feel cheated.

Maybe that’s the point. Perhaps the meta-story message is that nothing good can come of being bad, and the storyteller is saying, “Listen, if you make bad choices, you’ll face undesirable consequences. You chose to become invested in an unrepentant villain, so what did you expect?”  This might be valid and maybe even profound, but it’s hard to pull off.

In summary, if you’re contemplating writing a story with a villainous protagonist, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Pick an ending that makes sense to you and is true to the character.
  • Prepare that ending. People are much more willing to accept an ending that doesn’t fit their preferences if they can say, “Yeah, I guess I should have seen this coming because of X and Y and Z.”
  • Sell that ending. Don’t skimp, don’t rush. Whatever happens should happen in a big way.
  • Don’t expect your decision to be universally loved. There is no way to resolve all the conflicting desires and expectations that attend villain protagonists.

Villains we love to hate, and hate to love

I like the TV show “The Blacklist.” Sort of.  The writing is uneven and some of the longer story arcs strain credulity, but there’s something about the show that draws me back. The other day, I figured out what that was.

The  relationship between crime lord Raymond “Red” Reddington and FBI agent Elizabeth Keen is, in a number of ways, very similar to the dynamics between my Forgotten Realms characters Elaith Craulnober, a moon elf crime lord, and Arilyn Moonblade, a Harper agent.

Story is conflict. When you have any sort of relationship with a villain, conflict is guaranteed. This gets more complicated when the hero and the villain are attempting to work together.

There’s the obvious conflict between lawful and criminal. Yes, these crime lords have valuable information, contacts, and skills, but where’s the line? At what point does ignoring illegal activity cross over into condoning it? When does condoning become enabling? When you’ve got friends in low places, you’re constantly waging a war for your own soul. Or at least your D&D alignment.

In D&D terms, Liz and Arilyn are both Chaotic Good. Orphaned at a young age, they were raised by deeply flawed surrogate fathers. Liz had Sam, who was a career criminal, Arilyn was trained by Kymil Nimesin, who gave her a solid education in classic fighting techniques but also made sure she was trained in “lower skills” such as lock-picking, street fighting, and second story work. Perhaps to compensate for their upbringing, both women joined law enforcement agencies. Both believe in the rule of law, but they’re willing to bend the law for what they perceive to be a greater good. So they already have a high level of moral complexity, and the internal and external conflict that comes with it, before you factor in a helpful crime lord.

These women are high achievers who value skill in others. Because Red and Elaith are undeniably good at what they do, Liz and Arilyn regard them with a considerable amount of admiration. Grudging admiration, sure, but since they “shouldn’t” like and admire crime lords who do horrible things, any positive feelings the women have  set off the jangling alarms of cognitive dissonance. And because they do have positive feelings, whenever the criminals do yet another horrible thing, cognitive dissonance is triggered from another angle. This gets very noisy.

There are many other similarities between Liz and Arilyn. Both are observers, better at assessing people than interacting with them.  They are serious, self-reliant, inclined to be loners but capable of friendship and a fiercely devoted love. And they both feel the lack of roots and the need for answers about their family heritage.

The crime lords view these younger women, at least on some level, as the daughters they should have had. There’s a strong paternal bond. This is more reciprocal in the Red/Liz relationship; Liz is far more inclined to view Red as a father figure, and there was never any question that Elaith might actually be Arilyn’s father. But there is a close connection, known to the reader but not to either Elaith or Arilyn:  He’s the father of Arilyn’s half-brother.

Red and Elaith are both fallen heroes. Something happened to shatter their worldview and change the trajectory of their lives. (We don’t yet know Red’s back story, which is one of the reasons I keep returning to the show.)  These young women are a reminder of their younger, better selves. Neither of these criminals has any illusions about themselves nor any expectation of redemption, but I think they see Liz and Arilyn as evidence that there is still something good and pure in their lives.

The criminals will do anything for the young women they’ve “adopted”….except leave them alone. While both Red and Elaith probably realize, on some level, that their involvement in Liz and Arilyn’s lives endangers and compromises them, they can’t seem to break away.  At heart, Red and Elaith are deeply self-absorbed, even when they’re at their most altruistic.

So what makes these two hero/villain pairings so appealing to me?  There’s a lot of power in the notion that there’s someone who will do anything for you, without reservation. There’s the  possibility of redemption for the fallen heroes. The level of trust that, despite everything, exists between them. The tragedy of lost love, and the futile attempt at some sort of a second chance. And frankly, I like conflicted heroes and unpredictable villains. You’re never sure whether Red or Elaith will do something incredibly noble or shockingly venal.

Relationships are messy and mysterious. One of the main attractions of fiction is being able to experience other people’s relationships and perhaps gaining a little insight from how things work out.  Fiction makes us hopeful, because in fiction, a happily-ever-after is possible. Even when the situation is hopelessly complex, when any possibility of resolution and redemption seems remote, we still hope. Perhaps old wrongs can be righted. Perhaps an understanding between father and daughter is possible. If not this episode, not this story, then perhaps the next. If not, perhaps someday.

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.

 

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: January

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.)

Publications:

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

Submissions: 5

Acceptances: 1

Rejections: 1

Query letters, demystified

Writing is the art of seeing through another pair of eyes. This is true at every step of the process, from creating characters to describing a scene to understanding what agents, editors, and readers want.  For many writers, putting together a query letter is nearly as daunting as writing a novel. Literary agent Kristin Nelson offered these helpful tips on her most recent newsletter:

Fact #1: Shorter query letters get a better request response from agents and editors.

Fact # 2: Literary agents rarely read the entire query letter.

Fact #3: Clearly outlining in your query letter how your story fits in the market will encourage literary agents to read your entire email letter closely.

Fact #4: A really good title for a novel will catch an agent’s attention.

Fact #5: A really terrific concept in your query won’t save you if the letter itself is poorly written.

Fact #6: If you have to defend that your novel is over 200,000 words in your query letter, then you are not pitching your story from a place of strength. And agents are more likely to pass.

Chi Chi, you home-wrecking hussy!

I was amused by a post on the Candlekeep forum by a fan of R.A. Salvatore who was distressed by something he read in an interview posted on the Powell’s Books website:

Or, on the flip side, I sit on the beach at Ka’anapali (Maui) with my beautiful wife, Chi Chi, in hand.

This fan, who had read of Bob’s long and happy marriage to the lovely Diane Salvatore, was stunned by the reference to his “beautiful wife, Chi Chi.”  What happened?  Did Bob remarry, and if so, was this midlife change reflected in his creation of the character Dahlia to replace Catti-Brie, the life-long love of the dark elf Drizzt, Bob’s signature character?

Uh, no.  Minus the promiscuous use of the comma, this comment reads like this:

Or, on the flip side, I sit on the beach at Ka’anapali (Maui) with my beautiful wife, Chi Chi in hand.

One could, with justification, argue against the logic of keeping a wife by any name “in hand” at a Hawaiian beach.  Had the fan read this sentence a second time, he probably would have picked up on this, and may also have realized that Chi Chi is a vodka-laced fruit smoothie, not a trophy wife. But the purpose of punctuation is to add clarity so that no one has to stop reading and unpack the syntax.

The Strippers, JFK, and Stalin cartoon* is a popular online meme. It’s one of my favorite arguments for the Oxford Comma.  But even the commas whose SAT scores consigned them to some state university can add clarity and, occasionally, save lives.

“Time to eat, Grandma!”
“Time to eat Grandma!”

 

You’re welcome, Grammy.

*(Artwork original source)

 

Fantasy epics: "Boy Books?"

For several years now, I’ve been writing for Renaissance Magazine, a bi-monthly publication for people who enjoy Renaissance Faires. I write the occasional  article–mostly lighthearted stuff such as “The Rise of the Codpiece: A Short History”–and reviews of books and CDs.  It’s fun, and it gives me a chance to revisit my background in music and history.  But recently my involvement with the magazine took a turn that’s closer to toward my day job:  fantasy novels.

Renaissance Faires tend to be a blend of history and fantasy, so it makes sense that the editor wants to include reviews of fantasy novels, particularly those with pseudo-medieval and -Renaissance settings.  I had to blink, though, when he referred to them as “boy books.”

In context, I know exactly what he means:  something to balance the historical romance novels with elaborately gowned and inexplicably headless women on the cover.  Something with dragons and swords and combat and adventure. I get it.  But seriously, “boy books?”

When I started writing Forgotten Realms novels in the early 90’s, fantasy publisher TSR described their audience as “highly imaginative males aged 12-40.”  Back then, the fantasy game convention Gen Con was one of those rare events where there was a line for the men’s room, but women could waltz right through. I’ve seen a huge shift in demographics over the past 20 years, and I suppose I’d assumed we were past the notion of fantasy as a men’s club.  But every now and then, something happens to remind me that certain notions die hard–the recent online kerfuffle over the Nebula nominations, for example, which apparently included more women and insufficiently Angl0-Saxon males for some people’s peace of mind.

Back to RenMag and the review column.  I have no problem with the notion of reading and reviewing books that appeal to men.  How could I?  I’ve written more than 20 books of my own, most of them for publishers whose demographic is skewed toward the Y chromosome.  But I never assumed that fantasy adventure books, mine or anyone else’s, excluded either gender, and I don’t buy that asssumption now.

So I’ll be reviewing two books for each issue, and I’m going to select books with the editorial guidelines and the target audience in mind.  My first selection, James Enge’s excellent book A Guile of Dragons, has a badass fighter on a gorgeous, grim cover.  Testosterone for the win! But it also has links to Arthurian lore, a topic held in high regard by readers of both genders.  And when I consider the very fine writing, complex characters, deft dry humor, and the wealth of incident and imagination, I have a hard time concluding that this book will be read by more men than women.

Here’s the thing:  Women like a wide variety of books. We do not require love triangles, sexy vampires, snarky dialog, long descriptions of skanky wardrobe choices, and a play-by-play of softcore sex scenes. Sure, some female readers like some or all of these elements, at least some of the time.  I like the Sookie Stackhouse books (not the TV series), but I also read mysteries, literary fiction, biographies, big dusty history tomes, and a wide variety of non-fiction.  I’ve never thought of any of these as “boy books.” Just…books.  And I have good reason to believe that I am not alone in this opinion.

Fantasy epics: “Boy Books?”

For several years now, I’ve been writing for Renaissance Magazine, a bi-monthly publication for people who enjoy Renaissance Faires. I write the occasional  article–mostly lighthearted stuff such as “The Rise of the Codpiece: A Short History”–and reviews of books and CDs.  It’s fun, and it gives me a chance to revisit my background in music and history.  But recently my involvement with the magazine took a turn that’s closer to toward my day job:  fantasy novels.

Renaissance Faires tend to be a blend of history and fantasy, so it makes sense that the editor wants to include reviews of fantasy novels, particularly those with pseudo-medieval and -Renaissance settings.  I had to blink, though, when he referred to them as “boy books.”

In context, I know exactly what he means:  something to balance the historical romance novels with elaborately gowned and inexplicably headless women on the cover.  Something with dragons and swords and combat and adventure. I get it.  But seriously, “boy books?”

When I started writing Forgotten Realms novels in the early 90’s, fantasy publisher TSR described their audience as “highly imaginative males aged 12-40.”  Back then, the fantasy game convention Gen Con was one of those rare events where there was a line for the men’s room, but women could waltz right through. I’ve seen a huge shift in demographics over the past 20 years, and I suppose I’d assumed we were past the notion of fantasy as a men’s club.  But every now and then, something happens to remind me that certain notions die hard–the recent online kerfuffle over the Nebula nominations, for example, which apparently included more women and insufficiently Angl0-Saxon males for some people’s peace of mind.

Back to RenMag and the review column.  I have no problem with the notion of reading and reviewing books that appeal to men.  How could I?  I’ve written more than 20 books of my own, most of them for publishers whose demographic is skewed toward the Y chromosome.  But I never assumed that fantasy adventure books, mine or anyone else’s, excluded either gender, and I don’t buy that asssumption now.

So I’ll be reviewing two books for each issue, and I’m going to select books with the editorial guidelines and the target audience in mind.  My first selection, James Enge’s excellent book A Guile of Dragons, has a badass fighter on a gorgeous, grim cover.  Testosterone for the win! But it also has links to Arthurian lore, a topic held in high regard by readers of both genders.  And when I consider the very fine writing, complex characters, deft dry humor, and the wealth of incident and imagination, I have a hard time concluding that this book will be read by more men than women.

Here’s the thing:  Women like a wide variety of books. We do not require love triangles, sexy vampires, snarky dialog, long descriptions of skanky wardrobe choices, and a play-by-play of softcore sex scenes. Sure, some female readers like some or all of these elements, at least some of the time.  I like the Sookie Stackhouse books (not the TV series), but I also read mysteries, literary fiction, biographies, big dusty history tomes, and a wide variety of non-fiction.  I’ve never thought of any of these as “boy books.” Just…books.  And I have good reason to believe that I am not alone in this opinion.