Image from the Spitzer Telescope courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=3883
As a teenager, I spent much of my free time gaming. But because this happened in the 1980s, when video games were a low-resolution-graphic gleam in designers’ eyes, “gaming” meant tabletop role-playing games, the venerable Dungeons and Dragons and its offspring (anybody remember Tunnels and Trolls?) My favorite magical object with which to equip my characters was the Bag of Holding: on the outside, a simple drawstring bag, but on the inside, a spacetime pocket where the user could stuff any number of weapons, treasures, books, and other necessities. The character didn’t have to bust their back schlepping all these things because the magical storage unit held them, ready for retrieval.
I’d love to create a writer’s equivalent of a bag of holding, not to stow my laptop, but to use as a study only I can access–a room of one’s own, as Virginia Woolf put it in her eponymous 1928 essay, free from distractions or responsibilities other than to the page and the story. I’d also equip my spacetime pocket with a beneficial temporal feature: no matter how much time I’d spend writing in there, I’d emerge at the same time during which I’d entered, with no time elapsed in ordinary space.
Articles and books aimed at aspiring writers encourage, and sometimes chide, readers to make time to write every day. Sometimes they take a scolding “if I can do it, so can you” tone. These advice-givers remind us that they didn’t start out as full-time writers, that they held down full-time jobs, and if they could scratch out a pocket in spacetime to write, what’s our excuse?
I’ve noticed a pattern: these admonishing writers usually describe juggling work and writing, not writing and raising a family and/or caring for elders or family members with disabilities. Having done all of these things, usually simultaneously, my impression is that the work-writing balance is more straightforward than the family-writing balance because most of us work at set hours and don’t take our work home. (Exceptions abound, of course: teachers take papers home to grade; some folks’ homes are their workplace.) Thus, one can schedule writing time as one schedules work. It involves sacrifices for sure–I get up at 3 a.m. so I can exercise and write before work, and to get adequate sleep, I retire at the same time as my six-year-old does–but in settings where everything else finds its place on an appointment calendar, one can make it happen.
The work of caring, on the other hand, doesn’t fit so readily into a schedule. Focused as it is on tasks rather than time, caregiving overlaps temporal boundaries. You know this if you’ve ever scrambled to get to work on time because your preschooler insists on buttoning her own sweater, takes ten minutes when you’d take 30 seconds to complete the task for her, and then becomes overwhelmed with frustration when she finds the tiny holes too difficult to manage and needs another ten minutes for hugs and soothing. When spinning in the vortex of a time crunch, writing time–like any species of “me time”–is the first thing to go.
Small helping hands, courtesy of Self-Sufficient Kids: https://selfsufficientkids.com/kids-chores-how-get-started/
No wonder that, historically, writers belonged to the aristocracy! Somebody else did the laundry; somebody else tended to the children; a whole staff of somebodies made writing lives possible for many a famous literary figure. The English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, for example, acknowledged his wife, his sister, and his sister-in-law–all of whom performed the quotidian deeds that kept him fed and housed in comfort–as “dear hands” who brought food and other necessities. (Not even people–disembodied helping hands!) The wealthy writer didn’t need a bag of holding–they had a room, a suite, a wing of their own and a door to close on familial cacophanies.
Almost a hundred years later, Virginia Woolf’s observation still holds true: to get serious about writing, we require our own funds and our own space. (Although she was talking about women writers, I think her words can apply to people of any gender for whom time-consuming, and unpaid, caregiving takes up a significant portion of their day, and sometimes night as well.) Independence, professionalism, being taken seriously (until one gets not just published but remunerated reasonably for one’s writing, often friends and family treat your “scribbling” as a hobby that can be interrupted)–all of these are boons to writers. And the largest boon of all would be distributing the work of caring for children or elders so most of the responsibility doesn’t devolve onto one person. When one person gets designated “the carer” (especially if that person also works for pay and then comes home to the second shift in the home), writing inevitably gets shelved.
Oxford World Classics’ cover for Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas
Solutions to this spacetime crunch abound, and they’re different for everyone. For some, liberation comes from outsourcing these activities to others: a paid house-cleaner, a grandparent who can take care of the kids for the day on weekends, subscribing to those online meal services where ingredients get delivered to you and you just have to heat them up. For others, it’s worth the sweat and tears to sit down with one’s significant other and hash out a plan for making the home-work load measure up to the 50/50 ideal.
A wise friend who’s also a minister reminded me that an alternative is not to try doing all these things at the same time, but rather to think of life in terms of seasons. For those who don’t have the option of putting aside the heavy caregiving duties–a single parent, for example–perhaps the difficult but necessary solution is to postpone one’s writing “season” until one’s children are old enough to do their thing more independently. The trick is to prevent “mission creep” from making hiatus from writing permanent. Bigger kids require less intense, constant, hands-on parenting, but their web of activities and relationships often requires parental assistance. This can defer one’s writing season until retirement. (This may be a viable option for some, especially as our overall increase in health and longevity means that many folks can enjoy at least two decades of vibrant life after retiring.) But to keep the writing flame alive before the kids grow up and move away, maybe you can shift your focus: away from novels or book-length narrative nonfiction, with the greater time investment and sustained attention they require, to shorter forms that one can squeeze into one’s briefer free moments, such as poetry or essays.
My writing seasons fluctuate through the year, with months of diligent, productive daily writing followed by fallow periods. These doldrums happen for a variety of reasons: I’ve completed one project and want to let it rest before revising (I’ve never mastered the ability to start the next project at this time), a heavier workload in my medical practice, or a time when a family member needs more support. These “off” times don’t last long, but my spouse always notices that when other constraints push my writing into the exosphere where I can’t reach it, I’m more somber and sad. When I get back on course, he notes that my “spark” is back too. (There’s some incentive for skeptical family and friends, the kind who dismiss your true heart-work of writing as a hobby or a lark: they’ll have a more joyful loved one if they get on board with your need to write on a regular basis. More writing, better mood, and a more present parent/partner/friend. If they need a stick with that carrot, you can always remind them that they might show up in your published work someday, despite that disclaimer that the characters aren’t based on anyone living, dead, or spotted through a high-powered telescope on Venus.)
A long dry period in my writing has come to an end (whew!) and I’m rejoicing in the way that, perhaps paradoxically, rekindling my writing flame has given me the grace of being more present in the rest of my life. Watch out, page, my spark is alight once more.
Fire tower image courtesy of Chief Logan and the Helena, Montana Fire Department Archive, http://www.helenahistory.org
When I got past the awkward early-reading stage and had developed enough skill to immerse myself in books, I discovered the joy of getting up before dawn and reading under the covers with a flashlight. My dad rose early too, but he headed downstairs to do laundry and start breakfast preparations, and I savored the quiet before others awakened. In my window, the sapphire sky paled, shot through with orange, and the birds celebrated the sun’s return. I drank deep from the nectar of being alone.
Since then, I became a connoisseur of solitude, but not the passive kind, a vigilant solitude, a soul-forge.
My spouse and I share a recurrent private joke about how, if we hadn’t gotten married, I’d planned on living in a remote wilderness fire tower. When a busy day at our medical office comes to an end, he teases me, “There’s still time to escape to that fire tower!” I’d read somewhere about fire spotters living for a month or two at a time in these towers towers far from human company, dipping back into relationships only when hiking back to the nearest town for supplies. The prospect appealed to me, lover of solitude that I was, as did the noble purpose: preserving wilderness from ravaging fires.
There’s a scene in the movie version of The Lord of the Rings that never fails to ignite my old longings for courageous aloneness in a remote place. The scene begins when the plucky Pippin climbs up the back side of Minas Tirith’s beacon tower and manages to set fire to the tinder, against the Steward of Gondor’s wishes. Then the camera follows the path of that signal fire to the next woodpile, where a patient, vigilant guardian waits…for how long, we don’t know. We continue to follow the camera moving over the landscape as each beacon-spotter responds to the summons from the now distant flame on the horizon. At last, Aragorn espies the nearest bonfire, rushes down from the tower, and proclaims, “The beacons are lit! Minas Tirith calls for aid.”
I’ve seen the movie several times, and I always imagine myself as guardian of the beacon atop the snowiest, most challenging slope, climbing up to keep my vigil, blowing on my hands in the cold, waiting for a signal that might never come–and there it is, quick, do your duty, numb hands fumbling at the tinderbox, will it light, yes, yes, the tinder’s caught!
Cold, brave, and alone, the nameless beacon watcher answers the call.
There’s something beyond admirable about somebody facing hardship, doing a salutary deed, and receiving no accolades for it. How I admire that selfless something.
Few of us may get the chance to write in a wilderness fire tower, especially as technological advances are phasing out the need for human fire spotters. But we writers do our share of waiting, sometimes in the cold and dark, even if that’s just a mental state, should one’s writing space be well-lit and warm. When you send a query and/or material to an agent, you wait. Let’s say the agent agrees to represent you–the beacon’s lit, hooray! But then you wait some more as the agent shops it around. Then, after that second acceptance, there are more exchanges and more waiting: an editor’s letter detailing changes to make, proofreading notes, a pre-publication copy to examine…you wait for each of these. (For my friends and colleagues who’ve self-published books, or who’ve published chapbooks or scholarly books through a university press or other small publisher, you’ve got your own varieties of waiting to do, and things to wait for; I don’t mean to neglect you; I just haven’t experienced these varieties.)
Advice abounds on what to do while you’re waiting. Work on your next project! Take a breather and concentrate on some other endeavor: making music, fixing up your garden, completing that old motorcycle repair! Spend time with the family you’ve promised to do things with when you’re done with writing that interminable book!
But still we check the email for the fourth, fifth, sixth time. Hasn’t the agent/publisher/editor gotten back to us yet? The person in the tower rubs their eyes, aching from staring at the horizon. Is that a glint? Just the sun setting.
No matter how busy our exterior lives are, no matter how filled with other people–co-workers, those we help (patients, clients, customers), friends and family, the people we meet by chance on the bus or in the grocery store–a writer’s waiting tends to happen alone, as if in the mind’s own fire/beacon tower.
How do we turn this solitary watching into something brave, noble, purposeful?
Lots of boring, purposeless waiting happens in life: shuffling from foot to foot on a line, or slouching in a one-size-fits-nobody plastic chair waiting for your number to light up on a screen. All that advice about waiting for answers from the writing/publishing world exists, perhaps, to remind us of two things: first, to help us not lose sight of the magnificent goal (getting your book into readers’ hands) and second, that family, friends, work, leisure activities, nature, etc. aren’t extras that intrude on our writing life but are life just as much as the act of creation is.
A shadow-side exists to the old romantic trope of the solitary writer. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when books enjoyed a wider circulation and more readers than they had in previous centuries, most writers were people abundant in wealth and free time, to the extent that they didn’t need to work at other jobs and could devote time to their art. They also depended on others to provide life’s necessities so they could concentrate on their work. I still get pained when I recall the poet William Wordsworth expressing his gratitude to those wonderful hands (belonging, implied if not stated, to his mother, sister, and possibly a domestic employee or two) who fed him and looked after his home so he didn’t have to interrupt his writing and rambles in the lake country to do the dishes. He and people like him were granted the luxury of living in their isolated tower among other people who quietly ensured they could work uninterrupted. They dreamed their way into a fantasy wilderness; they built their towers of retreat on the shoulders of their support staff. It’s one thing for family members and friends to offer their support; it’s another to assume they’ll give it or to demand it.
Waiting can offer us opportunities to grow stronger inside, to continue creating, to tighten our connections with those we love. It can also wear us down. If we conceive of waiting as a spiritual practice, or as a martial art, or something else deliberate and devoted, then we’re more likely to emerge from the experience as better people–determined, not depleted.
Chicks congregating around their feeder…what stories they might tell!
Why is it that in some books, characters stride into the story all alone, without parents, golfing buddies, neighbor kids peeking through their hedges as they sunbathe, or coworkers tossing paper planes at them over the cubicle wall? In real life, we inch our way along strands in a web of relations–some strands sticky, others smooth. So why do some characters blow into their worlds like spiders parachuting to a new location on a long silken strand, bereft of all relations?
This narrative pitfall happens more often with some genres than others. Science fiction and fantasy novels (the genre I both write and most often read) bristle with rugged individuals whose first and only social contacts seem to be their quest companions. I can’t imagine this problem happening in genres where the protagonist’s social interactions form the basis of the story, like romance novels or family sagas. But writing in a genre where interactions aren’t the primary focus doesn’t absolve you of responsibility for creating a family and friendship network for your characters. Neglecting to fashion a social world for them means you’re missing out on opportunities to deepen their characterization.
People’s desire for company may range from the solitude-seeking wilderness ranger who stays for two weeks in a remote fire tower, contented not to see another person the whole time, to the party animal who chafes at being stuck alone for a whole afternoon. Most of us fall somewhere in between, or vacillate from one end of the continuum to another day by day, moment to moment. This tension in itself makes for interesting character exploration. But when two or more characters meet, story potential sparks. One person’s words or actions nudge another toward a decision. They might argue. They might reconcile. Their give-and-take fuels your plot.
How a person behaves with friends and family reveals significant things about them. We may act formal or superficial when exchanging a few words with the grocery check-out clerk, but with friends and family, a deeper layer of self emerges. Interactions with these important others will give your character a past as well. A character might seem to be engaged in light banter with their sibling, but the words hint at a shared memory: a warm and loving connection, a trauma they survived together, a source of misunderstanding and resentment.
How do characters react to family friction? Do they quash their anger and flash a false smile? Do they rush off to retreat from an anticipated explosion? Are they the one to explode? Or do they take refuge in sarcasm, skewering their provoker with words turned to precision weapons? Do they get physical, smacking the aggressor upside the head? Are they the comforter, the one who picks up the pieces? The character’s reactions–the ones they choose and the knee-jerk reflexes family members can so easily elicit–encapsulate their overall responses to the world, their virtues and flaws. Perhaps subsequent events, whether they involve saving the world or saving a relationship, might give the character a chance to reflect on and change these responses.
The novel I’m shopping around now contains some classic fantasy elements–a quest, magic, and powerful immortals–but my characters also have families, friends, petty adversaries, bosses, and other relationships that both complicate the plot and enrich the characterization. One narrator has chosen to leave his homeland years before, and he returns home to visit an old friend and his family, who never understood, and are uncomfortable with, his departure. This family drama’s enfolded within a larger plot, but without his feelings of disconnection with his homeland and his family, he’d be a less layered and interesting character.
So, when you’re creating complications for your characters, don’t forget that these complications can begin at home. Remember: every hero has neighbors, and even the bad guy has a mother.
No, this little fellow isn’t the bad guy. The red glow is coming from his heating lamp, not his infernal chicken powers.
Nothing perturbs the system more beautifully than a hummingbird, as seen outside my clinic window.
At some point on the journey toward publication, aspiring writers get frustrated and ask themselves, “Why aren’t agents and publishers saying ‘Yes’ to my submission? I’ve revised it six times and now it all looks good to me. What’s going on?”
Often the problem lurks on the very first page.
One turn-off to these busy publishing professionals is the “winding country way” style of drawing readers into your imagined world. This gentle prose amble generates plenty of atmosphere, but atmosphere alone does not a story tell.
Imagine strolling down a country lane on a summer afternoon. The sky’s a crisp blue against the upturned leaves of a majestic white oak, planted three hundred or so years ago to mark the perimeter of a farmer’s land. In the field beyond, Queen Anne’s lace, timothy, and goldenrod plants ripple in a breeze. The balmy air offers a spiderweb’s caress to your bare arms. The temperature’s not scorching, just soft and warm. You smell cut grass and wildflowers. You hear crickets and cicadas. Horses peer over a stone fence. It’s a tranquil, beautiful, rapturous day for being, not doing.
My daughter Luthien trotting through a field at Champoeg State Park when she was a year and a half old, offering an expert demonstration of blissful being-doing.
The trouble is that what makes this summer afternoon in the country so special is also what makes it unsuitable for a novel’s opening scene. The very forces that create enriching life experiences can poison stories and rebuff readers. That’s because stories are about doing, not being. When the writer spends too much time writing in this “being” fashion, the story doesn’t sell.
To be sure, this fact troubles me. Being in the moment, leaving behind the constant scrambling “doings” of unmindful life, reveling in beauty without rushing to complete an agenda–these are all activities (being-tivities?) I cherish. I also wince when I read writing advice that seems to pander to the shortest attention spans out there. Are readers really so fickle that they won’t continue past the first page if they aren’t hooked and thrashing like a fish on the end of a line? Don’t readers long to immerse themselves in the sensory glories of the world you’ve created?
Then there’s the conflict thing. We use warlike terms for the dramatic tension that drives a story: conflict or struggle. This nomenclature dates back to classical Greek literature. Ancient Greeks–at least those who wielded temporal power and had the leisure time to compose tales–considered agon (struggle) the source of virtue. Whether it’s the muscular, one-on-one grappling of a wrestling match or the cerebral fencing of a debate, agon honed the self. This attitude has been perpetuated in societies shaped by ancient Greece and Rome. I’m perturbed by the way popular how-to-write advice has uncritically ingested this antique attitude by insisting that writers create endless conflict on every page. Not only does this approach reify fighting as the normative (or even ideal) state of human affairs, but constant conflict can be just as wearing on the reader as static description. The answer to that old comic-book question, “How much excitement and adventure can you stand, true believer?” is sometimes “No more!”
Undeniably, some power exists to attract readers’ attention and hold it. But this power arises as much from caring as from conflict. A writing critique-group friend used to ask the other participants, “Why should I, the reader, care?” Readers invest their time because the skilled writer causes the protagonist to matter to them. To get the reader to give their heart to this character, the protagonist needs to be plunged into a situation where their winning qualities shine, while their relatable flaws get them into trouble.
That’s what’s traditionally called conflict.
I prefer to think of it this way: the story starts when the protagonist’s life veers off balance.
Living in balance is a spiritual ideal, but in physics and biology, systems in perfect balance aren’t living systems. Rather, life occurs when a formerly closed and balanced system tips far from equilibrium. We experience inputs from our environment and react–that’s the case in life, as well as in a novel’s plot.
Returning to that country lane, what might happen to the protagonist that would generate momentum for the story, show their true nature (both gifts and flaws), and cause the reader to care what happens to them?
That classic traveler’s dilemma, according to Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken
The protagonist’s life can get nudged out of whack by an external cause. A drunk driver careens over the hill and hits them, leaving them critically injured at the side of the road. A door to an enchanted realm opens up in the stone wall before them. An old flame comes jogging by in the other direction and they recognize one another too late for either to change direction and pretend they hadn’t seen the other.
Or an internal upset may disturb the protagonist, something the rural beauty can’t drive away. They could be brooding over the divorce decree they’d just received when they didn’t even realize their marriage was failing. They could experience the first frightening signs of severe mental illness: a break with reality where the bucolic country scene turns bizarre and menacing.
The good news is that you don’t have to trash your wonderful country-road description–you just need to repurpose it so that it contributes to the story’s forward motion. Instead of ambling down the road, maybe the character’s running away from or toward something. Instead of being a backdrop, the scenery becomes a character in its own right, or a plot generator. What might come out of the field to pursue the character? What might threaten the character from within when they’re desperate for a moment of peace? That’s where their life careens off balance. That’s where the story begins.
Now that’s more like it: a hair-raising moment on a hike at Huashan Mountain in China (Lina D., “The World’s Most Dangerous Hiking Trail,” https://www.boredpanda.com/worlds-most-dangerous-hiking-trail-huashan-mountain-china/). Bye-bye, quiet country road!
The classic villain: the Wicked Witch of the West from the 1939 Wizard of Oz film
At an audition for my local community theater’s upcoming production of The Wizard of Oz, I observed some actors trying out to play the Wicked Witch of the West, each one ending the monologue, at the director’s request, with their own distinctive evil laugh. As I listened, I reflected on how the Wicked Witch is the archetypal Bad Guy: gleefully megalomaniacal, fiendishly delighted at her own nasty cleverness, and as bad-looking as she is badly-behaving.
Times have changed since The Wizard of Oz was published in the early 20th century. Contemporary readers expect antagonists to be as fully realized as any other character. Ideally, they don’t even consider themselves the “bad guy.” Like the protagonist, they’re the hero/ine of their own story. Many antagonists aren’t arch-villains anyway. An obnoxious supervisor, a beastly ex, an overbearing parent, and a rival for a love interest aren’t criminals or demons. They’re more like obstacles, but obstacles with minds and motives of their own.
As with anything else about the writer’s art and craft, there’s no foolproof formula for generating formidable foes. Wherever your antagonist falls along the continuum of annoyance to full-on monster, however, they must pose an active threat to the protagonist, generating the story’s tension.
An effective antagonist must represent a true challenge to the protagonist. This redoubtable opponent won’t let the protagonist get away with an easy, predictable victory. To do this, the antagonist requires a goal. It shouldn’t be just any goal. It must run counter to the protagonist’s goal. It’s not an idle fantasy either. The antagonist is consumed by their single-minded obsession with this goal. They’re tenacious enough to charge toward that goal like an 18-wheeler headed for the runaway-truck ramp, which happens to double as the protagonist’s driveway. In pursuit of that goal, the antagonist causes significant trouble to the protagonist, the equivalent of that 18-wheeler’s cab smashing through the living-room window and coming to rest in the wrecked bedroom.
Antagonists are as individual as protagonists, but if I could distill their motives down, I’d assign them to one of two different personality types: the deranged messiah (the “hot” villain) and the sociopath (the “cold” villain).
The deranged messiah pursues their goal because a compelling, all-encompassing belief pulls them along. This antagonist isn’t a simple believer. They’re full of fervor and fanaticism, whatever they’re espousing: religion, social cause, or personal vendetta. They’re rigid to the point of absolutism and ruthless in implementing their beliefs, convinced that the lofty end justifies the reprehensible means. Their conviction might be admirable in other circumstances, but their willingness to bend the ethical rules in service to their cause distinguishes them from the protagonist.
The sociopath, on the other hand, lacks the passion that motivates the believer gone bad, but their hallmark feature–lack of empathy–is chilling. The sociopathic antagonist also lacks a healthy person’s rich emotional life. They only experience feelings associated with basic drives: hunger, thirst, boredom, frustration. The unsettling thing about an antisocial person’s lack of empathy is that they can be excellent mimics of the very quality that’s absent from their psychological makeup. They can feign interest, caring, even love. Such individuals seek intense stimulation (thrill sports, intoxicants, murder and mayhem) because without feelings, their lives are bleak and empty. When you introduce your antagonist, their lack of empathy makes them both frightening, as it allows for cruelty and callousness that wreak damage on the lives around them, and pitiful. Readers are moved by villains they can feel sorry for, and the empty, vapid, bored life of an empathy-less person is a sorry thing indeed.
Here are some other negative personality traits that work well for antagonists.
Aggrieved entitlement. Difficult people I’ve encountered consider themselves both victimized and deserving of the best in life–in extreme cases, worship by us lesser mortals. They lack the insight to take responsibility for the difficulties they’ve created in their own lives, instead insisting that others–ex-partners, the legal system, family members–have taken unfair advantage of them. Whether they’re complaining about the job that should’ve been theirs or their terrible ex-partner, in the stories they tell, they’re the innocent victim. It’s not clear whether they believe this themselves or use such stories to win sympathy and assistance, but from what I’ve experienced, underneath the apparent yearning to be understood, real-life antagonists believe people are either chumps to cheat or users to put one over on before they do it to you. After all, when one lacks empathy, if someone shows you kindness, it must be a con.
Hostility. It’s not just antisocial people who think, feel, and behave in hostile ways. I recently read that as much as 25% of the U.S. population has hostile personality traits. The hostile person is reactive, with a hair-trigger temper. They are impulsive, not stopping to consider before acting on their emotional reactions. They don’t “check in,” with themselves or the other person, whether their initial impressions are correct or their initial impulse is appropriate. They just explode. They interpret anything the other person says or does in the worst possible light, justifying their angry response to themselves. Often they have a low sensory threshold. Bright lights, noise, uncomfortable materials, and other unpleasant sensory impressions register as assaults with them, so they simmer in a state of low-grade irritability, ready to erupt at the smallest provocation…which, according to their sensitive nervous systems, represents an attack and thus necessitates a violent response. They may view others as idiots and jerks. This is the person you’ll hear complaining about the “sheeple” all the time and assuming that they are one of the few smart folks. Some people are aware of their hostile tendencies and “keep a lid on it” when interacting with friends, family, and co-workers, only to spew forth when a stranger looks at them the wrong way.
Rigidity. Difficult people don’t roll with the punches. Instead of responding flexibly to difficult situations, they become frustrated at their own perceived helplessness and lash out at others in response. This pattern of thought and behavior might’ve gotten started in early childhood, in reaction to living with chaotic circumstances, devoid of safety and a reassuring parental figure. Without a safe home and a consistent, caring parent, their primal needs for security don’t get met, so they take refuge in restrictive thought patterns, authoritarianism, and undeviating ritual. You can get readers to pity and be creeped out by your antagonist, both at the same time, by giving them a habit or behavior pattern where, if they’re forced to act differently, they snap or fall apart.
Negativity. In order to avoid painful, dangerous situations, our body-minds are primed to remember negative experiences. In learning from these experiences, we often end up magnifying them. Hence, people can define themselves by illnesses or pain they’ve suffered and harrowing experiences they’ve had. Developing a positive attitude takes time and mindfulness; perceiving the negative in every situation can become a default reaction. So what does this have to do with antagonists? Isn’t this conundrum just part of human experience? First, the very universality of this tendency is one thing that reminds readers about your antagonist’s humanity and makes them relatable. It’s both uncomfortable and revelatory to recognize the antagonist as a human being like oneself and to empathize with them. Second, by giving the antagonist a traumatic past that has created a persistent negative pattern of thinking and responding, you create conflict–the character gets into trouble as a result of their assumption that the world is a nasty, brutal place and because of the choices they make as a result. Such experiences explain, although they don’t justify, the antagonist’s selfish, thoughtless meanness. If a protagonist has undergone similar experiences and has nevertheless chosen a path of kindness and mercy, you’ve got a dramatic contrast right there. Same experiences, different choices–they can make the difference between the character’s becoming friend and foe.
A fully-fleshed, multidimensional antagonist presents significant roadblocks to the protagonist’s progress, which may even help the protagonist grow…although that’s not the “bad guy’s” intention. They also offer the reader a figure to become mesmerized by, perhaps against their better judgment, an effect they might exert on the protagonist too. But what ultimately makes a well-drawn antagonist so memorable is the way they hold a mirror up to our own shadow side, the side we engage with at our peril.
Can you douse your own shadow side with water and expect it to melt?
Don’t let this imposing library at Yale University intimidate you! I attended an amazing session of the Rare Book School there in Summer 2016 and they didn’t boot me out.
Research: some folks love doing it, while for others, it’s up there with painful dental procedures. My professional background plants me in the “love it” category, but since I work with first-year college writers, I also understand the plight of the reticent researcher. I attended college in the pre-Internet 1980s and am grateful to the Web for making investigation, scholarly and otherwise, easier and more accessible to everyone. But for those who would rather be subjected to that nauseating regimen astronauts must endure to get ready for zero-gravity environments, please bear with me while I explain that research opportunities, like the Force in Star Wars, are “all around us.”
“But I’m a science-fiction (or fantasy) writer,” I hear you rumbling. “Why do I need to do research?” Maybe you’ve invented a new alien species. Or perhaps the technology you’re writing about is so far-future speculative that it doesn’t compare to anything available today. So why would you need to interview an expert, read mountains of technical material, or watch documentaries when you’re creating a world from raw materials wandering around your imagination?
Fantasy and science-fiction worlds may be imaginary, but they still operate according to rules. If your world behaves at variance with Earth-based Newtonian physics, the reader needs a good reason to suspend their disbelief. You don’t have to excel at mathematics to learn about the universe’s rules for the road…heck, there’s even a series of board books that distills the laws of physics into toddler-sized apothegms. Reading widely in your genre also gives you a sense of where you can flout physical laws, what’s a convention of the genre that you don’t have to explain, and which weird phenomena readers are more apt to believe. Lots of fun primers on physics, biology, chemistry, and other sciences are available for the general reader. You can also chat with scientists in your community–although busy, they’re usually excited to share what they’re researching with the non-specialist, especially when they learn that it’s for a book.
At the most recent Norwescon, I attended a session on alien biology, and a scientist reminded the audience that so many of the species that share the earth with us seem alien, from their life cycles to their reproductive activities. If you’ve created a Slug Queen from the Oort Cloud, doesn’t it make sense to learn about real slugs? Find a life form, or more than one, that shares features with your invented species and spend some time with them, by observing them in nature, watching a wildlife video, reading, etc. The information you gather about their growth and behavior will add realism to your portrayals of your alien characters. The reader will recognize, and enjoy, the depth of knowledge on which you’ve built your world.
Even monks fall asleep in the library, as this fellow did during my Advanced Medieval Manuscript Studies course at Yale, offered through the awesome Rare Book School.
But research isn’t just something you do in a library or archives or on your computer. Observation is the most natural research process, and it’s immersive. Sometimes this means going where the action is. If you’re trying to come up with a holiday celebration for your alien society, why not check out parades, festivals, and other public occasions to gather ideas? While you’re there, take note of not just the organizational part (what happens) but also the participants’ emotional state and behavior. Is this a formal, restrained occasion or a lively, no-holds-barred street party?
At other times, you don’t need to go anywhere or do anything special. You just need to pay keener attention to what’s going on around you. I hike with my family every week and like to spend time listening to the local sounds, feeling the air temperature, smelling the soil, flowers, snow, autumn leaves, or dried pine needles on the ground, and checking out the blend of light and shadow on the path. Often these impressions percolate in my mind and emerge as a description later on.
I also like to listen to conversations as I take my daily lunchtime walk down the beach from my office to pick up the mail. (Yes, I work two blocks from the beach. It’s wonderful.) I listen to people’s word choices, the structure of spoken syntax, the feelings that come through, the back-and-forth rhythm of dialogue. While taking care not to pilfer anything personal that I overhear, I find these real-world conversations an enriching inspiration for dialogue on the page…minus the circumlocutions and fillers of ordinary conversation.
Relationships with family and friends can also provide you with inspiration for your characters’ interactions and motivations. Of course, you must tread lightly and not expose your friends’ and family members’ secrets. The idea is to learn from your experiences and let that wisdom manifest on the page, not to fashion your characters as alter egos for your loved ones. Some incorporation of your own and your intimates’ traits into your story-world is inevitable. The key is to do so consciously, with compassion and sensitivity.
One way I do this is to listen to and watch others for some specific feature. For example, one of my characters has a brother who’s older than him by two years, and their relationship is by turns loving and stormy. I’m an older sibling, a sister rather than a brother, and my brother and me have a close, amiable, and uncomplicated relationship. What to do? I listened to and watched my male friends and their brothers interact. My intention wasn’t to “steal” a conversation and slap it onto the page. I took what I observed, applied it to the characters’ scenarios, and in one case, shared scenes with one of the brothers I’d been inspired by to check for verisimilitude. Would he treat his brother this way if he was my character? Did the interaction ring true? Was it off base?
I do authenticity checks when it comes to something I’ve researched but with which I have no personal experience. I run battle scenes by veteran friends, or hand-to-hand, one-on-one combat vignettes with a martial artist I know. I also block my scenes as an actor and a director would, in two dimensions or three. I draw battle maps, move miniatures around, create model buildings and other structures, and even work with more knowledgeable people, like my martial-artist friend, to choreograph a fight scene or a dance. Would the character really move like this? Could she get across the room that fast? Could he ride a horse and shoot an arrow at the same time? As much as I can, I test it out physically. I don’t want an expert reader to groan, “That’s impossible!”
Practicing ancient Roman infantry formations at Norwescon, April 2018.
I’ve been involved in community theater for decades, and the experience always enriches my writing. One of my favorite things, in acting as well as writing, is to play or write about a character who’s different from myself. Research can save your gluteus maximus when it comes to creating authenticity rather than something ridiculous in its unreality. My most challenging part, physically, was Martha in that wonderful, sinister classic comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. Martha is an elder. I played her when I was 42. I’m physically fit and, I hope, move fluidly. In order to create a realistic impression of someone at least 30 years older than me, I paid conscious attention to the way my 70- to 90-year-old patients move. My goal wasn’t to create a melodramatic, stereotypical hobbling old lady; I strove for subtler suggestions of age. I noticed that my patients took more time and care with getting up and sitting down, took shorter steps, and because they were starting to experience balance problems, they would put their hands on furniture and other objects as they made their way through a room. So I practiced shortening my stride, adding a shade of hesitancy to the way I lowered myself into a chair, and let my fingers skim over the furniture as I moved around onstage. I knew I’d succeeded when an audience member waited for the actors to emerge from backstage after the show and was startled to see that I wasn’t really 75.
Sooner or later in your writing life, you’ll come upon a fact you need to verify or a historical event you need to learn more about. Readers, and the publishing professionals who get your work into their hands, recognize and appreciate the time and care you put into doing your homework. And sometimes that homework is as accessible as your own home and the gadgets, people, and laws of physics at play inside it.
Research can be found right where you are.
A well at Storm King Mountain, New York (ooh, if it were only bottomless!)
As the poison Hamlet has swallowed starts to take its lethal effect, he gasps out his last words: “The rest is silence.” He won’t learn the outcome of events he’d helped set into motion, for death’s quietus has enfolded him.
Silence, too, is a tool in the wordsmith’s toolbox–perhaps the most potent of all in an art wrought by and from words. The caesura, a moment of silence in music and a metrical pause in poetry, allows readers (and musicians, and writers) to catch their breath. This pause also allows emotion to flow in: fear, compassion, love, transcendence. Moreover, it gives the reader the chance to co-create the writer’s world, filling in what the writer hasn’t said with one’s own imagination.
Leaving something unsaid is a mark of either artistry or ineptitude. Powerful moments sink into readers’ hearts when they’re delivered with a gentle exhalation rather than bludgeoned onto the page. On the other hand, a new writer might sketch in a scene with brief brush-strokes because their craft hasn’t matured enough to voice it all. The richest silences leave the reader awed, not scratching their head.
Three instances stand out for me where you can use silence to powerful effect: horror, passion, and revelation. It’s challenging to write about these “big three” without overdoing it, so why not imbue those moments with quiet grace–or disturbance?
People who never want to venture near the horror genre assume it piles up the guts ‘n gore hip-deep, like a cheesy slasher film or some heavy-metal album covers. Yet the genre’s best practitioners have mastered the art of silence, knowing when to be explicit and when to allow the reader to fill in the claw-torn gaps with their own nightmares.
Although Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian gets classified as a Western rather than a horror novel, its famous outhouse scene exemplifies the skillful employment of caesurae. To avoid spoiling the ending for those who haven’t read it, suffice it to say that something dreadful (which McCarthy doesn’t explain) happens between the protagonist and the antagonist in an outhouse. When a character opens the outhouse door, all he says is “Good God almighty.” His companion questions him, doesn’t get an answer, and “Then he opened the door and looked in.”
That’s it. The scene shifts to a saloon. We’re left to imagine what terrible thing has transpired, leaving the characters and the author both dumbstruck. In the face of wordlessness, our own monstrous images swarm into the dreadful void. McCarthy doesn’t leave the loathsome thing unspoken from lack of skill, nor from squeamishness–the book contains enough explicit descriptions of cruelty to disabuse a reader of that idea. It’s a deliberate, artful omission, transfixing us with the idea of something so awful that witnesses, reader, and writer can’t name or describe it.
In passionate scenes–loving and fighting–stillness also sings. Unless you’re writing erotica, the reader is less interested in the lovers’ pubic plumbing than they are in what this coming-together says about the characters’ evolving relationship and how its consummation adds complications to the plot. The same thing goes for a fight scene. It’s not about itemizing every verbal barb or punch thrown. It’s about the combatants: what they’re fighting for/about, who they are (and how this changes after the altercation), and how this verbal or physical struggle snags up the story’s “works.”
Closing the bedroom door doesn’t have to be a prudish act. It’s hard to keep a love scene from devolving into either purple prose that makes the reader giggle (how much tumescence and wet roses can you stand, true believer?), or matter-of-fact detail that puts off rather than turns on. Pick out the details that speak to the characters’ personalities, unfolding relationship, and overall story arc and let the reader pull off the covers in their imagination.
At risk of wandering off into another topic for another time, also consider taking the scene in an unexpected direction. Maybe what starts as a love scene becomes a misunderstanding that ends in simmering silence rather than blissful fulfillment. Or the reverse: what starts out as a disagreement ends up with the characters in the sack, and regretting it afterwards. More simmering silence.
And finally, all but the simplest, most plot-driven stories involve some subtle undercurrent, a theme that’s best articulated through gestures and hints, not overt telling. The undercurrent comes welling up during the “Big Reveal”: the moment near the end where the mystery’s solved, the devastating secret breaks out into the open, the protagonist faces their sovereign challenge… Whatever form it takes, the protagonist stands on the edge of their personal abyss and jumps in, taking the reader down with them into the great unknown. This personal “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” can lead not just the character but also the reader face-to-face with the Ultimate, terror, ecstasy, and all (All?).
This moment to crown all moments transcends words. Words can render it trite and saccharine. There’s a reason why, in many languages and religious traditions, the words “sacred,” “holy,” and “awesome” convey both beauty and terror, things held separate and apart because they are both astonishing and forbidden.
Stories that outlast their time bring us down, or up, into this territory, and hence to our knees. There is no other right and proper response to life’s final mysteries.
The rest is silence.
Hmm, wonder what’s at the Portland Airport’s pet relief area? Say no more!