Saturday, 31 December 2016

Motivating heroes and villains

Every major character in your story should have an agenda, a reason for what they do. Technically, every character should have a reason for their actions, but it’s not necessary to present a compelling reason for why the merchant at the corner sells the hero an apple. Although - perhaps the merchant has lost his own son, because the boy was on a quest and ran out of food, so he sold everything, bought a magic cart, and is now always travelling to where a hero needs something to eat. (Good idea for a story, actually.)

Motivation for the hero and the villain (or the protagonist and the antagonist, if you want to put it less extremely) is especially important, though. A story needs tension and that tension usually is created, because both the protagonist and the antagonist have an agenda and neither of them can complete it if the other one does. Two examples:
In my post about violence, I mentioned the hero who got beaten up by the men of his possible girlfriend’s father, who happens to be a mob boss. In this case, the nameless hero I mentioned is, of course, the protagonist, and the mob boss is the antagonist. The hero wants to be with the woman he loves, that’s his agenda. The mob boss, for reasons of his own, doesn’t want them to be together. Perhaps the hero is a goody-two-shoes or a police officer or the mob boss wants his daughter to marry one of his lieutenants, so that man can become his successor one day. Obviously, both men can’t complete their agenda at the same time here.
In the manga and anime series “Cat’s Eye,” the protagonists are three sisters who steal pieces of art which once belonged to their father, because they believe once they have the collection together again, they will be able to find their father - or find out what happened to him, at any rate. (With heist stories as a such, you should give a better reason than ‘to get rich quickly’ for the crimes committed.) The antagonists are the police inspectors who are tasked with finding cat burglar ‘Cat’s Eye.’ To complicate matters, the middle sister (who usually does the breaking in) is in a love relationship with one of the police inspectors on the trio’s trail. He wants to catch the thieves before asking her to marry him - making it a clear lose-lose situation. If he catches the trio, his love interest will go to jail. If he doesn’t catch the trio (as the audience hopes, because the sisters are very nice people), they will never get married. Of course, ‘staying free and finding their father’ and ‘catching the thieves’ also are two opposite outcomes which can never occur at the same time.

What kind of motivation the protagonist and the antagonist have, is up to your story and to the genre you’re working in. In a romance story, both might have the same love interest and only one can win. In a mystery story, the protagonist wants to solve the crime and the antagonist wants for it to remain unsolved. In a superhero story, the hero wants for mankind to be free and the villain wants to rule the world. (The truth is mankind craves submission, of course, since Loki is always right.)

It’s in the nature of the story that the hero will win in the end - although the victory might be a pyrrhic one. The villain’s plans will be thwarted and everything will be well - at least for a little time. Still, the motivation and agenda for the antagonist need to be as well-rounded and understandable as those of the protagonist. The audience doesn’t need to agree with the antagonist, but they need to be able to understand why they do what they do.

Usually, the antagonist wields more power throughout the story, too. In our examples above, the mob boss has his organisation which is at his beck and call. The police inspectors have the whole police force behind them, they can put a hundred police officers on guard around a piece of art the trio wants to steal. The protagonist is a protagonist, because they overcome the challenge which comes with the unbalanced power. They come through despite how much power the other side wields. In a romance story, the protagonist might be closer to the love interest’s heart, but the antagonist might be the one chosen for the love interest by their family. In a mystery story, the protagonist might be the single P.I. who tries his best to see through the case while the antagonist has money and influence to keep the police from looking at things or even have them harass the protagonist. The supervillain in the comic has a whole organisation and strong powers, whereas the hero has just received their powers, has no allies, and has no experience with that kind of life. Think Death Star vs. X-Wing fighter.

The motivation doesn’t have to be visible from the beginning, though. Often, it will be a good idea to keep it hidden from the audience for a bit - especially the motivation and agenda of the antagonist. Perhaps your protagonist doesn’t really know what they want at the beginning, perhaps they just want to live in peace instead of going on a long, dangerous quest for little recompense. Part of the hero’s journey is to understand why they need to be heroic. Perhaps the antagonist will appear helpful and supportive at the beginning and the audience and the protagonist only realize slowly that they are led astray that way.

There’s a lot of motivation needed to write a story. Most of it is needed by the writer who has to spend hours upon hours typing in the words, but the characters do need quite a bit of it, too.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016


I have decided to suspend my post for this week (which would have been about motivation and will be out around New Year) and go into a few details of two series I binge-watched the last few days. The first one is the second season of “Penny Dreadful” and the second one is the second season of “Black Butler.”

At first glance, they don’t have much in common, the first series is horror-themed and works with real actors and scenes, the second one is an anime series which has horror themes, but usually leans more towards action and humour. Both, however, left off at the first season with interesting premises for the second one. “Penny Dreadful” set up some topics (with the massacre at the inn and the preparations to raise Brona from the dead), “Black Butler” could have ended entirely (since the contract between Ciel and Sebastian was fulfilled).

The second season of “Penny Dreadful” enhanced the thematic of Vanessa Ives being sought after as carrier of the apocalypse. In the first season, a vampire master wanted her, so he could rule, in the second season, someone else seeks her out for the same reason. Thankfully, Vanessa doesn’t turn into a damsel in distress in the second season, either, facing the one after her in the end and defeating him. It’s a nice stroke, however, to see her hunted by female characters this time, by a coven of ageless black witches. At the same time, Victor Frankenstein succeeds at making a mate for his first creature, but things do not go as planned. Sir Malcolm finds it impossible to reconcile with his wife, but at the same time is not going to end the marriage - to preserve her reputation much more than his own. Ethan Chandler has to deal with the fallout of the full moon and is still hunted by one of the Pinkerton men who caught up with him at the end of season one.
New things come to light. The audience learns Vanessa is a trained witch herself, trained by a former member of the coven after her who never turned from the light. She gave Vanessa a chance against the witches which have been after her for a long time, but lost her life to her former ‘sister.’ It is her end which, ultimately, will push Vanessa towards darkness and will give her equal footing against her enemies.
We hear more about Ethan’s past and see his werewolf form as well. He was a soldier who killed more than his fair share of Indians (which makes it very likely he was cursed by one of them). He is unable to control himself in his wolf form and unaware of most he does. He wakes up to carnage, he never chooses to do it willingly. We also learn his real name is Ethan Talbot.
Victor’s creatures are like night and day - the outwardly ugly and scaring monster calling himself John Clay and the outwardly beautiful woman now called Lily Frankenstein. While John Clay is ugly, he has the soul of a poet. Lily is outwardly beautiful, at least as long as clothing covers the scars on her body which were necessary during the preparations to raise her again, but she is filled with hatred for mankind and her creator.
We are introduced to the darkness inside Dorian Gray which also kindles the darkness inside Lily/Brona. In the first season, he met Brona and didn’t care for the disease she carried. He didn’t have reason to, since his body can’t decay and die. He also was the one who pushed Vanessa back into being possessed by a demon, a state which took a full episode to heal. In the second season, he proves to be more than just a seducer. When his latest companion Angelique (who would qualify as transgender these days, being a man who feels like a woman) discovers his secret, he kills him without the slightest feeling of guilt.
In Lily, he meets an equal spirit, just as ready to kill and discard. At first, Lily, bereft of her memories of her past life, seems winsome enough and both Clay and Frankenstein are enamoured by her, which sets them up against each other. Lily, however, finds herself more and more in control of her fate, unlike in the past. When Clay finally loses patience and comes to claim her, she wipes the floor with him and tells him in no uncertain terms that she will never again kneel to a man - she will make men kneel. Right afterwards, she promises him what he wishes, but her vision of their future together are enough to show him she is not what he is looking for. She wants to destroy mankind in order to free space for their own brood (if they should be able to have children) and she wants to start with Victor Frankenstein himself.
John Clay has a bad time himself. Not only is he out of work at the beginning of the second season (since he was fired from the theatre where he worked as a scene shifter and general worker), he also seems to only fall for women who despise him. Both the blind daughter of his new employer, the owner of a waxworks, and his intended Lily do not find him the slightest bit interesting - neither of them enjoys his poetic soul. One person does, though: Vanessa Ives whom he meets by chance while she works for charity. But Vanessa doesn’t want him to accompany her to a desolate waste far from others. Not because she doesn’t like him, rather because she does. Those around her get hurt and she doesn’t want him to hurt.
The second season makes a clearer cut than the first one did - the series could have ended here. Yet, there is another season to come.

The first season of “Black Butler” closed with a clear and definite end: Ciel’s wish for revenge was fulfilled, which means his soul now belongs to his butler, the devil Sebastian, who was about to consume it. So why is Sebastian carrying around his young master in a suitcase at the beginning of season two? Because all of Ciel’s memories were robbed and without them, the soul is tasteless.
Season one set up devil against fallen angel, season two pits Sebastian against a fellow devil. The relationship between Sebastian and Ciel is mirrored in the relationship between Claude and Alois, but not really. Claude has four additional devils to help him, but it won’t make things easier for him. In the end, both devils are after the same goal: Ciel’s unusually pure soul. And both are going to lose, but in different ways.
Comic relief is present in the form of Grelle Sutcliffe again, the red-haired shinigami is still after Sebastian and ready to lend a hand (or a magical chainsaw) when necessary. Even though the season has very dark themes and a very well-layered plot, it also comes with a lot of interesting comical situations.
The end of the second season is more ambiguous than the end of the first was - things have fundamentally changed this time, which makes me curious about season three, which is still waiting on my desk.

Both series have a very well-designed plot. They deal well with their threads (though “Penny Dreadful” has more of those, because of a wider cast) and present enough twists and turns to keep things interesting.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Let's talk about sex

Okay, after violence, let’s talk about a second topic which can be hard to tackle: Sex. Yup, those three letters which make quite some people nervous, even today. Making love, stilling lust, getting it on. You know what I mean. If not, I suggest trying to Google it.
Like my post about violence last week, this is not about how you write sex scenes. It’s about when to use them and when not to. Like with the violence, you shouldn’t just add sex for the thrill of it, even though advertisements these days think they should do exactly that.

What kind of story needs a sex scene?
Not exactly the right question to ask. It’s obvious that an erotic story will have a sex scene - several, in all likeliness. Romantic stories these days usually have them as well. Other kinds of stories can have them - it’s an option, if it fits with the rest of the story. For YA stories, you should probably stay clear of that, though. You might suggest something, but not show it.

So I just put my characters in a room and get steamy with them?
Probably not, no. Unless you’re aiming for what fan fiction writers know as PWP (porn without plot), there has to be a reason for them to get steamy. The most obvious reason would be mutual love - or mutual lust, at any rate. There are, however, different reasons as well.
In a magical environment, sex could be part of a ritual. That’s not an invention, that is fact in several belief systems.
Especially a woman (in most types of society) can also use sex to gain information or entry into a specific area. In a society dominated by women, a man could try the same trick.
A dare could provide a reason for sex, too. As long as it’s consenting, there is no reason not to have a plot like that. If you want romance added, make them fall in love afterwards.
There are many more possible reasons. I’m sure, if you think about it for a while, you can come up with a list of your own.

How should they get steamy?
That’s pretty much up to what you want to write. The sex can be vanilla or kinky, can confirm to usual standards or be wild and special. If you want to use something you’re not familiar with (like BDSM, if you’re not in that subculture), familiarize yourself with it. The internet is full of information and you will definitely find someone ready to explain things to you.
Remember that erotica are not porn. Porn simplifies things far too much: women are always ready, men are always hard, every fall of a hat justifies having sex in twenty different positions.
Still, it usually pays off to be direct with the writing. Don’t try flowery language (unless you’re trying to copy an Edwardian love epos or something), come straight to the point. Name body parts the way they’re usually named in society. The readers should immediately know what it is about.
There’s no need to describe every little detail, but give the imagination some food, so the reader can create the scene in their own mind.
Make sure to show all people involved are having fun. Sex should be something positive (which is where consent comes in, too - avoid rape scenes or other non-consenting sex). That doesn’t mean you can’t have ‘hard’ sex, it means the people involved should all like that kind of sex.

Do I have to like it?
You should always like what you write, but you should at least be positive with the kind of sex you describe. You don’t have to practice it, but be informed about it and feel good with writing about it. The readers will realize it, if you abhor something and still write about it - and that’s not a good thing.

In short: create suitable circumstances for the sex scene, be informed about the kind of sex your characters have, show sex in a positive way, be blunt about it in writing - and don’t overdo it, but give the reader food for their imagination. Practice. Writing action of any kind well - in and out of bed - needs experience.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Use of Violence

“There she goes,” I hear you say, “telling us to write a story without any kind of fight or other violence. Completely politically correct and all that rot.”
No, she does not, as it were. For one thing, I think political correctness is a stupid concept, because most people want you to be like that when you have a real complaint or point they don’t want to hear. For another, without violence, there is no conflict in some stories. Without conflict, there’s no real story. The question I try to answer here is not “Do I need violence?” but “What kind of violence should I be using and how much?”

Recently, TV series and movies have made a lot of use of violence against women, mostly rape or other sexually charged violence. Why? It’s the easiest way these days to stir up people, to get the feminists rant about you, to get other people throw their own ideas in the mix, to be heard - to have cheap advertising for what you do.
Yes, there has always been violence against women in novels, TV series, or movies. In some cases, that violence was severe. There’s severe violence against women in the reality as well. There’s severe violence against men, too. For those who advertise being very realistic (and gritty, of course), that is reason enough to incorporate it. It’s hard to say whether the huge amount of violence on the big and the small screen is creating more violence in reality or the other way around. Or neither, which is an often overlooked possibility.

What place does violence have in a story?
It depends, of course, on the type of story you write. A romance has other needs than a mystery story or a thriller or a horror story. The latter three all need a certain amount of violence to work, either on- or off-screen.
Me, I write adventure stories, espionage stories. It’s a given my agent will sooner or later face enemies she needs to get rid of. I’ve introduced her as a woman who can fight, shoot, and has no scruples about killing. (My current project, “Death Dealer,” deals excessively with that part of her character.) It would be extremely bigoted of me to tell anyone not to use any violence at all. I’m not that much of a bigot, so I won’t do that.

What does that mean for a story?
Well, if you use violence in a story, there should be a reason for it. Don’t thrown in a scene about your hero getting beaten up just for the sake of violence. There are a lot of reasons it could have, depending on the type of story and the type of hero you use. Remember what I said about scenes last week - they should do one of their two jobs or both of them.
If your hero is in love with the daughter of a mobster, her father might send out some goons in order to beat the hero up and scare him off. In that case, violence creates a hurdle for the hero to jump, a way to prove his love is strong. If your hero is a genetically-engineered super soldier, she might get into a melee fight with a strange alien enemy and that enemy might reduce her to a heap of broken bones with a twisted spine - forcing her to become something else, to revaluate her life and find another way to defeat those aliens. In both cases, the violence has a reason for being there.

What about overused tropes?
There are a few overused tropes in storytelling and one which is overused and connected to violence is the idea that every strong woman is a rape survivor. Yes, surviving a rape can be a reason to become strong, to fight back. The same, however, goes for neglect, for abuse (non-sexual, like often being beaten by a parent) or trauma. Some survivors of those kinds of violence hide from the world. Some survive it and become strong. Some cast it aside and live on as well as they can. Rape is not the only kind of violence which can create a strong character. Yet, you find it used overly often when female strong characters are concerned. Training or natural inclination can also make for a strong ‘go-getter’ character, for a person who seen the problem and acts, keeps things moving, makes the uncomfortable choices. Those characters can be both male and female.

What about realistic outcomes?
There’s usually no need to realistically describing every outcome of a violent action. However, you should keep things realistic (unless a sci-fi or horror or fantasy setting gives you a good reason not to).
For instance, it’s usually better not to dig out the bullet from a shot with a knife right there and then (and better to leave an arrow or crossbow bolt in, too). You stand a bigger chance to survive such an injury, if the object stays stuck, because it will block the blood from flowing out, thus preventing you from bleeding to death.
In the heat of a fight, especially when there’s a lot of adrenaline involved, chances are smaller injuries won’t be noticed and bigger ones (if not incapacitating) won’t stop the injured person. After the fight, though, there’s a price to pay for fighting with several bullets or broken bones in your body. I gave Jane the berserk, the ability to turn off fear and pain completely, but I also made it clear from the beginning that she is paying for that, by being forced to constantly control the berserk (the rage, as she calls it) and by having all the pain from injuries crashing down on her once she’s out of that state again. Always remember the payoff, that might be even more important than ‘keeping it real’ with injuries all the time.

What about things like torture?
First off, torture usually doesn’t work. You will get information out of most people eventually, when the pain becomes too strong, but what you get usually is what you want to hear (or what the victim thinks you want to hear) and not necessarily what is true. It’s not a moral decision not to break your prisoner’s bones and rip off his flesh to have him spill the beans - it’s a question of pragmatic approaches. Using psychological means usually is more effective. If your hero tortures someone for information, you can use that to your advantage and have him act on information only to find out its wrong.
But what if you have a villain and that villain wants to torture someone? If it fits with your story, go ahead and torture someone. You can find a lot of information online or in history books about the middle ages and the witch hunts. Also look up the inquisition. You will notice that there’s usually an escalation, starting with scaring people (by showing them torture implements), using milder means (like whipping), and escalating to the point of dislocating joints and breaking bones. In the case of the witch hunts, quite some tortures were tailored to the female body, too. Few people have managed not to ‘admit’ to whatever crime they were accused of. In case of witch trials in Europe, that could save their lives (if even torture doesn’t get a person to admit being a witch, God must protect her and she must be innocent). That didn’t necessarily make for a good life afterwards (given the limited medical means), but you can incorporate something like that, too.
At any rate, especially when the villain is torturing the hero, you shouldn’t overdo it. The human body can take a lot of punishment, but in most cases, you will want your hero to survive without lasting damage - unless the damage is an important part of the story, making the hero rearranging his life.

What about violence especially against women?
Difficult question, because that encompasses a lot. As with all other examples up there, it depends on your story. Does your story need it? What does it need? Do you want your female lead in an abusive relationship? Do you want her to live in a world where violence against everyone is common? Do you want her threatened (perhaps with sexual undertones) by the villain for some reason (perhaps a better one than the usual ‘damsel in distress’ trope)?
The quick answer is always the same: if it is necessary for the story, incorporate it. The longer answer is: for general violence, ask yourself whether you’d write a similar scene with the genders exchanged. Would a female villain threaten a male hero the same way? Would a man living in the same world be as much in danger from violence and would it be a similar type?
When it comes to more ‘personal’ violence like it happens in an abusive relationship, then ask yourself what kind of outcome you present to the audience. Does the female lead break away from it? Does she realize it’s not a healthy relationship? Or does she find excuses for everything and ‘stand by her man,’ because that is how you do it? Do you present the relationship in a way that tells people it’s not okay, even if the female lead doesn’t understand it? If you show an abusive relationship in your story, something has to happen about it. You can’t just present it at some point and not get back to it at all.

Don’t treat violence, whether against a man or against a woman, too lightly. Don’t be too casual about it. Incorporate it where it is necessary, but don’t just use it for thrills, for show. Don’t use it just as a cheap way to get talked about. And don’t present it without any consequences. Violence always has consequences and one thing the hero must decide about is whether the goal he uses the violence for is worth the consequences it causes. The villain must be aware of the consequences, too, even though he or she might be more cavalier about them, being the ‘bad one’ in the story. Think about words like ‘collateral’ or ‘minor victims’ or ‘friendly fire.’ (Or ‘friendly stabbing,’ my personal favourite.)

Use violence in your stories where it fits, but never just to have it in there. Same goes for sex, but that is another story entirely.