Tag Archives: character motivation

How to Make Setting Striking to All and Personal to One

7 Jun

Julia Fierro’s novel The Gypsy Moth Summer is one of the most anticipated books of the summer.

Some stories are blessed with great settings, such as shadowy mansions with secret gardens and skeletons in the closets. This is a description of many great novels and also a brand new one: The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro. One of the things she does so well in the book is play up this great location. But it’s not enough to make a mansion very very shadowy and its gardens very very secret. A novel must also personalize the setting so that its importance becomes acutely attached to one character in particular. That attachment is often what will drive the story forward, and it’s the case in The Gypsy Moth Summer.

You can read an excerpt of the novel here.

How the Novel Works

The novel follows Leslie Day Marshall as she returns to her home off the coast of Long Island, bringing her African-American husband, Jules, and their children. Leslie’s the daughter of the most prominent family on an island full of them, and so we’re quickly introduced to their estate, as seen through the eyes of Jules:

He had no language to describe the Castle then. It took a few days for the archaic terms he had studied in required architectural courses at Harvard to return to him. Turrets and finials and gables. But studying glossy photos in a textbook was nothing like the real thing. Of course Leslie’s parents had named it The Castle. It was the stuff of fairy tales, a white marble palace rising out of the trees, built to protect a royal clan from marauding villagers, raping and pillaging hordes. From war. From the undesirables—what his pops had called the kids in their hood who spent their days slinging dope, lounging on stoops like the sun had melted them there.

These are the details that are supposed to impress pretty much any reader. It’s literally a castle, but it’s also something out of a fairy tale. The house is not just big and fancy; it’s the stuff of legend. A couple of paragraphs later, we learn that the doors weigh a ton each and also that the house is a literal copy of a French castle and resort.

But you can also see the novel beginning to personalize it, with the way that Jules connects the word undesirables to his own background. The novel continues on in that direction:

If there had been a chance left for him to hate the island, to refuse Leslie’s and Brooks’s demands that they move, it died when Jules entered the maze that led to the Castle’s gardens. Leslie, not one to keep anything under wraps, had managed to keep it a surprise, and as Jules ran into the maze, ignoring Leslie’s cries, “Wait, you’ll get lose! You need the directions!” there was nothing he wanted more than to lose himself between the tall (at least eight or nine feet, he guessed) fragrant corridors. It was his personal amusement park—the funny mirror glass replaced with living, breathing, CO2-releasing walls.

We later learn that even the word fragrant is personal. The corridors are formed from boxwood, which “smelled like cat piss,” a scent that Jules is unusual in loving.

This personal connection is important because it will give Jules a reason to stay when things go south—as they inevitably will. It’s a bit like the horror movies, where you scream, “Get out of there,” but the characters never leave. In this novel, Fierro has created an intense attachment that will keep Jules in the Castle, even after he should have gotten out of there.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make setting striking to all readers but personal to one character, using The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro as a model:

  1. Name your setting. Fierro names hers “The Castle.” Your name doesn’t actually need to appear in the story or be used by the characters, but it will help define the setting: the town, the farm, the yard, the school. When you’re able to think of the setting as a single entity or place, it’s easier to begin to give it a sensibility—a mood.
  2. Describe the setting in terms from some other story. All books are read in the context of other books that came before them. It’s why we can think in terms of genres and why a castle off the coast of Long Island is more than simply a great big house. Ezra Pound said to make it to new, and that’s all well and good, but you should also take advantage of the literary traditions that have shaped your reader. If you’ve got a castle, make it more than a big house. So, find some counterpart for your setting in another story—not just old ones like fairy tales but anything people might be familiar with. For example, a small house could be described in terms appropriate to the submarine in Das Boot. As soon as you tap into the connotations and memories that readers have retained from that other story, your own setting takes on a life that is, to some extent, larger than the page its written on.
  3. Connect the setting so one particular character. This can be a literal connection (I, too, once lived in a castle). Or it can be primarily in the character’s head, as it is with Jules, who connects what the castle seems to keep out with the undesirables of his own youth. This connection doesn’t need to be belabored. It’s simply a bridge to connect setting and character beyond mere presence (I’m in a castle). Try using this basic phrase: “The place reminded him/her/me of ____.”
  4. Deepen the connection. Jules sees the garden, and even without knowing much about him, we can already sense that the guy’s got a serious thing for nature and landscaping. So, give your character an “Oh my god” moment, as in “Oh, my god, did you see this ___?” The ____ should be something more remarkable to that character than to the others around him or her. Then, keep going. Focus on some particular aspect of the ____ (like the boxwoods) and make the character respond to it differently than the other characters. This might seem forced at first, but play with it. Dig into the idiosyncrasies of your character or the things in his/her background not shared by anyone else—or simply the weird stuff he or she likes. Use those traits to make the connection with the place intensely personal to that character.

The goal is to set up plot points later in the story by strengthening the connection between one particular character and the story’s setting.

Good luck.

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How to Create Desire with Opportunity

2 May

Maria Pinto’s story “Love Song of a Femme Fatale on Scholarship” appears in the Winter 2017 issue of Flapperhouse.

When I was a kid, my dad once claimed that if you left your car running while you ran into a store, it would be your fault if someone stole the car. It was an attractive nuisance, he said, a phrase that is usually applied to things that might prove both tempting and dangerous to children, like trampolines and pools. I’ve been skeptical of my dad’s claim for years, but sure enough, a Google search for “attractive nuisance laws” pulled up this stat: According to a study by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, from 2012-2014, 126,603 vehicles were reported stolen with the keys left in the vehicle. Did the people who owned those cars get blamed for their theft? I don’t know. But the principle is a great one for writers to keep in mind. Instead of asking why a character has a particular desire, it’s sometimes better to simply put a desirable thing in front of them.

Maria Pinto does exactly that in the first paragraph of her flash short story, “Love Song of a Femme Fatale on Scholarship.” It was published in the Winter 2017 issue of Flapperhouse, and you can read it online here.

How the Story Works

Here is the story’s first paragraph:

Something about seeing teacher on the bus, under the yellow light, the ridges of his brown corduroys flaccid, the finger upon which she’d always assumed she would find a gold band if she bothered to look, how the finger tapped at his bony knee, something about the way the finger had a gold band-shaped stripe on it, the stripe pale, a little indented, the way the knuckle hairs had a practiced wither there, how the stripe rendered him vulnerable as a midair-poised ass, hot, pink from slapping, something about all these things taken together made her want to push the moment, to fuck him. She did not interrogate why. She was a freshman; there was only the urgent press of do, do, do.

Notice how vague the rationale for the desire is: “Something about seeing teacher on the bus.” The character can’t really explain her attraction to her teacher; she just knows that she can’t take her eyes off of him. Nothing about the scene or the man is even particularly attractive: the yellow light, his flaccid pants, his bony knee and hairy knuckles. And yet the woman begins to fantasize about having sex with him. Why?

The answer is, mostly, because he’s there to fantasize about: “the finger upon which she’d always assumed she would find a gold band” turns out to have “a gold band-shaped stripe on it.” Her teacher was married, but now he isn’t. Which means he’s available. And that is all the woman needs to fire up her fantasies—and also basic human nature, “the urgent press of dododo.”

It’s almost identical to a moment in the most recent episode of Veep. A character walks into a hotel hallway, sees a half-eaten room-service sandwich on a tray in the hall, and takes a bite. Why? Because he’s hungry? Maybe. Or maybe he does it because that’s what you do with sandwiches. It’s an attractive nuisance, just like the college instructor with his empty ring finger. Further explanation is not required.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create an attractive nuisance, using “Love Song of a Femme Fatale on Scholarship” by Maria Pinto as a model:

  1. Identify the aspect of human nature at work. Pinto uses sexuality—people want and need to have sex—but that’s not the only aspect available to writers. To find them, think about the advertisements we see on television, almost all of which appeal to basic human nature: fast food, big trucks, fast cars, cars that sense danger before you do, smiling families, partners who hold your hand as you walk toward a hand-carved wooden hot tub on a cliff overlooking a beach, pharmaceuticals that make you well again. We don’t want these things for logical reasons; we want them because of something deep and essential to our being. Pinto begins her story with “Something about…” Find that something for your character. It’s a broad exercise, but if you can narrow the essential desire down to, say, safety rather than sex, then you’ve got a start.
  2. Create the attractive nuisance. Put something in front of your desiring character. The thing doesn’t even need to be particularly great. Fast food is a good example. It’s disgusting and makes me feel sick afterward, but if I’m in riding in a car that goes through a drive-thru, you’d better believe I’m ordering a value meal. The man that Pinto puts in front of her character isn’t desirable, but he’s there, and so she desires him. In fact, the story is more interesting because he isn’t attractive. If we felt sure that an encounter between would go well, we wouldn’t want to know what happens next.
  3. Reaffirm human nature. If you’ve ever made a regrettable choice in life, someone (perhaps yourself) has asked you, “Why did you do it?” Pinto senses this question looming in the reader’s mind, and so she writes, “She was a freshman; there was only the urgent press of dododo.” In short, she’s made human nature a function of age. She’s created an excuse. Plenty of older people have sex with people they probably shouldn’t, too, but that’s not important. The excuse allows the story to move forward. So, give your character an excuse: she’s young, she hasn’t eaten in a few hours and her blood sugar is low, she just had a fight with her friend. The details of the excuse don’t really matter; what’s important is letting the character (and therefore the reader) off the hook.

The goal is to create story and plot by giving a character something that he or she cannot resist.

Good luck.

How to Give Your Characters a Kick in the Pants

21 Feb
Paige Schilt's memoir, Queer Rock Love, was called a "well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal" by Kirkus Reviews.

Paige Schilt’s memoir, Queer Rock Love, was called a “well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal” by Kirkus Reviews.

One of the hardest things to learn as a writer is that it’s boring to read about characters thinking. If thinking and realizing are the primary actions in a story, that story probably isn’t going to work. Even the most brilliant ideas need to be attached to drama—action, intrigue, conflict. On a practical level, this means that it can be a great exercise to start chapters or stories by giving your character a kick in the pants and forcing him or her to act, not just think.

Paige Schilt proves that this strategy works for nonfiction as well. Again and again, she starts chapters of her memoir Queer Rock Love with action. You can see how she does it here.

How the Memoir Works

The book is a love story featuring Schilt and her wife, Katy, an Austin rocker/therapist (a very Austin combination). Unlike many love stories, it begins with marriage, which means that the drama is found not in falling in love but in dealing with the obstacles that threaten to overwhelm love once it’s established. That said, this chapter comes early in the book, when Schilt is finishing up graduate school in Pennsylvania and still figuring out what it means to be the relationship. One of Katy’s friends decides to buy a house in Austin, but since Austin prices are quickly rising, the only place he can afford is a duplex—if someone splits it with him and lives in the other unit. He decides that Katy will be that person:

“And, because Katy and I had decided that we were married, that meant that I was meant to buy a house with Jim too. That night on the phone, Katy told me that she and Jim were going to look at a house in South Austin. “He says it just has this remarkable energy.” I rolled my eyes in the privacy of my Pennsylvania apartment, and Katy continued unaware. “He thinks we ought to buy it together. It’s a duplex, so we could live in the top and he could live in the bottom.”

“Hmm…” I said. In my heart I had decided to move back to Austin, but I hadn’t given much thought to where we would live. I was filled with dread at the prospect of telling everyone—my department chair, my mentors, and especially my parents—that I was quitting my job. Through six grueling years of grad school, life had seemed linear. If all went well, I would land a tenure track position and move up the ladder at regularly scheduled intervals. Now I felt like I was sailing over the edge of the known universe in a barrel. I wasn’t entirely sure if I would survive the journey. What did I care for the details of how we might live when (and if) I arrived?

A few nights later, Katy brought it up again. “You’re going to love it,” she said. “There’s something about it—it’s just got the greatest energy.” I tried to remain noncommittal, but suddenly Katy was talking mortgage lenders and down payments.

“But,” I objected, “I haven’t even met Jim! How can I buy a house with someone I’ve never met?”

My feeble sandbags were no match for the tidal wave of Katy’s enthusiasm. “You’re going to love him too,” she assured me. “He’s super smart, and he reads Lacan! I think you guys actually have a lot in common.”

Think about how this passage could have been written—and often is written in early drafts, especially in beginning writer workshops. The character/narrator would have agonized over what to do, perhaps while drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette, or looking out the window—actions that would have been meaningless filler. Schilt avoids that problem by giving the scene real drama and action (people buying a house) and, therefore, a meaningful choice to make. The same pondering that would have filled the alternative draft are still there, but now they’re made concrete with the duplex.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a character or narrator’s thoughts concrete, using Queer Rock Love by Paige Schilt as a model:

  1. Identify your character’s or narrator’s existential dilemma. For Schilt, that dilemma was about what it meant to be in a marriage—and in this marriage in particular. It’s a lot for any person or character to think about, which is great for drama. It’s what we often mean when we use the term stakes. So, what does your character or narrator (real or invented) worry or think about late at night, while driving, or while he or she ought to be focused on something else?
  2. Introduce a decision made by someone else. In this passage, Schilt does not suddenly get it into her head to buy a duplex. The idea doesn’t even start with her wife, Katy. Instead, it’s a third person who talks Katy into it, and then Katy goes to work on Schilt. This is important for two reasons. First, it takes some of the pressure off of the main character to be the focus of all the drama. The drama should affect the character/narrator, but it doesn’t need to be started by the character/narrator. Second, it creates a larger world for the story. Suddenly a character we haven’t even met yet is playing a crucial role, which means our sense of the place around the main characters grows. So, look beyond your main characters. Who are their friends, coworkers, family members, and acquaintances? What decisions are those people making that might impact the main characters? How and why would these side or minor characters try to include the main characters in their plans?
  3. Force the issue. Katy doesn’t raise the possibility of buying the duplex and then let it drop. She brings it up over and over again, each time applying greater pressure, moving from “you’re going to love it” to practical issues like mortgage payments. The duplex is becoming a reality, whether Schilt wants to engage with it or not. As a result, she must figure out her feelings about the big, existential issue because this more practical matter is coming to a head. How can your characters apply pressure, forcing your main character or narrator to make a decision, not just about the practical issue (whether to buy a duplex) but also about the larger existential issue, whatever it is for your character?

The goal is to move the story along, from though to action and, therefore, drama by forcing the issue. Important practical matters often require us to sort out our feelings about existential dilemmas.

Good luck.

How to End a Story

7 Feb
Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. His essays about the migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

The easiest part of writing any story ought to be finding the beginning, middle, and end. So why is it often so hard? And why does so much ride on making the right choices?

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has written one of the best story endings I’ve ever read in his nonfiction book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. The essays were originally published as dispatches in the Salvadoran online newspaper, El Faro, and translated in this collection from Verso Books. You can read the first chapter at Dazed.

How the Essay Works

Martínez tells stories about many different migrants in the book, and one of them is about a teenager named Saúl, who was born in El Salvador but raised in Los Angeles, where he joined the M18 gang. He was deported after robbing a convenience store. The problem was that he didn’t know anything about El Salvador—hadn’t been there since he was four years old—and so he started walking and searching for the man who was supposed to be his father:

And what happened to him is what happens to any kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing in Central America, who thinks any neighborhood is just any neighborhood. A group of thugs turned out of an alleyway and beat him straight to hell.

So, the beginning of the story is pretty simple. The thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, take Saúl to their leader, who, in turns out, is his father. Now, watch how Martínez sets up the story’s ending—and how he wraps it up:

“I’m Saúl,” Saúl said, breathless, “I just got deported. And, I swear it, I’m your son.”

The man, as Saúl recounted it to me on top of the hurtling train, opened his eyes as wide as possible. And then he exhaled, long and loud. And then a look of anger swept over his face. “I don’t have any kids, you punk,” his father said.

But in the days following, the man gave Saúl a gift. The only gift Saul would ever receive from his father. He publicly recognized him as his son, and so bestowed to him a single thread of life. “We’re not going to kill this punk,” Guerrero announced in front of Saúl and a few of his gang members. “We’re just going to give him the boot.” And then he turned to Saúl. “If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, you better believe me, I’m going to kill you myself.”

They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.

In short, a gang member has been captured by a rival gang in a foreign country, and it turns out the rival gang’s leader is his father. What incredible tension, right? And how does Martínez handle that tension? He could have given us a moment-by-moment account of arguments, beatings, and who stared down who. Instead he almost everything that happens: “But in the days following.” Why?

To answer that question, it’s useful to ask what those skipped moments could have added to the story. Saúl has already been beaten “straight to hell.” He’s already had a stunning encounter with his father (go back and look at how well the father’s shifting emotions are handled). Whatever comes next must advance this conflict. The problem is that you can’t advance severe beatings and familial rejection. More violence is just more of the same. So, when Martínez skips to the father’s pronouncement, he’s simply finding the moment where something new and different happens. The father changes his mind and doesn’t kill Saúl.

Sometimes condensing scenes—or a series of scenes—of high action actually increases the story’s tension. This is exactly what happens in that final paragraph, the story’s ending. It’d be tempting to describe what happens to Saúl in that other neighborhood minute-by-minute. But nothing Martínez could have written would have been better than the weird, surreal, stunning way that he summarizes the action: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

When closing out a story, sometimes one conflict-filled sentence is better than several less tense paragraphs.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a story ending by summarizing action and scenes, using the passage from Óscar Martínez’s The Beast as a model:

  1. Summarize the situation and how the character entered it. The point is to get into the story as quickly as possible. The summary should highlight factors that will appear later. If read the entire story from Martínez’s essay, you’ll see how he highlights Saúl’s gang membership and lack of knowledge about El Salvador. Then he skips past everything that happened to Saúl before he ran into the gang members who beat him up. So, you should focus on drawing the shape of the conflict: why your particular person/character is an especially bad match for the situation. (Bad matches in life make for good matches for stories.) Then, find the first significant action that results from that poor match.
  2. Make an outline of everything that happens next. Simply list all of the noteworthy moments from beginning to end. You don’t even need to use complete sentences. It’s an outline.
  3. Mark the moments of highest tension or action. They might be the most tense because of what information is revealed or because of the extremity of what happens.
  4. Are the remaining moments different or similar? Now that you know what your most tense moments are, you can begin carving away at the rest of the moments so that the best ones stand out. To do this, ask yourself if what is left is any different from those tense moments. If not, you can either cut them completely or group them together into a quick summary (a sentence or two) that sets up whatever tense moment comes next.
  5. Offer an escape valve in a sentence or two that restate the conflict. This strategy of summarizing and highlighting can be carried through until the very end. A great way to finish a story is by pivoting sharply. One way to do this is to restate or remind the reader of the conflict that you first presented at the beginning. You can do this with an actual reminder or by finding a moment that distills the conflict (“They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood.”) Then, offer an escape valve, a way to leave the conflict. Releases tend to be quick (think of a needle and a balloon). Once the reader knows an escape will occur, the writer’s work is mostly done. The tension has been broken. As a result, there’s no need to draw the release out. The quickest version is often the most interesting, as Martínez illustrates: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

Good luck!

How to Give the Ending Away Without the Reader Knowing

31 Jan
Shannon Perri's story "The Resurrection Act" was published in Joyland.

Shannon Perri’s story “The Resurrection Act” was published in Joyland.

The best endings feel both surprising and inevitable at the same time, but in early drafts of stories, we tend to focus on one or the other: surprising or inevitable. We throw in a crazy twist, shocking readers but making them feel as if we were holding something back. Or, we set things too clearly and neatly so that the ending feels like a letdown. We need to do both, which requires showing readers the elements of the twist or final drama without them knowing recognizing what they’re seeing.

This is what Shannon Perri does in her story, “The Resurrection Act.” It was published at Joyland, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a locksmith who performs as an amateur magician at night. As the story begins, the first thing we’re shown are keys:

Earl set the keys to the ash-colored minivan on the motel room’s nightstand. He moved the keys to the desk made of fiberboard, and then proceeded to place them on the dresser near the door, with a prominent jingle.

It’s a weird detail to focus on right away, but we see him focusing on other small objects not long after:

He’d never performed for more than fifteen people, and he was told this audience could be upwards of a hundred. Clipped to his lapel, he felt the weight of his gold American Magician Association pin. A glossy picture of his wife in a red sweater from when they first met hid in his pocket, along with a lock pick.

We eventually learn that the trick he will perform for this unusually large crowd is an escape act. He will be handcuffed and buried alive in a coffin. Naturally, the story returns to the pick:

He slipped his fingers into his pocket and felt around for the lock pick. His fingers frantically searched around the waxy photograph of his wife, which felt strangely sticky, but the lock pick wasn’t there.

We’re shown the pick again, but I won’t tell you how because it would ruin the story and the ending. Their exact whereabouts is pretty dramatic. I also didn’t see it coming (but I also had no idea what would happen in The Sixth Sense). But even if I was blindsided, I was able to go back and see where I’ should have seen it coming. We literally see the lock pick before it’s important. And we know that he’s a locksmith. And the beginning starts with keys and his concern in where they’re placed. The keys are thematic, which is useful, setting the stage for what is to come. That thematic move works because it’s tied so closely to character and an impulse we all understand very well: not wanting to misplace our keys. Through practical strategies, Perri sets up a killer ending.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s lay the groundwork for a great ending, using “The Resurrection Act” by Shannon Perri as a model:

  1. Know your ending. This exercise works best if you know where your story is going. For some writers, that’s easy. They know right away. Other writers don’t know the ending until they write it at the very end of the final draft. If you’re the latter, go walk your dog or rake some leave. (I live in Texas, and we rake leaves in January.) But if you have some sense for where the story is headed, write it down. Be clear. What particular items are involved in the ending? Anton Chekhov wrote that a gun on the wall in the first act must go off by the third. This applies to all explosive elements in endings. What proves to be important?
  2. Show readers that element early on. Be practical about it. If it’s present at the end, it’s probably present earlier. Let us readers see it—sitting on a table or in a pocket. Show it in the most benign way, just something that’s present because it’s required.
  3. Connect an emotion to that element. Now, you’re hinting to the reader why the detail is important. Earl obviously cares a great deal about the lock. One, he’s a locksmith. Two, he can feel it in his pocket. Notice how both of these elements create an emotional attachment to the object. It’s part of his professional gear, and his mind is drawn to it, even when it’s thinking about other things. How can you show both a professional or practical need for your object and a kind of obsession with it?
  4. Hint at it thematically. Earl doesn’t use keys to open his cuffs, but keys serve as a pretty clear metaphor. What objects might your character be attracted to because they serve a similar purpose (literally or in the character’s mind) as the object you’ve chosen? Force your character to interact with that object.

The goal is to set up an ending by showing readers objects that are part of it before they’re relevant. You can do this both practically and thematically.

Good luck.

How to Ground Your Villains

17 Jan
Steph Post's crime novel, Lightwood, tells the story of a released convict who, upon his release, must face his powerful family, a vicious Pentecostal con artist, and a biker gang.

Steph Post’s crime novel, Lightwood, tells the story of a released convict who, upon his release, must face his powerful family, a vicious Pentecostal con artist, and a biker gang.

My 7-year-old is obsessed with Percy Jackson and the stories of the Greek gods and heroes, which means that I’ve gotten obsessed as well. One thing you quickly learn—or relearn, as the case may be—about these stories is that the villains are often far more memorable than the heroes. I’m willing to bet that almost everyone knows about Medusa and the Minotaur but not the guys who killed them. In both cases, the heroes had their own interesting, compelling backgrounds, but they became memorialized because of the monsters they played. The villains defined the greatness of the heroes. This continues to be true, which is why the best and greatest character in Star Wars was—and continues to be—Darth Vader, not Luke Skywalker.

Lightwood, the new crime novel by Steph Post, continues in the tradition of creating great, memorable villains. You can be introduced to her in the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

If we use Medusa and the Minotaur as models for villains, we discover a couple of essential qualities that villains possess. First, their very identity is memorable. We all know that Medusa had snakes for hair and that looking at her would turn you to stone. We also all know that the Minotaur was half man, half bull. You cannot overstate the importance of catchy, easily-described characteristics. It’s true of pretty much every great villain, but cool details aren’t enough on their own.

You also need a backstory, even if that backstory isn’t known yet or ever learned. For example, Darth Vader looks cool (check), but we don’t ever learn his complete backstory in the original three films—but we’re given glimpses at it: the fact that he once studied under Obi-Wan Kenobi, that he turned to the Dark Side, and that he’s Luke’s father. The same is true of Medusa and the Minotaur. Medusa started out beautiful but made the mistake of ticking off the wrong god, and her punishment was to be transformed into a monster. The Minotaur was the result of god-induced royal bestiality and then was trained to be a killing machine the way that some people train dogs to fight. These backstories matter because they ground the villain in the world of the story. Without them, you get stories like the ones I used to tell in third grade. Ninjas or aliens were always showing up, no matter the world or story, because they were cool. The problem was that they didn’t make any sense in the stories where they appeared. So, it’s crucial to ground the character in the narrative world.

Post does both of these things with her villain. We’re introduced to Sister Tulah in the first chapter. We find her standing outside her Pentecostal church, staring at the sky and listening to her followers sing as she waits to make her grand entrance:

Sister Tulah took one last look up at the black, gaping vastness overhead and decided that if she was ready, God must be also. She straightened the lace collar on her long, flower print dress and smoothed back her hair, once dishwater blond, but now a sharp steel gray, making sure that it was pinned in all the right places. She rubbed her pudgy, age-spotted hands together and then licked her lips before pursing them tightly together. Without turning to look over her shoulder at the awaiting sliver of light, Sister Tulah replied. “It’s time.”

We don’t yet know that she’s one of the novel’s villains, but I suspect that most readers will sense that she is. Why? Because she’s a tough woman preacher with great descriptive lines (“pudgy, age-spotted hands”) who clearly wields a lot of power. Though we sense that we’ll learn some unsavory things about her, we don’t actually see them yet. Instead, we see her as a part of the world: working class, rough-and-tumble Florida, a place with bars and ex-cons and motorcycles and Pentecostal churches. She becomes an even greater villain because we buy into her existence in the first place.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s ground a villain, using Lightwood by Steph Post as a model:

  1. Give the villain cool details. Go crazy with it. The Greeks gave a woman snakes for hair and a guy a bull head and torso, and those stories have lasted for a few thousand years, so it’s safe to say that subtlety is not necessarily a virtue when it comes to villains. The same goes for more realistic stories. The best character in the TV show The Wire was Omar, the whistling, shotgun-wielding Robin Hood of drug corners in Baltimore. Release your inner third grader. To do so, you might try two different strategies. First, take a normal character and add something weird: snake hair or an unusual weapon or weird habit. Second, start with the wild detail and attach it to a realistic motivation and behavior. Before we learn why Darth Vader wears the cool suit, we see him wanting something simple (to capture the droids and the plans to his weapon) and behaving in understandable ways (getting frustrated in a meeting and choking a guy to death).
  2. Give the character a backstory. In short, how did Medusa, the Minotaur, and Darth Vader become the characters they are? For all three, there was a transformation. They weren’t always evil monsters—or, their evil and monstrosity was not always their dominant feature. What happened to your character and transformed him or her?
  3. Locate that backstory in your fictional world. Think about the character pre-transformation. What was he or she doing before things got wild? Or, find a moment post-transformation when the character is just living life, not being evil—or, at least, not immediately evil. This is the approach used by Post. We don’t yet know Sister Tulah’s backstory, but we see her standing outside her church while her flock sings. It’s a moment portrayed as part of the Florida landscape. How can you make your villain part of your story’s fictional landscape? Which details about the villain are noteworthy or possible only in your particular setting?

The goal is both to create a memorable villain and make readers buy into the villain’s existence.

Good luck.

How to Figure Out What Really Drives a Character to Act

1 Nov
Hasanthika Sirisena's collection, The Other One, won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction.

Hasanthika Sirisena’s collection, The Other One, won the 2015 Juniper Prize for Fiction.

When you begin a novel, it’s easy to find a detail that pulls you into a character or plot line, and then another detail, and then another, and then one day you look at the accumulated pages and think, “What is this?” One response to this question is to create an outline, a big-picture snapshot of what’s in a novel and where it’s going. The problem, of course, is that outlines don’t create order; they only reveal what’s already there. Figuring out plot and character and what happens next is still the writer’s job. There are no shortcuts, except for maybe this one.

If you can identify a single, driving impulse in a character—a fundamental need that colors every aspect of his or her behavior—then sometimes a story will snap into focus. Hasanthika Sirisena does exactly that in her story, “Ismail.” It’s included in her new collection The Other One and was originally published at Narrative Magazine, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Ismael is the story’s narrator, and his story begins like this:

How to explain why my brother Harry and I stood in my best friend Abdul’s backyard at two in the morning carrying five large Mason jars filled with milk and turkey parts we’d bought at Fairway?

From the first line, we know the characters’ motivations will be complicated. Abdul is Ismael’s best friend, and we soon learn that the Ismael’s brother Harry is in love with Abdul’s sister. And yet the two brothers are wrecking Abdul’s house. The situation, as the first line suggests, demands an explanation, a big Why? This ought to be easy, right? Ismael must have a good reason for an action that will have serious consequences. The writer simply needs to let the readers know what that reason is.

The problem is that Ismael is smart—perhaps not book smart, since he “nearly flunked tenth grade,” but he’s observant and self-aware and emotionally astute. These are all great traits for a narrator. (I’m a believer in making narrators as smart as their readers.) But it also presents a challenge that can be summed up in a line a lot of us heard as children: “How could someone so smart do something so stupid?” It’s a difficult question to answer. Any factual statement that starts with “Because So-and-so…” is likely to fall flat. Readers are like your skeptical parents. They have no time for thin excuses. But when we’re pressed to really explain ourselves, we often draw blanks. People rarely act rationally. Instead, we respond to deep-seated desires and urges and then rationalize the behavior that follows.

As writers, then, we need to identify our characters’ deep-seated urges. Here is how Sirisena does just that:

If you go long enough without something, sex, money, even love, you can get to the point you don’t need it. But if you suddenly have access to what’s missing, get it back in your life, then you’ll do whatever it takes to keep that thing. The thought of loss knocks you flat on the floor, your chest caved in, gasping for air.

For a time, that’s what knowing Abdul felt like. I’d been okay without him, but once we were friends I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to lose him. There were days that thought alone—the thought of that loss—left me knocked out on the floor, chest caved in, gasping for air.

Notice the imagery that ends the passage: “gasping for air.” It’s an image of suffocation or drowning, and as anyone who’s ever taken lifeguard training knows, a drowning person isn’t capable of rational responses. Instead, they thrash about and grab hold of whatever object presents itself. That’s the sort of deep-seated desire you’re after: a desire equal to the desire to not die.

Of course, you might be thinking that the lack of sex, money, and love are not the same as the threat of death. But here’s what’s important: the desire doesn’t need to literally be equivalent to dying. Nothing is. It just needs to feel like dying. For Ismail, losing a friend after not having had one feels like dying, and so when it happens, he thrashes about and latches onto whatever seems to keep him afloat: in this case, vengeance.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s find a character’s motivating, deep-seated desire, using “Ismail” by Hasanthika Sirisena as a model:

  1. Start with the action your character must defend. It’s not always the case that action is the best place to start, but it’s probably the place to begin thinking about character and often what draws a writer to a character in the first place. The character is going to do something drastic, with consequences, something that demands an explanation. What is that action? Don’t worry if it doesn’t yet make sense or seems out of character.
  2. Give the character figurative parents to defend it to. This can be as easy as posing this question to your character: Why did you do that? Let your character offer up a list of responses, and then swat them down, if possible, just as a parent would. The goal is to move beyond the easy, unsatisfying explanations until the point at which the figurative parent (you, the writer) can demand, “How can someone so smart do something so stupid?”
  3. Let the character do some soul searching. He might search his past for clues or his family or the other people who surround him: their values or fears. Think in terms of change: the dread, based on experience, that something will change and wreck everything or that nothing will change and everything will remain the same. If you’re familiar with the canon of Western literature from, say, James Joyce to Richard Ford, the statements that results from this soul searching will feel an awful lot like an epiphany. Generally speaking, we’re skeptical of epiphanies now because they’ve been so overused, but that doesn’t mean they have disappeared from stories. The passage from “Ismail” could have been an epiphany except that it occurs in the first half of the story. What statement of causation (I acted because) can you draw from your character’s deepest fears or needs?
  4. Make the character defend the action to someone in the storyOne of the biggest mistakes writers make early on is doing everything I’ve just discussed—but doing it all inside a character’s head. Stories like these consist entirely of characters sitting and drinking/smoking and thinking big thoughts, which is boring. So, force the character to defend the action to some other character. Ismail, for example, must defend his actions to his brother. The defense matters, and the impact it has on their relationship matters. That’s where story and plot come from. Who is that other character in your story?

The goal is to figure out where a story is headed by better understanding what motivates a character to act in the first place.

Good luck.

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