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An Interview with Jennifer Ziegler

5 Jun
Jennifer Ziegler's new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, has X

In Jennifer Ziegler’s new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, three flowers girls set out to ruin their sister’s wedding.

Jennifer Ziegler’s latest middle-grade novel is Revenge of the Flower Girls. She’s also the author of How Not to Be Popular and Sass & Serendipity. She teaches writing workshops, edits other writers’ work, and creates writing programs for The Writer’s League of Texas. She lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, the writer Chris Barton, and their four children.

In this interview, Ziegler discusses inventing characters, the importance of villains, and her method for keeping the plot straight in her head.

To read an excerpt from Revenge of the Flower Girls and an exercise on creating villains, click here.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in how you invent characters. Some of the characters in the book, especially Mrs. Caldwell, exude a kind of essential Texan-ness. Her last name is even a famous Texas name. But other characters are much more idiosyncratic. For instance, you describe Aunt Jane this way: “She’s tall and strong. She played professional basketball for a while and then taught PE classes here in Blanco County. Now she lives in Boston, where she runs a bar.” What do you draw on to create your characters?

Jennifer Ziegler

The way I invent characters is a mystery even to me. I often feel that characters gestate in my mind for a long time until the right story concept comes along. How they get planted there, I don’t really know. I suspect that they are amalgams of people I know or used to know or observed from afar. They are never close replications of individuals from my life. Even when I’ve tried to put friends or family in my novels the characters based on them morph into their own distinct beings. At times I’m aware that I’m borrowing elements from real people (their mannerisms or looks or habits of speech), but more often I have no idea. There have been instances when I’ve flipped through a published book of mine and suddenly realized who a character was partly based on – subconsciously. That’s always a strange revelation. But I suppose all novelists can at least be partly psychoanalyzed through their fiction.

Michael Noll

There are several instances in the book where the triplets create a plan of action and describe it in detail—and then, of course, the plan goes off the rails. I know that you’re a thorough outliner of plot, and I’m curious how these sorts of plans factor into your outlining. From a reader’s perspective, they’re great at creating suspense. But are they useful to you as a writer as well?

Jennifer Ziegler

Yes very. The triplets’ schemes are integral to the book’s plot. I had to make sure I got everything straight before I started writing because logistics aren’t my strong suit. I like to disappear into the story as I go along and whenever I get yanked out of that world in order to work out the cause and effects, it slows down my momentum. I knew who the triplets were and what they wanted, so it was just a case of figuring out how they would approach this problem and what would be the outcome of each of their plans.

Knowing who they were told me what they would do. Because the girls are big history buffs, it made sense that they would brainstorm complicated operations – that they would be action oriented rather than just mope. But, of course, they are only 11, so their lack of worldly experience translated into somewhat unrealistic schemes. The plans show just how far the girls will go to help their sister, what they’re good at, how they assume the world works, and how they work together – so they also help reveal character.

Michael Noll

The novel features three narrators who are triplets. Each of them takes turns telling the story, which must have presented an enormous challenge to you as the writer: how to distinguish between them. One thing I noticed is that you give the triplets, and all of the characters, tags. For instance, the triplets are history buffs, and so they judge each other and everyone else based on their choice of favorite president of the United States. For instance, Darby mentions that their big sister’s ex-boyfriend liked Thomas Jefferson, and says, “We all respect that.” But the big sister’s fiancé likes Franklin Pierce, and she says that “we all agree that Pierce was not one of the best.” This reminds me of the way George Lucas used motifs in Star Wars: a particular musical phrase that corresponds with each character. Is this technique essential for the kind of story you’re telling, or is it something you use regardless of the story?

Jennifer Ziegler

I use it regardless of the story. It’s showing rather than telling. You, as storyteller, know so much more about the characters with regard to who they are and where they came from. The problem is, you can’t put it all in the book, and you don’t want to interrupt the action with big information dumps. So instead you impart key aspects of character through dialogue, action, description, and these nuggets of revealing information – or tags. The fact that Burton names Franklin Pierce as his favorite president tells the triplets (and the reader) that he either A) doesn’t know his presidential history or care about it or B) is judging by very different, perhaps very superficial, standards. Both possibilities are alarming to the triplets.

Michael Noll

The novel has a very clear villain. At every opportunity, Mrs. Caldwell does something unlikable. For instance, when the wedding menu is being planned, she refuses to include meat-free options for the bride, who is a vegetarian. She says, “Yes, but this wedding also includes a big strong boy who needs nourishment.” And, “Yes, but the meat eaters who will be attending the wedding will far outnumber the vegetarians.” Her lack of empathy or sense of compromise is pretty astonishing. How important is it to create a character like this—and to create moments where she can be bad?

Jennifer Ziegler

In this story it was critical that there be a clear antagonist. For one thing, the title sort of promises it, and for another, the mayhem created by the girls would be excessive and mean-spirited if there wasn’t a clear reason for it. The readers have to believe in their mission, too.

At the earliest concept stages, there was no mother-in-law character and I intended to make the groom the antagonist. But that didn’t work. It didn’t make sense that Lily – even if she was on the rebound – would fall for someone villainous. Burton isn’t a bad guy, he just isn’t the right guy. It’s clear to the sisters, and hopefully to readers, that Lily is about to make an awful mistake. But for them to go to such extremes and be thwarted meant there had to be some equal opposing force. Thus, the pushy Mrs. Caldwell was created. Her son is basically her whole life and she will stop at nothing to get what she wants for him. Plus, she is the type of woman who is used to getting her way. It is gradually revealed that she is meddling in her own fashion as much as the triplets are. The difference is that she’s trying to manipulate her vision of her son’s future regardless of what’s right for everyone involved. The girls, on the other hand, just want to make sure their sister is happy. I liked this juxtaposition.

June 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Create a Villain

3 Jun
Jennifer Ziegler's new middle-grade novel, Revenge of the Flower Girls, is set in the Texas Hill Country and features triplets as narrators.

Jennifer Ziegler’s new middle-grade novel, Revenge of the Flower Girls, is set in the Texas Hill Country and features triplets as narrators.

For a reader, one of the most satisfying parts of a novel is the presence of a villain. We want someone to root against—this is true for books as well as films, sports, politics, and often everyday life. And yet as writers (especially literary writers) we’re often reluctant to create characters of pure malicious intent. We have a tendency to attempt to view the situation from the villain’s point of view, if only briefly, if only to make the character a little bit redeemable. In real life, this is probably a virtue. But in fiction, it’s often necessary to behave worse than our real selves.

A great example of the appeal of a villain—and how to create one—can be found in Jennifer Ziegler’s new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls. You can read an excerpt from the novel here.

How the Story Works

The problem with creating villains is that the word usually makes us think of characters like Sauron from Lord of the Rings or Darth Vader—i.e. characters whose evil exists on a grand scale. Most stories simply don’t have room for that kind of character. Imagine dropping Darth Vader into the stands of a little league baseball game. In almost every scene I can imagine, the situation overwhelms the character. In other words, Darth Vader will not remain the dark Imperial lord but will instead inevitably become simply another cranky parent. So, the key to creating a villain is to find opportunities for villainy in your story’s particular circumstances.

Ziegler has created an occasion that often brings out a certain kind of villainy—a wedding. But rather than writing a bridezilla, which would be both predictable and understandable (wedding planning being slightly less than relaxing), she creates a character for whom things should be easy—the mother of the groom. In this scene, watch how she gives this character, Mrs. Caldwell, opportunities to play nice, to reach consensus, and then lets the character play the villain instead:

“Well, then,” said Mrs. Caldwell, dabbing at the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “I think it’s obvious that these meatballs would be best, along with some salmon-topped canapés and bacon sliders.”

“But…Lily doesn’t eat meat. She’s vegetarian,” Darby said, louder and more slowly than when she’d said it before.

“Yes, but Lily isn’t going to be the only person eating at the wedding,” Mrs. Caldwell said.

“Yes, but Lily is the bride,” Delaney said.

“Yes, but this wedding also includes a big strong boy who needs nourishment,” Mrs. Caldwell said.

Darby, Delaney, and I exchanged puzzled looks. “What big strong boy,” I asked.

“Why, Burton, of course.”

“Yes, but this is Lily’s house, and she needs nourishment, too,” I pointed out, my voice rising a little. “Burton can eat vegetables, but she can’t eat meat.”

“Yes, but the meat eaters who will be attending the wedding will far outnumber the vegetarians.”

Over and over again, the novel and the other characters give Mrs. Caldwell the opportunity to give in, even slightly, and not only does she refuse to do so but her refusal becomes pointedly selfish. Her villainy may be of a lesser scale than Sauron’s, but it breaks against so many commonly held conventions about civility that the reader roots against her. If a reader is wishing ill toward a character, then it’s probably fair to say that the character is the villain.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a villain and give him/her opportunities to act maliciously, using the passage from Jennifer Ziegler’s novel Revenge of the Flower Girls as a model:

  1. Create an occasion. Though villainy can happen in private (sabotage, vandalism, theft), the most dramatic forms tend to happen in public, in front of an audience. So, create an opportunity for people to come together. You can use an event (wedding, funeral, birthday party, holiday) or something more practical (meeting, dinner, classroom, workplace team). You should also flesh out the people or type of people who will be at the occasion.
  2. Create an opportunity for compromise. You’ve brought your people together. Now, make them come to a mutual decision about something. The decision can be mundane (what to eat, where to go, how to proceed). Anyone who’s ever sat through a meeting knows the frustration of dealing with somebody who obstructs for no good reason.
  3. Create the villain. Approach this from the character’s action, not personality or motive. So, don’t worry about why the character does the malicious thing. Just find the malicious thing and figure out motive later. In truth, motive isn’t that important. For instance, in Othello, we know that Iago is angry at being passed over for a promotion, but that’s really just a way to get the reader on board for the incredible, unexplainable evil that he causes. So, figure out how your character could obstruct the decision that’s being made. What contrary position could the character take? Or, how could the character delay the decision-making process?
  4. Give the villain chances to do right. Notice how Ziegler’s characters give Mrs. Caldwell plenty of rational reasons to abandon her position. They appeal to ethics (“Lily doesn’t eat meat”), authority and privilege (“Lily is the bride”), and finally to necessity (“she needs nourishment, too”). In other words, Mrs. Caldwell is given plenty of opportunity to give in. But she doesn’t. If you keep reading the scene, you’ll see that her mind is changed only by force. So, let the other characters try to persuade the villain to do right or change his/her behavior. Try different approaches: ethics, authority and privilege, necessity. If you’re rhetorically inclined, you can try the pyramid of ethos, pathos, and logos. You can also offer the villain compromises that are continually rejected. This isn’t so different from what parents do with kids, pleading with them in various ways to do some desired thing. And when the kids resist all overtures, they often seem like villains. Your villain can act the same way, resisting all overtures until their behavior becomes so unreasonable that the reader begins to wish him/her ill.

Good luck!

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