Tag: Old Man Withers
Today, I’d like to write a brief note about villains for every aspiring writer out there.
I think a lot of The Gearheart‘s success is a function of the way it taps into old pulp formulas. Heroic characters rise to the challenge against a great menace. Gun battles, airplane chases and explosions ensue. The first chapters were created to be simplistic, easy to read snippets of fun. I hoped to draw the reader into a two-dimensional, comic book universe where they thought the decisions would be easy. People tell me they get that when they hear the story, and that makes me intensely happy.
However, as the reader progressed, I wanted decisions to become more difficult, the characters to be more developed and, most of all, I wanted to subvert your sense of ease. I had hoped to lull you into a happy place, only to shake you from your hammock when the time was right. Whether or not I succeeded is not for me to say. That’s your job.
This is a really long way of saying, “I don’t believe in the old pulp formulas.”
In the old pulps, you have a hero and a villain. The hero is heroic. The villain is villainous. The lady character is confused and easily manipulated. Done. It’s a pretty straightforward thing. Unless there is some great exception, you can expect a pulp to follow the standard arc with little to no deviation. That’s why they were considered to be cheap, disposable fiction.
However, I don’t believe this is the answer- especially not for antagonists. I believe there are no villains, only people. Every single person in the world, no matter how evil, has a reason for what they do. Each tiny interaction is the product of previous stimuli and years of built-up motivation. Granted, their choices may not always be the most noble, well thought-out or understandable. However, an antagonist should truly believe in their cause, whether it is love, the betterment of mankind, or simply themselves. Even Old Man Withers from Scooby Doo just wanted everyone to leave so he could sell the amusement park.
When you write that mustache-twisting, railroad-dynamiting nemesis, I believe you’re doing your story a grave disservice. Likewise, if you write someone who is merely a victim of mental of sexual dysfunction (I’m looking at you, mid-90s thrillers!), then you have chosen a shortcut. People are more than a label or a list of psychobabble buzzwords.
All I’m saying is this: When you write your villain, you should do everything in your power to capture the essence of a person. Write an antagonist, not a villain. As a small corollary I would like to add that, just because a character or person is three-dimensional, that doesn’t mean we have to like them.
I love writers and podcasters. I’m addicted to their aspirations. Being around folks with such lofty dreams energizes me beyond almost anything else- caffiene, D&D, and yes, even bacon. That’s why I really enjoy speaking to them about who they are, what they do, and most importantly, what they write.
You’d be amazed how many of them cannot tell me.
Let me start out by saying that writing plot synopses for brevity is difficult and people try. They really do. I have the utmost respect for writers, so please do not think I am poking fun, but I need to provide an example of what I usually hear. This is something I just made up, not related to anyone’s story in particular.
Well, there’s this guy who can manipulate matter, and it’s the future. And in the future, there are these other races, the elves, the aliens and the cat people. And anyway, this guy who can manipulate matter was made in a genetics lab by fusing all of the other races’ DNA together. So now he has the power of transmutation- to convert any item to another item of the same molecular weight. Because he has this power, the government wants him for experimentation, but the cat people think he is a religious incarnation of their god, Felina, so they want to protect him. And all along the way, he goes about collecting allies until he is ready to lead the elves, aliens and cat people in a rebellion against the human empires. Fun ensues.
Great. By this time, I have forgotten what we started talking about in the first place. This problem extends into podcast promos, as well. Folks will go well into the 2-3 minute mark just telling me their backstory or introducing all of their characters. That’s very informative and all, but I don’t think it’s what an audience wants. What I think an audience wants is an easily-digested nugget of cool. I hold fast to my belief that a podcast promo should be no longer than 30 seconds to 1 minute.
I have a formula for writing log lines, and it works like a charm. I don’t know if this is the formula that the pros use, but it’s certainly the way I tackle a difficult plot. I’d like to share it with you, and have you put it to the test on your own work. Try it at your next party when you describe your book, and just see if people’s eyes light up with recognition. My formula is simple, it’s easy, and it will sell your story to the uninitiated.
There are 3 sentences in a log line. That’s it. They are as follows: The Carry, The Crossover and The Complication. Fairly simple stuff. You’ll see them defined below.
1) The Carry
The Carry is what carries (go figure) us into the world of your story. This is where you describe to us the everyday world of your hero and the things he/she does with her time. That isn’t to say that you say, “John Hero woke up and peed before brushing his teeth and going to work.” That is, unless you’re being ironic. Then you might say that. I don’t know.
The “normal world” of your hero is still fraught with some kind of conflict. Try to capture that. Maybe he or she is a secret agent. Maybe your hero just wants to be liked by the pretty girl behind the counter at the local bakery. Maybe your hero suffers from leukemia and starts out with only months to live. Let’s take the example from the top and formulate our Carry.
“John Hero’s life changed forever the day he learned he could convert anything into marshmallows.”
Short, sweet, and to the point. It captures that John has a power, and that power is marshmallic transmutation. It’s a real thing, I swear.
2) The Crossover
The Crossover literally refers to the events that precipitate your crossing into the second act of the story. In the Star Wars (Joseph Campbell) formula, this would be the moment that Luke discovers the burned bodies of Beru and Owen. This is when the hero learns that he/she can’t go back to his/her mild-mannered life of secret-agenting or bakery-lusting. I need to come up with better verbs.
You want to capture the core conflict of the story in this line, and at the same time, reveal the nemesis for bonus points. Of course, you can disregard the nemesis reveal if you’re writing some kind of murder mystery. In that instance, you tell us who died, as that is your first act turning point. Here’s the John Hero Crossover:
“However, when mysterious agents show up to kidnap John, he uncovers a mysterious past of genetic manipulation and government treachery.”
A murder mystery line might read more like, “But when a body turns up at the International Butler Convention, the police find themselves too baffled to solve the mystery!”
3) The Complication
The complication is the way that your Crossover causes the story to unfold. It’s the extra oomph that a reader/listener/viewer might not have expected, and it’s the paramount selling point. There are a lot of stories out there, but this is the third element that makes yours unique.
In Star Wars, this would be Luke’s Jedi powers and religion. In Hamlet, this might be represented by the prince’s slow descent into insanity. Without the Complication, your story is just a basic tale of cause and effect. This is the randomizing element that makes it both unpredictable and interesting.
Let’s write a Complication for the story above.
“With the aid of the mysterious Nya-meow Cat Folk, Smith must now embark upon the greatest journey of his life- one that will take him from the sinister labs, to the churches of the Cat Pope, and to the stars beyond!”
You can also finish this with sentence with another: a call to action like, “Find out on The Gearheart!” (But only an idiot would have a title like that.)
So that’s it! That was a lot of explaining, but overall, I think you’ll find the basic ideas to be fairly simple. I hope you’ve enjoyed this healthy dose of The Gearbox, and I look forward to joining you next time with an interview from the illustrious J.C. Hutchins!
Wallaby is a freaky guy, and that spider thing he does just makes matters worse. If you had to name one thing that really freaks you out, what would it be?
When you get your answer, go to Old Man Wither’s house, and sleep there for the night. If you survive, log onto his free wi-fi network and post your answer to this thread. I’ll read my favorites on the air next week.