I went to writers’ group last Wednesday and listened to three of our members, all topnotch authors who volunteered to read. Les Bock is writing a crime thriller, and some of the scenes he comes up with blow my mind. I don’t see the twist coming, and it’s usually something I’d never expect from him. Kathy Palm is working on a middle grade horror book, and she’s read enough, I know that she can go to creepy places that make me squirm. Ruth Baker, a playwrite, usually visits serious subjects but she read something fun and whimsical. My point is, if you talked to any of those three people, you’d never guess what they are capable of imagining. It reminded me of a time a visitor came to Scribes and I read an unusual piece, and she looked at me and said, “But you seem like such a nice person.”
I AM a nice person, but I don’t always WRITE about nice people. If everyone in a novel was nice, there wouldn’t be a story, no tension, no conflict. Now an antagonist doesn’t always have to be a bad person. Two good people can be coming at the same thing from different points of view, for different reasons, and clash. But a strong antagonist sure makes an already good story even better, whether he’s on the page or behind the scenes. And a bad antagonist can make readers chew their fingernails.
In Julia Donner’s Western historical AVENUE TO HEAVEN, Annie Corday’s ex-husband made me cringe with fear every time his shadow fell across a page. When he finally decides to return to Chicago, he has a wooden coffin delivered to her front door to let her know his intentions. And honestly, after reading about some of the things he’d done, a quick death would probably be better than most of his other options. He was so obscenely bipolar, smiling and proclaiming his love while he beat her senseless, that he made me queasy. Villains like that make a reader turn the pages. They stay with you. (https://www.amazon.com/Avenue-Heaven-Westward-Bound-Book-ebook/dp/B076HVGS98/ref=sr_1_11?ie=UTF8&qid=1539399302&sr=8-11&keywords=julia+donner+kindle)
If you’ve read any of the posts in the Q & A blogs that I posted from Ilona Andrews, one of the questions reminded me of myself when I was young and first starting to write. The person asked how she could make her characters distinct, because hers all ended up being a lot the same. Ilona Andrews’s answer made me smile. She replied,
I suspect that your ethics keep getting in the way. You have a strong sense of right and wrong, and when confronting a problem, you, and your characters, are thinking about the best way to resolve it according to your set of values. Try to look at it from their point of view.
And that’s the trick, isn’t it? Each person in a story has his own code of morals and ethics, his own rules that he might bend, his own way to rationalize why he did what he did, whether good or bad. The trick is for the author to get inside his character’s head when that character walks into a room, to see the world through his eyes, shaped by his experiences, needs, and wants. And that character might do things we’d never condone, things that horrify or shame us, but our job is to make him and his actions believable.
Julia Donner was an actress and singer at one time. She performed in many plays and tells me that when she writes, her characters come to her wholly formed, because she studied characters and their motivations for so long on the stage. It took me a long time to write unlikeable characters, because I could always imagine what my mother would say if she read my story. And a sex scene? Heaven forbid! Then a wonderful, wise woman who edited many of my early stories told me, “Blindfold your mother and gag your old Sunday School teachers. Listen to your characters and write them the way they are and say what they’d say.” And she was right. I stopped thinking about my audience and started thinking about my characters, living in their skins. And then they did all kinds of things that I’d never expected, because I’d freed them to be themselves.
So whatever you’re working on at the moment, I hope your characters are distinct and real. That doesn’t mean they get to decide where the story will go, because it’s YOUR story. But it means that when they walk into a scene, they make it come to life, because they’re very much alive in your imagination. Happy Writing!