Since newer writers are always asking us old-timers for hot tips, this month we are dishing about the psychology of villains, the importance of minor characters, the art of great dialogue, the importance of critique, and how to be the happiest writer on Earth.
Courtney J. Hall: “Even the worst villain loves his mother.” I’m not sure where I first heard this; since I started writing seriously, I’ve read so many books, articles, and blog posts on character development that it could have sprung up from anywhere. But as far as I’m concerned, this is probably the most important tip I’ve read when it comes to creating antagonists that are interesting, faceted and true—people you would know in real life, rather than cartoonish, one-note mustache twirlers.
While “villains loving their mothers” could be taken literally, I personally don’t take it that way. In literature, as in reality, a great many villains actually have serious problems with their mothers. To me, what it means is that a villain needs a redeeming quality in order to be believable. You can’t create an antagonist that’s nothing but negatives. He needs to be seen as human. Give him a dog he loves, a sibling he’d do anything for, or a secret hobby of dressing up as a clown and visiting sick kids in the hospital. That way, when he rears his villainous head, it’s easier to see him as a fully developed person instead of a caricature—which, in turn, makes good fiction. Sure, you’re still rooting for the hero, but a multi-faceted villain is just so much more interesting, isn’t he?
C. P. Lesley: “Every character is the hero of his or her own story.” So there’s a bit of humor here. I have long treasured this advice from Nancy Kress’s Dynamic Characters as a reminder that everyone in my books, not only the hero and heroine, has goals. But when I searched, I discovered that Kress uses this phrase—accurately rendered as “Each person on the planet … is the complex center of his or her own life story”—to mean the exact opposite, to justify treating minor characters, in effect, as furniture.
Now in general, I agree: minor characters can develop only so much before they take over a book. So why do I stick with my version? Because it’s too tempting to focus my energy on the leads. These characters, after all, are the ones who determine the action, who grow, and who stick in the mind long after readers close the book and walk away.
But the barista who serves my heroine coffee and the doctor who treats my hero’s ailments don’t know that the novel is about someone else; they have their own lives and concerns like the rest of us. They too need to speak and act in believable ways for understandable reasons if they’re to draw readers into the story world. And sometimes, if I think about what motivates those minor characters, I get an insight about the leads that might not have occurred to me otherwise.
No need to go to extremes here. Minor league players should remain in the background. Still, a rich cast of secondary characters rounds out a novel and makes it more like real life. And you never know, maybe one of those folks in the back row will someday take center stage. Happens to me all the time!
Claudia H. Long: “Watch what you say.” My books tend to be dialogue-driven. By that I mean that even though I love descriptive paragraphs, most of my action is fueled by dialogue. For that reason, my dialogue has to be both active and realistic. The best way to see if the words flow or clang is to read them out loud. Once I’ve finished the book, I go back and read each chapter aloud. I really get a sense of how the words fit together when I hear them spoken. I do it alone, but if you have a really trusted friend, you can read to her. Your friend doesn’t need to tell you when you’ve scored and when you’ve bombed: You’ll know!
Gabrielle Mathieu: “Revise, revise, revise.” Querying too early is probably the most common problem I encounter in the writing community. Yes, be proud of what you’ve done, because you finally slogged over the finish line. (I’m sure you know better than to query an unfinished novel.) But don’t be so proud of your creation that you ignore all the work that needs to go into making it readable. If you don’t have a background in editing or publishing, you may not even be aware of these manuscript issues. Does anyone else understand that Emma is secretly Tess’s mother? Does your dialogue clomp along like a herd of elephants? Are you overly enthralled with your painstaking lengthy descriptions, which, though exquisite, break the tension of the scenes? (Hint: you’re not Ansel Adams here. Writing is a moving medium.)
If you can’t judge your own work, and many of us can’t, then find a critique group. You may have to try out several. It’s like dating. Sometimes it will be a terrible date and a total waste of time. Other times you might get a few decent meals and some passable sex before you decide to move on. Investigate. Network. Don’t be overly sensitive. People aren’t trying to destroy you when they point out flaws. My best CP (Critique Partner) hates my books so much I reward her with Amazon gift coupons for reading. The points she makes are always spot on. Sometimes her critiques make me laugh. I know I’m good. I also know I can do better, especially when I get a cogent explanation of my failings. I overly complicate situations. I lose the point. I forget to insert the villain regularly. I rush endings. It’s all ok, as long as I’m willing to learn.
I hope you are too, because that’s where the real work begins.
Joan Schweighardt: “Write what you love.” I have never met a happier group of authors than those who write historical fiction. I think the reason is that historical novels require so much research. It’s a huge undertaking. You really have to dive in and stay underwater until you have gathered all the sharks and starfish you will need.
I’m not suggesting that historical fiction writing is right for everyone, but I do urge writers of all genre stripes to take on projects that really excite them—as opposed to projects they believe may be timely or trendy or easy to complete. Write like your life depends on it. Write fearlessly. Write from your heart. Write about subjects that fascinate you. While researching for the third book in the series I am currently working on (a life-changing project for me), I came across Robert Henri, a well-known figure in the Ashcan school of art in the early 1900s. In his book The Art Spirit he says, “The object of all art is intense living, fulfillment, and great happiness in creation.”
If your writing projects bring you that kind of happiness, it won’t matter whether or not they become bestsellers or make you money to last the rest of your life. The joy of the process is its own reward.
Images: villain with gun and young woman running for the finish line Pixabay (no attribution required); latte art © Takeaway, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; lion © iClipart.com no. 000046-0100-000305 (purchased via subscription); happy woman at sunset Jill Wellington via Pixabay.