Wheels within Wheels

Last Sunday I was able to publish my first foray into fantasy, The Stone Seekers, a sample of which can be read by clicking the corresponding tab above.  I mentioned it in Issue #7 of The Times, but placed it at the bottom of some other promotional material, and think that some folks may have burned out on what was essentially a bunch of ads before they got down to it, so I’m mentioning it again…  First, this time.  It is classic sword-and-sorcery, you can read three chapters in the sample, and if it strokes your zither, as it were, links and ordering info are at the top of the sample.

And with that bit of business taken care of, we’ll now move on to the real post.

“I suppose I am a born novelist, for the things I imagine are more vital and vivid to me than the things I remember.”

~ ELLEN GLASGOW.

In this article, I am going to look at plots and subplots, and the folks who drive them.  I’ve been toying with this idea, and have come to liken the relationships between them to the relationships between bodies in a solar system.

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Many beginning writers formulate the idea for a plot; this little manlike creature is going to carry a magic ring on a long, dangerous quest, and drop it into a volcano.  Along the way, a big mean guy with a lot of power is going to try to stop him.  That’s a good start, but a lot of beginners get this down in their notebooks, and say, “Okay, there’s my story.  Time to get writing!”

But not so fast; something is missing!

Think about your own life.  You, of course, are the hero.  You have a quest to complete.  You have to replace a broken-down car, put sealer on your deck, get your taxes done, some major task that has a loudly ticking clock associated with it.  You are perfectly capable of sealing a deck, shopping for a car, or whatever the quest is, and if you could just concentrate on it, it would be the work of a day.  But you can’t do that, can you?  Your boss needs you to work overtime, your brother-in-law wants you to help him move, you have to put new weather stripping around your windows before Friday’s storm comes in.

These are subplots, and they are the lifeblood of high-quality fiction.  Imagine your leading man is an attorney, a government prosecutor who has just stepped up to being the lead attorney in his office’s prosecutions.  Imagine one of the first cases in which he is leading is that of a high-profile drug dealer who has committed several murders in the course of his business dealings.  If this prosecution is botched, this animal goes free to continue his ravages on society.  That is your plot, and it makes for powerful dramatic tension.  Now imagine that this prosecutor has a vindictive ex-wife who has just informed him that she is about to marry an Australian and move to his home in Sydney, taking his five-year old daughter with her, likely never to be seen again.  That is the subplot, and it ramps the tension up to a whole new level.  The comparison I like to make is that the hero can’t give his full attention to the wolf at the door, because he has a rat gnawing at his ankle.  This is why subplots are sometimes called “distractions.”

So, where does this Solar System analogy come in?  As you can see from the diagram, a solar system consists of a number of planets orbiting a star.  The star is the plot, and everything in the story ultimately revolves around it.  Planets may be up close and fast moving, or at a distance so removed that they are barely influenced, but all revolve around the star.  These planets represent characters who impact the story, and the closer they are to the star, the more important their influence.  The Protagonist is generally the closest one in, followed by the Antagonist.  These two have the most vested interests in the plot, and affect, and are affected by it more than anyone else.  Further out revolve the Confidant, the (main) Henchman, a minor character, if you’re using one, that supports the protagonist, and a minor character that supports the Antagonist.  I never use more than six viewpoint characters, and rarely more than five.  If I need more than six, that means I am writing a series.

All right, we have the planets established in their orbits, what do we add next?  The moons that represent subplots.  The protagonist, the closest planet to the star, has one large moon, much like Earth.  There can be two, but at the risk of overly complicating the story.  Anyway, this large subplot keeps crossing in front of the planet, eclipsing its view of the main plot.  That’s what subplots are to the Protagonist, distractions, pure and simple, important developments demanding attention that must be taken from the main quest.  Referring back to the Lord of the Rings allusion that I started the article with, remember when Faramir’s men captured Frodo and Sam, and almost hauled them back to Minas Tirith?  Subplot.  It wasn’t necessary to the overall story, but it fed the plot by ramping up the tension, and delaying the destruction of the Ring, which gave Sauron more time to search for it.

By contrast, the second planet, the Antagonist, can look more like Jupiter, with a dozen smaller moons.  The Antagonist’s subplots will generally serve to help him, being minions that are performing various actions to interfere with the Protagonist.  Again from Lord of the Rings, one word: Saruman.  Of course, not all subplots serve to further the Antagonist’s schemes; you need look no further than Captain Hook’s crocodile for an example of a major hindrance.

The third planet, the Confidant, is a character who stands to gain little of a personal nature if the Protagonist wins, but he or she works on behalf of the Protagonist anyway.  Depending on the story you are telling, the Confidant may gain a great deal from the Protagonist’s victory, such as the survival of civilization, but the rule of thumb is that this character is completely altruistic.  To have them motivated by money or the promise of power makes them unsympathetic, and seriously harms your story.  They may start out that way, but should come to believe in the Protagonist’s cause before the end.  The Confidant has one serious limitation:  He or she cannot solve the Protagonist’s problem for him.  The Protagonist has to defeat the Big Bad all on his own.  If the Confidant is going to win the Final Battle, then the Confidant is actually the Protagonist, and should be written as such.  He can come to the Protagonist’s rescue once, but if it becomes an ongoing event, people are going to start wondering why they aren’t reading a book about this guy.  Finally, while the Confidant exists to support the Protagonist, you can’t have her come skipping down the garden path with a ready-made solution every time the Protagonist runs into a problem.  Again, that raises questions about who the hero of this book is, anyway.

The fourth planet, the Henchman, looks at first glance like the Antagonist’s Confidant, and while it is true that the two may be friends, the Henchman following the Antagonist blindly, the resemblance is superficial.  The Henchman can do all the dirty work for the Antagonist, who never has to get blood on his own hands.  He can be a respectable businessman, a bank president or senior attorney, who sends out his Henchman to “reason” with those opposed to him.  The Henchman, in turn, may send Minions to do the actual dirty work (these are the fourth planet’s moons); the Confidant, as a rule, has no such equivalent helpers.

I don’t have a name for the character represented by the fifth planet.  He helps the good guys in a minor sort of way.  An example should suffice.  Imagine a fantasy quest story in which the Hero and all his entourage, having assembled all the available data, set out to confront the Big Bad.  After they are well on their way, the scholars uncover additional information showing that the plan they are following will lead to certain disaster, so they find an apprentice warrior, someone who wanted to go but was turned down, give him the information, and send him out to find the heroes and redirect them.  That is the fifth character.

If the heroes have, unsuspected in their midst, a spy who is somehow sending or leaving reports for a Minion to pass on to the Big Bad, that would be the sixth character (and planet).  But a few planets and moons do not make a complete solar system.  There are other forces at play.

These are comets and asteroids, and as bodies in eccentric orbits that can land anywhere with devastating results, they represent random events, and minor characters respectively.  You never know how these things are going to play out, and just as an asteroid put paid to the dinosaurs in our own Solar System, a group of nomads might capture a vital character, or a talkative bartender might casually toss out a piece of information that changes everything.

So that’s my grand theory, that solar systems have a lot in common with the tightly-woven threads of a good, convoluted plot, and that you can learn a lot about one by studying the other.  What do you think?

News Updates

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Steve Moore, a British Ameriphile and speculative fiction author, is putting the finishing touches on his new novel, which he describes as a “steampunk lite erotic vampire horror” story.  He is currently looking for beta readers, so anyone interested in trading your honest opinion for an advance reader copy from the cutting edge should contact him at the link above to arrange the details.  Incidentally, the eye-catching cover was created by Bryce Raffle, whose web page is linked in the sidebar under Illustrators.

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Karen J. Carlisle, author of such series as Viola Stewart, Doctor Jack, and Aunt Enid, is also an artist in her own right, and is offering a series of mugs with tie-in art to her books.  Whether you’re a fan of Viola, as I am, or a collector of rare mugs, you should definitely take a look at these.  Her current post is promoting in-person purchases at a local convention she is attending, but you can arrange on-line purchases using the Contact form at her website above.

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Today and all weekend, William J. Jackson has set the price of his dieselpunk opus, Down Jersey Driveshaft at 99¢ US for readers in the UK, so don’t miss this sprawling story of war, personal suffering, and triumph!

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And that’s today’s offering.  Be with me next Tuesday for another issue of Blimprider Times, when I’ll once again be rounding up the week’s news, and taking an in-depth look at one of my sister websites.  See you then!

Who Are These People?

“It’s the economy, stupid!”

~ BILL CLINTON’s first-term campaign mantra

We are all products of our past.  Upbringing, peers, what family taught us about our heritage; what we learned in our first jobs we took into our second.  From the loving aunt to the snooty receptionist, from sharing peanut butter with a fondly remembered dog to that first fall from the old oak tree, we are all collections of past experiences, stuffed in a sack and tied up with a bow.  Your friends like you and your adversaries don’t because of the hundreds of thousands of experiences and contacts that have combined to form your personality and world view.  The vast majority of them, we don’t remember, but they’re all in there, having their effect on the face we present to the world, and that’s fine.  We don’t have to remember every detail; we are who we are.

But what about our characters, the people who inhabit the stories we write?  Long-time followers will be aware of the principle I have named “Tyler’s Axiom.”  Allow me to restate it for the newer arrivals:

Characters are fiction

Of course, if you’re dashing off a piece of flash fiction, or a 3,000-word morality fable, maybe they don’t need to be all that, but what if you’re undertaking a novel, or a series?  If that is the case, then I am here to suggest that if you want your characters to leap off the page, then you need to know every pertinent detail of the journey that brought them to Page One of your book.  Sure, if your main character goes to buy some meat, and the butcher wants to tell a rambling story about his brother-in-law while he does the cutting, you can gloss it over; the butcher will never be seen again, and doesn’t have to be explained.  But your main character, the third-grade teacher who’s tapped to serve as a juror on a high profile murder case, the killer’s henchman who has decided that she is the weak link that can be influenced by threats, her husband, her sister, these people are instrumental to the success of your story, and nothing can be left to chance.

The henchman, the teacher, the criminal, the attorneys all have backstories, journeys, if you will, that made them who they are, and while it would be disastrously boring for you to give the reader all of these backstories in huge information dumps, you must know them!  What made this woman devote her life to teaching?  Was she dedicated to leaving no child behind, or was she afraid to leave the school environment and compete in the “real” workforce?  Why did she not attempt to get out of jury duty?  Was it a sense of civic duty, a desire to experience the courtroom environment to become a better teacher, or was she bored with the classroom and eager to take a break?  How about her relationship with the aforementioned husband?  Or is she a single mom, and if she is, how does she feel about that?  Betrayed, abandoned, or relieved to be free?  Does she have a tattoo?  Something in her personality caused her to get it.  What?

Sure, you can just start writing:

Most people are annoyed when they open their mailbox to find a jury summons staring back at them, but third-grade teacher Gloria Sims saw it as an opportunity.

But if you want your novel to be memorable, to leave your readers thinking about the world you’ve created long after they’ve left it behind, you need to do more.  You’d better know why, because fifty pages on, when she reacts to another unexpected stimulus, her reaction and her motives had better be consistent.  This means a fully fleshed-out character sheet with background, upbringing, childhood, work environment, everything pertinent that contributed to who this person is.  Let me repeat, pertinent.  A lot of the little day-to-day things aren’t, but the difference between an abusive childhood and a loving one is going to make specific differences in the life of the adult involved, and you, the writer, need to know how.  And this is just for one of your main characters!

Once you know all these things, the temptation then exists to pile them all on the reader in huge information dumps.  If you follow the sample sentence above with a six-page dissertation about Ms. Sims’ education from kindergarten through her graduate work, I promise you that no reader will reach the end of it, and if your book doesn’t get thrown at a stray cat, it will at best be used as a potted plant pad.  But you need to know these things, and you need to use them constantly to inform your characters’ words and actions.

I can hear the electric whine of attenuated nerves already, way at the upper edge of the threshold of hearing:  This guy wants me to become a planner!  No, not really, not for the big picture; if pantsing your plot works for you, by all means, carry on.  But characters are far more complex than simple plots, and it is flatly impossible for any one writer to keep up with every little quirk and foible that he attaches to the half-dozen major players that power a novel.  What I’m telling you is that if you want your readers to be discussing your book a year after they’ve read it, your characters had better be as rich, nuanced, and consistent as your immediate family members.  Readers notice things, and inconsistencies are right at the top of the list.  Get your characters right, and they’ll write your story for you; take the lazy way out, make them up on the fly, and they’ll get their revenge by dooming you to obscurity.

If this torrent of words is a bit too convoluted for you to follow, be guided by these examples:  Lord of the Rings is not about the Ring; that’s the biggest MacGuffin in the history of literature.  Lord of the Rings is about the titanic struggles between the people and similar creatures who want to destroy or possess it.  Likewise, when Q outfits 007 for his mission, those gadgets he provides are fun to check out, but the thrill of a Bond film is seeing how Bond, a character, uses them to overcome the obstacles sure to be placed in his path.  To paraphrase Bill Clinton,

It’s the characters, stupid!

I think that about covers it.

A Monster who Thinks He’s Right with God

“It doesn’t make any difference.  Everybody thinks he’s righteous.”
~ ADAM BALDWIN on being cast as a villain.

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Good morning, friends and followers, and welcome back, or if this is your first visit, welcome!  The Browncoats among you will have noticed that both the title and the quote have Firefly connections.  The quote is of course from Adam Baldwin, who at the reading for the part was told that Jayne Cobb was going to be underhanded, immoral, and self-serving.  The title comes from the Heart of Gold episode, when Mal, the captain, is telling the prostitutes who want his crew to defend their brothel that they’re going to run, because he’s met the bad guy, and “There’s nothing worse than a monster who thinks he’s right with God.”  Extra points if you’ve worked out that I’m going to be discussing the Villain as character this week.

So, what is the Villain?  Properly called the Antagonist, the Villain is the single character who works the hardest to prevent the Hero, or Protagonist, from fulfilling the conditions he needs in order to declare victory, and he or she needn’t actually be villainous.  The character can be the rival in a romance, or the other team’s star athlete in a sports story.  He certainly can be villainous if he lies, cheats, or rigs his rival’s equipment to fail, but it isn’t necessary.  He need only be an obstacle.  First let’s look at what makes a Villain “bad” in the literary sense, as in poorly written.

Many young writers, having decided to pen the Great American Novel, invest great effort in creating a Hero for the Ages, going deep into his or her backstory, figuring out what he orders when he drives through MacDonald’s, and what sort of clothes he keeps in his closet for when he goes out clubbin’.  All that is good; you need to know these things and many others to write an effective Protagonist, but then when they turn to the Villain, they just say, “I’m going to make this the meanest bastard anybody ever met!”  Okay, maybe he is, and maybe that works for the story you’re telling, but why is he the meanest bastard alive, and what happens when this deep development is missing?

It’s quite simple, really.  A Villain, no matter how scary and powerful, whose background and motivations are not fully developed and put on display for the reader, becomes little more than a rampaging mad dog for the Hero to take down.  Many writers put a great deal of effort into cataloguing their Villain’s strengths, because they’ve heard that his powers must be equal to or greater than those of the Hero so that the final confrontation won’t be a one-sided beat-down of a Straw Man.  That’s well and good, but it’s also incomplete.  Let’s look at the most influential author I’m aware of who completely ignored this concept, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Lord of the Rings is a magnificent opus that not only gave us a sprawling tale that spread its cloak over multiple civilizations who were facing the ultimate threat to their existence, but created modern fantasy in the telling.  A work like Lord of the Rings is the only thing a writer needs on his or her resumé to be named alongside Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Woolfe as a major writer of the modern era, and rightly so; a triumph like that is what all serious writers who feel it in our souls dream of. But, who was Sauron?  What did we know of him?  Not much.

Peter Jackson’s epic treatment reached back to The Silmarillion to present the First War of the Ring, in which Sauron’s corporeal form, that of a raging twelve-foot berserker, is defeated by the combined armies of Elves and Men, and the One Ring taken from him by Isuldur.  He was then reincarnated a thousand years later as an angry, bloodshot eyeball in command of great magic, bent on making the lives of every living being miserable, and it makes for a great read, but why?  What made him like this?  What a fascinating story that could have made, if only Tolkien had thought to include it.  I think most viewers and readers of a Judaeo-Christian background view him in the same light as Satan, but even with Satan, we know his backstory.  He was an angel cast from heaven for unacceptable defiance of God, and has been seeking revenge ever since.

In a way, my example refutes my point, as a story with no Antagonist development at all has achieved the status of a modern classic, but how much more could it have been with a fully developed Villain with needs, feelings, motivations?  I’m not about to suggest that Lord of the Rings is a failure, but when you strip the mythic qualities away, what you are left with in Sauron is a Straw Man whose only purpose in the story is to showcase the strength and nobility of the Heroes.

So, let’s look at what a good Villain (no pun intended) needs.  Certainly, he needs a skill set comparable to the Hero’s, be it physical, mental, emotional, whatever your story is about; he needs to be good at it.  Football, gunplay, or romance, he needs to be just slightly better than the Hero, because the Hero needs to overcome the Unstoppable Force in order to be the Hero.  But that’s just the simple part.  The Villain didn’t hatch from an egg at the age of thirty-six, a martial arts expert with a hate on for the world.  He was somebody’s baby.  He was a student.  He followed a path that brought him to this place at this time with these attitudes, and this path is what you have to know as a writer if your Villain is going to be memorable.

As background to what you’re attempting to accomplish, the Villain is the engine that is going to drive the story.  In most cases, the Hero is a more or less ordinary person with an ordinary life who isn’t doing anything particularly heroic until he is prodded into action by the Villain.  The Villain does this for reasons.  He wants something, and you have to know what it is.  Your Villain can only have a purpose if you give it to him, and you can’t give him anything that you aren’t aware of.  Maybe his parents were shot by a cop during a routine traffic stop gone bad.  Maybe he came from a country engaged in a civil war, where his daughter was used for stress relief by the occupying soldiers.  That kind of revenge can be a powerful driver; look at what Boadicea did with it!  Another obvious motive is greed.  This can be a need for large amounts of money, and drive actions that are certainly villainous enough to please any author.  As Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie and Clyde) said when asked why he robbed banks, “Because that’s where the money is!”  Greed for power and influence fosters dirty politicians, cutthroat banking practices, and boardroom scandals.  A belief that one is so righteous that the normal standards of society don’t apply to him or her can lead one into actions that make one a problem for others, and often inadvertently cause a Hero to rise in opposition.  Good old fashioned lust can make a man a user and ruiner of women, or lead a woman to use her charms to manipulate men into unfortunate actions.  Jealousy is another good motivator; If I can’t have what you’ve got, by God, you’re not going to have it, either!  Can anyone find a story in that sentence?

There are as many motivations to do evil as there are authors, and my point is that your Villain, if he’s going to be anything but a Straw Man, needs one, and you as the author need to know how he came by it.  You may not need to convey the “how” to your readers.  That depends on the story you’re telling, and what you think is appropriate, but a Villain who is a Villain for no discernible reason is not compelling at all, and you want him to be remembered.  Ideally, you want your reader to be thinking about your Villain after she finishes her next book!  So, what is the secret ingredient?

In my opinion, time.  You got to know your friends over time.  That’s how you know they’re your friends.  Same with your enemies.  The reason you don’t hang out with that slimeball in your office isn’t because of his poor taste in aftershave.  No, it’s because he’s always trying to get somebody involved in something shady.  He doesn’t care that it will harm your career or your employment, he just wants what he wants; he’s a Villain.  Well, as you meet them in real life, so you meet them in literature.  The great Villains, the ones that are remembered, get time on the page.  Sometimes they’re shown directly, and sometimes the Hero talks about them, obsesses even, but they are seen.  Who can indulge in a Sherlock Holmes story without a constant awareness of Moriarty scheming in the background?  What is Drizzt Do’Urden without Artemis Entreri?  Steve McGarrett without Wo Fat?  The Villains that become part of our lives are, just as our Heroes, the ones we have time to get to know.  Give them realistic motivations for their actions, then let them linger on the page for as long as possible, even be it through the course of several books.  As long as they’re lurking, even though they’re neutralized or presumed to be dead, they’re playing games in the readers’ minds, and that, for an author, is a condition that is beyond price.

Make your Villains real, and make your stories great!