We are all familiar with villains. Most of the time they are easy to spot, especially in comic books and movies that feature super-heroes. They laugh gleefully as they deliberately create problems over which the hero must triumph in order to save the day, the world, or even the universe. They know exactly what their goal is: beat the good guy.
But not all villains are this bipolar. Some are even likable until you cross them. So how do you hide a villain in plain sight?
Examine yourself for a minute. What do you like about your friends or the people you interact with? Let’s say they are friendly, helpful, and supportive. So, give your villain these qualities–with a twist. The villain is friendly, so he can lure you in. He is lovable and easy-going, so what’s not to like about him? He is helpful, so you are indebted and obligated to him. He is supportive, not because he likes you, but because he is accumulating a fan base. And he exudes these positive traits as long as you play nice and don’t question or disagree with him. Cross this villain and he will turn on your main character faster than a glass of milk left outside on a hot day. His curdled personality reveals his sour nature as he works to shatter your main character’s sense of well-being and turn him or her into the villain.
Consider the narcissist. People with this personality type do not believe they are doing anything wrong; they feel justified in pointing out all your main character’s flaws and mistakes—to everyone. Constantly critical “for your own good,” the narcissist is masterful as a villain. His destructive acts and character assassinations are expertly disguised in a smile. The narcissist truly believes he is always in the right, and nothing can convince him otherwise. He is egotistical, over-confident, and never wrong.
At the first hint of trouble, the narcissist goes on the offensive. He preemptively makes your main character, or your main character’s actions, look bad. Then, that character is left to defend her- or himself, thus appearing weak. The more your protagonist tries to mitigate the damage, the more negative publicity is generated, and the worse it gets. Your main character can’t negotiate with or reason with a narcissist; it only makes the narcissist renew his efforts to prove that character wrong. The character arc for your protagonist begins at the point of a normal existence and moves in a perpetual downward spiral from which he can’t recover. Every attempt to defend himself is met with a twisted attack that condemns or hurts him personally. And behind the scenes, to friends and family, the narcissist claims he did nothing wrong and doesn’t understand why your main character is persecuting him.
That leaves plenty of room for tension, conflict, and anguish. You can almost literally drag your main character through Hades as he is abandoned by friends and possibly by family. You can unjustly ruin his career, his reputation, and his self-esteem. As an author, you can take him to the brink of suicide through bullying, isolation, and character assassination. Your main character will reach that brink of self-destruction and become as broken as Humpty Dumpty… except that there are no King’s men to put him back together again. There are only more cracks in his self-confidence and self-esteem. Make his or her plight as miserable as possible to gain the reader’s sympathy.
Then the main character grapples with the realization of what he has lost: friends, social standing, and perhaps a bit of his sanity. There must be no win for your protagonist, only more perceived loss. As an author, you must help him see the futility of the situation and thus make the tough choice to walk away, sever relationships, and start a new life. Your protagonist can do this on his own or have a secondary, undervalued character who rises to the occasion. Or perhaps a hero, someone who finally believes in that character, can walk into his life and rescue him. But whatever you do, in the end, you must give your main character hope for a happily ever after, so you do not disappoint your reader. Sometimes a character with a warm and friendly or even a loving and nurturing face can make the best villain, working behind the scenes to destroy reputations. This is a villain your protagonist won’t see coming until it’s too late, but one that is all too believable.
Regina Olson grew up as the oldest sister in a family of seven. In this sometimes-chaotic life she escaped to books and poetry. As a teenager, she had several poems published in a Christian periodical. This small success encouraged her. She married, raised two children, and worked as the Operations Manager for a major university while finishing her MBA, then spent two years in a PhD program. Nowretired and enjoying life with her husband and three dogs, she has the time to indulge in her passion. Regina is a past member of the Write Minded critique group as well as a present member of the L. Gwinn Writers critique group, The Houston Writers Guild, and The Final Twist Writers Society. Her short stories are included in Every Beast has A Secret and Released from Reality.
When you write often…
Not every story will come out the way you envision or hope. That’s just life. There are many stories the world never sees because they were vetoed by the author, publisher, or market. Now that more people are self-publishing, authors are put in the “gate-keeper” position that historically went to agents and editors.
A side note about Branding
Before I get into too much detail. I want to mention that a lot of this information is based on an author that is interested in branding themselves. If you don’t have an interest in branding, then this information may not work for you. The other audience that might have an interest is writers that have a goal of an agent/publisher. The market is changing, and it helps to have more than a book to pitch. But then you delve into deciding to keep a platform/brand you create yourself or sell it, and that’s a whole new can of worms and a different fishing hole.
You’ve written something. It’s been edited and taken to a critique group. Edited it again. Sent it out for beta reading. Edited it again. You have heard from a group of people you trust to tell you if it’s gold or brass. You’ve sent it to agents and publishers. If you adore it, but the overwhelming feedback is a resounding “meh” – not just from agents and publishers but from your critique group and beta readers – weed it.
That does not make it unmeaningful. Those words helped you grow as a writer. Look at them. Be your own critic to unlock the puzzle of your best writing and move on. And if you love it, you might discover the key to unlocking its potential. Shelf it, and its time might come later.
Personally, I like short stories for writing growth. The end result is quicker and I can repeat the process and learn at a faster pace than when writing a novel. I can explore and develop characters, refine the setting, and expand the world in small parts before diving into a longer project. But I have a lot left to learn and grow. I expect a lot of weeding before my garden is the way I envision it.
or Feed it?..
What if you don’t hear back from agents and publishers, but you saw your critique group cry when you read chapter 3? Did they glow when they finished reading the last chapter? Did your beta reader call back after binge-reading it with a list of their favorite parts and a manuscript full of smiley faces? – then you have something worth feeding.
Did you love writing it? Do you want to write in a similar way over and over and over? Not the same plot, but the same genre or a series with the same characters and location. Then you might think about establishing a brand as an author based on that story.
When we pick up books by certain authors, we have expectations based on their prior writing. This is something true across the arts. It is linked to voice. But it’s more. It can be writing in a certain genre or style. Creating a brand as an author sets a foundation of expectation. If it is a style of story that you would like to explore multiple times, consider the option of turning one story into a garden.
I hope your writing blooms into something magnificent!
Interested in more? My safehouse for book junkies everywhere is found at www.tashastorfer.wordpress.com
Pantsers need structure too. Constraint is the rigid steel pistol. Creativity is the explosion. Together they produce aimed power and dramatic results. In the tension between unpredictable innovation and self-imposed limitation arises the structure pantsers need. You have something you need to say. Staring at an empty page does no good. Where to start?
Start with constraints:
- Bind your story within the margins of a detailed historical event. A Gestapo agent with a pathetic remnant of a prewar conscience barely flickering in his breast, suspects that an SS officer is murdering his colleagues and making it look like the work of partisans. Weave your story into the fabric of the final days of the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto with a three-way dénouement between the killer, the doomed but heroic militant Polish Jews, and the Gestapo agent in the sewers beneath the city. Thorough research will provide most of the structure you need.
- Bind your story within the biographical details of real people. My short story, “Conduct Unbecoming,” uses the teenage Bernard Hermann (future composer of cinematic scores such as Psycho) and his friend Abraham Polonsky (future blacklisted film noir director) in a murder mystery at Carnegie Hall. The story relies on getting their distinctive personalities, characters, and foreshadowed destinies to drive the plot.
- Bind your story within the formulas and tropes of genre and pastiche (I use “pastiche” to mean a faithful attempt to duplicate the style of the original rather than a disrespectful parody of the original). Andrew Kahn defines genre fiction as that which, “offers readers more or less what they would expect upon the basis of having read similar books before.” The same definition applies to genuine pastiches. To get a story going, you could choose the subgenre of the inverted detective story; you start knowing who done it, with the crime laid out in detail, then watch the detective try to detect the villain’s inevitable tiny mistake. Every Colombo follows this pattern.
Pastiche is even more constrained and therefore yields more structural guidance. To successfully write a Star Trek novel you must follow a detailed “bible” provided by Paramount and Pocket Books. The active supervision by a fiercely protective franchise overseer will make sure you do no harm to their valuable franchise. You must weave your story into a future history that
includes every detail of the TV shows, movies, cartoons, and several hundred other novels by dozens of other writers. You are expected to make your characters conform to the speech patterns of the actors who played those characters, know those characters’ entire life stories, and not cause continuity issues with dozens of ongoing and future works. You must abide by all the established scientific norms already in place. All stories have to be in third person with the inner thoughts of the main characters revealed. You must write a classic A, B, C interleaved plot where each thread is thematically linked. The novel must conform to Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic and moral vision.
Want to write a new Perry Mason novel? Better use Erle Stanley Gardner’s invariable formula for all 84 of his novels: Mason takes the case of an innocent accused of a crime. The cops and DA build a devastating case. Mason, his detective, Paul Drake, and his secretary, Della Street, investigate. Mason usually risks his career and/or his life in finding, or manufacturing, an alternate explanation. During the trial, Mason flips the damning evidence into a new configuration, often prompting the real culprit to confess.
What happens when you fail to follow the formulas or change the personalities of the characters from established canon? You anger and alienate your most devoted audience. No genuine Dark Shadows fan will ever forgive Timothy Burton for spitting on their desire for a serious film. The major plot twist of the first Mission Impossible movie still pisses me off.
- Bind your story with what Joss Whedon calls backshadowing. Put a plot teaser in just because it’s cool, play with it a little more over time, and then, if it becomes interesting enough, work it into the main plot. In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, “The Wish,” Cordelia wishes for a world without Buffy. In this evil alternate reality, Willow confronts a vicious vampire version of herself who is also unambiguously gay. This was well in advance of Whedon’s decision to make Willow a lesbian. In retrospect, it makes Whedon look like a long-range plotter and master of foreshadowing, when in fact it was a bit of backshadowing.
Other examples of this kind of constraint would be Erle Stanley Gardner’s famous four cardboard spin wheels: a wheel of complicating circumstances, a wheel of false trails, a wheel of hostile minor characters, and a wheel of solutions. To keep things varied, Gardner would just spin a wheel; the card constrained what came next. Here’s the wheel of false trails:
- Witness lies.
- A document is forged.
- A witness is planted.
- A client conceals something.
- A client misrepresents something.
- A friend pretends to betray the hero.
- The villains assistant pretends to betray the hero.
- A vital witness refuses to talk.
- False confessions.
- Genuine mistakes.
- A witness takes flight.
- A witness is kidnapped.
- A witness commits suicide.
- A witness sells out.
- Planted clues.
- Impossible statements.
In the golden age of pulp, the cover art of a magazine was often produced before the stories were written. It wasn’t unusual for an editor to hand a picture of a BEM (Bug-Eyed Monster) attacking a scantily clad space babe to a writer and tell him to write up a story to fit the image by next Tuesday. Our writing group has done something similar to this with our fantasy image writing prompt sessions.
I often write under the constraint of a set piece confrontation I’ve dreamed up, and then I must figure out how to plausibly get there. This can take the form of another kind of backshadowing- as-extreme-in-media-res as with the famous opening scene of Sunset Boulevard when the protagonist is shot dead and falls into a swimming pool; the rest of the story explains how he came to such an end.
Constraint is the focusing mechanism that gets your story going in a given direction. It structures the story, aims it, forces it along. But there has to be the initial impetus. Constraints without the exploding core of the story is like an unloaded revolver. The powder in this simile is theme. You have to want to actually say something. It doesn’t have to be earth-shakingly profound. It can be
as simple as, “The world’s a better place if a dedicated lawyer prevents a miscarriage of justice and exposes the real criminal.” It can be as complex as Tolkein’s theme in The Lord of the Rings: To fight evil requires power, but accepting power risks corrupting oneself into the next evil.
Of course, too much constraint can be bad. Many writers constrain themselves so effectively that they write themselves into a corner. The protagonist’s options dwindle to none, the story becomes impossible to maintain without internal contradiction, and the writer has to resort to desperate deus ex machina solutions. Characters are forced to act in ways contrary to everything that has previously occurred. I refer you to Lost, X-Files, and How to Get Away with Murder. There are two solutions to this pitfall: give up being a pantser and plan things seven years in advance like a Joss Whedon (aside from whimsical acts of backshadowing), or stay a pantser but go back in revision and insert foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is the safety valve for over- constraint. If you later have to have your prim librarian protagonist escape a prison cell by expertly picking the lock, you’re going to have to go back and slip in clues that she has acquired such a skill well in advance of her needing it. Suppose the Gestapo agent discovers that the serial
killer he’s been tracking is actually a Jewish imposter, assassinating those officers bent on the destruction of his people. Suppose the Gestapo agent ends up helping the Jews escape the ghetto and ends up teaming with the serial killer to kill yet another fellow German officer to aid in that escape. We need to have examples of his conscience struggling to throw off the brutal confines of his role and undermine his patriotism well in advance of his apparent volte-face, or it will seem completely improbable. The right foreshadowing can make a sudden turn seem, in 20-20 hindsight is almost inevitable.
Following a formula too rigidly could make your narrative formulaic or cliché-ridden. A reader of new Star Trek, Mike Hammer, or Doc Savage novels wants both a product indistinguishable from a canonic entry by the original creators and to be surprised with something completely new. Impossible task or difficult challenge worthy of your best efforts? I’ve been immersed for the last several months in reading Star Trek novels, and I’m amazed at the quality of the writing, the respect for the integrity of Roddenberry’s vision, and the new depths of characterization brought to supposedly familiar characters.
Although I don’t want to ruin anyone’s experience of any films through revealing spoilers, I heartily recommend watching She-Hulk, Attorney at Law. Shakespeare it’s not, but by breaking the fourth wall, by treating the sometimes rabidly misogynistic Marvel fanboys as integral to the storyline, and the self-referential criticism of the MCU’s (Marvel Cinematic Universe) reliance
on overdone plot clichés, the writers have come up with something relatively new and fresh. As for the possibility of being overly constrained by strict adherence to historical facts, I refer you to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Tarantino uses historical constraint for the structure he wants, and then blithely ignores it when he chooses to.
Poets and fiction writers have been subjecting themselves to severe constraints for millennia as a way to focus creativity with structure. Writing haiku or sonnets uses syllabic or metric constraints to impose a structure. Writing a novel that never uses the letter “e,” such as Ernest Vincent Wright’s Gadsby or George Perec’s La Disparition are extreme cases of self- imposed constraint. For the pantser looking for an organizing structure without a formal outline, I suggest using historical context, biographical detail, genre and pastiche formulas, and various kinds of backshadowing to channel your inchoate creativity into powerful, structurally coherent works.
Karen Woodward: https://blog.karenwoodward.org/2013/10/nanowrimo-erle-stanley-gardner-
K. B. Owen: https://kbowenmysteries.com/posts/mystery-monday-a-plot-wheel-for-perry-mason/
Jay Sennett: https://authorselectric.blogspot.com/2018/11/erle-stanley-gardner-or-how-to-write-
Eric Diaz: https://nerdist.com/article/star-trek-series-bibles-tng-ds9-voyager-enterprise-available-
Jeff Greenwald: https://www.wired.com/1996/01/trek-script/
Trek Writers’ Guild: http://www.twguild.com/resources/starting3.html
Slap Happy Larry: https://www.slaphappylarry.com/types-of-literary-shadowing/
Dale Andrews: https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2013/02/constrained-writing.html
Jeremey Thomas Fuller: http://www.jeremythomasfuller.com/backshadowing-foreshadowing-in-
TV Tropes: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Foreshadowing/BuffyTheVampireSlayer
By Jack Strandburg
Many fiction writing “experts” stress the need to know your characters (at least the protagonist
and antagonist and perhaps one or two other major characters) as good as you know yourself.
The question arises—when do you get to know your characters? Before or during the writing of
the story. Some say before, some say during, others insist it’s a “mix.”
So goes the elusive topic of profiling.
If you Google “character profiles” you’ll get over 500,000 hits.
– What’s an author to do?
– How do you decide which one works for you?
– Do you look at a few and come up with your own template?
– What form of template do you use for character profiling? A questionnaire, perhaps using the
Marcel Proust model of 35 questions on character?
If you endeavor to fill out a comprehensive character profile template, it’s easy to become
Consider the components of a character profile:
– Physical description
– Birth and birthplace
– Wants and goals
– Family background
– Manner of speaking, laughing, eating, etc.
– Real property assets
– Favorites (newspaper, color, food, etc.)
– Geographical data
– Sociological data
– Psychological data
– Military service
– Positive traits
– Negative traits
Years ago, I compiled a template (which I no longer use) based on the above categories. The
result was a spreadsheet containing over 250 rows of data. (which is precisely why I don’t use it
Given this process, one could spend literally months answering the questions, and become
frustrated and get bogged down and feel as though the story will never get started, let alone
The question becomes (and I’m sure most of you have asked) is—what is necessary for a
workable character profile before you can start writing the story?
I submitted a survey to members of The Final Twist Writer’s Society for insight into their
character profiling process, using the following questions as a guide. For the sake of clarity, I
italicized their responses.
* Do you have your own profiling template / process, or do you use an existing template?
Most members either use a bare minimum profile, figuring out character as the story
progresses, or use no template at all.
* Do you use the Archetype and / or Enneagram template?
The members use these tools for major works (novels) only.
*How much detail do you feel is necessary for a major character before you can start
writing the story? Is there a standard or do you just “sense” it’s time to write the story?
Does it vary between stories? Is it different for a pantser, plotter, or plantser?
The members were generally in agreement here and offered good advice.
I want to know the physical description as a minimum to describe how their hair falls,
how their eyes change when the sun hits them, and their height as compared to objects or
other characters. Knowing every detail of a character is too confining, and to quote
Stephen King, “if I know how the story ends, what’s the fun in writing it?”
Knowing the key traits of the character should facilitate that character to undergo a
change at the end of the story. Too many traits can cause the reader to lose focus and
prevent them from emotionally engaging with the character.
Physical description, what they want, and obstacles in their way to getting what they
want—ergo, the conflict. This normally pertains only to the protagonist and antagonist.
*How do you decide on a character trait—whether they are agreeable or argumentative? Is
it based on their wants and goals? Do the events and the situations in the story dictate
their actions and reactions?
Use traits from other people, (actors / actresses) then throw their characters into
situations that challenge who they are and what they believe in. If, during the story, they
decide they want to head west instead of east, let them go.
Traits are based on wants and goals, and the events in the story will shape them into the
person they’ll become at the end.
Deciding what will create the most conflict in the story helps to define a character, and at
least two traits should contradict in order to create a complex character—someone the
reader will become engaged with.
*Does the amount of detail for characters differ whether it’s a novel or a short story?
Yes, for obvious reasons. Short stories are more in the moment, whereas in longer works
more details and interplay occur between characters. Also, in longer works, it might be
advisable or even necessary to keep track of character details for consistency. For
instance, to ensure age is in line with the story timeline and physical description doesn’t
change significantly, at least without a reason.
*How do you determine character background? Can you decide your protagonist is from
the Midwest and was abused as opposed to just being a spoiled brat from the West Coast?
The context of the events and the conflict / action between characters will often dictate
the character’s background. For instance, a protagonist who is a tough and grizzled
character might have grown up on a farm and worked with his hands, and maybe got into
several scrapes during his young adult years.
*Do pantsers, who write “from the seat of their pants” bother with a character profile?
Even pantsers need enough of a character profile in order to ensure the key
characteristics come to light when they confront their obstacles and engage in conflict.
In fact, if a pantser has only a vague idea of who their character is, how that character
reacts when faced with their first conflict will say a lot about them and give the writer
clues about how to use them in the story—or give the writer insight into what kind of
character they need to use in their place. Sometimes a minor character will steal the
show from a major character, which is always hilarious and/or surprising. Even the
narrator can talk their way into a minor part in the story.
The Final Twist is a Houston-based writers group dedicated to supporting our authors, promoting reading, and giving back to the community at large.
That last part is something we don’t crow about, we just do it. Usually. Historically, our giving has tended to be live events in support of writing, reading, or literacy, such as hosting NaNoWriMo write-ins and providing sustenance and awards for participants. These last two years have tossed our program to the winds. It’s difficult to hold in-person events in the midst of a pandemic.
In November, 2021, we found a different way to promote English literacy in our community and want to share what we found.
First, we learned one of the groups working to resettle Afghan refugees in Houston created a library for the Afghan community. How perfect is that for a group looking to support reading and literacy? While we were discussing how we could help with donations to the library, one of our members mentioned a company that publishes bi-lingual children’s books. What were the chances they’d have English and Pashto or English and Dari? We checked. They had both! While this meant we could do our small part by donating some bi-lingual books to the new library, the real purpose of this post is to share information about Houston Welcomes Refugees and Language Lizard.
Language Lizard is a for-profit business with a unique niche. They offer bi-lingual children’s products in 50 languages. 50! If you check out their website and blog, you’ll see they have a rather nice community outreach program of their own, including free multicultural lesson plans.
Houston Welcomes Refugees is a a registered 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization with a stated purpose of “Mobilizing our city to welcome refugees with compassion, hope, and honor as they resettle and start a new life in Houston.” They have a wonderful program that welcomes Afghan refugees, helps to get each family settled in an apartment, and most importantly, teams up the family with a welcome committee that helps with the move-in and stays in touch for six months.
Houston Welcomes Refugees provides many ways for all interested parties to help resettle our brave Afghan friends who aided U.S. soldiers during our time in Afghanistan. Whether you prefer to give of your time or donate from afar, there is something for everyone. If you’ve been wondering about how to help our newest residents, check out Houston Welcomes Refugees.
by Mark H. Phillips
My fellow TFT member, Jack Strandburg, gave a wonderful presentation at our last meeting on how to use the computer software, WriteItNow, to build believable characters and integrate them into a complex plot. Jack is a consummate planner and showed how technology can augment his already formidable ability to keep track of myriad strands of backstory and character detail. I realized two things: his technique showed amazing potential, and I would never be able to use it.
I’m a pantser rather than a planner, and I’m too old to change. A pantser dreams up a scenario or two, maybe has a special setting or a character or a bit of action in mind, and just sees what happens. I put pen to paper, play with it, see what spontaneously develops, and fix any problems in revision. The process is akin to lucid dreaming. I’m far too disorganized to create intricate outlines or character backstory ahead of the actual writing. And I’m far too much a Luddite to go through the learning curve of mastering complex software.
So, what can a poor pantser do to create vibrant protagonists and antagonists, quirky secondary players, and have a good feel for how they will behave in any given situation? I see no reason to reinvent the wheel from scratch. Why not just read biographies? I may be a disorganized writer, but I’m not a lazy one. I put in months of research, and that often involves reading countless biographies, histories, and journals. Why invent new people when there are so many fascinating people already out there, meticulously described, psychoanalyzed, photographed, documented, and explained?
An author who perfectly illustrates this technique is Mark Hodder. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been immersed in his wild and brilliant alternate history adventures of the explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton and the poet Algernon Swinburne. The first book in the series is The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack. The premise is that a time traveler inadvertently causes an 1840 attempt to assassinate Queen Victoria to succeed, altering history radically and resulting in a far more rapid diffusion of technology than actual history details. Repeated attempts to repair history or to exploit the time travelling tech introduce a plethora of wildly divergent timelines where different versions of Burton attempt to deal with the catastrophic consequences. Most of the main characters are versions of real historical people, from scientists Charles Babbage and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, prime ministers from Palmerston to Gladstone, and authors from Oscar Wilde to Bram Stoker to H. G. Wells. Hodder has done his homework. Burton comes across as a fully fleshed out character, because Hodder knows precisely how Burton really did react in a wide variety of stressful and outré situations, from visiting Mecca in disguise to trying to discover the source of the Nile.
Nor is Hodder the first to use the historical character of Burton in this manner. Philip José Farmer used Burton in his Hugo-winning Riverworld series, along with versions of Samuel Clemens, Hermann Göring, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Tom Mix.
A brief survey on Amazon yields multiple detective series that exploit historical figures as main characters:
- Bertie and the Tinman by Peter Lovesy launches a series based on the Prince of Wales.
- Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance by Gyles Brandreth launches a series featuring the famous author and wit.
- These Honored Dead by Jonathan F. Putnam launches a series featuring a young Abraham Lincoln.
- The Murder of Patience Brooke by J. C. Briggs launches a series with Charles Dickens as the central character.
The advantages of using historical figures as characters is that all the work of creating a detailed back story and consistent character profile has already been done by their biographers. I would suggest that there is an ethical mandate to do your research thoroughly and make your portrayal of the historical figures you’ve appropriated as accurate as possible. In no way is my suggested method easier or quicker than Jack’s technology assisted method. Meticulous and thorough research of both the person and the time period is required.
Of course, you can invent new characters by just appropriating parts of the historical biographies and building anew on top of the existing facts. Suppose I want to write a murder mystery set in the wealthy mansion of an egomaniacal newspaper magnate, with the main amateur detective a woman servant already prejudiced against her wealthy employers and harboring revolutionary secrets. I’ll create new names and alter the facts as much as I please, but in my own mind I’m writing about William Randolph Hearst, Emma Goldman, and La Cuesta Encantada. I’m not constrained by real history, but I’ve got all of the essential character traits and backstory I might need.
What about secondary characters? You don’t want to do months of research on a relatively minor character, but you still want them to be memorable and consistent. Here I take advantage of my addiction to watching classic movies. The Hollywood studio system had whole stables of contract character actors, skilled at playing a particular type. When Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, or Elisha Cook, Jr. walked on screen, the audience knew them quickly and efficiently because they were used to seeing them playing essentially the same type in many previous films. You don’t have to tell your reader what you’re doing, but when I need a prissy, sarcastic, functionary, I picture Eric Blore. Once I’ve got that actor in mind, my character is going to behave consistently throughout my story based on my seeing him perform the same character in dozens of films. If I need a fuzzy-minded bumbler, I’ve got Nigel Bruce. If I need a crazed fanatical scientist, I’ve got Patrick Magee. If I need a cynical, world-weary police chief with a bad attitude, I’m going to imagine Simon Oakland. I essentially cast my stories like a producer or director would. Two of my go-to writing resources are David Quinlen’s The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Movie Character Actors and Quinlan’s Film Stars.
If you’re a planner and comfortable with tech, by all means check out a program such as WriteItNow. But if you are a pantser who wants to just start writing and see where the story goes, try reading up on some historical figures, select a few character actors to round out the cast, and throw them all into some stressful situations. I’m often amazed at what my subconscious produces.
Members of The Final Twist are learning to make video book trailers. Posts for the next few weeks will showcase our results.
Released from Reality , the newest anthology from The Final Twist, contains sixteen short stories featuring mysteries that take unexpected directions in science, technology, sports, history, medicine, physics, and space exploration–plus original fairy tales and other fantasies. Colussus is one of those stories. Take a look on YouTube.
Members of The Final Twist are learning to make video book trailers. Posts for the next few weeks will showcase our results.
Released from Reality , the newest anthology from The Final Twist, contains sixteen short stories featuring mysteries that take unexpected directions in science, technology, sports, history, medicine, physics, and space exploration–plus original fairy tales and other fantasies. Rube Waddell Beats the Devil is one of those stories. Take a look on YouTube.
Members of The Final Twist are learning to make video book trailers. Posts for the next few weeks will showcase our results.
Released from Reality , the newest anthology from The Final Twist, contains sixteen short stories featuring mysteries that take unexpected directions in science, technology, sports, history, medicine, physics, and space exploration–plus original fairy tales and other fantasies. Rosa Red’s Jewel is one of those stories. Take a look on YouTube.
by Mark H. Phillips
Fiction writing is mute. Audible books aside, traditional writing is just silent, black ink on white paper, and at a drastic disadvantage to the elaborately scored fiction of movies, TV, opera, and stage. Strip off Tangerine Dream’s score from Sorcerer, Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho, Nino Rota’s music for The Godfather, and John Williams score for Star Wars, and you have amputated the beating hearts of these films. Print fiction usually lacks any amputatable musical heart to begin with. Many writers find it difficult to adequately describe music, aside from just transcribing the lyrics of pop songs, arguably the least important element of the music. I discovered just how hard it was to write fiction about music when creating my new blues-scholar-meets-alien novel, The Ness & Guthrie Blues. My writing group, The Final Twist, collaborates on a new themed anthology each year, and next year’s theme is, of course, music. Let’s examine several strategies of meeting the artistic hurdle of writing about music.
The simplest approach is the one I take in The Ness & Guthrie Blues: I just tell the reader to set down their Kindle, find the referenced recordings on YouTube, listen to the songs, and then return to reading. My excuse for doing it this way is that the recordings I’ve referenced are extraordinary. My target audience of music aficionados/collectors are going to want to listen to the actual music; my pallid written descriptions of them would be completely inadequate. Besides, the YouTube music is free, easily referenced, and supercool. My descriptions of the music are essentially liner notes, providing biographical info, historical context, and production details.
My models for this approach were the Lovejoy novels by Jonathan Gash and The Vinyl Detective series by Andrew Cartmell. Each features obsessive know-it-all protagonists who live and breathe information about their respective treasures. I’ve always enjoyed learning things while I read, and I wanted to write a book that would enable me to share my extensive research in an entertaining way. Merging my protagonist’s search for ultra-rare recordings with a science fiction mystery, I wrote what I want to read. There must be readers out there for my work—who hasn’t amassed a minor but precious record/CD collection, and who doesn’t like a good misunderstood alien story?
All of the recordings I reference in The Ness & Guthrie Blues are real. Cartmell centers each of his novels on a fictional recording. He can’t just send his readers out to YouTube. But the technique is largely the same. He uses easily referenced real recordings and artists to circle in on his fictional rarity. The reader can get a pretty good idea of what’s intended with just a little aural research. Here’s a passage from Cartmell’s Victory Disc (2018). He’s describing a recording of a swing jazz band made up of British flyers during WWII who beat the famous Glenn Miller Army Air Force ensemble in battle-of-the-bands competition:
The playing of the Flare Path Orchestra was virtuosic, both bluesy and swinging. They also sounded startlingly modern. I might have been listening to a Ted Heath recording from the late 1950s. It had the same assurance and densely organized quality. But there was a quirkiness to the instrumentation that put me in mind of Spike Jones and, from a later era, Esquivel. It still sounded fresh today, first-class British jazz played by a bunch of young guys who were fighting, and dying, in a war against the forces of darkness.
If I’m casually reading along, the reference to big bands, wartime, swing bands is enough for me to know what’s meant. If I want a clearer picture of this fictional band’s sound, I can easily listen to a little Glenn Miller, Ted Heath, Spike Jones, and Esquivel. How deep the reader wants to dive is left to them, but there are rewards for those willing to make the effort.
A subtler technique is to bypass the music itself and try to jump directly to the affects the music is intended to evoke through the use of alternative images or other associations. In “The Crooner,” a short story in Kazuo Ishiguro’s collection Nocturnes (2009), a Polish guitarist in Rome tries to recreate the music of an American singer and the effect the records had on his lonely mother trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Ishiguro eschews a direct account of the music and describes what that music was meant to evoke, what it felt like to listen to it.
I tried to make it sound like America, sad roadside bars, big long highways, and I guess I was thinking too of my mother, the way I’d come into the room and see her on the sofa gazing at her record sleeve with its picture of an American road, or maybe the singer sitting in an American car. What I mean is, I tried to play it so my mother would have recognized it as coming from the same world, the world on the record sleeve.
This sort of description is deliberately underspecified. A hundred different readers may imagine a hundred different songs from this description, yet whatever they do come up with will resonate in a deeply personal way. Ishiguro leaves it up to the reader to supply the inner associations so long as the result is close to what the music meant to the character’s mother.
Another example of this technique is from Do Not Sell at Any Price by Amanda Petrusich (2014). She’s describing a rare Cajun 78 recording where the singer’s voice collapses near the end.
“Sur le Borde de l’Eau” is something else entirely. I don’t know what Gaspard is going on about (I don’t speak enough French), but I’m certain the payoff isn’t narrative. His voice is so saturated with longing that it seems to hover midair, a helium balloon that’s lost too much gas. It is tenuous and malfunctioning and then it disintegrates entirely, like the best/worst relationship you’ve ever had, like a ghost disappearing into the mist.
More specific images and associations work for authors who want more control and rely less on what the reader brings with them. Here’s a passage from E. Annie Proulx’s “Heart Songs” (1986):
His accordion made a nasal, droning undernote like bagpipes, broken every few bars by circus music phrases, flaring, brassy elephant sounds. The effect was curious but not disagreeable. It gave the music a sardonic, rollicking air, like Long John Silver dancing a hornpipe, his wooden leg dotting blood on the captured deck.
Stream of consciousness can evoke what a performance feels like from the inside. This passage is from Mister Satan’s Apprentice by Adam Gussow (1998) describing a harmonica player’s first open-mike session with a real backing band in front of a raucous audience:
There was a brief, almost imperceptible hush after the rhythm section swung into gear and I leaned toward the mike. I was hovering, searching for a handhold, then grabbing and plunging in, knife-edging my blue thirds like Nat and Big Walter, yelping with panic and anxious yearning. Somebody was clapping in time. I yelped again, kicked from behind by the drums. A sudden electrical storm seemed to surge around me, hunger and rippling expectancy reaching out from all sides, supercharging the atmosphere. “Don’t stop!” shouted somebody at the bar. I shivered and bore down hard, cut through the swirling surf, found the taut cable and held it, refused to let go, was dragged along the glass-strewn bottom, cut and bleeding, screaming—it was hot down here, burning the skin off my shoulders, scraping the skin off my knees, elbows, and chest, bursting through my heart as I streamed back to the surface, gasping, on fire. “Do it, goddammit!” somebody yelled. Flames licked at me, then spread wildly; the room was an open mouth—hot, demanding, loving, ferocious, dizzying. The drums hurled me forward, the organ boiled me alive. I held on. All I could do was hold on. I held and held, streaming.
Contrast the above techniques with the most common, older approach of just ladling on lots of general and abstract adjectives, a technique that rarely moves the reader to any specific or profound impression. Here’s a passage from The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (1910, translator unknown):
The voice without a body went on singing; and certainly Raoul had never in his life heard anything more absolutely and heroically sweet, more gloriously insidious, more delicate, more powerful, in short, more irresistibly triumphant. He listened to it in a fever and he now began to understand how Christine Daaé was able to appear one evening, before the stupefied audience, with accents of a beauty hitherto unknown of a superhuman exaltation, while doubtless still under the influence of the mysterious and invisible stranger.
As we shall see below, this use of abstract adjectives seems unavoidable when the music is unearthly or weird. It’s hard to imagine what else H. P. Lovecraft could do in his eerie “The Music of Erich Zann” (1922). If someone were making a movie adaptation of this story, it would be a near impossible task to select or commission a piece that would adequately capture the horror Lovecraft wanted to evoke.
It would be useless to describe the playing of Erich Zann on that dreadful night. It was more horrible than anything I had overheard, because I could now see the expression on his face, and could realize that this time the motive was stark fear. He was trying to make a noise; to ward something off or drown something out—what, I could not imagine, awesome though I thought it must be. The playing grew fantastic, delirious, hysterical, yet kept to the last the qualities of genius which I knew this strange old man possessed. . . .Louder and louder, wilder and wilder, mounted the shrieking and whining of the desperate viol. . . .I could almost see shadowy satyrs and Bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely through seething abysses of clouds and smoke and lightning. And then I thought I heard a shriller, steadier note that was not from the viol; a calm, deliberate, purposeful, mocking note from far away in the west.
Here the lack of specificity is a common technique in horror writing where the scariest monsters are those that are never clearly seen. Whatever the reader imagines will be scarier for him than any specific details the writer can describe. For a perfect visual analog of this technique, watch The Cat People (1942).
Music is such an important and ubiquitous element in our lives that to leave it out of our writing seems perverse. Hopefully at least one of the examples described above will assist you in recapturing music in an otherwise mute medium.