Who’s the real villain?

As a legend Robin Hood represents the kind of principled nonconformist on which many heroes are based. We love to read about people who confront government wrong-doing even in a criminal manner as he did. But, if a similar character existed in real life, he would not be any more popular than a government agency attempting to redistribute our wealth. The majority of people would probably condemn him.

Rumpelstiltskin is an excellent fairytale that could be rewritten from the opposite viewpoint. Many characters on the poor peasant girl’s side seem as bad as the deformed old man who knows how to spin gold. The braggart father and the irrationally demanding king are the real villains who need to be defeated by the end of the story. But, they live happily ever after.

How do you parry the strength of the protagonist against the antagonist in a plot? Common wisdom says that the strength of the hero and villain need to be similar in order for the conflict to engage the readers. Therefore, authors create increasingly strong and vicious villains with the idea of making the protagonist look larger than life.

We only have to look at the very popular superhero comics and movies to see this occurring. A clean cut honest good guy hero like Superman comes from a wholesome family background and normally chases villains who are mildly destructive, maybe they want to spend their money to buy themselves power, but they are not trying to destroy humanity. Lex Luthor is nowhere as depraved as the Joker. But, the hero that must defeat the Joker is Batman, a vigilante with a vendetta and not necessarily a law abiding citizen.

Speaking of vendettas consider “V” the strange protagonist who conceals himself behind a Guy Fawkes mask. He is one of the most questionable anti-heroes. He does have the challenge of bringing down leaders of a corrupt society, but he has similar terroristic qualities to the person behind whose mask that he hides. “V” goes so far as to temporarily imprison the heroine. She must have a taste of the struggles that formed him to ensure she won’t turn him in to the corrupt authorities.

Compare “V” to the antagonist of Les Miserables. The police inspector is not a corrupt person. However, he believes he is chasing a criminal, perhaps a vicious one. When the villain realizes his error he destroys himself. The hero of the story, Jean Valjean, never raises a hand against him.

My conclusion? Be careful with creating a great evil to make your hero shine. Heroes are similar in strengths to villains and one of these is morality. So a hero chasing a very depraved villain is more likely to cut corners and break laws in order to catch that bad guy. The ideas that mold a more evil antagonist will often result in a hero bending our ideas of what is right. The hero will shine dimly as morally gray, or not shine at all.

Posted in Characters, Literature, Story structure, Trends in books, Writing trends | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The most memorable kind of hero

Is this true that a memorable hero of incredible wisdom and strength can only show full worth when pitted against an incredibly powerful villain?.  The similarities between villains and heroes are often noted in fiction. So how does an author make a hero shine? The hero must have a type of strength greater than the villain, but not too much, because then it is no memorable thing for him to defeat the villain. However, if the hero lacks the amount of power the villain possesses, would it even be possible to defeat this extraordinary antagonist?

To understand how this works, the concept of power in a story needs to be defined. A person can be physically more powerful than others. One of the most famous fictional characters with this trait is Jean Valjean from Les Misérables. His strength was so notable that when he rescued a person pinned under a cart the police inspector suspected Jean might be the escaped convict he was trying to track down.

However a physically strong person can be defeated by someone who is mentally stronger or smarter. Such as is the case with Sherlock Holmes. When his creator Arthur Conan Doyle tired of writing his detective stories, he decided it was time for Holmes to die. But, he had to pit him against Moriarty, a more intelligent criminal, and not some thug who simply had greater brute strength.

Then, there is a social strength which is usually the following or the popularity that the protagonist uses against the enemy. This is prevalent in dystopian novels in which the enemy is society. In many of the modern YA versions of this genre, such as the Hunger Games trilogy, the protagonist must sway the opinion of the populace. However, even in ancient legends such as ones about Robin Hood, the hero has to gain the support of the people in order to overcome an antagonist like the sheriff of Nottingham.

However, there is one more type of strength. Let’s return to the first protagonist mentioned, Jean Valjean, to describe moral strength. It is the ability to know and do what is right. The character who is not as smart nor not as strong and doesn’t have public support sticks his neck out when the villain comes around and seems sure to be defeated but ends up winning anyway. This is often repeated in plots that resemble the movie High Noon. Because of the hero’s moral character, another person is willing to step in and help.

However, the morally gray character is growing in popularity as a hero. Perhaps readers like this kind of hero because any protagonist who is absolutely perfect seems unreal. The misbehaving character with the physical ability to do almost everything seems to have an edge on the “Goody Two-Shoes” kind of characters who are near perfection in behavior. The one reason why morally gray heroes do not always fulfill expectations is because their tendency towards villainy does not cause them problems. So, they never learn from their moral errors and still manage to get the right thing done.

This brings us back to the hero with moral strength. Jean Valjean had gotten away with doing the wrong thing, and even allowed others to do the same, resulting in a woman’s death. This sense of debt owed, rather than an attitude of moral perfection is one reason his hero type is one of the most memorable and keeps reappearing, generation after generation in books. 

Posted in Characters, Creativity, Drama and movies, Literary devices, Writer's resource | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

When do the ghosts show up?

According to my friends I read depressing books, such as Cry the Beloved Country and Crime and Punishment, and actually enjoy them. What kind of books do I avoid reading because I find them depressing while others seem to relish them? That category would be horror. Other people may be entertained by sinister topics which I cannot completely dismiss as being fictional. The horrendous ideas had to come from somewhere. So, I find  myself mourning the human condition rather than being amused.

When younger I read some shorter horror works because I could stand the tension of a darkly emotional world of imagined miseries for a short while. While visiting my aunt, I soon realized that all of her children had their own activities to take up their time. So, I found myself alone with Edgar Allen Poe, the only author I recognized on her bookshelf. Poe is an excellent writer; he uses interior fear rather than exterior gore. He builds tension in a very short time based on the unknown or the insanity of the narrator. But, after reading a dozen or so of his short stories, I had my fill.

However, the stories that I read then don’t fit into the current trend. These older tales had no supernatural terror, and only rarely a vicious or hideous creature, or a happy ending. Characters, such as vampires, blood-thirsty aliens, or demon-possessed people and objects are the stock of more recent horror literature. This genre now seems to be very popular with audiences a bit bored with their life.

The modern monster’s purpose is to boost people’s adrenaline with a dose of terror. They do this job with motives that are often never fully examined or explained. These monsters are often destroyed in a gory manner that out does the viciousness which they impose on their victims. However, the “good” character succeeds, or at least survives, until the next sequel. With too much adrenaline flowing through my veins already, I am not a good candidate for a horror fan.  

So, you may wonder why I ever attempted to write a short horror story. My plot dealt with psychological horror in the manner of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. A modest woman starts to recklessly seek fame as an antidote for her perception of being useless. My piece does not reveal if the woman has an obsession or there is another more sinister problem looming over her life until the end. I discovered most readers were not perceptive enough to catch subtle clues that I thought were hair raising. They wanted obvious ghosts.

These may have been the same people providing input into the Netflix production of The Haunting of Bly Manor series, which was based on the Turn of the Screw. Unlike the series, James’ masterpiece has no obvious ghosts and the reader never knows if the governess was insane or the children were possessed. But, that kind of horror is too subtle for today. So, no more horror story writing for me.

Posted in Characters, Creativity, Literature, Psychology, Trends in books, Writer's resource | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The sports hero’s journey

When advised to base stories on the hero’s journey, I realized that the “monomyth model” constructed plots based on a large sampling of Greek mythology. I’ve always had a suspicion that these myths were based on real people. The characters may have a super human exterior, but they exhibit all the flaws of humans. They are almost adolescent in their behavior, competing for status, like royalty that never had to grow up. But, the hero’s journey extends beyond the story we see in movies. The common people get even with these misbehaving heroes. At the end of most Greek myths the hero has a tarnished reputation or a pitiful downfall.

For example, Jason and the Argonauts fits wonderfully into the hero’s journey, at least the part that appears in most movies. Jason leaves the land ruled by his cruel and deceitful uncle Pelias. He leads the adventurous Argonauts to an unfamiliar country in Southwest Asia to steal a treasure known as the Golden fleece (an obvious MacGuffin as the pure gold fleece is a bit too heavy to make any kind of garment out of it). Pelias believes Jason is doomed to fail which is his major reason for sending him on this quest. Instead, the lucky Jason meets a gorgeous sorceress named Medea. With her assistance he secures this intensely guarded fleece, and then heads back to his homeland to claim the throne with Medea by his side.

Note the similarity of this plot to stories of athletes rising in their career. They leave home to compete in a new place with the odds against them. However, with a coach’s guidance, teammate’s support or the inspiration of an adoring woman they pull through, win against an unbeatable team and return home victorious.

But, Jason’s return to home with Medea is the beginning of his downfall. The end to this story is not often told in the movies. It is similar to the slide into obscurity of many athletes’ years after their big wins. The locals distrust Jason’s powerful wife, Medea. After a few years they drive out their new king and queen. Jason and Medea flee to Corinth where Jason is still considered a hero. That local king offers his daughter, a younger and meeker woman than Medea, to Jason for a bride. He takes up the offer. Medea wreaks her revenge leaving Jason without a new bride or any children.

In sports literature successful athletes often face the challenge of their own conquests fading away. They may fall to the folly of hubris or the charms of the wrong kind of women. Why is this theme of losing status repeated in both mythology and novels about sports legends? There’s a kind of mournfulness to realizing that as an athlete your major accomplishments are over by the end of your twenties. This was also true of athletic warriors who rose to the rank of nobles in ancient times.

The creators of these stories have to make a decision. Should they blindly close their eyes and be happy stuck in one time or be truthful about what happens next? Ending with the physical prowess of youth, leaves the author with a character stuck in immaturity. The authors really want them to grow up, even if the ending is bittersweet.

Posted in Characters, Drama and movies, Literary devices, Story structure, Writer's resource, Writing trends | Tagged | Leave a comment

Sports Lit

While watching a recent bone crunching pro-football game on TV, I saw a player dive into a fracas and come up with the fumbled football. He took off for his goal, running for the sidelines to avoid being pummeled by a pile of opposing players.  When the TV camera zoomed in close, I could see his grin as his teammates gave him congratulatory fists to his helmet. However, it looked like that punch jarred his head as much as a tackle.

“Doesn’t that hurt him?” I asked.

“Players frequently do things to their own players that would result in a penalty if they did it to an opponent,” responded a wiser sports aficionado.  

Based on that incident, I decided to look at classic sports novels to trace the development of this kind of reputation, only to find few sports novels written before the second half of the twentieth century. So, I examined some well-known non-fiction books on this subject as well. Many of the current books reveal a darker side to sports than the painful celebratory punches by team members.

There are a few light-hearted views of athletes such in George Plimpton’s Paper Lion, a real account of how he gained access into the Detroit Lions’ training camp practices. Plimpton wanted to find out how an average guy would fare competing against professional athletes. Although the coaches were aware that he was not a true recruit, the players were not, at least until his obvious ineptitude was revealed. Plimpton’s book deals mainly with the personalities of the players as he was never allowed to play in a real game.

Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream is a candid coverage of one dramatic season for the Permian High School Panthers as they aim at the Texas State Championship. H.G. Bissinger describes how the town gathers ritualistically every Friday during the autumn season to cheer on its team who obtain a kind of instant celebrity. But, a surprising number of the football players suffer from their attempts at athletic fame. There are painful revelations about injured players, forgotten as soon as they are no longer useful. In an ironic twist, the championship title becomes dependent on disproving a charge of grade tampering.

Many of the current “true stories” in sports describe a litany of gambling, dirty dealing and drugs that make opponents seem like the least of the athlete’s worries. Those are the themes that run through famous fictional sports novels, too. Fat City by Leonard Gardner is an acclaimed novel about the life of small circuit boxers set in California. Tully, a major character in the novel, decides to return to the boxing ring. But, his experience is nothing like Rocky Balboa’s comeback. In this gritty novel aspiring boxers have a few wins before descending down a path of desperation.

One of the most well-known and beloved sports novels is The Natural by Bernard Malamud. This fictional work is loosely based on the life of Eddie Waitkus. Readers may want to cheer on this talented athlete in his second attempt at glory in baseball. However, this novel has an edgier and more realistic ending than fireworks-filled home run in the popular movie. The baseball prodigy, who loses his best years, is a reckless character that struggles in an attempted comeback. There is no assurance that he can win the big game for the pennant. But, the novel doesn’t end with the game.

All of these books have been made into movies. However, it is worth the time to read them for their further insights. In the twentieth century, the heroes of the playing field have replaced the old heroes of battle. There is still a darker side of competition that remains to be told.

Posted in Drama and movies, Nonfiction, Trends in books, Writer's resource, Writing trends | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Keeping the unknown a mystery

I was engrossed in a mystery that grabbed me from the beginning. Set in the mid nineteenth century it commenced with a spooky chase scene in the fog. The shadow-like suspect disappeared around the corner of a stately brownstone. Then, a person vanished when surrounded by crowds and nobody seemed to notice. Was I dealing with an ingenious criminal or something supernatural?  To add to the tension, the hero still agonized about the loss of a recent love as he attempted to buckle down and catch this person-snatcher. 

The villain turned out to be all too human, both extremely narcissistic and cruel. Unfortunately he was still more intelligent than the protagonist. So, he kept on feeding the poor man clues that a villain shouldn’t have to spread around so carelessly. I knew these clues came directly from the antagonist because half of the way through the book, I was introduced to his viewpoint. The villain’s willingness to give himself away was blamed on the “insane” genius. But, it was a ruse to keep the tension high in the story. The author was no genius and seemed to have forgotten that glimpses of the villain were seen only by the readers. However, the protagonist became clairvoyant, magically deducing whatever was revealed to me.

 Perhaps I am being too hard on this piece of fiction because I am not as fond of suspense as traditional mysteries. A good mystery is not easy to write. If it has a plot that is too complex, many of the readers will fail to grasp the elaborate twists and turns. If the plot is simpler, it is harder to hold some reader’s attention. It takes skill to create a book that keeps the reader in suspense for an entire 300 pages and then reveals an answer that makes sense but was never obvious. But, a quality suspense novel, in which the viewpoints of both the protagonist and antagonist are revealed, is even more difficult.

Perhaps my favorite suspense author is Daphne du Maurier. Her stories are often disquieting without anything gruesome or horrifying mentioned because of her subtle way of creating scenes with a threatening mood. However, what makes her style of suspense distinctive is playing both with the characters and plot. Events unfold in a way that makes the reader question motives of people in her stories. One character is slowly revealed as a different kind of person than the reader suspected. But, is that truly what is occurring? The reader remains unsure if they have an accurate idea of the character’s real nature. Is she honest or deceptive? Sometimes this is revealed in the end, and sometimes the question is never answered. 

I know that last option will not be satisfying to some readers. But, as I think about what I expect of the ultimate suspense, I realize that I don’t want to know who will win. As I read about two people engaged in a cat and mouse game, what really holds my attention until the end is not knowing which one is the hero, and which is the villain.

Posted in Literary devices, Story structure, Style and voice, Writer's resource, Writing trends | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Dueling Detectives

When Edgar Allen Poe published Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841 the murder mystery was a relatively new genre. He wrote a few more of these increasingly popular detective stories. However, In 1849 he was found wandering injured and delirious through the streets of Baltimore. The brilliant writer never regained a clear enough mind to explain what had happened to him. He died a few days later leaving a real unsolved mystery. 

Poe’s fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin, gained some attention, too. Another author even took a few pot shots at him in his own first murder mystery entitled A Study in Scarlet. Anyone familiar the murder mystery genre will recognize that novel as the one introducing Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to the world in 1887. Arthur Conan Doyle, a medical doctor and aspiring author, used a real inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. His consulting detective had such a striking resemblance to a surgical instructor at the University of Edinburgh Medical School that many of Doyle’s contemporaries realized he modeled Holmes after Joseph Bell. 

These two authors of mysteries introduced some of the staples of this genre. The calling card, the modus operandi (or M.O.), and the motive. The calling card is also called the signature aspect in criminology. It is a quirky behavior or an eccentric ritual that seems to exhibit pure hubris. It is often the item that marks crimes committed by the same perpetrator. In A Study in Scarlet, the word “rache” (German for revenge) is written in blood near the victim.

Modus operandi is Latin for method of operation describing the character’s preferred way of interacting with others to carry out their crimes. Non-criminals also have M.O.s. Consider two different teenage boys in their attempts to attract a certain teenage girl. One may decide a show of physical strength, such as pelting a rival with a football, to gain attention from the female. The other, who uses his wit may point out the disproportionate number of felons in the NFL after the pelting incident. 

Motive is the reason that drives a criminal (or any character) to act. Simply being crazy is not a real motive, but the character must be seeking a specific reward from the crime. The rationale for committing crimes tends to remain constant while the M.O. is not completely fixed but can change over time. Often criminals gain confidence and becomes more daring. However, there still needs to be a reason, or an event that causes the shift in the M.O. 

Calling card, modus operandi, and motive are not just reserved for suspects in murder mysteries.  Fictional characters take on their own personalities when you remember to consider each of these features. These aspects don’t make characters completely predictable, otherwise criminals would be easier to catch, but they do make characters more memorable.

Posted in Story structure, Trends in books, Writer's resource, Writing trends | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Getting the Utopian Novel Right

H.G. Wells kept trying to get the utopian novel right. His novel A Modern Utopia has a fictional framework–the protagonist meets a man from a perfect society on a distant island. The book is really a philosophical essay describing the economy, the rights of women, etc. on this mythical  island. In the Days of the Comet, H.G. Wells chronicles how an exploding comet from outer space wipes out the capitalist powers. Then, surviving humankind rebuilds the world correctly. Finally, he set Men Like Gods  in a parallel universe, and wrote the sequel, called the Future of Things. These do not read like novels but imaginary future histories.

However H.G. Well’s fame rests on stories like The Time Machine. The main character crosses eons in time to land in a distant future of dainty people in an Eden-like setting. A utopia? Not at all. These pretty little people lack concern for each other and are terrified of the dark. Finally, the veil is lifted to reveal that these people serve as livestock for the subterranean dwellers. The book is occasionally philosophical; the main character imagines how an upper class becomes dependent on a lower class until there is a shift in power. However, he spends a lot more time running from the subterranean people than thinking about their origin.

On the other hand, American journalist Edward Bellamy’s most famous work was his utopian novel, Looking Backward. Published in 1888, it was a commercially successful book and the publisher, Houghton Mifflin & Company, struggled to keep up with demand. In this futuristic novel the main character, Julian West, falls into a Rip Van Winkle-like sleep and wakes up 113 year later in the year 2000. This new world is without private property or money, which seems to have also eliminated war, poverty, and crime.  

Has any author actually managed to write about a utopia with character development, rising and falling action, conflict, crisis and all those other reasons that I read books? Actually two of my favorites are Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis, and Lost Horizons by James Hilton. In each case the main character doesn’t search out or stumble upon the land of contented people but is kidnapped and taken there against his will. Naturally, they view the place with some suspicions. They are from a world full of greed, hatred, and violence making it hard to imagine that a place without these is not hiding some dark secret.

So, how do you create a gripping drama in a practically perfect world? Introduce some very imperfect humans.

Posted in Creativity, Literary devices, Literature, Story structure, Trends in books, Writer's resource, Writing trends | Leave a comment

Dystopian Entertainment

The plethora of dystopian novels that involve putting teens into deadly trials has begun to disturb me. Starting with Hunger Games, which was similar to a YA version of the Running Man, the stories read like athletic competitions run amok. The teens are grouped into categories for what turns out to be a string of deadly competitions, often staged for the populace’s viewing pleasure. Dystopian literature is by no means new, and it has always been a bit disturbing but for different reasons. There are ancient texts that describe a future in which society is deeply flawed, and yet citizens continue to serve the powers that be, unaware of their enslavement. These works from past century works were warnings and not entertainment that resembled gladiator sports. 

The Russian author Yevgenv Zamyatin created a future world of complete human conformity in his novel We. He often receives credit as the modern inventor of this type of literature; however, Jack London published Iron Heel over a decade earlier. London’s book is a combination of a science fiction and political novel that fits the idea of a dystopia perfectly, even if it is not as futuristic as Zamyatin’s work. In London’s novel the rise of popular support for a socialist government is squelched by a dictatorship backed by political conservatives. It describes the effect of unscrupulous big business that results in an economic dystopia.

Many dystopian novels are based on ideas that reflect Zamyatin’s novel. They almost always take place in a future society. People often follow skewed ideals, which masquerade as the path to utopia. Enforced conformity is often the result of humans reacting to a perceived threat. The environment is frequently artificial as well, especially so in Zamyatin’s novel. People live in an urban setting constructed basically of glass making surveillance easy. This fear of being observed is a pervasive theme as the main character, D-503, begins to break with the uniformity required by the One State.

For the protagonist there is no going back. Once enlightened, the only options are to escape the society or die. The dystopian societies do not easily crumble as they do in the modern teen versions of governments gone awry. The dystopian society in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is not brought down by those who wish to preserve books rather than destroying them. Instead these people flee the city that wishes to hunt them down before it goes up in the flames of war.

There are some dystopian novels aimed at YA which are not designed around war games. The desire to erase the memory of an unpleasant past is what leads to the twisting of a society into a dystopia that masquerades as a utopia in The Giver by Lois Lowry. There numerous incidents of planned euthanasia for the comfort of the society which refuses to allow pain. The Giver, a wise mentor and a young protagonist named Jonas, attempt to release the memories of pain back into society. This is foiled because Jonas has learned to love, so he must escape.

There is still hope for dystopias written with the courage to reveal what is wrong with our society by taking it to an extreme that still seems plausible. There are ones that are serious and not just combatant based. Of course anyone fond of getting adolescents together to fight only to have them turn against a corrupt regime should remember—none of these trials are as deadly as sending out eighteen-year-olds en masse to fight a war. We are still doing this in real life somewhere in the world within each generation.

Posted in Censorship, Creativity, Drama and movies, Literary devices, Literature, Millennials, Trends in books, Writer's resource, Zoomers | Leave a comment

Fairy Tale or Dystopia?

The desire to be considered superior and above the crowd exists in most people. We try to ignore the fact that the majority of us are commoners. From time immemorial stories arise with the promise of reaching status by marrying into a royal family (or the case of Greek legends, marrying a god). The goal is to become the next ruler. This is the draw of mythology and fairy tales that made them so popular with ancient audiences. It is still reflected in innumerable fantasy stories from the twenty-first century.

However acceptance by the royal family (or pantheon) is not easy. The conflict occurs when some vicious person (often related to the royal family) gives the commoner an impossible task. The only way to accomplish this is by magic. So, it helps to make friends with wizards. Similar devices are used in the proliferation of dystopian stories with a happy ending. 

What is the difference between fairy tales and dystopian literature? The most recognizable one is fairy tales are set in the past and dystopias are set in the future. However, the government in both cases are ruled by a select few possessing far more power than any humans should have. There are basically no more absolute monarchs in the world, but we have a number of politicians with hopes to become absolute dictators. Dystopian writers draw on past and present dictatorships for their inspiration.

Fairy tales were traditionally read to children. However, the versions that most people know today have been sanitized. They are now lacking the gore and are more appropriate for a young audience. If you are familiar with the original stories collected by the Grimm brothers, you know they were quite grotesque. Perhaps fairy-tales were created for adults, the same audience for which most dystopian novels used to be written. 

If you’ve read both of these genres widely enough, you will find the number of vicious despots ruling over kingdoms is similar to the insidious people ruling over dystopian lands. Sometimes, the dystopian rulers mistakenly believe they are providing some benefit to humanity. So, their intentions are not as corrupt as Snow White’s stepmother.

In the modern dystopia aimed at adolescents, we know the commoners will be successful at overthrowing the oppressive government in the end. Often it is a modern technology that resembles sorcery that provides the upper hand in this battle. Sometimes the protagonist simply possesses multiple forms of giftedness. The hero in a dystopian novel almost never marries the heir to the throne, because the future country is ruled by a dictator and not by a wicked king or queen. But, the young hero often ends up in a similar position once the evil power is defeated–being groomed for leadership in the new order.

Posted in Creativity, Literary devices, Literature, Story structure, Trends in books, Writer's resource, Writing trends | Leave a comment