Recently, I had an interesting dialogue with a writer friend on Twitter. He’d looked through my sci-fi/western/drama/romance and mentioned how “graphic” it is. I agreed that it’s probably “the most gleefully graphic I’ve let myself get in a long time.” Our conversation became more about writing side stories, but I kept thinking about why I’ve enjoyed working with this particular story so much these past few months. Part of that reason is that personal allowance to be graphic, an allowance I haven’t given for my more recent original fiction. There’s a lot of sex, because that’s a big part of the main character’s personal journey, but I’ve also loaded it with more action and violence than I’ve done in a while. Following that thought, I came to realize that it’s the villains who have made this story so much rollicking fun, for me.
I’ve read analyses that say the villain is the most important part of the story. I don’t exactly agree with that wording, because not every story will have a “villain.” In more precise – and also more amorphous – terms, I think it’s conflict that drives a story. I’ve talked about this a bit before, but I want to go into some more detail, here.
Every story needs some conflict, whether it’s external or internal. It’s nice to see characters get a breather or spend some happy time together, but a whole book about that would be rather boring. My drama stories tend to lack a villain in the traditional sense because the conflict usually arises from the hero himself. One of the common characterizations in my stories is that each main character is the principal architect of his or her own happiness…or their own misery. The decisions they make determine how they move forward or backward. Of course, I like development, so they usually set themselves – or get themselves set – on the right path, but the journey’s the fun part, anyway. That said, I hadn’t written a real villain in a long time.
Then, I decided to write a western.
I spent a lot of days reading old westerns, especially the serial stories of Elmore Leonard. The villains in those short stories were varied, violent, cunning bastards. And, even if they only made themselves known for a few pages, they had presence. I wanted my sci-fi shoot-em-up western to have that. Because, while the main character’s internal conflict was perhaps the most important part of the story, he would never be able to make that journey of self-discovery without someone pushing him on. Or shooting at him, as the case came to be.
I love writing my heroes. But, I’ve loved writing these villains, too, each one of them, for their own reasons. Red Widow because she’s a smart, sexy grifter, and deadly for that:
She’d saved her head with her hands, and pushed back against the wall to shove him off. One leg flew out behind her, connecting with Hal’s gut. He staggered with an oof! and she spun, another kick catching him in the ear.
Lohengrin, the Swan Knight, is insane. But his insanity is full of such self-righteous zealotry, his every line full of such grandeur, he makes a formidable foe:
Lohengrin swung his flame toward the popping drehlafette, and licking fire met stoic metal as the autocannon’s barrel slid into place. The muzzle spit its first round, and its second, when the Swan Knight gave a sudden strangled gasp.
Reilly is driven by a simple desire for revenge, but it’s changed him to the point of being unrecognizable even to his old sergeant:
Ax froze at the sight: a gleaming, golden horror of a man, almost seven feet tall with pylons for limbs and black enhancement goggles pressed deep into the puckered flesh of his face. In front of his left eye glowed a red targeting reticle, blazing in the dark. His chest was pockmarked with sparking holes and indentations from the drehlafette, but none of them slowed him down.
And Strenk, who’s probably my favorite of the lot, simply because he has no overarching goal or reason for his grittiness. He’s just plain ol’ nasty:
Strenk’s gaze filled his focus, cold and damning. “Open those pretty petals, tulip.” He dropped his free hand to his crotch. “I want to see if I’ll fit.”
All of these villains do horrible things, and I occasionally feel a bit scared at how easily some of their actions and dialogue have come to me. At the same time, though, I believe in art as a catharsis and unhindered outlay of our personalities, both the dark and light parts of it. Art is also a relatively safe way to explore the more dangerous demons within each of us. I don’t think I could ever pick up a flamethrower and point it at someone, but it definitely gets my senses tingling to imagine that and create it on the page. I suppose what this exercise has truly shown me is that my villains have as much to say about me as they do about my hero. Their danger, their brutality, the sheer ugliness they represent have made this story a crazy-fun ride, because for every dark, twisted action they throw at him, my hero grows a little bit stronger, a little bit wiser, a little more…heroic. But then, isn’t that what a villain is supposed to do?
What is it about your villains that you love? (Come on, admit it: there’s a part of you that loves ’em!)
I’ll be honest: religion does not often feature prominently in my stories. I suppose because my own faith is very personal to me, something I don’t always feel comfortable voicing in public. That makes me something of a coward, I guess, but I neither want to invite criticism for my beliefs nor have to engage others in why I believe x or y (but not z). But, as I’ve delved more deeply into the humanity of my characters, I’ve come to realize that they can’t all be just like me. That goes for their ability to be close to the divine as much as it does for their attraction to the darkness.
I’ve always been able to separate myself from my darker characters, the antagonists and villains. Because, while they can be enormous fun to write, I don’t consider myself capable of some of the despicable things they do. Or, I don’t like to consider myself capable. But even my “good” characters have maintained a distance from religion and faith that I think isn’t necessarily indicative of who they can or should be.
Religion is complicated, though. For me, more so than sex, violence, or any other characterization point. Why? Is it because I don’t want to dictate my beliefs to readers? Because I don’t want to be “outed” as being religious in a community where intellect is valued more highly than faith? I don’t want either of those things, to be honest. But I also can’t deny the power of prayer in my own life, so why should I deny it in my stories?
The link below will take you to another “Finding Mister Wright” free-write I did yesterday (~1400 words, 5 pages). I didn’t mean for it to preach anything to anybody. I simply had a notion about the Marshall-that-was that I felt deserved a bit of exploration.
“Namesake” – Another “Finding Mister Wright” free-write
I’ve been putting these in PDF form because I think it should be your choice whether you want to read or not. Not for any sensitive material, but because I know so many of my blogger buddies are on hiatus or simply don’t have the time (or inclination) to read a longish short story that probably doesn’t help them keep to their schedule. 🙂
Do you find your characters represent you, most of the time? Or, do you use them to investigate differences in opinion? Something in between?
No one has told me to stop, so I’m still writing these extensions of my “Finding Mister Wright” story from this past winter break. Here’s another one: “Stupid, Macho, and Wicked” (opens as a PDF in a new window; ~2600 words/10 pages long).
Writing Marshall and the gang has been cathartic. I started writing them when we thought my dad was getting better, wrote some more when he was dying, and I’m still writing them after he’s gone. They’re not my most conflicted characters nor my most adventurous, nor even my most publish-worthy. But they comfort me. Maybe because I get to see, through them, the joy of love and family with fresh eyes. I like to think a lot of my dad’s wisdom comes through in these characters. Certainly, many story elements are drawn from personal experience, but their slow growth and evolution over all of these stories has offered me a lot of personal succor, too. A confirmation that life goes on, and can be good. And, that my writing can still be full of silliness and simplicity even when I think a lot about growing older and change and death.
This particular story doesn’t touch so seriously on any of those subjects, but it does flit around one or two a bit. I wonder sometimes if that’s the nature of Marshall and his story, or the way of all things. Take a look, if it please you. If not, I’m pretty sure I’ll be back next time with a more serious discussion of writing in general.
‘Til then: happy writing!
A recent post by fellow blogger Vanessa J. Chapman about coriander/cilantro brought back this memory of cultural differences. Now, I like the leafy stuff, especially over curry or in guacamole, but head on over to Vanessa’s post to get an opposing view. Whether you like it or not, though, a standing argument is what to call the darn stuff. At least around my house, anyway. That led me down memory lane and got me to put together this free-write short story (if you can call ~2300 words “short”), set in my “Finding Mister Wright” original fiction continuity.
Homemade guacamole, heavily laden with cilantro (sorry, Vanessa!)
Apologies to folks who’d rather read a (potentially) more interesting article about my writing process than my fiction. But, the FMW universe of characters and situations is too much fun for me to let go. Click here to read the PDF (it will open in a new tab). Or, don’t. I will say it was fun switching to another character perspective for this one…especially since I’m more used to writing Rob in his intergalactic gunslinger persona, and not as a rather soft-hearted dad. 😉 WARNING: Because this is Rob, there are a few four-letter words in there. Nothing nasty, though. All colloquial.
On a semi-related note, please join me in sending your best writing concentration mojo to JM McDowell, who’s working her darnedest on her manuscript even as I post this. JM was the only one gracious enough to bite on the original “Finding Mister Wright” story draft
(not even my husband’s bothered to read it!), and, without her thoughtful feedback, I probably would have left Marshall and the rest to languish in a drawer. Instead, I’m letting them flourish. Maybe they’ll never see a bookshelf, but they’ve given me a lot of joy these past few months. If only for that, I have to say, thanks, JM! Good luck with your latest version!
No preamble for this
bit slew of free writing I did over the course of Friday day/night…except a note to say thanks to Kourtney Heintz, for prompting me to actually write this piece, in her comment from last week’s 2013 WordPress blog report, made in reply to how I should maybe focus this blog on topics like “deep sea ice f***ing.” I’d meant that only as a joke, honestly. But, once a seed gets planted, it has to be quashed or nurtured.
The story below revisits Marshall Wright from another previous post, and takes his story a bit further than the short-ish story I wrote over winter break. There’s the suggestion of adult situations herein, but nothing graphic. I think, more than anything, the length of this one will probably lose me some reads/comments. But, I had such a good time writing this, all 3000+ words of it, I won’t fret about what should be done differently, here, or any of that. It felt great to write all of this in less than 24 hours, on a single prompting, I don’t regret it, any of it.
Take a look and read, if you’re so interested. Or, skip it, if you’re not. I’ll be back next time with something different (and shorter), I’m sure.
“It’s not really about the fishing” (more…)
It’s November, and some of you out there are writing fiendishly for National Novel Writing Month. Despite my earlier expressed excitement, I decided at the last minute that I should instead concentrate on some works in progress rather than on a completely (well, mostly completely) new story. Rob and Paige’s story isn’t going in the bin; I’m just holding off on them a bit longer. They deserve a fuller telling, anyway.
NaNoWriMo is a celebration of writing, deadlines, creativity, and support, all important aspects of becoming a storyteller. Even though I won’t be running the race, this year, I don’t consider that a failure. In fact, NaNo has given me at least five stories of which I’m pretty proud:
2012’s NaNo – “Anywhere but Here” – is a dystopian science fiction story, about four runaways and the Hounds tracking them down. In my delusion, I thought I could possibly push that one to publishable status, so I sent the first 1000 words to editor Kate Johnston. Kate had some great comments…but I was too shamed to send her the rest for a real job; I wanted to make the draft the best I could make it, and I knew that first pass wasn’t good enough. So, I’m working on that in bits and bobs.
On a side note, I believe Kate is still offering a great deal on a free critique of 1000 words, over at Musefly Writing Studio. Check out the link for more details!
2011’s NaNo – Fearless – is still in progress, around 160K in first draft form. (I know: edit, edit, edit.) It’s a romance drama, one I’d once hoped to publish some day. As the story has become longer and more convoluted, though, that possibility has become ever more doubtful. I don’t mind. Once it’s done, I will print it up, bind it, and put it on my shelf. Because the story is so much a part of me, now. I’ve learned the most through writing it, and the depths of its beauty, sadness, and humanity I don’t think I’ll ever approach again.
2007’s story was Sixes and Sevens, romance from an interracial angle, set circa 1997. Why that year? I remember being at a sleepover and waking up to news of Diana Spencer’s death, and talking with my friends about it, how we take the most important parts of life for granted. That, and the music from 1997 was pretty rockin’. 😀
In 2006, I wrote “The Daughters of Krull,” based on the high fantasy film from the 1980s (don’t judge me). While a fantasy, the main plot dealt mostly with fathers and daughters. I took three supporting characters from the film – a middle-aged man, a younger man in his physical prime, and a boy – and used them to examine their relationships with the women in their lives. It was actually a lot of fun to write, if not terribly popular with my usual readers.
And, all the way back in 2005, for my first NaNo, I wrote “Through Green Eyes,” a coming-of-age story of four siblings in colonial Japan, seen through the eyes of the family cat. This is probably the roughest and simplest of my NaNo ventures, but it’s also one of my favorites. It rekindled a love of my personal heritage I hadn’t felt in a long time. And, writing a cat was fun.
Whether you’re participating in NaNoWriMo or not, take a moment to reflect on some of the stories you’ve written over the years. What are your favorites? Feel free to leave a link with your comment, too: because NaNo is just as much about sharing and inspiration as anything else. Tally ho!