Monday, October 29, 2012

Villainous Villains of Villainy Part I: The Heart of the Matter

(And now for one last post to get underway before the madness of NaNoWriMo begins and all else is abandoned for an inconceivably long time. I shall attempt to post during NaNo, but that might prove very difficult indeed.)

What makes a good villain? Here is a question which has perplexed and bewildered me in my writing since the day I began. Ever since my first villain, a vile sorcerer bent on...well, destruction and ruin in the very broadest and most undefined terms, I have found myself struggling to sculpt a likeness of a big bad-guy who is believable and inspires the correct emotions in a reader. With every book I read, every tale I pen, I try to capture this elusive idea of a 'good' villain.

Really and truly, what is it that makes a bad-guy so rotten and horrific and just plain bad? How do you write a character which the recipients of your story will loathe with an appreciative amount of passion? How do you forge the grim mindset and cruel vitality of such an evil persona?

Let us consider, for these posts on what makes a good villains, two of quite possibly the most infamous story-villains in the whole history of the world:

When I think 'good villain', my mind instantly turns to Maleficent, the Disney name of that dreaded scourge of the tale Sleeping Beauty. I love and loathe her at the same time for varying reasons: I love her because she's a cool villain and at the same time is so evil that I am jealous she is not my own character. I loathe her because, well, because she's Maleficent. She is, in many ways, the epitome of a good villainess.

Consider then, if you will, Moriarty, the great archnemisis of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Smart, conniving, slimy, and creepiness personified.

Yet at the same time, there is a subtle difference between this villain and Maleficent. Whereas she radiates a diabolical evil, Moriarty displays a more sly detestablility. Where the faery sorceress is a dragon, Moriarty is a rat. At the first you think he's not so dangerous, until you realize that a rat can go all the places a dragon cannot. Dragons use the weapons of fire and fear, rats tend to employ prowess and plague.

The villains of our stories come in all shapes and sizes, colors and desires, ways of destruction and reasons for attack. The villain might be a crippled, hobbling, ugly creature with no sense and no cunning, but it is their hatred for the good in the story that gives us insight into their depravity. It isn't enough to simply have the villain destroy things and start wars, for while this does make them undesirable, it will generally fail to inspire the recipients of the tale to cry 'boo' every time the enemy shows their face. (And yes, that's what story-tellers tend to aim for. It's far more difficult than one might realize, this balance of creating loveable and detestable characters all at the same time.)

There is this one, prevalent aspect of what makes a character the true villain of the story, I believe; and a good many villains of any story fall under this category in one form or another. Here, at the very core of so many of our favorite stories where good battles evil we find that the heart of the villain hates the heart of the hero. Or, the villain hates what the hero loves.

 In the Wingfeather Saga, by Andrew Peterson, the villain remains almost completely invisible, but you learn of his evil ways and you learn to loathe him because he seeks to destroy the Jewels of Anniera—the very things the heroes of the tale seek to protect.

Let us return now to Maleficent. The evil fairy finds Briar Rose to be deplorable in her sight because of her own shunning by the princess's parents. She hates the royal couple and so seeks to destroy the one thing they love most, the child which holds their best love and their bright-future.

Moriarty, on the other hand, despises the efforts of Holmes to solve and stop crimes in London. The British crime lord gloats in the television series: “Every story needs a good-old-fashion villain.” There is a strange relationship between Moriarty and Holmes in whichever game they play. There is a sense that they need one another but there is still, at the foundation, this idea of hating what the hero loves.

So many of the best villains are built around this point, and most every villain of any story can be traced back to a semblance of this relationship. (Usually the exceptions to this idea are more your anti-heroes and anti-villains, which, as most writers can tell you, delight in departing from every set of rules or logic ever constructed.)

The villain of my NaNo this year remains elusive in many respects. I can't quite get a grasp on who he is, yet I know what it is that the heroes of the story hold dear and this is the very opposite of what my villain loves. Thus, this enemy also hates the heart of the hero. (Needless to say, with this much discussion on such a strange topic as what drives our villains at their very core, I've been doing a lot of thinking on this subject.)

What about your own villains? What drives them? Whatever the plot of your tale, can you trace down to the deepest roots of the villain's heart? How does what you find relate to the goal of your hero? In what other stories do you find this thread?


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Book Review: "Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms", by Lissa Evans

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms by Lissa Evans caught my eye in a bookstore as I passed the shelf on which it sat. There were no bright colors to attract me, only a cover of black and white with a small boy standing upon a stage, cogs and wheels spinning above his head. “Magic, Mystery & A Very Strange Adventure” read the cover. I smiled and jotted the title and author down on a piece of scrap paper. I found the children’s novel sometime later at my local library and brought it home to read.

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms is probably intended for those around the ages of ten-to-twelve, but I found this fact to be of little consequence as I devoured the rollicking little adventure. It is what I like to call a ‘quiet’ adventure and, while reading too many of these can create a sense of boredom, the occasional romp upon such pages sets the mind at ease while winding up a tale of mystery and riddle.

When Stuart Horten leaves his comfortable home and big yard and many friends for the English town of Beeton, he is decidedly unhappy with the conditions. It’s summer, so there’s nothing for him to do, and no one with which to play—except for a bothersome set of triplets one house over. So when a game of riddles and a handful of threepence from his great-uncle appear with the promise of a shop full of magical wonder, Stuart eagerly accepts the challenge.

It’s a race against time for Stuart and his new friends as they discover why Great-Uncle Tony and his fiance Lily vanished years ago, and what an old collection of Horten-made machinery has to do with anything. In the end it will take all of Stuart’s courage, all of his friends, and a good deal of obstinate detective work to answer the questions.

Ms. Evans is a talented children’s author with that well-loved knack for dropping a hundred obscure pieces to the puzzle and somehow manage to them snugly together when all is said and done. From Stuart’s quirky, crossword-creating father, to a blind woman who knew Tony Horten personally, to a magic-trick manufacturer and her green-suited student; the cast of characters is a lively bunch manufacturing a little bit of magic on their own.

I read this little novel in a few hours and took pleasure in every page. Recently it has become a rare joy to find a children’s story so filled with innocence, focusing on friendship, with such clever humor and innumerable bike rides. Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms is clean and smart, without a trace of the usual crude humor. 

A comparison may be made between Evans’s work and that of Trenton Lee Stewart with his Mysterious Benedict Society books, but for younger readers and with a more open, clean-cut feel than the lyrically inclined Stewart. In any case, I’d recommend this book without hesitation.

Rating for this book:
4

Friday, October 12, 2012

Announcing: Dictionary Day Giveaway

In the world of writing, who doesn't love a free book? And what could be better than a free dictionary?

Fellow Blogger, Mary R. P. is hosting a give-away for her readers: a copy of the 'Flip Dictionary', by Barbara Ann Kipford. All you have to do for a chance to win is

(1) 'Follow' her blog at Enter the Writer's Lair(see link below)...
(2) Find and define three words you've never heard or used before...
(3) And share those three words via a comment on her blog.

Go check out the drawing over at Enter the Writer's Lair for more detailed instructions and to enter for your chance to win. Have fun looking up some words in honor of the up-coming Dictionary Day!

Writing to the Music

For this year's NaNoWrimo, I've been scrambling to gather decent writing music, grabbing some of my favorite movie soundtracks and band singles which relate to the story. I've found several songs to be themes for my steampunk-ed novel this year, and have made folders in my music files for 'intense', 'gloomy', 'sad', or 'happy' songs to write to.

With several of my other tales-in-the-works, I've found various music themes that match up to characters, plots, or just the general feeling of the story. Rock music, I've noticed, is generally good for darker characters and scenes. Slower music, such as ballads or Disney Movie soundtracks, work especially well when crafting the softer edges of the story, or for quieter characters. For example, I use a lot of music by Andrew Peterson for more whimsical stories, Owl City and Chris Rice are generally what i listen to for the happier episodes, and Day of Fire plays well when I'm either writing action scenes or anything from a more grim, sad character's point of view.

I've found it extremely interesting to choose music from a wide variety of genres when crafting a story I don't know much about, and the music influences how the story twists and turns. One character I think might be a gloomy type becomes exceedingly optimistic when and friendly when paired with scores from Disney's 'Meet the Robinsons'.

As a lover of music and of story, it thrills me to be able to listen to the music I love while I pound out a story on my keyboard.

Some fellow writers enjoy classical, others country or pop, and still others discover a need to write in the quiet and the still.

Soundtracks from movies such as 'Treasure Planet', 'Hugo', 'How To Train Your Dragon', 'Eragon', and 'Star Wars' are among my planned listenings for the fast-approaching month of November. They are joined by singles from the likes of Switchfoot, Thousand Foot Krutch, and Robbie Seay Band.

So...
(whether you are planning a NaNo this year or not) 
What do you like to listen to as you write? 
What inspires you, and how does the music you listen to influence your writing?


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Book Review: The Peculiar, by Stefan Bachmann



Title: The Peculiar
Author: Stefan Bachmann
Genre: Children's Fantasy/ Steampunk
Rating: 5

“Part murder mystery, part gothic fantasy, part steampunk adventure.” reads the back inset of the book’s dust jacket. It’s a fitting description for The Peculiar, written by Stefan Bachmann; a children’s novel set in a tangibly familiar, yet utterly different England from the one we know.


I’ll admit, it was the clockwork sparrow on the cover which drew my attention just as much as the blurb on the back: ‘Child Number Eleven is everything. Everything we hoped…’ Having only been a fan of the steampunk genre for a short time, I am intrigued by each new book which comes out bearing that brand. Many of the steampunk books I have picked up proved to be worthless—either in content or in style—and so I was pleasantly surprised when The Peculiar scooped underneath my ideas of good steampunk and braced them with iron and stone. The first few chapters of the book were dark enough that I almost reconsidered the reading, but I stuck with it and read on and was not disappointed.

Bartholomew Kettle is a Peculiar, also called a changeling, due to his English mother and faerie father, and he lives in hiding and in fear of being found out. No one likes changelings. Not the fay. Not the humans. Bartholomew and his younger sister Hettie do not belong. The two children and their mother scrape out a living in the city of Bath, the place where the faeries came first. They hide and pretend to themselves that all is right in the world when all is, in truth, very wrong.

Then the lady in plum arrives and steals away a changeling boy from across the street. Changeling bodies are found in the Thames. The faerie Bartholomew thought he would have as his friend turns out to be a bad one, creeping into the house and singing Hettie to sleep with nightmares. In London, Mr. Arthur Jelliby watches the faerie politician, Mr. Lickerish, stir dissent as news of the changeling fates reach Parliament’s ear. All Mr. Jelliby wants is to go home to his sweet wife and his meaningless parties and not be too noticeable or too involved. Then he meets the purple lady and she begs for his help and he finds he cannot do anything otherwise. When Bartholomew and Mr. Jelliby meet, they form a dubious alliance to stop Mr. Lickerish from doing…well, whatever it is they know him to be doing. With his coded messages, and meetings with dark fay, and turning Mr. Jelliby’s own house against him, whatever the politician is up to, it’s not good. It might not even be politics.

And then Hettie is taken and the game changes. Bartholomew is desperate to get her back and Mr. Jelliby is his best hope.

When I was reading this novel, there were several places were everything grew terribly dark and eerie, almost to the point where it would be downright creepiness. And then Mr. Bachmann offers an unexpected burst of humor—usually under the character of Mr. Jelliby—and the mood lightens and a lamp flickers on somewhere.

I loved this book, the humor, the intrigue, the darkness of the faerie slums, the bright warmth of Mr. Jelliby and his good-hearted, somewhat-bumbling character. When all is said and done, I thoroughly enjoyed this children’s steampunk. Besides the excellent story, I liked it because of the lack of even one careless obscenity—a few mentions of ‘he swore/cursed’ are as close as the author ever ventured.

My one disappointment is that it ends on a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger where you think you know who this person is and what happens here but you’re not terribly sure. Then something twists and there is new light and new darkness and a million questions. And the book ends. Some cliffhangers seem to be penned only to draw the reader in for another book, another sale, a few more zeroes on the check. Others are written because one book cannot hope to hold the story due to the fact that it wants to keep going—and we writers are notorious for ending a book at its most exciting part just to cause our readers pain. The Peculiar, I’d like to think, was one of the latter, and I look forward to reading the next part of the story from this refreshing and riveting new talent, Mr. Stefan Bachmann.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Novel Season: November

Well friends, it’s about that time of year. Fall is tumbling down over the countryside like a child at play, cool breezes are maturing into wizened, cold winds, and frost can be seen upon the lawns. Trees are glowing like embers, trading emeralds for crimson and fireglow. Holiday items appear in stores, pies are fresh out of the oven, and the writing bug is festering in many veins across the States, Canada, and lands beyond.

This disease has no known cure, and only one rare treatment an individual has to be half-mad to give or receive has been found. But the bug only lasts a short while, then it calms down. Still, it never leaves completely. No, it lies dormant until next fall. Until the next novel season. November.

It is a bug, don’t you realize? It’s something of a plague, but somehow it’s a good one. And it strikes us all to our very core until we start to shiver and laugh and light bulbs flicker on above our heads. Most of these light bulbs tend to shatter about the second week into that much-dreaded, much-yearned-after month of November. Many of them are then replaced. And they shatter again. They blow out, sometimes they flicker out. Sometimes they are replaced a third time. A fourth. Even a fifth. But somehow, somewhere, someone will be lying in their bed on the first morning of December, just waking up to icy toes and cold face and perhaps the buzzing of an alarm clock. And then they will remember. They will look back on thirty days of excitement, anticipation, worriment, caffeine highs, tears, desperation, resignation, the bitter foretaste of defeat, and then the sweet savor of victory. They made it out. They survived. And they won.

NaNoWriMo.

It has caused the people around me much confusion in the past when I say that word as explanation for why I’m so busy, so exhausted, so insane. I’ve explained it so many times that I simply sigh the words out, “It stands for National Novel Writing Month and it’s in November and it’s when you write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days and it’s crazy-insane and I love it and that’s that.” Then come the real questions. Are you crazy? Why would you ever want to do that? What is the prize? Are other people this crazy too, or did you make it all up? Have you done it before? What is the prize again? You do it for nothing? Why?

Fellow 'Wrimos' can relate I’m certain.

Now, in answer to those questions, from those of you who may not have heard of NaNoWriMo, or want to know more about it, or maybe want to try yourself, allow me to explain.

First: Yes, we are crazy. I discovered long ago that a so-called normal life isn’t worth the bother, but a crazy one is. (Aside: I also found out that the majority of people claim to be crazy, so, if that is true, then we are actually normal and those people who claim to be normal are actually the crazy ones. Beware.) Still, one would have to own a google’s worth of insanity to actually make such an attempt as the one mentioned four paragraphs previous. Or else, they are extremely bored, or perhaps addicted to deadlines. So: the fact that Wrimos are really quite mad is an established fact.

Second: The why and the desire to do what we do. Because it’s fun. And crazy. And we are writers. The greatest reason I have chosen to participate in NaNoWriMo is for the feeling of near-ecstasy which a writer experiences when completing a story. We live for the words ‘the end’ and when we reach them we smile at anything and everything for days on end and don’t think of anything much at all. Eventually, however, our feet are bound to touchdown on the Earth once more. But that bliss and ear-to-ear grinning sensation a writer gets when the story is written to its completion for the first time is one of the best feelings I have ever known. The end game of NaNoWriMo is that you’ve finished a novel. It probably will never be a best seller, you might never even let it see the light of day once December arrives, but you did it. Now you have something you can, if you so choose, work with. You have a place to start. So: NaNoWriMo is the first stone of your story’s foundation.

Third: There is no prize. There are, instead, ‘goodies’. There’s a certificate, some web badges; T-shirts and coffee mugs and book bags are available to buy, and you get a little icon beside your name that says Winner. But of an actual prize, there is nothing. There are bragging rights. And that little thing of a novel which you’ve sweated and cried and bled for. We don’t get paid. The novels we pound out are not immediately published—and thank goodness for that! It’s merely the thought of ‘I did it’ that draws us in and keeps us coming year after year. And really, that’s no mere thing after all, is it? So: No prize; just satisfaction.

Fourth: It’s called National for a reason. It’s National. To be quite precise, it is now somewhat international and that is a fact which brings much pride. We are not alone in this crazy ambition to reach the deadline. We are part of a large community of crazy writers and people who aren’t really writers but they join in anyway. Thanks to how large NaNoWriMo has become we can participate in things like Word Wars (writing with a group for a set period of time to see who can eke out the most words) and many other—although lesser-known—socially-inclined games to stimulate our writing. So: Many, many other people do it.

Fifth and Lastly: Yes, I have done this before. On a more personal level from the other questions I often answer, I have participated in NaNoWriMo three times in the past. This shall be my fourth. I hope, also, that is shall by my fourth win. My first NaNoWriMo was also my first ever completed novel, followed shortly by the erroneous ‘Shadowed Moon’ expedition which was the first fantasy novel I had ever begun—and the earliest novel attempt I will admit to.

 My first NaNoWriMo was written longhand in a now much battered blue folder of sheaves and sheaves of notebook paper. I can’t even read the words. Some exclaim over how amazing it was that I managed to pull the whole thing off writing longhand. Yet I know others have done the same before me and one must take into account that this was at a time when I did not have much experience writing on a computer, nor did I have one easily on hand. (Aside: I plan to do NaNo in longhand again at some point in the future, just to see if I could repeat the success I had found there before.) So: Third time may be the charm, but let’s hope the fourth is just as magical.

The best thing about NaNoWriMo is that no one is upset if and when you lose. Except for, perhaps, yourself. Although I myself have miraculously managed to slog through to the finish each year, there is bound to come a time when I don’t make that deadline and don’t win and walk about feeling dejected for a few days. That feeling fades with the progression of regular life, and besides, there’s always next year.

So why not give it a try?

(For more information on NaNoWriMo, I encourage you to check out the website at nanowrimo.org, or to find and peruse the book written by NaNoWriMo’s founder, Chris Baty, “No Plot? No Problem!”)