Letting Go of Your Work

If you pursue any kind of artistic endeavor, you invest a lot into it. Ernest Hemingway once said; “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” I’m not a big Hemingway fan, but I think his mastery of the simply stated shines through here. Blood, sweat, and tears aren’t always a metaphor. Having invested so much of ourselves, and our time, into our writing (or any art form), we become quite attached to it, and understandably so. It’s not a coincidence my first entry was called “Your Baby is Ugly.” In a very real sense, our writing can be like our children. We birth it, we raise it, we marvel as it grows and develops, we protect it when we feel it’s being attacked. And sometimes, we even see it die, but please don’t email me about what a bad comparison that is. I’m not saying that the death of something you’ve written is even in the same solar system as losing a child. However, as I said, we do become attached to those things we work hard to create, and so it becomes a handy analogy. Through all the stages, there’s a final step we often forget, which is that our beloved creation takes on a life of its own. It becomes something separate from us and ventures into the world. That hard part is letting go.

Now, I don’t mean in the literal sense of submitting your writing. I’m talking about the next step after that, when it actually gets into someone else’s hands. Once you share your writing, it’s not yours anymore. This might sound like a romantic notion, but there’s more to it than that. What I mean is what your writing “means.” Sure, you’ll be able to tell people what it’s about: the story, plot, and characters, but your thoughts on what you’re trying to express are no longer the only correct ones.

Each of us is truly unique. We each take different paths through our lives, and even the things we share in common are seen through lenses shaped by previous experiences. Combine that with our individual genetic predispositions (to whatever impact they may have), our ever changing world, and you can see how astronomical are the odds of any two people having the same set of experiences. As such, we all experience the world in different ways. Take Starry Night by Van Gogh, one of the most recognizable paintings in the world. Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night I don’t know if we have any kind of record what Vincent was thinking when he composed this, but honestly, it doesn’t matter. Odds are we’ve all seen this picture. Some of us love it, myself included. Others are more sanguine about it, while still others don’t care for it. Are any of us wrong? Okay, that’s an easy one. How about this; what’s it about? What’s it mean? When you look at it do you see a serene and peaceful night? Does it bring back memories of your childhood? Or do you see a dark and cold night, imagining yourself standing alone on a hillside looking down at the town, at the lit houses where you know you’ll find no comfort? Or do you feel no strong reaction at all? Again, are any of those interpretations wrong?

When you let your writing go, you’re offering it up to the world. Someone could read your work and have a reaction to it that is nowhere near what you’d expected, or perhaps hoped. And yet, the very act of putting it out there is an act of surrender. If someone wants to know, you can explain what you were going for, what inspired you, etc. But, your thoughts are now simply your opinion, one amongst many in fact. Think of a song you love. If the person who wrote it, or performed it, came up to you and told you that what you thought the song was about was completely off base, would it really change how it makes you feel? What it does in your mind?

I recently posted some poems here, and I didn’t say what they meant, or were about, for the reason I just explained. For me, poetry is especially personal. I can tell you what I was thinking and feeling when I wrote it, I could explain the imagery I was going for, but that’s not as relevant as what you think and feel when you read it. Those poems, like anything I put out to the world, are not mine anymore. They’re yours. They’re ours. As writers, as artists, I think we strive for connection in our expressions. I’m storyteller at heart, and of course I love knowing someone was entertained by a story I came up with, but I’m hoping people find something in it that’s familiar to them. Something that says despite each us being unique, there are countless experiences, thoughts, feelings, “things” we have in common to one degree or another. In a world that is increasing isolated, ironically because of all the social media and interconnectedness of the world, we writers, painters, sculptors, actors, what have you, use our art like a message in a bottle, cast into the vast ocean surrounding our individual islands in hopes it reaches someone else on theirs.

Of course that’s just me. I could very well be insane. I heard a quote attributed to Picaso, I have no idea if it was his or not, but I like it. “All artists are half-crazy, but so long as I’m submerged in my work, I’ll be okay.”

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination (Part 4)

This is the fourth, and final installment of a four part series on the journey or writing. If you missed the other three parts, you can read them here, here, and here, respectively.

Stage 4: Senility.

For most of us, there’re really only three stages. Not many of us are around long enough as writers to lose our literary marbles. But, some do. I’m not going to name names, but most of us can think of a favorite writer (or musician, or actor, or whatever) who produced work we loved, and then, well, something happened. Perhaps it was a complete reversion to infancy, like real old-age can sometimes do, or something more akin to grandpa’s obsession with buying peanut butter.

“It was on sale, and you should always have some peanut butter, so I bought you six jars!”

“Wow, um, that’s great. Thanks, Grandpa. I’ll just put them in the cupboard with the other eight jars you’ve given me.”

He might be eccentric, but he’s grandpa and we love him. I said I wasn’t going to name names, but maybe just one. For those in my generation, the original Star Wars movies were almost mythical. I’m not a diehard Star Wars geek, but I’m a fan. When Episode 1 came out, often referred to as “The episode which must not be named,” there was a general consensus amongst my peers that George Lucas had “lost his freaking mind.” I’ve since learned that members of the younger generation, those who were kids when Episode 1 was released, feel he really came into his own with the prequels and that the first movies were his lesser works. They’re completely wrong of course, but that’s beside the point. It actually shows us something important. Crazy, like so much else, is all about perspective.

In truth, we should all be so lucky to reach this stage. It means we’ve been around long enough that we’ve developed a devoted fan base. It means we have readers who were touched and changed by something, or many things, we wrote. They developed an emotional tie to our work and when that tie doesn’t seem to be there anymore, it hurts. No, it’s not fair to assume our favorite artist will never change, but we do sort of hope they don’t. Don’t look at me that way. Are you someone who cheers and screams at a concert, even when the band you love doesn’t play any of their big hit songs, just stuff from their latest album? Yeah, I thought so.

Writing, like life, is a journey. We’re always growing, learning, and changing. Sometimes that means we’ll grow in ways that will make old fans move along, but like George Lucas, the change might also bring in a whole new generation of fans. For most of us, change is a gradual and generally painful thing. It takes a long time for us to change that much, so, yes, I think we’d all be lucky to be writing long enough for that to happen. I look forward to the day I excitedly present my readers with the book equivalent of six jars of peanut butter and they smile politely and put the book on their shelves anyway.

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination (Part 3)

This is the third part of a four-part series. If you missed parts one or two, you can read them here and here, respectively.

Stage 3: Adulthood.

I like to say the main difference between me now, as an adult, and me as a teenager is this: now I know I don’t know anything.

While wisdom does not always come with maturity, the two do usually walk hand-in-hand. Do I think I’m wise? I do, but in the same sense as Socrates. He was called the wisest man in Athens, and he said he was wise because he admitted he didn’t know anything. Only by acknowledging ignorance in something can you be open to learning. To loosely quote the movie Avatar, it’s hard to pour water in a cup that’s already full.

Literary adulthood isn’t the point at which we’ve come to recognize the bounds of our writing ignorance; it’s just when we admit we have writing ignorance. The first time you look at your writing and think it could be better, and that someone might be able to give you some good advice, is when you earn your grownup writer pants. Unfortunately, that moment is rarely achieved in a pleasant way. For many, myself included, it comes after being beaten senseless with less than complimentary feedback, usually repeatedly and brutally. After the third or fourth concussion from trying to walk through a wall, you start to realize the wall isn’t going to disappear, and maybe you should find another way in. After receiving a number of rejections from agents and publishers, I decided perhaps it was the manuscript. I wrote a short story, which I posted online. It was fairly well received, so I decided to make it into a full novel. The Stolen Child was born. Now, if I’d still been a literary teen, I would’ve just started submitting that story. Instead, I decided I was going to make sure it was the best it could be. I bought some books on character development, read articles online, and then I bought a book on editing, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I won’t turn this into a commercial for the book. I’ll just say that I got a lot out of it, but I was also ready to learn because I’d admitted to myself that I didn’t know anything. When I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t take my book any further, I decided it was time to put my money where my mouth was, literally. I hired an editor. Again, I don’t want this to become a commercial, so I’m not going to mention who I hired. However, I knew it wasn’t going to be cheap, so I spent a LOT of time researching editors before deciding on one. If you’ve read my other posts, you know it was brutal at times. But I forced myself to hear what was said, to really listen and try to understand. That, in essence, is what makes us adults, no matter the realm; writing, life, music, driving, what have you. Taking criticism, especially harsh criticism, isn’t easy, but to my mind, it is a defining characteristic of maturity.

Stupid people don’t learn from their mistakes. Smart people do learn from their mistakes. Wise people learn from other people’s mistakes. We should hope to be smart, but strive to be wise.

To be concluded next week with senility.

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination (Part 2)

Last time I wrote about writing infancy, which you can read here if you missed it.

Stage 2: Adolescence.

Your narrative voice starts to crack about the time you realize you’re pretty good at this writing thing. Our literary puberty could start in a number of ways. Maybe like me, you find your peers and teachers reacting well to things you’ve written. Maybe you win some contests, or have an article published in the local paper. However it happens, it’s most likely positive reinforcement that causes you to start to change.

Writing teenagers, like most teenagers, know well, like, everything. Duh. They understand what truly brilliant and magnificent writers they are. After all, so many people have told them they should be writers. How many? Well, um, like, a bunch! Their paths are clear; the entire literary world is eagerly awaiting their arrival. They alone have the comfort of knowing that anyone who criticizes them, is totally clueless, and just doesn’t get it.

Lest you think I’m letting myself off the hook, I remember very clearly the first writing course I took in college. I’d received some negative feedback on my writing up to that point, but it was really more neutral than outright negative. I was working on my novel Taleth-Sidhe, and all my friends loved it! So, I knew it had to be awesome; after all, my friends wouldn’t lie to me. So, I took the first couple chapters and turned them in for the writing exercise. I listened to the amateurs in the class read their examples, and offered them my expert feedback. Then it was my turn to read. I’d been writing poetry for many years before this (during the coffeehouse and poetry reading height of the late 90s). Those readings, combined with my experience as an actor, meant I knew how to tell a story (one of the few things I was right about at that stage). I read the first two chapters, then sat back and waited for the praise to come rolling in. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the whole class had lifted me on their shoulders and named me their king. Okay, I would’ve been a little surprised.

To put it mildly, that didn’t happen. To put it accurately; I was eviscerated. Granted, I’d written a fantasy story and not everyone in the class was a fan of that genre, but all the notes and feedback made my pages looked like someone had sacrificed a chicken on them. Actually, more like an entire flock. I was beyond confused, but like all good teenagers, I eventually got over it and realized those people just didn’t know what they were talking about. Clearly my writing was just over their heads.

Now, it’s true some in their writing teens might be open to learning, or hearing less than glowing feedback. But, those are generally the writing equivalent to teenagers who fit in better with adults than peers. In short, they’re mature for their age. The vast majority of teenagers are, well, not. It’s not that they’re immature, just correctly mature for their age; they believe they know everything, and aren’t inclined to listen to others’ opinions People in their writing teens are often the same way.

To be continued next week with adulthood.

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination (Part 1)

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination.

Like so much in life, and like life itself, we often hear, “it’s a journey, not a destination.” But what does that mean? It means that your focus is not on trying to get somewhere, it’s on how you’ll always be working at a task or experience. Now, you might be someone who’s written a book and once it’s published you’ll never write anything else. I’ve heard people say they had only that one book inside them. These people are rare, though. Most of us who call ourselves writers plan to keep writing for as long as we can. Part of this means that, like it or not, we’ll grow and change as we hone our writing craft. Like in life, we’ll learn and have our notions shaped by positive and negative experiences. And also like in life, we all grow and mature at different rates.

Much like doctors “practice” medicine, I like to think writers “practice” writing. So here are my thoughts on the various stages of being a writer that we all go through. You could easily apply these thoughts to just about anything, but I’m going to stick to writing since that’s sort of “my thing” on this blog.

Stage 1: Infancy.

Like in life, we all start here in our writing. Odds are that your writing journey began not long after you learned to read and write in general. Like an infant, we stumble around trying to figure out how language works. We have to learn that while more than one dog are dogs, more than one mouse are mice, and more than one fish are, well, still fish. And let’s not even talk about more than one octopus being octopuses or octopi. Yes, technically both are correct.

As with all good infants, we learn by observing as well as by trial and error. Most of us are still in this writing stage long after we leave our actual infancy behind. It’s really no wonder because the early years of school are when we learn all the technical rules of writing: nouns, verbs, clauses, punctuation, etc. Separately though, we might be maturing as storytellers, which means later on, we’ll need to bring stories and grammar together.

Writing infants will generally compose thinly veiled rewrites of stories they’ve heard/seen/read: a princess with four mean step-sisters, for example. No, it isn’t always quite THAT thinly veiled, but you get the idea. This is where we start to learn what kind of stories and characters resonate with others, as well as with us.

Depending on when you actually begin writing seriously, writing infancy can last well into adulthood or even old age. There are plenty of people who aren’t serious about writing until they’re well into their adult lives or even retirement. I want to make this clear. There is no “normal” about when people move from one stage to the next. It doesn’t matter if you started writing when you were 7 or 70. If it’s something you love, I say well done you for starting!

To be continued next week with adolescence.

Too Much Information! Knowing What to Reveal and When

You’ve got a story set in a fascinating world loaded with intriguing characters. Naturally, you want readers to get as much out of the story as possible. That means you need to give them context. Determining how much to share and when to share it is a balancing act. George Lucas can get away with an information dump at the beginning of his stories (Star Wars, for the non-geek among you). You can do that too, when you’ve reached his level, but until you have an empire built around your brand, your audience isn’t likely to be as forgiving. Of course, it doesn’t help any of us that George practically trademarked this technique, so any attempt to copy it, even subtly, will swiftly be called out. Now, I could be bias as a writer of fantasy and science fiction, mostly fantasy, but I think avoiding that is harder for those genres. Especially if, like me, you’re trying to make your story approachable and enjoyable to those who don’t normally read that genre. You have to give them enough context to understand how the story’s world works, but you can’t stop the story to do it. So, how do you walk the line between offering dissertations with every scene, and leaving your reader completely lost? The key is to remember to reveal only what is absolutely necessary at that very moment. This seems obvious, but it’s harder than it sounds. Here are a few things I’ve learned that you might find useful.

  • Always ask if the reader REALLY needs to know this now.

In my story The Stolen Child, one of the main characters is Caitlin Brady, a single mother of a young girl, Fiona. In my early drafts, readers learned rather early in the story about Caitlin’s family history and Fiona’s father. This slowed down the story, so I spread out the information. You don’t need to know right away that Caitlin’s parents both died when she was young and that she was raised by her grandparents, who died shortly before Fiona was born. All the reader needed to know was: Caitlin’s a mother, Fiona’s father is absent, and she never mentions any family. Learning about her family history does become important when readers start to see how obsessed Caitlin is with keeping Fiona safe; the history provides context. So when you find yourself giving backstory, or information that serves for context (not moving the story forward), always ask yourself, “Does the reader need to know this right now?” and if so, “How much do they need to know right this very moment?” Like so much in life, timing is everything!

  • Show, don’t tell.

I know, as writers we’ve all had this phrase drilled into our heads, but there’s a reason for it. Do you prefer to watch a movie, or have someone tell you about it? It’s the same with stories. Readers much prefer to “watch” your book’s story than have you tell them what happens. Suppose, for instance, an antagonist in your story is a multi-national, faceless corporation. They’re hording information vital to the public solely to increase profits. You could give a lengthy history of the company’s misdeeds, or you could do something like this:

Joseph went over his gear, then looked up at the monolith of glass and steel that was the headquarters of Eviltech Inc. He couldn’t help but think how fitting it was. The sanitized, faceless façade fit perfectly with the philosophy of the company that made everything from baby food to cruise missiles. Its only overriding interest was its share prices. He pulled on his mask and smiled. It was time for the shares to take a big hit.

Of course I could’ve also just said it was a multi-national, faceless corporation that was hording information vital to the public in order to increase profits, but that would’ve been dry and boring. Instead of describing a painting to the reader, I showed them a piece of the actual painting. I gave them just enough to give them needed information, establish some biases, and start asking questions. . The reader doesn’t need to know right now why our character is outside, or even that our character is a good or bad guy. We’ve clearly labeled the company as a bad entity, but we don’t know yet if the character’s motives make him any better. That uncertainty is what keeps readers turning pages.

Now, obviously there’ll be times when your readers just needs to know something and there’s no other way to get it across but to tell them. Again, in fantasy and science fiction you’ll need to get the rules of your world across at some point. While you can demonstrate those rules in well written scenes, sometimes that can be a bigger obstruction to the flow of the story than just telling them and some things just don’t make sense without explanation. In those cases, I give the reader a surrogate; a character who’s in the same situation as the reader (totally clueless about the world). I can reveal the information to the character, as part of normal story development, and as a consequence, the reader learns the same thing.

Again, using The Stolen Child as an example, Caitlin fills this role. That story takes place in a world exactly like ours, except that faeries are real. They exist just below the surface of the world we know. Caitlin is a normal person who doesn’t have any idea they exist, so when the reader needs to know something, she does too. I also have options with her. I can have her ask the question the reader is asking, and have another character answer. Or, I can put her in a situation where she comes to a conclusion herself that answers the question.

  • Trust in your reader, but more importantly, trust in yourself.

I explained in “Your Baby is Ugly,” that one of the editors I’ve worked with kept telling me not to beat my readers over the head. He was implying that by doing so, I was assuming my readers weren’t smart enough to “get it.” It took me some time to realize that it wasn’t that I didn’t trust the reader. I didn’t trust myself. I didn’t have enough confidence in my writing ability to believe I could adequately get my thoughts and intentions across with just subtext and subtly. Sure, I’d use subtext, but then I’d also explain it. You have to trust in yourself to get your idea across. Say you’re writing a science fiction story and the faster-than-light drive on your ship fails. When the crew can’t figure out the problem, but your character steps forward and explains it in a way most don’t understand, and those who do refuse to believe it, you’ve just shown us that character is a genius in that field. We get it. You don’t need to then also tell us he’s a genius.

Will there be times when you’re too subtle? Absolutely. That’s when you need someone to look it over who’ll give you real feedback, not just say “it was good.” If you’re worried, ask about a specific section. Did they understand what you were trying to convey? If they did, great! If not, make some adjustments so it’s a little more obvious. Fight the urge to go too far the other way and insert an information dump. Hopefully, said reader (or even better, an editor if you can afford one), will point out if you need to back off and make it more subtle. Give your readers license to fill in some blanks for themselves. Part of the fun of a story is painting the picture in our mind.

However, there is one caveat to the above:

  • Never assume your reader knows something you do.

If you haven’t told, showed, or implied it, your reader doesn’t know it. Assuming it’s vital to the story, you’ll need to tell them somehow. Perhaps your main character has a crippling fear of open water because he/she almost drowned as a child. If it’s relevant to the story—it’s set on the coast, for example—your readers will eventually need to learn why your character goes into a fetal ball when he/she steps foot on the beach. The keyword being “eventually.” Again, timing is everything, but if they feel for the character, the reader will want to know at some point.

That being said…

  • Never assume the reader has to know everything.

Don’t look at me that way. I know what I just told you. Take the character above, but move the story to the Midwest. Now the fear of open water takes a much less significant role. Sure, it adds depth to the character, but it might not be relevant to the story. Or if you’re writing a series, maybe it isn’t relevant to this particular story. This goes back to letting your reader fill in the blanks. The best example of how readers fill in blanks is in character descriptions. Ask most people what the character Harry Potter looks like and odds are you’ll get a description of Daniel Radcliffe. If you had asked those same people before the first movie was released, you’d get a VERY wide range of different ideas. When you introduce your character, and it should be only when you introduce him/her, don’t give your readers a police sketch. Just hit the important parts. Now you can have revelations later, but you should avoid them unless they serves the story. Here are two examples, you decided which is better.

Joseph walked into the room. He’s six feet tall with shaggy brown hair that covers his left eye. As a dedicated body builder, his massive biceps stretch the sleeves of his green T-shirt with the faded logo of the Blind Melon’s self-titled album on it. His brown eyes, flecked with gold, scanned the room. His face was unshaven with three days of growth on his angular jaw and dimpled chin. He didn’t see Diane anywhere. He was sure she’d stood him up again. She’d already done it twice. She always had a good reason, but he couldn’t help but wonder if she actually had any interest in him at all.

Now let’s try that again.

A man stepped into the room and glanced around. He was a little above average height, but he was covered in slabs of muscle that stretched his green T-shirt. He ran his fingers through his shaggy brown hair. Where was she? He was certain she’d stood him up again.

“Joseph!” a woman called out.

He turned and he smiled to see Diane waving at him.

Which do you think works better? I’m sure that like me, you have a clear vision in your head what your characters look like. Don’t force that on your reader. You should let them cast the role themselves. Give them some guidelines, but then let it go.

As with all my suggestions, there are oodles of books available about this topic. Ultimately, though, I think most of us will learn best by doing. It might take a while, and you might have to break into the same evil corporate headquarters a few times, but, when you finally get the story where you want it, and you see the high sheen coming from the polish you’ve given it (yes, I know I’m mixing metaphors), you’ll know it was a labor of love.

Interview with a Villain

Every book has one, in one form or another. No, I don’t mean a villain like from a James Bond film who lives on an island shaped like a skull. Your book might not even have a true villain per se, but you do have an antagonist. If you want your story to be compelling and interesting, you need to spend at least as much time on your “bad guy” as you do on your “good guy.” It might not even be a person, but if it is, here are some things I’ve learned about making a good counter to your protagonist (main character):

Goals – “What’s my motivation in this scene?”

Every antagonist has one, and no, “because they’re evil” isn’t good enough. Don’t be mistaken, the motive doesn’t have to fit with societal mores, but it does need to be believable. It has to make sense for that character. So ask yourself, or better yet, ask your character what he or she wants, and more importantly, why. You can actually get quite a lot from this if you paint the full picture. Imagine the scene where you’re meeting your villain. What is the character wearing? Is she waiting for you, or are you waiting for her? If he is waiting for you, does he stand when you arrive? Who chose the venue? Are other people staring? If so, how does the character react? The more detailed your imagining, the fuller the character will be to you, and thus to your readers. For example, let’s take a villain from a story just about everyone has either read or knows about: Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. Apologies to Ms. Rowling for the butchering that follows. I hope you have a good sense of humor.

Voldemort met me at a popular London café overlooking the Thames River. His pale skin, serpent like nose, and trademark flowing, black robes made him easy to spot. He was sitting at a table with a view of the bustling river traffic, a cup of tea in hand, pinky extended. His now-famous wand sat on the table next to some kind of Asian inspired salad. I think he smiled when he saw me, it was hard to tell, and invited me to join him. A cup of tea was waiting for me, but the wait staff was nowhere to be seen, so he poured the tea himself. I didn’t drink it.

Bishop: Thank you for meeting with me, Voldemort.

Voldemort: Certainly. I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t wait for you. They have the most exquisite quinoa salad here.

B: Not at all.

V: I’d ask if you want anything, but the wait staff is, well, indisposed at the moment.

B: I’m fine, thank you. Let’s get to it, shall we? Voldemort, tell me, what do you want?

V: I want to kill Harry Potter, of course.

B: Okay, I got that. But that’s really the short term goal, isn’t it? I mean, what do you really want?

V: Ah. Well, I’m so very glad you asked. I know it’s terribly cliché, but I want to rule the world. My personal twist is that I also want to be the most powerful wizard ever. Harry Potter is just the one who can best deny me those things.

B: Now we’re getting somewhere. Why do you want to rule the world?

V: Well, everybody everyone wants to rule the world.

B: I had no idea you were a Tears for Fears fan.

V: Two of my favorite things. Seriously, though, I suppose I could say it’s the power I want, but that’s so simplistic. Really, I’m a good old fashioned racist.

B: You’re a racist?

V: I know, I know, that word has such a negative connotation. But you see, my racism isn’t as simple as skin color or religion. You muggles, quite frankly, are inferior to us wizards.

B: Could you explain?

V: Happily. As wizards, we wield truly immense power. We can violate your pathetic laws of physics. We have flying cars, for crying out loud! Your scientists have been promising those to you since the 1950s, yet the only ones I see are magical. Mud-Bloods, those wizards born from the horrible mixing of a wizard and a muggle, are just a sad half breed. While it elevates the muggle half, it pollutes the wizard blood beyond repair. Muggle-born wizards are just freaks of nature. No, it’s pure-blood wizards who can, and should, be the ones to rule. We’ve had magic in our families for countless centuries, and I know it’s overplayed, but might really does make right.

B: It is a bit cliché.

V: For good reason. With rare exceptions, the one with the bigger club, and the ability to use it, wins.

B: Okay, so you’re saying wizards—

V: Pure-blood wizards.

B: Sorry, pure-blood wizards should rule the world, and you being the most powerful, should rule them?

V: Exactly. You muggles, are an inferior species of the human race, like the Neanderthals—

B: Actually, I think it’s pronounced Neander-tal

V: AVADA KEDAVRA!

And….scene. Obviously I had fun with this, partly because parody covers me from a lawsuit, but also because it kept you reading. Regardless, you see that he wanted more than to kill the kid with the lightning bolt on his face. You need to understand not just your villains’ immediate goals, but their long term motivations. When you go to the store, it’s not just to buy food. It’s because you have to eat to live, and odds are you don’t or can’t raise enough food on your own to sustain yourself. The disparity isn’t terribly complicated, but it has a big impact on your story. It doesn’t matter if your antagonist is a normal everyday person, or a scary, murderous monster. In fact, if you want your villain to be a monster, having a good motive is key. Which is more frightening: A raving lunatic walking the street hunting people (insert generic horror movie monster here), or a true sociopath who is well organized, has a goal (however twisted), a detailed plan to achieve it, and goes about executing said plan in a cold, ruthless manner (Hannibal Lecter-esque)? Odds are you picked the latter. At least according to movie ticket sales, book sales, and cultural impact.

Tom Hiddleston, probably best known in the U.S. for his role as Loki in The Avengers and Thor movies, said, “Every villain is a hero in his own mind.” Hearing that quote for the first time was an aha moment for me. It made sense. Villains never think they’re the villain. Oh, they might recognize that society will see them that way, but THEY know the truth. I won’t take up your time by making a list, but I will suggest you make one. Look at your favorite book, movie, TV show, what have you, and think of the antagonist in it. I’d be willing to bet (but please don’t email me offering a bet because you found an exception to this) that they’re doing what they felt had to be done. It might be their own ideals, looking for vengeance (justice in their mind), because their dog told them, or anything else. Regardless, they have their reasons.

No, your villains don’t have to be likeable. But, if you make them understandable, and there is a difference, you’ll make your reader really love to hate them.