Picking Villains

Picking villains is tricky.

I am working away on book 2, A Dollar Short, and I have come to one conclusion: villains are hard.

I think this may be particularly true in mysteries. To play fair with your readers, you have to depict the villain early, and the villain has to have all the potential villainy available from the beginning. It doesn’t have to be obvious, but it cannot be impossible for them to grow into the role.

I am a little conflicted by some other issues around them as well. In the modern world, all your characters fall under the lens of fairness of portrayal. And here I do not mean just fairness to the reader, but rather are you fairly portraying society, races, genders, and so forth? That can be a tricky question. Certainly some authors get nicked for not portraying, say, strong females. Or strong people of color. Or strong whatever. Pick your favorite marginalized, picked-upon, or unfairly treated group. And others are lauded for doing so. Think about, say, Joss Whedon’s reputation around Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

You can see this in other genre work as well, Anyone familiar with recent events in, for example, science fiction, will be familiar with the war between the “sad-puppies” and the “social-justice-warriors”. Our current culture is full of disagreement about how we should portray ourselves, what we should talk about, who should be shown as strong, and so forth. That can make picking a villain tricky. People are bound to notice choices you make. Characterizations of whatever sort are very revealing about who and what the author is or believes (or can be). Does constantly picking the same sort (see the above list) for a villain indicate you feel a particular way toward that sub-group?

Yet we are always encouraged to write what we know. And how many of us have real understanding of cultures that are not our own? We can learn, examine, and question other cultures, but we cannot live them. A man cannot experience being a woman any more than a woman can experience being a man. I cannot be black and understand things from that point of view, no matter how much I read, learn, study, question, or research.

And sometimes I find some character just demands to be the villain of the piece. Every action, every thought, every portrayal ends in the same place, with the same motivations for some characters. Just as some heroes (or she-roes) cannot help being heroic, I think some villains are born to villainy. How can you force a character into a mold without the character seeming, well, molded?

I guess, in the end, you have to show fair motivations for both your heroes and villains. They should all have viewpoints, and all the viewpoints should be, if not correct, at least understandable. In the end, the human experience is human. You have to be able to see the character as an actual person, however flawed, broken, or tormented. You might not agree with their take on the world, but you have to be able to perceive how they might come to that view. Otherwise the character falls flat, and the work seems contrived. They become Snidely Whiplash or Dudley Doright rather than a fully formed person.

 

Tempus Fugit

Ain’t it da troot’?

I have not been idle, but noted I hadn’t posted here in a bit. It is amazing to me how swiftly time moves by, and more so as I get older. I spent a good bit of January working on the next book, A Dollar Short, and have made good progress. I am just kissing 45,000 words, and the story is progressing nicely. I expect there will be more edits to reach a first draft on this one than on Into The Fire (largely because my editors taught me so much on the first one), but I hope to finish it up a little early (maybe by the late March, early April timeframe).

Well, that’s all for now. The tailwinds of time are scooping me along.

Editors

Never underestimate the value of a good editor.

I was speaking with friend tonight, and he mentioned that one of my editors had helped him look smart. I cannot agree more. My editors make me look like a (relative, given what they have to work with) genius. There is no amount of praise you can give your editors that is not deserved (given even marginal skill on their part).

My book, Into the Fire would not be anything like as good as it is without the help of both my editors. I give them credit for this in the book, but it was brought to mind again this evening. And bears repeating (and they are both well above marginal skill).

If you don’t use a good editor, you should. And you should pretty much accept what they tell you. They want to make your book better as much as you do. And they will. If you listen.

I have come to believe that to have a best seller, you have to have luck. But, without a good book, all the luck in the world won’t help much. How do you get a good book? Well, practice, certainly, and a good idea, sure, and understanding of your genre, of course. But really, a good cover for many of those things (and a way to achieve some of those things): a good editor.

Can’t afford one? Really? Can you afford not to have one?

Capers

No, not the little things you add to a salad or have with anchovies.

I thought I would give some thoughts on what a Caper is. Some of my friends have convinced me my books would more properly be categorized as capers, so, what does that mean?

I’ll start with some examples (like a picture for the mind; worth a thousand words)

Mission Impossible (the TV series, not the movies) is built around the caper.

Leverage (the TV series) is based on a series of capers.

Burn Notice (again, a TV series) is based on the team doing capers.

Older versions of the the theme include (TV Shows like) Switch, It Takes a Thief (though, arguably, the movie is as well), The Thomas Crown Affair (though you might be able to debate either movie).

I note that many (most, but not quite all) of the things I reference are television shows. I guess that shows how my mind works, and what kinds of things have influenced me. Maybe it also shows that books more rarely delve into this genre.

Movies do though. The Thomas Crown Affair is not a solo here. I would include Ocean’s Eleven (and the subsequent movies) in this genre.

Now, definitionally, I would say a caper shares elements with a mystery or a thriller. For example, Where Eagles Dare, Force 10 from Navarone, and maybe Ice Station Zebra (all books by Alistair Maclean) would nominally be classed as thrillers. However, if they all shared the same characters doing the tasks listed, they might be classed capers.

The central thing to a caper story is some plot element where the group of heroes (and I think it is necessary for it to be a group) take on some odd task to deal with a bad guy (or agency, or corporation, or whatever) in some interesting and clever way in which the “mystery” part has to do with the way the lion will be bearded in its den rather than not knowing who the bad guy (or whatever) is.

The Odd Jobs Mysteries are somewhat like Mission Impossible, but with less meaningful glances.

They are a bit like Leverage, but less zany.

They are something like Burn Notice, but with less guns and bombs.

So, there it is. Capers.

 

More updates

Put this on amazon’s facebook, but not here yet.

My plan for this year is to write 2 more in the odd jobs mysteries series. I am about 20,000 words (60+ pages) into the first. The title is A Dollar Short. It is a continuation from the first book, Into The Fire, and continues with many of the characters, from the point of view of Cameron.

The third book is as yet untitled, and I hope to be working on it by mid-year.

At the suggestion of a friend, I may also try my hand at at short story this year, for more traditional publication (maybe Analog, maybe Ellery Queen, maybe Hitchcocks, maybe somewhere else). We’ll see. He had a great story idea that really caught my imagination.

Anyway (which, BTW, means something like “bullshit”).

Selling It

I had a friend comment on one of the other entries here (one of the writing exercises) and he liked what I did there. I think it was Exercise #2. Anyway, I looked at what he liked, and realized it was all about the last line of the exercise and that it was kind of a shaggy dog (for those who do not know, a shaggy dog is a style of joke where the punch line comes out of left field, but is well set up by the joke).

But it got me thinking. I recently read a book in which I enjoyed the writing style, the authors voice, and so forth, but didn’t end up liking the book that much (names withheld because the author is actually quite skilled). And the reason I didn’t like it: the ending was not a sell for me.

We see this in various things we do. Think of a vacation you really liked. Now think of one you really didn’t. Was it the last couple of days (or even the last day) of the vacation that set the tone? For many people, the answer will be yes.

And that is part of what I see in what I wrote. The ending of the writing exercise is a surprise, even though essentially unsupported by the prose, but it hammers home the idea in a visceral way. The “tag line” sells the whole bit.

I think many things in stories are like this. There can be (with apologies to Buffy/Xander, and Joss Whedon) “big overture, little show” (from BTVS episode Fear Itself) in what authors do. If you don’t sell the story in the closing, people may not think much about how excellent the writing is, how much they like the author’s voice, how well plotted the theme is, how novel the idea is, or whatever else is cool. They will merely remember that the ending didn’t sell it. We, as human beings, tend to remember more the last thing we saw rather than the whole. The “tag line” rather than the substance.

Doubt me? Let me do an experiment. “Adrien! Adrien!”. Know the movie? Was it a great movie? Or how about “I’ll be back.” Recognize it? Or even “Where’s the Beef?” Seem familiar? Tag lines, or closings, are central to what we remember. Even though we have not always been a six second sound bite culture, we are always caught by catchy things (probably why they are called catchy). Don’t believe it? Long before we had six second sound bites we had “Stella! Stella!” or even (misquoted) “Play it again, Sam.”

Small ideas, pithily stated, often hold our attention and memory. That is not to say our writing should always be all about that. But never underestimate the power of a small, witty sentence that brings the whole piece together.

That’s all folks.

Writing Exercise #4

This exercise is one I picked up from “Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques” by James Hynes. He credits “What if? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers” by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

Pick a character from a story, novel, whatever. Describe everything you know or can guess about that character.

Beware, some potential spoilers below. I am taking Cameron Jeffry Jaclyn from Into the Fire as my subject. I will reveal things about him that are revealed in the book, but also some things that are not revealed in that book, but in book two A Dollar Short which I am currently working on.

Okay. Here Goes.

  • Cameron Jeffry Jaclyn is 30-ish.
  • He works in the financial industry as some sort of analyst. He is not to top-level quant, but is somewhat skilled in his arena.
  • He works for a smallish firm.
  • He is valued by his co-workers for his ability to swiftly run new “numbers”.
  • He is not wealthy, but is reasonably well off. He is not living hand-to-mouth. Probably upper-middle class.
  • He has modest computer skills, focused mainly on his job.
  • He is about average height.
  • He is not much of an athlete, and fits in neither the “fighter” nor “lover” categories.
  • He is unsure of himself around women, and easily gets flustered.
  • He is often in his own head rather than deeply engaged in the world around him.
  • He does not always plan ahead or think things all the way through before acting.
  • He only recently acquired a cell-phone, so might be seen as a slight luddite.
  • He drives an average car (Toyota sedan).
  • He lives in an apartment building/condo.
  • His apartment is smallish, but has a living room, kitchen, small dining nook, an upstairs with bedroom. Presumably it also has a bathroom.
  • He has a checkered past. He has been on the wrong side of the law, has done some breaking and entering, and owes his current job, as well as his status as a nominally law-abiding citizen, to Ben Marshall, a man who helped him out of a scrape with the law when he was younger.
  • He is not particularly political.
  • He dislikes law enforcement officers.
  • He would like to be in a relationship, but is not.
  • He likes the outdoors, especially the mountains.
  • He lives in Denver, Colorado.
  • He feels a deep sense of obligation to people who have helped him.
  • He has no family to speak of, is possibly an orphan.
  • He has a small circle of friends.
  • He is truly close to Clifford Kelly. Perhaps his only truly close relationship.
  • He knows JC Schwittenhausen, and does not particularly like him, though he might be counted among Cameron’s friends.
  • His friends call him Cam.
  • He is a social chameleon, adapting his speaking patterns, attitudes, and whatnot to the current situation.
  • He is dogged in pursuing things he believes are important. Personal risk, physical or otherwise, will not deter him.
  • He is something of a loner.
  • He likes wine, and dislikes beer, especially cheap beer.
  • He recently discovered he like some whiskeys.
  • He is willing to break the law in pursuit of things he thinks are important, but only to a certain point, and always with some forethought about consequences.
  • He recently met Kelly Davis, an ex-cop, and actually likes her even though she was a cop.
  • He is willing to bribe people for illicit information.
  • He has a moderate social life, going out with friends to drink or watch a movie from time to time.
  • He likes fast-food, Thai (particularly a lamb dish), and pizza.
  • He likes peach pie.
  • He dislikes strawberry-rhubarb pie.
  • He drinks coffee.
  • He tends to follow a routine, often eating at the same places, taking the same route to work, and so forth.
  • He prefers to confront problems with subtle solutions rather than brute force. He likes to trick his opponents into missteps.
  • He has a lawyer, seemingly on retainer. His lawyer, Mark Falstaff, is a trial lawyer. This is possibly a hold-over from his younger days as a petty criminal.
  • He is somewhat familiar with the law, but lacks direct knowledge of police procedure and detailed terminology.

Writing Exercise #3

This exercise is one I picked up from “Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques” by James Hynes.

Objective: Describe an object, building, or landscape (a thing) with the intent of revealing an emotional state without stating the state (example: a parent who has just lost a child without saying anything specific about the loss of the child).

Tougher one. Here goes.

The bricks were gray. Not a soothing gray, like gentle clouds, but a depressing gray, like the ash from a burned building. And the doorway looked like a toothless maw, an endless orifice that could swallow all that was good in the world. The darkness beyond was limitless. An infinite black. To think how it could swallow such light. Unfathomable. A repository for all lost hope. A singular location for destroyed dreams. I couldn’t take my eyes from it as I stepped back. How could one edifice hold such cruelty?

The building was not tall. Nor was it broad. Small even. But big enough. Big enough. How could something that small consume so much? Hope goes in. Nothing comes out. And yet the interior was as empty as my heart. Nothing inside anymore. You enter with hope. You come out with ashes. Nothing remains, all is consumed. No more sounds of laughter. No more pattering of feet. No more silly shouting. No more games. No more stories. Nothing.

They call it hospital. Shelter for the needy? Shelter from what? Not this. No shelter at all from this. Not for me. A guest house? The only guest is the ash cloaked fellow with the scythe. That and his customers. In the French it even sounds like hope. What a joke. A joke on me. A cruel, endless joke. But no one is laughing. Not anymore. All the sweet laughter has been forever silenced.