Basic writing tips: heroes

John-Constantine

Yeah, okay, let’s do this one today.

You get a lot more leeway when it comes to the motivation of a hero. It’s a lot more justifiable to have heroes out doing good for the sake of good because, at its core, humanity is basically good. Most individual humans, despite their flaws, would probably step up to proper evil if they had a chance to do so. At least, this is what I choose to believe when I’m writing because I tend to go for worlds that haven’t been totally mashed by jackbooted authoritarians or corporate shitheels or the like.

But what if you are building one of these worlds? In a world where oppression and misery are the norm — think 1984 — then a hero for the sake of being heroic won’t work. They need a reason to fight against the bastards that are grinding them down, something more than just them being subjected to a horrible way of life. This horrible way of life is all they know, so there needs to be something else to push them to fight. Again, in 1984 this is Winston’s love for Julia, but it can be anything, so long as it gives the hero a look behind the curtain.

Of course, just because they don’t live in a hellscape, doesn’t mean your hero doesn’t need these reasons. The way to make a hero interesting is to give him flaws, cracks in the veneer. The reason I can’t get on board with Superman as a hero, for instance, is because he’s so bloody perfect. The big blue boy scout. Truth, justice and the American way. That’s flat, dull, and for me not very compelling. Contrast that with the dude at the top of this post, John Constantine.

Constantine is best described as an arsehole. At his core he’s a good guy, but he’s selfish, often cowardly, a chain-smoker, rude and downright abrasive. He has a habit of sacrificing his friends if it will give him an advantage in a fight — which happens a lot — and never speaks plainly when a lie will do. This is a man that recently vowed to let the world burn and let billions of people die if it would let him save his own life and that of his ex-girlfriend.

But he is, ultimately a good guy.

That is the sort of hero I can get behind. Conflicted. Everyone has doubts about what they are doing, if your hero doesn’t then he’s not a person.

Basic writing tips: villains

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I was playing Titanfall last night, that heady bastion of drama that it is, and was talking with someone about how poor the attempt at a storyline is. It’s your basic evil moustache twirling corporation of English and South Africans against the valiant rebellion of Americans. Not offensive, just utterly pointless. It does nothing that hasn’t been done before.

Then, naturally, we started talking about Brink, and the topic shifted to what made that a compelling world if not a compelling game. The answer was relatively simple: the baddies worked.

This *is* basic writing theory, so if you already know this, don’t take offence. You’ll already know a great deal of writers can’t do this properly. For those that don’t know what I mean, here we go.

As a rule, your bad guy should not think he’s the bad guy. He can act like a total dick, but his motivation must be because he thinks what he’s doing is the right thing to do, otherwise it feels remarkably fake. They can still be monstrously evil, to the point of moustache twirling if you like, but because they think it’s necessary.

Taken to its logical extreme, you get this article from a website that will devour your day, but it doesn’t need to go quite that far. But really, all you need is a reason for them to be evil. Whether heroes need a reason to be good is probably something I’ll write about later if I remember — it’s got a whole article of its own there — but villains always need a reason to be evil. They are the source of your drama, your conflict, so they must be fully realised by you, even if a lot of it isn’t used directly in the story. You need that knowledge on hand for writing how they act, knowing how they think.

Just, you know, give your characters some character.

SNIDE: The second act slump

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I have a habit of checking my word count a lot when writing a book, which isn’t helping me right now.

For a while it is super useful, seeing that I’ve made so much progress. The first ten thousand words feel like a slog, but once you start nearing fifteen thousand it begins to feel like you’re actually doing something important. Then you start to near forty thousand, as I’m doing now, and all you can think of is I’m not even halfway yet.

I still need another sixty thousand words. Possibly more. That’s really bloody daunting. I tend to let the story dictate itself to me as I write, and this book is no different, but I’m rapidly running out of expected material, marching straight into terra incognita.

This happens in every book, and once I cross the magic midway marker things should start to make sense again. But right now it’s a bit scary. It’s also getting all serious, and I mostly don’t write things that are serious. I mostly write things that have sarcastic shitbags annoying people for 300 pages.

All this being a legitimate writer business is weird.

SNIDE: Writing baddies

dick

Writing the baddie always seems to become more fun for me than creating the protagonists. That’s not to say the others are arduous, but they tend to be a bit easier to put together. There are more pitfalls with the bad guys, and that’s what makes it fun.

It’s important that the villains be believable, as I’m sure you know. The moustache twirling madman of old still has his place, but it is largely in satires and spoofs. A proper villain has to think they are doing the right thing, which means when you are designing them, you need to find a way to justify what they are doing.

For SNIDE, this means I’ve had to work quite hard at that. The logic I’ve had to work with to keep the villains consistent with the plot as well as somewhat realistic has been great fun, and has given me numerous jumping off points I can exploit in future stories too.

Essentially, writing is exploring. I go nosing around the heads of tiny little people I build out of words, and they surprise me every time. The ones in SNIDE have been especially good at it, to the point where I find them dictating huge detours from where I expected the story to go.

And I’m okay with that, because they are awesome.