Monday, December 15, 2008

DOUBLE-DUTY: PUTTING A FACE ON CONFLICT IN AN SFR

I just got off the phone—literally—with author Susan Grant. I have no idea how she has time to call in between piloting 747s, writing her books, tending to her fur persons and dealing with two teenagers at home (the last, as I told her, is like having five children at home). But she’s a sweetheart and she calls to chat about writing and what’s going on, and one thing we both hit on was the importance of creating a proper villain in our stories.

She already has hers, lucky dog. I’m still working on mine.

Creating the antagonist (that’s the foo-foo writerly word for bad guy…guy being generic) has always been tough for me. Susan and I discussed the fact that so often in science fiction/science fiction romance, the antagonist is less a person/sentient and more often something like, like the Ubiquitous Evil Empire or Corporation. But even empires and corporations need someone to pull the trigger. And that trigger person has to have the same goals and motivations, fears and desires structured in as your protagonists do.

It’s even better when the antagonist is less the Evil Empire and more the crazed, wacko, jealous, bitter but deep down inside nice person craving love and affection kind of character. Who may or may not work for the Evil Empire but certainly has an agenda or his or her own.

Those are the more difficult characters for me to craft. I’m better at the minions—the characters who operate under the direction of the Evil Empire—than at the individual self-motivated, self-contained baddy.

However, in SHADES OF DARK, I learned just how much fun it was to write the self-motivated, self-contained baddy in the character of Captain Del Regarth. And that made me want to do it again.

Trouble is, not every plot line that leaps into my head comes complete with a self-contained baddy. SHADES did. It was likely the exception that proves the rule. So with my current WIP, I’m trying to create a self-contained baddy or two. Because they’re honestly more fun to write.

Del was hugely fun to write. I don’t want to get into spoilers for those of you who’ve not read SHADES OF DARK (and #1, why haven’t you? And #2, do read GABRIEL’S GHOST first). Del actually had some heroic moments. Del actually saves the day a few times. Del actually is sexy and almost endearing in some scenes.

He’s also selfish, manipulative, condescending and spoiled rotten. And very very deadly.

In my current WIP—the follow-on book to HOPE’S FOLLY and one which I, quite uncharacteristically, can NOT seem to come up with a title for—in this current WIP it feels like I’m going to have two rather self-contained antagonists. Oh, there’s still the Evil Empire looming in the background. But I want to have real faces to put on the conflict.

That means creating two characters as in-depth as I do my protagonists.
Don’t you always do that, Linnea? You ask.

Uh, no. I don’t.

See, let me explain something about writing cross-genre romance, and science fiction romance in general.

Every novel anyone writes has a plot (or should have). In a mystery novel, for example, it’s the whodunit. There’s the cop or agent or PI. There’s the mystery (the dead body, the missing necklace, the kidnapped grandmother). There’s the bad guy. The conflict is clearly between the cop and the bad guy over whatever the mystery element is. In a fantasy novel, there’s the prince, the kingdom to be saved, and the fire-breathing dragon who wants to toast the town. Literally.

Okay, I’m being simplistic but I hope you get the drift.

When you write cross-genre and/or science fiction romance, things get more complicated. You have the adventure or mystery plotline (can the destitute starfreighter captain rescue her friend from the evil alien kidnappers?) and the romance plotline (can the destitute starfreighter captain risk having her heart broken by the imperious military officer who’s help she needs to rescue her friend from the evil alien kidnappers?). Falling in love in the midst of the mystery complicates things. You essentially have two parallel plotlines to construct, work with and solve. (And yes, I’m obliquely dealing with my FINDERS KEEPERS plotline here.) You have the adventure plot. You have the romance plot. You have the emotional conflict between the hero and heroine in the romance plot. You have the physical conflict between the hero/heroine and the bad guy in the adventure part of the plot.

For a good part of your book, your hero or heroine may actually also function as antagonist as well as protagonist, in addition to your book’s other antagonist in the form of the bad guy.

Confused yet?

(Think that’s bad, you should have seen me struggling with GAMES OF COMMAND in which I had two sets of hero/heroines with romance plots to solve AND both male protagonists had valid issues where they could also be functioning as undercover agents for the over-arcing antagonist of the Evil Empire AND on top of that I had to have some actual “has a face” antagonists…phew! And people wonder why authors drink…)

So the author of any cross-genre romance essentially must do twice the work of any solo-genre author in constructing characters, conflict and plot.

Didn’t realize that, did you? (And—more food for thought—we must do it in the same word count allotted to solo-genre books. So we have to do twice the story in the same amount of space. And you wonder why authors drink…)

What I find happens with me is that after roughing out my protagonists in the romance part of the story—and figuring out how they’ll be antagonists to each other for a period of the book—I’m fresh out of ideas for a self-contained antagonist who will come up against my hero and heroine. Just to make life more difficult.

As I said (whined) to Susan Grant on the phone: can’t we just have Generic Bad Guy? Does he or she have to have motivations? Can’t he just be BAD?

Nope. You need a face on conflict.

Susan had one great suggestion: look to the news. The media is full of bad guy stories, from politics in any given country to the pirates in the shipping lanes over in the Middle East, from which to craft an antagonist. Real life examples exist all around us. Greed afloat, in the latter case. A little research into current events—and reading the news analysis of same—can give you a lot of background with which to plop into your antagonist’s character chart.

The other—for me—is simply to do a character chart for the antagonist(s). I’ve really not done them before—at least, not in any detail. (IE: in AN ACCIDENTAL GODDESS I knew what motivated Rigo and Blass at that point at which they appear, but I didn’t know anything about their histories.) Writing Del in SHADES changed all that.

So for me, putting a face on my conflict now means going far more in depth on my “adventure plotline” antagonist than I have before. It means doing a lot of backstory that will not show up in the book other than as motivations. It means forcing myself to give the antagonists some likeable characteristics. I read somewhere, “Remember: the bad guy is the hero in his own mind” and that thought is really what sparked Del and what I hope sparks the baddies in my current WIP.

That doesn’t mean at all that the Evil Empire as antagonist is wrong. For a lot of books—many of which I’ve written—that’s exactly where and what the baddie needs to be. Sometimes the greater threat must really feel greater and all-encompassing. Sometimes one bad-ass dude with a laser pistol just ain’t enough.

But when you need a self-contained bad guy, Susan’s suggestions of starting with news articles (or even history—if she has time to post I’ll let her relate the story about Hitler she told me) is a good jumping off point for your creativity.

Then spend some time working with that character’s backstory, as deeply as you do for your protagonists. Get in to the antagonist’s “But I’m a Hero too!” mindset.

It may not make your book any easier to write. But it will definitely make it more fun.




~Linnea

SHADES OF DARK, the sequel to Gabriel’s Ghost, July 2008 from RITA award-winning author, Linnea Sinclair, and Bantam Books: http://www.linneasinclair.com/

Chaz, Del is not the problem you perceive him to be.

Let’s see. He ambushes me on Narfial, blocks you, wanted to neutralize Marsh and then locks you away from me in some mystical woo-woo place that used to be a shuttle bay. In between all that, he has an annoying habit of calling me “angel” and “lover,” walks a very thin line between harmless flirtation and practiced seduction, and then has the balls to say I’m touchy. I have no idea why I think he’s a problem.

8 comments:

  1. Wonderful post, Linnea. As we speak i am sitting here trying to get a better handle on my bad guy. You inspired me this morning.

    As for Hitler, when my daughter was researching his bio for school, I ended up learning this along with her. Supposedly, his rejection from art school sent him into a rage of hatred. And the professor was supposedly Jewish, as well. It would be simplistic to blame his monumentally evil actions on this rejection, or even his mother's death from breast cancer on her Jewish physician, but for me, as a writer, and from the craft perspective, Hitler's art interest is something you just wouldn't expect. To me it makes for an even more scary villain: having him or her capable of evil yet also possessing a "gentler side." It begs the question: that good and evil can exist in one twisted soul, or even in any of us. This dichotemy (sp?) makes for the most complex villains--and the most 3D and interesting!

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  2. Great stuff, both of yas. What I do is ask myself what would hurt the Hero or Heroine the most, then create an antagonist who can do the job. Bad is a cartoon and death is easy.

    Here's my inspirational scene-

    Wesley in THE PRINCESS BRIDE to Prince Humperdink, "To the pain, Highness, means I leave you to rot in anguish, wallowing in freakish misery forever."

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  3. When I read Linnea's books, I love the way in which the romance and SF plots blend seamlessly. I hadn't realized how much double duty that represented!

    As for Hitler, I agree with what Susan Grant said about his human side. I've never been able to consider Hitler or let's say a jihadist who blows himself up and takes a lot of lives with his other than a human being. That's both scary and a challenge to thinking because considering them human and not some special evil forces us to consider the basic human machinery which is in every one of us.
    That may sound extreme. It just reflects the experience I had when I was a child and I've had to face this basic human machinery inside others. And inside me.
    To avoid any misunderstanding, it's quite easy for me to understand villains but that does not mean I agree with what they do/did. Or that I would avoid taking whatever drastic actions may have to be taken.

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  4. The thought of Hitler creating paintings of sunsets and butterflies certainly does give us pause--and I'm glad Susan had time to share the info. Now his art work may well have reflected his belief system and been violent. But overall we don't tend to think of art as violent so it's a unique turn on character.

    Kimber An, I agree. A great question: what would hurt the protags the most? (That's very Donald Maass, BTW.)

    Gerard, it is very tough to humanize those we see as villains because it makes us examine our own souls. I find the television show DEXTER fascinating in that regard--it takes many of our beliefs about baddies and turns them sideways.

    ~Linnea

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  5. No kiddin'? I have a vague memory of someone talking about Donald Maas.

    Actually, I came to the concept on my own when I got bored with my story.

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  6. Great post! I look forward to linking to this during my next round up. Incidentally, right before reading this post I had read the latest Romantic Times and there was an article in it by agent Evan Marshall. He too discussed the importance of putting a face on the villain.

    One thing that makes a world of difference when depicting a villain is word choice. I'm reading a futuristic romance right now that's about 350 pages long. I'm intrigued by the villain in this book because he's not a typical one.

    However, his character description has all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Imho, it comes down to ineffective word choices and shortcuts that are undermining his villain potential, which is actually very good. Unfortunately, he comes across more as a cartoon than a real person.

    When space is limited then every word counts. As I read I'm aware of the emotions invoked in me by word choice, dialogue, character body language, etc.. With a villain I very much anticipate being disturbed or shocked on one level. When I'm not, I feel disappointed. And this current book is beset by a host of complications, not conflict. I'm hoping the villain makes an appearance soon just to shake things up.

    Even if a villain doesn't have much stage time, things like expressions and what he/she *doesn't* say can convey quite a bit, and I love it when authors use those options.

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  7. I have to confess that I am having one heck of a time creating my bad guys. Turns out that I have a slew of them and I've made them so nasty that they depress me and disgust the main bad guy. The most horrifying bad guy that I, unfortunately, cannot forget was the Samari, Lord Yabu in James Clavel's SHOGUN, who got off by torturing people, writing poety, and exercising his hand, all while listening to their screams. Ick! Lois Bujold says that she thinks of the worst thing that could happen to her protags, and then does it to them. Thanks Linnea and Sue for your insights. Makes it clearer why Yabu got to me so badly.

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  8. Bring it on, Frances!

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