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Friday, May 9, 2014

Dear Jeannie: Complex Antagonists and Writing Yourself into a Corner

Dear Jeannie,
I'm having a hard time getting a handle on my antagonist, Arik. The story's told from my narrator's POV, who doesn't like him and writes him off as selfish, petty, cruel, and generally in hot pursuit of evil. I doubt he was 'born this way', but I can't get a bead on him. Arik grew up in a family that's feuding with my main character's family, and each side has a different take on the events that fueled the conflict (Arik's great-whatever-father tried to kill the narrator's great-whatever-father, but killed his wife, instead. From there, blame was spread and a body-count began.). Arik is first the heir-apparent, and then takes over his clan, and all of his interaction with the narrator involves games of one-upmanship, off-kilter treachery and betrayal, and one murder of a trusted ally. Only my narrator and one other already-biased person were witness to this death. How is Arik going to handle this accusation? Why is he such a...body part? He has a close relationship with one of the good guys, but he never does anything remotely redeemable. Is this too much?

Overloaded in Omaha

Dear Overloaded,

I'm sure you know this, but no one is all bad and no one is all good. Arik wasn't born in hot pursuit of evil, as you wrote. Circumstances shaped him into the person he is. Donald Maass makes a point in Writing the Breakout Novel that characters in fiction need to be as complex and multidimensional as people in real life. So I'd think about have your narrator show Arik saying, doing, or thinking something that the narrator would never assume that he was say, do or think. Have him wrestle with this opposing view of his enemy, and thereby let the reader wrestle with it. Depending on where you want to go with Arik (i.e., will they shake hands at the end, so separate ways, or will there be one man left standing?) you don't have to fully redeem him as some sort of anti-hero if you give him redeeming traits. That's up to you. Hope this helps!

Dear Jeannie,

Niko lives in a futuristic society where contact with the opposite sex is lethal. Scientists and politicians have worked ways around this, automating some things and segregating others. Although Niko is a decent person, he is still a product of his culture. Which would seem to include an adherence to the state (who raised him), an utter lack of concepts like family, and a certain detachment from pesky things like consequences. He's fighting that last one as he meets new people and fights for a cure that won't end in extinction, but the more I work on Niko's story, the less stability I find. What room does he have for faith? Or compassion? As an author, it's fun to consider how to throw people into situations, but it looks like I'm exchanging one unreality for another. I don't really see a way to tell this story without coping with a prevalence of homosexuality, so I almost wonder if I need to head back to the drawing board for this. Could a same-sex society survive more than a generation? If these men grow up from boys raised entirely by 'the state', will relationships (between colleagues, adversaries, mentors, etc.) be vastly different without those young ties to fathers, family, and females?

Twisted in Tulsa 

Dear Twisted,

Wow. What a predicament you've written yourself into. (Isn't that fascinating, how we authors do that? Why do we do this to ourselves? Gluttons for punishment, I guess.) Anyway, you're story world sounds intense. Thinking from this worldview, a society of males wouldn't survive more than a generation unless you have some major fantasy elements that you've not shared (perhaps in the automated parts of society you mentioned?). If young men were raised by the "state" and had no exposure to females, then this would be what they know. Their nurturing needs would be met by males, and not necessarily in a homosexual way (i.e., Yoda or Chef from South Park). I'm just curious about where the females are in your story. Are they sequestered away somewhere, on their own too? You might just need to leave me some comments below and explain this a bit better! Otherwise, feel free to utilize my assessment services if you want more individualized feedback.