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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.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Dear Jeannie: "There is no Santa" and a Frozen Scenario

Dear Jeannie,

When Charlee was four, her mother left for another man to start the 'perfect family.' Charlee and her sister, Cassie, visited once. Afterwards, Cassie declared their mother to be dead to her. Charlee took that seriously and believed her mother to be dead until finally making a comment to her father when she was eight. Her father told her the truth. How would she react to that as an eight year old, finally learning the truth? When she's forced to go live with her mother because her sister died and her father left for the army, would it be reasonable for her to refuse to accept her new family? How long would it take for her to forgive her mother, whom she heard horrible things about from her sister? How long would it take for her to forgive her sister for leaving her and lying to her?

Bewildered in Bulgaria

Dear Bewildered,

Great questions! Most four-year-olds believe what they are told. You can tell them anything, and they believe it. Learning that her mother is alive wouldn't be much different for an eight-year-old than learning that Santa isn't real. Now the import and consequences are much more far-reaching, but an 8-year-old wouldn't necessarily understand that. There's going to be some adjustment for sure when she goes to the new family, but children are wired from birth to crave having a mother and a father. Even children who are abused want to still be close to their abusing parents. Charlee would likely adjust well to living with her mom (depending on how well mom treated her, I suppose, but I'm operating on the assumption that her mother wants a relationship with her). You can see my series on how children respond to death and grieving to see how she might handle the death of her sister. Dealing with the lies might be more overstated in your questions than would be realistic. Children who learn Santa isn't real usually don't have long-lasting traumatic damage. Hope this helps!

Dear Jeannie,

A seventeen year old Allison escaped from a massacre that took the lives of both her parents. Her only remaining family is a thirteen year old sister, Vera, who she's suddenly become responsible for. Allison is as hard-headed and stubborn as a mule, and her idea of coping with grief is to - well, not. Allison suppresses her grief - she refuses to talk or even think about her parents, refuses to let herself cry, and shuts down anyone who attempts to get her to open up about it, including her own sister. At first, Vera understood her behavior. She thought Allison needed time to cope on her own. But as the story progresses, Allison's behavior only grows worse. In addition to keeping her grief inside, she's hiding a number of important secrets, and now Vera is becoming angry with her. She hates how her sister keeps her in the dark, and that Allison won't even trust her with how she's really feeling. The tension between these two is coming to a boil - Vera is going to confront Allison, and Allison is going to lose control of her feelings. I understand from your previous posts that holding back grief too long results in breakdowns. What I don't understand is how such a breakdown would manifest for a stubborn, snappish, yet hurting character like Allison. More importantly, how is such a breakdown going to affect an already shaky relationship between the sisters?

Adventuring in Austin 

Dear Adventuring,

This scenario reminds me of the movie Frozen. Allison is the Elsa character, and Vera is Anna. Elsa was deeply hurting after the death of her parents and having to keep the secret of her powers to herself to protect Anna. She isolated herself, which is a realistic reaction to grief. Anna tried multiple times to get Elsa to talk to her, yet Elsa continued to shut her out. Eventually, they have a confrontation over Anna wanting to get married to a guy she just met, and Elsa can't contain her feelings and reveals her powers, which are scary to everyone and overwhelming to both Elsa and Anna. It looks to me that you could have a similar showdown. The two sisters would definitely be awkward with each other afterward, but breaking the ice (ha! no pub intended...) would be essential for them to move on. Vera will have to confront Allison. It won't be pleasant, but it'll be necessary. It's possible that Allison will withdraw even further (like Elsa did with her ice castle), but she might become more aggressive or her behaviors more erratic. Grief is so varied, as I wrote in the post. It's been my experience that just about anything can go when it comes to grief reaction. Thanks for writing in.


I might have some answers. Leave your comment below, anonymously, utilizing monikers like Sleepless in Seattle. I'll answer them in future Dear Jeannie columns.