Tag Archives: novels

Writing Exercise: Creating Believable Villains

In the Novel Writing Group in The Hague last month, writer Suzanna Tjoa led an impressively bilingual workshop on crafting believable villains.

There are many things you can do to make your villains more believable. There are countless articles on the web about those things which elevate a villain from a mere baddy to a complex antagonist worthy of fear, compassion, sorrow, pity, and terror.

Instead of going into all of them here, I wanted to share a 15 minute writing exercise you can do, right now, to help you get inside of your villain’s head and understand where they are coming from. For this exercise, it helps if you already have an antagonist in your story or novel. Whoever they are, it’s important for you to know them well if your readers are going to care whenever the antagonist brushes up against your main character.

Before this exercise, my villain was a little too villainous. Sure, they had a family (as most villains do) which made them more sympathetic, but I wasn’t fully clear on the events that had created this most villainous worldview. Once I finished this exercise, it dawned on me how my baddie grew up the way he did, and how he justifies his actions to himself. Since then, the scenes where he is present have become so much  more multidimensional and truly menacing. I’m more afraid of him (and for my main character) now than I was when he was 100% evil.

So trust me when I tell you you’re about to have a 15 minutes of your life well-spent.

To make your villain more believable, give yourself 15 uninterrupted  minutes with a pad of paper and pen, or a keyboard and word processor (or hell, the memo function on your mobile phone- whatever works for you). Next you’ll choose a controversial subject about which your villain believes differently from you. You can choose any controversial stance your villain has already taken in the past (“It’s alright to kill in order to get what I want,” or “It’s only wrong to swindle/steal if you get caught,” or “It’s ok to cheat on your spouse”), or you can go for a controversial stance applicable to your life now (“Euthanasia is never acceptable,” or “freedom of religion should extend to freedom from religion,” or “we have an obligation to protect ourselves from terrorism, even if it means infringing on the rights of suspects”). Be sure to choose a topic in which you are emotionally invested in some way, and one on which you and your antagonist would disagree.

Now set yourself a timer for 15 minutes, argue their POV as passionately as possible. Have your villain explain why they believe that way. What experiences shaped their worldview, and how would they defend their position? How does their worldview benefit them? What have they invested in believing the way they do?

Once your 15 minutes are up, take a look at what you’ve written. Now you know something very personal and important about your antagonist that will help you predict their thoughts and actions, and will help you write them in a way that calls to your reader to keep turning those pages long past their bedtime.

 

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“My Novel is Actually Three Genres”

Pretend I’m an agent/publisher. You want to sell your novel. We’re in an elevator together during your favorite writer’s conference. You’re giving me your 1-minute pitch, and it’s going well. I’m nodding and smiling, not looking at my watch. Then I ask: “What Genre is your novel?”

 

Writing Conference Elevator Pitch

The elevator at the conference will probably not look like this one. (Elevator in Abandoned Military Base on Teufelsberg, in Berlin. Copyleft Avery Oslo, 2012.)

 

 

So quick, tell me. Which genre?

 

 

Tell me now. Talk to your computer screen. Pretend I can hear you. Do it. Do it now.

 

 

Did you say something like “Well, it’s a Sci-Fi Thriller with a Romance, so kind of three genres?” 

(It’s okay, you can admit it. I’ve done it too.)

 

But no. Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that. Even if it’s true, don’t say that.

 

Kimberly Richardson, an author and an editor with Kerlak Publishing, has heard this at conferences and conventions more times than she’d like to recall. During a workshop with author Alan D. Lewis about Agent/Publisher Pitches at the Nashville Writer’s Meetup, Richardson revealed that being unable to decide on the genre of your book  shows a certain amateurism, and a lack of understanding of the industry. In a time when money is tight and competition fierce, agents and publishers are hesitant to take on an author who isn’t informed about the publishing process. That author is seen as a liability.

 

Of course your book includes a little bit from several different genres; most good books do.  You shouldn’t cut down on the intergenrenality (is that a word? I’m making it a word) of your work. The best books borrow devices from several genres. Look at the Harry Potter books – they are YA fantasy, but also have the makings of a good thriller, romance, and even horror.  That is how it should be.

 

But if an agent or publisher asks: “Which genre is your book?” You should have an answer. AN answer. One.

 

But how do you know which one?

 

It’s easier than you think – the one the agent/publisher you are speaking with represents/publishes.

 

Obviously lying will get you nowhere, but if your book is genuinely a  “sci-fi thriller with a romance,” then you have the opportunity to cast a wide net. When you approach agents who represent sci-fi, then that is the genre of your book. When you approach a publisher who really only puts out romance novels, then pitch your book as you would a romance novel. And so forth.  So approach the right people. Look for agents/publishers who represent and publish sci-fi with thriller or romance subplots. Or for agents/publishers who are looking for thrillers in a sci-fi setting or with a romance subplot. Or for romance publishers who like to branch out into romance on other worlds or romance in the midst of a situation resembling a thriller.  

 

If you are fortunate enough to have written a book that spans three genres of which you can take advantage, make your novel of three genres work for you, instead of letting it trip you up. Come up with three separate pitches, and know to whom you are pitching. It’s just one more thing that can separate you from the rest.

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Finding Titles: The Good, The Bad, and the Downright Ridiculous

Finding  titles for your fiction is hard, right?

I mean, finding crap titles isn’t hard. I have a huge long list of crap titles I once considered, and not all of them are jokes.

But finding the perfect one for my work is another matter entirely.

A.G. Pasquella's "The Strange Saga of Why Not A Spider Monkey Jesus?"

A.G. Pasquella's "The Strange Saga of Why Not A Spider Monkey Jesus?" where Pasquella illustrates, literally, the difficulties of finding the perfect title for his book. (Click on the pic to find out more about the talking chimpanzee with televangelist aspirations. You know you want to.)

Teresa Coltrin discusses the process of creating the perfect title. It’s a great post that links to the latest blog entries by writers and agents alike about what goes into a great title, and how you can find yours.

Before I clicked through all of the links, however, I tried to figure out why my titles can sometimes be downright ridiculous. After all, avoiding the downright ridiculous has to be one of the first steps towards finding the perfect title.

For me, a bad title occurs when I’m desperate to slap a name on my current WIP. I used to not even be able to contemplate a good title; I would just name my pieces “The Southern One,” or “The Moroccan One With The Whores.” It’s okay though. They were working titles that nobody had to ever see aside from close friends and my crit group.

While I am no expert in the good title, most of my best have come once I’ve spent a lot of time really getting to know my WIP. And I mean getting to know the work itself, and not what I thought the work was going to be when I started writing it. There’s a big difference there, and the two are never ever the same. Bad titles come from my wanting to name the works while I’m still thinking about how I want them to be, and the best titles come from naming the works once I’ve figured out (and accepted) how they turned out.

So I guess the moral is to trust yourself. I’ve found many times that my crit group and editors enjoy a piece much more the way it turns out in the end rather than the way I had planned for it to go. It’s more fulfilling for me when I allow my subconscious to take over and for my writing to deviate from the plan. Usually, as long as I can let go of what I wanted it to be and accept it as is, the result is a stronger piece. And with a stronger piece comes a stronger title.

And once I had several stronger titles, I went back to the links on Teresa’s page and used the tips she collated to really help them shine. In particular, I found Rachelle Gardner’s how-to a lifesaver.

What’s your relationship with your titles?

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A Quick, Writerly Question

Scroll down for an explanation.

Barn near Travellers Rest Plantation, Nashville TN (Copyleft Avery Oslo, 2010)

Thanks for taking the poll! A lariat is a stiff type of rope with a loop at the end of it — a lasso, like the ones used by cowboys and grungy rodeo types to capture rogue horses and cattle (and women in order to tie them to railroad tracks). I’m trying to gauge how well-known this word is. I grew up thinking it was common knowledge, until a friend of mine from the UK pointed out that not everyone would know. If enough of you know, I’ll keep it in my latest novel (which is not about rogue horses or cattle or women. Well, maybe rogue women, but I promise none of them will be lassoed).

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Coming Soon- News on Writing, Reading, and Avery Oslo

Candy and Cigars for writers and readers

Candy and Cigars at Faneuil Hall Market, Boston. (Copyleft Avery Oslo, 2010)

Hi guys,

Thanks for clicking through to my page.  I’m tying up loose ends at the moment, but will be blogging about more exciting things soon as I get into the swing of this social media stuff. Please check back for updates and posts about my latest work.

x A

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