Friday, November 24, 2017

Black Friday V: The Silent Nightening

            Hope you all enjoyed your big meal yesterday. And if you didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving... well, I hope it was still a great and peaceful day for you.  Maybe you at least had a day off.
            Anyway, before we all dive into the capitalist nightmare of the day, I’d like to take a moment or three to discuss some personal history and--as I have in a couple other places on past Black Fridays--make an offer to those of you who may need it.
            Over a decade ago, when I chose to become a full time writer, I knew it meant some changes.  I’d been working in the film industry, and even as a non-union crew member, I was getting pretty solid wages.  Not fantastic, but I was living on the lower edge of middle class.  The decision to write full time would mean a pay cut, and I accepted that I’d be living tight for a while.
            It only took about a year and a half for the usual unavoidable expenses to pile up.  Car repairs, a very sick cat, and then the economy crashed so prices went up on a lot of things.  On top of that, the magazine I was writing for gave all its freelancers a 20%  pay cut.  After that, well...  In the space of another year I went from “living tight” to “way under the poverty line.”  And that's considering the poverty line in this country is much lower than it realistically should be.  My bank accounts were always empty (sometimes overdrawn when things processed in a weird order—which meant fees).  My credit cards were maxed out (which was a trigger to the credit card company to raise all my interest rates). I spent way too much time figuring out how each 20%-lower paycheck could be spread across three or four bills.
            My girlfriend and I went through three years like that.  Always stressed. Always sick with despair.  Always waiting for that unavoidable, inevitable expense that’d crush us.  We couldn’t turn the heat on for two winters in a row.  Our phone got shut off.  We went to the library to use the internet, and while we were there we’d steal rolls of toilet paper from the bathroom.  Because we were that poot.
            See, some folks who like to whine about “handouts” or “entitlements,” but the truth is most poor people are just trying desperately to survive with a small degree of dignity.
            Oh, speaking of which--guess what?  The holidays suck for poor people.  It’s just more anxiety.  I hated the holidays.  We could’t afford to give out candy so no Halloween.  Thanksgiving was a few cans from the 99 Cent Store.  Christmas was awful.  We couldn’t even afford cards, let alone presents.  Nothing for my girlfriend or my mom and dad.  Nothing for my brother, sister in law, niece or nephew.  Nothing for my friends.  Being poor at the holidays is like when you forget to get something for that one person at the office party and you kind of squirm for an hour or so.  Except you feel like that for every hour of every day for the entire season.
            All that said... these days I’m in a better position, and I owe a good part of that to all of you.  So if I can help some of you avoid feeling that miserable this holiday season, I’d like to do it.
            If you’re in that same kind of bad place right now, where you can’t afford to give gifts to your family or friends, shoot me a note at the old PeterClines101@yahoo.com address.  I’ve got fifteen or sixteen random books saved away.  I’ll scribble in one and mail it out to you.  I’ll even throw in wrapping paper if you need it.   It’s not much, but it’ll be a present you can give someone so you don’t have to feel low.  You can request a specific book, but I can’t promise anything, sorry (I have what I have).  I’ll send them out for as long as the books last.
            Again, this is only for those of you who need some help getting gifts for others. The people who are pulling unemployment, cutting back on everything, and feeling like crap because they can’t afford gifts for family or friends.  It’s not so you can recommend someone who might like a free book.  You could do that for them—go buy them a book.
            I’m also doing this on the honor system, so if you’re just trying to save some cash or score an autographed book, I won’t be able to stop you.  Just know that you’re a truly awful, selfish person and you’re taking away what might be someone’s brightest moment this season.  And you’ll burn in the pits of hell, if you believe in that sort of thing.  If not,  Krampus will probably feed you to a squale.  Violently.
            So... Happy Holidays.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Not-That-Bad Guys

            So very sorry I missed last week.  I’ve been trying to get this draft finished before Thanksgiving and last week just kind of sped by before I realized it.  My apologies.
            Also, thanks to all of you who sent me suggestions for topics. I think the rest of the year is filled up kind of nice, but if you happen to be reading this and still have some things you’d like me to blab about, feel free to mention them below.  I’m always up for more writing-related ideas you’d like to hear about.
            On which note...
            Thanksgiving.  A holiday we in the U.S. equally love and dread.  Love because... well, lots of food, friends, and family.  Maybe some booze and a lot of old black and white movies, or football if that’s your thing.  Perhaps a Twilight Zone marathon.  All wonderful things to enjoy on this feast day of thanks.
            Dread because... okay, let’s be honest.  The in-laws are kind of political zealots.  It’s almost impossible to have any discussion with them that doesn’t hit “those crazy liberals” within five minutes.  Your cousin’s significant other, the would-be-chef, is going to have lots to say about the turkey (and the stuffing, and the pie, and the potatoes, and...).   And if Uncle Randy has a third glass of wine (he says it’s just wine, anyway)... well, that’s when all the dark family secrets start coming out.  Some of them are even true.
            Granted, it’s not like these people are actually evil.  They’re not villains.  Okay, yeah, Uncle Randy had a brief stint in jail but that was over parking tickets (he says he was protesting the state government).  And two-thirds of the sentence was reduced to time served.
            But, seriously, they’re not villains.  They’re not what we’d think of as “bad guys.”  They’re just... kind of annoying.  Closer to obstacles than enemies.
            So let’s talk about antagonists for a few minutes.
            I’ve talked before about bad guys and antagonists.  About how my story often needs someone to oppose my hero or heroine, even if that someone is just standing in for a larger, less defined opponent.  An IRS agent can represent the government.  A junior executive can represent big business.  A doctor can represent a debilitating condition or perhaps even death.
            These people aren’t necessarily villains, though.  They may be working—or seem to be working—against my protagonist, but it’s not like they’re up to some nefarious plot.  Oh, sure, they could be, but in most of these examples, they’re probably just people doing their job.  I’m sure pretty sure most IRS agents aren’t gleeful about telling poverty-stricken people they messed up some forms and owe thousands of dollars.  I have a good friend who’s a doctor, and she’s never mentioned getting overly excited about telling people they’re going to need an organ transplant.
            And yet... we still tend to see these people as a challenge to overcome.  Someone we have to beat or prove wrong.
            This isn’t exactly a unique thing.  Having antagonists who are also (on some level) good people is a very common plot device.  Especially once we bring in police, soldiers, doctors, and even government agencies. Yes, even in this day and age.  So my hero has to deal with antagonists that are basically... well, heroes in their own right.
            For example, let’s take a look at a classic antagonist from one of America’s iconic folk tales, one that’s been produced for film and television.
            Captain Gantu from Lilo & Stitch.
            Gantu (voiced by the super-talented Kevin Michael Richardson—seriously, check out this guy’s resume) is the chief antagonist in the movie.  He imprisons Stitch at the beginning of the movie, tried to ship him off to what amounts to eternal exile on an asteroid, and then—after Stitch escapes—Gantu hunts him down to make sure that sentence is carried out.  Although his attitude at this point could loosely be described as... well, it wouldn’t be stretching things a lot to say “dead or alive.”
            But... is Gantu really a villain?  He is Captain Gantu, after all.  He’s risen through the ranks to be an officer of the Galactic Federation, and he’s the right hand man of the Grand Councilwoman.  When he goes after Stitch, it isn’t a personal vendetta—he’s following his leader’s orders to enforce the law.  Stitch is, after all, a fugitive from justice who’s broken even more laws by escaping to Earth.
            So Gantu’s definitely the antagonist of Lilo & Stitch.  And he’s a bit overzealous, yeah.  Maybe even a bit prejudiced against lab-created life forms.  But he’s not exactly a villain.
            Which means... what, as far as we’re concerned?
            Well, first off, this is an empathy issue.  As the writer, I have to be able to see things from Gantu’s (or Uncle Randy’s) point of view.  There has to be more to them than just “opposed to my protagonist,” especially if they’re not a villain... I might want it to be more on the positive side.  Is my antagonist doing this out of a sense of duty—even a misguided one?  Are they a reluctant antagonist?  Maybe it’s a lesser-of-two-evils situation?
            Keep in mind, this doesn’t have to work both ways.  While my readers need to have some empathy for the antagonist in this case, my antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to have any for my hero.  After all, in their eyes, there’s a good chance my hero is “the villain,” and should be treated as such.
            Second is that these antagonists actually need to be good people. If we find out Gantu’s in charge of the Galactic Federation’s concentration camps, or that the in-laws regularly firebomb Planned Parenthood offices and burn crosses on people’s lawns... well, they really are villains, then.  Again, empathy. If they’re going to be good guys then they need to be good guys.  Their actions may be antagonistic towards my hero or heroine, but it should still be clear to my readers they’re decent people at heart.  At the least, they're just trying to do their jobs.
            Also, something related to keep in mind here—something a writer-friend of mine was recently wrestling with.  If my antagonists are secretly good guys, if this is a twist that comes out somewhere in my third act... well, like any good twist, things still have to line up.  It’s going to be hard to reconcile a last minute “we’re actually the good guys” after 300 pages of murdering innocent bystanders and torturing supporting characters.  If I need my readers to misunderstand the antagonist’s earlier actions... they need to be actions that can be misunderstood.  It’s really tough to come back from shouting a bunch of racist, xenophobic slurs at strangers or shooting schoolteachers in the head.
            Y’see, Timmy, all I have to do is make them good people and have a little empathy.  If I have a real conflict, everything else should fall into place.  Or pretty close into place.
            Assuming I have solid characters.  And an actual plot.  And good dialogue. And... you know.
            Happy Thanksgiving, if you’re here in the states.  Hope tomorrow’s a peaceful and pleasant day for you, wherever you are.
            Next time... a great mystery tip.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Bully Balance

            Hey, everyone.  Hope you’re all doing well after the brutal temporal shift out of Daylight Saving time.  It can be pretty rough.
            Speaking of being rough... I wanted to babble on for a couple moments about some rough types we’ve all probably run into at one point or another. And maybe even written about.
            Lots of people—including fictional people—have dealt with bullies.  They are, unfortunately, a constant across all ages, cultures, genders, sexualities, and industries.  There’s a wonderful line in Paranorman--“If you were bigger and more stupid, you’d probably be a bully too.”
            Bullies are kind of common in fiction for two reasons.  The first, the easy one, is because it’s a type of person we can all relate to.  We’ve all had to deal with  that jerk at school, at work, online, or somewhere in our lives.  And every now and then, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not, maybe we’ve even been that person.  It’s an archetype we all know.
            The second reason is that bullies make a great low level antagonist for my protagonist to deal with.  They can drive a subplot or even just be a warm-up for the main plot.  While investigating drug smugglers or human traffickers, it’s not unusual for Jack Reacher to run into an obnoxiously stubborn town sheriff who likes to throw his weight around.  Countless villains have their lieutenants or top henchmen.  Steve Rogers had an actual bully that followed him from civilian life to boot camp... where said bully got punched out by Agent Carter.
            And that’s kind of what I wanted to talk about.  We all kind of giggle and maybe even cheer a bit when Peggy decks Hodge.  It’s a nice moment, because Hodge is an ass and flat out misogynist. 
            But what if it had gone a little differently...?
            What if Peggy decked him, and then kicked him a few more times in the ribs while he was on the ground?  Then maybe stomped on his hand to break some fingers.  Hell, maybe she stomps on his head.  Kicks him in the teeth.  Breaks his nose or maybe the orbit around his eye.
            This just became a very different scene, didn’t it?  Hodge isn’t getting his just deserts, he’s suddenly become the victim in this scenario.  He punched Steve in an alley, made some crass and sexist remarks... and so Carter mauls him, possibly leaving him crippled?  Heck, does she even know he punched Steve at this point?  She just put this guy in the hospital for being obnoxious to her.
            What if she’d shot him?  One round to the head, right between the eyes.  He smirks and then he’s dead, his brains sprayed out behind him.  Or maybe she goes big—grabs a rifle from a nearby soldier and shreds Hodge’s chest with a dozen bullets.  That’s an ugly way to go, isn’t it?  Broken ribs, punctured organs, equal chance of bleeding out or drowning as your lungs fill up with your own blood...
            We can all agree this is kind of an extreme response. Hodge is an asshat, absolutely, but he doesn’t deserve this level of punishment.  Hell, if anything, we feel a twinge or two of sympathy for him.
            I’ve talked about this effect a few times before.  Something extreme happening to a character can help shape how we feel about them.  If it’s extreme enough, it might even override how we felt about them before.
            For example (flipping things again), what if Hodge was an utterly reprehensible person?  Physically and emotionally abusive to men, women, children, and animals.  Now what’s supposed to be horrible can suddenly becomes great because it’s happening to such a completely sadistic person.
            Seriously, think about it?  How often have you watched a scene of nightmarish violence in a movie and cheered—out loud or internally—because of who it’s happening to?  This isn’t horror, it’s justice.  This person deserves what’s happening to them, and we’re glad we get to read about it (or watch it).
            I’ve talked about this before, too, in regards to killing people, because this is a really common mistake I see in low-end B-movies.  As audience members (or readers), we don’t care when unlikable people die.  In fact, if someone’s aggressively unlikable (sexist, misogynist, racist, alcoholic, hypocritical, deliberately ignorant)...  we may even be kinda happy when they get killed off.  No amount of patting the dog will change our view on this.  And suddenly this death means something very different.  It’s not building tension in the story—it’s releasing it.
            There’s a careful balance that needs to be struck in these situations.  My bully needs to have enough unsavory traits and moments to make them a good antagonist. But if they have too many, it’ll affect how that bad scene gets received by my readers.  Likewise, if the bully isn’t that bad and catches the bad end of some truly horrific things, it’s going to make my readers empathize with them,
            Y’see, Timmy, I need to be aware of what I’m trying to accomplish with moments like this.  It can’t just be violence and/or death—there needs to be a greater purpose to it in my story.  When Carter lashes out at Hodge, do I want the audience to be rooting for Hodge or for Carter?  When Freddy Kruger murders another child, am I going for scares or for laughs?  When Jason Bourne tortures someone for information, should I be cringing or cheering?
            Because what I’m trying to achieve is going to depend on more than just that one moment.
            There’s a bully in my new book, Paradox Bound. His name’s Zeke.  He starts off as a childhood bully, ends up being an adult bully—a bad cop who abuses his position.  Alas, it happens sometimes.  We’ve all seen it, or at least heard of it.  Zeke does a lot of bad things and... well... no spoilers in case you haven’t read it, but bad things end up happening to him.
            This was a really tricky balance to achieve, though.  Y’see, in an earlier draft, we actually see Zeke violently beat a woman.  And my editor’s assistant, pointed out this made it really hard for us to have any sympathy for Zeke.  And because of this, when the bad things happened to him, what I’d hoped would be a very creepy, cringe-worthy moment actually became... well, more of a “serves him right” moment.
            But Zeke needed to be a serious bully in order for other aspects of the story to work.  More than just an annoyance, we needed to believe Zeke could potentially be—on some level—an actual threat.  So there was a lot of back and forth as I tried (with some help from my editor and his assistant) to find a point where Zeke would be unlikable and dangerous... while still not coming across as so unlikable that we’d automatically cheer when something awful happened to him.
            And we found that balance.
            Find your own balance point. Make sure that when that character gets punched or tortured or killed, I’m feeling exactly what you want me to feel.
            And not... something else
            Next time...
            Y’know, nobody’s left a comment here in a while. What should I talk about next time?  Somebody offer a suggestion, just so I know I’m not ranting into the void.
            Until then... go write.