7 Tips For Writing Better Villains

Write The Villain Your Story Deserves

As I’ve discussed before, there’s a difference between an antagonist and a villain. Your story doesn’t need a villain, but if you’re going to have one, you should have a memorable one.

  • Prince Humperdink/Count Rugen
  • The Joker
  • Voldemort
  • Emperor Palpatine

These are the names and the stories that stick with us. And sometimes? We love them anyway.

But how does one create a memorable villain, worthy of one’s story? Here are some tips.

#1 – Avoid under-developed villains

Remember, villains have their own lives, outside of thwarting your protagonist. They need to be 3-dimensional characters with motivations that make sense — even if you disagree with their decisions.

#2 – If you must use a cliche, add a twist

The childhood trauma, the revenge on the government/mob/whatever, the delusion that they’re doing good…make sure you’re not following the formula too closely.

#3 – Make Sure Your Villain Isn’t Underpowered

The protagonist has to work for their win, you don’t want to just hand it to them. There has to be credible belief that the villain might win. Readers appreciate (while they’re cursing you) the anticipation and anxiety they experience during a narrow win, much better than the easily thwarted villain.

#4 – Flawed Villains

Villains are only human. (Most of them) Typically, it’s their own personal flaw that leads to the protagonist’s ability to win the day–or at least a stalemate. Pride is traditional, but something has to get them to lose control of themselves and/or the situation.

NOTE: The flip side to this is that the protagonist should win by CONQUERING their own personal flaw. Maybe not permanently, but facing it and accepting it during the story’s climax.

#5 – Villain Doesn’t Need To Mean Evil

Bad guys don’t have to be evil to oppose the protagonist. Was Mr. Smith evil (at least at first)? They just need to have conflicting goals. The teacher who’s trying to get the class to behave, the parents who just want what’s best for their children, the dedicated priestess of Cthulu who just wants the ancient ones to devour humanity… Oh, wait. Ignore that last one.

In one recent movie that I won’t name for fear of spoilers, the protagonist ends up agreeing with the villain’s argument–albeit, not their methods. Just because you’re the bad guy, doesn’t mean you aren’t right.

#6 – The Villain doesn’t have to be there in person

Often, your protagonist doesn’t even know who they’re up against when they start out on their journey. They just keep running into impediments and/or conflicts without finding the source.

And if they do figure out who’s to blame? Often, it starts with just a little whisper. A rumor.

Voldemort. Fisk. The Serpent Queen.

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#7 – The Villain can be representational

Sometimes, the villain isn’t a distant bad guy. Sometimes, the true bad guy is an organization. And, be it the government, the mob, or some other sort of societal aim, you can use an agent of said organization to embody the villain for your protagonists.

The Operative in Firefly, Ms. Coulter in The Golden Compass, they’re both stand-ins for the true enemy.

 

And there you have it. 7 tips for writing better villains!


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Good protagonists deserve great villains.

Who’s your favorite villain?

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3 Tips for Deciding What Point-of-View to Use

Picking a POV

All The New Things

This has been a weird week for me. Between Amazon Prime Day last week, a little space in my budget, and my beginning dealings with a new story, I’ve been trying something new every day this week.

Last week, during Amazon Prime Day, I finally replaced my fitness tracker that I broke up with 2 months ago. If you’re gonna make me un-pair/re-pair every time I want to sync my tracker? AND not save any data from previous days? You’re not worth it.

So, this week has been full of reminders to get up and walk around every hour while at day-job. And me actually using the My FitnessPal App to track my meal intake. Which of course led me to put in for that standing/sitting desk topper that my work offers to get people if they put in a request. Which led me to finding a $50 elliptical on Craigslist. Which is now sitting in my sunroom, awaiting time to see if it can fit into my tiny spare bedroom of a ‘workout room’.

AND? I picked up an Instapot. A friend came over and we (mostly she) experimented. I’m still getting used to my new grocery store and I might have to switch because this one didn’t have everything I wanted. But the honey-garlic glazed chicken was AMAZING. (Plus, we finally got back to watching Grace and Frankie on NetFlicks for the first time since I moved!)

And? Remember that story I was talking about last week? That new one that I was scared to write, worried it could never measure up? Well, I’m about 900 words into it and I, for the life of me, cannot decide if I want to use 1st-person or 3rd-person point-of-view (POV).

True, I could also debate tense, but I’m comfortable in past tense and not looking to switch it up for a novel.

You’re more likely to see, “The welcoming aroma of a savory stew drifted past the cupboards and made my stomach grumble, but CHARACTER politely ignored it.”

than

“The welcoming aroma of a savory stew drifts past the cupboards and makes my stomach grumble, but CHARACTER politely ignores it.”

Morgan looks stressed and confused

POV Decision Factors

    1. What are you most comfortable with?

      Me? I’m most comfortable with 1st-person. It’s how I think, how I see my world and characters. When I’m first learning about a character and world, I make notes, but when I’m starting a story, I fall directly into 1st-person.

    2. What are the genre expectations?

      Traditionally, novels were written in 3rd-person.

      You have options in 3rd that you don’t have in 1st.

      • You can have outside information.
      • If you have more than one Main Character, it can be less confusing to the reader.
      • You can be all-knowing. OR.
      • You can do what’s known as ‘3rd-person close’, in which your story is told from basically a GoPro watching over the main character(s), that can also dip into your main character’s head and share their thoughts.

      But I write YA (and maybe MG? A chapter book? What is this new thing turning into) These days, 1st person is becoming more and more popular.

      Look at your genre’s trends.

    3. What Feels Write Right For Your Story?

      When all else fails, just see what works for your story!

      If you need to, write a chapter in one POV, and then switch it to the other.

      Personally, my 3rd-person still feels clunky, but I’d like my story to have a fairytale sort of feel to it, so I’m going to keep on trying and see if I get it right. So, this is a case of ‘wrong for me, but maybe right for the story.’

      I’ll just have to keep writing to find out if I made the right call.


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How do you decide what point of view and tense to use in your stories?

Have you ever gotten it wrong?

Writer’s Block – Intimidated By The Blank Page

I never thought it would happen to me.

I was arrogant and short-sighted.

I thought writer’s block was censoring out bad writing (you know, like rough drafts), an inability to apply butt-to-seat, or thinking you’re going in the wrong direction but not knowing the right one.

I didn’t think the blank page could scare me until I decided it was time for me to try something new.

Now? I understand.

Searching for a story

For the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize it’s time for me to start something new.

But what? A new story in my old world? A new world? A story in the real world?

And whose story should I tell?

I’ve been rolling settings and motivations around in the back of my brain. Letting ideas flow through my head without conscious attention, enjoying the feel of the endless possibilities.

And tiptoeing around my fears.

The thoughts that intimidate me?

Hand holding a magnifying glass

Photo by fotografierende on Pexels.com

Basically all the good reporter questions:

  • Who are my characters?
  • What do they want? What’s their goal? What stands in their way?
  • When and where is this set? [Either in the real world or on a technological advancement scale.]
  • Why? Why is this my story? Why do the characters want their goal?

Behind these questions, though, is where my real fears lurk.

Maybe what I’ve already written is better than any new world. Maybe the manuscript I’m querying was just a fluke. I know that story better than this vague inkling of an idea, how could I possibly do this new story justice?

Except, of course:

Signpost

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Only Way Out Is Through

I’d contemplated and thought about my first world for years before I wrote it.

This new story? These new characters? This new world? They’re all so durn new to me, they’re basically transparent. I don’t know them yet, how can I even imagine I could tell their tale?

But then I remember, it took me three attempts to figure out my first world, to actually get past that 20,000-word mark and get the full story out of me. Three tries before I committed and followed the story till it was long enough.

You know what happened AFTER I finished writing 131,000 words in my then-brand-new manuscript?

After I finished and looked around is when I began to realize the theme of my story–what it had been working toward the whole time. And every draft, it becomes clearer and stronger and better plotted.

The only way for me to know for sure what story is trying to come out of me is for me to write it.

So now what?

A path through a garden

Photo by icon0.com on Pexels.com

My (Writing) Path Forward

They say every writer works differently, and that sometimes a writer’s method will even change from story-to-story.

My plan right now is to try what worked for me the last couple times.

Writing Plan

  1. Pick a setting
  2. Pick a character
  3. Do a stupidly high-level outline. Something like:
    • ch 1 – inciting incident
    • ch 2 – complain to a friend
    • … ch 19- final battle!
    • ch 20 – denoument
  4. Start at a beginning (likely 2 chapters early while I explore the world and main character) and write until I get stuck
  5. Look at the outline. Either:
    • it helps
    • or
    • I need to rewrite the outline cause I’m going a different direction

When you’re starting a new project, what’s your process?

Do you just wait for a new idea to intrigue you and start writing while it’s fresh?

Or do you decide when you want to write something new and seek out that new idea?

As always, thanks for watching and feel free to subscribe (<<<<) I’ll be back again next Thursday with more writing tips and writerly musings. If there’s something you’d like me to talk about, feel free to email me at morgan.s.hazelwood@gmail.com. See you next week.

5 Writing Tips for Making Fantasy Feel ‘Real’

If you ask a group of writers how they approach a part of their writing process, you’re going to get as many answers as there are writers–and sometimes more.

Today I’m reviewing a discussion by a group of writers on how to make fantasy feel real.

No matter if you prefer:

  • to write a story based on reality — with just enough fantastic elements to make your story work
  • to create your world from the ground up
  • to mix it up a bit

and no matter if:

  • you’re a pantser with no magic system
  • a world builder who adds the characters later
  • a white rabbit chaser til the end of the plot, when you look back and realize everything happens in ‘white rooms’ (before you edit…)
  • or your approach changes from world to world

these tips for writing fantasy worlds should work to help you draw your readers in, without invoking their sense of disbelief!


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Top 5 Writing Tips For Making Fantasy Feel Real

  1. Keep it internally consistent
    • The effort used to invoke the magic and the scope of the magic should match from spell to spell, no matter the scale.
  2. Look at economics
    • If magic gives someone an ability, someone else will come up with a way to:
      • counter it
      • sell it
      • steal it
  3. Make sure your character’s motivations make sense
    • Both for them,
    • AND for the world they live in
      • Different norms and cultural expectations exist in different times, places, social classes, and worlds
  4. Avoid Anachronisms
    • You don’t want to mentally throw people out of your story
      • Check the weaponry in that time AND place
      • Stew takes four hours to cook
      • EVEN if you’re right, if most people don’t think that happened in your technological period or location, they’ll be pulled out of the story
      • NOTE: Ignore this tip for diversity. People in the dominant culture tend to paint everything in their history with a brush to match themselves. The real world isn’t usually that segmented.
  5. If you can’t be true to a period, write around the edges
    • There are always the fringes of society, where the ‘norms’ break down
    • If your character doesn’t fit in, there’s usually SOMEWHERE they can go
      • If they’re willing to pay the price

***

How much are you willing to give to enthrall your readers with your world?

 

These notes are from the Balticon 52 panel, “Making Fantasy Feel Realistic”. The panelists were Leah Cypress, Lisa Hawkridge, Brenda Clough, and Jean Marie Ward.

Do you have any favorite tips for making fantasy seem real that I missed? Feel free to comment!

Thanks for watching. Please subscribe [<<<<] and tune in next Thursday for more writing tips and writerly musings.

Agents and Editors Share–Pitches We’re Sick Of!

What do agents want? What are publishers sick of? At Balticon52, I got the opportunity to hear a few of the industry leaders voice their opinions.

The panel was entitled “Pitches We’re Sick Of (And One’s We’d Like To See More Of), but since that’s not enough to fill an hour, it turned into a Question and Answer session.

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Whose Opinions Were Shared And Why Should You Care?

Joshua Bilmes is the President of JABberwocky Literary Agency, which he founded in 1994. His clients include NY Times bestselling authors Brandon Sanderson, Charlaine Harris, Peter V. Brett, Jack Campbell, Elizabeth Moon and Simon R. Green.

Neil Clarke is best known as the editor and publisher of the Hugo and World Fantasy Award-winning magazine, Clarkesworld. He is a six-time and current finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Editor Short Form.

The panel was moderated by Sarah Avery. Sarah’s first book, Tales from Rugosa Coven, won the 2015 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Fantasy Scroll, Great Jones Street, and Jim Baen’s Universe, as well as Black Gate, where she was a regular contributor on series fantasy and teaching fantasy literature. With David Sklar, she coedited the Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic anthology.

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Skull and bones, half buried in a forest.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Pitches They’re Sick Of*

  • The Paranormal Boom is DEAD.
  • Superhero piles are getting supersaturated.
  • Zombies are rotting.
  • Some urban fantasy subgenres are being overplayed.
  • Oz.

Note: Even if stories are still being published in a genre, that’s often because publishing contracts and schedules are arranged years in advance. Even when a genre is dead, it can take 2-3 years for a publishing agency to get rid of their backlog.

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Pitches They’d Like To See More Of*

  • ‘HopePunk’ (even if the term stinks)
    • I *think* it’s a dystopian future, where we actually solve current crisis. Like climate change or evolve into a more accepting species.
  • Diversified stories
    • It’s what the publishers are looking for
    • As the book reviewers themselves become more diverse, a wider variety of stories resonates with the reviewers.
  • Vampires seem to be coming back
  • Steampunk can’t be counted out for the next 3-5 years, but it’s on a downswing.
  • Short Sci-Fi sells better than short Fantasy.
  • But really? Whatever you’re passionate about! Agents can tell if you’re just chasing trends, and earnestness shows through. THAT’S the spark they want.

***

When To Approach Agents or Editors

  • NOT when they’re going into the bathroom – that’s their safe place
  • If they’re attending a convention and are on panels, they typically want to be found.
  • If they’re in a restaurant?
    • Is it next to the convention?
    • Are they at the bar, chatting away? Or off at a table in the back with one of their writers? Pay attention to context clues.

***

Rejections!

As any querying writer can tell you, a personalized rejection is worth its weight in gold!

What does it mean when an agent/publisher says, “It’s too similar to something I just bought/sold”?

It depends.

  • For some, it’s a polite brush-off.
  • For others, they only say it when it’s true.
  • For anthologies? Very likely true.
  • For magazine publishers? They can stagger release dates if needed…

*** Now, we pause for a brief interlude and the story of…***

Rejectomancy!

Once upon a time, Joshua submitted a story he was excited about from one of his writers to an editor. And this is what he heard back.

“I had to get a second read…”

“… because I couldn’t believe you’d sent me something so bad.”

Even agents get rejected.

***

Player 20 winding up to throw a pitch.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Pitching Your Story

The Dos and Don’ts of Preparing Your Pitch

  • Don’t use an adjective to describe your book itself
  • Don’t go over a page!
  • Don’t be cute or suck up
    • Your query letter is somewhere between a job interview and a cover letter for a resume.
  • Don’t write it from the main character’s point of view
  • Don’t summarize your story, especially when querying a short story
  • Don’t have a query longer than the story itself
  • Do include wordcount
  • Do follow the guidelines
  • Do pick a genre
    • Decide where your book goes on the library shelves and pick one.

Is it ever appropriate to respond to a rejection letter?

  • If they personalized the rejection, you can send a very brief ‘Thank You’ note.
  • NEVER respond negatively. If you can’t say anything nice, this is when you really shouldn’t say anything at all.

Is ManuscriptWishList.Com useful?

Joshua doesn’t use it, but at least one of his other agents does. Lack of inclusion doesn’t mean the agent isn’t skilled, inclusion doesn’t mean they are skilled. You still need to do your research.

Comp Titles

Comp titles (comparison titles) are often included in a query letter. Typically either two authors with similar writing styles and markets, or mash-ups where you can specify what aspect of that story you’re using. They have to be under 5 years, (preferably under 3), in your genre, and not run-away successes.

As I’ve said before, what sold 50 years ago isn’t what appeals to most modern audiences. Pacing, themes, POV preferences change.

So, what did our panelists have to say?

By using current novels, you’re showing that the trend you’re writing for isn’t dead.

Verdict? Useful for novels, but only if it’s a good match. If you’re trying too hard, it’s obvious and you should skip it.

Joshua noted here that no one can use Game of Thrones as a comp, (even if it wasn’t too popular) because there hasn’t been a new one published in over 5 years.

Not useful for magazines, but can be useful for anthologies.

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Writing Contests Tips

  • NEVER pay to enter a contest or pay a “reader’s fee”
    • EXCEPT – Tenure-track professors often pay the entrance fee for college magazines…
    • EXCEPT – Some contests offer critiques/other services as a matter of course for having entered (RWA)
      • Fees currently should be <$50, preferably under $30
      • Verify their validity first, though.
  • Look at the contest’s readers
    • Who are you writing for?
      • Is that the path you want to go down?
  • Look at the past winners’ work
    • Did they write just for the contest, or are they writing like they want to be published?
      • Often, these will read very differently
  • Pay attention to how much time it takes away from your writing
    • Do you have to campaign for votes?
    • What other obligations does it create for you?

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And finally:

When Is My Story Ready To Query?

As long as you feel that each round of edits is significantly improving your story, keep at it!

Storytime!

Brandon (Sanderson) submitted several manuscripts to Joshua. And Brandon kept getting rejected despite his wonderful (and steadily improving writing) because he couldn’t plot. Finally, when he submitted Elantris, Joshua looked at it and saw that the plotting could be fixed. That’s when he made the offer.

Submitting different stories to the same agent can pay off. But only if you keep working at your craft.

Person holding a blue ballpoint pen writing.

Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

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Make sure to reread these dos, don’ts, and preferences! And best of luck as you work towards perfecting your craft.

* Yep. I ended those with prepositions. Whatcha gonna do? Throw red ink at me? Besides, it was the title of the panel!