Saturday, February 25, 2012

How to Write an Unlikeable Character

"Loneliness has followed me my whole life...Image via Wikipedia

I didn’t set out to do it, but it happened anyway.

The main character in one of my works-in-progress is “ignorant,” “priggish” and “holier-than-thou,” according to a member of my writing group.  In other words, the character is downright unlikeable.

And I’m fine with that. 

Unlikeable heroes – sometimes called antiheroes – are fascinating.  Like Travis Bickle in Taxi (shown above), they tend to be characters we identify with and love to watch in action, whether we admit it or not.

But there is a trick to writing an unlikeable character – a balance, a trade-off, a way to avoid alienating the audience from the character (although other characters may be so alienated).

Before we get to that trick, let’s look at three reasons why unlikeable characters are so appealing:

Unlikeable characters mirror our own struggles for acceptance and to get ahead.  In the British historical drama Downton Abbey (airing Sunday evenings on PBS), Thomas is a self-serving, ambitious, and ingratiating footman who steals and lies.  Full of arrogance, he lords it over the other servants of the house when he is appointed military liaison during World War I.  After the war, he tries to get ahead by dabbling in the black market. 

His schemes invariably fail, sometimes with laughable results, but he keeps trying, and, in the 2011 Christmas Special, he finally wins a long sought-after promotion.

Thomas might better be classified as an antagonist than an antihero, except he is so wonderfully complex part of us hopes he will succeed.  When several members of both the family and staff take ill with the Spanish flu, Thomas pitches in – free of charge (“Consider it rent,” he says) – to help out.  We know it’s just another scheme to ingratiate himself further, but part of us wants to believe Thomas is indeed changing or that he will see that by helping others, he can help himself.  We know this probably won’t happen, but there’s hope.

Unlikeable characters express struggles within us.  Wolverine, the iconic X-Men antihero, began as an antisocial, mildly sociopathic misfit who antagonized his teammates, was contantly on the verge of going berserk, and possibly violated one of the oldest codes for super-heroes by killing villains.  In one early scene (Uncanny X-Men # 96, December 1975), Wolverine does indeed go berserk and hacks and slashes away at a monstrous enemy.  Afterwards, he expresses regret that many years of discipline and prayer had failed to bring his animalistic side under control – but also astonishment that he enjoyed inflicting such carnage!

Wolverine represents our sometimes conflicting desires to control less savory aspects of our characters and to finally give in to and revel in those traits.  It’s no coincidence that Wolvie – a character with claws and a badass attitude – remains one of Marvel’s most popular heroes nearly 40 years after his debut.   But it’s his inner conflicts that make him relatable.

Unlikeable characters represent our own desire to persevere in spite of the unfairness of life.  Wildfire, a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes, is a hero without a body.  Converted by accident into a being of pure energy, he interacts with his fellow Legionnaires, villains, and everyone else through a containment suit that permanently separates him from others.  This condition magnifies his already hot-headed personality: he antagonizes his teammates, much like Wolverine does. 

However, Wildfire proved so popular with fans that he was elected leader of the Legion, giving him even more opportunities to antagonize his teammates with his brusqueness, temper, and autocratic ways. 

Yet for all of his power and popularity, Wildfire can’t do the things ordinary people can.  This was driven home when he eventually developed a relationship with fellow Legionnaire Dawnstar.  Despite his frustration, sexual and otherwise, Wildfire became the Legionnaire many fans rooted for.  He never cared what other Legionnaires thought of him, and he never gave up.

Now for that trick to writing unlikeable characters:

Each of these characters bonds with at least one other character, and the interaction between them helps bring out the unlikeable character’s humanity.  Thus, Thomas has Miss O’Brien (who, herself, is rather unlikeable), the older, vengeful spinster who takes an almost motherly interest in him.  She becomes his co-conspirator in the black market scheme and is there to sympathize with him when it goes horribly wrong. 

Wolverine and Wildfire both had doomed relationships with Phoenix and Dawnstar, respectively.  (And, in the first X-Men film, Wolverine is given a protégée of sorts in Rogue – a relationship which did not exist in the original comics.)

Showing your unlikeable character as being capable of a relationship  – a friendship, a love affair, a confidence – keeps the character from becoming a total misanthrope.  More, it gives us “permission” to like the unlikeable.

What do you think?  Are any of your characters unlikeable?
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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Writers: What to Do When You Feel Uninspired

Todays photo is not very exciting. I didnt fee...Image via Wikipedia

It’s been one of those weeks when, as a writer, you feel like you’ve been banged up and put away.

Your confidence is sagging.  A story isn’t working out the way you want it to.  A friendly discussion with an acquaintance has turned into a vitriolic debate.  Your students give you feedback that your teaching style (which you’ve been using for the last several semesters) isn’t working.  And “real life” obligations remind you there are things your writing can’t “cure”.

And now you’ve got to sit down at the keyboard and actually write something.

So what do you do when your inspiration runs low like the battery on your cellphone?

First, realize that writing has little, if anything, to do with inspiration.

That’s right.  Writing is a job, like any other.  Whoever heard of fireman’s block?  What would happen if a doctor didn’t feel “inspired” to help her patients?

Yet writers often feel they need to receive some sort of magical stimulation in order to do their work.

While writing can be stimulating, those of us who wish to get some compensation and recognition for our work must realize that neither will come if we wait for that magical creature called Inspiration to smile upon us.

As someone in my grad school once said, “Writers write.”


Second, here are four methods for kick-starting your inspiration:

Write through the problem.  Start by writing about the problem.  Acknowledge that you're having difficulty.  

Knowing that I’ve got to be somewhere else this afternoon and that my writing time is limited, I woke up this morning without a clue what I was going to write about.  So I took pen in hand and began writing about how my week went – including the difficulty of writing. 

Voila!  This method produced the post you are now reading.

Don’t wait for inspiration – seize it!  You are the commander of your writing “troops” and this is war!  Take action.  Now.

Get angry.  Nothing provokes a writer to action better than getting angry.  Anger leads to passion, and passion makes you want to do something.  

Can’t find anything to get angry about?  Turn on the news. 

Take your muse to breakfast (or lunch or dinner).   In his seminal book On Writing, Stephen King says his imaginary muse is a man.  Mine’s a woman.  Every week, my muse and I trek to a local restaurant, eat breakfast, and write.  (No, I don’t order for two.)

This particular restaurant is a little pricey for my tastes, but my muse likes to be treated right – and it works.  Many of these blogposts for the last two or three months have originated while my muse and I were munching on eggs, fruit, and Canadian bacon.

If it sounds a little odd to date your muse, deal with it.

Indulge your muse, and your muse will indulge you.

But does indulging your muse produce good results?  You be the judge.  (I will tell you that January was this blog’s best month so far, at least in terms of page views.) 

The old saw says that writing is 90 percent persperation and 10 percent inspiration.  If you wait for that 10 percent to come, you’ll slog through your writing until it loses interest for you, let alone your readers. 

To borrow from Admiral David Farragut, I say, “Damn the inspiration!  Full speed ahead!”

Leave a comment.  How do you kick-start your inspiration?
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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Are You Throwing the Reader Out of Your Story? Avoid Unnecessary Homages

Title: Cowboy riding a bucking bronco at the B...Image via Wikipedia

So, I’m wrapped up in the latest superhero novel. The storyline is exciting, the characters are engaging, the action propels me along. It’s a real page turner. Then my enjoyment comes to a screeching halt when the action shifts to a fictional country called “Lieberstan”.

Lieberstan? Sounds familiar.

Wait – wasn't Stanley Martin Lieber the real name of Marvel Comics head honcho Stan Lee? Stan Lieber . . . Lieberstan.

Ah, I get it.

Unfortunately, I “get it” every time the country is mentioned – which, since a major turning point in the story occurs there, is quite often. I can’t help thinking of the wisecracking huckster persona of Mr. Lee, who has been so successful in promoting himself as well as the Marvel heroes he helped create that he’s practically a self parody.

As a result, every mention of “Lieberstan” throws me out of the story.

Homages – references to stories or creators which influenced the writer – can be fun. They provide an indirect way for the writer to acknowledge such influences. They also provide fans with the fun of searching for “Easter eggs” and with a feeling of being “in the know”. If you get the reference, you can call yourself a true fan.

But the wrong kind of homage creates an unnecessary association or image in the reader’s mind. Such an image can throw the reader out of the story like a horse which has suddenly decided to buck its rider.

Comic book artists, for example, often draw covers that evoke famous covers of the past, such as that of Fantastic Four # 1. But such covers are meant to make the reader think of the source, either as a parody or because the artist wants to capture some essence or feeling associated with Fantastic Four # 1. Any artist who draws a picture of heroes gathering around to fight a giant monster emerging from the ground and doesn’t expect readers to think of FF # 1 is fooling himself.

Sometimes an homage can mean the writer is merely trying to be clever. I fell prey to this vice myself: In grad school, I wrote a film script that included an investigative reporter named Jack Gittes. My professor immediately caught the reference to Jake Gittes, Jack Nicholson’s character in Chinatown, and chided me for it. Why on earth, the professor asked, did I want viewers to think of Chinatown in a film about a rock ‘n’ roll band?

Sometimes the writer draws so closely from source material that an homage can be unintentional. I fell prey to this vice, too. In previous drafts of The Power Club, my club of super-powered kids elected a new leader every month. Why? Because one of my sources of inspiration, the Legion of Super-Heroes, elected a new leader every year.

A member of my writing group pointed out, however, that electing a new leader every month seemed artificial. I agreed, so I changed it.

What purpose is served by calling a fictional country “Lieberstan”? None, as far as I can tell. The writer may have intended for the reader to think of Marvel's epic super-battles. But this association destroys the uniqueness and seriousness of the writer’s own world.  As a reader, I don’t need to associate his world with Marvel to enjoy it. In fact, the name undermines suspension of disbelief by drawing attention to the fact that this is a made-up country in a made-up story. 

Homages can be fun, but, if you use one, make sure you have a good reason for wanting the reader to associate your story with its source of inspiration.

What do you think?  Do you have unnecessary homages in your story?

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Saturday, February 4, 2012

3 Comic Book Stories that “Work”

In previous posts, I discussed comic book stories some deem silly or heinous, and a lot of comments, both here and elsewhere, agreed with those assessments.  

However, I don’t want to give the impression that comic book writing is necessarily bad.

In fact, comic book writing requires a special set of skills similar to movie making.  The comic book writer serves as scriptwriter, cinematographer, dialogue and scene editor, and researcher, and has to convey ideas from all of these disciplines to an artist who will draw the story (unless, of course, the writer and artist are the same person, in which case he or she wears even more hats – penciller, inker, and often colorist.)

The comic book writer must also be a team player who is willing to modify her original vision of the story to accommodate contributions from the artist and, often, dicates from an editor.

Having written both comic book and prose stories, I can tell you that, for me at least, the former were  much more difficult to write.

So, here’s an attempt to even the score by highlighting “good” comic book stories.   I confess up front that these stories are very old and are biased toward Marvel and DC.  Since we’re talking about super-heroes, the latter seems appropriate, and, as for the former, a good story should be memorable – which means neither you nor I should have to think very hard to recall it.

1. The Avengers/Defenders War

Avengers # 115-118 and Defenders # 8-10, September-December 1973
Source: GCD.  © and TM Marvel
Writer: Steve Englehart (with principle art by Bob Brown)

The skinny: Two teams of heroes are tricked into fighting each other over a powerful weapon that can alter the world.

What works:  Hero teams battling hero teams is nothing new, but I’ve rarely seen it done so well as here.  Every development of the story flows organically from who the characters are and from what they want.

For example, when the Avengers are tipped off that the Defenders might be up to something, they disperse to the far corners of the world to investigate.  The Silver Surfer (a Defender) accidentally triggers a volcano, demolishing an Avengers quinjet and injuring the Scarlet Witch.  Her beau, the Vision, is so overcome with rage that he attacks the bewildered Surfer – and their fight “confirms” the lie the Avengers have been told about the Defenders’ motives.

My favorite chapter, though, is from Avengers # 117, when two apparently mismatched heroes – Captain America and the Sub-Mariner – decide to trust one another and come to realize they’ve been had.  Only Cap – because of who he is and his past association with Namor – is able to see beyond the latter's imperious threats and put aside his own ego, which turns the tide of battle.

2. “The War Between Krypton and Earth”
Adventure Comics # 333, June 1965
Writer: Edmond Hamilton (with art by John Forte)

Source: GCD. © and TM DC ComicsInc.
The skinny:  The Legionnaires travel back in time and take sides in a war between two alien races which seek to colonize prehistoric earth.

What works: Both sides – the Kryptonians and the Vruunians – establish a legitimate claim to earth.  Both have traveled great distances to give their people a new home, and neither wants to abandon their dreams and search for a new world to colonize.

Neither side is portrayed as villains, yet their war escalates due to factors beyond their control (when weapons intended by the Vruunians only to stun prove lethal to Kryptonians).

The story serves – in the best science fiction tradition – as a metaphor for how wars get started among people of “good will” and how they can escalate – and why they should be avoided.

The story also ends on a tragic note (rare for the Silver Age) when Superboy returns to the future and unearths Kryptonian records that reveal why their colony did not survive.

3. “Flashback”
Amazing Spider-Man # 181, June 1978
Source: GCD.  © and TM Marvel

Writer: Bill Mantlo (with art by Sal Buscema and Mike Esposito)

The skinny:  While visiting the grave of his Uncle Ben, Spidey recalls his own origin and history.

What works:  The ending, plain and simple.  Spidey’s origin has been recounted numerous times, but this tear-jerker leaves the reader with a little something extra.

Spidey leaves a gift at the grave – the microscope Uncle Ben gave him years ago which inspired young Peter Parker’s interest in science (and which indirectly led to him becoming Spider-Man).

After Spidey departs, a gravekeeper finds the microscope and takes it home to his young son.

When I first read this story, I wondered if the gravekeeper had done the right thing by stealing a gift from a grave.  But the microscope would have been ruined by the weather or stolen by someone else.  Instead, the story ends on a positive note, with Peter unknowingly passing on Uncle Ben's gift to another child – a gift of science and love.

Significantly, the gift is a microscope – not a web-shooter or some other token of Spidey’s long career as a hero.  Just a simple microscope.  The story affirms that “ordinary” objects can fuel the imaginations of kids, and who knows where that will lead?

Furthermore, it drives home  –  in a wonderfully subtle way  –  how important science is to all of us.

Are these stories perfect?  No.  But they don’t have to be.  All they have to do is do what stories everywhere and since the dawn of time have sought to do: entertain the reader and leave him with something extra: a thought, a feeling, a reaction.

What about you?  What comic book stories “work” for you?

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