Every character has one—and it's your job to figure out what it is. I'm talking about The Ghost. The person or event lurking in the past that still haunts them in profound ways, whether they realize it or not. Nazafareen of The Midnight Sea is dogged by a literal restless spirit: Her sister Ashraf, who was possessed by an Undead wight and killed when Nazafareen was only twelve. The Ghost leads straight to her Lie: That revenge is her only purpose in life, and she will never know true love and happiness.
Screenwriters also call the Ghost the "wound." It is the emotional scar the protagonist must face and overcome in order to achieve their story goals. As Nazafareen gets to know and trust her bonded daeva, Darius, the Lie comes under increasing strain, leading her finally to make a choice between him and the cause of vengeance she's sworn to serve.
So as you plot, always ask yourself: what plot twists will force my main character closer to the final confrontation with their Ghost and/or Lie? How I put their feet to the fire?
I tend to work with two outlines. The first lays out the external events of the plot, and the second maps the emotional arc of the characters. Ideally, these should be intertwined and running side by side.
Here is a chunk of Nazafareen's emotional arc from my notes (minor spoiler alert if you haven't read the book yet):
1) Obsession with killing Druj and avenging her sister. To do that, she has to be loyal to the system. 2) Forbidden attraction to Darius. She quashes it because she still believes that being a Water Dog is the most important thing. 3) Discovery that the daevas are not inherently evil. It's a lie that they are cursed. The infirmities are part of the bonding process. Now she is doubting everything. 4) Darius confirms this with his refusal to free himself. Realization that she must choose sides. 5) Point of no return. She throws her fate in with Darius. 6) No longer cares for herself. Will do anything to set him free…
Basically, Nazafareen goes from whole-heartedly embracing her Lie to realizing that what she thought she wanted and what she really needed were complete opposites.
Personally, I think every character deserves a Ghost, not only the protagonist. It helps you figure out what drives them above all else—and how their own Ghosts relate to the MC's Ghost. If you want some extra friction, this is a good place to go looking for it.
For example, Darius's is the cruel mistress he was enslaved to as a child and who took pleasure from causing him pain. This causes him to distrust others and push Nazafareen away, and to doubt his own goodness. Even as she comes to understand that he doesn't deserve his slavery, Darius continues to cling to his Lie.
Ghosts are critical for writing three-dimensional villains too. Ilyas's is the fact that he's a bastard and inherited his mother's barbarian looks. His Ghost gives him an intense need to prove himself and his loyalty to the empire. Because of this, he cannot accept that he loves a daeva, and his actions spin out control from there. But they all start with his Ghost.
K.M. Weiland has a great list of questions you can ask to nail down the nitty-gritty details of all this:
1. Why does your character believe the Lie?
2. Is there a notable event in his past that has traumatized him?
3. If not, will there be a notable event in the First Act that will traumatize him?
4. Why does the character nourish the Lie?
5. How will he benefit from the Truth?
6. How “big” is your character’s ghost? If you made it bigger, would you end up with a stronger arc?
7. Where will you reveal your character’s ghost? All at once early on? Or piece by piece throughout the story, with big reveal toward the end?
8. Does your story need the ghost to be revealed? Would it work better if you never revealed it?
Whatever you decide, the most important thing is to steadily ramp up the pressure on all your characters. There's a good reason Charles Dickens saved the worst, scariest Ghost for last in A Christmas Carol…
Next week I'll talk a little about how to start your story (as compared to where to start your story). Until then, happy reading and writing!
I have a confession to make—one that some of you might share. My favorite characters are usually the awful ones. The ones who do terrible things without a shred of remorse. The ones that I'm dying to see get their comeuppance, but not before they push our beloved protagonist to the very edge and nearly destroy everything in the story we care about. Yes, I'm talking about the villains.
Think the viscerally creepy Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar from Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. The icily elegant Mrs. Coulter from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Elizabeth Wein's SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden in Code Name Verity, who we only meet second-hand but is terrifying nonetheless.
Villains can make or break a book. When they're boring or one-dimensional or clichéd, there's no tension and the plot deflates with that sad wheezing noise balloons make when you stick with them with a hatpin. But when they're done right, meaning that they are an actual character and not simply a clunky device to test the hero, they help keep the stakes of the story high and the reader turning pages late into the night.
In The Midnight Sea, King Artaxeros II is the obvious villain, but he's also a bit abstract—you don't meet him until more than halfway through, and then only briefly. So I needed another antagonist. One who you really get to know. One who has some admirable traits but, as the pressures of the plot slowly pile up, becomes something much darker. Without giving away too many spoilers, I'll just say that I spent as much or more time thinking about him as about my main characters, Nazafareen and Darius. If you're going to have a colossal betrayal, the reader had better care about everyone involved or it just won't have much emotional impact.
So here are a few tips on writing unforgettable villains.
First off, all this is very subjective. What gives me cold sweats might make you laugh yourself silly. So you might start by think about which villains in film, TV, books, wherever, have resonated the most and why. Is it the prosthetic hook? The creepy Malkovich-esque voice? The mask of sanity they wear with their family when they're not committing grisly deeds? Once you know what disturbs you in the deepest, most primal part of your monkey brain, channel that quality in your own bad guy.
Okay, this one I cannot emphasize enough: give the villain motivation that readers can relate to, even if it's totally twisted. So they're power-hungry. Why? Is it because they have a secret crush on someone they want to impress? Or maybe they're compensating for a horrible childhood, or their dog needs an expensive operation, or their ideas of right and wrong are simply skewed beyond repair? I like to think that even the worst villain has something they care about. Balthazar, a necromancer who gets a starring turn in the second book of my series, is madly in love with his wicked queen. Yes, he does terrible things. But everything he does, he does for her.
Rachel Aaron has an awesome blog post on character development where she breaks it down into the deceptively simple formula below. The key is to understand that what a character wants and why they want it are two separate things and as a writer, you need to be very clear on both.
What do you want? (Goal)
Why do you want it? (Motivation)
What's stopping you? (Conflict)
If you have trouble, you can also try flipping the story and imagining it from the villain's point of view. You might be surprised at what you discover. Setting aside hockey-masked killers and comic book arch-bad guys, a good villain could potentially be the protagonist if he or she weren't quite so extreme.
In my first book, the sci-fi thriller Some Fine Day, one of the most despicable characters is a military doctor who's deliberately infected innocent people with a super-nasty Level Four virus. But as she calmly explains to the main character, the project is simply a response to their enemies engineering a similar plague. From her point of view, it's a matter of self-defense.
Effective villains often embody an exaggerated version of the same things your hero is conflicted about. That's very much the case in The Midnight Sea, where both Nazafareen and her antagonist face a similar choice but react in opposite ways. This is where we dig down deep and see what our characters are made of. Often, it is the villain's inability to change and grow and face the truth (external or internal) that proves to be their undoing.
So now that you’ve got a fantastic, fully fleshed out villain that rivals Moriarty or Lecter, what's the best way to get them across to the reader? Well, if the story is third person, you can give your villain their own POV. Jack Torrance in The Shining is one of my all-time favorites because we get to watch him slide slowly into madness over the course of several hundred pages. But the scariest part comes just before he's lost it completely. We know he's probably going to do some very bad things, but there's still an unpredictable quality to him. In our hearts, we still vainly hope that his love for his wife and kid will somehow triumph over the evil ghosts running the Overlook Hotel, which makes it SO much worse when Jack finally, irretrievably snaps.
As King says, “This inhuman place makes human monsters.” And those are always the scariest kind.
Anyway, thanks for reading! For tons more on villains, I highly recommend Bullies, Bastards And Bitches: How To Write The Bad Guys Of Fiction by Jessica Morrell.
Next week we will definitely do Ghosts and how key they are to plot and character development. Happy reading and writing!
This may seem incredibly obvious (the beginning, duh), but it can actually be a lot trickier than you might expect. I came to grasp this when I recently had to throw out 20k words of a manuscript because it just wasn’t working. I agonized for a while over why this was the case, and made repeated, increasingly desperate attempts to salvage it, but I knew in my guts that I had some major problems. See, I had this idea that I would use alternating chapters, switching from present to past, to tell the love story of Darius and Nazafareen in The Midnight Sea. It would start in the middle of some swash-buckling action and then go back and explain how they got there.
Yes, it is entirely possible to pull this off—but I wasn’t. I had a big, complicated fantasy world and there was just too much backstory necessary to understand it. Slamming the brakes on the action every other chapter to talk about stuff that had already happened is extremely risky. Readers can get angry and frustrated and bored, which is not what we’re looking for. So I hemmed and hawed and tinkered and rearranged and sought writing advice from the internet and finally, the answer dawned. There was only one way out of this mess.
Just start the damn story from the real beginning, where it needed to start.
And voila, the words started to flow and all was right in the world again. I went back to the point where Nazafareen first joined the Water Dogs, and let the reader discover what daevas were and how the empire worked and what the Undead Druj were at the same time she did, through her eyes. The voice in my gut knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I had made the right decision. Gone was all the clunky exposition and the whiplashing through time. I was telling the story in the order it needed to be told, and I still found a way to open with a bang (by showing the source of Nazafareen’s Ghost, which we’ll get into next week).
So if we’re in agreement that good, engaging stories need to find their true beginning, how do you figure out what it is? I was able to salvage some scenes from that first draft, but I still wasted time that I wish I hadn’t. So here are a few basic rules to get off on the right foot, none of which I can take credit for, but they’re very sensible.
Open at a moment of change for your main character. This is probably the most important, and universally accepted as a golden rule of story-telling. To clarify, it does not have to be the event that kicks the main plot into motion. That does need to come early on, say by the end of the first third of the book, but it actually tends to work better if the reader is already invested in the characters. But within the first few pages (or the first chapter, if you prefer more leisurely reveals), something needs to happen that will change the protagonist’s life for better or worse. It can be small. It can foreshadow the larger events to come. But it needs to hook into the main plot, and it needs to be interesting. Think Harry getting the letter from Hogwarts, or Katniss waking up on the day of the Reaping.
Easy on the exposition. Yes, you’ve spent months or even years figuring out every little detail of your setting and characters, but the reader does not need to know all of it right away. Unloading paragraphs of backstory at the beginning is what’s known as an infodump, and it makes people’s eyes glaze over. Do not do this. Backstory, by the way, is pretty much anything that brings the forward action to a grinding halt. Basically, Lucy, it’s all the splaining we authors must do to bring outsiders into our world, and it’s very important, but it also has to be viewed through the lens of less is more. Parcel out this kind of information (who Susie used to date, why the Klingons and the Romulans hate each other so much) on a need to know basis, as in, if the reader doesn’t have this particular fact at his or her disposal, they will have absolutely no idea what is going on. But if you can get away with waiting until later, do so. It’s the anticipation of answering all those questions that keeps us turning pages in the first place.
Imagine how the end will fit with the beginning. It’s okay if you’re a pantser and make it up as you go along. But I bet you still have some idea of where your story will wind up. This is where you can unpack the emotional arc of the protagonist a bit. What are they afraid of? How do they lie to themselves? How will they grow and change by the end? Does the opening reflect this evolution? Or maybe it’s a tragedy and they are unable to change? Is there a hint of this weakness at the start? In The Midnight Sea, the opening scene sets up Nazafareen as a somewhat damaged character who witnessed the death of her sister when they were both quite young. Besides being scary (monsters!) and suspenseful, it foreshadows her future internal conflict and gives the reader basic info about her character and the world she lives in, but little more. Think of it as a teaser—an emotional moment that can be understood without a huge amount of context, and that leaves the reader intensely curious about what happens next.
Break the rules, do whatever you want, but listen to your gut and be true to your characters, action and setting.
K.M. Weiland, who has one of my favorite writing blogs (as well as an excellent book on story structure), quotes Barnes & Noble editorial director Liz Scheier, who gives us this gem:
“A professor of mine once posed it to me this way, thumping the podium for emphasis: “It’s not ‘World War II began’! It’s ‘Hitler. Invaded. Poland.’”
Anyway, I hope this was helpful! I’ll definitely do a post on how to start your story in the next few weeks, which is a different, although related topic (and fun because we get to talk favorite first lines). See you next week for a chat about Ghosts, and happy reading and writing!