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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Antagonist or Protagonist?

Whenever I see or hear the word "villain," I immediately picture a sneering man in a top hat, looking evil as he twists the waxed end of his pencil-thin mustache.  This particular foil worked well for the silent films of the early 20th Century, but today's antagonist needs to be something more than an over-the-top caricature.

Analyze iconic antagonists of film and print and you'll probably find they share many of the following characteristics:
  • No matter how evil their actions seem to others, they don't believe they're wrong.
  • In their own minds, their actions are justifiable.
  • They are driven by deep emotions a reader can understand even if not wholly agree with.
  • They often possess one or more redeeming attributes.
  • Despite how convinced they are of their 'rightness,' they occasionally experience moments of self-doubt.
As Hugo Award-winning author Ben Bova so aptly puts it:  "There are no villains cackling and rubbing their hands in glee as they contemplate their evil deeds.  There are only people with problems, struggling to solve them.  As your protagonist is struggling to solve her problems, your antagonist is struggling to solve his.  It's all a matter of viewpoint" (http://www.benbova.com/tips2.html).

Bagman Creech, an antagonist from Philip Reeve's novel Fever Crumb illustrates this concept well.  Creech doesn't see himself as evil.  In fact, he's considered a hero by many of London's paranoid inhabitants.  Creech was part of the uprising that "rid London of the Scriven tyrants," and he still dedicates himself to finding and eliminating every last remnant of their arrogant race.

Creech isn't an unkind man.  When the abusive Ted Swiney thrusts Charley, a shy eleven year old, into the old Skinner's service, Creech treats Charley with great compassion.  Unlike his fellow Londoners, he also isn't quick to make a judgment about Fever.  To avoid mistakenly killing a fellow 'human,' he goes to great lengths to assure himself her murder is justified.

"Killing a Scriven isn't like killing a human being," Creech tells Charley.  "They aren't made like us and they don't think like us, and if you let them live and breed there might come a time when it will be them hunting us, and our kind hiding in the dark."

Like Mr. Bova says -- protagonist or antagonist, it's all a matter of viewpoint. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Interview with Literary Agent Marlene Stringer

A big thanks to Marlene Stringer of the Stringer Literary Agency who agreed to this interview.  Thank you also to the aspiring 7th and 8th grader writers from Lynne H.'s Creative Writing class who submitted these questions.

1. Approximately how many queries do you get per day?

I receive somewhere around 50 queries per day.

2. Do you negotiate what goes into a movie version?  Why are there sometimes so many changes?

I don't negotiate movie contracts.  I have sub-agents who do that.  Once a literary property is sold to the movies, it's their (the movie-maker's) vision, not the author's.

3. What's trending right now?  What genres might be more likely to be accepted by a publishing company?  (For example, are vampires completely tapped out?)  Is everybody trying dystopia because of the success of The Hunger Games?

What makes a story special is not the story, but how the writer tells the story.  So even vampires might be salable if the story is told well.

4.  Do adults have a better chance of being signed than kids?  What legal problems are there for authors under 18?

No.  The writing is what does it, no matter the age.  A person under 18 cannot legally sign a contract without the consent of the parent or guardian.

5. Most YA fiction is romance, action, fantasy, or sci-fi.  What "unusual" genres would you recommend, and what do you represent most?

I like steampunk and historicals for something different than the usual fare.  I represent all different kinds of stories.  It's the story, not the genre.

6. What genres do you see most?

In YA I'm still seeing mostly paranormal, but in other genres it's more of a mix.

7. What do you read for pleasure?

My clients' manuscripts!  When I have time, I read thrillers, fantasy, historicals, and non-fiction.

8.  How often do you get a manuscript that just makes you go, "Wow!"?

Perhaps a dozen times per year.

9. How young was the youngest writer you've ever represented?

I don't know.  I've never repped someone under 18, so age has not been a factor.  I do represent some young authors, but I've never asked them their age.

10.  How many books/authors can you represent at a time?

Probably about six on active submission at a time, which means it always changes as you wait to hear back.  I represent about 30 authors in all.

11.  Have you ever received a book about some unusual mythical creatures?  For example, Fearies (from Paranormalcy).

Absolutely.

12.  What makes you turn a book or an author down?

Poor writing, cliche stories and/or characters, unprofessional attitude.

13. Would you recommend your job?  Did you like working for an agency, or is it better owning your own?

I love my job.  I work with wonderful authors who write great stories -- and I get to see them first!  I recommend my job for people who love to work with writers, are prepared to survive for at least five years before they are successful (it takes that long to build a network of editors), and are not put off by people telling them "no."

14.  Which YA books have you represented that you would recommend to kids ages 12 to 16?

There are too many to list them all, but SHIFTING by Bethany Wiggins, THE DRAKE CHRONICLES by Alyxandra Harvey, and SAVING ZASHA by Randi Barrow are among them.

15.  Have you ever written a book?

Yes.

16.  Have you turned down a famous author and kicked yourself later?

I have turned down several authors who were successful later.  I don't kick myself because the stories weren't right for me.  If something isn't right for the agent, it might not become the success it is with another agent.

17.  What makes a strong character, in your opinion?

The strongest characters have the strongest internal conflicts.

18. What specific qualities must a book have for you to choose to represent it?

It must be too good a story for me to put down.

19. How do you feel about representing a book only because you know it will make a lot of money?

You never know when a book will make a lot of money, so there's no point in taking on something you don't love for that reason.

20. Do you feel bad rejecting something that's actually good just because it probably won't sell?

Of course.

21. Are there more male or female authors coming to you for representation?

Probably equally split.

22. Do you have children, and if so, what were/are their favorite books?  Did you / Do you let them choose their own books?

I have four children.  They are adults now, but we went to the library once a week, and a trip to a bookstore was a very big deal.  They learned it was a good idea to have something they enjoyed reading with them all the time.

I recall the books we read out loud when they were very little the best, and on of their favorites was James Stevenson.  He wrote wonderful picture books.  Later on, we went through Ender and other fantasy.  Now all my children pretty much prefer non-fiction.

23.  Do you have a favorite book or author?  Do you represent any of your favorites?

My contemporary favorites are always changing, and I represent many of my favorites.  As for books I return to again and again, I love Jane Austen, the Brontes, Tolstoy.

Again, thank you, Marlene, for taking the time to answer these questions.  To learn more about Marlene and the books and authors she represents, please visit her website at www.stringerlit.com.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

From Flat to Fab Part II: The Flawed Tragic Hero


Some more thoughts on characters and character development from The Word Nerd

In my last post, I began with the following:

Characters are created with the following in mind:
     actions
     speech
     thoughts
     other characters’ perceptions of them
     appearance --but with a million caveats.  I shouldn’t have to tell you what they are, right?

Another fine example of a layered, complex character --and a flipside from Atticus Finch, who was analyzed in my previous post-- is Severus Snape from the Harry Potter books.  Snape, a contemporary of Harry’s parents, was bullied while a student at Hogwarts.  Unfortunately, one of his antagonists was James Potter, Harry’s father. Snape becomes a professor at the school and, instead of being more compassionate for having suffered abuse at the hands of classmates, becomes a bully himself and makes his students, especially Harry, his targets. He comes across as aloof and uncaring, not the ideal qualities of a teacher. As a young wizard, in an extreme teenaged lapse in judgment, he became one of Voldemort’s minions before Voldemort’s downfall. He later changed sides and spent the rest of his adult life spying on the Death Eaters, but how does one find redemption from such a dark and violent past, none of which can be undone?

As we progress through the books, peeling back layer upon layer of Snape’s story, we also find out how talented Snape was at an early age, and we are sad for his wasted potential. Having lost the love of his life, haunted by his past and the obsessive drive to atone for it, Snape leads a lonely half-existence. Some fans say that’s a natural consequence for his service to Voldemort as a young man. Others argue that it’s a little harsh to force an individual to pay their entire life for a stupid choice made while still a teen. Sarcastic, misanthropic, and bitter, struggling--and often failing--to put petty resentments aside, Snape isn’t easy to like.  Yet he was capable of deep and abiding love. He helps Harry behind the scenes in ways Harry doesn’t find out about until it’s too late to thank him.  He was loyal, unselfish, and brave, and he made the ultimate sacrifice to help defeat Voldemort.

Snape may not have been a character you’d want to hang out and have coffee with, yet he was admirable in many ways. I applaud J. K. Rowling for having the courage to create a such a difficult personage and then leaving it to her readers to draw their own conclusions about this flawed tragic hero, one of the most morally ambiguous to ever grace the pages of a story directed at a young adult audience.

How many modern American kids have lost a father in a mine explosion and have had to learn to hunt in order to keep their family from starving?  How many of them live in a society where “reality TV” is required viewing, and it consists of children killing each other? No reader can fully relate to 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, resident of a post-apocalyptic, dystopic society.  Instead, we stick by her as she confronts this society and makes her way through two Hunger Games and a revolution. What we can relate to are the things that are part of universal human experience:  love and loss, overcoming adversity, the making of difficult choices--sometimes with disastrous consequences--and questioning the world and our place in it.

It’s not about creating characters who are likable all the time. It should never be about an author’s wish fulfillment or self-insertion into a story. It’s not about creating characters whose shoes the reader can “step into.” Great characters are multifaceted, vulnerable, flawed. There may be times when your reader may want to smack one of your characters upside the head. That’s okay.  It’s even healthy.  Your readers should care enough about your characters that they invoke such strong emotions. Instead of thinking of your characters as entrants to a popularity contest, aim to create characters with whom your readers want to make the journey.

Next:  Revising to create stronger characters

Check out more of Lynne's blogs at askthewordnerd.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Going Along for the Ride: Characters That Count

Have you ever had an idea for a great plot and excitedly set to work on it only to abandon it days or weeks later when you just couldn't make it work?  I've experienced this far too often and would dare to wager most authors have.  After pondering the problem, I've come to realize it usually boils down to one factor.  In almost every case, my failed stories didn't work because -- no matter how good the plot idea was -- the protagonist didn't inspire me to go along for the ride.

Although plot is important, I think more readers are willing to put up with a few "plot holes" than with a character they can't connect to.  Plot is the vehicle, conflict is the engine, and a likeable character is the "human" element that draws you in.  Characters make an adventure real.  They make you care about how the story will end.  The following are a few of the things I've noticed about intriguing characters who convince me to go along for the ride:

A Mysterious Past

Many compelling characters have a hidden story lurking in their background.  You might sense it guiding their actions or their eventual "fate," but the author gives only a few tantalizing bits and pieces along the way.  Often this leads to startling revelations as the story builds to its climax.  A good example of this is the character Eona from Alison Goodman's companion novels Eon and Eona.  An early hint about Eona's past comes from the set of plaques she carries that bear her ancestors' names.  In gradual stages, we discover that one of these ancestors -- Kinra -- was a Mirror Dragoneye just like Eona.  We also begin to see disturbing similarities between Eona and Kinra that could lead Eona to an equally disastrous end.

Relatability

When a character seems human -- cursed with flaws and not just blessed with strengths -- it's sometimes possible to see a little of yourself in her as you struggle with her through her challenges.  Perhaps a long-held belief will be challenged, moving you out of your comfort zone and compelling you to look at things in a different way.  Even when you disagree with a character, if you understand her motives, you can share in her pain and joy.  This is what makes good literature valuable.  It's an unsettling or reaffirming mirror to the world and your inner self.

Setting


How a character relates to his environment is as much a part of his characterization as what he looks like, thinks like, or acts like.  The right character in the right setting can make all the difference between a story that works and one that doesn't.  Some plots I initially abandoned as unworkable gained new life when the right character stepped forward to inhabit the setting.  Maybe your protagonist isn't suited for your Regency romance but is a perfect match for your dystopian world.  Don't give up on unused protagonists.  More than one author has revived a discarded character when the opportune moment arrived.

Admirable

Most characters who inspire me to follow their journey are admirable in some way.  Sometimes it's because they possess an inner strength I wish I had.  Other times it's because they hold fast to an important core value.  Harry Potter appeals to so many readers, despite his imperfections, because he doggedly tries to do what's right no matter how greatly the odds are stacked against him.  That's the type of character I want to root for.  That's the type of character I want to follow through a seven novel series.

Next time:  More characterization advice from guest blogger Lynne H.