Posts by Kat Colmer

I write Young and New Adult stories with humour and heart.

Halloween Reads for Cowards

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Image via Pixabay

October means ghosts, ghouls and all things ghastly for those who enjoy Halloween. So this month on Aussie Owned and Read we thought we’d tackle the frightening and scary in all its different manifestations.

I confess, I’m not a fan of scary. I won’t be lining up to see the new remake of Stephen King’s IT. Ever. I’m more of a Ghostbusters kinda girl. You know, where the ghosts and ghouls are tempered down with quirk or humour (and a dose of Chris Hemsworth). So here’s a list of Halloween ‘horror’ novels for scaredy Kats like me:

  1. The Life of a Teenage Body Snatcher by Doug MacLeod (Penguin)

Life of a Teenage Body Snatcher Cover

Thomas Timewell is sixteen and a gentleman. When he meets a body-snatcher called Plenitude, his whole life changes. He is pursued by cutthroats, a gypsy with a meat cleaver, and even the Grim Reaper. More disturbing still, Thomas has to spend an evening with the worst novelist in the world.
A very black comedy set in England in 1828, The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher shows what terrible events can occur when you try to do the right thing. ‘Never a good idea,’ as Thomas’s mother would say.

I read this wacky Aussie historical when it was first published seven years ago. It’s got its share of the macabre but it’s not exactly scary. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments as well as gross bits. Not one for the squeamish, but heaps of fun.

2. The Dead I Know by Scot Gardner (Allen & Unwin)

The Dead I Know Cover

You wake in the middle of the night, your arms and feet pinned by strong hands. As you thrash your way to consciousness, a calm voice says, ‘Steady. We’re here to help.’ Your mind registers a paramedic, a policeman, an ambulance. You are lying on the lookout at Keeper’s Point, the lookout Amanda Creen supposedly threw herself off. And you have absolutely no idea how you got there.

Aaron Rowe walks in his sleep. He has dreams he can’t explain, and memories he can’t recover. Death doesn’t scare him – his new job with a funeral director may even be his salvation. But if he doesn’t discover the truth about his hidden past soon, he may fall asleep one night and never wake up.

The Dead I Know is an intense psychological thriller, but it also fits a Halloween theme nicely because the protagonist Aaron works in a morgue. Interestingly, it’s not the dead people who he needs to be afraid of most.

  1. The Reformed Vampire Support Group by Catherine Jinx (Allen & Unwin)

The Reformed Vampire Support Group

Nina became a vampire in 1973 when she was fifteen, and she hasn’t aged a day since then. But she hasn’t had any fun either, because her life is so sickly and boring.

It becomes even worse when one of the other vampires in her therapy group is staked by a mysterious slayer. Threatened with extinction, she and her fellow vampires set out to hunt down the culprit. Trouble is, they soon find themselves up against some gun-toting werewolf traffickers who’ll stop at nothing.

Can a bunch of feeble couch potatoes win a fight like this? Is there more to being a vampire than meets the eye?

I love me a good vampire spoof and this book delivers. Not only does it provide a hilarious alternative addition to the vampire genre, it’s got romance and action to boot!

  1. Gap Year in Ghost Town (Allen & Unwin)

Gap Year in Ghost Town

The Marin family run a two-man operation in inner-city Melbourne. Anton has the ghost-sight, but his father does not. Theirs is a gentle approach to ghost hunting. Rani Cross, combat-skilled ghost hunter from the Company of the Righteous, is all about the slashing.

Anton and Rani don’t see eye to eye – but with a massive spike in violent ghost manifestations, they must find a way to work together.

And what with all the blindingly terrifying brushes with death, Anton must use his gap year to decide if he really wants in on the whole ghost-hunting biz . . .

I am yet to read this, but it looks PERFECT for horror-cowards like me. According to the publisher it’s smart, snappy and funny. And scary. It DOES say it’s scary. Still, the cover alone might be worth the risk.

What are some of your favourite scary – or not so scary – Halloween reads?

 


Kat Colmer AuthorKat Colmer is a Young Adult author and high-school teacher librarian who writes coming-of-age stories with humour and heart. She lives with her husband and two children in Sydney, Australia. Her debut YA The Third Kiss is out now with ENTANGLED TEEN and is definitely more swoony than scary. Learn more on her website, or come say hi on FacebookTwitter and Instagram!

So You Think You’re Funny? 3 Ways to Add Humour to Your Writing

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Image: Ryan McGuire via Gratisography

September is all about exploring genre on Aussie Owned and Read, so I stuck my hand up to look at humour. Okay, so technically humour isn’t a genre, rather more an element of style and voice which can be employed across any genre, but if you look at the genre categories in physical and online bookstores, there’s usually a humour section. So I’m sticking to my guns – or in this case, maybe water pistols.

I love reading fiction with a humorous voice, so it’s no surprise my own writing is sprinkled with good doses of humour (or so I’m told). Like most people, though, I can’t really pinpoint what makes someone else’s – or my own – writing funny. So I Googled! Don’t judge. You would have too! Why reinvent the wheel when somebody else’s wheels have come off so nicely for the sake of a laugh?

  1. Think Ks for Giggles

Words with sharp ‘k’ or ‘c’ sounds are apparently king when it comes to laughter mileage, and words with ‘g’ sounds aren’t far behind in the giggle stakes. Go figure. This phenomenon is widely known in comedy writer circles as the K Rule. Now you know why words like ‘discombobulated’ or ‘gargoyle’ and ‘goggles’ make you smile. Put them all together – a discombobulated gargoyle wearing goggles – and you’ll have readers rolling between the pages! Okay, moving on.

2. Go NUTS on the Metaphors and Similes!

Punchy metaphors and similes are a comedy writer’s best friend, which is a good thing because I love metaphors and similes like a newly washed Labrador loves rolling in garden fertilizer. A well crafted metaphor or simile can only add to the humour in your story. The trick is to keep it fresh and creative, and to avoid cliché. Apparently you can overuse this brilliant comedic tool in your writing, or so my editor tells me. We agreed to disagree – after he made me edit out a good chunk of my metaphor and simile brilliance. I’m okay bout it. Really.

3. The Rule of 3s

Patterns are generally a useful device for writers, but a pattern of three, where the first two items set up the reader to expect one thing only to be given something unexpected in item three, is a great tool when writing humour.

‘Meredith couldn’t understand why her friends didn’t want to come hang at her place on a stinking hot day like today. She had her own air conditioned teen retreat. The fridge was stacked with heaps of cold soft drink. And she had found twelve of her fifteen pet tarantulas that had escaped their terrarium that morning.’

You get the idea.

And because all good things come in threes, here are three of my favourite YA titles that do humour really well:

If you’re after more tips on writing funny, check out Four Commandments to Writing Funny by Joe Bunting and How to Mix Humor into Your Writing by Leigh Anne Jashway.


Kat Colmer AuthorKat Colmer is a Young Adult author and high-school teacher librarian who writes coming-of-age stories with humour and heart. She lives with her husband and two children in Sydney, Australia. Her debut YA The Third Kiss is out now with ENTANGLED TEEN and may or may not contain a few too many humorous metaphors and similes. Learn more on her website, or come say hi on FacebookTwitter and Instagram!

Elements of a Great Story: Editing

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Aussie Owned and Read has spent this month exploring the elements of a good story. Their awesome articles have explored ingredients such as the importance of authentic characters – by identifying their values, their beliefs, their reactions; the power of dialogue – by including conflict and subtext; the importance of pacing – how we can pick it up with action and dialogue and short, punchy sentences; and the power of setting – one that has been artfully woven through our scenes and characters. It really impresses on us the complexity and layers a good story needs to grasp readers. That’s a lot of balls to juggle…

How do you make sure the creation you’ve spent untold hours and sacrifices for has ticked all these boxes? You harness the power of editing.

Editing is the process of putting a new, very valuable and incredibly important, lens on your story. Stories are our babies. And just like our children or siblings, we tend to overlook (or plain old not see) their flaws. In our eyes, their strengths outshine any flaws they might have. With our family, that’s the way it should be. With a product that’s going out to for stranger’s consumption, we need to raise the bar. Editing creates the space you need to look at your story in a new way, find the weaknesses, and shore up the strengths. Luckily, there’s more than one way to do it, and it can be free.

  1. Self-Editing

There is a lot of information out there, blog, books and courses, about undertaking your own editing. If you want to hone the skills, then I suggest spending some time with Google. In the meantime the first step I recommend if you’re going to self-edit is to let your manuscript rest for a spell. And I’m talking at least a month. The first thing that will happen when you come back with fresh eyes is issues (that you hadn’t considered) will leap out so fast you’ll wonder how you missed them. Next, consider a lens that you’d like to elevate to next level; maybe dialogue, maybe pacing, maybe weaving setting through more seamlessly, and go through your manuscript with that filter in mind. Last, read your manuscript out loud, you’ll be surprised what you pick up.

This stage is important and shouldn’t be skipped, but it depends on you knowing your strengths and weaknesses in the craft of writing, and I’m not sure I’ve found a writer who has that level of objectivity. I know I don’t. This is why I recommend the next step as a vital part of making your story ready for publishing.

  1. Critique Partners

The discovery of my critique partners took my writing from a level I didn’t know I’d settled into, to a level I couldn’t have predicted. Critique partners are fellow lovers of the written word that have some understanding of the anatomy of a good story. As a general rule, these are fellow writers, and you exchange your work to provide honest and encouraging feedback. Critique partners can find things you missed, plot threads you’ve left dangling, characters that are hard to connect with. What’s even more rewarding, is finding critique partners that share the writing journey with you – the highs, the lows, the unexpected turns. They provide a level of support and encouragement that is impossible to quantify.

The points you need to keep in mind is being selective in your critique partners – you want a critique partner you can trust; one that is insightful, knowledgeable, discerning, and kind. Sometimes that takes more than one try. The other point to consider is that critique partners are still invested in your writer’s ego (they don’t want to hurt your feelings), which can cloud judgement and complete honesty. They also don’t necessarily have the qualifications, knowledge and experience a professional editor can offer.

  1. Hire a Professional Editor

As a developmental editor, and a writer that has had my manuscripts professionally edited, I’m a firm believer in the power of hiring a professional editor. If you hire an editor, you get the experience and knowledge I just mentioned, but more importantly, you’re paying for objectivity that values the power your story over the protection of your ego. An editor will delve into your masterpiece, pull out the gems, and shine a light on the holes. Character inconsistencies, POV issues, story structure slumps will all be identified in a constructive way. Because you’ll be given a road map on how to make your story the best it can be. And you’ll learn from it. You’ll experience ‘aha’ moments that will open a whole new world of possibilities, which will shape your future writing endeavours. In my opinion, that’s money well spent.

What’s your experience of editing your book? How did you take your manuscript to the next level?


Tamar Profile PhotoTamar Sloan is a freelance developmental editor and the creator of the PsychWriter blog – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers. Come and explore it at www.psychwriter.com.au. Tamar is also a passionate writer of award-winning young adult romance. You can find out more about Tamar’s books at www.tamarsloan.com. You can connect with Tamar on Twitter or Facebook.

Elements of a Great Story – Dialogue

This month on Aussie Owned and Read we’re looking at the elements of a great story, and to help me write about crafting good dialogue, I’m lucky enough to interview fiction dialogue expert Professor S. M. Artmouth, known best for his work at the University of Wordoming.

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Photo by Leonardo Valente via Pixabay

‘Professor Artmouth, welcome to Aussie Owned and Read.’ I give the professor a big AO&R smile. ‘It’s an absolute pleasure to have you here.’

He leans back in his chair and nods. ‘I’m sure it is.’

I blink, then glance down at my notes before the man catches me staring at him open-mouthed. Surely he didn’t just say that?

I clear my throat. ‘You’ve been teaching fiction writing for some time now, and your area of expertise is dialogue. What would you say is the first thing a writer should keep in mind when trying to write good dialogue?’

‘That, Ms … Sorry, what was your name again?’ The man’s bushy brows scrunch above his thin-rimmed glasses.

‘Colmer. Kat Colmer.’

‘Yes, yes.” He waves away my answer like I’d interrupted him. ‘A writer must always ask if their dialogue is essential to the story. It must either advance the plot, reveal character, or reflect theme. If it does none of these, it’s a waste of space and must be done away with.’ Another wave of the hand. Maybe he’s swatting away redundant bits of dialogue?

I shift back a little in my chair so he doesn’t accidentally smack me in the nose. ‘What’s a mistake you see beginner writers make too often?’ I ask.

Professor Artmouth rests his elbows on the arms of his chair and steeples his fingers. The thoughtful contemplation he forces across his face is so comical, it takes everything I have not to laugh.

One of the most repeated mistakes I see in the fiction of unseasoned writers is the misuse of dialogue as a way to dump information on the reader. It may not be something that you, a recently published author with no formal education in creative writing, may easily identify in a manuscript. However, someone like myself, a highly esteemed professor of the literary arts, one who presents with a distinct air of intellect and authority as well as above average good looks, can spot a dialogue information dump from the other side of the country.’ He angles his head and gives me a pitying look. ‘Dialogue should never be used to blatantly give the reader information. Any attempt at exposition in dialogue should be in the context of confrontation. Good dialogue simply must include conflict of some sort.’

I grip my question sheet tighter in an attempt to avoid showing this douche of a man a conflict of a very different kind. ‘No gratuitous information dumps. Got it.’ I shift in my chair. Time for another question. ‘What advice would you give writers when it comes to crafting dialogue that’s distinctive to a particular character?’

‘Careful selection of vocabulary,’ he says, adjusting the cuff of his badly ironed shirt.

‘And by that you mean…’

‘By that I mean the vocabulary should fit the character, Ms Colman.’

My smile is forced. ‘It’s Colmer.’

‘Yes, yes.’ Again with the hand wave. ‘Now, let me illustrate. If, for example, you were to base a character on me, you’d want to use complex and elevated vocabulary to make sure the reader understood my character came from the upper class and was highly educated.’

I look down at my notes. ‘And highly conceited.’

‘Excuse me?’

I cough. ‘I said, could you please repeat that?’

Artmouth frowns, but he loves the sound of his own voice too much to stop talking. ‘The vocabulary must be right for the character, is what I said.’

‘So we should be realistic in how we represent characters and their speech when writing dialogue.’

‘Yes and no.’ No hand wave this time. Just a smug smile as he leans back in his chair and waits for me to ask him to explain.

I take a slow breath. ‘Please elaborate.’

‘I believe it was Hitchcock who said that great story is life with the boring bits taken out. So it is with great dialogue. We want to give the illusion of real life dialogue with all the mundane parts removed. No one wants to read umms and ahhs after every third word. And don’t get me started on overuse of dialect and colloquialism.’ He rolls his eyes, and a wave of pity for his creative writing students rolls through me.

‘Last question,’ —because I’m so over this interview— ‘I’ve heard it said that good dialogue should be working double duty. What exactly does this mean?’

‘Ah, good question, Ms Colman.’

‘It’s Colmer.’

He ignores me. At least there’s no dismissive hand wav— Wait. There it is.

‘Good dialogue should strive to include …’ Fart— I mean, Artmouth leans forward conspiratorially, like what he’s about to divulge is the holy grail of dialogue writing, ‘…subtext,’ he finally says, and waits for me to be duly impressed. My lack of awe sends him slumping back against his chair. ‘What I mean is, what isn’t said is just as important, if not more so, than what is being said.’

I nod.

So does he.

The air between us bulges with subtext that isn’t fit for polite conversation.

‘Professor Artmouth, it’s been an experience.’ I offer him my hand, but — surprise, surprise — he waves it away.

‘Yes, yes. I’m certain it has been.’ And with that, Professor S. M. Artmouth proceeds out of the room, followed closely by his overinflated self importance.

 

For more information on dialogue in fiction without the need to interview pompous fictitious writing professors, I recommend James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for Publication. He’s got a fantastic chapter on writing and editing dialogue.


Kat Colmer AuthorKat Colmer is a Young Adult author and high-school teacher librarian who writes coming-of-age stories with humour and heart. She lives with her husband and two children in Sydney, Australia. Her debut YA The Third Kiss is out now with ENTANGLED TEEN. Learn more on her website, or come say hi on FacebookTwitter and Instagram!

 

From Query to Publication – Six Stages of Emotion

Are you a writer? Have you been busily squirreling away words in secret while the rest of your household sleeps? Maybe you’re at that uncertain point where you’re thinking of writing a novel, of taking the leap into a pool of words powerful enough to build new kingdoms and birth new people. Yes? YES? Do it! Take the plunge! It’s completely and utterly magical. It will ensnare you, captivate you. And it will catapult you down a raging river of unchecked emotion.

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Photo by Carl Cerstrand on Unsplash

I’m new to this publishing gig. My first novel is due for release in just a few weeks (Yay! Yikes! Gulp!), but I’m already well familiar with the emotional ups and downs that come with bringing a book baby into the world. So strap on your floaties (or maybe a life vest) and hold on tight as I take you through the six stages of the traditional publication journey’s Raging River of Emotions. First comes …

1. The Calm on the River Bank (Emotions = sense of achievement / satisfaction)

After months, maybe years, of self doubt, procrastination, and cleaning dirt from under your fingernails after all the times you’ve had to dig yourself out of a plot hole, you’ve finished your novel! Big pat on the back. You should be proud. This is a great achievement. Writing an entire novel is no small feat. But now what? How do you release it into the big wide world? Well, you must dip your toes into …

2. The Churning Channel of Submissions (Emotions = confusion / doubt)

Whether you’re querying agents or submitting your manuscript directly to editors and publishers, you’ll need to decide WHO to send it to. Which agent is a good fit for you as a writer? Which editors or publishers are looking for your kind of story? Confusion abounds as you sift through agent and editor databases, and your eyes glaze over as you try to read yet another set of submission guidelines. But, with perseverance – and copious cups of triple shot coffee – you’ll eventually have a list of suitable agents, editors, and publishers. You then dutifully send out your query in small batches like all the query gurus have advised you to do. And you float down river into …

3. The Query Rapids

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Photo by Jérôme Prax on Unsplash

This treacherous three-stage stretch of water will take you through a looping cycle of emotions, starting with …

  • The Waiting Wetlands (Emotions = frustration / impatience)

This is a long, dull, and trying section of the river as you wait to hear back from agents and publishers. Response times vary hugely. You might luck in and hear within a couple of weeks. Or you might still be waiting eight months down the track. It might be wise to take up yoga or Pilates. I’ve heard it’s good for managing stress levels. It’ll come in handy when you hit …

  • The Falls of Rejection (Emotions = disappointment / doubt)

This is possibly the worst part of the Raging River of Emotions. No matter how prepared you think you are, this huge dip will wind you every time you drop down it (and you’re bound to drop down it a few times at least!). But you must hang on and push through. The publishing business is hugely subjective. What is a pass for one agent / editor might well excite another. If you’re lucky to get feedback, read it with a critical eye and apply accordingly. Oh, and maybe book an extra yoga class. It’ll help you paddle into …

  • The Upstream of Persistence (Emotions = cautious optimism / determination)

Once you’ve climbed back into your boat and wrung out your sopping T-shirt, as well as your badly bruised pride, you send out the next batch of queries and submissions. Because you are made of stern stuff and the world needs your story. Rinse and repeat step 3 until you develop RSI in your index finger from hitting the refresh button on your email inbox while waiting for …

4. THE Mouth of the River CALL! (Emotions = euphoria / excitement)

This! This is what you’ve been waiting for! Finally, you can see the vast, open publishing ocean ahead. And someone has offered to help you set sail across it. Someone who loves your story as much as you do and wants to take it to the far ends of the earth. They love your voice, your characters, your unusual style of punctuation. But first you’ll need to navigate through …

5. The Editing Tributaries (Emotions = confusion / self doubt / impatience)

You’ve signed the contract, sucked the last drop from your bottle of bubbly, and now the hard work begins. You’re asked to kill off a character, add an extra chapter, and get rid of that unusual punctuation style. It’s not uncommon to be a little confused at some editorial suggestions that come your way. Self doubt can often creep in here, but a sound collaborative editorial relationship is crucial to your book’s success. Ask questions and learn from the reasoning behind editorial suggestions, because it won’t be long before your book’s …

6. Release into the Big Book Ocean (Emotions = excitement / anxiety)

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Photo by Nathan Hulsey on Unsplash

At last! Your book’s birthday has arrived. You can’t stop staring at the cover, and your friends and family can name every character in your book. Even Guido, the one-legged postman who makes a brief appearance in chapter six. It’s likely a time of mixed emotions. Excitement, anxiety, sense of pride, fear of failure. Revel in ALL of them, feel them in every corner of your writerly being, because they are proof you’ve breathed life into a new story and dared to share it with the world. And that’s something worth braving the query to publication Raging River of Emotions.

Tell us about your writing / publishing river of emotions. Does it look similar or have you had a different experience?


Kat Colmer Author

Kat Colmer is a Young and New Adult author, and high-school teacher librarian who writes coming-of-age stories with humour and heart. She lives with her husband and two children in Sydney, Australia. Her debut YA The Third Kiss is due out with ENTANGLED TEEN in August 2017. Learn more on her website, or come say hi on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!

Sex in the School Library – 5 Tips for YA Authors

As both a YA author and a high-school teacher librarian, I’m in the unique position to look at young adult literature from both a writer’s as well as a gatekeeper’s perspective. And when it comes to sexual content in YA, there are some things YA authors might be interested to know about getting their book into a school library.

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Image credit: Snufkin via StockSnap.io

Let’s Talk About Sex … in YA

Sex in young adult literature is not a new thing. Ever since Judy Blume’s YA novel Forever ruffled some moral feathers along with the bed sheets back in 1975, young adult literature has gone where a lot of parents, teachers, and other adults wish teens didn’t venture until they were well past the age of eighteen—namely behind that closed door where all that … well … you know … where all the hanky panky takes place (insert blush here).

Okay, brace yourselves, because according to a recent survey of Australian upper secondary students 69% of fifteen year olds have experienced some form of sexual activity, including intercourse. Since one of literature’s roles is to reflect society, it makes sense that fiction for young adults would include themes of sex and sexual discovery. If done well, sexual content in books for young adults can play an important role in the social and emotional development of teens. Whichever way you feel about sex in YA, it’s here to stay, and any school librarian will tell you that sexual content in fiction for young adults is pushing boundaries and becoming more explicit. Sarah J Maas’ A Court of Mist and Fury and Patrick Ness’ Release are only two such examples.

Now, school libraries and teacher librarians are at the forefront of YA literature advocacy. The only thing we love more than YA books is matching a YA title with the right reader (cue the warm-fuzzies *sigh*). But even though most school librarians take a strong anti-censorship, ‘open access to information’ stance, they must work within the ethos and guidelines of the schools that employ them. This means some school libraries won’t acquire certain YA titles because of their explicit content. YA authors might – or might not – want to keep this in mind when writing that ‘swinging-from-the-chandelier’ sex scene.

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Image credit: Agberto Guimaraes via StockSnap.io

Here are some things for YA authors to consider in relation to school libraries acquiring their book babies:

  • Most school libraries cater for a broad age range, which often means twelve year olds have access to the same books as eighteen year olds. Depending on the procedures in place to help students select developmentally appropriate material, some school libraries may choose not to acquire YA with overtly explicit sexual content. It’s not personal, trust me.

 

  • Don’t assume all faith-affiliated school libraries will only want ‘clean YA’. Yes, some faith-based schools will have conservative acquisitions policies, but you’ll find many that are more liberal.

 

  • When writing, ensure sexual content in your YA novel has a purpose; that it serves the plot and / or character development. If it’s simply there because you believe most teens your characters’ age are ‘doing it’, it most likely won’t read true to your story, and is less likely to be selected for a school library collection.

 

  • Aim for realistic depictions of teen sexual experience. Teen sexual encounters, whatever end of the heat scale they’re at, are often awkward and fumbly, filled with insecurity, naivety, and self doubt. They need to be put on the page with sensitivity, while taking care not to patronise the intended reader. School libraries are looking for YA texts that reflect their student body and community.

 

  • More emotion and less body parts, please! YA fiction by nature is usually written from a close point of view, and can therefore benefit from focusing more on the characters’ internalisations than the mechanics of the act. Young adults learn about the physical how-to of sex in primary school. It’s the emotional and relational aspects where sexual content in YA can play a powerful developmental role in young adults’ lives, and it’s this – as well as a good story, of course – that will win school librarians over.

What are your thoughts on sex in YA when it comes to school libraries? I’d love to hear about your experiences, whether you’re an author, librarian or reader.


Kat Colmer Author

Kat Colmer is a Young and New Adult author and high-school teacher librarian who writes coming-of-age stories with humour and heart. She lives with her husband and two children in Sydney, Australia. Her debut YA The Third Kiss is due out with ENTANGLED TEEN in August 2017. Learn more on her website, or come say hi on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!

Psychology of the Villain

Villains. We love to hate them, and at times hate to find we love them. Last Tuesday’s Aussie Writers post looked at the possible motivations behind a villain’s actions, but what in their psyche allows them to make the choices that lead to these villainous deeds? To help me answer this question, I thought I better enlist an expert, so I teamed up with PsychWriter author, Tamar Sloan, to explore a villain’s psychology.

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A complex villain in most books isn’t your run of the mill sociopath with fifteen bodies in their basement. Yes, these individuals exist. We’ve seen the documentaries and read the books about them, but the broken characters we love to hate have greater depth than that. The villain of our masterpiece is usually a wounded human with the capacity for empathy, guilt and remorse. A human who makes choices that violate ethical, legal and moral boundaries.

What ultimately makes them a villain is that they reach a point where they’re okay with their choice, maybe even delight in it, and it’s the progression to this point that is valuable to tease out as a writer. Either in the planning or in the aftermath, your villain moves through a series of psychological steps that allows them to live with their choices and sleep the sleep of the guilt-free (or mostly guilt-free). Capture this process in your book and you’ve got a realistic, authentic villain your readers are going to be fascinated by, and possibly even understand on some primal, psychological level.

So what is this psychological, possibly subconscious, process your villain goes through before or after their villainous deeds?

The starting point is often a discrepancy between your villain’s beliefs and their behaviour. We each hold many beliefs and thoughts about the world and ourselves. Most of the time these beliefs, and the choices we make, coexist happily in the folds of our grey matter. Sometimes though, discrepancies arise. Like when we eat chocolate cake even though we know we should be dieting. Like saying family comes first, but then having an affair. Or like saying we value humanity, and then sacrificing thousands in the name of a cause.

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Image credit: Ryan McGuire http://www.gratisography.com

When our beliefs and behaviour clash we become uncomfortable. Nervous. Distressed. And if there’s one thing our brain doesn’t like, and has evolved to avoid, it’s discomfort. So it will do what it needs to do to achieve harmony and balance. Since the behaviour has usually already happened, or is committed to happening, the brain needs to do some cognitive gymnastics, and your villain will probably do one or more of the following:

  1. Change their belief: The ‘I don’t really need to be on a diet’ reasoning.

Saruman in the classic Lord of the Rings uses such reasoning. Originally a powerful Istari entrusted with guarding Middle Earth like Gandalf, Saruman’s belief—and allegiance—changes when he comes to believe that Sauron’s victory can’t be avoided. His love of power drives him to abandon his order and convinces him that he’s better off on the side of evil.

  1. Minimise their behaviour and how they perceive it: The ‘I hardly ate any chocolate cake at all’ reasoning.

From Middle Earth to Creekwood High and Martin Addison in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. It’s not often the class clown is written as the villain, but when Martin stumbles on a personal email of Simon’s, he threatens to out him unless he helps Martin get close to Simon’s friend, Abby. When Simon asks if Martin is actually going to make him do this, Martin deftly minimises his behaviour:

‘Make you? Come on. It’s not like that … It’s not like anything … I was just thinking you would want to help me here.’

  1. Rationalise their behaviour: the ‘Chocolate cake is a good source of calcium’ reasoning.

The Hunger Games series offers us a slow-boil villain in President Alma Coin. She is all about freeing Panem and making it a better place, but her desire to take President Snow’s place as ruler at any cost, including killing Katniss’ sister, Prim, reveals her for the power hungry sociopath that she really is. Whether an act or her true belief, Alma Coin’s ‘for the greater good’ reasoning continues to the very end:

‘Today, the greatest friend to revolution will fire the shot to end all wars. May her arrow signify the end of tyranny and the beginning of a new era.’

  1. Reduce perceived choice: the ‘I didn’t have a choice. It would have been rude not to eat it …’ reasoning.

Twilight’s Aro is a villain with very clear cut, black and white principles. His primary objective as head of the Volturi coven is to keep the existence of their kind hidden. When it’s rumoured that Bella and Edward have created an immortal child, Aro argues he ‘has no choice’ but to destroy the infant who poses a threat of exposure for the vampires. Only when Aro sees a vision of his own death as a result of him trying to kill the child does he back down and let her live. Even a vampire sleeps easier at night when he’s convinced himself he had no choice.

Disclaimer: no chocolate cake was harmed in the writing of this article! Well, not a lot of it anyway, and our hands were tied. We had to eat it … for research purposes.

About the author:

Tamar Profile Photo

Tamar really struggled writing this bio because she hasn’t decided whether she’s primarily a psychologist who loves writing, or a writer with a lifelong fascination for psychology. Somehow she got lucky enough to do both. Tamar is the author of the PsychWriter blog – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers.

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Tamar is also a passionate writer of young adult stories of finding love and life beyond your comfort zone. You can find out more about Tamar’s books at www.tamarsloan.com

 

 

 


Kat Colmer Author

Kat Colmer is a Young and New Adult author and high-school teacher librarian who writes coming-of-age stories with humour and heart. She lives with her husband and two children in Sydney, Australia. Her debut YA The Third Kiss is due out with ENTANGLED TEEN in August 2017. Learn more on her website, or come say hi on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!