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!

Guest post: Where and how to begin writing your story, by K. A. Last

Hi everyone, K. A. Last here. It’s been a while since I’ve written a post for Aussie Owned and Read, and it seems fitting that this month’s topic is beginnings, because I was unsure where exactly to begin for this post … So, I’m going to tell you about a book I wrote to help authors with this exact problem.

Where and how to begin writing your story

Beginning a story isn’t always easy. We can have an amazing idea but absolutely no clue where or how to start writing that idea down. Well, I’m here to share a secret with you …

It doesn’t matter. The only thing that does matter is … beginning.

This is a rather long post, so bear with me, because I have some great points to talk about, and there might even be a couple of free things along the way.

As a writer, I often find it hard to get the thoughts in my head straight, and in any sort of coherent order. There are so many voices in there vying for my attention, and at times I feel like one big jumbled mess. Over the years I’ve tried different things, including pantsing and plotting my stories, and I’ve come to realise that for me, the best and most productive method is outlining my ideas in detail first. Once I have a solid outline, I find that when I sit down to write I waste less time, because I already know what I want to write about.

Sometimes I’m lucky enough that my ideas pop into my head fully formed with characters, and plot, and the entire world my story exists in. But mostly all I have is one concept, or a character name, or a theme, and it needs a lot of help to get started. And like I said before, getting to the point where you have a solid story idea or somewhere to begin isn’t always easy.

ani_cover_3dmockThat’s where A Novel Idea! comes in. I created this journal to help writers of all ages and skill levels—to help you be as prepared as you can be when you sit down to write your story. A Novel Idea! is divided into sections, much like the traditional three-act structure of a story plot, but with extra scenes. It will help you work through your story idea from the initial light bulb moment, to all the details about your characters, to visions for the world you want to create. By the time you finish filling in the pages, you will have a wonderful story idea to start writing, and a host of invaluable information to refer back to once your first draft is completed.

I know what you’re thinking, I’ve made it sound all too easy, but I know just how much it isn’t, and that’s why A Novel Idea! is not only a writer’s journal, it’s also a colouring book. When I get stuck on an idea, or I feel I need to work through the thoughts in my head, I often turn to colouring to help me clear my mind and set my ideas straight. The aim of including illustrations in this journal is to allow another creative outlet while working on your writing. If you find yourself needing time to think, but you would like to keep your hands busy, the illustrations can be used as a means to clear your mind. The borders on each page are also colourable, so switching between the two creative modes is easy.

If you want to know more about what A Novel Idea! contains, and how it can help with making a start on your writing, then read on …

THE IDEA

Okay, so the first thing I do is I tell myself to forget about the fact that I need to write around 70 thousand words to make a book. This is just a ball park figure. Some books are shorter, and many are longer, but I write for the YA market, so 70k is a good target number. But like I said, forget it. You don’t want that big, scary number holding you back.

Next, you need an idea. For anyone with a vivid imagination, these are not hard to come by, and we can find inspiration anywhere. But how do we shape and expand an idea into something that we can turn into a novel? This is where we start small, and work until we can see the bigger picture clearly.

Start by writing down the basics of your idea. It doesn’t have to be fully formed, but you need to get onto paper what your idea is so you can free you mind to think about all the other things you’re going to need to know to write your story. It could be as simple as one or two lines, or maybe you’ve been thinking about it for a while and you write a page.

Once you’ve done that, focus on working out the three most important aspects of your story. Take three sheets of paper, or use a notebook (you should have a notebook!) then write about the goal, the motivation, and the conflict of your story.

From here, you should try and briefly outline all the important parts of the story. Story structure usually goes something like this:

  • Beginning
  • First major plot point
  • Second major plot point or midpoint
  • Third major plot point
  • Climax
  • Resolution

If you know what the main obstacles of your story are, then filling in the gaps becomes a lot easier.

Once I’ve worked out the basics, something I like to ask myself when I have a new story idea is why is it exciting? If your story doesn’t excite you, then it won’t excite your readers. You need to pinpoint what it is about your story that will get people excited about it. This could be anything from the romance, to a rebellion, to who murdered someone.

By now you should have a pretty good idea about what your story is about, what the main plot points will be, and how it begins and ends. For me, the climax and the ending are very important, because that is what the story is working for and towards.

CHARACTERS

The next step is to cast the characters of your story. Sometimes my ideas start with a main character, and their conflict and story grow from there. Before I sit down to start writing my story, I like to know who I’m writing about. Of course I don’t know everything, because writing a character is sometimes like meeting them and getting to know them. There are a lot of things about them that I discover along the way. But I always work out the basics of their character profile. Usually a story will have the following characters:

  • Protagonist
  • Antagonist
  • Secondary characters affiliated with the protagonist
  • Secondary characters affiliated with the antagonist

Don’t forget that characters don’t always have to be people. You can download a printable character profile sheet to help with the development of your characters.

STORY WORLD

So now you know who the main character in your story is, and what their goal, motivation, and conflict are, you can build the world in which they will navigate and interact with other characters. World building is important for any story, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. The type of world your story exists in will depend on what your story is about, and there are many factors to consider. Not all of these will apply to every story, but they are a good starting point, and you should try to work out as many details as possible to understand how your story world will work.

  • Time or era
  • Place
  • Landscape and architecture
  • Reality or fantasy
  • Climate
  • Magic system
  • Weapons
  • Technology
  • Transport
  • Government
  • Social hierarchy
  • Currency
  • Language
  • Fashions
  • Rules

LET’S WRITE

By this point you should have the three main areas covered. Your story idea, the characters within your story, and the world they will inhabit. All that’s left is to sit down and write! Now is when I like to make a short paragraph outline of each chapter in my story. Sometimes I can’t outline all of them, but I outline as many as I can, as well as the most important scenes to do with the major plot points, climax, and the resolution.

My last piece of advice is nothing is set in stone. I often find that while I’m writing, my characters do something I hadn’t planned, or something I had planned doesn’t fit with their character development. When this happens, it’s okay to re-evaluate your story outline. As we write we get new ideas, and we see things differently. Our stories evolve, and that’s perfectly okay. It’s all part of the creative process.

(NB: the above section was first published at www.storyqueens.com.au for the full article, please go HERE.)

As a bonus to Aussie Owned and Read readers, I’m also giving you a FREE colouring page download. If you would like to know more about A Novel Idea! or any of my other books, come and say hi on my Facebook page, or check out my website.

Good luck with all your story beginnings.

K. A. xxx

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Guest post: The Lost Journal

What happens when you find your old journal, and in it is jotted the bones of a story?

What happens if that story has been rattling around in your head for fourteen years?

What happens if you’ve always wanted to write, and now finally you have time to pursue this dream?

You start writing, of course!

The happy confluence of idea, passion and time was the catalyst for me. It was a lightbulb moment, though it took two and half years of hard work!

It sparked my debut Young Adult novel Collision, published on Amazon.com in July 2015.

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Photo attribution: cooldesign on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What was the initial spark which inspired you to be a writer?

I’m fascinated by the diversity of writers’ inspirations, and the tenacity which results in a published book. That step from thinking, hoping, imagining a book to making it a reality is a massive one. Though of course achieving that reality consists of many small, persistent steps, a few forward, some back, but always heading towards that ultimate goal of publication.

It was Trial Bay gaol, and its history, which initially fascinated me. Why was this forbidding, granite structure built on Lagger’s Point in Arakoon, looking across to South West Rocks? Some readers may know this area in the Macleay Valley, near Kempsey, on the mid north coast of New South Wales.

My family, friends and I holidayed for many years here, our children playing on the beaches. We swam in the turquoise water, barbecued, picnicked, read and relaxed. It must have been a strange, bittersweet experience for the inmates, living on this glorious headland, yet restricted in a gaol, their freedom curtailed.

In particular, I was interested in the German “enemy aliens” rounded up and imprisoned in this gaol during the First World War. We have internment camps still, in 2015…well, sadly, they started a century ago here in Australia.

I bring this to life with Gustav Becker, a fictional German jeweller, interned here with his Uncle Ernst. Gustav secretly meets a local girl Grace, and they fall in love.

This historical story is told in flashback by Stella, an angry and defiant seventeen year old runaway, who lands by chance in the town and is unsettled by her dreams about Gustav and Grace one hundred years before.

My research included visits to the gaol and reading widely. The Enemy at Home by Gerhard Fischer and Nadine Helmi was very informative, detailing the various camps in New South Wales during the Great War, including a very large one in Liverpool in Western Sydney. Many of the men sent to Trial Bay were wealthier professionals and entrepreneurs. Under the control of the gaol superintendent, a German committee helped to organise the almost six hundred inmates who were given a degree of freedom, for example, permitted to walk about one and a half kilometres around the gaol after morning roll call. A strict curfew was enforced from 5pm onwards.

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They had a rich cultural life, each week producing an uncensored (!) newspaper, theatre productions and orchestral concerts.The Germans had many business activities including cafes, trades, a canteen, restaurant and market gardens. They pursued avenues of self-improvement like educational classes (languages, maritime subjects, business), as well as recreational activities like sport, swimming and fishing. Many huts or villas in the German style were built on the perimeter of the gaol walls and along the beach.

This photo from the museum at Trial Bay Gaol of miniature wood-work pieces is a small sample of the fine craftwork created by the “enemy aliens”. There were exhibitions and displays within the gaol of such work, as well as photographs and paintings. This creativity was undertaken as a way to dispel boredom in the gaol. The men suffered depression and listlessness during their imprisonment; many of these inmates had lived in Australia for decades, married and had families. Their families, without a breadwinner,
suffered greatly during this time.

It is gratifying that finding my old journal inspired the story of these German “enemy aliens”, forgotten or unknown to many Australians. The memorial on the hill to four men who died in the goal was exploded by unknown persons after the war.

However, in a gesture of reconciliation, the local community and German immigrants rebuilt the memorial. The gaol itself, after being a desolate ruin for decades, is now a thriving tourist attraction under the management of the National Parks and Wildlife Services.

51nyGeSjdsL._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_PJ Byer is a Young Adult writer, and her first book, Collision is a fast-paced, coming of age mystery about a teen runaway Stella. Reality, romance and fantasy blend, as Stella has flashbacks to Trial Bay gaol a century before.
For many years, PJ was an English, History and Drama teacher who secretly had a yearning to write. The day after she retired she began, and two years later Collision is the result.
PJ and her family holidayed at beautiful Trial Bay north of Kempsey, on the Australian mid-north coast, and the ruins of the gaol where hundreds of World War One Germans had been interned sparked her imagination, and was the catalyst for her story.
She is writing a prequel to Collision, and plans a sequel to explore the story of Gustav and Grace.
PJ is married with two adult daughters, and lives on the Central Coast near the beach, an hour north of Sydney. Her interests include bushwalking, stand-up paddle boarding, theatre, music and singing, as well as volunteering for ShelterBox, a disaster relief charity.

Catch her at pjbyerwriterblog.wordpress.com or https://www.facebook.com/pj.byer

Guest post: ‘Writing Short Fiction’ by Emma Osborne

Emma is another of my favourite and my best on Twitter. When she asked me what sort of post she should write for Aussie Owned and Read, I suggested a post on how to write short stories, because that’s something she excels at, and I struggle with. Especially the “short” part. Verbose? Me? Nah. — Cass

There are thousands of ways to write short stories, and the internet is thick with all kinds of writing advice. The more I learn about writing short fiction, the more I feel that it’s an intrinsically personal experience. Learning how to write a short story could easily be rephrased, “How do YOU write a short story?”

Good short stories are essentially complex little puzzles. They’re akin to a mechanical watch, filled with moving parts. Short fiction can contain a miniature universe, or be specific to a single day or scene in just a few thousand words. While there are many ways to approach writing a short piece, here are some tips that might be helpful:

Don’t Worry About Length

We used to ask my high school creative writing teacher “How long does it need to be?” to which she would reply “How long is a piece of string?” Most of the time I’ll be able to figure out pretty quickly if the idea I’ve had will fit in a short story, but I sometimes get paranoid if it feels “too short”, i.e. if it tops out at a bare 2000 words. Conversely, sometimes stories I think will be short when I’m initially writing them will grow in the telling and end up double the expected length. Just have a crack and see how you go. Even if you come up around the 1000-1500 mark, you’re fine. There are plenty of stories that have achieved amazing things with a tight word count. Rachael Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” is one such example.

Top and Tail

It can be interesting to repeat a symbol or a motif that featured in the opening few paragraphs at the end of your piece. It can help you stick the landing and it’s a great way of measuring what has changed throughout the story — is the character no longer afraid of something, for example? Or does a familiar person or location take on new import based on what’s happened throughout?

Get to the Guts

You don’t have much room in a short, so no waffling! You don’t necessarily have to start with BOOM FIREBALL but get to the gist in the first paragraph. It’s important to consider why you’re starting with this day, why right now? Make sure you’re telling the story from the most important point. The story should be set in a pressing point in your characters’ lives.

Agency, Agency, Agency

Yeah, your characters need to DO things. They need to have power or struggle to attain it. They need to make decisions, fuck things up, get their hands dirty. If they’re coasting through the story without having an impact, it makes it really difficult to give a shit.

Music!

I’m huge fan of writing while listening to music. It helps me to focus and to keep my brain on track (I am so easily distracted; you have no idea). My all-time favourite music app for this is 8tracks, which you can listen to for free online or via the downloadable app. You can pick a theme, or a TV show, or a couple of keywords — “action, adventure,” or “cry, instrumental”. It has some wonderful hand-picked playlists for any theme you could possibly imagine. Here’s my favourite to get you started:

Save the Day – http://m.8tracks.com/melsparrow/save-the-day

First Drafts are Always Shit

Always. ALWAYS. Well, OK, you might somehow magically nail it on the first go, but DO NOT WORRY if everything is terrible the first time you write it. That’s what editing is for. There are also some great critique groups out there like Critters (for beginners) and Codex (if you’re a little more established) that are filled with people who can help you to work out the kinks.

Don’t (Necessarily) Skimp on the World-building

You can do a lot with just a few small details. It’s absolutely worth spending some time thinking about the way the world is set up, even if you just throw in a couple of small elements to indicate a larger whole. For example, you could think about the geography of your setting, the politics, the different religions and cultures within your world and how they shape the inhabitants. Try to slip in a few hints along the way to give your story some depth.

Writing lots of short stories will do wonderful things for your craft. Even though there’s nothing quite like writing novels to help you to learn to write novels, short stories can help you to get good at so many things — conveying detail, nailing voice, smoothing out prose. You also have enormous opportunity to play. If you’re just starting out, it can be a wonderful way to experiment, especially if you write across a lot of genres or traditions.

Writing short fiction can also help you to spot your weaknesses. In the past I’ve struggled with character agency (“Stop just reacting to everything, damn it! Steer your goddamn life!”), and working through a bunch of shorter pieces has really helped in that respect. A friend of mine struggled to nail the emotions in their stories, and has managed to write their way out of it by sheer force.

Finally, read widely. There are hundreds of stories online for free. You can start by looking at stories that have been sweeping recent awards, or by asking people to suggest their favourites.

Best of luck!

Author details

Emma Osborne

Emma Osborne is a fiction writer and poet from Melbourne, Australia. Her work has appeared in Apex Magazine, Shock Totem, Aurealis and Bastion SF. She starts dance-floors and bear-hugs with the slightest provocation.

Twitter: @redscribe

Website: emmakosborne.com

Guest Post: Four things to consider before going Indie

I’d like to extend a huge welcome to our second guest for the month of July, MJ Stevens. Not only is she a fabulous YA writer, she’s an Aussie to boot, so we’re super excited to have her here today. ~Stacey

“Being independently published is fun, exciting and … terrifying.” – M.J.

I’m M.J. an indie author from Brisbane, Australia. I currently write YA. I’m finishing up the final book in my Guardians trilogy, Liberated in November this year. My debut novel Bound released in January 2014 and it’s been a whirlwind ever since.

I have had some great success over the last few years … and some really stupid, face-palm-moment failures.

So listen up all ye wishful authors, it’s time to get serious and nix the dreaming. Being indie is more work than it sounds…

FOUR THINGS TO CONSIDER

BEFORE GOING INDIE

 

Unlike being published through traditional means, everything falls to you. Oh yes, and I mean everything. Writing your manuscript is only one part. What about the editing? What about the cover, the design work, the promotion, and the (sometimes dreaded) events?

That’s right: all you.

Now, I’m not trying to scare you off being indie, far from it. I’m here today with some helpful tips to get you started on the right foot.

1)   What are your skills?

And if you say writing, then I might have to karate kick you in the head because, duh!

I’m talking about other skills, important ones. Are you an editor by trade? Do you have a bachelor in design? Is social media is a breeze for you? Cool.

If not, don’t freak out!

Independently published authors don’t instantly have a network to help them become successful. There are things you need to think about before you go hitting PUBLISH on your computers or tablets.

  • Even if you are a grammar whiz, having an editor is a very good idea, nay vital! Having a fresh perceptive on your work will help you see errors and plot holes. It’s better that someone who is kind (because you’re paying them) tells you something you can fix, rather than having a reviewer smash you … and then you have to sit and cry. Save yourself the trouble and heartache; get a second opinion, even if it’s just for a spell check.
  • Whoever said “don’t judge a book by its cover” was an absolute twat, excuse the French. Let’s get real, we all do it. If something has a boring, badly edited, Microsoft Paint designed cover, you’re going to question the quality of the work. It doesn’t matter if you’re the next J.K. if your book never gets read. Presentation matters!
  • You need to research and decide on what your brand is going to be as an author. Are you a dark romance gal, or a fun children’s author? Make sure your entire collection of business related online channels match the image you want to project. Whether or not people need a Facebook page as an author is actually quite a debateable topic. So this is just me speaking here: GET ONE. Personally it irks me when authors have pages where they add people as friends, rather than having a business page with likes. To me, it says unprofessional, even if your little page only has 20 likes for the first few months. And they’re family members.

You don’t need to have friends; it’s time to have fans! Let them adore you!

2)   Can you afford the costs?

Editing, covers, printing … it’s not free. If you’re planning on doing a paperback, costs stack up in the blink of an eye. Keep in mind that your first book order is going to sell well. Friends and family are going to want them, and chances are word has spread around your community. Places like Amazon Createspace are great for printing on-demand, but remember that prices are often in US dollars and that means your quotes are wrong (for us here in AUS). Make sure you’re not spending more than you can make back, at least not at first.

3)   Are you in this for the money?

Then refer to point 2. If you are very, super-duper successful in the start, then I wish you all the best. However, over half indie authors out there will tell you they hardly make any money, and an even sadder amount will say that they are still in the red, unlikely to recover their costs … ever. It’s a great goal to be rich, but don’t expect it to happen straight away.

4)   Long term promotion

Don’t get disheartened if it’s been one year and your Facebook is STUCK on 78 likes. (I’m speaking from personal experience!) It takes time for things to get traction, especially online. The world is saturated with info, so take the time to read up on good ways to promote and stick with them. Research reputable bloggers, who have paid services, (note: not overpriced services, beware of scams) and will do things like: promote your book by contacting other bloggers, do cover reveals, review tours and help get your name out there! The import thing is to keep up with what’s new and do it if you can. Keep your own blog, even if no one reads it at first. Later down the track it will help your reputation build.

I hope this has been helpful. I can’t wait to read your book!

M.J. xoxo

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M.J. Stevens thinks of herself not only as an author, but a true storyteller.

M.J. has been writing tales of action, adventure, and love since she was a child. For so long she tried all of the creative arts, trying to find a way to make her stories heard, and writing became the lead way that she could share her ideas with the world. Today, it is her number one passion in life.  http://www.mjstevensauthor.com

Guest post: Finding inspiration in nature

With our regular contributors off on holiday, having babies, and sitting exams, we’ve got some fabulous guest posters lined up over the coming months. I’d like to extend a huge welcome to our first guest of the month, ST Bende. As well as writing about swoon worthy Norsk Gods, ST is an avid Disney fan and even has her own tiara! ~Stacey

Hei hei, y’all! I’m S.T. Bende, and I write upper young adult paranormal romances steeped in Norse mythology. My stories are modern day love and angst mashed up with ancient myth and legend. Writerly inspiration usually comes fairly easily, since I’m one of the lucky authors who isn’t working from scratch. Mythology writers, even modern mashup ones, get to borrow characters and situations from the Prose Edda — it’s kind of like the Viking bible. But on the rare occasion I can’t find inspiration in ye olde Norse text, I turn to the next best thing to get the words a’flowing: nature.

Without fail, I do my best writing after I spend some time in the woods. Or at the beach. Or even in the mountains! One of my hands down absolute favorite places in the world is a teensy tiny little town just a stone’s throw from Goonie Rock in northern Oregon. (Never say die! #Goonies) It’s just impossible to not be inspired with a front door view like this….

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… and a back door view like this. I mean, honestly. It’s just… perfect.

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I’m so in love with this particular spot that I cast the main character of my debut series, The Elsker Saga, as a small-town girl from one of the neighboring hamlets. And I gave the gods of my upcoming series, The Aere Saga, two earthly residences. One in this exact spot in northern Oregon, because it’s just so pretty . . .

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… and one here, in Humboldt County, California.

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The redwoods are absolutely magical, dontcha think?

What about you? Where do you feel most inspired? And what do you do with all of that creative energy? (If the answer is “bake cookies,” pretty please send them my way!! Mange takk!)

Before finding domestic bliss in suburbia, S.T. Bende lived in Manhattan Beach (became overly fond of Peet’s Coffee) and Europe… where she became overly fond of McVities cookies. Her love of Scandinavian culture and a very patient Norwegian teacher inspired the books of The Elsker Saga. She hopes her characters make you smile and that one day, pastries will be considered a health food.

Find S.T. on Twitter @stbende, her blog, or send her an e-mail. While you’re at it, introduce yourself to The Elsker Saga’s Norse God of Winter, @UllMyhr — when he’s not saving the cosmos from dark elves, he loves meeting new friends . . . especially the human kind.

Guest Post: ‘Character agency: grab your readers, don’t let go’ by Sofie Bird

Welcome and thanks to our second guest poster of the month, the fabulous speculative fiction writer Sofie Bird. I got to know Sofie via Twitter, and knew right away that she is one of my people. Case in point: she owns a necklace of a t-rex skeleton! — Cass

Character is key to a story. It doesn’t matter how spectacular your plot is if we don’t care about who it’s happening to. And when it comes to creating characters we care about, giving them agency is perhaps the most crucial element.

Characters with agency leap off the page and demand our attention; they grab our hearts and don’t let go. They’re the kind of characters we can chat to in our head after the story is done; the kind we imagine having as a friend (or enemy), with a life of their own. Giving your characters agency means they’re driving the story. It pulls your plot into a cohesive whole that revolves around what the character wants, and what happens when they try to get it.

So what is agency, and how do I create it?

Agency isn’t some nebulous quality that just appears; it can be created! Characters have agency when their purposeful actions affect the plot.

There’s a lot of information in that definition, so we’re going to break it down into goals, actions and consequences: a purposeful action is an action with a reason behind it — a goal it’s trying to attain. That action affects the plot by creating consequences for the character. We’re going to look at these elements and how you can make sure your stories are supported by each.

Goals

As Kurt Vonnegut famously said: “A character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Goals are what give us a way into the character, a way to understand and identify with them, which is the first step to caring about them. The more important the goal is to the character, the better: the more they care, the more we’ll care.

Goals can be attaining something, or preventing something, but they need to be actionable. The character needs to be able to do things that they believe will help achieve their goal. If a character desperately wants their cancer test to be negative, that’s a powerful want, but it’s not a goal. There’s nothing they can do to make it happen or influence the outcome. However, if what they really want is for their insurance company to think their test is negative, that’s a goal: it’s no longer out of their hands. Even if the result is positive, they could sneak in and forge it, or bribe the doctor: they can take action.

The best kinds of goals are ones the character can’t have right away. If Billy gets himself a glass of water from the kitchen as soon as he wants one, it’s not much of a story. If Billy’s water is off because his neighbour’s renovations burst the water main, now we might have something.

But it’s both repetitive and absurd if Billy just searches his environment endlessly for glasses of water. When thwarted, people look for other ways to solve their problem. So Billy’s going to need sub-goals for each scene, things like find out why the water is off, try to tell the water company, relieve his frustration by yelling at his neighbour, get to a café and buy a drink.

These sub-goals need to progress the main goal, or be closely related to it. If Billy suddenly wants catch up with an old friend instead of going to the café, we’re going to feel like his glass-of-water problem isn’t that important after all, and we’ll stop caring.

Agency checklist part one: read through your story and note both what the character wants overall — their primary goal — and how they’ve broken that goal down into sub-goals as problems arise. If you can’t find any goals, invent either something they really want — a promotion, a lover, a glass of water — or something they’re desperate to avoid.

Actions

Goals are all very well, but there’re few things more irritating than characters sitting around wanting something and doing nothing about it. In fiction, if the character doesn’t do anything about their goal, we’ll assume they don’t really care, and we’ll stop caring. So: characters have to take actions that they think will move them toward their goals.

Your character’s actions provide the stepping stones of the plot. Every scene or story beat should have a definite action the character is taking. (Okay, not quite every scene, but I’ll cover that later). To make the obvious link: this is precisely why character goals have to be actionable, because we need the character to do things about them. If your goal isn’t actionable, your character will have nothing to do.

Characters also change during a story — in fact, the story is usually the journey that takes them from being unable to do what is needed to attain their goal, to being capable of that action. So the actions they choose should change as the story progresses. Maybe they’ll take the high road now, where once they took the easy path. But this growth needs to be based on experience that we see; characters need a reason to change, just like regular people do. And that’s where consequences come in.

Agency checklist part two: write down each action that your character takes to try to attain their goal. If your characters spend a significant time not doing anything, then make some notes on things they could try, or perhaps some smaller sub-goals they could strive for if the main goal is out of reach. If you can’t think of anything, revisit whether your goal is in fact actionable by this character.

Consequences

So, you have characters who want things, and they’re taking actions to work towards attaining them… but the plot just happens anyway. Explosions. Pirates on the high seas. We start to feel like this isn’t the character’s story, that they have no power over their own lives, and their actions are pointless: nothing they do has changed how the story turned out.

For characters to have agency, the plot must respond to the character’s actions.

Usually, things get worse and worse until the character has a breakthrough and can finally take the action they need to resolve things. But just making the situation more dire doesn’t work: it must be a direct result of the character’s earlier actions. Essentially, the story is teaching the character that the initial way they wanted to solve the problem isn’t the “correct” one. They’ll keep making things worse for themselves until they learn to do things the “correct” way. I’m putting “correct” in quotes here because we’re not talking about what’s morally correct. It’s all relative to the character’s journey.

If, after complaining to his neighbour, Billy goes down to the café to get water, but the café is closed because it’s Monday, that’s boring. It’s not related to anything that happened before, and Billy learns nothing. If the café refuses to serve him because the neighbour’s wife owns it and she heard what Billy said down the phone — now we have consequences. Billy’s own actions have made things worse, and have driven the story forward by creating a new problem for him to solve. These consequences eventually combine into the climax that helps Billy realise he should perhaps try asking nicely for a change.

Other than your inciting incident — the initial event that pushes the character off on their journey, like Billy’s water being shut off — everything that happens should be a result of the character’s actions, preferably within the story itself. (A word of caution on using backstory to justify consequences: it’s an easy shortcut, but if we don’t see the action that caused the event, it doesn’t feel as ‘real’ to us. Use backstory sparingly, and never for a major consequence.)

Agency checklist part three: go through your story looking for all the events that happen. Can you tie everything back to an action the character took earlier? If not, maybe your character isn’t taking big enough actions, or your story needs to react more to them. Consider the worst possible outcome from your character’s actions, then inflict it upon them!

A final word on breaking the rules

Combining goals, actions and consequences give your character the ability to change your story, which is the sense of agency readers want to connect with—they want power over their own lives. But not every scene needs to have agency.

Sometimes, after a big revelation or a huge loss, a character needs to take stock, think over what just happened and decide on a new direction. But those scenes need to be few and far between. Think of it like a rollercoaster; scenes with agency are either building up or racing down; scenes without agency flatten out. They give you a breather to process what just happened, but too much kills your momentum.

And that’s it, we’re done! Three simple steps to create engaging and memorable stories with characters that readers love. Happy writing!

Author details

Sofie Bird writes speculative fiction in between editing, programming, and technical writing. She is powered by tea, chocolate, and sarcasm, and can be found on Twitter @sofie_bird or occasionally blogging at http://sofiebird.net.
Sofie Bird