Thursday, July 28, 2016

Not Just Whodunnit...?

In mysteries/crime fiction, the obvious antagonists are the villain and the sleuth. But that’s only the beginning.

Until the villain is discovered, every suspect is an antagonist. Those who apparently cooperate may be lying. Those who lie may do so to protect themselves or to protect others. In the latter case, the liar may be acting on knowledge or on fears and suspicions—guesswork—and the basis of the lies may have nothing to do with the crime in question.

For instance a murder investigation may turn up blackmail, as in my Styx and Stones and A Mourning Wedding, with several characters trying to conceal the reasons they are vulnerable to blackmail.

Those who don’t cooperate are obstructive. Again, this behaviour may be self- or other-protective, with the same caveats, or may be sheer bloodymindedness.

All these, for their many and various reasons, are antagonistic to the investigator, whether amateur or professional (though one advantage of an amateur sleuth is that people may more easily confide their secrets to an unofficial ear than to a probing police detective).

Antagonism doesn’t end with the hunter and the hunted, of course. Obviously a murderer is the antagonist of his victim. In order to explore their relationship I like to see it at first hand, before the murder, rather than at second hand through the eyes of the detective. This means I often postpone the murder until quite late in the book rather than providing a body in Chapter One.

To confuse the issue, plenty of characters are needed, each with his or her own reasons for enmity with the victim, the villain, and each other.

This gives the reader a chance to figure out not only who the killer is but also who’s going to be killed. In one book, Sheer Folly, I myself didn’t know which of two characters was going to be the villain and which the victim until I wrote the penultimate chapter.

It’s a lot of fun throwing a whole bunch of antagonists together at a country house party, or in a concert hall, or at the Tower of London...

I haven’t even touched on two other sources of conflict: Local police don’t always want their cases to be handed over to Scotland Yard; and neither sort of police welcomes the interference of an amateur, however well-meaning and occasionally helpful. Both of those also add a little spice to the story.

Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies. The paperback edition of Superfluous Women is now available to pre-order. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

I'm the Bad Guy?

Scene from Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), starring James Stewart & Lionel Barrymore

I’ve been writing half of my new novel from the antagonist’s point of view, and two uncomfortable but important thoughts crouch in the back of my mind as I write his part of the story:

1) He doesn’t know he’s the bad guy.
2) I don’t always know when I’m the bad guy.

In real life, nobody knows when they’re Mr. Potter, because everybody wants to believe they’re George Bailey. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please find the classic Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life and watch it.) My antagonist knows he makes mistakes, but he believes that’s because he’s only human. In many ways that’s true, although this guy does such bad stuff that massive rationalizations are required for him to chalk it all up to being “only human.”

Rationalizing our behavior is what we all do when we make choices we’re sure will benefit us but either aren’t sure, or haven’t considered, whether those choices will benefit others. To get inside my antagonist’s mindset, I call on my own inner-rationalizer. Sharing the antagonist’s viewpoint with readers requires me to come to some understanding of the dark side of human nature, which requires me to recognize my own nature and what I’m capable of. Sometimes that makes me cringe.

My bad guy does things I would never do, but they’re still things I can imagine. My ability to manufacture reasons why he considers his actions understandable, forgivable, or even commendable, makes me question my own moral compass and all the things I rationalize in real life.

When I’m done writing his sections, I almost feel dirty, not because of what the bad guy did, but because I’m able to describe it as if I own it. It’s humbling to recognize that some of my antagonist’s worst inclinations are a dark and twisted mirror of my own unworthy temptations: manipulation, cowardice, covetousness, arrogance, self-righteousness, and so on. In other words, in a convoluted way, parts of my bad guy lurk inside me. Yuck.

I thought the deep honesty involved in penning a memoir was confronting, but fiction takes it to a new level. My conscience typically keeps my id under lock and key. But, when I write about my antagonist, I whisper to the id, “Pssst, I’m going to unlock your cell and let you out to play. Then I’m going to trap you and lock you back up when I’m done.” It’s like playing with a psychotic: on one hand, an emotional danger to the unsuspecting public, on the other hand, cruel to the poor psycho, who must afterward sit in the dark and contemplate the destruction he has wrought.

Not that writing about this guy tempts me to do the evil he does. That’s not in my makeup. But he forces me to re-examine how I make decisions, to never again rest in the comforting certainty that I’m George Bailey. My antagonist makes me face the truth: that sometimes I can behave like Mr. Potter, and unless I’m vigilant I might not even know it.

On the flip side, this process leads me to deeper compassion for the foibles of others, a greater readiness to forgive people for wrongdoing, and a desire to understand what motivates bad behavior in the hopes that understanding might lead to change. So it seems those studies that suggest literature increases empathy are true, at least for me.

Whatever else this process yields, I believe honest self-knowledge is the path to writing a great antagonist: to shed light on our dark side, to admit our rage, fear, and, worst of all, our love for the little troll within. This is how we create a believable monster. The next trick is not to hand the guy a mirror, not to let him see himself as he is: because he’s typically more interesting if he has no idea he’s a monster.

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation PressRivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s an editor, ghostwriter, and coach who has collaborated on more than twenty books. She teaches young writers at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a TV journalist and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Ventura, California.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Humor From Slim Randles

Slim Randles is back again this month with an update on how Dud is doing with his book - or not doing. Dud seems to be having trouble with his protagonists and antagonists, and keeping them straight. Maybe he needs to subscribe to this blog for some help. Poor guy has been slaving away for too long on one book.

Dud rounded the corner on his block and headed for the edge of town at an easy jog. Well, easy for an Olympic miler, he thought. It was making him breathe hard and he wasn’t even a block from the house. But this is the price. Oh yes, the price I must pay for my goal, as Doc had reminded him a few weeks ago.

“Dud,” said Doc, “I worry about you spending so much time agonizing over that book of yours.”

“I have to do it, Doc,” Dud said. “There are still so many things to plan in the book. Things like the duchess’s daughter and her relationship with the truck driver on special assignment …”

“I know that, Dudley,” Doc said, giving Dud a friendly arm squeeze, “but what you need is a kind of cleansing. You know, empty your mind and then let the ideas come. To me, the best idea has been to exercise.”

Dud looked at him strangely.

“Yep. Exercise, Dud. Get out and go jogging or play tennis or something. Not only is the exercise good for your body, but it’ll get that brain cleaned up and working all fresh again. And that solution to your book problem will come. You’ll get it.”

And that’s what had him chuffing and jogging and looking at the trees and appreciating the beauty of the place he called home. But try as he might, the exercise actually intensified his pondering the novel he called “Murder in the Soggy Bottoms,” but was better known to his friends as “The Duchess and the Truck Driver.”

The first draft of the book was rejected by a publisher eight years ago because it had eight murders. In the first chapter. So Dud went back to the drawing board and let seven of those people survive through several more chapters. But it was the relationship. The relationship. Why do things have to be so complicated?

After his run, he pulled up a chair at the philosophy counter at the Mule Barn truck stop.

“Well, Dud,” said Doc, kindly, “did you exercise?”

“Ran a good mile or so, Doc.”

“And did you get it? You know … the solution?”

“I’m not sure,” Dud replied, “but I got tired.”

What do you do to clear your mind and get the creative juices flowing? Does exercise work?

Now a word from the sponsor who makes it possible for Slim to share his columns for free:

Need a job? Full and part time positions open. Email for an interview.

The Home Country radio show will be coming soon to a radio station near you! New, from Syndication Networks.

Slim Randles writes a nationally syndicated column, Home Country, and is the author of a number of books including  Saddle Up: A Cowboy Guide to Writing. That title, and others, are published by  LPD Press.

Posted by Maryann Miller - novelist, editor and sometimes actress. Visit her Amazon Author page to find a list of all of her books, and you can see her editing rates and references on her website. Maryann is on Facebook and Twitter, and her Twitter handle is @maryannwrites. Her most recent book releases are Doubletake and Boxes For Beds, both mysteries that are available for Kindle and in paper. When not working, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas. Slim Randles always makes her laugh.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Antagonists Aren’t Just Bad Guys

In literature, an antagonist is a character or a group of characters which stand in opposition to the protagonist or the main character. The term antagonist comes from Greek word “antagonistēs” that means opponent, competitor or rival.

We commonly think of antagonists as villains, the evil people (bad guys) who try to thwart our heroes at every turn. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Sometimes the hero is his own worst enemy. Maybe he or she has an addiction or a dark phobia or some character flaw that keeps tripping him/her up and prevents success in reaching the goal. A pilot with a drinking problem might create a whole lot of problems for himself and his passengers. A young woman with self-esteem issues and no father-figure might look for love in all the wrong places.

An antagonist doesn’t even need to be a person. It can be an animal, a la Moby Dick.

Or it can be the weather. In Ray Bradbury’s story “The Long Rain”, the four characters are driven insane by the incessant rain on a distant planet.

Photo courtesy of FlickrCommons

In my “Cowgirl Dreams” series, the harsh winters of Montana or severe drought can kill the protagonists or their livestock. Ranchers died mere feet from their doorstep during white-out blizzards. During the drought and depression of the 1930s, Nettie and Jake trailed their herd of horses 400 miles looking for grass so their horses (their livelihood) wouldn’t starve to death.

Conflict is a key ingredient of any story. An antagonist – whether a person, animal or the weather — opposes the protagonist and his goals and plans and therefore creates conflict. The protagonist struggles against the antagonist who takes the plot to a climax and later the conflict is resolved with the defeat or downfall of the antagonist.

What are some of your favorite or unusual antagonists?

Heidi M. Thomas is a native Montanan who now lives in North-central Arizona where she blogs, teaches writing, and edits. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreamsis based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. The next book in the series is Dare to Dream, an International Book Award Finalist, and a non-fiction book Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women, is also available. Heidi has a degree in journalism and a certificate in fiction writing.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Where Do Antagonists Come from?

Some actors have reportedly said they’d rather play the bad guy than the good guy because it’s more fun. The same might be said about some writers: it can be more fun to write about antagonists than protagonists. While this probably doesn’t hold true for all of us, I have found the creation of antagonists to be an unexpectedly interesting facet of fiction writing. “Fun” may not always be appropriately descriptive, however. Complicated, damaged, mentally or emotionally unbalanced, narcissistic, or even terrifying might better categorize them. No matter how they are described, I like to uncover their issues, figure out what makes them tick. Why do they do what they do?

Antagonists may grow out of personal experience, be composites or people we’ve known or read about, or be products of our imagination. All of us have a dark side, but society doesn’t smile on our displaying that part of our personality. If this is the case, we writers have an advantage if we care to use it: we can vicariously express our negative thoughts, anger, or pain through our characters—perhaps even alleviate repressed resentment over past mistreatment or salve deep wounds from horrific abuse—by letting our antagonist get his just reward. Maybe a historical person such as Jack the Ripper will inspire a character, or the infamous Lizzie Borden or Ted Bundy. Perhaps he/she is simply a troublemaker, a controller, a bully, a heckler, or a sore loser who creates a rough road for our protagonist. From the beginning of recorded history down to the present, the world has been populated by an abundance of less-than-stellar citizens, so we have an almost endless supply of examples from which we can draw.

Do you have fun creating your antagonists? Have you found them to be outlets for releasing past pain? How do you develop them? Do they always get their comeuppance? Because people are neither all good nor all bad, do you make a point to incorporate any redeeming qualities into your stories? Do your antagonists ever see the error of their ways and turn back from a wrong course?

Linda Lane and her editing team mentor and encourage writers at all phases of the writing process. To learn more about what they do, please visit them at

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Antagonists, Villains, and Antiheroes

Antagonists are usually thought of as villains, but that’s not always the case. In fact, antagonist, by definition, means opponent, and our opponents aren’t always evil. Villains, on the other hand, are always evil. Then we have the antihero, who for the most part is a good guy fighting bad guys by maybe questionable means. (Please note that I’m using “guy,” for gender simplicity. All references apply to females as well.) So let’s dissect these definitions and put faces to them.

I was just involved in a Facebook event for Kindle Scout winners, and one of the questions posed by the moderator asked who our favorite villain was. My answer, without hesitation, was Hannibal Lecter, from Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs.

I read the books and always ask myself what it is about Lecter that draws readers and viewers. Part of the visual is Anthony Hopkins, the charismatic actor who plays him, part is the excellent suspense woven into the book/movie, but a big part is the way Lecter is written. We hate him, yet we’re as fascinated by him as is the young FBI agent, Clarisse Starling, played in the movie by Jodie Foster. We admire his brilliance, but we’re also repulsed by his "Hannibal the Cannibal" persona and his manipulation of the reluctant woman he nevertheless captivates. Few villains on the page or on the screen have had such a lasting effect. (An interesting addendum is that most of the other authors at our Facebook event also answered Lecter.)

There are many books with evil characters wielding plenty of blood and gore, American Psycho by Bret Eason Ellis, for one, but, in my opinion, nothing compares to the German SS officer in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, who commits the purest, most evil act I’ve ever read or witnessed.
He’s the villain who forces Sophie to choose which one of her children will live and which one is to die. No blood, no gore, just psychological trauma. That scene haunts me still and I imagine haunts every person, parent or not.

As I mentioned, antagonists don’t have to be villains. They’re opponents, backstabbers, traitors, but they aren’t necessarily evil. The Hollywood classic, All About Eve,
is a perfect example of an antagonist/opponent, Eve, a Broadway ingénue who worms and manipulates her way into the good graces of the star only to stab her in the back for the lead role. The movie is sixty-five years old and holds up to this day.

There’s a long line of antiheroes both in books and in movies. Some are good guys doing bad things for the sake of country, a lover, or himself. Rick Blaine in Casablanca is my idea of a perfect antihero. Hard on the outside, soft on the inside.
Steve McQueen (Bullitt, The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair) and Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke, The Sting, The Hustler) epitomized the antiheroic characters who bucked the system in almost every role they played. Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, James Garner as Maverick and in The Rockford Files, Sylvester Stalone as Rambo, and Hugh Laurie as House, all did creditable jobs as good guys willing to bend the rules, maybe even break them, maybe even kill. Those characters were antagonists to someone, whether the law, the military, or just “the man.”

Unfortunately, present-day equivalents are few. All the antiheroes these days, especially in movies, are comic book or dystopian characters come to life: Batman, Mad Max, Wolverine, Iron Man, and the characters of X-Men. The lack of originality in films and novels may be because producers and publishers feel safe regurgitating what’s worked in the recent past rather than take chances with something risky. It has fallen to indies, both in publishing and film making, to forge new paths.

Here are a few you might consider defining and where I believe the line starts to blur. Are the following antiheroes, Antagonists, or Downright Villains? Some are clearer than others.

Lisbeth Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—hacker extraordinaire, sociopath, but riveting. How would you define her?

Oskar Schindler: Nazi, war profiteer, complex and conflicted. Hero, villain, antihero?

Contrast Oskar with Amon Goeth in the same book. Definitely a villain.

Salieri vs. Mozart—Opponent/antagonist, or was he a villain too?

There’s no doubt we root for antiheroes. Why? Because they usually fight for the little guy. If they fight evil, they’re definitely heroes. If they take their quest too far, does that turn them into villains?

Who are your favorite villains, antagonists, or antiheroes in novels or on film/TV? Why? Have you written one you love? I have.

Polly Iyer is the author of seven novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and three books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, and Backlash. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Do You Feel Sorry for the Bad Guy?

Yes, it's fun to root for the good guy, but even more intriguing if the bad guy isn't all that bad.

How often do you read a book or watch a movie, and feel sorry for the bad guy? The answer could be more often than not.

Evil happens for a reason. Sometimes the why is apparent, sometimes you need to dig for a motive. One reason might be how a person is brought up by parents or lack of parents. An early in life tragedy, a recent one, or a combination of factors might play a part in changing a person's character. Even ultra-sensitivity to a perceived slight might be all it takes.

Whatever the case, a writer needs to weave the motive(s) into the story line, so the reader will understand why a crime is committed.

In Two Wrongs, my perma-free book for kindle and other ereaders, being accused and sentenced for a murder he didn't commit is powerful enough motive for my antagonist, Kevin, to cross over to the dark side once he's freed from prison.

If I wove the story correctly, readers at first will feel sorry for Kevin's plight. Later, they'll be horrified by how he exacts revenge.

For the purposes of illustration, I've loosely used the words, good guy and bad guy, but the same can also apply to female characters. The movie, The Bad Seed, based on a book of that same name by William March, is one of my favorite classics. It's obvious that the child Rhoda is lacking a moral compass. Her evil actions are dictated by such consuming emotions as envy, greed, and fear, such as when she drowns a classmate because she thought she should have won a penmanship medal, instead of him. Although she's easy to hate, still, the reasoning behind her actions is apparent, and we can tell it all makes sense to her. It's not her fault something is missing in her makeup.

Can you think of any other books or movies where you might feel sorry for the bad guy or gal?

Experience Morgan Mandel's diversity and versatility. Check Out Her Standalone Romantic Comedy,  Girl of My Dreams, the romantic comedy series, Her Handyman, and A Perfect Angel. For Mystery/Suspense, try Killer Career or Two Wrongs. For the small town of Deerview series: Hailey's Chance: Will Baby Make 3? and Christmas   Carol.Websites:Morgan Mandel.Com Morgan Does Chick Lit.ComTwitter:@MorganMandel

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Choosing Your Antagonist

If you have an antagonist, it should be someone the reader loves to hate. It will be more interesting if he has some redeeming feature or at least feels he has just cause for his behavior. Amoral monsters, used frequently in horror, are less interesting. Personal stakes, even for the antagonist, make the tension higher.

In most genres, this character or entity has a goal that is the opposite of the protagonist’s goal. If the protagonist wants to uncover a mystery, the antagonist must be dead set on keeping the mystery unsolved. If the protagonist wants to win the girl, the antagonist must want her for himself or be so opposed to the protagonist’s pursuit that he will do anything to stop the couple from getting together.

The antagonist should also have something deep within that drives him toward his goal. The emotion or underlying belief system must be as strong as the protagonist’s for the stakes to be high. He endorses the flip side of the thematic argument.

The antagonist can be a group or organization but there must be someone who leads the group for the reader to focus on. A virus does not make a compelling antagonist unless someone is walking around intentionally trying to infect people with it. It makes a good overall story problem, but the person trying to stop the virus needs someone equally in favor of letting the virus take its course.

A good resource is Jessica Morrell’s Bullies, Bastards and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction.

The more heated the struggle between the protagonist and antagonist, the more intense the conflict is for the reader.

The important thing in any genre is that the antagonist not be a cardboard stereotype placed there because the script called for it.

Depending on the genre, there can be a “friendly” antagonist who has good intentions and acts as the catalyst that prompts the protagonist to make a necessary change. This type of antagonist is often employed in a Comedy, Road Trip, or Literary tale.

Antagonists don’t have to be evil lords or serial killers. They can be concerned friends, parents, coworkers, or people who think they are acting in the protagonist’s best interest but who are misguided in their beliefs.

But what if your story doesn't have a bad guy?

Some story structures have antagonistic forces without having an actual “bad guy.” The antagonistic forces must be strong enough to make the reader doubt whether the protagonist will gain what he wants in the end.

The British are masters of subtle conflict and subtle antagonism, both comedic and dramatic.

Antagonistic forces can be internal demons, a system, a disease, a system, or nature.

There can be several people working at cross purposes in the story in the subplots. The richer the complications, the better the story, unless you add so many subplots that the core plot becomes hard to follow.

Check out Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict for more information on antagonists by genre and Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict for building antagonists by personality type.

More advice on crafting antagonists:

Levels of Antagonism

Bad Guys in Romance

Villains Are People Too

Taking Your Antagonist On A Date

Antagonist Conflict Scenes

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.