Archive for the 'Guest Articles' Category

Feb 29 2016

Creating Memorable Villains

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

We read a book to experience the journey a hero takes and to relate to the person they once were. However, a hero’s journey runs stagnant without a villain capable of proving their worth. Without a cunning villain, you have a hero basking in his awesomeness. Without a memorable villain, you have a hero walking a path we’ve grown bored with. Without a compelling villain, you have a story falling flat on its face and just going through the motions. The  superhero can only be as mighty as the super villains they face.

 

Brian has already discussed the motivations for both heroes and villains. It is true the majority of motivating factors can be boiled down into a mere handful, so how is it possible to make a villain stand out amongst the plethora of evil organizations and bad guys with advanced degrees? While the overarching reasons to turn to villainy can be simple as love or the temptation of power, it is the flaws of these well-known troupes that create a character strong enough to rival our heroes.

 

For the sake of discussing supervillain archetypes, I’ll use three whose construction is elevated beyond many. The first is Magneto, to this day, my favorite villain of all time. His backstory is as complex as his emotional state. Born to Jewish parents and witnessing the Holocaust, Erik Lensherr’s primary motivating factor as a villain is to rule the world to bring order to a chaotic system and to a lesser extent, punish those who have done him wrong. Magneto has arguably one of the most impressive powers in Marvel (he did nearly destroy the planet, steal nuclear warheads, and create an outer space base of operations) but he holds a fundamental flaw as a villain: he knows what he is doing is bad.

 

How can the knowledge you are a bad guy create a villain to survive the ages? He witnessed one of the greatest horrors as a youth and later, as Genosha is nearly eradicated, he witnesses it again. We have a man who is reflecting on his life’s work, realizing that his mighty strokes of villainy has done nothing to change the course of mankind. Worse yet, he realizes that he has become the thing he loathes and he moves from villain to dubious hero. We hope as an audience he will find absolution, not only for the horror’s he’s witnessed but the ones he’s perpetuated. The weight he bears as he rescues Kitty Pryde from certain death is but one of the many grand gestures he partakes in to regain a piece of himself loss to his misguided efforts. We witness Magneto, master of magnetism, feel sorrow for the wrongdoing he’s committed. A flaw as a villain that give us perpetual hope he’ll become a badass hero.

 

However, not all memorable villains need the hope of redemption to be seared into our minds. I think one of the greatest portrayals of a villain in the live action world is Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk in Netflix’s original series Daredevil. The mystery of who is running the crime in Hell’s Kitchen was well known to the viewer, and we eager anticipated the despicable businessman turned crime mastermind entering and dominating us with his unrivaled tenacity. Our first image of Wilson Fisk is not acting as the Kingpin, it’s of a man trying to understand the meaning behind a piece of art. What we see is Fisk lost in an emotional state, pondering sensations he’s uncertain of how to process. Fisk has a backstory a mile long in which we feel he is the victim, but in this single moment, we experience his humanity as he relates the work of art to a wall from the days of being abused.

 

Now, it’s not enough we see our villain as human. Fisk is the perfect example of how villains are created, not born. It’s rare for our super villains to be perfectly evil, instead, more often we find them driven to their profession. Fisk’s abuse at the hands of his father creates a common story and accessible by many viewers. As he is beaten, we root for him to go from the underdog to the man in power. What we don’t realize at the time, he becomes a man of power, to a man we detested in the first place. While he is now this powerful man, we see glimpses into his humanity. The need to feel sorrow fuels him as he stares into the painting. We only see him become more vulnerable when he courts the gallery owner, Vanessa. We sympathize with this man, forgetting his power or influence as he awkwardly tries to ask a woman he finds beautiful on a date. We’re geeks, we’ve been there and we feel a victory when she accepts.During the final battle, I found myself wanting him to win, not because I wanted to see Daredevil lose, but because I wanted the flawed man, who had endured so much, to walk away with yet another victory.

 

Netflix has proven it can create a villain we love to hate, they only solidified this in Jessica Jones when we met Kevin Thompson, aka Kilgrave (known as Purple Man in the comics) played by David Tennant. With the ability to control anybody with his voice, he previously forced Jones into a “relationship” against her will. Exerting his abilities on Jones, we understand her past with him equates to rape. So how can a man who is so extremely vile be considered memorable? Kilgrave wants the one thing he can’t have, a woman, Jones, to love him of her own free will. Again, we see a flaw, a flaw we have been victim to many times, wanting the object of our affection but not having our feelings returned. We see a sinister form of ourselves and we’re faced with the question, “If I had his powers, what would I do?” With such a great power, his machinations are extremely shortsighted and he has little desire for world conquest or even to be more than what he currently is. The only thing he wants: the thing he can’t have; a do-gooder with a serious attitude problem.

 

Kilgrave spends the series, forcing her into situations in which she must confront herself. She fears that his abilities will trap her again. Even when we discover *spoiler alert* that he can not trap her with his abilities, he creates situations resulting in her volunteering to become his girlfriend. For a moment, we witness Kilgrave being capable of good. Because underneath the destruction he causes to obtain Jones, he feels he is doing what he must to court the girl and win her over. His incredible intellect is flawed by his inability to comprehend the world beyond himself due to his sociopathic behaviors. We understand that he’s trying to win her over and has no idea how to do it because he can’t understand anything beyond himself. Jones has to face this reality and in a moment when she believes she will be captured by him forever, she confronts her demons and imperfections and walks away victorious. We’re left understanding why it ended the way it did, but we feel pity for the poor Kilgrave and his need to be loved.

 

In these three villains, we have a range of one who wants to rule the world for the betterment of his people, to a man who wants to overcome his past, and another desires love. Each of them are the product of their insecurities and we find their insecurities, partly because of the scale, and partly because of the super-status, blown so largely out of proportion we’re left wondering as the viewer, “Would that be me?” A villain can not be a hurdle for the hero to overcome and surpass to prove their own heroism. There is a formula to create a memorable villain, but it does require a certain amount of willingness to delve into the mind of the villain and explore them as a character.

 

  • Find their origin. At what moment did they create this persona and what does this persona hope to overcome?
  • Breathe humanity into their character. We need to see real people, people with flaws and kinks in their armor. We want to see a piece of ourselves in them that leave us questioning our own morality.
  • Let their flow be their motivation, not their weakness. We don’t want to see a hero exploit the humanity of another character or we watch our hero fall from grace. Let the villain’s humanity be their motivation to be a villain. Insecurity on all levels drives us, however when you’re super, it can drive you further.
  • Let us know your villain. If we only see the villain doing evil things, they will remain two-dimensional and be forgotten. Take a moment and step back and let us see how they operate doing even the simplest of things. We watch Magneto seek personal redemption, Fisk asks a woman on a date, and Kilgrave stops to have tea with his beloved Jones. Ordinary things will let us see them as human and not just a hurdle.

 

Amazing powers and an awesome uniform do not make a villain memorable. It’s the flaws in their humanity that breathe life into the characters. Be sure to treat them as a character and not just a punching bag for your hero. Let them develop, because as they develop, the strain between them and your protagonist will increase and you’ll be left with a dynamic that has us turning the page to see who will emerge victorious. Give them chances to be human and let the reader inside their world more than just the confrontations. Let us see them on date night or how they take their tea. The more we connect, the more we remember.

 

About the Author

Jeremy Flagg has written several books including the young adult Suburban Zombie High Series as well as a non-fiction book memoir, I.Am.Maine: Stories of Small Town Maine. He lives and writes in Metrowest Massachusetts. For more information you can find him at http://www.remyflagg.com

Children of Nostradamus (Nighthawks, Book 1) is currently available for order on Amazon.

23 responses so far

May 22 2014

Learning Curves: An Alternative Approach to Superpower Limitation

Often with works of fiction that involve superpowers, writers look for ways to effectively limit or check those powers. This is done to keep characters vulnerable to challenges while maintaining dramatic effect within the story. After all, if a character can consistently deal with situations by using their unrestricted abilities, how invested will a reader (or publisher) be in the work? Probably not very.

 

Writers of comic books, superhero novels and other forms of speculative fiction utilize a variety of approaches in addressing this issue. Examples include requiring a specific power source or item to use an ability (e.g. Green Lantern’s ring or Mr. Freeze’s  diamond-powered freeze gun). Another example is requiring the character to be within a specific proximity (e.g. in the film Push, Kira has to be able to see people to tamper with their minds). Sometimes a character is susceptible to a specific substance or external force (e.g. Superman and kryptonite or his vulnerability to red sunlight).

 

These limitations are mostly environmental or physical contingencies that the character must yield to. One alternative is using a character’s progressive learning curve to limit their capabilities.

 

If you want to restrict a character who can channel cosmic energy as concussive force blasts, a good place to start might be by asking: What does the actual development of that proficiency look like? (Keep in mind this question can be asked of anyone in any endeavor, not just fictional superheroes. Choosing to spend time with it as a literary theme could be a good way to develop relatability within the work.)

 

So what does it look like for a character to actually learn about their extraordinary powers over the course of a novel? Is it believable that they would start out fully knowledgeable in their understanding, or would there be gradations of trial and error, of setbacks and success, of growth? A character learning to use concussive force blasts will provide their own limitations in the form of their inexperience. Be encouraged to explore that. It could be a much more resonant and effective restriction than a target that has to be within X amount of feet.  Even as the character grows in the use of their powers, surpassing old limitations, the learning process by nature should continue to supply new thresholds for them to meet and be challenged by.

 

In the sci-fi novel Psion by Hugo Award-winning author Joan D. Vinge, the main character Cat is recruited into a psychic research program. The technicians are able to determine the vast amount of telepathic power Cat possesses; they can ascertain what he should be able to do… But Cat can’t do those things because doesn’t know how to be psychic. Even as he gains greater understanding and command of his telepathy throughout the course of the novel, his learning curve continues to provide natural limitations and challenges for him in the use of his powers.

 

Of course, not every story’s main character is a fish out of water. While most superhero stories handle the initial emergence of the primary hero, some characters come to the plate further developed than others. And that’s fine. Even in those instances, I’d encourage writers of superhero fiction (especially novels) to consider the learning curve (specialized here, perhaps) as well as the more concrete and specific limits meant to rein in the chosen superpowers.

 

Wolverine can be used as an example of an already expertly-skilled character forced to negotiate the learning experience. When he first joined the X-Men, he was leagues beyond his teammates in training, combat experience and the use of his mutant powers. Despite this he still had a significant learning curve dealing with the way the team functioned and occasionally his approach to obstacles was more detrimental than helpful. Additionally, it was because of his experiences with the X-Men that he learned to take more control of his berserker rages, which were a danger to everyone.

 

Well-rounded characters resonate more with readers. Going through the journey of learning to use superpowers along with those characters – most notably experiencing how that process provides limitations, checks and challenges in organic and relatable ways – can contribute greatly to the development of that relationship, potentially endearing readers even more than originally considered.

 

To finalize, focusing on the superpower learning curve can be an enormous boon as there are potentially countless ways writers can incorporate it regarding their character’s superpowers, specifically as a means to limit those powers. These elements can be made to manifest as significant and effective by simple virtue of being so unknown, or it can be more a matter of learning to use familiar capabilities in entirely uncharted situations. In either instance, this also demonstrates the flexibility and personalization of the learning curve, in that it can be uniquely shaped to fit each character. This kind of development and attention to theme can greatly increase the depth and resonance of a novel while providing necessary restrictions and challenges for the characters within them.

 

4 responses so far

Nov 06 2013

Superheroine Costume Suggestions

Modern superheroines are easily the most abused type of character in any story.  And while you’re likely aware that most of them are simply there to be cardboard love interests (all ravishingly beautiful, of course . . .), today I’m not going down that path.

 

Instead, today we’ll discuss superheroine clothing (or the lack thereof).

 

From Wonder Woman to Supergirl, costume designers seem to think the more bare skin the better.

 

As we all know, it’s pretty unpractical.  Still, for superheroes, they might not engage in a lot of hand-to-hand combat, therefore, there’s no reason for her to have plate armor from head to foot.  But that doesn’t give any reason to be wearing bikinis.

 

Obviously, any superhero or superheroine you’ll likely want to look good, some girls (or guys) might want to look hot, which would reflect in their suit.  But, this also means no clashing colors, elf shoes etc. etc. etc. all of which you can identify and learn more about on this article.  Nevertheless, with every variation of character you’ll need to modify your take.

 

Generally, lighter and brighter colors should be used for more youthful characters, and darker gloomier colors for older, more serious characters.  But aside from the specifics of each character you will have to decide for yourself, there are a few stereotypes in the looks of superheroine costumes you will want to avoid.

 

First and foremost, practicality, but we’ll have more on that later.

 

Second is that not every female in a story that’s supposed to be beautiful has to have skimpy clothing.

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30 responses so far

May 25 2013

Setting as a Character

New writers have a tendency to focus so much on their character development that they forget that the right setting can be just as important. Setting provides a picture for a reader, without which your characters are flying through nothingness. Action and drama mean very little without interaction between the characters and their environment so, in the right circumstances, a well-established setting can become a character in its own right. Think of Hogwarts, where the staircases are just as likely to move as the people walking on them, a flying car that saves the protagonist from his enemies and the hidden caverns and passages which not only help move plot along but which often interface with the characters too. It is this intelligent use of setting that sets your work apart from average writers and makes your work truly readable and re-readable.

Magic

“I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book.”

–J K Rowling

 

Setting can be magical without the presence of magic though. If you’ve ever visited the ancient ruins of a castle, you will know that age brings with it a sense of history and stories unknown. So as your character stumbles across a castle in the night, a hundred feet tall all around, its harsh grey stone covered in green and gold lichen which reflects the moonlight and all but one window dark, you are able to bring about a sense of age and vastness, a sense of mystery and majesty. Similarly, if you’ve ever found yourself in an exotic plant store, there is something about the bizarre, unknown vegetation that demonstrates you don’t need a tree that takes a swing at you as you pass to give a fantastical element to the setting. In the shade of leaning palms, your character finds escape from the arid heat. Winding your way along an isolated trail in the Amazon rainforest, the flora and fauna hold a great deal of surprises, distractions, obstacles and dangers which can be relevant to the progress of your story. Familiarity is what causes something to become clichéd. As long as you stay fresh and thoughtful about your setting then you won’t fall into this trap.

 

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7 responses so far

Mar 05 2013

Real Superhero Power of Technology Infographic

We live in a world where technology has taken over our lives and it has got to the point where it is saving lives but where did this notion of technology saving lives come from, the answer is superheroes. Many people think of superheroes as a comic book character but there is more to them than meets the eye. Have you ever studied the abilities and power they have? If not, then this infographic below will show you what the real value of their powers and abilities are and how it can influence life in the real world.

 

From DC Comics to Marvel characters, these characters have influenced the growth of technology. The U.S army for instance has looked to them as role models when developing super human soldiers. The “Iron Man” soldiers are just one form of technological advancements and as you shall see in this real superhero powered infographic it has been a wise investment. Much research goes into developing powered technology and armour suits and this has inspired the medical community to develop products that will help those with disabilities. Superheroes have even influenced the digital world we live in, no one would have thought that Tupac would return from the dead through a hologram, but he did through the inspiration of the Green Lantern from DC Comics.

 

The world incorporates many super humans and through some real training and parkour movements you could be the next superhero.
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One response so far

Dec 19 2012

Have You Had a Writing-Heavy Day Job? Share Your Experience

One young writer emailed today about writing jobs. If you’d be interested in sharing your experience and building your online presence, please write an article about a writing position you’ve held. (Preferably this article would help a college student or recent graduate learn more about the job and/or land it).

 

If you’d like some ideas to get you started, here are some points which could help:

  • Brief overview of the job.
  • What does a typical workday or week look like?
  • What is most challenging about your job?
  • What did you like most about your job? Least?
  • What sort of coursework and/or extracurricular experience might be helpful for succeeding in this job? (For example, if you’re interested in writing online ads, the ability to automate basic tasks in Excel will make your life a LOT easier).
  • Skills/traits most important to getting position.
  • Interview tips.
  • Resume tips.
  • Anything you wish you had known about the job before you started or when you were in college.
  • Knowing what you do now, is there anything you would have done to prepare for the job?
  • Any resources you would recommend for people looking to get into this field.

 

Optional Details

  • As long as the article gives a decent introduction to a writing job, everything else is flexible.
  • If you would benefit from a length guideline rather than something more open-ended, many of our articles are in the 250-500 word range.
  • If you’d prefer a structure to follow, you can use this as a template if you’d like.

One response so far

Aug 01 2012

Learning Writing Skills from Hancock

1. Hancock’s personality and interaction with other people made for some interesting conflict. The train scene with Hancock, Ray, and the other people at the intersection is a great example of Hancock’s alienation and anti-social nature. He’s one of the few superheroes that people generally hate, as opposed to, say, Superman.

 

 

2. The mechanics of Hancock’s superpowers were very fascinating. When he kicks off the ground to propel into flight, it yanks stuff up out of the ground. His invincibility could be cliche, but was used creatively (the shaving scene was a kickass example of that). The physics behind the powers was believable. In contrast, Superman has to use special Kryptonian razor blades when he has to shave (ugh!).

 

3. Superheroes can commit crimes, and they can get in trouble for it. Hancock went to prison because of the way he used his powers. He had several crimes hanging over his head: aggravated assault and battery, destruction of property, reckless endangerment, and even endangering the safety of a minor (the French bully he launched into the sky). This is very refreshing—in most superhero stories where the police are antagonists, they don’t actually add significant consequences to the characters’ actions. (For example, Batman might have a chase scene or two with the police, but it rarely actually costs Batman anything).

 

4. Hancock’s significant other was an interesting twist, but could be confusing and contradictory. During the major fight scene with Hancock and his “wife,” she keeps screaming that she hates him, and that she’d never forgive him for what he did. What did he do? They never explain what he did, and they gave no reason for why she’d hate him. Then, in the hospital scene towards the end, she explains how he always saved her over the centuries, and how he was meant to be humanity’s hero. But didn’t you say earlier that you were faster, stronger, and smarter than him? Lady, you’re confusing me!

 

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10 responses so far

Jun 15 2012

Three Powerful Tips To Heighten Story Tension

This article reveals three powerful ways to play ‘games with time’ when crafting a story. They build suspense and engage the reader’s interest. Stories that master narrative pace get published. 

 

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5 responses so far

May 08 2012

Guest Authors Wanted

Published by under Guest Articles

If you’re interested in becoming a guest blogger for SN, I’m looking for writing advice for current and/or prospective authors (for example, on some element of writing craft, marketing/sales, promotions/publicity, agents, the publishing industry, or anything else many novelists and/or comic book writers would find helpful). Please send me a 1-2 sentence query at superheronation-at-gmail-dot-com.

 

As always, these articles do not need to be about superheroes specifically. 

 

Not sure what to write about? Here are some ideas on my board:

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8 responses so far

Mar 22 2012

A Dialogue Comparison of Twilight and Harry Potter

When people speak they have their own biased version of facts. This is based on their intelligence, experience, and beliefs. Dialog should not only tell readers the actions your characters take, but why they are making them.

 

Let’s see how effective, or ineffective dialog can be. I’m going to look at excerpts of dialog from Eclipse (pages 101-103) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (pages 213-215).

 

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16 responses so far

Dec 20 2011

Don’t Let Information Take a Dump On Your Dialogue

Prologues should be hunted for sport.  They should be in season all year round, and whenever someone brings one down they should take pictures of themselves grinning like idiots over its fallen and bloodied body.  I’m sure many authors would agree with me.  In fact, there are probably several who jumped up from their computers after reading those first few sentences and started chasing their manuscripts through the house with a rifle.

 

When I read a piece of fiction, I’m trying to be transported into another world through the power of imagination.  I want characters, situations, and dialogue.  Tell me a joke, make me laugh, or let me see a glimpse of something that piques my curiosity as to what may happen next.  I don’t want a history lesson.  If your story doesn’t start at the beginning, that’s fine.  Let the people who have been brought to life through your words explain the beginning to me.  Wait!  Don’t get ahead of yourself.  I don’t want characters sitting me down and reciting a history lecture either.  If you can copy/paste your prologue into the dialogue, chances are it’s terrible dialogue.

 

In my collection of super hero stories, I recounted how the main character met two different people within the confines of one conversation at a house-warming party:

 

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9 responses so far

Dec 19 2011

Redesigning Robin

B. Mac likes to pick on Robin in 9 Easy-to-Fix Problems with Superhero Design. I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a Robin fan, so let’s take a closer look at the Boy Wonder himself to see what went wrong and how effective changes to a character’s costume can create an entirely new visual story of a character.

 

Artists have changed Robin’s visual aesthetics many times over the years and few characters needed the changes as badly as he did. By comparing two different costumes, one of his early ones from the 1940s, to his appearance in the recent Young Justice cartoon, we can see that no character is beyond redemption with some changes to his costume. Both designs are of the same hero, using some of the same costume elements; however each costume tells a very different story about the character.

 

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11 responses so far

Nov 30 2011

A Writer’s Review of Priscilla the Great

7th grader Priscilla Sumner lives a small town with her annoying siblings, a brainy best friend—and the most overly protective dad in the world. No yearbook photos, no news coverage, nada. Combined with the fact that her mom is always away on business trips, it’s no wonder Priscilla is a bit grumpy.

 

And then that time of month rolls by and she gains the powers of conjuring flames, super-hearing, and super-strength, among others. She freaks out, her best friend slowly drifts
away, more than one love triangle goes awry…Oh, and she gets kidnapped after her face appears on the local news.

 

Priscilla discovers her mom is a genetically-modified superhuman, her dad is a guard who liberated her from the nefarious Selliwood Institute, which wants their family, and those “business trips” are actually rescue mission for the rest of the children of the institution.

 

That’s only the first half of the book.

 

Priscilla the Great is a Middle Grade/Young Adult book with superhero elements. Everything about it was designed to have a bit of wit. Graphic novel-esque cover? Check. Witty first person narrator? Check. Sci-fi elements running on kid-flick coolness? Check.

 

Yet, it avoids the cheesiness and cleanliness of works like Spy Kids while retaining the fun.

 

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4 responses so far

Nov 24 2011

Building Up Romance (Danielle Kazemi)

Published by under Guest Articles,Romance

One problem when writing romance in books is how to show it. Everyone knows of the basic ways: hugs, kisses, and obviously getting into bed. There are dozens of different ways to show it. You don’t need to rely just on the basics.

 

Shyness: Even a hardened, tough as nails character might have difficulty putting their feelings into words. In real life, sometimes even a suave jock has trouble asking out a girl. This can be manifested through stuttering as well. In the character’s mind, the stakes might be considerably higher than simply taking out the bad guy. Sure, defending the city is important but not nearly as important as fulfilling his or her dream of getting the object of affection.

 

Holding hands: This helps connect the two people for the first time (usually). You are connected to someone and in a sense it helps you know the other person is always there. It can also be seen when teams do the hand circle and touch one another. It helps everyone feel connected. In romance, this is no different. However, you can add in running fingers over the other person’s hand. Try that in a team and see the looks you get.

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6 responses so far

Nov 22 2011

Other People’s Heroes: A Writer’s Review

Other People’s Heroes is easily the best superhero novel I’ve read this year (at least in comparison to the other two, Perry Moore’s Hero and Playing for Keeps). It’s not perfect by any means, but it was fun and definitely helpful for other superhero novelists looking for inspiration.

 

After a nice-guy journalist with a fervent admiration for superheroes develops powers of his own, he immediately opts to join the community he’s respected for so long, only to find that Siegel City’s heroes and villains are about as genuine as professional wrestlers, from hero merchandising to staged brawls. Though he initially stays in order to expose “the biggest con game this city has ever seen,” he eventually realizes that there’s something even more sinister beneath the system’s surface.

 

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4 responses so far

Aug 31 2011

Writing Distinct Character Voices

In real life, everyone talks in different ways. Their tone, timbre, rhythm and vocabulary are often influenced by region, race, class, profession, and so on. If your hobos sound like your professors, that’s usually a problem.  Giving all the characters in a story a similar voice is usually unrealistic and uncanny.

 

Some writers have problems with giving their characters distinct voices. By keeping several factors in mind, character voices can be diversified.

 

Word Choice

What is the character’s vocabulary like? It’d probably feel out of place for a hobo to start spouting words like “erudite” or “superfluous,” or for a professor to say “gigolo” or for a politician to say “sorry.”  This varies by situation (see below), but generally characters should use terms more believable for their level of education, intelligence and/or lack of any discernible moral code.

 

How does the character use those words?  Do they talk in full, long sentences, or in fragments? Do they use contractions, curse words, or made up words? Dialogue doesn’t have to be as perfect as the narrative text. On the other hand, if they go all the way towards following grammar rules that most people don’t even know about, they might establish themselves as pedantic/snobby.

 

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43 responses so far

Aug 15 2011

Redefining Setting

Setting is indisputably an integral part of any story. To a large extent, setting defines your story by shaping the character’s experiences.  Even more so than character, setting tends to be the most memorable and instantly recallable aspect of a story.

 

Some writers treat settings merely as a backdrop.  This is a damaging, borderline murderous view that inhibits the setting’s ability to captivate and engross readers.   A backdrop, no matter how beautiful or intricate, is only a backdrop. Just a necessary aspect of creative works of art that is taken for granted.  A setting can do so much more for your story.

 

The key to making your setting exceptional is to treat it as it deserves to be treated, like a character.

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13 responses so far

Aug 12 2011

Ebooks Assemble! How Not to Screw Up Electronic Publishing

If you’ve been following the publishing industry at all lately, you know it’s not all wine and roses. It’s far, far from it. Borders is done, mid-list writers are being shown the door, and many agents are reluctant to take on new clients. It means your local bookstore (if there are any left standing) will be chock-full of books from James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Dan Brown, and Patricia Cornwell. You know, familiar authors who generate sales.

 

Where does that leave you? You’re probably a little like me. I’m barely an author. I’ve had my novel soundly rejected by several agents. I’ve had a few short stories published in admittedly obscure places. I have a modest blog and about a hundred Twitter followers. I’m fairly certain 60 of them are Ukrainian spambots. The others are my brother’s various, web-based alter-egos.

 

So what about ebooks?

 

You know…those things you can buy and read on a Kindle or Nook or iPad. The royalties are pretty good…authors get 70% for each sale from the Kindle store (as long as you price your book between $2.99 and $9.99). Maybe you think it’s time to explore the Nook Store or Smashwords. Maybe you want to experiment a little.

 

But is the timing right? What about the stigma of self-publishing?  You do know self-published works are of inferior quality, right? After all, books from the big publishing houses go through several rounds of edits. If you were to put one of your books up for sale, you’d be the only de facto editor. The possibility remains that you’ll misspell a word or fail to see some giant logic gaffe that kills the entire story.

 

Fortunately, that stigma is disappearing. Self-publishing is now a viable career path, although it’s not going to print money. Consider becoming a forward-thinking author/entrepreneur unshackled by the bonds of major publishing houses. After all, no one ever gets to read something perpetually stuck on your hard drive.

 

If you have any inkling of diving into the choppy self-publishing waters, heed the following advice.

 

Get beta readers. These are people of varied expertise whose insights would prove invaluable in refining you work. You’ll need some adept at grammar, others attuned to plot structure, some good at both, and a few unafraid to rip the work the shreds propose hundreds of potential improvements.

 

Even better, get an editor. The biggest downside to self-publishing, in my opinion, is the lack of editorial oversight. Writers fall in love with their own stories and can’t see their flaws. If you’re REALLY going to do it, let a freelance editor go at it. Sure, you have to pay for the editor’s time, but it will be worth it in the end because you’ll have a finished, polished product that can stack up against any professional work.

 

Don’t rush it. Last year, I got a full manuscript request from an agent. Obviously, I was very excited. I ended up rushing a book edit in hopes of giving my book a quick coat of polish. Instead, I mangled my manuscript by making the kinds of mistakes you’d find in a seventh-grade term paper. As you can imagine, the agent rejected my book. After re-reading my efforts to “improve” the work, I can see why. Take your time. Otherwise, you’ll scare off your readers—whether they’re agents or customers.

 

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18 responses so far

Aug 11 2011

Building a Magical System: A Questionnaire

This questionnaire will help you design a solid magic system which won’t have your readers asking questions of their own.

 

1. What can magic users do?

  • Do they use tools, their body and/or sheer willpower?
  • Are there subtypes or specialties?
  • Is magic a born talent, a learned skill or both?
  • If there are races, which ones are most adept at magic and why?
  • Are there certain areas with high concentrations of magic?  What happens in those areas, and how are people who inhabit those areas affected?

 

2. What costs and limits affect the use of magic? 

  • Are there personal costs like running out of energy or the possibility of physical/mental damage?
  • Are there societal restrictions like actual laws affecting magic use?  What is the main goal of these laws?  What are some of the consequences like for disobeying these laws?

 

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22 responses so far

Aug 05 2011

Writing Psychic Superheroes and Psionics

Problems with Psychic Heroes is an interesting article with a lot of good points, but I think most of these pitfalls can be easily avoided.

 

1. Mind-reading doesn’t need to be an instant problem-solver. Psionics (specifically telepathy, from which most other non-physical mental capacities stem) probably shouldn’t be as simple as just turning on a power and using it.  It’s not like finding a particular product at a grocery store, is it?  It isn’t very likely at all that what the psychic is looking for will be neatly packaged, labeled and sorted.  Consciousness just shouldn’t work that neatly, at least not for your average (or even slightly above-average) psychic.  The mind is an extremely complex, living network of constantly shifting thoughts and emotions, memories and awareness. It’d probably be dangerously easy to get lost if you didn’t know exactly what you were doing.

 

2. If the telepath does recover the secret/information/weakness, it doesn’t have to be the ultimate trump card it’s commonly made out to be. For example, maybe the psychic uncovers only a piece of the larger puzzle. It’s pretty uncommon that a hired goon will have a full grasp of his master’s grand scheme. Also, a psychic police officer might learn who the killer is, but that doesn’t count for anything unless he can prove it in court with actual evidence. Having the information is one thing, but applying it is something else altogether.

 

3. With most superhero-types, the same trick isn’t likely to work as easily a second time.  Perhaps non-psychic characters can learn how to defend themselves against psychic attack.  For example, in “Only a Dream,” Batman mentally overcomes Dr. Destiny.  Also in Justice League, Lex Luthor acquires a power-nullifying device that enables him to overcome Grodd’s mind-control. Alternatively, the X-Men’s Emma Frost has been depicted shifting into diamond form specifically to block an attempted telepathic intrusion, despite being a psychic herself.

 

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10 responses so far

Jul 28 2011

Why So Serious, Alphas? A Preliminary Writers’ Review

Alphas is a TV show about a team of superheroes people with unusual talents working to solve apparently uncrackable cases.  Overall, it’s a decent timewaster, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it.   So far, it’s condescending towards previous superhero works (and superhero fans) and isn’t fun or stylish enough.

 

What Worked:

  • How the powers are depicted, especially mind control.  Seeing and hearing the controller’s objective everywhere around you was vastly more interesting than a voice in the head.  In particular, the way it distorted the character’s perspective was memorable, like the way a little old lady in a grocery store asks the protagonist where the ice cream is and then says in the most cheerful voice possible, “It’s time to kill.”   (Superhero writers, even a stock power can get a lot more interesting if you play around with how it manifests and works.)
  • I know some people with autism, and I felt that Ryan Cartwright acted well enough that he was believable as an autistic technopath.  From his slightly awkward speech pattern to the repetitive gestures, he was on the mark.
  • A few of the characters are interesting. In addition to the autistic technopath, the superstrong guy had a really solid scene with his wife.

 

What Could Have Been More Effective:

  • The characters were bland.  They are introduced with their names and powers on screen, which is the only way I can keep most of them apart.  For the love of any deity you believe in (and/or the Flying Spaghetti Monster), please make us actually care about your characters.  Also, Alphas’ Rachel (Azita Ghanizada) bears an uncanny resemblance to Glee’s Rachel (Lea Michele).
  • The stock plot could have been more lively.  There’s a mysterious murder, one of the heroes is the prime suspect and the real perpetrator gets away.  There’s not much more than that, certainly not any humor or feeling.  Even if your story is the grimmest of grim, you can still use dead baby comedy.  Just because it’s “edgy” doesn’t mean it has to be emotionless.
  • The plot twists are predictable.  (It’s too obvious that the mind-controlling villain zapped the bellhop into acting as a decoy, for example). This was also a problem with Playing for Keeps.
  • It talks down to the audience.  I know that it’s probably unintentional and they’re trying to pitch the show to a wider audience, but going to any lengths to keep the show from being *shudder* a superhero show and what the fans expect it will be? Either way, I still don’t like it. (Writers, don’t hate on your genre for no good reason. Audience members that are fans of the genre may feel patronized).
  • It wants to be more realistic than other superhero stories, which is fine, but it didn’t even get the research right.  (For example, synesthesia? Yeah, it doesn’t work that way).

10 responses so far

May 31 2011

7 Things Guns Cannot Actually Do

How many times has a Hollywood protagonist screwed a silencer onto his pistol, cocked the hammer a few times, and delivered a perfectly silent shot or ten into the bad guy, causing him to fall backward and knock over a storage unit full of lead weights? There is so much wrong with that premise, and yet we see it all the time. It’s given many people a poor perspective on firearms, how they really work, and their capabilities. I’m here to help dispel these myths and improve the realism in your writing!

1. Guns are loud!

Crazy loud.  Without any ear protection, a gun battle is louder than a rock concert.  The cartoonish image of somebody’s ears bleeding after a loud sound is almost accurate if a gun battle were to erupt inside a building. Decibel levels of a gunshot can be 140dB, which is more than four times as loud as a common rock concert (115dB). (See this breakdown for more info.) It is worth adding, though, that when adrenaline (and even morphine) levels are running high during a fight-for-your-life scenario, strange things have happened where (in addition to expected things like tunnel vision) gunshots feel much, much softer, so it’s conceivable for a conversation to take place right after a gun shot.  However, this is incredibly unlikely.

 

2. “Silencers” aren’t.

They’re also more formally (and accurately) referred to as suppressors. Technically speaking, they suppress the concussive shock waves that are released from the barrel in front of the exiting bullet. Suppressors tend to greatly reduce the “boom” associated with gunfire, but the sounds of the actual explosion of gunpowder and all the metal moving parts on the gun are not really decreased at all.  Either way, it’ll be very loud.  For example, most suppressors on the market will bring a .22lr round from 160 dB (loud enough to rupture an eardrum) to about 120 db (a rock concert or jet engine).

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29 responses so far

May 02 2011

How to Become a Super Self-Editor

Every writer needs beta-readers and every author needs editors, but YOU are the first line of defense when it comes to content and quality control. If anyone knows your writing intimately, the verbal tics and words you lean on too often, the character traits and archetypes you put into your work, it’s you.

That’s both quasi-tragic and wonderful.

It’s quasi-tragic because you’re an expert in your own writing and can’t see your own flaws.

It’s wonderful for the same reason. If you can step back and brutalize your own writing, your finished manuscripts will have a sense of polish. It’s hard–the story and characters are your babies and you’ll do anything to keep them from harm–but necessary.

So let’s bring out your inner self-editor.

Put it aside, no matter how long it takes. The best time to self-edit is several days after you’ve finished a project. Maybe you need several weeks or a month, but you must mentally separate yourself from the story. When you do this, you’ll spot grammatical errors, inelegant language, poor plotting, repeated words, and hit-you-in-the-face foreshadowing lacking in subtlety.

Just print it, baby! The “green” among us will hate this one. Print out a physical copy of your work to catch your mistakes. It’s too easy to gloss over problems on a computer screen. If the idea strikes you as environmentally unfriendly, try reading your work on a device other than your computer…something like a smartphone or e-reader. Changing up the reading format helps you read your work with fresh eyes.

Activate the T-800 Adverb-inator. Writers and editors are embroiled in an all-out War on Adverbs. Unleash the T-800 Adverb-inator. In many cases, you can eliminate adverbs and replace them with stronger verbs. Whenever a sentence starts to rhyme from all the “-ly” words in it, you need to pare it down. The less often you use adverbs, the more impact the ones you do use will have. If you’re using Word, employ the “Find and Replace” feature and search “ly.” The results will amaze you.

“That” doesn’t always fly. The word “that” has many uses. The fish was that big. The horse that won the race is from champion stock. That movie was great. In many cases, “that” can go. Some sentences need it for flow or clarification purposes…and if it feels right to use “that,” by all means do it. However, you can trim it most of the time.

Comma comma down dooby doo down down… Breaking up is hard to do, but using commas correctly can prove even more challenging. Nothing is worse than the meandering, paragraph-long sentence that’s really several sentences strung together with commas. In most cases, shorter, punchier sentences are easier to follow.

Theme show. Not every story starts with some grandiose, life-changing theme. Like it or not, your story has some theme or purpose tied to it, even if it’s not explicitly stated. Make sure to identify the theme, no matter how elusive it may be.

“Be” aware. Action verbs, action verbs, action verbs! The verbs of “be” are flexible and familiar. They work well with adverbs, but limit your arsenal. Action verbs engage readers and turn so-so prose into memorable writing.

Get some perspective…and stick with it. When working with a first-person narrative, watch out for writing stating what another character is thinking. In third-person writing, look for any jarring changes in perspective, especially in stories with multiple points of view. A scene starting from a certain character’s perspective should never deviate from that perspective.

What’s the consistency? Character traits and motivations should not inexplicably vary from scene to scene or page to page. Think about it like this: Your very best friends usually won’t surprise you with their behavior. You know them well enough to predict what they’ll say or how they’ll react. Characters should be like your very best friends. When they do something inconsistent with their personalities, you should identify it with laser-like precision.

Read it. Out loud. People may look at you funny, your significant other may tell you to shut up, and you may feel uncomfortable. However, this is the best way to get a feel for the rhythm and flow of your words. Read the whole thing aloud…you’ll be amazed at how many mistakes you’ll pick up. Your brain won’t “fill in the blanks” when you read aloud, allowing you to find missing words, awkward structuring, etc.

End it, already. Writing an effective ending is one of the hardest things to do. A good self-editor feels the pace of the story and understands when it reaches its conclusion. Writers easily succumb to pitfalls like false endings, unnecessary epilogues, and thematic diversions. Understand the exact moment when the proverbial credits should roll.

Self-editing is only part of the revision process. You always need to have someone with a critical eye look over your work. And if you do know an experienced editor, make friends!

Matt Adams is a TV news producer whose short stories have appeared in A Thousand Faces, Wily Writers for Speculative Fiction, and anthologies from Library of the Living Dead Press.  He lives and works in Indianapolis, Indiana, with his wife and man-eating frog. You can check out more of his work at http://mattadamsauthor.blogspot.com.

12 responses so far

Jul 18 2009

Six Tips on How to Write Romance

Many books and comics have at least one official pairing in them, either as a main plot element or as a sidestory.

 

It can be very difficult to write a believable relationship, and it is something that can very easily become cliché and annoying. I have a handful of tips for avoiding the pitfalls of romance writing.

1. Try to be original when you describe how they meet. We’ve seen the Crash Into Hello so many times that it is more fodder for eye-rolling than anything else. Try combining different stereotypical meetings to get something fresh. Perhaps Alice accidentally knocks Bob through an open window, and Catherine runs to help him, spraining her ankle and needing help from Daniel, the creepy guy who never talks. Two words: love quadrangle.

2. On that note, be careful with love triangles, quadrangles and other polygons. If 2+ characters are fawning over the same love interest, there had better be a good reason. Otherwise it makes the object of their affection appear to be a Mary Sue and the other corners of the triangle look pathetic.

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28 responses so far

Jul 16 2009

How to Make Your Love Interest a Real Character

“Love interest” is a degrading term. It brings to mind the shiny-eyed chick, with nothing better to do than swoon over the hero and get kidnapped. But they don’t have to be like that! It only takes five steps to save the mandatory trophy girlfriend.

1. Make her her own character. Ask yourself what she’s like. Was your answer “she loves the hero very much”, or worse, something about her looks? Hard as it is to believe, she probably has a life beyond loving the hero. Find out what she’s like apart from him. Don’t think of her as a love interest. Think of her as a girl, who loves the hero. Develop her the same way you developed the heroes. Why does she act how she does? What makes her stand out?

2. Know why they fall in love. This is vital if they haven’t met in the beginning. Now, pick a movie with a romantic subplot. Any movie. Watch the scene where they meet. Chances are, there’s no meaningful interaction. They talk about nothing important…but he keeps eyeing her like he’s never seen a girl before.  It doesn’t work that way.

I’ll admit it’s doable in movies, but it stands out like a sore thumb in written form. Look at it realistically. Ask yourself this: what originally drew them to each other? Was it a personality trait that attracted her to the hero? Why does he love her?

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54 responses so far

Apr 09 2009

How to Challenge Superhero Teams with Lone Villains

Superhero teams quite often go up against a lone villain.  Realistically, the Fantastic Four (or your version thereof) should easily be able to squish Doctor Doom (or the lone villain of your choice).

But that would be boring. Here are several ways to make it seem like a lone villain actually has a chance of winning.

1. Use minions.  Technically, this is cheating, but I won’t tell if you don’t.  You can always have your heroes fight your villain, and in between hundreds of nameless, faceless villains get in the way.  The best example of this is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Whilst they battle Shredder about 100 Foot Clan warriors usually jump in.

2. Give your heroes something else to do.  Defuse a bomb, free the hostages, stop the plane from crashing… if there is something else needing done, you can safely split your hero team, making it more plausible for your villain to win.  This also raises the excitement level by bringing in time limits.

3. Make your villain AWESOME.  What do I mean by awesome?  Simple.  Make your villain Neo from the third Matrix film, so ridiculously powerful that hundreds of Agent Smiths are required to do battle with him.  The downside to this is that when your heroes do win, it may look contrived.

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28 responses so far