Monthly Archives: January 2012

Chillers, Thrillers, and Killers

What better way to spend Terror Tuesday than talking about the ones that make it all happen?

I just finished reading Writing the Breakout Novel and am in the middle of Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches right now, and it’s left me pondering what makes a strong antagonist.

When I think back over the literature that I read growing up, a lot of the Big Bads were really big. God big. Satan big. So how were they effective? How did David Eddings keep me reading for five books before he really introduced his Big Bad and we ever saw Torak’s melty face? I read a lot of epic fantasy, which always seems to have a lot of black and white (at least on the surface).

Think for a moment of the best, scariest, most disturbing antagonists you ever read/watched. Hold them in your mind, because we’re going to take them to our play pen.

Put them all in here! Let's see what they do!

In urban fantasy, the Big Bad is often an old scary vampire (Picary in the Hollows, the Mother in Anita Blake — or any other number of scary vamps in that world). While those can be effective, they need more than just the oogly-boogly factor to make them creep into your nightmares.

The Oogly-Boogly Factor

The Oogly-Boogly Factor is where that particular baddie lies on the spectrum of badness. What, you ask, is the spectrum of badness? Aha. Observe.

Spectrum of Badness

Here’s the key with the best Big Bads — they’ve been through the entire spectrum. When I think of the Big Bads I liked the most, the ones who stuck with me — these are the ones whose motives I understood, who may have even made me sympathetic to their cause at some point, and who have more depth to their character than just the Oogly-Boogly Factor.

You can plunk a character onto the Just Plain Evil part of the spectrum and call them a Big Bad from the get-go, but that won’t make them convincing. Sure, someone who kills at random is scary, but the methodical planning on serial killers is chilling.

Big Bads should also be stronger than the protagonist, at least initially. If the protagonist you’re rooting for can just smush them into smithereens before you can say yikes, that’s no fun at all. Boring. And that violates the basic rule of entertainment: don’t bore anybody.

Big Bads tap into our most primal fears. Something hiding in the dark. Something invading our safe places. Things that do what shouldn’t be done, make happen the things we dread the most. They make us children again, make us forget our adult sensibilities and make us want someone to tell us it’s not real.

Let’s look at a couple of my favorite Big Bads!

Caleb (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Image via Wikipedia

Creeptastic Preacher Man

Caleb the Preacher, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

As many Big Bads as there were in that show, Caleb is one who has haunted me and who gives me chills each time I watch it. So where is he on the spectrum?

Caleb is full on Big Bad — we don’t see his progression during the show, but we do get glimpses of his back story.

Caleb’s primary characteristic is his misogyny. He calls women “dirty girls.” One interesting trait that he has is that he’s not hugely power hungry. He gets his power from the First Evil, but he bows to it willingly. He is murderous. One of the things that makes Caleb as terrifying as he is comes from the clothes he wears. Even if you’re not religious, his choice of outfit is disturbing. That collar is supposed to symbolize someone who is at least safe. Caleb makes it frightening. He uses religion in his rhetoric often, which adds another chilling layer to his persona. Here’s a quote that sums him up:

 Now, it’s a simple story. Stop me if you’ve heard it. I have found and truly believe that there is nothing so bad it cannot be made better with a story. And this one’s got a happy ending. There once was a woman, and she was foul, like all women, for Adam’s rib was dirty—just like Adam himself—for what was he, but human. But this woman, she was filled with darkness, despair, and why? Because she did not know. She could not see. She didn’t know the good news, the glory that was coming. That’d be you. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. You show up, they’ll get in line. ‘Cause they followed her. And all they have to do is take one more step, and I’ll kill them all. See? I told you it had a happy ending.

Since we’re on the Buffy subject, let’s look at the development of a Big Bad — see the progression across the spectrum. Buffy fans probably know who I’m talking about…

Willow transitions into Dark Willow in

Image via Wikipedia

Creepy Willow

Willow Rosenberg, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

To get a feel for the humble origins of this Big Bad, it might be better to show a before picture:

Willow with...pigtails?

Willow starts out as a stereotypical smart, nerdy girl. She’s shy and awkward, she’s in love with her best friend Xander, and she is so self-effacing that you want to just hug her.

As the series progresses, Willow experiences heartbreak and begins to explore the world of magic, becoming a powerful witch. She often misuses magic for selfish reasons, which backfires more than once. This is where she is lured by the dark side a bit. When her first love cheats on her and leaves her, she meets Tara.

Tara brings out the power in Willow. Together, they hone their craft and fall in love. Tara is kind, wise, and gentle. When Willow spirals out of control, addicted to magic (enter Kinda Naughty range of spectrum), Tara cuts her off and breaks up with her. Willow is forced to learn to give up the magic if she wants to heal her relationship with Tara — and succeeds.

Enter Warren.

Warren is going after Buffy, but he’s a crap shot with his pistol, and he shoots Tara through the heart, spattering her blood across Willow’s shirt. Traumatic Event.

It doesn’t take long for Willow to go off the deep end in her anguish. Willow’s transformation is incredible, because she goes through every bit of the spectrum to become Dark Willow. When she gets there, she is full on Big Bad. She’s lost her most treasured love. She’s vengeful. And best of all, we sympathize with her. I cheered her on when she went after Warren.

For the writers out there, how do you make your Big Bads convincing? Do you actively ensure that they are in some way pitiable or sympathetic? Where do they fall on the spectrum, and how did they get there? Even if all of that doesn’t end up in the book, you should know.

As I rework my book, one thing I’m doing is strengthening my Big Bad, making him more frightening, considering his back story. Even though he is downright terrifying, he has reasons for being that way.

I want to hear your thoughts!

Who are your favorite antagonists? How do you feel good antagonists add to a story? If you’re a Buffy fan, how did you feel about Caleb? Willow? 

Thank you for flying Terror Tuesday, do come back.


Monday Man: Wesley Wyndham-Pryce

After some thought and a facepalm, I reckon I should say that THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS! SPOILERY, SPOILERY SPOILERS!

Consider yourself warned.

Another little PSA: Today I defy the laws of physics by being two places at once! That’s right, gentle viewers, you can have a second dose of Emmie over at the lovely Kourtney Heintz’s blog!

My husband and I are watching season three of Angel right now. It’s been a while since I’ve watched it, and one thing that is coming across like someone’s blaring it in an earhorn is how impressive Wesley‘s development really is.

When he first appeared on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as her replacement Watcher when Giles got sacked, he was — in a word — a doofus.

Do I mean doofus? Hm.

Yep. I mean doofus.

From slavering over Cordelia to his horrifically botched handling of Faith when she went rogue, it’s safe to say that he became the utter Emperor of Doofonia. This quote from Giles just about sums it up:

“For god’s sake, man! She’s 18, and you have the emotional maturity of a blueberry scone, so would you just ask her to dance and stop all this fluttering about?”

At the end of that season, Wesley and Cordelia shared what was, in my humble opinion, the single most awkward and embarrassing kiss in television history.


With the squishing, and the awkward — ack. No more. No more.

Wesley shows up in season one of Angel ready to prove himself as a rogue demon hunter. He is a man on a quest to redeem himself after being sacked, he is a man chafed by leather, he is…a rogue demon hunter. To which Cordelia responds, “What’s a rogue demon?”

At first, it seems that he will retain his position of comic relief with all his bumbling about. He shares another awkward kiss with Cordy, who unbeknownst to him is just trying to rid herself of the visions passed to her by Doyle, fumbles around, and falls down a lot. He also shows a tendency for slime.

As the show progresses, however, Wesley begins to take initiative. When a couple mobsters show up and demand to see an absent Angel, he plays the role of the vampire with a soul and manages to save a young debutante from being sacrificed to the goddess Yeska by her father (and I thought I had daddy issues). Wesley sustains a couple serious injuries — more than a couple when Faith gets her implements on him — which begins to alter his persona in many ways. He smiles less. He bumbles less. He takes a turn for the serious.

In fact, he begins to become downright dour until the group lands in the demon dimension of Pylea at the end of season two. When they bring back the lovely, zany, wonderful Fred (who is a woman, by the way), it sparks a change in Wesley. His attraction to her is immediately evident. His smile returns when he looks at her, and with the help of the beneficent Cordy, he starts to woo her.

Until, in typical Joss fashion, a misogynistic young man named Billy shows up on the scene who has the power to turn any man into a woman-killer simply by the touch of his hand or blood. When Wes comes into contact with Billy’s blood, he turns on Fred and tries to murder her. Not the best start for a budding relationship.

Following this episode, Wesley’s remorse and grief cripple him. He doesn’t leave his dark apartment for days and almost doesn’t answer when Fred comes to see him. It takes him a very long time to begin to trust himself again. I should mention here that Wesley has a very abusive father who constantly puts him down and denies him any sort of approval or fatherly pride — which clearly plays into his behavior after the Billy episode.

To make matters worse for poor Wes, when he finally does get up the nerve to go for Fred again, she’s already fallen for Gunn. For me, that scene is a little devastating, as much as I adore Gunn and love the dynamics of him with Fred. Wes continues a downward spiral (like every other character on the show, Fred being the possible only exception — Angel went to a much, much darker place than did Buffy). The capstone events are set off when he abducts Angel’s infant son, destroying Angel’s trust — all for a false prophecy that was fed to him.

If there is any time whatsoever that I’ve wanted to screech at my television, this season does it. But ah, the plight of the helpless viewer. Back to Wes.

Wes is betrayed the moment he tries to give the child to Holtz, and he gets his throat slit. Left to bleed out in a park, he realizes his error. Far too late. With Angel’s son whisked away to an unassailable dimension, Angel takes out his fury on Wesley and tries to kill him.

I think I can safely say that this is the lowest point of Wes’s arc.

Wes has a keen conscience and a tremendous sense of moral obligation — it’s exactly that morality that drove him to take Connor from Angel when he feared for Connor’s safety, however sorely he was misled. When faced with the consequences of his actions and the estrangement from his friends and colleagues, Wesley still tries to do right in his way.

Alienated from everyone he loves, he still tries to fight evil and ends up beginning a sexual relationship with one of the lawyers from the Big Bad Law Firm Wolfram & Hart — someone he comes to care for and eventually mourn.

Wesley eventually returns to the team at Angel Investigations after rescuing Angel from his sea-grave where his son imprisoned him (reading this makes me realize just how convoluted that whole plot arc really was), but everything about Wesley’s makeup has changed.

I can’t think of another character on this show whose development is so deeply moving, arresting, and ultimately painful. Through the seasons, Wes was the character I came to care most about. I remember the first time I watched the show, I had to stop partway through season three or four because it hurt too much to watch Wes’s life get decimated.

His actions in the face of such extreme diversity are truly heroic — and for that, Wesley Wyndham-Price is today’s Monday Man. To the underappreciated and beloved bumbler-turned-hero, I salute you.

What do you think about dark characters, gentle viewers? What characters’ transformations have become pivotal to you? Who have you felt for? I wanna know! 🙂


Monday Man: Wesley Wyndham-Pryce

The Breakout

Don’t worry, gentle viewers. I don’t mean acne.

I thought about including a picture here, but I thought I would spare you the imagery of that. Most of us have lived through it.

I just finished reading Donald Maass’s book, Writing the Breakout Novel. If you are a writer who wants to hone your craft, do yourself a favor and go pick it up. Since Sunday is my writing blog day (Suuuundaaaaay, My Prints Will Coooome…), I thought it might be nice to take you for a little tour of Don’s book as well as sprinkle a few other breadcrumbs for you to find other books like it that will catapult your writing (and querying) to the next level.

I picked up this book at the recommendation of Kristen Lamb. Her blog often contains invaluable resources for writers, as well as a batch of humor and blowfish. (Don’t Eat the Butt.) I also got to see Don speak last weekend in New York, and as his session ended, I glowed like a little Glow Worm (even wriggled a little), because he gave me some of the best news I’ve had in a while about writing.

Somehow they made worms cute. This one looks like it's about to ask you to tango.

You know what he said? He said that 21st century readers want books with engaging, gripping plots driven by fully-realized, multidimensional characters. I write genre fiction. I love genre fiction. I think that it has a lot of merit for a myriad of reasons. If you write literary and hate genre, fine — I have a safe-haven for all the genre writers right here.

That said, it’s been literary books topping and dominating the bestseller lists lately. I’m talking months and months at a time — Water for Elephants, The Lovely Bonesbooks like that. Fantasy has jumped up there. The theme of the aughties (2000-2010) was breaking the rules. The rules for most of the tail end of the 20th century were: thrillers, romance, and suspense. Those are the books that stuck up there. That’s all changing. Blame the recession.

So how do you write a book with an exciting plot and engrossing characters? Read Don Maass’s book. You’re welcome. In all seriousness, here’s a teaser.

Think of a big impact scene in your book.

What is your protagonist feeling? What is her primary emotion? Write it down.

Is that emotion one of the Biggies? Fear? Guilt? Shame? Anger? Joy? Cross it out.

Think of about five or six secondary emotions your character might be feeling. Write them down.

Anxiety? Resentment? Frustration? Confidence? Bluster? What if your character is feeling shamed and frustrated? Guilty but confident? Afraid and blustery? Do you see how adding a secondary emotion adds dimension and focus to what is going on inside your character’s mind? Do you see where you can plunk something like that in your novel? Do it. I guarantee it will make your character more sympathetic and the scene deeper.

The face of publishing is changing quickly. How writers manage their careers has evolved as well — as has the way new writers break into publishing. If you’re like me and have the goal “book on shelf,” you probably still want to go the traditional route.

Move over, Scott! All your shelf are belong to me!

Starting the querying process is a bit daunting. I’m trying to decide if I want to frame my rejections or pop them on a railroad spike like Stephen King. Or Mod-Podge them into a collage. Decisions, decisions. The good news is, I feel sort of prepared for the process. It’s the satisfaction of knowing my homework is done when the teacher calls on me. The satisfaction of knowing not to write my query letter like this:

Catherine Agent
Non-Fiction Only Agency
345 New York Ave
New York, NY 10011

Dear Mr. Agent,

Are you looking to represent the next Stephen King? Well, look no further! My fiction novel blows The Shining out of the water and will rocket to the top of the bestseller lists. You better call Paramount right now and keep them in the loop, because they won’t want to miss out on making my fiction novel into a blockbuster thriller!

I can’t tell you about my book, because you’ll steal my idea. But it’s good. So good you’ll stay up all night reading it after it’s published. Make sure you send the advance to the right address — no less than seven figures!

Congratulations on finding me!

Your humble servant,

Jackass McAsserson

enc. NOTHING! You’ll steal it if I enclose anything!


Thaaaaaat’ll work.

As exaggerated and absurd as that letter is, I have this withering little feeling that any agents who trip and fall onto this blog post might facepalm themselves right into a headdesk because it triggers some sort of post-trauma they acquired reading queries exactly like that.

Advice to other writers: don’t do that. That = bad.


Whether you think your novel has breakout caliber (again, not acne) or think it will punt every current bestseller into oblivion is moot. And saying anything like that to agents is enough to have them position your query on a friendly patch of grass and punt it into oblivion.

Without further ado, here are some books that you should make your bible:

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell

On Writing by Stephen King

Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction by Jessica Page Morrell

We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media, by Kristen Lamb

And the Holy Grail of all who quest for an agent:

How to Get a Literary Agent by Michael Larsen

A note about that last book — I first bought it because the first review on Amazon said something like this:

I queried agents for about eight months with no success before buying this book. I took the next six months to implement everything Larsen suggests. The next query I sent out got me my agent.

I believe it. Not only does the book explain in detail what agents look for, their thought processes, and their day-to-day activities, but it goes into some overviews of the publishing business that are pure gold. Do yourself a favor and read this book. I’ve read it three times, and I’m probably going to give it another go today.

What resources are your favorite go-to manuals? What querying mistakes have you made? 

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