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Bring on the Drama: How NOT to Have a Relationship

Conflict.

As a writer, I love conflict. It’s what makes the words jump from the page and launch themselves at my throat. It’s what can make a 1,000-page behemoth of a story interesting.

But let’s face it. What makes good fiction doesn’t make a good relationship.

If you’ve got conflict on every page of your relationship, you’ve also got something called a problem.

Hilarity and mayhem? Check. Good role modeling? Not so much. Image via wikia.com

How did those four get where they are? Love. And great writers.

While we might sometimes feel that getting a bazooka out to wipe out our love interest‘s arch nemesis is a great idea, in this murky real world of ours that idea could land you in a federal prison for, you know. Ever.

One of my favorite television couples is Veronica Mars and Logan Echolls. Logan starts out as the obnoxious, somewhat cruel rich boy with a home life like something out of a social worker’s nightmare. Veronica is a fledgling private investigator who gets in a lot of trouble with style and aplomb after the dual personal tragedies of her best friend’s murder and having been roofied and raped at a party.  What better combination of lovebirds?

True love begins at...the dance. 🙂

Even with their spectacular personal issues, Logan and Veronica might stand a chance — except Logan’s aforementioned home life steps in via his criminally insane and disgusting father who installed cameras in their pool house to film his trysts with women (not, I might add, Logan’s mother). Ah. Conflict.

Veronica discovers the cameras and blames Logan. Over the seasons, they make increasingly bad decisions about one another, which keeps the tension high, but the chances of a successful relationship somewhere below ground zero.

In this the season of loooove — and I was born as a result of this season, so I can’t knock it — relationships spring to the center of attention. Who has them, who doesn’t, who wants them but doesn’t want to admit it — ah, February.

What makes fiction intriguing is that we see mirrors of ourselves. We see the shoddy communication efforts. We see the bad choices. The strange thing is that these examples often show a happy ending, when we know deep down in our gut that relationships that are that tumultuous don’t end without ending badly.

Wondering how to keep your relationship from being a conflict-driven tragedy? Here’s some tips!

1. Listen. So you had a misunderstanding that led to a fight — maybe even a breakup. Your significant other calls and leaves you a voice mail. Don’t pull a Veronica and delete it without listening to it; hear it out, then make a rational decision. That goes for arguments, too. Listen to what your partner has to say. If they’re screaming obscenities at you, the message you should hear is, “I’m very wrong for you. Go snuggle a puppy, eat some Ben and Jerry’s, and get out of this freak show.”

2. Define break. Are you on a break? Decide what that means going into it. Remember Ross and Rachel? Misunderstanding is born of a little seed called miscommunication, or that nothingness that exists where communication dies. Save yourself several seasons years of angst and be clear about your expectations. Honesty might be painful, but it cuts through a lot of er…stuff.

3. Don’t cheat. Aside from the abiding level of betrayal this entails, cheating doesn’t do much for your karmic accumulations. If your relationship is failing, talk to your partner. With your words, not with the body language of a forbidden encounter. Believe me, that is one message that gets across loud and clear, so head it off and use your words like a big kid.

4. Talk. Where’s the beef? You got a beef? Air it out. Get it off your chest, and various other cliches. As much as 4 a.m. infomercials like to pretend to the contrary, people aren’t mind readers, and they generally don’t know what you’re thinking if you don’t tell them. You can fix most things with words and judiciously applied actions.

5. Trust. The final tip here is to leave the suspicion to the soaps and sitcoms. Successful relationships are built on trust — if you go sprinting to the worst assumption your brain can concoct, you’ll do nothing but sabotage any chances you had with your significant other. Just remember, it could be a murderous and perverted father who planted those video cameras.

Okay, if you find fiber optics and tiny Bond-esque cameras, you’ve probably got a problem. Luckily, that happens more often in fiction.

Good relationships will inevitably have conflict, but unlike fiction, that conflict does not have to exist on every page to keep things moving and happy. I’m lucky to have a husband who understands those two foundation stones of communication and trust — if you’re single, this is me giving you permission to hold out for someone who doesn’t just plunk you on a horse and trot westward, but someone who’ll be there on the other side of the sunset.

What have you learned not to do from your favorite books or television shows? Have you ever thought your significant other was taking lessons from a derailed plot? Entertain us!

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Writing the Big Bad

There’s always gotta be the bad guy. Whether they’re downright evil or just your run of the mill schoolyard bully, creating a believable antagonist is as essential to a good story as say…the stuf to an Oreo. They’re a source of motivation, angst, plot propellers, and wicked fun. If you can build antagonists that are fully three dimensional, it creates an intensity to the story, a tension that drives your protagonists and curiosity in the readers. They’ll want to make sure the bad guys get theirs, or at the very least see what they do next. Who is the bad guy? What are his or her motivations? Why does he persist in pestering your hero? Why should we care?

Because we should care about the antagonist. It should matter to us what happens to him or her, because ambivalent fuzzy feelings about the driving force against your protagonist will make a reader toss your book aside in search of more interesting foes. Think of Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter world. [SPOILER AHEAD!] She is a phenomenal antagonist. You can see her motivation to please Voldemort, her sheer malice toward Harry. You hate her for what she did to Neville’s parents. And I’m probably not alone when I say that when Mrs. Weasley screamed, “NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!” I let out an unstoppable roar of delight and pure glee, coupled with some rage. [END SPOILER]

J.K. Rowling created many memorable antagonists. I will probably hate Dolores Umbridge until my dying day. It’s why even now, I got chills and — let’s face it — a few welling tears when I wrote the above. They’re important. I write urban fantasy, so the ones that come to mind the most for me are out of that genre. Torak, the evil god in David Eddings’s Belgariad, the Forsaken in the Wheel of Time. One of my favorite antagonists of all time is Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He’s a true gray area baddie. One you love, you hate, and you pity all at once. His transformation as a character is one of the crowning jewels of television in my humble opinion. (Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon, David Fury, Jane Espenson, and the rest of the Buffy writers — I love you. Just sayin’.)

So while I’m not setting out to emulate a particular character in someone else’s work (that would be rude), I am seeking to achieve the same force of attraction to my bad guys. I want readers to hate them with fiery passion most of the time. Pity them on occasion. Ultimately, the Biggest Big Bad in my stories isn’t the most important. He’s behind the scenes, much like Sauron in Lord of the Rings. While he’s the driving force, it’s the ones on the front lines that inspire the most pathos in my readers.

The central villain in my trilogy for the first two books is Damon (name subject to change…damn you, Vampire Diaries), a 300-year-old vampire. He’s capricious, power hungry, and he has spent three centuries biding his time in the shadow of his “boss,” Bern. Bern is more brute than brain, a sadistic psychopath who hurts others just because he can. Damon, on the other hand, takes satisfaction from orchestrating scenarios and taking credit for his “messes.”

Damon’s character is in some ways similar to that of Anakin Skywalker. He lost everything he cared about  at an early age, and he believes those things were stolen from him. He sees the world as owing him, and he takes pleasure in power because he thinks that it will make him invincible. He thinks becoming harder makes him less likely to break, but in reality, it makes him brittle and unpredictable.

Bern’s character is more easy to pinpoint, as historically he prefers a full frontal assault. He comes at you, and you know it’s him. Damon, on the other hand, likes to tease. He likes to line up his opponents and pull their strings. He’s most dangerous when he’s been beaten, because humiliation causes that brittleness to snap into unpredictability. Once his plans are in place and executed, he glories in letting his victims know who was responsible. He believes he gets the full effect that way.

A third bad vamp in the lineup is Chase. Her unpredictability comes from the fact that she is psychotic. And insane. She will tear someone apart just to see how they react, and she flies into a rage if they die too quickly for her tastes. She works with  the others because someone scarier than her tells her to, but her loyalties are about as deep as a sidewalk mud puddle.

Crawling into the minds of the bad guys is never fun. To write the more disturbing scenes, I have to access the darkest parts of the human psyche. I feel like a detective trying to suss out a profile on a serial killer. Unfortunately, I don’t have to look much further than human history to see what people do when they think there are no repercussions. A big part of my current revision is making sure that I understand the motivations and backstory of these characters. I don’t feel like discussing that here yet, because of the spoiler effect, but if I don’t understand it and fully know  it, no reader will be able to figure it out. One scene in particular was very difficult for me to write. It’s in the second book, Elemental, and when I discovered where it was going and what was about to happen to my protagonist, I almost started crying. I did start crying when I wrote it and reread it. Oddly, it’s one of the most effective scenes I’ve written. I think.

I had to go back and rewrite the entire first fifty pages of Primeval, which I think I’ve mentioned before. I knew a certain plot event was less meaningful than it could be, and that I’d written it that way in part to spare myself from having to torture one of my characters. Now that it’s rewritten, I think that character is sufficiently brutalized. It’s a big part of her development, and I realized that readers wouldn’t be as affected as she is if they didn’t go through it with her. Sorry in advance for that. It was going to happen anyway, but now it cuts deeper. Suffice it to say that it’s not gratuitous, that it advances the character development of many players and serves to invest readers more in my protagonist — and my antagonists.

Any book written without the protagonist experiencing conflict, pain, or struggle is poor, lazy writing. Good conflict has gray areas — it’s never black and white. While there may be sides, readers should feel a spectrum of emotion in regards to any type of character just as they would with a person they meet in life. That’s what I’m working on.

100 pages left to go in draft two. Wish me monsters.

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