Return to the Ultimate Pantser’s Guide: Heroes and Villains and Oops! Oh my!

It’s hard to believe another week has gone by. I swear someone is stealing my time. Of course, it helps (not) that my daily routine is currently something like “Go to work. Come home. Find the latest round of cat puke and clean it up. Fix dinner. Go to bed.”

On the somewhat plus side I seem to be regaining at least some of my get up and go (at least, it doesn’t seem to have permanently got up and went) and actually spent a little time on the book of faces yesterday.

I may even get back to blogging on my own site again. I need to – I have a presentation and video from the test conference I spoke at that needs to go up and some other odds and sods I need to sort out there.

At any rate, I’m not in total hibernation any more.

So with that said, I hereby present to you the latest reinstalment of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide (also known as the Pantser Body of Knowledge and the Ultimate Pantser’s guide depending on just what my fingers decide to type). Enjoy.

The Pantser Body of Knowledge: Heroes and Villains and Oops! Oh My!

The time has come to take a look at the art and craft of characterization. This probably seems weird, since characterization is one of the things pantsers tend to get “free” – but getting it and writing it well aren’t the same thing. It’s worth reading up about what makes a good character and learning the skills of portraying a good character without the – often dubious – benefit of having this person show up inside your head and tell you stuff. Aside from anything else, your characters are the ultimate in unreliable narrator.

They’re artifacts of your subconscious, no matter how real they feel to you, and you don’t always know enough about their world and environment to know when they’ve got something wrong. This is where that bane of pantsers (yes, pantsers have rather a lot of banes. We collect them, I think) comes from, namely the character who thinks/acts like someone from your current era and culture despite being from something completely different.

Now, before people start jumping all over me, yes it is possible to do this. When you do, it had better be a deliberate way to show up some absurdity of the current era/culture and not because you think that’s how everyone thinks and acts. Trust me, it’s not. The US is currently more or less based on individual and guilt – meaning that it’s wrong whether anyone sees you or not, and that responsibility as well as glory rests on the individual’s actions. There’s two spectrums there – every society lies somewhere between the extremes of group-based versus individual-based, and shame/face versus guilt. Most of them fall somewhere in the middle, recognizing some individual rights/responsibilities, and operating on a mix of guilt and shame. More to the point, the more ‘natural’ (as in, this is mostly how humanity has been throughout history) mode leans heavily towards group-based and shame/face. This isn’t meant to be a critique or condemnation – it’s more to point out that the modern US (and the rest of the Anglosphere) is something of an anomaly, historically, so there’s a pretty good chance that anything you write is going to have at least one group and face oriented character. And that person will think and act very differently than you do.

Right. So culture shapes thought. So does climate (ask any Aussie, including this one). So does geography. All of that goes towards who and what your main character is. If he’s never been outside space stations and space ships before, he’s likely to have a bad case of agoraphobia the first time he walks on a planetary surface. Someone from a desert could regard water with near-religious awe.

Now comes the fun part – when pantsers write, we tend to be very strongly inside our character’s point of view. When readers read, we tend to start from the assumption that this person is like us. If drawing the character isn’t done well, the result can be jarring to say the least. A really bad effort can see the book take a flying lesson – which isn’t a good idea if you’re reading on an ereader.

As usual, go to the resources that are there to help plotters build realistic characters, and read them for the information about presenting the character information to readers. The goal is to Heinlein it in, the same way you Heinlein setting. The second big resource is authors who are experts at this – Terry Pratchett (who, let’s face it, is an expert at just about everything), Sarah Hoyt, Dave Freer, Mercedes Lackey (to some extent – she certainly has that rare gift of making a whiny, unlikeable character sympathetic – it’s worth reading the Vanyel books just for that technique). I’m sure there are others – this is just a list that comes to mind right now (and since I’m perpetually semi-brain-dead and usually stealing time from something else when I write, research isn’t an option).

The goal you aim for is to have the character’s actions and responses drop information about their life and basic assumptions without an “As you know, Bob”. The character who reaches for a weapon when stressed or startled – and which weapon – tells you a lot about the kind of person they are and some about their technology and social status. Basically, the first reaction of someone who does a lot of fighting, either as a professional soldier or something less formal, is going to be to go for their weapon, and they’ll feel naked without it. The same kind of reaction applies to someone who’s paranoid, although they’ll usually be wanting to go for a concealed weapon.

One plotter way to figure out this kind of thing is to watch people. It’s easy to do: sit somewhere busy and just observe. Take note of the little unconscious gestures – these are the tells that will give away an emotional state someone doesn’t want to admit to. Some of them are universals, like blushing, clenched fists, flexing the fingers, clutching something and the like. Others are specific to the culture: Western Anglo-Saxon-based cultures view looking someone in the eye as an indicator of both trustworthyness and respect, where many Asian cultures consider it respectful to avoid a direct gaze. A lot of hand gestures are culture specific , too – although I’m not aware of anywhere that treats a nod as “no” and a headshake as “yes”. The US (and most of the West, plus by now most of everywhere else) regards the upraised middle finger as a defiant and crude way to tell someone to “go forth and multiply” as it were. Raising the index and middle fingers is seen in the US as a “Victory” sign. But in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK (and probably elsewhere), it’s only “V for victory” if the back of your hand faces you. The other way around, particularly if you move from horizontal to vertical, has more or less the same meaning as the middle finger. Then you’ve got the individual-level gestures. This person chews her hair when she’s nervous. That one jigs one leg. Someone else never stands still. These little things can be used for the equivalent of “stage business” to break up the he-said-she-said rhythm of dialog and show more about your characters.

And of course, the more you, the pantser, practice these techniques, the more you’ll find yourself doing them automatically. You’ll go to revise something and clean up your dialog and it will all be there, with the kind of revealing details that leave you wondering if the blasted thing started to write itself when you weren’t looking (It didn’t. Trust me on this. It’s just that pantsers get into a kind of writing trance where the words just happen, and they don’t necessarily remember writing them all. It’s the same reason you don’t always remember doing some routine task, even though you actually did do it. Your subconscious was driving.)

So, with all of this in mind, your hero needs to be a bit larger-than-life (just because we all know life as it is, and most of us prefer life-as-is to be kind of dull), more or less aimed in the correct direction, but most importantly, sympathetic. Readers will accept and even empathize with someone they’d normally smack for being a total loser if it’s done right, but let your hero kick a puppy and you’ve lost them forever. This is actually an issue in a number of really old books: most modern Western readers have grown up in a culture that regards it as a Very Bad Thing to harm the helpless, and human nature is such that cute and helpless gets a stronger reaction than ugly and helpless. Yes, you probably could justify your hero beating grandma, if she’s nasty enough. You’d never get past kicking a puppy or a kitten. Heck, you’d probably lose them there even if you were going for humor.

One thing I’ve noticed is that any character, no matter who or what they are, who goes out of their way to protect the helpless will be liked. I can — and have — written a character who is verging on psychopathic but who sticks to an absolute refusal to harm the innocent. People like reading about him (no, this isn’t published, yet).

On the flip side, it’s kind of passé to have your villain kick the cat to show how evil he is. Villainy in stories can be anything from standing in opposition to whatever your hero needs to absolute evil (which I have yet to see portrayed effectively, but that’s a different issue). If your villain has any interaction in the story – it’s possible to write one who doesn’t and is seen solely through the actions of underlings – then he, she, or it, needs to have similar kinds of characterization. Since many authors don’t like spending time inside the minds of their villains, that means external cues. Body language is always a good one: someone who is confident of their abilities will stand straight and often use a dominant pose. Gestures will be strong, and you won’t see a nervous twitch anywhere.

Another characterization tool is the choice of words. Someone who’s nervous will talk around a topic rather than getting to the point. Someone who’s in charge and – for illustration purposes – evil will give orders and expect them to be obeyed, instantly. After all, if you kill your underlings in horribly inventive ways because they don’t obey quickly enough, you would expect them to be in a hurry to do what you tell them. Tone can be conveyed through pure dialog, as well.

As for oopses – you start writing thinking Freddy is your hero, but he’s actually the villain of the piece, or vice versa – that’s what revision is for. If you find out you got it wrong and it switches on you partway through, keep writing and use a nice, easy to find way to flag where you have to change things around. I use [this] to flag out anything I need to correct, look up, or otherwise check on once I’ve finished the story. The square brackets don’t get used anywhere else in my writing, they don’t get lost or changed if I switch word processor, computer, or operating system (yes, I routinely do all three), so I can do a search for “[” and find everything I’ve marked along the way, and fix it all.

20 Comments

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20 responses to “Return to the Ultimate Pantser’s Guide: Heroes and Villains and Oops! Oh my!

  1. paladin3001

    Like those tips about giving characters and villains quirks and ticks. Trying that with a few WIPs I have done. I think the trick with villains is to give them a sense of villainy that isn’t over the top. As a friend of mine told me fairly recently, ‘A bad guy doesn’t see himself as a bad guy really, he just has his own ways of doing things that aren’t considered normal or right according to the rest of society’. So puppy kicking, twirling the mustache, stuff like that is just not really needed.

    • Yes, the villain can be just somewhat less than admirable and opposed to our hero, and we’ll be perfectly happy to hate him.

    • That has always irritated the fire out of me. Having met people who DID think of themselves as the villain of the piece and specifically chose that role. Pure, absolute evil exists. It is in some ways rare, in other ways not so much. I’ve seen the same attitude in backyard bullies. They KNOW they’re evil, but as long as it’s profitable, they’ll let people believe they think of themselves as heroic. Suckers… (almost a direct quote.)

      • Navajo skinwalkers. They have to choose evil, and do it with deliberate malice aforethought. I suspect there are others, perhaps not with such a specific name.

      • Amanda Green’s doing a great job of breaking down a villain monologue over on According To Hoyt… that is, going through Hillary’s book on why she lost. Which is an excellent way to dissect a self-centered killer (I remember Benghazi, do you?) and power-hungry backstabber’s view of the universe.

        Villains are people, too, and thus come in assorted justifications. They can be the most well-intentioned person who’s just completely opposed to your protagonist’s goals, to someone who knows what they’re doing is evil and likes it, to realpolitik to self-centered amoral characters.

        • Draven

          “What Happened, or why you are all deplorable”

        • My objection isn’t that there ARE villains who see themselves as heroes of their own story, it’s the idea that villains MUST see themselves as heroes of their own story. Which is what it amounts to just about every time ‘Remember the villain is the hero of his own story.’

          And yes, I remember Benghazi. It’s a horrific example of the damage petty, self-centered, small minded evil can do. But petty, self-centered, small minded evil isn’t the only evil out there. It’s certainly not the most competent evil out there. It may be the most COMMON evil out there, but I’m not so sure. Saw enough in Iraq to doubt that.

          And yet, any time I suggest the kinds of evil I’ve seen as villain motivation, I get told it never happens, that people don’t choose to be evil, and again and again, ad nauseum, like it ends the debate ‘the villain is the hero of his own story.’

          • Dorothy Grant

            Hah! No, I TOTALLY agree that it happens. My husband was a chaplain in a federal max security pen. He got to see plenty of evil that wasn’t just “the hero of his own story” kind.

            I suspect that the ‘every villain is the hero of his own story’ is the sort of rule of thumb designed to encourage people to not create cardboard characters, that promptly got seized upon as an ironclad law of writing by folks who don’t have much experience with evil.

      • Mary

        Theodore Dalrymple’s Life at the Bottom catches another aspect well — criminals who just don’t make any connection between their moral judgments and their actions. Judgments are for others.

        • I have read some Dalrymple but not this particular item. He’s very insightful, but this particular idea is confusing me…

          • BobtheRegisterredFool

            Seems like a pretty simple idea.

            There’s no particular reason why everyone must assume that other people are the same kind of being as oneself.

            Lots of people have that premise. But if one doesn’t, it may be natural for one to learn about right and wrong as apply to other people, and never make the connection that they have any bearing on one’s own behavior.

  2. A villain, to me, is a guy/girl who will do literally anything to get what they want. And what they want, usually, is power over others.

    Thievery and conquest are about stuff. Taking other people’s stuff is bad. But power is about making other people do things. That’s much worse.

    The power-hungry villain may have some sort of internal justification, as SJWs and outright commies always seem to. But the true villain is the one that knows what he’s doing is wrong, loves doing it, and keeps doing it no matter what.

    That guy doesn’t come out well in my books.

    The other kind of villain is of course the one doing Good, capital G. Their path is clear, and they follow it with all their energy even when they know they are going to lose. I’ve got some of those being dealt with right now. They’re not going to do so well either.

  3. One plotter way to figure out this kind of thing is to watch people. It’s easy to do: sit somewhere busy and just observe. Take note of the little unconscious gestures – these are the tells that will give away an emotional state someone doesn’t want to admit to. Some of them are universals, like blushing, clenched fists, flexing the fingers, clutching something and the like.

    Two of the acting manga I read, Skip Beat and Glass Mask delve into this very deeply. The main (female) protagonists are very often not recognized when they’re outside their roles because they are a very different person when not acting.

    I should warn though that anyone trying to go read Glass Mask will find that it’s extremely shojo-manga troperrific. There’s a reason for this. From TVTropes:

    The series is highly influential and has been running for 30 years with no end in sight. Being an older shojo series, Glass Mask is extremely tropalicious (even without considering the content of the various plays that happen throughout the story) and the manga suffers from quite an extreme case of “Seinfeld” Is Unfunny. Many of today’s shoujo tropes were developed by Glass Mask, and it was the hundreds of shoujo that came after which played out the tropes until they became cliches. Some newer readers may think that the art is ugly or strange, but this is more of an issue with taste, since they may be unused to pre-1990s styles and Glass Mask is often considered as having one of the best vintage shoujo styles.

    Due to Glass Mask’s age and fame, it is often referenced in various other media, many with similar themes such as Star Project, to works without any similarity at all, like Yuru-Yuri. It is often the animanga that other animanga talk about. However, the series never reached American shores. It is often considered an obscure one in America unlike the popularity it enjoys in its native Japan and Europe and so these references tend to fly over the heads of American audiences.

    That said, Glass Mask is a very good read, though be prepared to be frustrated when you hit the end because the mangaka hasn’t finished. (Some folks might find Skip Beat too silly.) I have to say though, my favorite section of the manga has to do with the production and run of The Forgotten Wilderness (a play.)

  4. TomR

    anywhere that treats a nod as “no” and a headshake as “yes”

    There are such places. A search reveals https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22915258

  5. Mary

    Characters in a strict hierarchical society who fraternize across the classes with no awareness.

    Characters who treat starting a fire as an easy matter without matches.

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