Category Archives: Conflict

Liar, Liar! Pants on Fire!

A Guest Post by Tonya L. De Marco

It’s probably no secret if you’ve read any of my material or heard me speak on panels at conventions that I enjoy creating dark and twisted characters. I’m fascinated with what makes them tick and how they morally justify doing the things they do.

Lines between heroes, villains, and anti-heroes can become quite blurred to nearly invisible at times in the story. I recently participated on a panel at StarFest Convention in Denver on the subject. The intended discussion was meant to be about creating strong antagonists, however I kept steering the conversation back in the direction of this haunting question: What is the difference between the good guy and the bad guy when they each break the rules?

Fellow authors and panelists Kal Spriggs and David Boop, along with moderator Peter J. Wacks and I bantered back and forth without actually solving this dilemma. But the general consensus seemed to be, if the character is breaking the rules for the greater good or for revenge, he is seen as the good guy. An example is a police officer who brings in the criminal by whatever means necessary.

These characters are justifying their wrongdoing. They are lying to themselves and often those around them. Villains do it. Heroes do it. Masterminds do it. I do it. You do it. We all lie to ourselves. A psychopath that only kills criminals is rationalizing murder by telling himself that he is making the community safer without these criminals. But what really drives him is a need, a hunger to kill. The thrill of the hunt, the power of holding a life in his hands, the satisfaction of seeing the light slowly drain from his victim’s eyes – these are the true reasons, not the lies he tells himself.

In my short story, Offspring, the main character breaks the law for monetary compensation. Indeed, she does need the money to help her family and accomplish a specific goal but she hides behind the lie. She justifies her depraved acts as necessary, not admitting she enjoys the power and the adrenaline rush from the danger, often even enjoys the acts themselves. Will she stop when she reaches her goal? Or will she find another lie to tell herself so she can continue?

Creating characters that lie adds another level of relatability. Lying to themselves and others helps to show them as human. Whether you create human monsters or super cops, the justifications and rationalizing they do throughout the story is something they have in common with each other and with most of the population.

The lines between good and evil when writing dark characters still remain blurred to me. Perhaps it’s because most people are a blend of both. Whether writing protagonist or antagonist, hero or anti-hero, allow your characters to tell their own stories – even if they’re liars.


Visit Tonya L. De Marco at http://www.TonyaLDeMarco.com or stop by her modeling and cosplay page on Facebook: http://www.Facebook.com/VintageSteamtrunk.

Gillian Flynn and the Case of the Unreliable Narrator

There are few things I like more than unreliable narrators, reluctant heroes, dark protagonists, dogs, and Taco Bell. Some of my favorite characters on television shows, in books, and in comic books are the anti-heroes and villains that have deep, spanning character arcs. I just hate to love Gul Dukat from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the perpetual heel no matter how hard I root for him to turn into a good guy. Who can say no to The Hound in Game of Thrones? All beefy, reluctant, melty-cheese-face goodness right there. And who isn’t charmed/terrified by Negan in The Walking Dead comics and his filthy, filthy mouth? Kim Coates’ portrayal of Tig on Sons of Anarchy? C’MON, man. The best! And the king of anti-heroes, from which my love of anti-heroes began: Conan the Barbarian.

What most of these anti-heroes and villains have in common is this: their behavior is somewhat predictable from early on. Gul Dukat gonna be Gul Dukat, even if he does some good things on occasion. The Hound looks out for himself until paid to do otherwise, with only a few exceptions. Negan tells his enemies exactly what he’s going to do before he does it. He also loves Lucille, and he’s gonna bring her out to play and he’ll talk some poor character’s ear off while doing it. Tig’s always going to be weird on a supreme level, but he has his soft spots. Conan the mercenary, the pirate, the thief, the treasure hunter, the nomad, still lives his life according to a code.

As a good rule of thumb, the reader has to trust a character to do just one thing: act like him/her/themselves. 

Gillian Flynn either didn’t get the memo, or doesn’t care about your fragile expectations of her characters. And boy is that ballsy. But if you know anything about her success, it’s turning out pretty well for her.

In the first half of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller Gone Girl, I was amazed. Flynn’s ability to communicate small issues in a marriage, how they can appear and fester just under the surface, was revelatory to me. I sure didn’t pick up Gone Girl expecting such an accurate and subtle commentary on American marriage and the differences between blue-collar and white-collar partner philosophies.

But I also didn’t pick up Gone Girl expecting the twist, either. Soft spoiler ahead, so cover your eyes for this and the next paragraph if you plan on reading the book or seeing the movie. As it turns out, BOTH of our narrators, married couple Nick and Amy Dunne, are unreliable to an extreme. Just when we start feeling sorry for Nick, and think he’s getting played by a master, we find that he’s been living a secret life all on his own.

What Gillian Flynn accomplishes in Gone Girl is to take the concept of an unreliable narrator and anti-heroes to another level. When we understand that Nick and Amy can’t be trusted (the first unreliable narrator twist), Flynn twists the narrative knife even further, taking their story to depths most people couldn’t dream up in a million years.

Similarly, in Flynn’s novella The Grownup, the reader is presented with an anti-hero that, at first blush, seems honest and straight forward about who she is: a fake psychic. I’ll not mention her former job so you’re surprised when you read the short story yourself (I’ll just say this: the first two lines of the story are some of the best opening lines I’ve ever read. Talk about a hook! Winky wink). Now, as we, the readers, follow this opportunistic woman, we fall into a haunted house/evil stepson-type scenario. Nothing too surprising here – they are common horror movie tropes. And our protagonist, although a con artist of sorts, still has some admirable attributes, and it’s easy to slip into the story from her perspective. We’re even on her side. (Big spoiler here, so skip to the next paragraph if you want to read this story.) We’re on her side, that is, until we realize too late that she’s not an anti-hero – she’s the villain, and became so under our very noses. And this is Flynn’s trademark. Unreliable narrators to an extreme. Characters that seem like unreliable narrators and anti-heroes who become the villains before the reader can put two and two together.

As much as I drool over and admire Gillian Flynn’s storytelling, I must admit I don’t come away from her books feeling particularly… good. I feel uncomfortable, ill at ease. I certainly don’t need every book to be a happy ending, but I’m used to anti-hero stories ending in a different way (Conan always accomplishes the quest and gets the girl, after all).

What I take away from Gillian Flynn’s expert storytelling and success is this: do what you do, and do it well. If you’re good at pulling the wool over your readers’ eyes, do it. But always do it well. Flynn creates characters we can empathize with, she can humanize extreme situations, and then she slowly crumbles the foundation of what we thought we knew about those characters and their situation. Flynn uses our very fundamental trust of character (that the character will act like himself/herself/themselves) against us. And it is masterful.

Readers don’t always like to be deceived. In fact, a writer pulling a fast one often makes a reader feel betrayed. But looking at Gone Girl‘s success, it doesn’t appear the readers minded the deception because of how artfully Flynn pulled it off. Don’t be afraid to deceive your reader, but only if you can pull it off, too.

The Wizard Behind the Curtain

As a child watching The Wizard of Oz, I never suspected a bumbling old man hiding behind a curtain to be the “great and terrible Oz.” I was completely taken aback when Toto pulled back the drapes and revealed the traveling salesman who was pushing all the levers and buttons. I still revel in the concept of a man behind a curtain, but I prefer much darker motives, the pushing of people’s buttons more than any machine, and a more illusory curtain. A good example of this is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy.

In the very first book we find our heroine, Vin, taken in by the heroic mentor, Kelsier, who is instigating a plan to destroy the evil and immortal emperor. What they find lurking behind the emperor is much more sinister and complex than any of them had imagined. With many stories, it’s in that moment when our antagonist becomes a mere contagonist and the plot gains that extra dimensional layer, that I find myself moved.

In the original Star Wars series, Darth Vader is a horrible villain, even a danger to his own son, until we discover “the emperor.” Again? What is it with emperors? What a lovely twist when the contagonist proves to be a victim who turns into the final hero. It turns an ordinary hero’s journey adventure story into a redemption story, giving the entire series not only more depth, but the opportunity to add interesting sequels and for Hollywood to bring in some serious money. I’m sure they don’t mind.

I have a book coming out soon through Brick Cave Media called Moon Shadows and I have to tell you, I love to hate my man behind the curtain. He has his reasons, but he’s seriously psycho. From science fiction to fantasy, from mystery to horror, we all wonder if there might be someone hiding in the shadows, someone even worse than the monster we see in the light. As a writer, playing with that suspicion is a good part of the fun. Often, the best suspense lies in the man behind the curtain, or depending on the story, maybe the psycho behind the shower curtain.

Colette Black Bio:
Author PicColette Black lives in the far outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona with her family, 2 dogs, a mischievous cat and the occasional unwanted scorpion. Author of the Mankind’s Redemption Series, The Number Prophecy series, and the upcoming Legends of Power series, Colette writes New Adult and Young Adult sci-fi and fantasy novels with kick-butt characters, lots of action, and always a touch of romance. Find her at www.coletteblack.net

 

Don’t Split the Party!

Yes, the title of this post is one of the most revered and honored tropes of role-playing games. I can’t even begin to count the number of stories I could tell about the consequences of an adventuring party going their separate ways and being systematically wiped out by frustrated Dungeon Masters whose carefully constructed campaign is being turned into a shambles by players who think it’s a grand idea to have everyone wander off on their own.

But this post isn’t about gaming. It’s about writing. Of course, like all “rules”, this one is frequently violated to great effect in numerous stories from “Lord of the Rings” to “The Avengers.” So as Barbossa would say, this isn’t a “rule” so much as a “guideline.”

But it’s a solid guideline if you want to create a story where readers can experience the rich interplay of characters that is really only possible when the reader has become not only acquainted with individual characters, but has also developed an understanding of the complex dynamics of interpersonal relationships between groups of people.

It is rare for any story to rely on a total focus on one main character. It is incredibly difficult for a writer to keep readers interested in a story like that anyway. So the vast majority of the world’s favorite stories usually have one main focus, but that main focus is surrounded by other characters whose stories weave their own threads around and through the main character’s thread.

In that group of orbiting characters, at least one should be a friend of the main character, not just a flunky, or a tool the main character uses to advance their agenda. Friendships allow the reader to see the main character as a living, breathing person. The more a writer can create a sense of true mutual love and respect between the main character and another character, the more likely readers will be to empathize and sympathize with the protagonist. In most cases we want to root for characters we like, and observing how the protagonist interacts with close friends is the best way for a reader to learn the normally hidden vulnerabilities that make them human and relatable. Sometimes these “friends” are also siblings, but usually not.

Creating close friendships does more than make a protagonist more human. It also gives the author opportunities to use that relationship to bring elements of the story to more compelling climaxes, and to explore emotions to sublime depths. What would the story of Frodo be without Sam? Would we really care as much about Lizzy and Mr. Darcy without Charlotte and Bingley? And Harry Potter would have been far less interesting without Ron and Hermione.

Building relationships like that takes time. It can’t be “told” it has to be “shown” in dozens of little details sprinkled through scene after scene. And that’s not easy to do if you can’t keep the party together long enough to build them.