February 23rd, 2006

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Brief Update

Last weekend, gnomi and I attended Boskone, and since then, I've been dealing with major deadlines at work and writing projects at home. So I haven't had a chance to update the blog over the past few days.

Just in case anyone was wondering where I've been.

So, to reward everyone's patience, here are two more Robert's Rules posts. Enjoy.
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Robert's Rules of Writing #35: Flaw Your Hero

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

What's a hero?

Two of the definitions given by Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition (which I cite simply because it's at hand) are as follows: "any person, esp. a man, admired for courage, nobility, or exploits, esp. in war," and "any person, esp. a man, admired for qualities and or achievements and regarded as an ideal or model." I think most of us would go along with those definitions.

A third definition says that the hero is the main character of a story, and I think most of us who write would tend to agree. But at the same time, as much as we want to write about courageous, noble, and admirable characters, we have to make sure that the heroes we write about aren't perfect.

The fact is, readers don't want to read about people who are perfect. Readers don't mind reading about people who are incredibly competent, such as many of Robert A. Heinlein's protagonists, but if a character is already perfect inside and out, what kind of challenges will that character have to face? There's no possible challenge that will make the reader wonder if the character will make it through. There's also no possible growth for such a perfect, unflawed character.

Not that he's ever been a completely unflawed hero, but Superman represents the need for flaws quite well. The Superman that the character developed into in the 1970s was so powerful that he routinely flew through the heart of the sun to clean off his costume. It became rather clear to the writers that such a hero could foil the average bank robber too easily to make a good story. So the villains in turn had to become more powerful, until the story lines were often ludicrous to the extreme.

The most interesting heros are the ones who have to face their own flaws in order to achieve their goals.
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Robert's Rules of Writing #36: Perfect Your Villain

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

And, on the flip side of not having a perfect hero, you also don't want to have a character who is a complete villain.

A villain is usually the antagonist of the story, the bad guy, the person who doesn't want to let the hero achieve the hero's goal. But a character who is villainous throughout borders on melodrama. When writing about villains, we have to remember that they often have the same desires and motivations as the good guys

As Masello notes, and many other writers have said, true villains don't think of themselves as evil. Instead, they think of themselves as doing good. Very few people (other than sociopaths) wake up in the morning and declare that they will do evil today. Instead, they try to do what they think is right, even if they know that general morality might disagree. Some of these people even consider themselves above regular morality, assuming that the ends justify the means.

I could look to the real world for examples, but I'm reluctant to do such a thing. Instead, I'll present the example of Raskolnikov from the Dostoyevsky novel Crime and Punishment, who early on in the novel has convinced himself that he has the right to commit murder for the greater good. And looking to the world of comic books, the current incarnation of Lex Luthor may be power-hungry, but it's his distrust of alien influences on humanity that most motivates him to fight against Superman.

In one of the stories I worked on recently, my hero, a young woman, faced off against the villain, a middle-aged man, at the very end. Although it's slightly cliched, he explained to her the motivations behind his actions, and for a moment there my hero's resolve wavered. The villain did in fact have excellent reasons for his actions, actions that he truly believed would bring about a better world, even if it meant killing a few people -- such as my hero -- along the way. Fortunately, she stuck to her resolve and defeated the villain rather than joining him in his evil ways.

One other final thought. When I took his course on comic book writing, Dennis O'Neil advised us to give the villain an advantage of some sort over the hero in every story, so that it would always look more hopeless for the hero until the end. I think that also falls under Masello's rule #36; after all, the more advantages you give your villain, the more perfect your villain becomes.