Fix 9: Un-purpling Your Prose

Why Purple Prose is a very bad idea:

 

If you’re wondering why I have taken so long to update I will tell you. Between having to write a very drawn out paper on Shakespeare plays I’ve seen, breaking into three parts (Why Merchant of Venice can only not be anti-Semitic if all characters are played up as being bad people, Why the witches in Macbeth being played as children allow for Satan to guide the story, and how Claudio from Much Ado About Nothing comes off as an abusive spouse unless he’s played like an emotionally stunted soldier), combined with a severe lack of sleep, added to viewing a very not good “lost” Shakespeare Play (which ought to remain lost), with a very sudden decision to travel alone to Stratford to see Merchant of Venice again, and then getting off at the wrong bus station, you’d be very tired and unlikely to write even a grand posting on how not to write a Mary Sue.

 

As you can tell, I fairly well fail at purple prose, but you should also be able to tell from that last insane paragraph that too much detail or information can be a very bad thing. All of what I said was true, including getting lost in the equivalent of Hickville, UK. Unfortunately what I wrote is not that interesting. My own eyes skip over all of it, desperately looking for a point and never finding it. My whole week could be summed up like this: papers, no sleep, Stratford, Shakespeare, Hickville UK, Patrick Stewart, Kuroshitsuji, tired. Or even better: I had a long week.

 

One of the most important parts of writing is to give enough information to get people interested, but not enough to drown them in useless words. Clearly the first paragraph was not the best way to go about writing anything. It is both overly wordy and unclear. The second summary is also unclear, but it’s also brief, and has the added benefit that it’s random enough that someone might actually care to ask what all those words have in common. The last summary is concise to the fault that no one will care about my weekend.

 

Now you may be thinking: No one cares already. This is true, but it’s only because I have not made you care about it. I started reading Kuroshitsuji this weekend. I finished it within 48 hours even going to Stratford in between. I was surprised at how good it was (as I had previously assumed that it was an over stylized shojo manga that was a shota version of Godchild.) I had tried reading the first chapter about five times and never got past page ten. It seemed boring to me, and the fanart I’d seen had only added to my suspicion that it wouldn’t be a series I would like. Then I read the TVTropes article. I was surprised that while heavily stylized it was a Shonen manga in the vein of some kind of twisted version of Sherlock Holmes, and all the characters were very believable (even for all the ass-pulls the Manga-ka does).  I would have enjoyed this series earlier but the problem is that no one actually ever made me care.

 

One of my favorite books is Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. For all the faults of the book, it’s the one that taught me that you have to start a book with a bang or no one’s going to give a damn. I’m surprised by how popular Kuroshitsuji is, given that the first two chapters (what I normally give a series at best) were very dull and uninteresting. Then again I’m surprised that anyone ever read Twilight, when it takes about 60 pages before it gets addictive enough that you can’t put it down.

 

For all writers it is their solemn duty to make their audience care. I’m not saying you have to write a car explosion on the first page, but your first sentence has to be a catch. For my first book my opening paragraph:

 

“I killed myself.  I did not do it because I was troubled, or because I wanted to stop living.  My family was average.  I was not abused.  I was not bored.  I was not bullied.  I just felt like it.  I just wanted to know what it felt like to shoot yourself in the head.”

 

If you can’t make your characters likeable then it’s very hard to keep your audience, but first you have to catch the reader’s attention. You know what doesn’t get people’s attention? A lot of description. No matter how beautiful the prose, a reader must be trained to slow down as read the description. I’m not a big believer in feng shui, but I believe in feng shui of the text. A friend of mine and I were having an argument about our works. He felt that he would be very insulted if he thought people weren’t reading all of his words. The problem with that view point that really only Philosophers reads every word. Most people read very quickly, focusing mainly on dialogue.

 

There is nothing wrong with this. The only way someone will read every word in your story is if they read it over and over. Consider that it gives them something new to discover every time so they have to keep coming back. What you need to learn to do I guide the reader’s eye to what you want them to see. Punctuation catches the eye the easiest, and dialogue is often the first thing people look at. You can us “I said”, “he said”, “she said”, etc over and over again because chances are that no one will see them. They are something people not and keep going. They are minor speed bumps to slow down the readers enough that they don’t miss anything. That being said if you often adding things like “She murmured softly” just to change up words then your reader will get annoyed. They need to be slowed down a little, but not so much that they notice it.

 

The phenomenon of not wanting to use the same word twice is something writers have drilled into their heads by middle school. You don’t start the sentence the same way every time. You don’t use the same word twice in a sentence or paragraph to describe something. You don’t use the same “big word” (not the little ones like “the, like, and, if, or, of, to, it, etc”) twice in the same paragraph or even page if you can help it. This is where purple prose comes from.

 

The problem with purple prose is that it only deals with half of the writing rules.  You may have noticed that I started three different sentences the same way in the paragraph above. I did so because I was using a Rhetorical Device. If you’ve ever done any kind of speech writing you should know what these are. They are techniques you use to make your writing more persuasive. Normally it’s spoken, but I’ve noticed it can work just as well (if not better) written because it’s more subliminal. Repeating a word or starting a sentence the same way over and over is bad, unless you’re doing it to emphasize a point.

 

I have seen plenty of stories that are generally good where the author connected a trait to a description. I can’t remember any but from Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels Trilogy. She repeats certain turn of phrases over and over again, but you always know what she’s trying to convey in those times. Whenever anyone says anything “too softly”, you know that something very bad wrong is either being described or reacted to. Whenever Jaenelle (the lead character/Jesus-figure/Macguffin/possible Cannon-Sue) speaks in a sepulcher voice it’s because she is dealing with death as Witch. Whenever Daemon Sadi (or his father Saetan) get the “bored, sleepy” look it means that someone is about to suffer greatly for something very evil/stupid they did. The reader always can pick out these times, because those specific phrases are connected to it.

 

Now, I love the Black Jewels Trilogy, but it does lean on purple prose pretty hard to the point where some people can’t read it at all. So let’s go with something else. One of my favorite movies is Shakespeare in Love (say what you want about Oscar thefts, it’s a damn fine movie, infinitely watchable, and much more enjoyable than watching people die in Saving Private Ryan). Geoffrey Rush’s character (Henslowe) has a bit of dialogue near the beginning of the film:

 

Philip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do?

Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Hugh Fennyman: How?

Philip Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

 

Both that theme and that last line are repeated over and over in the film. In fact it’s one of the central points of the film.  It’s a running gag, a catchphrase, and a pre-packaged meme all rolled into one, combined with basically defining the process of the movie.  A lot of movies and a lot of books have such things: lines, words, turns of phrase, things repeated over and over again, things the reader connects to characterization and foreshadowing. These are important parts of writing. The problem is that they’re a little hard to do right, especially since most people who write purple prose (normally 11-16 year old girls) have only ever repeated words and phrases in (at best) C-worthy English papers, or Elementary school work.  They have grasped the “Don’t repeat words” part, but not the “How words can be repeated part”.

 

Purple Prose is a symptom of Mathematical English. As nonsensical as that may sound, it’s actually very common in a certain part writing (mainly public school writing). One of the (many, many, many, etc) problems with public schools is the idea that kids are special snowflakes; combined with the idea that teacher can teach if given a script and every student can learn by being strapped in a desk. One of my best English teachers switched counties because ours did something where teachers were literally given scripts and told to teach from the script. They had to follow the exact lesson plans, no matter if they’re students were struggling with the material or bored with the material.  I had lots of higher level classes, so after the scripting went into affect I wasn’t touched by it, but my friends were. I would have not done well with it.

 

The problem with scripting anything is that it leaves no margin of error. Higher level math has margins of error, but that’s not how most people think of math. Most people think of math as cut and dry, wrong or right, only one answer, only one way to get there. The problem with public schools is that not only do they teach math this way, they teach subjects like History, Science, and English this way. Math may recover, for the people who love math often love the conformity. But students who feel that subjects like Science (which actually do need creativity to guide discovery) and History (which is just telling stories in the form of real life, and therefore only a real sadist can make it boring) are cut and dry, only one answer, only one way to get there. It means that students will not only not (ignore the double negative) learn these subjects, but those who actually can learn it won’t be able to share their interests with other students because they won’t know how.

 

Worst of all is English. I spoke with one of my Professors about why we have to write English papers the other day. She said that the point was to figure out how to describe something in a concise and guided manner, with the goal of one day writing books, at least that was the historical ideal. Now though, the goal of English majors is to (UGH!) only become English professors. I’m one of the few morons who actually wants to (and does) write books; good books that make money. As lofty of a goal as this is, a lot of students refuse to aim for it. For this, I blame the public school Mathematical English.

 

Mathematical English is formulaic, while demanding the students have interesting things to say. This is very possible, most classical music, and every sonnet fits this standard… the problem is that Mathematical English makes little room for controversial thought. For one of my classes I wrote a detailed piece on how the relationship of Dumbledore and Harry mirrors the relationship of teenagers to religion. If I wrote this (very well thought out, and actually fairly brilliant) argument in High School I would have received a low grade for writing on ‘Pop Fiction’ of ‘Non-literary merit’. But the point is that I never would have written anything like it at all in High School. Mathematical English forces conformity in a subject that demands freedom. The result is both schizophrenic, and bad. Students end up with ambiguous feelings toward the subject (as there’s a thrill to having written a good paper, but little understand of how you got there), and the writing is often pretty poor or at least rather dull.

 

Purple prose is caused by Mathematical English. The reason is that students are taught that all scholarly writing must be as dry as the Gobi, and all creative writing must have flowing, flowery poetry and descriptions of ridiculous length. If a student is ever is forced to read O Henry the teacher will often comment on the greatness of the brevity, but also insinuate that the student will never be able to write that well, and should try for flowery prose instead. In fact, what most students are encourage to write is something very like Eurdora Welty’s “A Worn Path”, a good but highly over read/analyzed short story that every student will probably read before getting out of High School (if you haven’t, just Wiki it, you probably have and have since blocked it out).

 

The problem with this particular type of writing is that it cannot end well. I’m a Creative Writing major because it forces me to write. The problem is that what my teachers want is “literary prose”. The problem with “Literary prose” is that I’ve never in my life read a piece that was specifically designed to be literary and was at all good. Shakespeare was out to make money, not change the world. He kept writing, and talent combined with skill and luck turned out that he did change the world.

 

Yet Mathematical English forces students to believe that they can change the world with “Literary Prose” and short stories (both of which is basically a lie, especially now), when in reality all English Majors do is write things to impress other English majors that very few people will actually read. Short stories don’t sell. Literary magazines don’t sell. Novels sell. Genre fiction (aka, anything not about 18th century aristocrats who speak like they have marble up their ass, or people who sit around in New York, drink, and bitch about their lives.) sells. Comedy sells.

 

In my experience good works of literary merit are often old things that were at the time pop fiction, and all the things that are written as “Literary” is discussed by old scholars and no one else gives a shit. The fact that students are encouraged to write like this… well, problem is an understatement.

 

Now that I’ve harped on for six pages about Mathematical English, how does this apply to Purple Prose? I’ve said it before that Mathematical English leads to purple prose, and it’s true. The normal Purple Prosers are 11-16 year old girls who have only ever been taught that good works are described in flowery language, and good characters get a lot of description. As such, when a girl begins her writing career her prose is often purple.

 

Because purple prose is very hard to write (being not good and long winded), most of the rest of the story is very bare bones. The girls pick out every beautiful word they can find to describe their character, desperately trying to not use the same word (often going to the thesaurus, which any college English Prof. will tell you is a really bad idea). The end result can be best summed up with this strip from Ensign Sue Must Die: http://www.interrobangstudios.com/potluck/index.php?strip_id=992

 

Feel free to laugh… I know I do.

 

Fortunately, I never had the problem with purple prose (at least not in fanfiction), because I had the problem of getting so excited about what I was writing and getting it all out, that I had the most bare bones writing ever, and not in a good O Henry kind of way, but in the instant love/character mood whiplash kind of way.

 

So how do you fix purple prose? A lot of it comes with character description. How you ever done that exercise where you have to describe everything around you? Good, because we’re doing almost the exact opposite! I’m going to work with the description from Ensign Sue Must Die, but I suggest finding one of your own characters.

 

First, I want you to make a list of the traits you want to portray in your description of your character.

 

Mary Sue: 17, blonde hair, blue eyes, attractive, confident.

 

Second, write the most bare bones description you can with all those traits, try to make it one sentence.

 

Ensign Mary Sue, a beautiful blonde haired, blue-eyed seventeen year old girl, walked confidently to the turbolift.

 

Third, fill in a few things. Feel free to make a couple of sentences.

 

Ensign Mary Sue was a beautiful blonde haired, blue-eyed seventeen year old girl. She walked with a tall sort of confidence as she headed for the turbolift.

 

Forth, fill in more. Keep filling in until you have one paragraph (only one, comprised of 4-7 sentences and no more) of description for your character. Remember you build on what you have already.

Ensign Mary Sue was a beautiful blonde haired, blue-eyed seventeen year old girl. She walked with a tall sort of confidence as she headed for the turbolift. She felt a definite satisfaction in the way she looked, knowing that she was every bit as attractive as she felt, and she felt like a tigress.  While definitely not regulation, Ensign Sue had modified her uniform, shortening the skirt and wearing fishnets that she thought were much sexier than the standard uniform. By sheer force of personality she had yet to be reprimanded for the changes.

 

Fifth, build from what you have and keep writing.

 

Ensign Mary Sue was a beautiful blonde haired, blue-eyed seventeen year old girl. She walked with a tall sort of confidence as she headed for the turbolift. She felt a definite satisfaction in the way she looked, knowing that she was every bit as attractive as she felt, and she felt like a tigress.  While definitely not regulation, Ensign Sue had modified her uniform, shortening the skirt and wearing fishnets that she thought were much sexier than the standard uniform. By sheer force of personality she had yet to be reprimanded for the changes.

 

For as long as she could remember she’d studied hard to be able to work in Star Fleet, but now that she’d achieved her dream all she could think about was her other dream: the other, quieter, but more driving dream. Her father was a Star Fleet officer. While she said all she wanted was to follow in his footsteps, that was a bit south of the truth. In reality she wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps and marry a Star Fleet Officer. So far she’d achieved phase one: join Star Fleet. Now all she had to do was catch the eye of some handsome officer and her life’s goal would be completed.

 

As you can see it’s a far cry better than what was originally written by way of description. The physical description is short because really no one needs to know all that. What’s more important is character, back story, and plot. In two paragraphs I’ve set up the character’s image, her personality, and started off the story (clearly a romance where she tries to seduce all the officers… but that’s why I’m not writing any more of this). Now, I couldn’t make it all better… clearly, but it’s a start. The Prose is also no longer purple.

 

((You can fuss at me for not using the actual character’s backstory… but the real Ensign Mary Sue (or Ensign Mary Amethyst Star Enoby Aiko Archer Picard Janeway Sue to her friends) was clearly written for laughs, and the only way to make her at all plausible was to do some major revisions))

 

What’s most important is to start from the bare bones. Sometimes it’s hard to cut things, so it might be better for me to describe one of my own characters in the same manner, using all 5 steps.

 

  1. 1.       Hope Celestre: Demon, black hair, purple eyes, over-intelligent.

 

  1. 2.       Hope was too smart for her own good and her eyes too purple to be human.

 

 

  1. 3.       Hope was too smart for her own good. Physically she stood out too much; her eyes alone were far too purple to be human.

 

  1. 4.       Hope was too smart for her own good. Physically she stood out too much; her eyes alone were far too purple to be human. But it wasn’t her purple eyes that set her apart, or her lovely black hair, or her small stature. It wasn’t even her child-like demeanor. It was her intelligence.

 

 

  1. 5.       Hope was too smart for her own good. Physically she stood out too much; her eyes alone were far too purple to be human. Her sisters, as beautiful as they were, could pass for human, but she couldn’t pass for anything but a demon. It wasn’t her purple eyes that set her apart, or her lovely black hair, or her small stature. It wasn’t even her child-like demeanor. It was her intelligence.

 

Intelligence seemed like a gift to must, and in reality she wouldn’t trade her mind or her nature for another’s, but it made her very lonely. Her mind worked so much faster than her mouth or hands ever could. Sometimes her sentences would seem disjointed as if she were dumb. Sometimes she’d refer to something she’d sworn she’d said allowed, only to realize she’d forgotten to say it in the process of thinking. Sometimes she’d simply sit absolutely still, unmoving as to not distract from herself from the inner workings of her mind. Her whole presence, so wrapped up in her own mind, was incapable of hiding her oddity, incapable of hiding what she was.

 

 

 

Start small, and work your way up. A lot of problems with purple prose will phase itself out after a while. It’s very exhausting, and generally not worth it. If the girl wants to stick with writing, she’ll generally write herself out of purple prose. If you’d like to speed up your own process, try to write as bare bones as you can and build from there. It will take practice, but you can fix your purple prose addiction, I swear.

 

 

Now, as this is hedging on ten pages, I will leave you with this: I am well too verbose for my own good. I will wax poetic about people and ideas, but I know how to keep the purple out of my fiction, even if it ends up in my essays. I’m also, apparently, a fan of irony.

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Fix 7: Inspired Naming

Sometimes when you make a character you’re making it for a certain parameter, like you need a Victorian Lord who trades magical creatures (Lord Jasper Sutherland, aka: the highly unresearched, but I don’t care.) Sometimes you see or read something that makes you go: “I have to fix that!” A lot of people will run to write a fanfiction to fix said problem, and sometimes you go and create a character to fill the void.

 

Anyone who has heard my rant on Aro from Twilight (which I will not repeat here because it’s very long and I get very mad) will contest this with me. My often mentioned ultimate Villain, Erin the Green was impossible to write until I finished reading the Twilight books. I was so angry at what Stephanie Meyers had reduced her main villain Aro (who was a genuinely good character) for the sake of not killing any of her character. The more I described him the more I came to realize how much what I was describing was Erin. Suddenly I could write her. She’d terrifying, but I suddenly understood her enough that I could write her. I’m still too timid to write her as she needs to be written, but I have hope that she will eventually get her own book.

 

I’m someone who reads a lot of Manga (Manwha as well), and one that I truly wish I could find English copies of is one by Chiho Saito (the creator of Revolutionary Girl Utena), called Bronze no Tenshi. This series is what originally got me interested in Alexander Pushkin, and through him the Decembriski and the Decembrist Revolt.  You don’t have to look it up, just know that I really love Russian History, specifically that point in time. If I was a Historian that’s what I would specialize in. All of this came about because of Chiho Saito’s historical romance manga… the problem? The real Alexander Pushkin looks nothing like the one in the Manga.

 

Now I love the real Pushkin up and down all over the place, but I wanted to create someone who actually fit the image in the Manga.  So for my own purposes I created my own Alexander Pushkin (who goes by Pushkin as I have like five other Alexander’s). My Pushkin is very little like the real one, except they are both very passionate men, and once they do get married they are hopelessly in love with their wives.  My Pushkin, unlike a revolutionary poet, is a General, and one of the top three tacticians in the demon race (yes, he’s a demon, roll with it). He’s also got a terrible reputation, one that he himself has made by his own actions and stupidity (which he will freely admit), and as such is only ever able to work in minor kingdoms.  

 

In my last posts I spoke about some new Roleplaying characters I created. One of them I talked about as having the copy-pasted back story of Othello, plus the loyalty and position of Taybur Sibigat from Tamora Peirce’s Trickster’s Queen (my all time favorite book). In doing so I ended up considering inspirations for characters. I’m a big proponent of not naming characters after people you know, but I’m also for naming characters after other characters and historical figures.

 

The Othello like character is Jimajen (the last name of the ruling family in the Trickster Series), Pushkin is clearly named for Alexander Pushkin (to the point that my Pushkin gets mad at the comparisons, because the real Pushkin was kind of ugly). I have a character named after the incredible badass from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Raven (Dmitri Ravinoff). I have two characters named after Taybur Sibigat, a spy named Taybur Dodeka (the last name being another from the book), and King Sibigat. I have two characters named after Jasper from Twilight (Lord Jasper Sutherland, and Jasper the self destructive model). I have one character named for Bob Hope. One for Hero from Much Ado About Nothing. One named for Sjakalen Kaizer from Kaizers Orchestra. 

 

Most of these characters are good characters. There’s nothing wrong with naming a character after another one, if the name doesn’t match up with the culture around it then you have an interesting thing to explain (Dmitri had this problem, and he’s much more interesting and fleshed out for it.)  Sometimes it can give you an interesting talking point. Pushkin’s wife (my friend’s character) often quotes Tyger, Tyger, (Pushkin is part tiger demon), which makes an amusing dialogue about Romantic poetry.  Sjakalen, besides having a ridiculously hard name to pronounce, now has connections to Scandinavia because of his name.

 

Here’s where the problem comes in: Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way. Besides the fact that I’m not even sure I got all the words in the right order, or if the “N” in Dark’ness should be capitalized after the apostrophe, or the millions of other problems with the name, it’s actually the last name that’s our current topic of discussion. Ebony (or Enoby, Enony, or really whatever) is the lead Mary-Suepreme of the painfully bad (and painfully funny,) “Harry Potter” “fan fiction” My Immortal.  This story is so bad that it’s famous, and possibly Troll-fiction. The prose is so purple it’s almost black, and where it’s not purple, it’s minimalistic to the point of not making sense. In the opening paragraph of incredible description the main character states her full name (which I’m not retyping for all the world), and finishes by saying that she’s not related to Gerard Way, but people say they look alike… Gerard Way is the lead singer of My Chemical Romance, something I didn’t know until reading that fic (now it’s burned into my memory for all eternity).

 

The problem with having the last name Way is not that the character has the name, but that the writer has to stop and mention that she’s not related to said real person. As I said, I had no idea who Gerard Way was until reading the name fifty-hundred times throughout the fic. Most of the times when you name a character after another character or a real person most people aren’t going to automatically know.  

 

The point of naming a character after something/someone is to give yourself a touchstone. It’s also a great way to force you to expand the character’s back story. If you have to have a character with an American name sat in a Japanese school, then explain why: Did her mother marry and American? Is she transferring from America? Does she have an American first name, and Japanese last name? Is that because her parents really like American culture? What problems come from this?

 

I have two characters who are American girls but have Japanese names. The first (Sakura) is because her mother really liked Japanese culture, and picked the name for her, and she doesn’t like it because no one pronounces it like how she wants, and it doesn’t fit. Her daughter is named Satori, because Sakura’s husband picked it after his wife.

 

You can be inspired by other characters, by their names, or personalities, but you need to be aware that when you’re creating your own character is needs to be your own character. Pushkin is named for a real person, but he’s also nothing like the real person, or the character in the Manga that his image is taken from.  Erin has the best parts of Aro, but she has so many of her own parts that the only thing the Aro parts did was make her suddenly writable. 

 

So here’s your homework: create a character, but let it be based on another character or person. I suggest picking a historical name (no Adolfs or Napoleons or Shakespeares, try poets or military figures because they aren’t as well known). If you’re going to base you character on another character then I suggest a Shakespeare (who was literally the master of this) character. If you use the name of a person/character, then don’t let your character have more than 3 traits similar to the original. If you base your character off another character they need a new name/location/time period. Use the same personality or backstory. Once you’ve done this, put your character into a location. Figure out how their name/back story affects them by being in a different place than the original. Figure out how the character’s personality is different and the same. If they have the same personality, then figure out what back story would make them have the same personality.

 

Remember that whatever character you make, though based on someone/thing else, is entirely yours, and you should treat it as such.

Fix 5: Flash Characters

Readymade Villians, just add water!

 

While I haven’t specifically talked about different types of Sues, I suppose I should try today. I’ll be touching on the “Villian-Sue”. Now honestly, I haven’t seen a lot of these, because my villains were never supposed to be liked, not when I was in my Sue phase anyway. Now I have villains who range from being terrifying if attractive, to so likable you almost wish they could win but they’re wrong.  The last one involves an OC villain for a fanfiction, where I didn’t want anyone evil, just someone who feels his country will be wronged if the heir becomes he monarch, and is willing to do anything to stop that from happening. Ironically, the audience really loves the villain, and some of them really want him to win in the end.

 

Making characters is kind of my thing. Right now if I do any personal writing, it’s often little character sketches. Things without plot, simply describing a cool character idea I had.  It’s actually a good exercise to do for writing, because there’s no push to go anywhere, you’re simply laying out back story, and getting a feel for your character. The last time I did this I wrote about an atheist bounty hunter in the old west. He’s a fantastically interesting character, but I don’t know enough about westerns to really write things with him.

 

So, how do you write a good villain? Well, I can’t really tell you. The problem with Mary-Sue litmus tests is that they’re really only for identifying one type of character, and sometimes the character isn’t a Sue once they’re within the context of the story. Same thing with the Villain. If your villain is ridiculously powerful, but has something tragic happen to them so their destroying things is ‘explained away’, then you have a very common type of villain. These appear often in movies and books, and everywhere. What makes it interesting is if the hero’s journey include great struggle against the villain.

 

The other thing to consider about the above villain is that unless you’re doing a duel journey (the journey of the hero vs the journey of the villain) it’s hard for the villian’s tragic past to not seem… unnecessary. Remember this mantra “Less is more, less is more”. Hannibal Lector is far more threatening when you don’t know about his past. Same thing with Darth Vader. *spoiler for HP book 7 ending* Voldemort is less threatening when Harry verbally reduces him to that of man. *end spoiler* This is part of what’s wrong with the 7th movie, but I digress.

 

How does any of this pertain to the title? Well first off, characters get easier to make the more you make them. Your first character is often a Sue because you want so badly for people to love them and you spend so much time on them that you over burden them with things. I have characters that I’ve been working on for almost as long as I’ve had my Sue. One of them includes a character who I recently discovered had a mind that worked so fast that she often had trouble communicating. It’s a clear case of Blessed with Suck, but it also makes her interesting to write as she struggles to be understood. (It’s also an interesting variation on the Cassandra story, as my character may know something that could help, but she simply never speaks up because she’s so lost in thought that she forgets to say anything at all.)

 

This character I have just mentioned has taken years to perfect, and now she’s a very well formed character. You can work on a character for years, watch them grow and change within the confines of their original character. It’s a good thing. On the other hand, you don’t always have the time for those fantastically well formed characters. Save them for your magnum opus. Instead, when writing a book, or starting an RP, or something you often have a clear idea in mind, but no pre-formed character to fit the mold of the story.

 

I have a friend who I’ve been RPing with for about 3 years now. We know each other’s styles and characters very well. We ended a 2-year running RP that spanned about 2 hundred years before starting over with it because we go tired of dealing with demons and the characters formed for that world, a lot of whom were characters I’d had for many, many years.  We moved on to some other ideas, but we finally decided on things with political intrigue, like our first RP, but more normal. One of them is set with a basis for a book I’m writing, but set in the Victorian Era, instead of the present (which is a fantastic way for me to explore my world without having to taint the characters I already have).

 

For the plot there’s a witch, and a Lord who she serves. A main part of the plot up until now has just been their interaction (I don’t do RPs without a promise of a future romance, even if the romance is really screwed up). So far my main character (the Lord) has been the antagonist in the story… Lord Jasper Southerland, trader in magical creatures that are otherwise unknown to society (We’re knowingly playing fast and loose with history). Then along came Wilhelm, Wilhelm the Witch Breaker. A man who, like ‘the hero’ is on the outs of society because of his birth status (Jasper is probably a bastard, but his father acknowledged him as a legitimate son. Wilhelm is a confirmed bastard). At the same time, Jasper has more social connections, and his also physically stronger than Wilhelm. Wilhelm, though needing Jasper, hates him because he can’t use him.

 

All of Wilhelm’s back story, appearance, and personality came to me in a flash.  He’s perfectly wonderful for the story we have going, and he’s going to be a fantastic villain. A lot about writing is very much practice makes perfect… another lot of it is stealing strategically then being creative what you stole. Among the Preacher community the saying goes: “A good preacher steals parts of other sermons. A great preacher steals the whole thing outright.” Another thing to keep in mind is that Shakespeare, the God of Writing, never wrote and original play. All of his plays were based on other stories. Most of the characters based on other characters. To quote the bible: “”What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Nothing new exists anymore. It has been done. Well, what does that mean for the writer?

 

To continue with Christian type writers, on the same TV Tropes page I found the bible quote (I’m so too lazy to actually pull out my own bible and look it up when TV Tropes nicely did it for me.) I found this:

“…No man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

—C. S. Lewis

 

Here’s an example from the 2nd RP I’m doing with my friend: For the RP I needed a character who is infinitely loyal to the Queen (I’m sure you’ve noticed I play all the male roles in these RPs by now). So I created Jimajen, if the name looks familiar it’s from Tamora Pierce’s Trickster series (of which the 2nd book is my favorite book.) The RP is about spies and political intrigue in a fictional, non-magical, medieval based world. The two sources I borrow the most from end up being Tamora Pierce (who corners the market on good fictional, magical, medieval based worlds) and Shakespeare (who’s Shakespeare).  For Jimajen I literally copy-pasted Othello’s back story, and then added Taybur Sibigat (Tamora Pierce)’s loyalty and position. Jim is the closest friend the Queen has, desperately loyal, and desperately in love with a woman who can (for personal and political reasons) never love him back. Instant character, new and interesting. I’ll probably never use him outside the RP, but Jimajen is a good character.

 

“But that’s a hero!” you say, “What about villains?”

 

It’s about the same actually. Wilhelm the Witch Breaker came from a concept I already had in the story (the Witch Breaker), combined with having just returned from seeing Much Ado about Nothing, and wanting a character like Don John, throw in the boyish good looks of Teaser from Anne Bishop’s Sebastian. Teaser is actually a good character, not a hero, but close, in his world. This is just to say that you can get things from everywhere.

 

Now unlike Jimajen, Wilhelm is a lot more his own person. He is somewhat like a couple of my other characters (including the terrifying one I keep talking about) in that he doesn’t see people as people, but toys he can play with or frogs he can dissect. This causes a lot of problems with Jasper because Wilhelm can’t see Jasper like that, and it really pisses him off *understatement*. Even though I said Wilhelm is his own person, I can easily trace his influences.

 

Jimajen, while being a lot more obvious about where I got his influences, in personality is a lot more original than Wilhelm. I’ve had characters that have similar personalities to Jimajen, but they were like Tset, the Cinderella-like half-breed son of the Tiger King. With Jimajen he is both hard and military, while sweet and strong for his queen. It makes him very believable. For me he is very original compared to my other types of characters.

 

To create a flash character you can’t simply just say: “I’m going to create a character!” It’s a much smarter idea to need the character for something, like a Roleplay. In the first book I wrote every single character was a flash character. This includes the narrator/main character.  All I had was the first line that popped in my head: “I killed myself”, from there I knew I was writing a ghost story told from the point of view of a ghost writing a blog. Everything else about that book came from simply filling in what I needed when I needed… and it surprisingly good.

 

You can create flash characters simply by doing the NaNoWriMo thing of just putting words on paper; but that doesn’t always turn out good product. Another way to create a good flash character is to create a character who fits a parameter. For Jasper I needed a man who was a lord and traded magical creatures. I thought he was going to be a jerk… I just didn’t realize how much until I started writing, or that he was essentially still a child in many ways.

 

Flash characters very rarely come out fully formed, but unlike other characters that you create and tinker with, all the tinkering comes in the writing process. With a normal character you create them to play with, and later write them down. You create a flash character while writing. Mary-Sues are often the characters you play with first. Now, the characters you play with will often end up being much more interesting, but they can also become over burdened with interesting.

 

If you know that you write Mary-Sues, it is you assignment to create a few flash characters for RPs or a fanfiction. Just start writing. You don’t have to show them to anyone, they just have to be. Remember that you won’t be completely original, and that’s fine. Take parts of a couple of random and non-relating characters, throw them together, give them a new name, and go.

 

So what about a flash villain? Well, honestly the best parts of villains is that you don’t know a lot about them. It’s sometimes hard to write a good villain if they exist first (although this is a good way to get either poor or great villains). Instead, start with your hero, then you can do two things 1) make the villain be someone who can stop the hero by being strong against the hero’s weaknesses. 2) make the villain a variation on the hero.

 

Type one is essentially an Iago, a person who is able to get the hero where it hurts. Iago is well trusted, but also manipulative. He’s able to get Othello thinking his wife is cheating on him. The character doesn’t have to be manipulative, in fact Iago is far and away the best villain ever written, so much so that I don’t suggest trying to write anything like him. It will pale in comparison. Ironically, the closet modern correlation is the Joker from The Dark Knight. This is ironic because the Joker is also our next example.

 

Type two makes me think of Batman and the Joker. In one of the Tim Burton Batmans, Batman (in human form) complements something in a woman’s home. Later the Joker breaks in and complements the exact same thing. Batman is a great hero because he’s only about two degrees away from the villains. The DK Joker is both a type one and two because he recognizes this matter of degrees, and his similarity to Batman (no sane man dresses in costume and beats people up). He also tries to poke Batman in his weaknesses to force him to admit the similarity.  Again, this is a once in a generation (or maybe a century) type character, don’t try to write it. If you do create the next Iago or Joker it’ll happen, but not if you try and force it.

 

So what do you? You have your hero, and you figure out what are his weaknesses. You either make a character who specifically poke those weaknesses (whether they mean to or not), or you create a character who is very similar to the hero, but just a little different. Wilhelm is a type two. He’s similar to Jasper, but he takes Jasper’s dislike of people and general meanness about ten steps farther.

 

Now, I suggest RPing to do this, because it’s a great way to get instant feedback and it’s okay to mess up. To do this I’d suggest trying to do more than the standard one-word-sums-it-up idea (Band, Highschool, Doctor, Slave, etc). I normally do one on ones, and really only romances, but I like epics a lot as well. So I’m going to list a few ideas I’ve tried before, and you can run with them as well.

 

  1. 1.       A writer has one (or more) of their characters come alive.  There’s a fun bit of meta with this, but I don’t like writing writers, it’s really uncomfortable for him.
  2. 2.       A bad man wishes on a star, and then the star falls and says she’s there to grant him all his wishes. This one I’m still doing. I saw it as someone else’s idea, but they were looking for a pure-hearted person to make the wish… which I think would be boring.
  3. 3.       A Cheerleader is secretly in love with a nerd.
  4. 4.       A Witch and Witch Hunter fall in love.
  5. 5.       A princess from an isolated country has to go on a quest with an outsider so she can save her father.

 

All of these are very random, just one I’ve done, or liked that. Start out with the hero, and then you can figure out the villain. Note that who I’d have as the villain will not necessarily be who you would have.  I listed heroes, but you need to write the villain as well, or at least an antagonist (the person trying to stop the action). It’s often hard to make the story do anything if you don’t have an antagonist (ironically).

 

So, go write and have fun!