May 14, 2012

Degrees of Diabolicalness - Part III

Continuing on where we left off last, let's wrap up our series on the Degrees of Diabolicalness that the all-time greatest villains had with probably the most enduring one...

Third Degree of Diabolicalness: They surpass being merely a "bad guy" and become the very embodiment of evil to their world

I think this trait is what separates a great villain from a mythic villain. A great villain is the source of conflict, struggle and pain for the hero, whereas a mythic villain literally is the symbol of conflict, struggle, pain and yes, evil, for an entire world.

Think about those final three villains from our March Madness style bracket of evil. Isn't the Wicked Witch the very personification of evil in the Land of Oz? Doesn't her dark shadow of cruelty and terror cast a worrying spectre over the entire stretch of the yellow brick road? I'm fairly confident that if you were to ask any residents of the Land of Oz what they thought evil was, there answer would be a swift and shuddering, "The Wicked Witch."

But the beauty of a villain that embodies evil is that their impact goes beyond mere fear or pain. They get inside your mind, tempting you, twisting the world to reflect what they believe it should be and draw you in to a world where there is no good or evil, only power. The world as you know it to be is an illusion. The only real world is the world they see and envision, a world that should be governed and ruled by them because it would be a better, more orderly world, wouldn't it?

In essence they get you, the reader, to question the world itself and who you are/what you believe just like they do to the hero. And it is this questioning of self and of how we see the world that lifts the villain to another level of tyranny because forcing a hero to overcome obstacles put in their path is one thing, but having a character who is so clearly evil be so convincingly manipulative to the point that the hero begins actually questioning the path they are on altogether, well that's just evil incarnate isn't it? That kind of psychological wound goes above and beyond ordinary conflict into the realm of a crisis of identity, belief and purpose. And doubt and despair in the heart of a hero is hard to watch, difficult to endure because a hero's belief and resolve is usually the only beacon of good in their world/story.

Lastly, a mythic villain provokes an almost visceral reaction within the reader. This is usually helped with a great musical theme (for movies) or distinct visual characteristics of ambiance and description (for literary mediums). Darth Vader had both of those in spades. Anytime you heard that classic theme of the Empire (yes that's right, the music you're hearing in your head right now) your chest tightened, your eyes fixed onto the screen and you couldn't turn away.

Now add on to that the ingenious breathing noise, the James Earl Jones voice, the dark and metallic outfit meshing man and machine so ruthlessly together, and then the cold, calculating efficiency of Vader's movements and actions, and you felt something every time Darth Vader was on the screen.

When you thought of evil in the galaxy, two hollow black eyes within a large helmet stared coldly out at you.

Which is just awesome, isn't it?

May 11, 2012

Degrees of Diabolicalness - Part II

Second Degree of Diabolicalness: You understand a little too well what fatal flaw led them down the dark path and why they do what they do

In my opinion, this is always what makes the absolute best villains: you can relate to them even in the face of their ruthless and outright diabolical machinations. No matter how vile, no matter how sick or cold-blooded their actions, you can see the method behind the madness and most of the times, and here's where it goes from scary to scary brilliant, it makes perfect sense.

To me, Batman's villains are the best example of a hero whose greatest enemies are ones that the reader can sympathize with more than we might ever think we should. Why? Because we know that given their situation, it's entirely possible to envision a reality where we would have done the exact same thing. People can label comic book and fantasy superheroes as being unrealistic all they want, but the truth of the matter is that the reason these forms of literature work so well (when they do) is because they utilize the archetypes that readers identify with, putting themselves into the shoes of the villain and saying, "Yep, I can see how it came to this."

Using Batman's gallery of rogues as the example, let's see if we can sympathize with the plight of the fall from grace that his villains experienced...

May 9, 2012

Degrees of Diabolicalness - Part I

They're half the reason you fall in love with the story even though they're typically the source of conflict and what makes the hero's journey so harrowing, enveloping and often times excruciating. They're the person you can't help but love to hate and consistently find yourself awestruck at their ability for evil.

That's right, I'm talking about the villain.

A little while ago I got together with some friends and we did a march madness style bracket of all the modern villains, individually ranking them from a1 seed villain (Darth Vader) all the way down to 16 seed villains (Biff Tannen) and then averaging them all up to get the final rankings for the seeding. What's so interesting to me is that despite our three very, VERY different opinions of who the best villains (and movies, and heroes, and comic book get the idea) of all time were, three of the final four villains were the same in every person's bracket. That's right, out of 64 modern villains, three of the final four were unanimous inclusions in every single bracket, defeating every other villain in their way.

Despite our personal tastes and differing perspectives on what makes a legendary villain so wonderful, Darth Vader, Dracula and the Wicked Witch of the West all earned a spot in the final four (the last spot was split between the Joker, Sauron and Voldemort; again, this was a modern villains list so more classical villains like Faust, Medusa, etc, weren't eligible). Now the reason I bring this up is because after further reflection, every single final four member possessed three traits, or as I like to call them, Degrees of Diabolicalness, that raised them from mere "bad guy" status to the "when you think of a villain, you think of them" place in modern history.

May 5, 2012

The Goldilocks Conundrum

Continuing our spirited discussion about reader preferences and how a reader's already preconceived likes and dislikes can alter the way they approach and interact with a story, I think chapter length is a fascinating example of something that really is quite ambiguous, having no real right or wrong value in and of itself, and yet there is typically a visceral divide between readers who prefer short chapters and those who love long chapters.

Both lengths have their advantages when it comes to pace and storytelling and the fans of each make excellent points as to why they prefer one to the other.

A shorter chapter, typically 3,500 words or less, will almost always move at a quick, crisp pace and really propel the reader (if it's written well) through a chapter that leaves the reader with that a sense of moving through the book at a good pace and thereby making good progress. In other words, they feel as though they are accomplishing something and the book "reads fast."

A longer chapter, usually somewhere between 4,000 - 7,000 words, has the benefit of really diving into that specific scene or event that takes place within that individual chapter, giving more weight and an almost "you can catch your breath and sink your teeth into this" feel where the reader can truly dig their toes into the sand and feel swallowed up in the world of the novel and experience a sublime suspension of disbelief that takes place in an excellent work of fiction.

Yet just like each length has its advantages, they also have disadvantages and like so many things in life the strengths of the chapter durations can also be their biggest weaknesses. A short chapter can feel too brief, incomplete and rushed if not handled delicately. And a long chapter can feel like a droning, directionless dump of description, aimless exposition and, for lack of a better word, drivel.

Those distinctly unique strengths and weaknesses are why I typically don't prefer either length as a blanket preference. To me, like most things involving writing and artistic construction, it is not the forms themselves that are right or wrong, good or bad, but how and where they are used. Ten back-to-back chapters that are less than 3,000 words each can seem a bit truncated and lacking depth no matter how much info is actually in them, just as ten back-to-back chapters over 6,000 words could seem monotonous and long-winded no matter how quick the story moves or how diverse the scenes are.

But why?

Well, take a glance over any good page in a book and I can promise you that you won't see everything fit uniformly together. Action is typically truncated, reading faster and choppier like the subject it is describing. Dialogue reads differently, shorter and to the fact at hand. Description is rich and more lengthy, flowing down a page. You get the idea.

We naturally want things we read or see to have an ebb and flow, a rising and falling action just like a great story does. This is why we have those wonderful things called paragraphs. We need, just as much as a narrative does, the separation of thoughts, of events, of dialogues, of description so that instead of it being a giant block of words that we must wade through on a page of text, the ink and paper feels like a flowing, meandering tapestry of movement through words and meaning.

That's why, even though I do enjoy shorter chapters more often than not, since they're a little more difficult to mess up, I believe that the scene and the arc of whatever story is being told in that chapter is what determines its length, not some preconceived method of chapter duration.

As it should be then, it is the story that organically determines the form. Not the other way around.

May 3, 2012

Into the middle, intentionally

A reader left an incredibly valuable piece of feedback on the Chapter Three comments' page to the point that I felt it merited a post all its own instead of a mere response in the comments section. The critique went as follows:

Anonymous said...

Just one opinion, but I don't know enough about these character's back stories and motivation yet to care much about them or the action. Do you feel the back stories and motivation have to be withheld as much as they have been? Do you feel you have given "enough" so far?

Now that's a fairly loaded piece of feedback so I'm going to address my explanation in two parts but to start us off I'll just respond by saying, yes, I do believe the backstory of the protagonist and the major characters is withheld to the proper amount for the first three chapters of this story (or any novel, really). Were we at chapter fifteen or twenty and you still had very little clue as to what has precipitated the major conflict in the story and how Jaden and company fit, then I'd say we have a serious problem.
However, since we are quite literally only a few thousand words into the narrative, the relative mystery surrounding Jaden and the overall history of the characters is not only intentionally done but is in keeping with the classic story arc of epics for the last two thousand years. More specifically though, there are two reasons why the story is constructed this way...
First, the concept of in media res must be understood for this first explanation to have any weight. In terms of the greatest epic stories of all time (not that I'm comparing this manuscript to those in anyway; they are, however, the goal to which every storyteller should strive for), every single one of them begins not at the very beginning of the events that lead up to an action or conflict, but originate "into the middle of the affairs" or in the very middle of the conflict and rising action of the primary narrative's story's arc.
After all, there is a reason it is called backstory. The narrative of primary interest to the reader is the story and action that takes place in the actual novel, whereas the narrative of the characters' backstory is more of a history that provides depth and a sense of verisimilitude to the reader from a previous, secondary narrative that more so underlies the situation when the primary narrative begins than directly influences it.
In other words, you start in the middle of your story to ramp up the tension and action and conflict to draw readers into a gripping narrative because it is the elements and events currently taking place in the pages of that rising action which are the primary focus of that narrative and the reader. This is typically why the backstory of the characters and the events that have brought the major players to the place where the story begins is dealt with later on throughout the book, typically through flashback or reminiscent dialogue. You don't typically want to unload huge chunks of backstory at the beginning of an epic narrative because, unless you're Tolkien, you're going to bore your reader to death with the details. And since you won't have any action or conflict, the person won't have any reason to keep reading since, quite literally, nothing is happening.
And even though in media res would be enough of a reason (you know, since it worked for Paradise Lost, the Odyssey, the Iliad, Dante's Inferno, and even Star Wars), I did have a second reason to start the story without diving into the past of the protagonist with full force.
Reader/Hero Identification.
As you will see in the story, being in the dark about your true past and the new reality/world to which you find yourself thrust into is a classic trait that every epic hero possesses and must go through on their riveting journey. From Luke Skywalker to Neo to Harry Potter, even modern epic heroes have this quality that the classic heroes had. And since the goal of the author is to foster a connection between the reader and the hero of the story, I wanted to really intertwine the experiences of Jaden with the reader right from the start, which is why Jaden may be even more in the dark about his true past and the events surrounding him than maybe other heroes have been (though not by much).
I wanted the reader to feel exactly how Jaden feels, to experience the precise emotions and revelations that he does when the answers to who he really is and what his role is in the entire story come to light. It is my utmost hope that the bond the reader has with Jaden blossoms not through a mere history lesson of his background, but because of a commonality built on sharing his entire journey from the person he thought he was to the person he truly is and the hero he must become.
Anyway, I want to thank whoever posted that piece of feedback as that is just absolutely a textbook representation of constructive criticism, which is the driving heartbeat of literary discussion and narrative appreciation.