Do sociopaths make good villains? In defense of villains, Part II

72536Dr. Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door (2005) answers a lot of questions writers ask about villains. Again and again, the question comes up of what villains want, why they bother, and what motivates them. A related question is whether a writer should portray villains as doing the right thing from their own perspective. We need villains to make heroes act heroic, but villains themselves are often interesting, sometimes even more, and it’s their perspective that’s so interesting. Most readers and writers are not villains: they care more about cats and puppies than seeing people suffer, and writers and readers tend to be people who like to delve deep into the psyche and experiences of people who are not like them. In this vein, I decided to do some research on sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder, and criminality to get at these questions in a more thoroughly psychological way (i.e. not just through great works of fiction).

The question of motivation was the first one that occurred to me, and in my reading I first came across Dr. Kent Kiehl’s The Psychopath Whisperer, which largely consists of case studies of violent criminals in maximum security prison. Kiehl is a disciple of Robert Hare, the psychologist who developed the scale most commonly used to assess sociopathy. Kiehl profiles a number of violent criminals whose primary motivation seems to be one of three things:

  1. Avoiding “white picket fence” lifestyles
  2. Money
  3. Rage: momentary irritations that provoke violent crime


None of these seem particularly good villain material, and I rapidly came to the conclusion that sociopathy was not particularly fertile ground for villainy, especially not in an epic fantasy series.  As an example, Kiehl profiles a man who was a petty criminal and never got caught, but one night his girlfriend pissed him off and he beat her to death in the bathtub.  He then wrapped her body in a blanket, put it in the front seat of the car and drove off to dispose of it.  Her disappearance led to certain inconsistencies that quickly pointed the finger at the real killer.  He did one dumb thing after another, including confessing to the police when he thought he was manipulating the detectives.  With good behavior and some manipulation behind bars, he gained parole, but Kiehl saw him again a few years later in the same prison.  He had basically repeated the same crime with a new girlfriend.

That guy would make a terrible villain.  He sounds stupid, for one thing, and there’s nothing particularly interesting about his psychological inner life, nor enough consistent motivation to drive a story.  He’s just a stupid menace.

There is something useful here, however.  Contrast the above Stupid Menace with the case of a non-psychopathic criminal, a guy who developed a drug problem and ended up involved in armed robbery or attempted murder.  That guy wants a normal life, but is plagued by guilt, feels out of control, and has a series of people he really cares about that he has wronged.  This sort of person seemed to me to make a much more interesting character right away.  And then there’s the case of someone who does something very evil, like killing a president, because they believe it is the right thing to do.

Kiehl alternates between journalistic chapters and memoir-mixed-with-case-study, and includes an interesting chapter comparing and contrasting two presidential assassins: John Wilkes Booth with Charles Guiteau.  He goes through the items of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist and scores each assassin according to letters and historical accounts of their lives.  A subject can score either 0, 1, or 2 on each item, and they are added up for the final score.  This makes a forty point scale most normal North American men score about 4 on.  Incarcerated men will, on average, score 22, and psychologists consider anyone with a score of 30 or above to be psychopathic, i.e. lacking in conscience. 

Guiteau, President Garfield’s assassin

As Kiehl proceeded through the chapter on Booth and Guiteau, a consistent pattern emerged.  Booth again and again scored 0 or 1 on Hare’s items, whereas Guiteau’s life was one full of manipulation, swindling, inconsistency and insincerity.  Guiteau plagiarized, lied on his resume, lied about having a resume, repeatedly asked people for  “investments” that never really happened, and eventually asked President Garfield for a diplomatic post he was in no way qualified for.  Guiteau was of above-average intelligence and was “very charming,” but he was above all arrogant and totally out of touch with the reality of his abilities.  What eventually pushed him to assassinate Garfield was he made himself a laughing stock in Washington, asking for a job beyond his abilities, and Garfield didn’t hesitate to make fun of his arrogance.  Guiteau scored in the ninety-ninth percentile for psychopathy.  Most notable of all, his motive for killing the president was completely selfish, and just revealed how out of touch he was.

John Wilkes Booth, more notorious, less socioopathic

John Wilkes Booth, on the other hand, was a very different kind of person.  He was kind of a sleaze, but he was very dedicated to doing the right thing.  Booth scored 8.4 on the Hare Scale, definitely average, and there is evidence from many sources he not only genuinely believed he was doing the right thing by assassinating Abraham Lincoln, he was actually able to pull it off.  As opposed to Guiteau, Booth was very well in touch with his own capabilities and those of his conspirators (it’s also worth noting Guiteau didn’t have any conspirators).  In fact, assassinating Lincoln was a scaling down of the original plan, because Booth and his conspirators knew they couldn’t pull off a kidnapping and ransom.  Booth was a very capable man in almost everything he did, and much of that came from realizing his own limitations and setting realistic goals.

These sections of Kiehl’s book seem to suggest

  1. Psychopaths/sociopaths don’t make good villains; and
  2. Villains do think they are doing the right thing.

The criminal sociopaths Kiehl profiles seem to all be losers, i.e. they might make a good show of being charming and clever, but they are too impulsive, too disorganized, and too poorly motivated.  They don’t have over-arching goals, they can’t put together a team, and they miss their targets.  Then when they make mistakes, they do more dumb stuff that gets them into trouble.  Their only redemptive quality (with respect to villainy) is  they are able to do horrible stuff to people.  But horrible stuff done to people is not a good story.

But there’s a problem with this conclusion: most good villains in most good stories do indeed lack a conscience.  Either villainy in the real world is not defined by lack of conscience, but rather impulsivity, or villains really do believe their over-arching goals are more important than caring about who they assassinate.

This brings me to the perspective I hear often online that villains think they’re doing the right thing.  This definitely matches up with John Wilkes Booth.  He was a Confederate conspirator, he genuinely believed in the Confederate cause, and if we’re generally agreed today the Confederacy was wrong, then Booth looks like a good villain who definitely thought he was Right with a capital ‘R’.  

John Wilkes Booth: good villain or bad hero?

There are two things I don’t like about this assertion.  First, it resorts to cultural relativism: we could write the story from Booth’s perspective and make Lincoln the bad guy.  Then Booth believes in what he’s doing, cares deeply for those his actions will affect, and shoots the president, which we all know is wrong.  In the ensuing manhunt, Booth looks like a victim, an oppressed underdog.  Booth is a heartfelt character with a conscience, who wants to save people from the horrible oppressor Lincoln.  I don’t think that book would sell.  It challenges (and not in a good way) our ideals and our cultural values, and manipulates us into empathizing with someone we know was wrong.  Going back to Aristotle, we use character to draw the reader into the plot, and if the plot is wrong, we are using character as a tool for bad ends, i.e. emphasizing an immoral plot.

The second thing I don’t like is the idea that villains always (or even most of the time) think what they’re doing is right.  Clearly Booth did, and by my argument above, I think that would make him a bad villain.  I see people online saying if the villain doesn’t think what he’s doing is right, then he wouldn’t be doing it.  But plenty of people do stuff they know is wrong, and they just don’t care.

So what motivates them?  This is where Stout’s Sociopath Next Door completely changed my mind.  Stout’s picture of sociopathy is completely different from Kiehl, in that she profiles people who are not necessarily violent criminals.  They’re often too smart to get caught, or not interested in crime per se, but in other pursuits that still hurt people.  The defining characteristic is a lack of conscience, all the way down to the way a sociopath’s brain works.  They just don’t care.  They just don’t care about people.  When I was taking my dog to the vet this morning, I was really worried about the sore wrist that’s making her limp, really worried she might be getting old before I’m ready for her to get old, and I felt it in my heart.  A true sociopath doesn’t feel any of that, and the question Stout asks again and again is “What would you do if you had that kind of freedom?”  What if you didn’t have a conscience?  What would you do if you just didn’t give a shit?

Of course this is like asking someone to explain what life would be like as an oak tree.  Most people can’t imagine it, and BANG! we’re back to why people are interested in villains.  Sociopaths, the way Stout characterizes them are good villain material.  They have a few characteristics that go along with their lack of conscience that puts them in a good middle ground, somewhere between John Wilkes Booth and Hannibal Lecter, and they don’t have to be as poorly organized and impulsive as Guiteau.  

What do sociopaths want?

Sociopaths, in Stout’s estimation, are mostly motivated by exploiting the difference between them and people with a conscience.  This means they play games with people.  They exploit the caring of others into doing things that will embarrass them, put them at a disadvantage, or prop up the sociopath’s ability to keep doing what they do.  They enjoy manipulating people, often for the thrill of seeing how gullible others are.  This can result in a number of eventualities or profiles Stout relates in fictionalized vignettes (this shows the value of fiction, because the extraordinary psychology of sociopaths often comes across more clearly in tiny interactions). 

One case study is a corporate executive who is sheltered by his corporation because his decisiveness makes them so much money (Harvey Weinstein, perhaps?).  Another is a psychologist who plagiarized her credentials and lives for the thrill of manipulating disadvantaged people, including her patients and her colleagues.  She likes watching them squirm, and no one can detect her lies because anyone she lies to is unreliable, or she is able to blackmail them.  Not all these characters would make good villains, as some of them are lazy and unmotivated, except by rather petty things.

So let’s go back to one of my favorite villains, Shakespeare’s Richard III. I say “Shakespeare’s” because there is very little real evidence the real Richard III was a sociopath, and he did show plenty of evidence of caring for his family and others.  He was also a very skilled warrior, even if he was outmatched at Bosworth Field.  But in the play, Richard knows what he is doing, and he knows it is wrong, and he even spells it out in the opening soliloquy.   He has no taste for celebrating peace (the summer brought by the fair son of York).  In other words, he’s bored.  Stout defines this characteristic in one of her later chapters, and points out when we don’t have a conscience, we don’t care, therefore we don’t have enriching human relationships, and we get bored.  This is exactly what Richard says in his first few lines, and his solution is to play games with people.

Furthermore Richard blames his inability to care and his boredom on his physical deformity, another characteristic of sociopathy.  The ability of sociopaths to defer responsibility is insane.   Shakespeare gets another thing right about sociopaths: they’re ability to charm and to use pity to their advantage.  In Act I, Scene 2, Richard somehow convinces Anne Neville to feel sorry for him.  Richard killed her father and husband, and in Shakespeare’s version of events, Dick also murdered the king she was loyal to!  Throughout the play, even as his administration falls apart around him, he never stops playing games with people, even convincing his brother’s widow Elizabeth  he should marry her daughter, against all kinds of wrongitude.

I’m left with the conclusion that sociopaths indeed make great villains thanks to the advantage they have of consciencelessness.  They do indeed know what they are doing is wrong, and it allows them to play games with people.  And better than all of that, they must be destroyed.  They are the perfect thing to motivate a hero who does have a conscience.  Everybody loves a little moral ambiguity, but ambiguity results from a hero having to make hard moral choices: am I going to use people to defeat the Dark One, even when using people is objectionable to me?  Am I no better than the Dark One for doing so?  Am I doing exactly what the Dark One wants me to?  Probably, but is there any other way to defeat Him? 

In this way we can see a sociopathic villain can definitely have an overarching goal, especially when he has a hero to mess with.  The goal is not just to constantly cause trouble, but to push that hero to further and further ends, and see if he will cosmically mess up.  It further leads to the conclusion that a good ol’ classic villain is not nihilistic.  They do indeed have a good solid motivation: to see people dance.  They get a thrill out of seeing what “poor disadvantaged” (i.e. moral) people will do when faced with a dilemma.  So in a way, readers are the real villains.  Isn’t that what we’re all reading for?  To see what someone of superior character will do in a really tough situation?

Postlude: Scary stuff

About 1 in 25 Americans is sociopathic, and most people will blindly follow orders from someone they consider a legitimate authority (according to Stanley Milgram, and I totally believe him).  The only struggle for the writer (especially the fantasy author) then is to create legitimacy in such a way that a depraved sociopath can lure in well-meaning people to create henchmen or an entire social movement.  Not that all “henchmen” are well-meaning people; they may just be other sociopaths who’ve found someone to follow.  The task for normal people is to watch out for sociopaths who tell us they’ve found the right solutions to things, especially those who seem to really care.  Stout says the “pity play” like in Richard III, Act I, Scene 2 is a dead giveaway, better than anything else.


Have some taste

In which I try to define serious art and alienate Firely and Megadeth fans

My quest as a writer, and to a larger extent as a reviewer, reader, and participant in aesthetic culture, is mostly consumed with figuring out what distinguishes one work from another in terms of a very hard-to-define quality. Whether I am socializing around music, science, or science fiction, there are certain qualities that distinguish one fan from another and the reflection of those qualities in the works that we socialize around. There is some criterion by which I look at music, movies, television shows, short stories, and novels, that reflects its quality better than anything else, yet this criterion is not specifically related to execution of the story or music.  It’s often not a matter of skill, but of choices made by the artist of what to talk about, or what to take seriously.  It’s very hard to place, but I think I have arrived at calling it “taste.”

Definitions drive me crazy. I got really pissed off at my college philosophy teacher (not professor, I think he was a graduate student) because he wouldn’t define evil for me. He wanted to talk about evil all the time, and a large portion of the class focused on evil, but all he would say when I asked him to define evil was “I think we can all agree that Hitler was evil.” Sure, but we couldn’t all agree on whether abortion was evil, which I suppose was why we were still in class and he still had a job. I had just come from declaring a major in mathematics and I wanted rock-hard definitions, but often the most difficult, interesting, or useful criteria are very hard to define and best sought through examples.

But before I get to alienating everyone by pointing out artists who I think have no taste, let me clarify with two rules.

  1. Taste is not subjective. I looked up “what is good taste” on Google (a fount of useful information! #sarcasm) and right away came up with the answer that “it means you have the same taste in music as the person who said you have good taste in music.” That is nonsense. Agreement isn’t the best criterion, but just as we can all agree that Hitler was evil, we can mostly agree that Madonna was superior to Britney Spears. You may not like Lady Gaga, but I’ll bet you agree she is easier to take seriously as an artist than Katy Perry. Taste is related to qualities that are subjective, like preferences with respect to genre and style, but it is not the same as genre or style, or quality of execution. There is bad music in every genre, and there is good music in most. 
  2. Taste is not ethical. Taste is an aesthetic choice, not about right or wrong. I don’t think there’s anything ethically wrong with having bad taste, nor do I think it reflects on a person’s moral character.  If you want to like Firefly, that is up to you (but I probably won’t try to have any serious discussions with you).
  3. There’s a difference between bad taste and in poor taste. Plenty of works are done by people with no taste, but that doesn’t mean they’re offensive. I am artistically offended by Firefly, but it’s not offensive in the sense that sandals with socks are offensive.

Now that I’ve gotten rid of those pesky Firefly devotees, let me give you a more in-depth example of what I mean by taste. And just so you know that this is not about me having good taste, and you liking Phish, I will discuss below why having good taste can be redemptive, and why all artists should therefore strive for it.

I first heard heavy metal music when I was a kid in the eighties, but in 1986 I heard of the sub-genre of speed metal, of which there were two great bands, Metallica and Megadeth (there were two other groups that dominated the genre, Anthrax and Slayer, who I will only briefly mention because I only briefly listened to them). In 1989 I heard what many of you will remember as the watershed moment in the breakout of speed metal from an underground, mostly European subgenre to a mainstream, if still scary, type of music in heavy rotation on MTV.

Metallica’s video for “One” was a huge hit that paved the way for the coming grunge wave two years later, and consider why: subject matter. MTV in 1989 was a wasteland of what we now call “hair metal,” and bad pop music that no one remembers. I mean I really can’t remember any of the pop music, but I remember at least the aesthetic of the hair metal, which no one would consider “metal” today. A few weeks ago I watched Wayne’s World with my boys, and I love that movie, but if you want to remember what music was like before Nirvana and Metallica’s Black Album, watch that movie. It’s totally forgettable, and only a few bands on the soundtrack made it through to 1992.

So in 1989, music was mostly fluff, and then Metallica came out with a video about a young man who’s had his arms and legs blown off by a landmine and can only communicate by nodding his head in morse code. The video incorporated footage from the film Johnny Got His Gun starring Jason Robards, and was over seven minutes long, something usually reserved for re-airings of “Thriller.” And it was pure speed metal.  “One” is not a power ballad, it’s not even “Fade to Black,” which is a power ballad. “One” builds up to a thundering bridge with heavily-distorted layered power chords over a double bass roll that extends into over three minutes (the length of a typical video at the time) of thrashing guitar solos while we watch the subject of the video begging to die. “Kill me,” he nods. “Please kill me.”

A lot of people took the easiest message, which was anti-war, and I’m not denying that it is, as much of Metallica’s music was broadly anti-war, but not from a liberal/hippy perspective that war is evil because of moral relativism. Metallica wasn’t above moral relativism, but the deeper philosophical issue that they brought up in this video was of a man trapped in his own body: what is communication? What does it mean to relate to another human being? Can you do that without speaking? What would you ask for if you were in that situation? We take it for granted that everyone wants to go on living, but woul dyou want to if you were locked in your body with no way out? I was ten years old, and Metallica–a frickin’ heavy metal band–got me thinking about these questions.

Yes, Metallica, who weren’t above mooning the audience and whose lead singer had “Eet fuk” written on his BC Rich guitar, got young people thinking. They also got me interested in literature, including the Bible. I’m not the only one. I was substitute teaching in Wellesley, Massachussetts a few years back, and the high school put on a production of “Johnny Got His Gun.” Walking back from the auditorium, I heard a couple of teachers saying what a good performance it was.  “Have you read the book?” asked the guy on the right. “No, but I’ve seen that Metallica video” was the response.

Metallica introduces young people to the literary wonders of the Old Testament.

Yes, they were mooning the audience (that was the drummer, of course), and swilling beer, and throwing their hair all over the place, but only the most superficial of fans didn’t ask what those songs were about. Especially with a video like “One” where the meaning was obvious, people were eager to find out more about what the lyrics were about (which can’t be separated effectively from the music as a whole, see below about Megadeth).

Let’s remember this was 1989 and if eighty percent of the people in that crowd weren’t regular church-goers at the time of the concert, they were as little kids. They knew the story of Exodus. In the crowd-participation-focused bridge of “Creeping Death,” when the crowd is shouting “Die! Die! Die! Motherfucker!” even I have faith that most people know what they’re shouting about, and it’s really deep stuff, at the very least it’s something from classic literature. And all of Metallica’s material in the 1980s was of this caliber: they wrote songs about the death penalty, and the rape of lady justice, and suicide, and war, and nuclear war, and drug addiction, and war, H.P. Lovecraft, and insanity, and war, religious hypocrisy, and The Bible (of all things).

And that brings me to “The Four Horsemen,” another Biblically-themed song. As you can guess, it’s about the apocalypse, death, famine, pestilence, and time. And it kicks ass. For those of you who don’t know the story, upon getting a record contract Metallica replaced their lead guitarist Dave Mustaine, the writer of many of the songs on their first album, with Kirk Hammett, who is still with the band after eighty-seven years. Rhythm guitarist James Hetfield took over as the major writer of lyrics and, with drummer Lars Ulrich’s help, gave us all the deep themes I mention above. Before “The Four Horsemen” was rewritten, it was called “The Mechanics,” and it was about … car mechanics. A friend of mine surprised me in high school with an elusive demo of this song before it acquired its Biblical subject matter, and it was incredibly stupid to listen to. The positively dumb subject matter completely eroded the song’s ass-kicking qualities by interrupting the mood with superficial values and immature lyrics. It was no better than AC/DC, when most of us held Metallica to be the artistic equal of Richard Wagner (the composer, not the guitarist). 

This brings me to Megadeth: when Mustaine was fired by Metallica, he quickly formed another band, which was held by many to be second only to Metallica. The reason they were second to Metallica ought to be clear from Megadeth’s poor choices of subject matter. Dave Mustaine had no taste. Let’s take “Wake Up Dead” as an example.

Megadeth: this song is about … what? Wait, is that guy wearing a Metallica T-shirt?

I know Megadeth tried, with Peace Sells…but Who’s Buying? and so on, but they couldn’t pull it off. Whereas Metallica were accused of being the alcoholic, devil-worshipping aggressive fantasy of post-pubescent boys, Megadeth actually was, and not much more. You could say that Megadeth effected an aesthetic, whereas Metallica’s songs were actually deep, and there’s an element of execution in that: notice how Dave Mustaine doesn’t really sing, he sort of groans and croaks until the next guitar solo. I don’t believe they really mean it, the same way the people on Firefly looked like they were taking part in a big joke. Megadeth did an impression of writing songs about deep topics, and Metallica actually pulled it off. Even when Metallica decided to be a hard rock band instead of a heavy metal band, they were still writing about heavy topics.

And this is the distinguishing characteristic of good taste that I’ve been able to extract so far: art done with good taste touches on themes that are central to the human condition, or it at least asks questions that are relevant to universal human experience. Heavy metal music, to be done in good taste, cannot simply thrash; literature and drama cannot simply be people running for their lives. It has to ask questions or talk about subjects that everyone understands or can think about, and do it in a serious way, even when surrounded by jokes (as on Twin Peaks, even in Shakespeare). It cannot be a joke. Even comedy done in good taste, like Seinfeld, is done in a certain way that is sincere.

Bad literature and drama often tries hard, but doesn’t quite make it. Some don’t even try. I think Game of Thrones tries to have good taste, but it doesn’t. Vikings, with just as much sex and violence, on the other hand, is done in a way that I can take it seriously, and that redeems it.

Another rock band I listened to an awful lot of was The Grateful Dead, who I can’t decide were a good band or not. They were good at times and they really sucked at other times. After reading Phil Lesh’s memoir of the band, it became clear that they were often stressed out, intoxicated, and complacent, not willing to do what they should have done with the band: they made most of their money through touring and weren’t willing to look for other ways to make their income. This may have led to them having more bad nights than other bands, since they simply had more nights. People who toured with them tell me that every third night or so they were amazing, and so listening to tapes of their shows is a little misleading, but what’s clear to me is that through it all, despite all their laziness, they were never artistically lazy. In other words, especially through their songwriting and their choice of songs to play, they redeemed themselves. Even when they were having an off night, they were playing good songs that were approached from the right place.

Robert Jordan is another example: he was at his best in The Great Hunt, The Shadow Rising, and Lord of Chaos, but even at his worst, he didn’t degenerate into just telling stories about magic, or sex, or naked women, although there was a lot of that. His Conan books are not great, his Conan has more to do with Schwarzenegger than Robert E. Howard, but he is still approaching it from a sincere place. Robert Jordan had good taste and it showed.

Back to Back to Basics: Phases of Life and Story Structure

Life and our ability to assess our own knowledge goes in phases.  There are many summaries of this, but since this is a writing blog, I wanted to point out that attitudes about story structure can change over the course of a life, or over the course of writing a novel or story.  I am working my way through a new novel during NaNoWriMo, and I’ve noticed that although I’m a great fan of story structure (for reasons I’ll go into below), I don’t really follow the structure religiously, and yet things seem to work. 

I just read the first half of the notorious screenwriting manual Save the Cat, and I’m surprised to say that this book doesn’t deserve a lot of the bad reputation it deserves.  What makes Save the Cat notorious is its insistence on a rigid unfolding of the story, such that the hero goes through certain emotional states or does particular things on specific pages of a screenplay.  You can translate the proportions of Snyder’s “beat sheet” onto the pages of a novel and get yourself a very rigid unfolding of your protagonist.  Hollywood has gone through phases with Snyder’s work, where as of its writing, Save the Cat was praised as the definitive work on screenwriting structure.  Now, a few years later, people contend Save the Cat has ruined movies forever by being too rigid.  

I don’t think Snyder’s book deserves to be hated, since his main point in the book is not actually story structure, but that you, as a writer, absolutely need to know what your story is about.  This is even more crucial for novelists than it is for screenwriters, because it’s easy to get caught up in all the details of a novel, have multiple story threads, and just too much complexity.  The worst part of writing a novel for publication is trying to write a query letter that condenses 90,000 to 200,000 words of very careful character development and worldbuilding into a single sentence.  Snyder insists that the writer have a good logline that tells the script reader what the movie poster looks like.  My goal before I started work on my WIP A Mother’s Curse was to come up with a tagline that could go on the cover of the book, and would tell me what the cover looks like.  It really helps.

Hollywood has also gone through this phase of praise and abandonement with The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s description of the common elements of mythology across all the world’s cultures.  I think the hate is mainly self-inspired, since people have figured out that The Hero’s Journey is not a story structure, but a descriptive model of mythological storytelling.  The Hero’s Journey doesn’t tell you how to write a story, it tells you how stories have been written (and not all stories, as Campbell makes clear). The Hero’s Journey is really a psychological theory, i.e. about the mind, and its reflection in storytelling, not a theory of storytelling.  Thus people who try to write strictly according to The Hero’s Journey are often going to write stories that fall flat, and they’ll be at a loss to understand why.

Just like The Hero’s Journey, these trends in Hollywood illustrate how understanding of how things work goes in phases, tempered from within by the writer’s (or human being’s) attitude and maturity.  In other words, these are phases of life, not just phases of art.  In general the phases are:

  1. “I’ve eaten plenty of pizza in my day.” The novice writer has read tons of books, and even has an inkling of what goes into a beginning, middle, and end of a novel, and sets out to duplicate that without really being conscious of what he’s doing.
  2. “Why does this taste like saltines dipped in tomato soup?”  Confusion reigns as beta readers (or mom) tell the writer how creative he is, but there’s something missing.  This is often the stage where writers face a lot of rejection and don’t know why, or they can’t complete a novel and don’t know what’s missing that would supply the energy to finish it.
  3. “Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to look at a cookbook.” The writer realizes he’s in over his head, and consults a few books on the subject of novel writing.  He goes “back to basics” and finds formulas, three-act structure, realizes he didn’t have a friggin’ antagonist (!), and starts from scratch.
  4. Arrogance. Once all the elements are in place, the writer finds how much easier it is to finish a work, and comes to believe that structure is The Solution, and goes around telling everybody about it.
  5. “Maybe my oven’s not hot enough.” Something is still missing, despite the writer figuring out that stories do all have to have certain things, those things alone will not make a great novel.  This is when, in my personal experience, a lot of humility, firing a deadbeat agent, and getting a writing teacher will help a lot.
  6.  “Flour, water, yeast, salt, and attention.”  The writer goes back to back-to-basics, and learns how to break the rules.

Now, just as with The Hero’s Journey, this is not a prescribed set of steps, it’s something that mimics the stages of life, and has to be experienced from within, not set out on.  I haven’t observed enough writers to know at what point publication happens, but according to Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, it could happen at any stage.  Maass writes that books often get published with authors in Stage 1 or Stage 2 and then they don’t know what the hell happens when they can’t write the next book.

My guess is that they had all the necessary elements for a reader to really love a book without really knowing what they were doing.  The author had intuitive knowledge of what makes a great book, and was able to put that on the page, but didn’t have enough discursive knowledge to know what to do when something went wrong.  I completed my first novel without any planning, without saying who the antagonist was or what the central conflict was.  My short stories, on the other hand, were missing many of the elements that actually make up a story.  I had to 

  1. Go back and analyze what a story is in the most basic formulation, as in “You know I was walking to the store today and this guy nearly ran me over while talking on a cell phone…”
  2. Look at some books on what a story exactly is.

Only then was I able to write a decent story.  I got really hung up on story structure for a while because reading about it made it so much easier to make sure that things didn’t happen too fast or that I wasn’t boring the reader.  There really is a beginning, middle, and end to every story, and if certain things happen in the wrong place, readers will be (at best) left with a funny feeling.  The Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn, for instance, feels like two stories because instead of a fake death followed by a real climax, it has a real climax at the two-thirds mark, followed by a coda of another two hundred pages, which works up to a second climax. 

Recently I’ve realized that trying to lay out a story structure is a hindrance rather than a help when you can discover those stages as you tell the story.  It took me two months to get started on my WIP, and most of that time was trying to figure out what the right inciting incident was.  Trying to lay out plot points and get them in the right places seems like a good recipe, but it actually has slowed me down since I don’t know enough about the characters to know what trouble they’ll get into before I write about them.  This gets into “architects versus gardeners,” and plotters versus pantsers, but my basic point is that as you’re writing, you can discover where the plot points are and assign stuff to happen in the newly-discovered Act I. 

Having one “inciting incident” is a little misleading, especially in a novel.  In a two or three-act play or film, you may only have time for one thing to really get the ball rolling, but in a book there’s often a series of events that really ramp things up so the reader feels like she’s in “the middle.”  I got into a situation in The Last Omen where I couldn’t decide what the inciting incident was.  The problem was not that there was no inciting incident, but that there was an escalation of events between one upset in chapter 2 and several more before the main character was really in over her head.  That’s fine in a book.  Also, books can afford things like flashbacks and misleading narrators in ways that just make films confusing.  So, although movie advice is often superior to novel advice (which tends to focus on “inspiration”), there are crucial differences between the two forms that need attention.

A lot of structuring happens in revisions, and so I’m not worrying about structure so much as I write a first draft.  Without the discursive knowledge I’ve gained through stages 1-6 and not being an expert at any stage, I couldn’t make revisions, but trying to stick to a stucture ahead of time is too restrictive.  Write now the focus is on the first draft.

I have been working hard on NaNoWriMo and I’m almost done.  The work in progress is called A Mother’s Curse, and is heavily-influenced by Celtic Revival material, and an anecdote I read in Bede about the founding of Scotland.  Apparently the Picts didn’t have any women with them when they arrived in Ireland, so they “borrowed” wives to found their new civilization in Scotland, under the agreement that they revert to the Scot side of the family in any succession disputes.  I thought this was a nice recipe for political mixups, so the story begins (this time) with the death of a king (who wants buildup anyway).  I’m mixing this in with a fair bit of magic, Lovecraftian monsters, a nasty femme fatale, and an occasional first-person narrator, a behind-the-scenes sort of puppet master.

I’m still querying The Last Omen, and have received some positive attention from agents.  I also have gotten more personalized rejections in my short stories, which I’ve just decided to keep in rotation until one of them gets published.

I Got No Roots: Fantasy Language Methods

How do you come up with fantasy languages?

A Facebook discussion earlier this week led to a request to describe my method for coming up with fantasy (i.e. invented) language. My reply was that I don’t come up with a whole language, although I try to invent a method that produces a consistent-sounding set of words. I improvise and then edit, after using a model language that’s consistent with the setting. Since it really ought to be heard, I decided video was the best way to get this across.

Continue reading “I Got No Roots: Fantasy Language Methods”

The Iron Flower by Laurie Forest (Goodreads Review)

The Iron Flower (The Black Witch Chronicles, #2)The Iron Flower by Laurie Forest

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure: I am a colleague and friend of Laurie Forest as well as a devoted fan. If I didn’t love the book, I wouldn’t have read it, and I wouldn’t leave this review. I paid full price for my hardback copy.

Laurie Forest’s sequel to her 2017 debut The Black Witch extends the primary storyline and invokes new points of view to add to the epic scale of the conflict. Elloren Gardner is now firmly ensconced in the Verpacian resistance to encroaching Gardnerian rule. Her aunt has kept up the pressure for her to marry (wandfast) and the harassment of non-Gardnerians increases. Her small cadre of teen revolutionaries is secure and expanding, but Elloren finds herself caught between feelings for a boy she can’t be with, and her duty to the resistance. If she fasts to Lukas Grey, she might be able to turn him to the resistance, and make him a powerful ally. But her true feelings lie with Yvan, a Kelt whose secrets become harder to hide.

The action really heats up when the Gardnerian military cadets refuse to hide their prejudice, start riots, and attack members of the other races. Everyone makes an escape plan, and Elloren plans to stay behind to help whoever she can.

This book is an incredibly complex epic fantasy with an original take on fantasy races. There are so many reasons I wouldn’t like the Black Witch Chronicles: it’s YA; it uses stereotypical fantasy races like elves, dragons, selkies, amazons and so on; it’s overtly political, possibly even allegorical. But dig beneath the surface and you’ll find a well-written story with a compelling character and a compelling conflict at its heart. Thanks to Elloren’s hazy memories, we know she’s powerful, but she cannot access her power, leaving her at a disadvantage and feeling useless. The Iron Flower traces Elloren’s rise into her own power over the course of the Spring following the events of The Black Witch.

As for conflict, this is again, on the surface, the same conflict brought up by so many Tolkien-derived fantasy books of the nineteen-seventies and eighties, but Forest puts a twist on everything by introducing new races and giving unique qualities to the ones we’ve already heard of. At least two of the races, the icarals and the Gardnerians, are her own creations, and they are the most crucial. The final third of The Iron Flower reveals just how unique Forest’s creation is, and how far she has come in introducing and maintaining tension.

Laurie Forest knows how to build suspense, specifically tension, and Elloren’s growth to power is just one of the ways she does it. Other examples: what’s going to happen with Lukas Grey? What is the deal with Yvan? You’re going to find out. You may have your suspicions, but you’ll be surprised. And you’ll find all of that amid one of the most turbulent and troubling third acts I’ve read in a long time. Not predictable, not gentle. INTENSE.

The impression I had at the end of The Iron Flower (other than “WOW”) was this is an intense, complex epic masquerading as a YA fantasy drama. The choice of point of view gives an impression of the emotional intensity we expect for a teenage girl character (and yes, it verges on melodrama sometimes), but the conflict she’s embroiled in is huge, and she won’t be able to solve all these problems herself. At the end, we’re left with a character who’s embroiled further in the conflict, and further torn by the necessity of doing what’s right.

Read the book. It’s excellent.

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Getting into Lovecraft

Reading H.P. Lovecraft requires, ironically, going beneath the surface.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937)

The stories of H.P. Lovecraft have a dedicated following in the Fantasy and Science Fiction community, and are canonical in Horror, along with Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Algernon Blackwood. Lovecraft’s corpus enjoys a certain unity, which some might call repetition, unparalleled except in more recent authors who aren’t afraid to cite Lovecraft as an influence, or even hail him as a genius. The works of Stephen King and Clive Barker, for instance, have so many crossovers that readers often conclude each work is part of a larger whole, an entire fictional universe. Just like Stephen King’s fictional analogue of the state of Maine, Lovecraft’s work takes place in a New England of his own creation, with its own universities, towns, and publications.

These repetitions and allusions build up to a world that is haunting and creepy, but not because of what you might expect. We have to take a look at Lovecraft’s style of narration and the psychology of those narrators to really figure out why Lovecraft’s stories are indeed weird, enduring, and influential. Lovecraft’s stories get under your skin but not for anything on their surface. I have been reading At The Mountains of Madness for the past few days, and while I’m reading I don’t sit there thinking “oh God, I’m terrified,” or even “that’s sick!”

But I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, terrified that lurking in the corner is something whose terrible presence so chills me that I cannot sleep. To keep typing this blog post is so deeply against my nature that it may result in a complete nervous breakdown, terrifying my very soul and giving rise to the persistent thought that I should stop typing, delete my WordPress account, and drift into anonymity…but it’s a warning you all must have before you make the same regretful choices I have made. Oh, how I wish I had never opened the 2014 publication of The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Leslie S. Klinger with an introduction by Alan Moore, and published by W.W. Norton. Oh, the regret… Continue reading “Getting into Lovecraft”

Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman (Goodreads Review)

Black Sun Rising (The Coldfire Trilogy, #1)Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Short version: richly-imagined world, historically important in modern fantasy, and mostly skilled prose, though mixed and sometimes hard to follow.


Black Sun Rising is a book I have looked forward to reading for years, as it’s often found on library shelves and lists of influential or favorite books. The tipping point came when I found the third book of a different trilogy at a local thrift store. C.S. Friedman’s skill was evident from the first word and I found myself stuck, ignoring my kids. Black Sun Rising, likewise, is engaging and drew me in with its inventive and original world. The author is not tentative about revealing the nature of the world: this is a future world colonized by spacefaring humans, and the relationship to earth is clear from the very beginning, in the prologue. You’re clearly dealing with earth cultures and remnants from Earth on a world that works differently, right on page 1. Continue reading “Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman (Goodreads Review)”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: what sets it apart?

What makes the final book of the series so meaningful and complete?

I haven’t posted in a while thanks to numerous life developments and lots of writing done.  If you’re interested in that, see below.

136251Lately I’ve rewatched two Harry Potter films and it’s brought back memories of reading the books, a project I finished in 2015, reading all seven books to my sons. Harry Potter was a known character even before we started the books, and enough of my friends and enough of popular culture centers around Harry and Hogwarts that I thought reading the books would be a good idea.  I am just a few years too old, and was too cynical about fiction at the turn of the century, so I missed the Harry Potter boat until my boys were old enough to hear them aloud.

And it was certainly fun.  Reading books with kids is a completely different experience from reading them as an adult, especially an adult in graduate school.  Prisoner of  Azkaban was incredibly fun, and the prospect of my kids getting excited and staying excited to read books together, especially books over 500 pages, was really exciting.  Finally understanding the jokes and references related to the books was also fun, even if I made sure to tell people right away that I was reading the books to my kids, not just for my own enjoyment.  I finally knew who Tonks was, and that was helpful in my general life. Continue reading “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: what sets it apart?”

Solar by Ian McEwan (Goodreads Review)

SolarSolar by Ian McEwan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Perhaps it’s schadenfreude, or simple voyeurism, but only Ian McEwan and Margaret Atwood can make unlikeable characters so engaging. McEwan is also a master at believable immersion in the technical aspects of the characters’ world, in a way that myself, a former scientist, is totally engrossed. McEwan nails how scientists think, interact, and the hypocrisies and benefits, habits and mannerisms, as well as the unique demands on the mind and “real lives” of scientists. Reading this book was like being back as a professional scientists. The conversations were realistic, the thoughts and judgments of the characters were completely like the people I’ve worked with. Continue reading “Solar by Ian McEwan (Goodreads Review)”

Is Solo a Star Wars Story?

Or can we boldly explore some new worlds?

solo_a_star_wars_story_posterI saw Solo: A Star Wars Story on Sunday, and I was impressed.  It was a fun movie, not as dreadfully serious as the other three new films, and had some nice surprises.  Spoilers: you actually get to see Warwick Davis’ face on screen.  There is no Boba Fett, no Jabba the Hutt, and there is little about The Force, the Jedi, the Republic, and I didn’t see many stormtroopers.  Come to think of it, there was an entire fighting force devoid of stormtroopers, something never-before-seen (not counting Clone Wars).  The ships, the droids, the planets, the villains, and the primary conflict are all completely new.

Continue reading “Is Solo a Star Wars Story?”