Readers, writers, and fellow bloggers, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Drew Chial, horror author, advice giver, and humorist.
My blogging philosophy spits in the face of conventional wisdom: I don’t do lists, cut posts short at 500 words, or limit myself to one lone topic. Shunning stock photos, I design my own images. For those threatened by big walls of text, I record audio versions of my posts.
Now I’m moving into another medium. This video explains how my wide range of writings tie together, and why they’re worthy of your time.
If you’re interested in reading my novella Terms and Conditions check it out here.
You see him everywhere, with his crewcut, t-shirts, jeans, and vintage motorcycle jacket; this white, clean shaven, hetrosexual, twenty to thirty something rules the summer movie season. A de-socialized soldier in civilian clothes, he goes wherever the screenwriters order, not because of a strong desire, but because the plot needs him to be there.
He doesn’t waste screen time illustrating his motivations, those frames are better served with explosions. When there’s a 120 page script with 250 scenes, he’ll be there. When it feels like you’re watching a two hour montage, he’ll be there. When a set piece passes before you can figure out its dimensions, he’ll be there sprinting onto the next one. While other films take time to reveal their characters, Joe Everyman races to the closing credits.
When the premise is the selling point Joe doesn’t slow things down with character development. Every second he needs to evolve, comes at the expense of giant robots knocking over skyscrapers. He keeps things consistent so we can get back to super-sized dinosaurs fighting on beach front property, and UFOs blasting through landmarks.
In screenwriting, there’s a rule: enter a scene late, leave it early. Joe Everyman exploits this rule, to seem like more than what we see. As a cheat, the screenwriter implies Joe is a dynamic three-dimensional character, whenever he’s not there.
Joe can make his wife laugh, though we’ll never hear his joke. She’s swooning over a romantic gesture he performed off screen. They’re deeply in love, see they’re kissing, in a nice warm lit room shown through a shaky camera, so you know its intimate. As for the rest of their relationship, we’ll just have to take the movie’s word for it.
The screenwriter didn’t have time to fill in Joe’s personality, they left you to do it for them. Joe is a mannequin, hanging from train cars, leaping across buildings. A blank template for the viewer to project themselves onto, a surrogate, an empty vessel, a pod person. He’s a cardboard cutout with flat character traits and an empty face, ‘insert self here.’ He has a Madlib in place of a personality.
In this by the numbers story telling equation, the hero is the least important variable.
Without a call to action, Joe Everyman would languish behind a desk for the rest of his life. Stuck in a go nowhere 9 to 5, he’d have his 2.5 kids, and wait for his 401k to come. Coincidence has elevated him to the role of the chosen one, the one who will bring balance to the force, lead our armies against Skynet, and free us from the Matrix. If only there was a mentor figure to tell the rest of us how special we were.
The Alternative is Always more Attractive
There’s a reason everyone likes Han Solo over Luke Skywalker, Wolverine over Cyclops, Michaelangelo over Leonardo, Hit Girl over Kick Ass, Captain Jack Sparrow over Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann over Will Turner, Captain Barbossa over Will Turner (you see where I’m going with this).
Personality is appealing. Every saga has its vanilla individuals, fine, safe, and boring, then there are the players with some flavor.
Choosing between ‘interesting’ and ‘identifiable’ character attributes, I go with interesting every time. The character’s drive, goals, and failings should make them identifiable, not their broad appeal.
Beige just isn’t my color.
While erratic villains lead the plot in interesting directions, Joe Everyman takes orders between locations. Walking off the set of War of the Worlds, Joe shows up in Godzilla in the exact same outfit. Sam Worthington’s character from Terminator Salvation wondered through Avatar, then onto the set of Clash of the Titans. These were different time periods and places, but the exact same person. Not to make fun of Worthington as an actor, he’s good in everything I’ve seen him in, it’s just these parts were all underwritten.
Joe Everyman makes the supporting cast look cool by accident. He’s always upstaged by misfits whose plots we’d rather follow.
I can’t help but imagine a Matrix movie with Morpheus as the lead, a Thor title starring Loki, or a Godzilla film staring Bryan Cranston (for those of you saying “Don’t we already have one of those?” No, no we don’t).
Joe Everyman must come into His Own
Joe Everyman is a portrait of the audience, painted in broad strokes, a bad boardwalk caricature. His psych profile is all encompassing. He’s the one size fits all of storytelling. He communicates with all the grace of an advertisement, a Frankenstein Monster stitched together from market research. As authentic as a politician, he’s something for everyone, and everything to no one.
He’s so hyper-average that he threatens the suspension of disbelief.
Plenty of stories start with a pessimistic protagonist. A person who’s been railroaded by life, a victim of a series of accidents who learns to take control of their situation. A passive presence who changes the moment they decide they truly want something. This is when Joe Everyman works best, when he becomes Joe Individual.
In The Matrix, Neo decides he’s not ‘the one.’ Realizing his life is expendable, he sets out to save his mentor. Rather than let the Oracle tell him what he is, he makes a defiant decision (which I know, was her plan all along). Regardless of the existentialist determinist debate, Neo believes he’s made this choice on his own. Killing his Mr. Anderson persona, he evolves into his avatar.
A storytelling crime happens when Joe Everyman is introduced only to stay blank until the very end. He may have gone through an adventure, but made no choices, personal changes, and learned no lessons. Taking orders without making decisions, he’s still just a victim of circumstance.
If a screenwriter wants our empathy, they shouldn’t expect it from the character’s presentation. Sure the guy on screen might look like me, but he has to earn my empathy. Get me invested in his plight, until his goals become my goals, his change becomes my change, and his outcome becomes my outcome. Then, and only then, will I see myself in him.
Do this well and it won’t matter what age, gender, color, or sexual orientation this character comes in, we’ll still see ourselves in them.
When you create a slate for people to project themselves on, take care not to leave it blank. If the vessel stays empty, it will feel hollow to the audience. Average Joe Everyman should end up Exceptional Joe Individual, or at the very least Tragic Joe Anti-Hero.
You or someone you know might be suffering from a debilitating condition, one casting darkness over your outlook, attitude, and wardrobe. If left untreated, it can manifest through violence, erratic behavior, and a very specific dance. It can be triggered by life events: the loss of a job, a relationship, or the death of one’s parents. Those afflicted cannot will themselves out, after all, it’s their “will to act” that got them into it.
Symptoms include a loss of interest in socializing, prolonged feelings of guilt, and a fear of flying rodents. Those with the condition may have trouble sleeping, unless suspended upside down. They may feel persistent pain in their overworked glamour muscles, resulting in a puffing of the chest and a broadening of the shoulders. They may experience an overconfidence in their martial arts ability, followed by a compulsion to get into situations to demonstrate it. This is known as ‘restless fist syndrome.’
In worst case scenarios, those with the condition have a death wish involving a spiked wall, a vat of chemicals, or an automated freeze ray.
I’m of course referring to Batman Syndrome.
The condition is often misdiagnosed as asthma, due to the patient slipping into ‘gravel speak’, wheezing through lines from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, often dialogue never spoken by Batman himself. Coughing through quotes like, “Not the hero the city deserves, but the hero the it needs,” they may sound as if they’ve run up several flights of stairs.
Once the condition has gotten this far, the effects may be irreversible. That’s why it’s important to recognize the symptoms early on.
Early warning signs someone may be developing the condition include:
Tying a towel around their neck, they leave it long after their hair has dried.
They draw abs, and or nipples, on the outside of their clothes.
They paint their mirror so only their lips and chin are visible.
Their pants are weighed down by an assortment of nonlethal weapons, bundled nets, and shark repellent.
Trickling sweat, draws attention to the bodysuit peaking out from their collar.
Distracted, they look for grappling points on nearby buildings.
Looking away, you catch them trying to disappear in the middle of a conversation.
Beating around the bush, they ask if anyone you know has access to any ‘lightweight fabrics,’ for a friend.
They refer to you as, “My ward, old chum,” or “boy wonder,” despite your age or gender.
They suffer anxiety during public functions, checking windows for sniper positions. They look over every security guard at museum openings. They’re suspicious of large cakes at charity functions.
There’s a search for “nearest cave system” in their GPS application
Flipping through their wallet, you find they’ve drawn a cowl with pointy ears on George Washington.
At the department store, they ask, “Do you have any gloves like this that go up to the forearm, and also do you have any shark toys, preferably with large blue fins?”
At the auto dealer, they ask, “Does it come in black? Also, can the fender be retrofitted to conceal a motorcycle?”
Types of Batman Syndrome
All Batman Syndrome types are not the same. The symptoms of a high-functioning person with the condition may manifest as an occasional reference, while someone with a severe case, might break their leg jumping from building to building.
These people are fans of the films, the Arkham Asylum video games, and one of the cartoon interpretations.
They’re unaware there was a Robin after Dick Grayson, let alone an alternate universe where the Dark Knight was played by Thomas Wayne. They couldn’t tell you any one of Harley Quinn’s three separate origins.
They know not of Dark Claw, the amalgamation of Bruce Wayne and Wolverine, of Batman’s face off with the Predator, or of Superman’s stint as Gotham’s protector.
Their symptoms are manageable, allowing them to lead normal lives, hold jobs, and kiss girls.
Keeping their cowls in the closet, these people hide comic books beneath their mattresses. Their action figures are tucked away in the attic. They have most of their symptoms in check.
They slip up every so often, dropping out of context quotes into casual conversation. They tell the manager at Chuck E. Cheese they’re buying the location and setting some new rules about the ball pit area. When someone swears to God, they instinctively shout, “Swear to me!” They tell people not to thank them for small gestures, like opening doors.
An Atypical Detective can go years before they’re ever diagnosed, suffering in silence.
Chronic Caped Crusaders
Referring to their parent’s basement as the ‘Batcave,’ these people wear blue and grey pajamas into their thirties. Drawing Catwoman masks on centerfolds, they make-out with life-sized cutouts of Anne Hathaway, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Eartha Kitt.
Shaving the bat-insignia into their chest hair, with Prince’s Batdance blaring in the background, they practice their fight regiment in Bat-symbol underpants.
Preaching the gospel of Gotham, they are evangelists of the Knight’s quest, arguing the series cannon in public. They have a screenplay waiting for the Nolan brothers to green-light.
Major Dark Knightification
This is someone who wears dark eyeliner, anticipating a need to pull down their mask at a moment’s notice. They hoard a colony of bats in their apartment. They drop smoke pellets to conceal bodily emissions.
Loosing their grip on reality, they see phantom Bat-signals during the daytime. Their world has gone ‘full-Gotham.’ They see gargoyles where others see smokestacks. They see art deco statues where others see street signs. They see the Wayne Tower on every skyline.
Someone suffering from full Dark Knightification will get into fisticuffs with birthday clowns, knock umbrellas out of the hands of affluent gentlemen, and stop their car at cornfields to tear scarecrows off their stands.
Those who are this far gone, enjoy normality only one night a year, on Halloween.
Although there are several effective treatments for Batman syndrome, or Dark Knightis, there is no known cure. Flareups will occur during high crime periods, prolonged darkness, and the summer movie season.
If you’re concerned someone you know suffers from Batman Syndrome, offer support and understanding, without enabling their behavior. If they pressure you to make them a bat suit, make sure to use rainbow fabric. If they get confrontational, just say, “That’s what he wore, in 1957, so that’s what I’m sewing.”
Never ignore comments about mail-order masks, vigilante justice, or comic book conventions. These are cries for help. Your loved one has a Batman on their back. You can be their Joker with a crowbar ready and willing to pry him off.
For the millions afflicted with the condition, there is hope. Director Joel Schumacher, offers an effective treatment plan: weekly viewings of his film Batman and Robin will lesson a person’s appreciation for the character. The cartoon Beware the Batman is also available. This should tide those with Batman Syndrome over while Director Zack Snyder labors to find a cure.
A pundit on the talk show circuit, calling herself the ‘Princeton Mom,’ urges young girls to “Find a husband while they’re still in college.” Shaming the bar scene, she says the pickings get slimmer for women waiting until they find a career.
While she doesn’t feel the same rules apply to men, a study by Indiana University and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, shows that children of older fathers have a higher risk of developing mental illness. On top of that, New York University’s Langone Medical Center found that marriage lowers disease, depression, and the death rate in men.
I’m pretty sure these studies were commissioned by my parents.
LinkedIn keeps emailing me reminders to congratulate my friends on their promotions. Facebook’s ‘Like’ algorithm fills my news feed with wedding announcements and infants. Match.com keeps telling me to finish my registration.
Alright internet, I get the hint.
There’s a clock, with hands governed by biology, and markings agreed upon by society. The hands advance, reducing our metabolisms, bringing us grey hairs, and crow’s feet. The markings tell us when we ought to be done with our graduate degrees, when we should have careers, and life partners. I’ve watched the hands cross those marks, while I’ve labored to become an author. A five year plan came and went, while I worked dead end jobs, and typed through the evenings.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says, it takes 10,000 hours of practice, roughly ten years, to be an expert at something. My artistic pursuits have set me on a narrow path.
I hear the clock ticking. The Grimm Reaper’s scythe swings like a pendulum. Every time I look up, it lowers an inch. For some life is a journey, for others a destination, and for too many of us it’s a countdown. Every day is a life event we’re racing toward. We’re late for a very important date.
If only this pressure wasn’t there.
What I’d Do if I were Immortal
Everyone knows what they’d do if they won the lottery, but few could tell you what they’d do if they were immortal. Most folks don’t dabble in the thought unless they’re plotting a vampire novel. It’s counterintuitive; life is short, we’re supposed to make the most of it. That ticking clock is all that gets some folks out of bed, but what if it wasn’t a motivating factor? Indulge me in this thought experiment.
What would you do if you were immortal?
Me, I would go to law school so I could write a proper legal thriller. I’d study abnormal psychology so I could write my mysteries with authority. I’d dual major in philosophy and information technology, so that my science fiction was informed by reality.
My quest for research and reference material would take me around the world. I’d go to the empty Chinese cities, built before the population could afford them. Investigating the dormant halls of the largest mall in the world, I’d map the ruins of a future civilization. Trudging through the overgrowth on these unopened buildings, their architecture would inspire my atmosphere.
I’d join up with ghost hunters, not to chase spirit orbs or follow trails of ectoplasm, but to get inside their heads, to study the living’s obsession with the dead.
If I were immortal I’d master every medium. I’d rotate around recording studios, from the strings, to the sticks, to the keys. Clutching the microphone, I’d bottom out my baritone, and break glass with my falsetto. I’d beatbox, I’d scratch records, I’d learn to play the theremin.
I’d paint across canvases and digital touch screens, in watercolors and 3-D vectors. I’d draw from memory and from dreams. I’d wander the country with a camera, collecting textures, fresh layers for my Photoshop collages.
Laying out my emotions in black box theaters, I’d project myself to arena balconies, going out into the aisles to touch the audience in their seats.
From film to video game development, I’d become an expert in all the things I’m told I’ve aged out of.
This is my mental montage. At the end of yours ask yourself, which of your options seems the most appealing, which ones seem like they’re within the realm of reason?
Start there and run down the list. No one’s telling you to abandon your family or quit your day job, but of the time you have left, some of it can be spent pursuing these passions.
Devote the time you can. Whenever you’re watching TV just because it’s on, you have a moment to work with. Whenever you’re getting lost clicking through a rabbit hole of trending topics, you could be working on a project. Whenever you’re venting only to find it isn’t helping, there just might be another solution.
All that time you’ve wasted dwelling on the past, start spending some of it in the present. There’s an art shaped hole in your life, fill it.
Bloom on Your Terms
Denis Leary has a standup routine where he sets the rule, “If you’re not what you want to be by the time you’re 35, you’re never going to be.”
Tell that to Raymond Chandler, the father of the modern noir, who started writing at 44. Tell that to Charles Bukowski who was 49 when his first collection was published. Tell that to David Seidler, who came to Hollywood at the age of 40, winning an Oscar for The King’s Speech at 77. These examples might be rare, but they happen.
I can’t help but wonder how many great works we’ve lost, because their authors had succumb to ageism, because they let someone else put an expiration date on their dreams.
This clock isn’t atomic. The units for measuring life events aren’t universal, they’re on a sliding scale. The markings on the clock are just a form of peer pressure that lingered past our high school years. Adolescence doesn’t end when it’s convenient. The socially acceptable grace period for self discovery should be extended.
We don’t all bloom at the same time, but some of our petals come out more refined.
You’re not immortal, but don’t let your peers push aside your passions, don’t live for admiration at your high school reunion, and don’t deny yourself life experiences based on artificial expiration dates.
When a highway patrol officer asks, “Do you know why I pulled you over,” they’re inviting you to incriminate yourself. This is not the case with the state trooper in this story, he has his own reasons, ones that turn out to be pretty insane.
Like my previous short Headbleed this excerpt is another peek at a dark work in progress. It stands on its own as a fun dialogue driven exchange.
Why I Pulled You Over
Cameron leaned out the window to feel the summer breeze against her skin. It smelt of wheatgrass and wildflowers. The air freshener had nothing on it. Giving up on a radio signal, she embraced the steady whooshing of the wind. There was something surreal about the view, the sheer flatness of the plain. With the clouds touching the horizon, it felt like she was driving into a painting.
Checking her reflection in the side mirror, Cameron watched her jet black ends flow from the bandana concealing her blond roots. The sun made the Beetle’s orange paint job glow. The additions she’d made to the bonnet flapped with each gust, more distractions than hazards.
Cameron shift her gaze to the rearview mirror. Nothing but prairie in both directions. Reaching into her purse, she dug out her phone, setting it on the horn.
The lock screen was filled with a rainbow coalition of alert icons: the Snapchat spook, the Reddit robot, and the Twitter turtle dove. With her hand up at two, Cameron unlocked the screen with her thumb. The mail icon’s notifications were in the triple digits, it would have to be priority number one.
She held down the home button until she heard a chime. Cameron said, “Read my last e-mail.”
The phone’s monotone modulation said, “On June 1st, Kat Carey sent you an email about A Guest Blog Opportunity.
I discovered your blog through a comment on a piece I wrote on eliminating exposition by modeling scenes after movies. Turns out you beat me to the punch by several months. You showed up early in the same dress, and by all accounts, wore it better. Jealous as I was, I’ve been lurking on your site ever since. My page reaches twenty-thousand readers a day, and your snark to wit ratio is exactly what I’m looking for.
I have an opening for Monday the thirtieth. I’d love for you to contribute.
Catching a billboard of an ultrasound out of the corner of her eye, Cameron chose to ignore its text, and the vehicle beneath it.
Pressing the home button until it chimed, Cameron said, “Reply to this email. Thank you for thinking of me, period. I’m covering an art car festival until the end of the month, period. We’ll see if I can get a moment to write something clever for you, comma, and a good enough signal to upload it, period. I’ll let you know by the end of the week, period. New Paragraph, Your consultant in crime, comma, Cameron Mandex. Send.”
Watching the grass sway along the highway, Cameron imagined herself floating above the road, with no wheels or engine, wishing this stretch of highway was her workspace. She saw herself coming back this way, far from the thumping speakers, the bickering couples, and the howling frat boys, she’d switch on cruise control and just let go. She’d finish her thesis out here.
The thought passed at the sight of the blue and red lights flashing in the rearview mirror.
Rolling down the window, Cameron held her license and registration at ten and two.
The highway patrol officer took his time ambling to the door. Through the mirror, Cameron watched him crack his neck from side to side, roll his shoulders, and stretch one arm across the other, a boxer preparing for a fight.
Standing in front of the sun, he snatched up her license. “Where’s the ball, Cinderella?”
Cameron squint, “I wasn’t speeding.”
The officer craned his head to take in the green stem atop the orange Volkswagen Beetle. “Can you think of another reason why I might have pulled you over?”
“Because you have a quota?” Cameron said flatly.
He rolled his eyes. “Try another?”
Biting her lip, Cameron sighed. “My tabs are current, my tires are full, my lights are in perfect working order.” She tilt her head back, “And even with the addition to my roof, the car is only eight feet tall, which is five less than the state maximum.”
“Can you think of any other reason?” The officer cocked his chin toward the raised teeth, framing the Jack-O-Lantern paint job beneath the windshield. “Maybe something obstructing your vision?”
Cameron glanced at the crooked smile just past her dashboard. She shrugged. “What do you want, an artist’s statement?”
Taking her piece in, the officer shook his head. “I wouldn’t go so far as to call this rig an ‘art car.’ With all this crap hanging off, it’s more of a mutant vehicle.”
Lowering his sunglasses, he peaked inside. “Christ, even the upholstery is orange? That’s dedication.”
He leaned over the window. “Are there any weapons in the… pumpkin, I should know about?”
Cameron looked to the long tube of pepper spray dangling from the ignition. “Nope.”
The officer rolled his head from shoulder to shoulder. The motion carried from one raised eyebrow to the other. “If I were to check the glove compartment, I wouldn’t find anything interesting?”
Cameron felt the sweat pooling beneath her bandana. She glared at the officer. “You mean, if you had a warrant to check it?”
Shaking his head, he waved the notion away. “I’ve got to run an inventory if you want to get your stuff back.”
Looking back and forth, Cameron processed this statement. “Get my stuff back? No no no, you’re not towing me.”
The officer threw his hands up. “This rig isn’t exactly street legal. Suppose the stem breaks off and hits another motorist.”
Cameron dug her nails into the wheel. “Suppose an eighteen wheeler pops a tire and the rim goes flying.”
The officer rapped his knuckles down the frame. “Suppose these papier-mâché teeth come unglued from the hood.”
Cameron snapped at him. “First of all, they’re silicone, not papier-mâché. Second, they’re caulked on, not glued, and third, this is a Beetle. That’s not the hood, it’s the trunk.”
The officer shook his head at the road. “I’m sorry, but semantics don’t make it safe. I’m going to have to ask you to step out of the vehicle.”
Cameron mouthed a vulgarity with no breath behind it. Slinging her purse over her shoulder, she reached for her keys.
The officer smirked. “Leave the pepper spray, I’ll get it for you.”
Stepping out of her pumpkin carriage, Cameron took it in one last time. Raising her phone, she positioned her modest creation into the frame; months of planning reduced to a single snapshot. Who knows how much of it she’d get back.
She remembered how she justified the investment to her parents, “People don’t open up to bystanders like they do to participants.”
She could already hear her father’s reaction to this development. “This is fate redirecting you to a path with a future at the end.”
Pausing at the patrol car, she got an odd feeling. There was something off about the coloring. Something foreign about the font for “STATE TROOPER.” She pointed to the text beneath it. “You’re a little ways outside of your jurisdiction.”
Opening the back door, the officer tipped his hat, “We cover every street statewide.”
Cameron froze. “Is there a Humboldt County in this state?”
Putting his sunglasses on, the officer cocked his head. “Sounds like your speech is slurring. You sure you haven’t had anything to drink?”
Opening the driver’s side door, he fished a breathalyzer out of the compartment.
Cameron squint, “No, and you never asked me if–”
He cut her off, “Better breathalyze to be on the safe side.”
The officer shoved the device in Cameron’s mouth. It happened so fast she didn’t have time to consent. She had to tilt her head back just to avoid chipping her teeth.
The playful tone fell out of the officer’s voice. “I’m going to need you to take a deep breath, then I’m going to tell you to exhale.” He squeezed the breathalyzer, “Alright inhale.”
Cameron flared her nostrils. An oder came off the device: the head smelt sweet, the body stunk of alcohol, and the tail was pure antiseptic.
The officer looked beyond the breathalyzer, locking eyes with Cameron. His lips shrunk in. Somehow she knew, he was gritting his teeth beneath them.
He tilt the breathalyzer. The odor intensified into a taste, industrial soap spilling down Cameron’s tongue. It overpowered her senses, the sound of wind faded, the sun dimmed. She felt weightless.
Woozy, Cameron teetered away from the breathalyzer. Lowering it, the officer ignored the results. Stepping forward, he positioned himself to catch her. Throwing a punch, Cameron found she hadn’t the strength to sustain her fist through the motion. It felt like it broke off her wrist and flew away.
Falling into the officer’s arms, the world fell out from under her.
Someone is abducting college students, yet no one knows they’re even missing. That’s because they’re still posting status updates, Tweeting trending hashtags, and snapping selfies. Their friends and family don’t see the guns barrels just outside the frame.
Cameron wakes up in a town that’s all but abandoned, apart for the stables filled with captive residents. She needs to figure out what her fellow prisoners have in common, and what their abductors plan on doing with them, while she’s forced participate in their social media schemes.
A hero is only as good as their opposition, which is why their enemy has the power to bring down the entire story. Before card carrying villains can break your hero, they set their sights on the suspension of disbelief. If their motivation is world domination, who says they’ll stop at their own? They might make the transition into their writer’s reality.
How you ask? The monocle models, mustache twirlers, and glove rubbers, draw attention to their authors. The train track trespassers, the rope wranglers, and the damsel distressers, wink at the reader. The spark plug pinchers, the lever pullers, and the timer primers, blow their creator’s cover.
Every time the villain kills a henchman for no good reason, a light goes off in your reader’s brain. Every time their monologue reveals the details of their master plan, the reader questions your reasoning. Every time they choose the sinister option over the one that’s results driven, the reader wakes from your vision.
It’s good to have a clear antagonist, but you don’t want them to be transparent. Sometimes their desires are simply incompatible with the hero’s. Sometimes the hero and the villain share a common destination, only to differ on how to get there. Sometimes they start with the same beliefs only to have them tested by their environments.
Present your case against the antagonist, and let your audience come to their own conclusions. The subtler the evidence, the smarter they’ll feel for putting the pieces together. Too many reminders of who they’re rooting against will pull them out of the experience.
The skyscraper pacers, the power hoarders, and the top floor lorders, insult your audience’s intelligence. The quiet loners, the speech sputterers, and the monotone mutterers, spoil your twists. The police taunters, the body stackers, and the artistic killers, highlight how flimsy their basis in reality is.
Every time they laugh at their own quips, the reader flashes back to saturday morning cartoons. Every time they show up with skulls on, the reader flashes to Halloween costumes with pictures of the character on the front. Every time they play into a cultural stereotype, the reader doesn’t feel right.
When stock villains wander from production to production the audience is sure to spot a pattern.
Bullies in matching letter jackets transfer high schools, to stuff as many protagonists as possible into lockers. Men with loose ties and looser tongues are on a perpetual pub crawl, interrupting dates, baiting bachelors to brawl. Attackers in unseasonable wool caps tour back alleys, on a scavenger hunt for vigilantes.
They ought to recognize themselves in other stories.
What’s My Motivation, No Seriously?
As writers, sometimes we conspire with our baddies to drive our plots forward.
Gazing over the edge of the skyscraper, the screenwriter spun on his heel, “I know you don’t have a reason to do this, but I need you to abduct the hero’s love interest.”
Pacing the helicopter pad, the villain scratched the back of his head, “I’m more of a lawful evil person. I’d rather defeat him through litigation than harm his loved ones. I mean, if I’m the catalyst for everything that’s happening, shouldn’t my choices make more sense?”
Sighing, the screenwriter tented his fingers. “But we need to give the hero a reason to drive his motorcycle into the lobby, tear his way through the robot guards, empty a few clips into your henchmen,” he pointed to the roof access door, “Kick that down, and shoot you in the face.”
The villain made the universal sign for time out, “Wait, what? When did this become a video game? Why kill me? I’m not even armed.”
Widening his eyes, the screenwriter snapped his fingers, “You’ll snatch a gun off one of your boys and point it at the hero’s wife.”
A guard stepped forward to offer his sidearm.
Shaking his head, the villain pushed it away. “How would aiming a gun at the hero’s wife help me in anyway? I’m a billionaire, it’s his word against an army of lawyers.”
“He’s going to arrest you.”
“Let him. Billionaires make bail.”
The screenwriter ran his fingers through his hair, “Is it your name up on the marquee? No, it isn’t. This scene isn’t about you, okay. So quit your bitching and take your bullet like a champ.”
Sorry if this example spoiled the ending to a certain cybernetic policeman reboot, but it was my most recent reference for poorly motivated villainy.
Tyrants are Tattletales
Take a good look at your villain. Are they serving themselves, or are they slaves to a design? If they were under interrogation, could they tell us why they commit their crimes, or would they say, “It seemed evil at the time?”
What made them swerve off course? How were they seduced by the dark side of the force?
Poorly motivated characters have a talent for drawing attention to poor structure. They wrap Christmas lights around plot holes. They hang decorations from dangling threads. They ring bells at convenient coincidences. When you forget to payoff all your setups, they sit across from your reader with a package in the shape of Chekhov’s Gun.
While you try to keep your reader entranced, these villains snap their fingers in their face. Charging headlong into the forth wall, they break character. Chewing the scenery, they take the story down from within. They make their presence known, shattering illusions, and sabotaging sequels.
Poorly motivated characters stay with a story long after the thrilling conclusion. After the right brain does its song and dance, they sit on the left side criticizing it. After the applause, they set the buyer’s remorse in. They rain on the parade, raising awareness of unresolved questions.
The thinner your characters’ motivations, the more they fall apart upon examination.
Madness shouldn’t be so convenient
The audience doesn’t have to relate to every villains’ motivation. “Some people just want to watch the world burn.” Chaotic evil is allowed to be a mystery. Sometimes it’s more frightening the less we understand. Sometimes horror arises from abstraction. Some kill for riches, rage, and revenge, others kill out of curiosity, just to see what will happen.
We can revel in the character’s madness without being compelled to share in it, but the moment you reveal their motivation, we develop expectations.
Characters should develop, but radical change requires radical reasons.
If the villain is a geneticist developing a serum for regenerating limbs, his mutation into a lizard man wouldn’t make him hell bent on spreading his newfound “perfection.” Sure his condition might make him do crazy things, like keep a video journal so he can talk to the audience, but if he’s lucid enough to make decisions, it’s hard to follow how he went from a healer to a mad scientist bent on creating an army of lizard men.
Now that we’re picking apart the Amazing Spiderman series; I’m still trying to figure out why a Spiderman fanboy would turn on his idol, for not recognizing him, after his electrical powers altered his skin tone.
“I’m disfigured, so I guess I should kill everyone.”
Madness shouldn’t be so convenient.
Sympathy for A Good Villain
The best villains think they’re going to get away with their actions, because life doesn’t function like a narrative. They know something we forget: reality is ambivalent to their bad behavior. Karma isn’t rerouting their path off a cliff. Fate isn’t looking over their shoulder. They don’t turn away from the injustice of civilization, they use it to absolve crimes of desperation.
If the hero thinks they’re in a light hearted action thriller, the villain thinks they’re the lead in something grittier. Their actions are justified by an insight the hero is too naive to see. They’re not just competing goals, they’re competing philosophies: not just romanticism versus cynicism, or existentialism versus determinism, but pragmatism versus realism.
These villains teach heroes truths they couldn’t learn on their own. They force good guys to refine their arguments. Their plights can be so compelling heroes might take them up after they’re gone, using their heroic means to reach a juster end.
My favorite villains are the ones painted in grey tones, the ones who are unaware of their status, the ones on the border of becoming anti-heroes, the ones whose redemption we cheer for, only to watch them break our hearts in the end. They hold our interest in the palm of their hands. We keep hoping that they’ll change for the better, but all they change is our expectations.
Good villains get our sympathy, especially when the trial for their soul teeters back and forth until the last page. It’s what separates characters from caricatures.
In college, I had a creative writing course that almost turned me off of the pursuit.
Safeguarding my 4.0 grade point average, I read the assigned short story collection before class began. These were award winning pieces; charming, clever, and oozing with emotion. When the professor saw my paperback copy, with it’s folded pages and well worn spine, my “A” would be a foregone conclusion, that was until he told us to ignore the syllabus. He was going off book, bringing in photocopies of stories from his personal collection. He felt they were better representations of what we should aspire to be writing.
As thick as these shorts were, they were uneventful, over stuffed with poetic language. If they were interpreted as films they’d be five minutes of awkward silences. If they were turned into plays, the director would have nothing to block out. The cast would stare off in opposite directions, while the audience waited for something to happen. The characters rarely moved, they made small talk to conceal larger conversations. The stories rarely came to conclusions, they just sort of ended.
Believing the absence of entertainment value signified some deeper meaning, I found myself rereading. It all went over my head. I felt illiterate. I kept looking, but I couldn’t see what the professor saw in these clips. I hoped our discussions would shed some light on his reasoning.
Rather than dwell on characters or plot points, we discussed the stories like we were interpreting dreams. Our conversations began with questions like:
“What did the color of the drapes represent?”
“How does the spiral staircase parallel the couple’s relationship?”
“When Gerald says, ‘The tree should have blossomed by now,’ what does he really mean?”
The professor preferred narratives that read like portraits. Paintings of couples frozen in time. These weren’t stories about changes, but explorations in the characters’ routines. If we wanted signs of development, we’d have to search for hints.
We were told to look for the iconography in the scenery, to search for symbolism in the humdrum, to find mosaics in the prosaic. It felt like we were learning valuable skills for critiquing another medium.
While I struggled to understand these stories, the rest of the class set out to find the invisible hand of the author, and they saw it everywhere. They were in on a joke that I didn’t get. They observed the feelings evoked by the sight of blue, red, and yellow, while I felt colorblind. Their fine toothed combs were finer than mine. Their enigma machines were in perfect working order, while I tried to break these codes with a crayon and a piece of paper.
This is not an exaggeration: I considered the possibility that I had an attention deficiency. I couldn’t focus long enough to read between the lines. I kept thinking, if I can’t see the value in these stories, who’s going to see the value in mine?
I thought that I might have poor taste, that Stephen King was what we peasants drank, with our beer bottle pockets, and these shorts were the Champagne of the literary world. My palate wasn’t refined enough to appreciate the difference.
When it came time for peer revue, our intentions were lost in translation. The authors were told they couldn’t chime in until the end, they had to soak in their audience’s confusion. Each short was an inkblot, open to interpretation. Every observation said more about the reader than the author of the words.
Scanning flat surfaces for signs of dimension, we saw sexual tension where there was none. We saw plot threads as thin as fishing lines, that told us the players were on borrowed time. Our subliminal searches led us to better stories than the author’s intended.
Relying on the Socratic method, the professor tried to direct us to conclusions using questions. This only added to the confusion. We came away with the wrong lessons.
The students got defensive. It wasn’t their fault that we lost the plot, we should’ve seen the signs. It wasn’t that they weren’t writing well, it was that we didn’t know how to read it right.
Imagine being told you didn’t get the job only to counter with, “You just didn’t get the symbolism in my cover letter.”
I couldn’t see the point of interjecting dual meanings, of making everything Freudian. I had a story to tell that involved police corruption, crooked lawyers, and demons. I couldn’t waste time languishing in any one location.
When I turned in my noir thriller, the professor was not a fan, but my peers had a different reaction. In their written feedback, they kept calling it “Fun.” There was a word we weren’t slinging around in our quest for deeper meaning, but “fun” was my intention.
I wanted to put something enticing on the surface before drawing my readers in. My popcorn prose weren’t completely on the nose. I didn’t prefer telling to showing, but it was clear what was happening.
I used symbols, but I took care not to make them the stars of the show. Clever characters, and an original premise were my big draws. Students thanked me for bringing action to my fiction. What I lacked in hidden meanings I made up in entertainment value.
I learned that symbols can be fascinating, tools to add layers to your writing, but you have to have a compelling story before anyone will feel the need to open it to interpretation.
When I first started writing fiction, my scenes had long intermissions, ellipses in place of dialogue, holes in place of plot. I’d skip chapters, write out of sequence. My ideas didn’t have legs because they weren’t fleshed out. They lacked focus because they weren’t developed. It was hard to keep my tone consistent, when I wrote in fractured moments. It was hard to keep track of who said what, when my characters had yet to be named.
Idea Man flew so far away, I couldn’t decide if he was a bird or a plain. Soaring through the thought clouds, he was neck deep in inspiration. If anyone could break my writer’s block, it was him. I realized I’d have to devise a scheme to bring him down to my level.
Coming from a poetry background, where stanzas can be made from lists, I tried the technique in the long form. Rather than dive into the action, I over described my locations. I’d log the evidence of an event, until I realized my police reports weren’t drawing down Idea Man. He wouldn’t make an appearance for atmosphere alone.
Mouthing both sides of a conversation, I’d come up with clever bits of banter. My subconscious did the talking, while my fingers went a-walking. Rather than direct my dialogue, I’d play stenographer, honoring the first words that came to mind, occasionally shoehorning in one-liners. My muse wouldn’t stop speaking long enough to draw breath, my fingers tripped across the keyboard. It felt like I’d finally channeled my hero until I realized it was his evil twin: Mediocrity Man.
I thought I’d written radio plays that were just waiting for visual accompaniment, but they were too conversational. They had nowhere to go. It turned out, the best dramatic discussions didn’t follow real speech patterns. They revealed character details while serving the plot at the same time.
Luring Idea Man into an Outline
Using my talent for writing lists, I decided to outline everything. I didn’t stop at “Character drives” and “goals,” my ideation was all encompassing.
I fired a chain of bullet points at my background research. I knew how my hero’s public habits contrasted their private peculiarities, even if the audience never got to make this discovery. I knew how their psychological profile effected their clothing style. I knew how their sense of humor showed in their posture.
Not only did I know my characters’ names, I knew their upbringing, economic backgrounds, education, religious beliefs, professions, and political leanings. It didn’t matter if their parents didn’t get any screen time, they had their own paragraphs on my outline. It didn’t matter if we never saw their humble abode, I’d still describe it down to the last pillow.
My dogmatic draft predicted the page number I wanted every plot point to happen on. It was a map that refused to acknowledge shifting terrains. Assuming character motivations would always make sense, the plot dictated their actions. They entered a scene, not because of their powerful drive, but because the story needed them to.
When I finally started writing, Idea Man came, but his contributions lacked passion. I’d already introduced him to all the characters, I’d already scouted all the locations, we knew the timeline for every situation. Without the thrill of discovery, Idea Man was just going through the motions. I hadn’t given him any wiggle room, I hadn’t left him space to make a contribution. He shuffled his way through a draft, before flying off, never to return to the story again.
Idea Man Unleashed
It took me years to realize, the more I drafted the less I finished. The more I edited as I went, the less likely I was to get to the end. So I tried a different approach. I wrote my stories without a net. I developed the cast on the page. I came up with interesting situations, in the hope that the rest of the story would tell itself:
A dead body is found in a locked room. The killer used a timed poison and special appearing ink to leave his mark. His next victim may already be doomed.
A drunken lawyer staggers into the woods, interrupts a trial for a man’s soul, represents him and wins.
A teenager finds messages from his future self in his journal, only to discover that his future self is sabotaging his life.
Idea Man dragged a trail of thought clouds from the heavens, interrupting my work in progress with a slew of better ones. I was walking through a smog of thought clouds, not so much a daydreamer but a sleepwalker lost in a brainstorm.
This is what I got for writing commando, like Stephen King without a tight binding outline.
Idea Man kept making deliveries, but I was running out of places to put them.
Drowning in Thought Clouds
The sheetrock was cracking, the oven tilting, my back burner was filled with too many things. The refrigerator door hung off its hinge, weighed down by post-it notes, IOUs for material I’d yet to get to. There was a ceramic dust pattern on the table, an outline of a plate with one too many things put on it.
The exits to my memory palace were blocked. There were too many big ideas in the way, I was wading through them. The dam had broken, my writer’s block had flooded my brain. I was drowning in thought clouds.
I needed to sort through the backlog, to find my focus, to pick a project, but Idea Man kept the deliveries coming.
In the maze of my mental map the paths forked into all directions. I walked into a short story, hoping it would spit me out in the middle of my novel. I ran through a journal entry, hoping it came out as an article. I ventured down one path, praying it could get me to my career goals.
It was hard to see the light when I had so many bright ideas. Each bulb orbited my head demanding to be acknowledged. It was hard to hear my thoughts when they made so much noise. The toys in the attic were all wound up, they were having a parade.
I used to wait for Idea Man to breach my fortress of solitude, now I was waiting for him to leave me a moment of clarity.
I needed away to harness him without taking every thought cloud he had to offer. I needed to hold his attention without trapping him in a kryptonite cage. Idea Man needed an outline that allowed him the freedom of discovery.
The Hybrid Outline
Knowing the fundamentals of plot structure, I shouldn’t spend too much time at the drawing board. All I need to get a story started are the bare bones of a good summary, like:
Character: Who’s the lead? What is their drive? Break in the Routine: What pulls the rug out from under them? What goal do they acquire? Does the conflict with their drive set them on the path to a personal change? Situation: What’s the premise? Where does it take place? Conflict: Who’s the antagonist? How does their goal interfere with the hero’s? Plot Point 1: When is it too late for the hero to turn back? Mid Point: Do the alliances shift? Does the hero learn a lesson that signals the beginning of a change? Plot Point 2: What’s the hero’s lowest possible moment? When they acquire their goal, do they discover it wasn’t what they wanted? Do they seek a new one? Climax: How does their personal change prepare them for the final battle?
Resolution: When the dust settles, has the hero grown as a person?
Starting a story, I keep these plot points in mind, while leaving everything else open for discovery. Even these points aren’t set in stone. If Idea Man delivers a thought cloud that suits the story, I’ll use it, if it’s out of place, I can cast it away without feeling like I’m losing something (I’ve made a habit of storing these ideas in other documents).
To paraphrase some words of wisdom from Trey Parker: this plot point happens therefore this plot point happens, but then this one happens, therefore so does this one. His stories are collections of “therefores” and “but thens.” Each scene comes with a reason, you have to pop all the extraneous thought clouds that start with “and then.” Everything better be connected or it’s out of place.
I can avoid referring to a draft by linking all these plot points in my head. I cover this process in great detail in my blog on How to Build a Memory Palace Pitch. The trick is to make the essential connections early on, then you’ll have an idea of where everything should be heading.
It’s this combination of outline and free form strategies that’s kept Idea Man on task and interested at the same time.