A Character’s Time to Die

“We aim for the point where everyone who is marked for death, dies.”
– Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

My wife and I have been working our way through a TV series recently, and one of our favorite characters just died. (I won’t mention the name of the show or character, so as not to spoil it for those who have not seen it). This character’s death did not come as a complete surprise to us. The storm clouds had been gathering around him for a while, as it were, and there had been hints that he wasn’t going to make it out alive. From a narrative standpoint, his personal story arc was pretty much over, with nowhere left to go. It really was his time to die.

Nevertheless, his death still was still difficult to witness, and not just because it was a rather violent and shocking death. We mourned the loss of this character because we had been following his story since the first episode. We had watched him struggle and grow as a character, and we felt like we knew him-in many ways, even better than other characters on the show did. We liked him, and we miss him. His absence in the story after his death is as significant as was his presence beforehand.

I know that you know exactly what I’m talking about here. Even now, you’re thinking of the death of one of your favorite fictional characters, aren’t you? I’ll bet you can still recall in vivid detail where you were when that character died. It’s fascinating to me how we can feel genuine grief over the loss of someone we intellectually know was never alive in the first place. But they felt real to us, didn’t they? Such reactions are evidence of good writing, and the sort of connections that all storytellers hope to create with their audience.

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Death is one of the most powerful tools writers can use to impact their readers. The death of a character can elicit a range of emotions, ranging from anger, fear, and sadness, to catharsis, joy, and even humor. (Admit it: you laughed when the Boba Fett fell into the Sarlaac and it burped).

As I have reflected on the death of this particular character, I’ve come up with five lessons about using death as a tool to strengthen your storytelling.

1. His death was earned.

You remember on Star Trek, when Captain Kirk and his crew would beam down to an alien planet. Everyone knew that Kirk wasn’t going to die, and neither were Spock, Dr. McCoy, Sulu, or any of the main characters. But those unnamed security guards in the red shirts? Yeah, we all knew they would be the first to go. And what’s more, we didn’t really care. Their only purpose in the story was to be cannon fodder or monster chow.

This character wasn’t a red shirt. He had earned his death-or rather, the powerful emotions that came from it-because we had known him from the beginning of the story. We had invested time in learning his story, and thus his death had meaning to us.

2. His death had meaning to other characters.

It wasn’t just us as viewers who were upset when this character died. Part of the emotion of the moment came from seeing how the other characters in the story reacted. We mourned his death partly because we saw his friends mourning, and we knew what he meant to them.

Death will always bring with it a certain shock value, especially if the reader doesn’t see it coming. Much of the horror genre depends on the tried and true “jump scare” type death, or the “who’s gonna get it next?” approach. But gratuitous deaths, or deaths for their own sake, will never carry the same weight or meaning that the death of a solidly developed character will.

3. His death moved the story forward.

This character’s death came at a critical point in the story, and his death served as a primary motivation for the other characters going forward throughout the rest of the story. Virtually everything that happened thereafter in the plot was directly or indirectly related to his death.

Death is a powerful motivator, and is often what sets the hero off on his or her journey. It’s the death of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru that motivates Luke Skywalker to leave home and go with Obi-Wan Kenobi. It’s the death of Mufasa that causes Simba to run away from Pride Rock. In fact, Disney has built an entire empire on the corpses of dead parents, few of whom ever even make it out of the prologue.

But while a death near the beginning of a story can be a natural reason for your character to start their journey, it’s by no means the only place where it can happen. Lenny isn’t killed in Of Mice and Men until the very end of the book, for instance, because in that case, the whole story has been leading up to that moment in one long crescendo. The same holds true for Old Yeller, and Where The Red Fern Grows, where the story is about the loss of one’s pets.

4. His death reflected his life.

He got to go out in a blaze of glory of sorts, voluntarily sacrificing his life to save three of his friends, including his best friend. This was in keeping with how this character was during his life, constantly looking out for and protecting his friends. His death therefore felt natural, and even right.

The manner of death should also fit the tone of the story. It’s best not to include a gruesome or graphic death in a story that has been fairly tame thus far. William Wallace’s death in Braveheart-where he is hung, drawn, and quartered-is gruesome, epic, tragic, and inspiring all at once, and is perfectly in harmony with the tone of the rest of the story. Such a death would feel out of place in

Even a death that feels random and even senseless can be impactful if that is the story you’re telling. In The Walking Dead, pretty much anyone can die at any time, without warning or fanfare. That’s the reality of living in a zombie apocalypse-death is always right around the corner, and that sense of fear is what the story is all about.

5. His death was remembered.

In the next episode, the other characters hold a wake, and they each put remembrances in his coffin. Each character is given a chance to say their goodbyes and pay their respects. It’s somber and formal, and very cathartic for everyone involved, including the viewer. It’s our chance to say goodbye as well.

When people die in the real world, we eulogize them. We remember their life and honor their death. Character deaths need a similar eulogy. When a fellow hunter dies in Supernatural, Sam and Dean Winchester give them a “hunter’s funeral,” full of meaning. When Gandalf drops off the bridge of Kazahdum with the Balrog, there isn’t time to stop and fully remember him until the Fellowship arrives safely at Lothlorien, where Sam composes a poem about Gandalf’s fireworks while the elves sing a lament.

This doesn’t mean that there has to be a formal funeral service for every character death, but there should be at least a moment sometime where other characters can reflect and remember their loss. The Wolverines in Red Dawn take time to carve the names of their fallen friends on a rock before moving on with their war. Wilbur the pig is saddened by Charlotte’s death, but is happy seeing all her children living on.

Death is a part of life, and will always be so. It’s quite natural to incorporate death into our storytelling, and we should. Because part of the reason we tell stories in the first place is to keep memories of those we love alive for future generations. In this way, stories have the power to transcend death itself.

Writer, Defined

Last month, I wrote a pep talk of sorts for people dealing with an existential crisis about being a writer. I received a lot of positive feedback from friends who said that it really helped them. And while I’m thrilled to hear things like that, I have a confession: I wrote that post as much for myself as anyone. This post is a companion to that one, in which I am, to reference the name of this website, just thinking through my fingers.

I’m about to do something that promises to be even more mind-blowingly meta than the time I ran the operation instructions for my new paper shredder through the paper shredder. I’m about to look up the definition of the word “definition” in the dictionary. I hope the universe doesn’t collapse in on itself.

Definition. Noun. (deh-feh-ni-shun).

From the Latin “definitus,” meaning, “set within limits.”

  1. A statement expressing the essential or intrinsic nature of something.
  2. The action or power of describing or explaining, or of making precise, specific, and clear.

As writers, definitions are absolutely crucial, because words are our business, and meanings matter. Indeed, definitions are the standards on which all language is based, and the very load-bearing beams of civilization itself. If people cannot agree on what words mean, then all communication breaks down, understanding falls apart, and confusion and chaos will be all that is left! Dogs and cats, living together…MASS HYSTERIA!

But I digress.

I’ve been thinking a lot about definitions, about how we as writers define ourselves, and about what definitions we choose to accept from others. When did you first think or yourself as a “writer?” When did you first respond with “I’m a writer” when someone asked what you did? What qualifies one to say, “I’m a writer” with confidence?

For some, the answers to those questions are simple. They’ve been thinking of themselves as writers for much of their lives, and they have no problem saying it to others, because they see the word “writer” as the expression of their essential or intrinsic nature. It’s clearly and precisely who they are. It’s their definition.

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For others, however, that definition doesn’t come quite so easily. I have enjoyed writing for a good portion of my life, but it has always been hard to refer to myself as a writer. Even when my first book was published, I found myself struggling to say “I’m a writer” when talking with others. I always pictured “real writers” as people who wrote full time, who earned every penny of their income from words they wrote, and who took up several inches of shelf space at the bookstore or library. But that definition didn’t seem to apply to me. Defining myself as a writer felt inauthentic. It felt fraudulent. After all, I only had one book published, and I still had a day job. How could I call myself a writer? Instead, I would tell people “I wrote a book,” and even that would come out rather sheepish in tone, bordering on apologetic, as if I was about to follow that statement up with “…and I’m sorry.” To this day, in fact, even with multiple books under my belt, it still feels a little weird to say the words “I’m a writer” out loud. I half expect someone to vocally challenge me every time I say it.

Definitions such as “writer,” like so many things in life, are often easier to see in others rather than in ourselves. What is much easier, unfortunately, is to accept the negative definitions that come from others. We allow ourselves to be set within the limits that other people have chosen. We base our entire identity off of one bad review that some thoughtless person pounded out in a fit of anger. We define our self worth based on the amount of our royalty checks—or the lack thereof. We are so quick to give buoying words of support to other struggling writers, yet just as quick to dismiss those words when offered to us.

We’re an interesting bunch, aren’t we?

One of my all-time favorite films is The Iron Giant. In that story, a gigantic extraterrestrial robot falls to earth and, because of damage to its head, suffers from a sort of amnesia. The giant has no idea what he is at first, and gradually learns to see the world through the eyes of a young boy who becomes his friend. The boy tells the giant that he can choose to be whatever he wants to be. The giant, having heard his new friend tell stories about a comic book hero, decides he wants to be Superman. However, the giant eventually discovers the truth about his identity—that he is, essentially, a giant weapon. But the giant refuses to accept that definition, stating clearly, “I am not a gun!” He then flies away to save the boy’s small town from being destroyed by a nuclear missile, and his last word before sacrificing himself is said almost as a smile: “Superman.”

The most powerful lesson I take away from that story is this: No one gets to define me but me. I am a writer because I write. You are a writer because you write. It doesn’t matter if you’re published, it doesn’t matter if you don’t make any money at it, and it doesn’t matter if you only do it because you enjoy it.

Say it with me: I. Am. A. Writer.

Now say it again.

Now one more time, with feeling.

Scribo ergo sum. I write, therefore I am.

That is who I am.

That is who you are.

No one else gets to define me but me.

No one else gets to define you but you.

Is that clear enough? Is that precise enough? Is that enough of an expression of your essential nature? If not, let’s go to the dictionary for another definition:

Writer. Noun. (rie-ter).

  1. One that writes.

Synonyms: author, wordsmith, scribe, novelist, essayist, storyteller, biographer, journalist, tragedian, poet, scrivener, litterateur, blogger, columnist, scribbler.

SEE ALSO: YOU.

_____________________________

Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

Resolve to Quit! But if you can’t…

“Kids, you tried your best, and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.” – Homer Simpson.

It’s a new year, and that means new goals, new plans, and new resolutions. It’s a time for fresh starts, rededications, and the Rocky soundtrack on a constant loop. It’s also the time of year when everyone writes a blog post about the importance of sticking to your guns and never, ever quitting.

This is not that kind of a blog post. I’m just warning you up front.

I’ve seen several people I know struggle greatly with writing over the years, and not the usual “I’ve hit a plot hole and I can’t get up!” sort of struggle. I’m talking about friends who seem to be at an existential crossroads of sorts; who aren’t sure if they have the strength or will to ever write anything again; who want to set fire to their laptops and be done with it all.

Maybe you’re at a similar crossroads with your own writing. Maybe it’s because you just got your fiftieth rejection letter. Or your hundredth. Maybe the thought of having to do one more bit of self promotion gives you stress hives. Maybe you discovered a book on the bookstore shelf that has the exact plot you’ve been wrestling with for the past two years. Maybe it’s because you’re just tired and burned out. However you ended up at these crossroads, know that you’re not alone. Every writer ends up here at least once in his or her career. The question is: what to do about it?

Here’s my first suggestion: Quit.

No, I’m serious. If you just can’t take it anymore, then quit. Please note that I am not referring here to simple writer’s block, or the rough days where nothing seems to be coming together, such as are common to all writers. But if writing has lost all joy for you; if it is affecting your emotional or physical health, or negatively impacting your personal relationships with family and friends; if writing has become, in the words of Chuck Wendig, “an endless Sisyphean misery,” then why on earth are you still doing it?

You have to ask yourself hard questions: Is this really for me? Is this really what I want? I can’t answer those questions for you, nor would I ever try. I’m not saying that every moment of writing should be sunshine, sparkles, and dancing unicorns. I don’t know any writer who experiences that all the time. Writing—or any worthwhile creative endeavor, for that matter—should be a struggle, and should stretch you and challenge you. But for heaven’s sakes: if you’re not experiencing any enjoyment whatsoever from writing, isn’t that telling you something?

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Okay, I hear the sounds of angry mobs sharpening pitchforks and lighting torches out there. You’re upset with my first suggestion to quit. That’s good. That means there’s still a spark inside you that won’t let you give up just yet. For you folks, here’s my second suggestion, taken from a quote from Rick Walton: “Quit. But if you can’t, then do the work.”

Think about why you started writing in the first place. What led you to do it? Was it a school assignment that awoke something inside you didn’t even know was there, or have you always felt compelled to tell stories? Think about how it felt when you wrote your first story, about the thrill that came from typing ‘THE END’ and knowing that this story was all yours. Think about the first time you were brave enough to let someone else read your writing, and they actually liked it!

Now think about never writing again. How does that feel? If it makes you dig in your heels and put up your dukes and want to fight me for merely suggesting it, then it means you’re still in this. But it means you’ve got some work to do. It means taking yourself seriously enough to actively and consciously arrange your time to write on a regular basis. It means working through that plot problem that has been kicking your trash for the past three months by any means necessary. It means finishing that book, that chapter, that scene, that paragraph, or that sentence. It means sitting down and opening a blank file and writing “Chapter One.” And it means doing it today.

Don’t worry that your first draft will suck. Your first draft is supposed to suck. That is its whole job. Your job is to make that first draft exist. Your job is to get the words out of you and down on the paper. There is time to fix them up, rearrange them, and make them look all sparkly later. Just get it done. You know you can’t quit, so go do the work.

A big part of doing the work is to keep the proper perspective. Too many writers focus too much on this nebulous, ever shifting goalpost called “success.” This skewed line of thinking reduces success to a binary choice between all or nothing, as if to say that anything less than being the next Stephen King or JK Rowling equals abject failure.
Emily King said it well: “Success is a dangling carrot that motivates us to work harder and persist, no matter where we are on our personal journey. Fame. Fortune. Rubbing elbows with important people. Notoriety. Independence, creative or financial. One person’s perspective on what success looks like will change to the next, and our interpretation will change as we taste nibbles of it. In essence, success is something we chase, not something we achieve.”

My advice is to focus on SATISFACTION, not success. Success can come quickly, and be taken away just as quickly. It doesn’t mean you should stop chasing your dreams and goals, but it does mean that you can—and should—learn to be grateful for where you are. Don’t define yourself based on something that hasn’t happened yet. Give yourself credit for what you’ve already accomplished, which is likely more than you realize.

J. Scott Savage also had wise words on the subject: “Am I against making money by selling what we write? Heck no! Make as much as you can. You have earned every dime. What I am against, is taking an art, a talent, something that blesses your life and the lives of those your share it with, and turning it into a job that is only worthwhile if it makes lots of money. I am against seeing people asking if they should give up a God-given talent that brings them joy, (even when it is very hard), because enough other people didn’t buy their work.”

I echo those words. I believe in God, and I believe He gives us talents to help us grow and develop in this life. Think of how many people in this world have a talent for music. How many of them are superstars, with all the fame and fortune, and what does that mean for the rest of us? Does that mean God totally screwed up when He gave me a love of music? Am I somehow a failure in life, and displeasing Him just because I only play my guitar for fun, and I’ve never played Carnegie Hall? Not hardly.

It’s the same with my writing. Don’t get me wrong: getting paid for what you write is awesome, and I highly recommend it. But the NYT bestseller list is not the only way to honor the talents you have been given. Your gifts were given to you for a reason. Your voice is needed. Only you can tell your story the way you can. That’s not something to walk away from lightly.

Now, if you’re still feeling burned out, here’s my final suggestion: Quit. But just for a little bit. Everyone gets burned out from time to time, and it can be healthy to take a little break now and then. You’re still a REAL WRITER even if you’re not writing every single day. Take a sabbatical and do something completely different. Travel. Try a new hobby. Take a class. Go to a writing conference. Do something that will jump-start your brain and get you back on track.

This new year, resolve to quit feeling sorry for yourself. Resolve to quit beating yourself up. Resolve to quit listening to those negative voices telling you that you can’t do it. Resolve to quit giving up, and get back to work.

_____________________________

Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Professional Etiquette for Writers

OR, You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry

In their book, Million Dollar Professionalism for the Writer, Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta lay out the following bit of advice:

“Never, never, ever, never, never, never, never ever be a jerk.”

I’m half tempted to offer a hearty “Amen!” and end this blog post right here, because I’m not sure you’ll ever hear a better suggestion on how to act as a writer, nay, as a human being. But in the interest of hitting my word count, allow me to expand on this idea further by way of a real-world example.

A few months ago, I attended a writer’s conference with my sister, Lisa. In addition to both being published authors, Lisa and I have worked in the publishing industry for many years: she as an editor, and I as a slushpile reader. We had both taught classes at the conference, and Lisa was ending the day by taking pitches from some of the attendees.

At the close of the conference, I found myself waiting outside the room where Lisa was hearing the final pitches of the day. Realizing that the pitches were taking longer than expected, I pulled out my laptop and proceeded to catch up on a few work items as I waited.

Shortly thereafter, a man approached and asked if he could take the seat next to me. I agreed, and we introduced ourselves. He mentioned that he had attended one of my classes earlier, and that he had enjoyed it. I thanked him and asked if he was waiting to pitch his story. He replied that he had already pitched to Lisa earlier, and that he was waiting because he wanted to ask her a follow-up question. He then began to ask me about reading in the slushpile, how long I had been doing it, and how I made decisions as to what I recommended versus what I passed on. They were the sort of questions I get asked all the time from new writers, and I was happy to answer them in a little more detail.

Our conversation was moving along quite nicely when I began to sense that he was inching towards pitching his story to me. He kept bringing the conversation back around to the book he was working on, and while I was trying to remain friendly and supportive, I was also trying to subtly convey the message that I was not the person he should be pitching to, especially when I didn’t initiate a request to hear about his book.

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Unfortunately, my new friend wasn’t picking up on the message. He grew bolder, the conversation became more and more one-sided, and he proceeded to dump more and more of his book on me. I didn’t want to be outright rude to him, but I was becoming more annoyed with him the longer he went on. I kept trying to indicate that this wasn’t the time or place, and that I wasn’t the person he should be talking to, but he wasn’t hearing me. By the time he pulled out a three-ring binder and started showing pictures he’d downloaded that represented what he felt his characters would look like, and launched into a presentation of how his insanely complicated magic system worked, I’d had enough. I faked an incoming phone call, and excused myself to the other side of the room.

A few minutes later, Lisa exited the pitch room, only to find herself face to face with this fellow, who excitedly asked if she remembered him (she did), and if she had any questions about what they had discussed during his pitch session (she didn’t). Lisa looked at me and screamed a silent “SAVE ME” with her eyes. I immediately came back and we excused ourselves from the situation.

As soon as we were out of earshot, we began to debrief each other about our experiences with this person. Not only had his pitch session been a train wreck of infodumping and Internet photos (which Lisa had expressly told him not to show her), it turns out he had been emailing Lisa and other people in the office for a few weeks already. In fact, by the time we arrived back home, we both discovered that we had brand new emails from this guy waiting for us. And we were both annoyed.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for confidence, gumption, and general sticktoitivness in terms of how you present yourself. And it’s good to stand out a bit from the legion of other writers out there. But folks, hear me loud and clear on this point: you want to stand out for the right reasons!

You should practice your “elevator pitch” in case someone wants to know what your book is about. And if they ask, then go for it. But always—ALWAYS—be a professional. Don’t be THAT GUY or THAT GAL. Don’t ambush people with your pitch if they haven’t asked for it. And especially don’t get under the skin of the very people whom you are hoping will read your book and decide its future.

Because if I’m the guy who ends up reading your book in the slushpile, then you want me to be as happy as humanly possible. You want me to be sunshine and rainbows and little animated birds fluttering about as I read. You don’t want me to remember the time you trapped me at a writer’s conference and wouldn’t let me go until I had heard about every single character and plot point. You don’t want me going into your story already irritated with you. In the words of Bruce Banner: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

If you want to be taken seriously as a professional writer, then you must act like a professional. Publishers don’t want to work with writers who are self-important divas, who can’t take criticism or direction, or who are just plain difficult.

In short: Don’t be a jerk.

Can I get an “Amen!”?

_____________________________

Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

 

The Antihero’s Journey

Characters in stories inhabit a spectrum of morality that inform their motives. On the one end are pure heroes, like Superman, Captain America, and Marge Gunderson in Fargo, who live by a strict moral code and who always do the right thing for the reasons. On the other end are pure villains, like Sauron, the Joker, and the Witch in Snow White, who can be counted on to always sow seeds of chaos at every turn. Somewhere in between lies the realm of perhaps the most complex characters of them all, the ones we love to hate: the antiheroes.

Antiheroes lack some or all of the traditional heroic virtues, such as honesty, integrity, and morality. They also possess many traits more common to villains, such as greed, bigotry, or violent tendencies, which lead them to make morally questionable choices. An antihero is not the primary villain in a story only because there exists a greater evil that he or she must fight against. And the main reason they are fighting against that evil is because it is affecting them personally. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t even care. Indeed, if and when an antihero does do the right thing, it’s usually to serve their own self-interests instead of anything altruistic. That, I believe, is what separates an antihero from a “good character with flaws.”

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For instance, we shouldn’t want Travis Bickle to succeed in Taxi Driver because he’s a psychopath who wants to kill someone. We shouldn’t want Walter White to succeed in Breaking Bad because he’s making and selling drugs. And we shouldn’t want anyone in The Godfather or Goodfellas to succeed because they’re all mafia members. And yet, we do want them to succeed.

It’s anyone’s guess as to why we continue to enjoy and root for antiheroes. Maybe it’s because they tap into something deep within each of us that wishes we could say and do some of the things they say and do. (After all, isn’t it supremely satisfying to watch Danny Ocean and his pals rob three Las Vegas casinos at once?) Or maybe it’s because we recognize some of their flaws in ourselves, and there but for the grace of God go we. Or maybe it’s simply because a well-written antihero is just so much more interesting to study than a flawless hero or a simple villain.

Examples of antiheroes abound in literature, TV, and movies, ranging from Hamlet to Huck Finn to Holden Caulfield to Dr. House. By my personal favorite example is Max Rockatansky, from the Mad Max films. Over the course of three films (I’m leaving Fury Road, even though I love it), Max goes on “The Antihero’s Journey,” from normal person, to almost villain, and finally to hero. His character arc is inverted, a deep U shaped trajectory. Max is an excellent example to study what makes an antihero.

In the first film, Mad Max, Max is a devoted husband, father, and police officer on the side of law and order in a society that is rapidly crumbling into violence and anarchy. Eventually, Max decides he’s had enough and tells his boss he wants to quit. When asked why, Max replies:

“You want to know the truth? I’m scared. It’s that rat circus out there. I’m beginning to enjoy it. Any longer out there, and I’m one of them, a terminal crazy, except I’ve got a bronze badge that says I’m one of the good guys.”

Max takes his family far away in hopes of finding some peace, but the violence of his world follows him, and kills his wife and son. Max snaps, and spends the rest of the film seeking revenge on the motorcycle gang responsible. Max is well into antihero territory, doing some very morally questionable things, and the film ends on a dark note.

In the second film, The Road Warrior, Max is now a wandering loner who has fallen further. In fact, he is barely distinguishable from the crazed gang members laying siege to a small band of people defending their oil refinery. He sits passively and watches as the terror unfolds, including the violent assaulting of some of the settlers. Only when he sees an opportunity to profit personally does Max intervene, bringing a wounded man back to the compound in exchange for some gasoline. Later, Max makes another offer to bring in a rig big enough to haul away a tanker full of fuel, but again sets the terms, because Max only really cares about himself and his own wants. While it’s a thrilling action packed film, we also see Max at his darkest point where he’s almost a villain.

It’s in the third film, Beyond Thunderdome, where Max’s story comes full circle. It’s some fifteen years later, when the world has been ravaged by nuclear war, and Max encounters a savage settlement called Bartertown, run by a woman known as Aunty Entity. Aunty speaks lovingly of Bartertown, which she built up from nothing, and a place where, in her view, hope exists. It’s a dangerous place, but it’s at least a semblance of society. “I’ll do anything to protect it,” she informs Max, “and today, it’s necessary to kill a man.”

Max, seeing an opportunity to regain his stolen property, agrees to do Aunty’s dirty work. However, Max refuses to follow through with the order to kill the intended victim (who is revealed to be a giant man with Down’s Syndrome). We begin to see Max’s humanity still under the surface. Nevertheless, Aunty exiles Max out into the desert to die. And he almost does die, until he is found by a group of children who have lived for years in a canyon oasis, and who believe Max is their Messiah come to take them to “Tomorrow-morrow land.”

Max, however, knows that no such place exists. From his perspective, these children represent the best hope of humanity that he has seen, and he doesn’t want to leave. When some of the older children decide to leave on their own, he physically stops them by brandishing a rifle—something the children have never seen before. Then, Max says the following:

“Now listen up! I’m the guy who keeps Mister Dead in his pocket. And I say we’re gonna stay here. And we’re gonna live a long time, and we’re gonna be grateful!”

It’s a reasonable sentiment from Max’s point of view, but it comes across as a clear threat. Max it seems, like Aunty, will do anything to protect what he sees as his future, even if that means threatening children with a gun. Max is still the antihero, looking out for his own self-interests, even as his intentions are becoming a tiny bit more altruistic.

Max’s moment of change occurs when some of the children sneak away during the night. Knowing the danger they will face in Bartertown, Max reluctantly agrees to go rescue them. In doing so, Max finally places his own needs secondary to the needs of others, and ultimately redeems himself. His sacrifice makes possible for many people to escape to safety, even as he himself is left behind. He has done something truly heroic at last.

Writing a strong and believable antihero is a challenge, but the payoff can be a incredibly complex character that will resonate with people for years. People will always be interested in characters that walk the line between right and wrong, who sometimes do the wrong things, and who they may love to hate. Tina Turner may have sung “We don’t need another hero,” but it may be that we need all the antiheroes we can get.

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Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

Introducing Evil: Crafting a Villain

I love a good bad guy. Always have, always will. For me, and for many other readers, the strength of a story lives or dies on the strength of the villain. After all, why bother rooting for a hero who doesn’t have to overcome anything? Where’s the fun in watching Frodo casually pop over to Mordor, toss the ring into the fires of Mount Happy, and then back home to the Shire again in a single, uneventful weekend? That’s barely a flash fiction story—and not a very interesting one at that.

It’s clear that writing villains is as big a challenge as writing heroes is. But whereas the hero is usually introduced right in beginning of the story, the best moment to reveal the villain is a little more complicated. Should one do a full reveal in chapter one, or wait until the hero reaches the “boss level” towards the end, or somewhere in between?

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The answer, like so many when it comes to storytelling, is “it depends.” There are pros and cons to introducing your main villain early on, as well as waiting until the end. If you’ve got a really strong villain, for instance, it may be worth an early reveal so that the reader gets to see as much as possible. On the other hand, revealing a villain too early can mean that the reader becomes desensitized or even bored. It’s a delicate balancing act, for sure. So while I can’t tell you exactly what will work best for your story, I can share some examples of great villains, when they were introduced, and what effect it had on the story.

Let’s start with Darth Vader, because Darth Vader. Now, forgetting all the prequels, and taking Star Wars by itself, Vader is one of the first major characters introduced on screen at just 4:42 into the film (yes, I checked), before we see Princess Leia put the Death Star plans into R2D2, and long before we meet Luke Skywalker. In fact, by the time Luke shows up, we’ve already seen Vader break a guy’s neck with his bare hands. We look at this kid Luke and think “He’s gotta go up against THAT?”

Another example of introducing a villain early is Rene Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He shows up just as Indiana Jones has made his harrowing escape from the jungle temple with the golden idol. Belloq’s first words are “Doctor Jones! Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away.” Indy responds, “Too bad the Hovitos don’t know you like I do, Belloq.” This crucial scene, placed within the first few minutes of the story, introduces us to both the protagonist and antagonist. In fact, they introduce each other to us. We learn Indiana Jones’ name from Belloq, and visa-versa. We learn that not only do they know each other, they’ve also got a long and storied history with each other.

Some villains don’t look or act like villains when they are first introduced. When Edmund first encounters the White Witch in Narnia, she doesn’t appear threatening in any way. Instead, she makes Edmund feel cozy and safe and offers him as much Turkish Delight as he likes. Similarly, Annie Wilkes literally saves Paul Sheldon’s life in the beginning of Misery. And Long John Silver befriends young Jim Hawkins at the beginning of Treasure Island, with no hint as to his murderous intentions. It’s only later when their true motives are revealed that we see just how frightening these characters really are.

Other villains don’t try to hide their agendas at all. IT is seen early on as a clown in a sewer drain—I mean, come on: Pure. Evil. Shakespeare’s Iago hates Othello with every fiber of his being, and he doesn’t care who knows it (apart from Othello, that is). Don John, the bastard brother of Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing calls himself “a plain dealing villain,” and revels in causing chaos for no other reason than it amuses him. Richard III tells us in his opening speech: “I am determined to prove a villain . . . and hate the idle pleasures of these days,” and then goes on to prove it to the audience with gusto.

On the other hand, there may be a benefit to waiting a while before revealing your villain. In Jaws, we don’t fully see the shark until well into the third act. But there is absolutely no mistaking the shark’s presence throughout. We see the shark attack a girl in the opening scene, and every time we are shown the water thereafter, we just know the shark is out there somewhere. The tension keeps building to almost unbearable levels at times, never knowing exactly when and where the shark will next appear. The same psychological effect is also at play in the original Alien, which is basically Jaws, but in space. We only see the Alien in flashes and glimpses, but we know it could be around the very next corner, and so we pull the blankets up to our chins and wait in delicious terror.

Or consider how Moriarty is revealed in the first series of the BBC’s Sherlock. Early on, and for the entirety of the first two episodes, Moriarty is just a name, a shadow, a few lines of text on a screen. But this master criminal, who is every bit as brilliant, as calculating, and as complex as Holmes, continues to be a growing presence and increasing threat in Sherlock’s world. Moriarty’s reveal as a villain is an agonizingly slow burn, a crescendo of terrible inevitability that leads to their first confrontation near the swimming pool in the episode “The Great Game.” And it was most definitely worth the wait.

One caution: It’s okay if you decide to wait a while before revealing your main villain, but make sure your protagonist has something to overcome early on in your story. Bilbo Baggins doesn’t meet the dragon Smaug in chapter one of The Hobbit, but he does have to deal with all manner of dwarves, trolls, goblins, spiders, and other obstacles along the way to Smaug’s lair.

In Lord of the Rings, Sauron, like Jaws or the Alien, is more of a presence rather than a corporeal entity through most of the story. In fact, he’s little more than a giant flaming eyeball on top of the tower of Barad-ur. But like Jaws, Sauron’s evil is felt everywhere, and infects potentially everyone. Nearly every creature the Fellowship encounters is trying to get the ring back for Sauron, which is what makes Frodo’s journey to Mordor worth reading about.

Exactly when and where you choose to reveal your story’s villain is up to you. But wherever and whenever you do it, make sure it’s a memorable moment for your readers, because that villain’s choices are going to drive the narrative of your entire story. And you want to ensure your readers come along for the ride.

Happy villain-ing!

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Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

Five Reasons Why I Rejected Your Manuscript

Last month, I wrote about some of the differences between writers and publishers, as well as some of the challenges of getting your work published. Here’s a quick recap: Publishing is a business (GASP!). Publishers want to make money (and that’s okay). Writers also want to make money (and that’s okay, too). It’s not easy to get published (no duh!). But that doesn’t mean you should give up (yay!).

This month, I want to talk a little more about the publishing world, and see if I can’t help give you some more perspective when it comes to that all-important question: Why did you reject my manuscript?

I hear that question a lot, and unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. Saying “It’s not personal,” while technically true, doesn’t do much to ease the sting of rejection. Neither does the standard rejection letter that most publishers send out, which are often devoid of specific reasons for the rejection.

As a slush pile reader, I don’t make the final decision about whether something gets published or not, but I often make the first decision. And while a “yes” or “no” from me carries a fair amount of weight where I work, it’s someone higher up the food chain who ultimately decides your story’s fate.

Here are five of the most common reasons I will recommend rejecting a manuscript, as well as some possible solutions.

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Reason #1: It’s badly written. Hands down, this is the number one reason I will pass on a manuscript. “Badly written” encompasses both the content and the style. Maybe the plot is thin, or the characters are flat, or the dialogue is stilted. Or maybe there are grammatical errors as far as the eye can see. Now, a few problems here and there are not deal breakers—even the most professional authors make mistakes and need an editor’s help—but if the whole thing is a hot mess, I’m sending it back.

Solution: Write better. No, seriously. Write better.

Reason #2: It didn’t follow the rules. Every publisher has specific rules for submitting, and few things will red flag your manuscript for rejection like trying to go outside those rules. Some publishers will only take submissions from agents, for instance. Some publishers only want a cover letter and three chapters. Some only want an electronic copy, and so on. When a manuscript comes in that isn’t in the format that we require (12 point Times New Roman, double spaced, one inch margins), or it is clear that the author didn’t bother to read our submission guidelines, we know they’re probably not very serious about their craft. Or, it may as simple a thing as an author not even doing basic research to see what kinds of things we publish (which is how we once got a hand-illustrated horror story about a serial killer in the Deseret Book slush pile).

The reason for this is not because publishers are super nit-picky (although they are), but because when every manuscript follows an identical format, it levels the playing field. I don’t want to see your manuscript; I want to see your story. I want the manuscript to disappear into the background so that your story can take center stage.

Solution: Whatever publisher you’re submitting to, do your homework and play by the rules.

Reason #3: Timing. Here’s the thing: there are hundreds of manuscripts in the slush pile at any given moment, and we read them (more or less) in the order in which they were received. So it’s quite possible your post apocalyptic YA paranormal romance thriller is, in fact, amazing—but it arrived in the slush pile two months later than another post apocalyptic YA paranormal romance thriller that we really liked and are going to publish. That’s not your fault, it’s not your story’s fault, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It’s just bad timing, and sadly, nobody has any control over that.

Solution: IDK, try a different publisher?

Reason #4: It was my fault. Look, I’m human. I make mistakes. I try to give every single manuscript that comes across my desk a fair shake, but every once in a while, I completely and totally blow it and pass on something that was, in fact, really good. I wish I had a good reason for why this happens, but I don’t. Maybe you just caught me on a bad day. Maybe it’s because you write in a genre that isn’t my personal favorite. As with the timing issue, it’s not your fault. It’s not because you’re a bad writer. This one, while rare, is all on me.

Solution: Okay, this one requires a little more than a pat answer. Problems like this are why I’m not the only slushpile reader. Every one has bad days, and this is specifically why we will often have multiple readers look at manuscripts. And the good news for you is that I’m usually aware of when I’m in a bad mood or when I’m just not into your story because of the genre. When that happens, I will make specific mention of it and suggest that someone else take a crack at it. My solution for this problem is to trust that the right readers will see your manuscript 99.9% of the time.

Reason #5: What does the market want? Ah, there’s the question publishers get more than any other. As I wrote last month, publishers and writers are always looking for the Next Big Thing. The challenge is that publishers are always looking and planning really far ahead. For instance, the publisher I work for has 2018 titles all locked down, and is already looking at 2019 and even into 2020. What is being published right this minute is what we hoped would be the Next Big Thing two years ago. Writers see what’s popular at the moment, and think “I’m getting on that train!” and then we get inundated with thousands of the same kinds of stories. So it may be that your manuscript got rejected simply because the market trends are changing. Again, writers don’t have control over that.

Solution: Like the timing issue, there isn’t an easy answer here. Trends go in cycles, so be patient, I guess?

Rejections are not fun, and nobody pretends like they are. The submitting/rejection phase is probably the worst part of being a writer, maybe second only the marketing/self promotion side once you do get published (but that’s a post for another day). But remember that every published author has been rejected many, many times before—and often, even after they’ve been published! So take heart, because you’re in good company. Rejections can be an opportunity to improve your skills as a writer and to strengthen yourself as a person. Keep at it, and don’t give up!

Also: I swear it wasn’t personal.

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Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.