In the News

There has been a lot of really interesting stuff going on lately.

IN NATIONAL NEWS

Senator Robert Byrd died the same day that the Supreme Court said that a black man could own a gun. Coincidence?  (shamelessly stolen from Michael Z. Williamson). Some people got mad at me for my post after Ted Kennedy died. Apparently I was insensitive, (who me?) but like I said then, if you’re a complete scumbag when you’re alive, you don’t turn into a saint the second they put you in the ground.

The media coverage of Byrd has been so positive that at first I’d thought maybe some monk who raised orphaned puppies by the same name had passed away. But nope, it was that same piece of crap that recruited people for the KKK.  One report said that he was a “champion of civil rights.” I know that may make your head hurt, but remember my first rule of racism. If a liberal does it, it can’t be racist. Anything a conservative does is automatically racist. Mark my words, a couple of years from now, a Republican will say something nice about Robert Byrd, and the press will run him out of office for supporting a racist hate monger.

Just in case you need a refresher.

Republican uses the word “macaca” (and I don’t even know what the hell that is. It’s like calling somebody a “chuwero” )  = RACIST and unelectable.

Democrat was a recruiter for the KKK = NOT RACIST so elect him for 42 years.

You know though, as much as I complain about the current congress, during this last session we’ve lost Kennedy, Murtha, and the Grand Wizard. I’m strangely okay with this. I may be insensitive, but I’d rather be insensitive than a socialist.

Meanwhile, the Gulf of Mexico is still filling with oil. Don’t worry though, because the federal government is on the scene to make sure that none of the skimmer boats are improperly tagged or lack sufficient fire extinguishers (per regulation 18-765-C-subparagraph 4), no sand bars were built without proper environmental impact studies being performed first, and no union jobs were threatened by volunteers from foreign nations. The only jobs that will be lost are all of the rest of them because Obama’s response was to shut down the other industries in the area that hadn’t exploded.

Two months into the crisis and Obama’s total response consisted of telling Matt Lauer he was going to kick somebody’s ass, just before he violated the Constitution to steal a company’s money without due process, went golfing six times (no, seriously), and is pushing cap & trade. (because that’s gonna do what, exactly?) Just remember everyone, the federal government under George Bush didn’t evacuate the entire city of New Orleans within 24 hours of Hurricane Katrina because he hated black people or he was incompetent (I can’t keep all of these straight). Look, I don’t expect, nor want, the federal government to be the response to everything, but the double standard gets a little silly sometimes.

The Supreme Court came through again, (usual 5 vs 4) and told Mayor Daly and the city of Chicago to suck it. Their idiotic gun ban was struck down. This is very good news. Even though it doesn’t mean the control freaks will stop pushing this stuff, but it is another nail in their coffin. I first became political because of the gun issue. I was a young gun nut during the Clinton years. Things were much bleaker then. We’ve made a lot of strides in the gun rights arena since then.

Elena Kagan/Kevin Smith (oh, when will they stop living the lie?) is still going through the senatorial dog and pony show necessary to nominate her/him to the Supreme Court. It is so boring that Al Franken is sleeping through it. Why do we even do these things? They just get up there and lie, “Oh, I respect all the amendments! Oh, I just love the military!” Then they get their lifetime appointment of Constitution raping. (in his last case, Stevens actually argued that it is okay to infringe a right, as long as it has been infringed for a long time, because then the right has been “redefined”) Well, I suppose the hearings are worth something, because if it hadn’t been for Sotomeyor, I would never have been able to start calling myself a Wise Latino, and that just cracks me up.

IN WORLD NEWS

It turns out that while America is busy trying to turn into Big Dumb Canada, other nations are still In It To Win It. A Russian spy ring was caught, and this is shocking because Putin seems like such a nice guy. These people were in deep, and judging by the Facebook pictures, some were Bond-Girl level hot. That’s old school espionage right there. I can respect that.

I’ll say this for Russia. I’ve actually got more respect for Vladamir Putin than I do for Barack Obama. Now don’t get me wrong. Putin is super-villain evil. I’m not saying he’s good in any way, but I can respect ruthless strength. Barack Obama is a flailing pansy in comparison. Putin takes his shirt off to skin bears. Obama holds Paul McCartney concerts. Putin has executed dissidents and kung-fu fought MI-6 agents in a secret volcano base. Obama gets cranky and whines whenever people dare question him. Putin uses his cyborg laser eye to vaporize people who dare question him, and then he goes back to his harem of sexy KGB seductresses with codenames like Iron Maiden and Black Widow. Sadly, Russia’s leader would kick our leader’s ass in a fight, and that’s just sad.  They’ve got the final boss fight from a Chuck Norris movie and we’ve got Steve Urkel.

Meanwhile, a bunch of left wing hoodlums are burning stuff at the G-20, just like they do. Every. Single. Year.  Why is it that the media is so deathly afraid of us right wingers being violent, though we hardly ever are, yet lefties and socialists shut down a city for a week every year and nobody notices because it’s so ho-hum. It’s probably because if a single local Tea-Party got into a mood we could overthrow a small country. My side doesn’t screw around. When we get violent, we go big or we go home. I see your trash can through a store window and raise you a Barrett M-82, hippy.

IN LOCAL NEWS

We’ve got our move in date for our house. We’re now one month away from getting out of this damn tiny apartment. I’m pretty sure that my kids will each claim a room of their own and then lock the door for a week. I’m cool with that.

I’ve got LibertyCon next week in Chattanooga. Sadly, when I booked our flights months ago, the LibertyCon website had listed the wrong dates. (I even printed them out, so I’ve got proof!). So in order to not miss ¾ of the event I was flying out there for, I contacted Travelocity to see about changing Mrs. Correia and my return flights back a single day.

After penalties, and the price increase for the next cheapest flight on that date, they wanted an additional $1,900.  No. That is not a typo.  For those of you who’ve read Monster Hunter Vendetta, I warned you about gnomes. Apparently the Travelocity gnome is a viscous little bastard too.  I ended up cancelling the whole thing, taking a penalty, but getting some credit for future flights, and then bought new tickets for about double what I paid for the original ones a couple of months ago, and it was still cheaper than having Travelocity switch me. Friggin’ gnomes.

I’ve got requests for more Tom Stranger and a couple other Ask Correia (both of which are surprisingly popular). I’m working on it, but I’m also cranking along trying to get done with Monster Hunter Alpha. The last four months in this tiny apartment, where I’ve got crap for a workspace, has been hell on my production. My daily word count average is about half of what it was when I had an actual office. I think you guys are really going to like MHA though, because though it is a MH book, it isn’t an Owen book, so it certainly has a different flavor. Then I’m excited to get to work on the 2nd Grimnoir novel, and if I can pull it off, I’d like to try to squeeze in a standalone (the Africa book) before I start on Monster Hunter Legion.

And I got these guys mailed finally! (pic by Miguel)

More Grimnoir art

You don’t even get to know what this is yet.  Man, that’s worse than a spoiler! :)

Ernie Pyle home and museum to be closed

http://bayourenaissanceman.blogspot.com/2010/06/lest-nation-forget-ernie-pyle-1900-1945.html

Go to Peter’s blog and check this out. If you don’t know who Ernie Pyle is, read the summary Peter posted. He was a remarkable man.

Sadly, his home/museum is going to be closed down. Just go read Peter’s post to understand why this would be a real shame. Please, go read what Peter put together, because it sums it up so much better than I could.

I’m on the radio tonight

I’m going to be on Sector 5 Radio tonight on KTKK AM 630. 9:00-11:00 PM here in Utah.

Ask Correia 6: Writing Action

A new writing question for you.  You tend to have really good action sequences that excel at keeping readers riveted, while moving the story forward. How do you approach those and what are some keys to writing a good one? Thanks.-Scott

I love action. I find that I like to write what I like to read, so it is kind of a natural thing for me to insert as much action into a story as possible.  I was junior high age when I discovered fantasy.   I read everything I could get my hands on, but the ones that I always came back to were the ones with the excitement.  Sure, I loved Lord of the Rings, but when there is a hundred pages of poetry and descriptions of trees and then the battle scene consisted of two paragraphs ending with “And Boromir got shot with some arrows, blew his horn, and died”, it was a bit of a let-down for a twelve year old boy.  Next I found Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, and David Eddings, and I realized that fantasy could have lots of very satisfying action. When I was in high school I first read R.A. Salvatore, and it was at the end of one of his forty page fight scenes that I realized that was how I wanted to write.  It was a revelation! You didn’t have to have plot and action, you could have plot during your action!

I also grew up on westerns. Louis L’amour was the single biggest influence that turned me into a young reader.  His action scenes weren’t very long, but he wrote gritty, tough characters. These were hard, unflinching heroes, and that really influenced my idea of what kind of hero I liked to root for. One thing Louis L’amour understood was how fighting actually worked. This was a man who’d been punched in the face many times himself. He understood the feeling. The desperation, the fear, the pain, the excitement.

So how do you write good action?  I’m going to list these as I think of them, but don’t think of these as rules, just suggestions. Remember, rules are stupid. If you break a “rule” but your readers think it is cool, then write it. If something is stupid, but it works, then it ain’t stupid.

Action is just a tool in the tool box. The more you write, the better you’ll understand when you need it, why you want it, and what you’re trying to accomplish with it.

IF IT IS BORING, FIX IT!  This is a tough one, but I always want my Reader Force Alpha to let me know whenever they get bored reading. If they get bored, then I’m failing at my job.  If a large portion of your readers end up skimming a long sequence, then you either need to trim it, spruce it up, or cut it.

A note on Alpha Readers. I have a core group that I love and trust, but I don’t trust any one of them too much. Humans are opinionated. Always analyze what someone gives you as feedback because you, the author, are the ultimate authority on what you’re trying to accomplish. (except for you publisher, because they write the checks, therefore they are always right) Usually what I’m looking for from my group is consensus. If only one person has an issue with something, there might not be anything actually wrong with it. It might just be a personality thing as tastes vary. So take it with a grain of salt.  But if ten people read it, and seven are bored, you know you’ve got problems.

WORDY, BUT NOT TOO WORDY. The difficult part with action is that it takes up a lot of words to describe something that happened in seconds. You can cover hours of other activity in a matter of pages, but if you are too detailed, then a one minute fist fight can go for seven pages.  This may or may not be a bad thing. This is a fine line and depends entirely on the story you are trying to write.  If a big part of the story or character is about the technical aspect of how they fight, then it may be okay, but if that level of detail is ancillary to the plot, then it may be a waste.

If you get too detailed–He threw a left hook. I dodged to the right. We circled. He threw a right jab. I dodged back. I hit him with a left jab—for three pages, that can turn a quick bit of excitement into a giant yawn inducer. Condense it.  Speed it up.

Don’t forget to mix up you verbiage. As Mike and I were wrapping up Dead Six, he joked that there weren’t nearly enough synonyms for Explode. If you scan down the page and see the word Punch thirty times, you may want to change it up a bit.

AVOID THE DREADED CHECKLIST.  Don’t just go through an action scene like you’re reading from a list. It is annoying. It is boring. You’re not writing a story board for the movie.  You do not need to tell the reader every single movement/action the character does. Some things can be safely assumed. This is especially annoying in 1st person. I did this. I did that. Then I did this again. Then I did that. Then I did that other thing.

Excitement in real life isn’t that linear. Action tends to get chaotic.

On the other hand you’ve got Michael Bay movies, where you’ve got no clue what in the hell just happened, where, to who, except that there was lots of explosions.  So walk the line where your reader can clearly understand what is transpiring, but they don’t start to skim.

IT’S EITHER EMOTIONAL, OR IT’S NOT.  I once got a rejection letter from an agent. She thought that my opening action sequence didn’t properly convey how the character felt…  This was the opening bit from MHI with Owen vs. Mr. Huffman.

Okay, here is the thing. In real life, when somebody is actively trying to kill you, you don’t really have time to feel anything over very basic emotions like pain, anger, fear, or “I’m gonna f’ing kill this guy” type determination. Owen is the type of character who is no stranger to getting hurt, and as such it wouldn’t be honest to that character to have the internal monologue that this agent was looking for. Owen is going to get pissed and face punch something to death. That’s how he rolls.

On the other hand, you can have a more calculating character that could have that kind of internal dialog during an action sequence. In Hard Magic, Jake Sullivan is an extremely analytical combatant. There can be some really freaky things going on and Jake is basically running the numbers the whole time.  In the same novel, I’ve got Faye Vierra, who if she was alive today instead of 1932 would probably be on a lot of Ritalin. She’s a fly by the seat of the pants while thinking a-million-miles-an-hour in really long run-on-sentences because her brain basically works three times faster than everybody else’s and it just ain’t fair but it is really helpful when blowing up ninjas! Whew.  So, when I write Faye, there can be more emotional internal dialog. When I write Sullivan, there really isn’t any emotional inflection, except for maybe stubbornness.   

Basically, your character is going to experience the action sequence through the lens of their reality. When the average American gets into a fist fight, it is twenty seconds of awkward flailing and their internal dialog would probably be “AAHHH! My eye! Ouch! Ouch! ****! Balls!”  Meanwhile if you are writing Chuck Liddell, then his internal dialog during a fight would be “I figure I’ll break this dude’s head. Better rip his arm off too. That’ll leave a mark… Heh. What should I have for dinner? Nachos? I do like me some nachos. Wow. That’s a lot of blood.

IT HELPS TO HAVE A CLUE.  When I teach Concealed Carry, one of the things I tell my students is that when you go to court after shooting somebody in self defense is that nobody on your jury has ever been punched in the face. Everything they know about violence they learned on TV. They have no realistic concept of the speed, horror, or sheer violence of an actual encounter.  Anybody who had been punched in the face at some point was dismissed from the jury.

Why? Because having first-hand experience with the terror of having somebody trying to hurt you colors your perceptions. You perceive violence differently after it has happened to you personally, and lawyers don’t like that.  

The fact is, America is a pretty peaceful place. Most of us have never been a in a running gun battle, sword fought a ninja, or wrestled a bear. That said, some of your readers have done all three, and a couple of them have done all three at the same time. You owe it to them to do enough research to not sound like a complete tool when you write an action sequence.

I have violated this myself. I know enough about fighting to not embarrass myself, but that’s about it. I’ve been in many fights, mostly because I grew up in a place where there wasn’t much else to do, my high school was Merced Jr. Gladiator School (thanks California public school system, having all those different gangs sure did help with our “cultural diversity”!) and I got into martial arts, sparring, and fighting in college and enjoyed it, plus if you help your friend, the bouncer at the country bar, drag somebody out by their hair, you get in free next week!  However, when I wrote Owen, I made him far more experienced than I was, specifically in MMA style stuff, and as a result, I had a few astute readers catch that he did and said a few things that were inconsistent for someone of his level of knowledge.

99% of your readers won’t catch something like that, but before I have Owen mention anything related to that world, I know a few very knowledgeable people I’m going to run it past first.  Like I talked about in the post about writing guns in fiction, have your gun-knowledgeable friends proof your gun stuff. There are many thrillers that would be a lot better off with a little bit of checking first. Some of the “great” thriller writers are so mind-bogglingly clueless, that even me, as a cake-eating civilian accountant, knows that their action scenes are utterly full of crap.

So, if we’re clueless ourselves, how do we write convincingly? Pay attention to people who’ve actually Been There-Done That. Listen to them, but then keep in mind that they’re not your characters. Your characters might not be as tough/smart/seasoned/whatever as they are.  

When we finished Dead Six, I sent it to a certain friend who’s job description basically says “the series 24 and the character of Jack Bauer is based on this dude”.  Since D6 was a thriller set in the modern world (sorta, but you’ll see) I wanted the opinion of somebody who’s actually been trained in overthrowing small nations to go over it to see if everything passed the smell test. For the most part, it did, which made me and Mike very happy.

If I ever write a fantasy with sword fighting, you’d better believe that I’m going to learn something about sword fighting first. I may even have my buddy Tailor dress up in his armor and beat me with his padded sword for awhile.  Yes, there is sword play in Grimnoir, but it was written from the point of someone who was as utterly clueless as I am—it was basically here, used this, the pointy end goes in the other guy–so it worked for that scene. If I’m writing somebody who makes their living using pointy things, then I’d better learn as much as I can about how pointy things work.   

IN REAL LIFE, PEOPLE DON’T HAVE HIT POINTS. Okay, this is a minor one, but a pet peeve of mine. I took a wound ballistics class once. It was eight hours of looking at autopsy photos of dead people, starting with handgun wounds (pokes a hole), to rifles (oh… gross), to shotguns (somebody hit that guy with a friggin’ meat hammer!) and then miscellaneous (a broken bottle did that? I will never look at a meat cleaver in the same way. How the hell did they fit the entire crow bar in there?).   Humans are physical constructs that work on some pretty basic principles, and one of those is that your blood goes on the inside, not the outside.

If you are writing something where characters receive physical injuries, bone up a little bit on biology. If you’re writing fantasy, you can cheat and have magical healing. If you’re writing sci-fi, then you can have nano-bots or force fields, but don’t do that damn Hollywood thing where the hero gets shot through the shoulder with an AK-47, grimaces, and carries on.  Or Speed, where he shoots his partner in the femoral artery. I think that police academy needs to give Keanu his money back.  

That said, the one injury that Owen sustained that the most people complained about him shrugging off as unrealistic (road rash) was the only one that I had experienced myself. And I walked home afterwards. So I guess you can’t make everyone happy.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE AN EXPERT, JUST PLAY ONE ON TV.  I’ve known people who didn’t write what they wanted to write, because they were afraid that they lacked first-hand knowledge.  As a writer, you don’t have to be the expert. You don’t have to have lived what your characters have lived in order to be convincing.  

Sure, Ian Fleming was a member of the League of Ungentlemanly Warfare. So when he wrote James Bond, he knew what he was talking about, but for every Ian Fleming sitting behind a typewriter, there are thousands of authors who are pretty boring.  Raymond Chandler was a hard-drinking accountant, not a hard-boiled detective, and he defined a genre.  Tom Clancy was an insurance agent. J.K. Rowling did not go to wizard school. 

However, Lovecraft did in fact commune with the Elder Things… I’m just sayin’.

MIX IT UP. You don’t have to have plot in once scene and action in the other. You can mix the two together. The plot can be furthered during the sequence. The big reveal can happen in the middle of a fight.  Action scenes are a tool for you to use. You can use them to release tension or to build tension. You can further the story, explore a character, or evoke an emotional response from your reader.

You can have humor in the middle of an action sequence. People are funny in real life, and as a rule of thumb, the more dangerous your job, the more likely you are to have a sense of humor about it.  

PRACTICE!  Action scenes are just like anything else. If they’re your weakness, write more of them. Over time you’ll get better.

An illustration from the finale of Hard Magic

A little noir goodness for y0u. By Zack Hill.  You’ve not gotten this far with just the sample chapters, but this is a pretty good representation of one of the characters at the finale, all masked, coated, with a Browning designed weapon that sadly never existed in real life. :)

Hey, you guys want to go bomb NPR for me?

They’re looking for nominations for the best thriller of the year, and by the definition they use, Monster Hunter International totally fits the criteria.   http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127480184&sc=fb&cc=fp

Today is the last day for nominations.

Lagoon: It’s what fun is, until it kicks you in the groin

Yesterday I took my family to Lagoon.  For those of you not from around these here parts, Lagoon is our biggest amusement park. So if you want to ride a roller coaster in Utah, it is either Lagoon, or the rickety one run by the scary bearded sex offender at the county fair.  

After dropping $120 at the door, $10 to park, and $40 on lunch, you’d expect me to be a little bitter, but I actually had a really good time. My kids are old enough now that they’re brave, well-behaved in public, and fun. It was one of those summer days that builds fond family memories.

Except for just one thing…

I like to ride the rides. I pride myself on being fearless, and I haven’t barfed because of a ride since three back to back trips on the Tilt-o-Whirl at Great America when I was a kid.  I’ll ride anything.  (provided I can fit, which at 6’5” and big, means that there are a few rides where the safety bars just won’t fit over my legs). But not anymore. I’ve met my match.

It didn’t look like much. It wasn’t fast. It wasn’t up high. It was made for little kids. It was cute. You ride in these little Captain Nemo cars in a circle, while cartoon dolphins squirt water at you, and you can use the hydraulics to steer between them.  The center looks like a big cuddly kraken. It even has a cute name, I think it is called the Ody-Sea or something, and it even plays happy music, while you drive your mini Nautilus through the misters on a lovely summer day. What could possibly go wrong?

 

That. That’s what could go wrong. Horribly wrong. 

Look at those seats.  Made of hard plastic, and designed by NKVD interrogators, nothing will prepare you for the horror of the de-testiculator.  Now perhaps, for normal size patrons, you could sit in there and not receive the biological equivalent of hitting yourself in the gonads with a garden trowel, but if you’re my size, and you barely fit in anything anyway…

One look told me this was a bad idea, but my son was too short to ride this without “adult” supervision, and he was already in. My five year old would have been heartbroken if I’d bailed after he’d stood in line. So I did my fatherly duty and stepped into the Scrotum-Smasher.   

So I get into this thing, and try to maneuver myself to an angle that won’t cause any permanent damage or internal bleeding. Finally, through judicious use of giving myself a wedgie, and squeezing over as far as possible, I thought I was safe.

Then the ride began.

Remember that part where you steer between the squirting dolphins? Yeah… About that. These aren’t smooth hydraulics. These are bouncy hydraulics.  It was five minutes of ball-busting terror, made all the worse by the happy music.  Those dolphins weren’t laughing with me. They were laughing at me. They were laughing at my pain.

ACTUAL TRANSCRIPT OF RIDE:

Correia: “What the ****? Are you serious?”

Lagoon Employee: “It’s perfectly safe, sir.”

Correia: “If you’re already a eunch!”

Lagoon Employee: mutters under his breath as he checks the seat belt. “Ai, Ai Cthulu F’tagen.”

Correia: “Excuse me?”

Lagoon Employee: “Nothing. Have a nice trip.”

Ody-Sea: Begins to sing its unnatural song. Horrible machines powered by human tears grind into terrible action.

Son: “Yay!”

Correia: “Ouch! Crap! ****!” bouncy bouncy “Son of a *****!”

Son: “Yay! Dolphins! They’re gonna squirt us, dad! I’ll save us!”

Correia: “No, son don’t pull the lever.”  CLANG “AAARRGGGHH!!!”

Son: “Yay! Oooh a shark!” CLANG

Correia: “AAAAHHHH!!! Stop! NOOOOOO!”

Son: “Oooh, the dolphins again. I better take us up! Yay! Fun!”

Corriea: -sound of sobbing-

END TRANSCRIPT

The Ody-Sea, satisfied that it had inflicted enough suffering, ground to an inexorable halt. Finally, I limped off, happy to be alive, glad that I’d already had all the children I’d planned on ever having. I was nauseous, as being punt-kicked in the gonads one-hundred-and-thirty-seven-times is wont to do.  As I stumbled away, I took one last look at the Ody-Sea, and I understood…

because **** you is why

I hadn’t recognized the gibbering madness before boarding. This is where testicles are sacrificed to the Elder Things.  Behold the evil of the Ody-Sea. What has been seen cannot be unseen.

So other than singing soprano for the rest of my life, Lagoon was great. I just hope my sacrifice will help appease the Old Ones.

The rough draft of DEAD SIX is done!

So Mike and I finally finished up the rough draft for Dead Six.  I kicked it over to my publisher today.

D6 hasn’t been sold yet, so this is a fingers crossed kind of thing. It is a thriller, and Baen is a sci-fi/fantasy publisher, so now it is up to Toni to decide if this novel fits in. However I’ve got a few things in my favor. Baen had great success with John Ringo’s Ghost, and then went on to do his entire Paladin of Shadows series. Dead Six is in the same genre as the Kildar. Plus Baen is also publishing Tom Kratman’s Countdown, which I’ve not read yet, but I understand is a contemporary military thriller, rather than mil sf.  So there’s that.

Secondly, Dead Six is awesome. It’s got all the stuff you like about thrillers: action, suspense, intrigue, conspiracies, techno-whatzits, shootin’ and explodin’, without the brain numbing stupidity rampant in the genre. I won’t name any names, (because I’m actually at the point in my career where I’m meeting many of these authors in person, and they’re super nice, and some of them might be able to beat me up, or at least have their bodyguards beat me up), but there are some national bestsellers in this genre that are just bad. I mean awful, stupid bad.  Plots that don’t make sense, characters that suck, etc.

Dead Six on the other hand, is badass, rolled in awesome, coated in napalm, wrestling sharks and bears, with laser eyes, while riding on a tiger-striped velociraptor monster truck… Yes. It is that cool.

Ask Correia 5: Writing villains that rock.

I’ve been having a lot of fun doing these Q&A posts about writing topics.  I’m no expert, just a guy who likes to tell stories, and who’s gotten lucky enough to find a fan base and a publisher, but I do love talking about this stuff, so keep them coming. I just got this one.

Hi Larry.  Here is another writing question for you; what qualities make for a good villain and how do you create/craft quality villains in your novels? Regards, Scott

Oooh.  That’s a good one.  

The hardest part about answering this one using examples from my own work will be the spoilers.  That’s the worst thing about being a published writer, by the time you guys get to read something, I’ve had it written for a year, and my favorite bad guys are from books that aren’t published yet, so some of my favorite examples would have to be spoilers… I figure I can be pretty vague though, so here goes.

A good protagonist with a weak antagonist can often lead to a boring book, so as a writer we’ve often got to put as much effort into our antagonistic characters as our heroes.  This isn’t always true obviously. Depending on the nature of your story, your bad guys could all be faceless mooks and your book could be amazing, but interesting villains are just another tool in a writer’s tool box.

Personally, my villain(s) usually start to form during my early idea making process. Sometimes I’ll even have the character created before, and just floating around in my head, waiting for a story to appear in. Usually I have a basic plot first, and then I ask myself who would make the most interesting antagonist? 

If you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming you’ve probably read Monster Hunter International. Lord Machado existed in my head for many years before the idea for MHI ever started. Why? Because he looked like earthworms. Seriously. The visual of moving, slimy earthworms in a bucket of dirt has always stuck with me as an interesting/gross visual since I was a little kid.  Then when I was a teenager I had a bad dream about a suit of armor filled with worms. Stylistically, conquistador armor is cooler looking to me, (probably that whole couple-hundred-of-my-ancestors-conquering-whole-nations thing) so the visual for that particular monster has been in my head for a long time.

But I can’t just have my antagonist there because he looks cool. He needs a story too.  Cool visuals and incomprehensible characters leads to pretty, yet stupid movies, like I think it was called the Fountain.  (and now Hugh Jackman is growing flowers out of his chest. Now he is Buddha. Look a magic tree. WTF?) One of the best bits of advice I ever heard on villains came from author Paul Genesse. I don’t know if he originally came up with this, or got it from somebody else, but he once said on a panel “Remember that your villain thinks he’s the hero of his own story.” 

Nobody likes bad guys who are bad for the sake of being bad. So your villain built a giant laser to blow up the moon… why? What’s the master plan behind that? He kicks puppies, but nobody gives a crap. What’s in it for him? (maybe he just really hates puppies?).  Now you can have a character that is just evil, just because. That may work for your story. You can say he’s crazy, but I’m willing to bet it will be a better read if you do some research first into what kind of crazy, and even if you don’t spell it out in the book, at least you as the writer will understand that character better, and therefore write them better.

Lord Machado’s motivations clicked for me while reading Sluggy Freelance many years ago (remember that time I said that ideas come from everywhere?)  There was a line that read “The dead flirt ugly” and everything clicked for me. (and I put that line in the book as a hat tip, as well as Emergency Pants).  

Machado had motivations. Yes, they were totally bug nuts insane motivations,  but this was a utterly ruthless dude who thought that he was right, he was better, and everybody else was wrong, and that was before getting tortured for several hundred years.  He’s got a chip on his shoulder. This was a seriously messed up guy, but at least you could understand why he’s doing the things he’s doing.

Bad guys have motivations too, but you don’t need to go too far the opposite direction, to the point that you’re excusing their actions. I’ve read a few things where they explain the bad guy to the point that they are no longer villains. They were “tragic” and “misunderstood”. That may work for you, once again, depends on the story you’re trying to tell. Villains can be sympathetic, but if you go too far, then people might like your protagonist less, so be careful.

In Monster Hunter Vendetta, my main antagonist is the Shadow Man. SPOILER ALERT!!!!!  No seriously, skip this and the next paragraph if you haven’t read the eARC yet.   I put a lot of effort into explaining his motivations. I needed somebody to lead an evil death cult… But if you really think about it, there are usually only a few motivations for leading an evil death cult, and most of them have been done a million times.  I wanted to make this guy more interesting.

-SPOILER-

Martin Hood’s parents were killed because they screwed around with Old One’s magic while he was a child. He went on to become a Hunter, with the belief that the Old Ones could be controlled. Instead, the more he learned about them, the more the thought that man’s defeat was inevitable. Hood didn’t start out as a bad guy. He had good motivations. Basically, the Old Ones are kind of petulant. They want everything, and they’ll destroy that which they can’t have. So Hood’s goal is to take over the world on their behalf, and spare humanity the horror of the Old Ones themselves invading. Over time he’s corrupted by evil until he’s a shadow of a man.

-End Spoiler-

I had a lot of fun with this. Once again, you’ve got somebody who thinks they are the protagonist.

There are many different villain tropes, and these show up again and again, because they work. The Shadow Man was a chess-master. This is a guy who is always thinking a few moves in advance. He can kick your hero’s ass, but he can also out-think them, and that’s what makes them more interesting.  

In Hard Magic, I’ve got several bad guys, but two that I particularly enjoyed writing.  One is the Chairman, Okubo Tokugawa.  He is possibly the single most bad ass villain I’ve ever written. Let me give you an example:

We have tried everything. Bullets bounce off. Bombs thrown under his carriage have turned it to splinters and killed the horses, but don’t so much as muss the Chairman’s hair.  He does not sleep so we can’t sneak up on him. He does not eat so we can’t poison him. We’ve tried fire, ice, lightning, death magic, crushing gravity, bone shards, blood curses, all without effect. Decapitation might work, if you could come up with a blade sharp enough, but the finest steel simply dulls against his skin.  Even if you were to wield this modern Excalibur the problem then would be that you can only touch Tokugawa if he lets you. He is all knowing, all seeing, moves faster than the wind, and can Travel in the blink of an eye. You don’t touch the Chairman. The Chairman touches you, and as far as we’ve observed, that only happens when he’s ripping the very soul from your body.

So basically, the Chairman can totally kick your ass.

But that isn’t what made him fun to write. He’s intelligent and articulate. He is polite. He writes poetry. (also the first and probably only time you guys will ever see me write poetry).  He isn’t evil in the cackling, twirl your mustache, leave maidens tied to railroad tracks kind of way, but he’s the de facto leader of an empire that has turned wholesale magical eugenics into an industrial threshing machine of world domination.  He’s trying to force man to evolve, and not because he’s a jerk or an idealist, but because he knows that there is something worse coming soon, and it’s hungry.   

The Chairman is one of my favorite antagonists because he doesn’t just represent an individual evil. He represents an evil idea.  The Grimnoir universe takes place in an alternative history, but that time frame in our own history was the greatest time for the most evil philosophy ever—That individuals are property of the state– And if you’ve read this blog, you know how much that bugs me.

On the other hand, also from Hard Magic, I’ve got Madi.  The trope name for this type character is the Dragon. This is the tough guy the hero has to fight at the end of the movie, but I like to subvert tropes. So I made Madi more interesting.  Since he’s also one of the PoV characters, I’d have to say that he is my single favorite villain I’ve ever written.  He started out as a pulp novel, gunman-style Raymond Chandler villain.

I didn’t just want to make a tough guy to square off against my protagonists.  I also wanted to explore this guy, and in the process, I found a fascinating character. I’ll avoid the spoilers, since this one doesn’t come out until Spring, but you will hate Madi. You’ll hate his guts, and root for the Grimnoir to kill the hell out of him, but at the same time, you’ll totally understand why he’s made the choices he’s made.  One of my alpha readers got done with his chapter and called me up, saying “Holy crap, if that had happened to me, I’d be pissed too!” and when I got that call, I knew I’d succeeded.

You’ve got to make your bad guys challenging. Nobody likes a pushover. Your protagonists need to work, they need to lose, but they also need to win, because nobody wants to read about somebody just losing and running away the entire book.  This is where the legions of faceless mooks come in. These guys don’t need much character development, and as your characters mow them down, you can reward your readers with satisfying violence.  Yay violence!  Personally, if I’ve written forty pages and nothing has exploded, I’m probably not doing my job.

You can have some fun with villains. Don’t be afraid to break the mold.  We just finished up the 1st draft for Dead Six.  My villain in that one is an international crime lord called Big Eddie. He’s ruthless, secretive, terrifying, and my protagonist actually think he’s a group of people,  because no one person is that evil. And then when you meet the guy… well…

–SPOILER—

Have you ever seen Queer Eye for the Straight Guy? Think Carson, only with Flock of Seagulls hair and a pet poodle.

–END SPOILER—

And despite that, he’s even more scary.

Don’t be afraid to show your villains being bad. It is the old show vs. tell. It is one thing to say that your evil overlord is really mean, but if you show his legions raping and pillaging, it drives the point home. Be careful, as this is a fine line to walk. Too over the top and you’ve got cartoonish super villainy, too realistic (depending on what type book you’re writing) and it might be too much for your target audience.  If you’re writing a darker book, then you can really show your bad guys as Bad.  If you’re writing YA fluffy puppy emo-vampire for twelve year olds, you may have to tell more than show.  If you’re writing to George R.R. Martin’s or Joe Abercrombie’s audience, then your villains can be dark dark dark.

Villains can be more interesting than the heroes and that can be perfectly appropriate for the story. For example, Heath Ledger made Christian Bale look pretty wooden in Dark Knight, and it was a better movie because of it.  I highly recommend the novel Servant of a Dark God by John Brown.  He’s got one antagonist called Hunger. Hunger is a monster, but he’s such an interesting case that when you’re reading the scenes from his PoV, you find yourself rooting for him, and when it goes back to the hero’s PoV, you’re scared of Hunger because you know how dangerous he is. That’s damn good writing there. (and it comes out in paperback soon, so you really should buy it).

Writing bad guys is one of the things that keeps me inspired. In my current project, Monster Hunter Alpha, I’ve got the guy that inspired the quote that “Badass Russians only have three emotions, Revenge, Depression, and Vodka.” Only he’s also a werewolf with multiple personalities. Then I’ve got my untitled-overthrowing-a-small-country-for-a-reality-TV-show-project where the bad guy is a brutal African warlord, who also happens to be a huge movie geek, who styles his persona after Robert DeNiro characters.   In another book, that I can’t even name because the identity of the villain would be too much of a spoiler; you know that one totally psycho girl you dated in college (and if you didn’t, somebody you know did.) Yeah, that girl. Now imagine her twenty years later… and give her a nuclear weapon. Then in the second Grimnoir book, one of the bad guys is FDR.  Yes, I go there.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Remember, if it is cool, and your readers like it, then it works.

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