The Villain’s Journey

Back when I was horrendously addicted to cigarettes, I used to tell myself that I would quit by cutting down.  Obviously, someone soaked through and through with nicotine as I was couldn’t possibly quit cold turkey.  You could die from stuff like that!  I’d allot myself a certain number of cigarettes per day for the first week of my regimen with the idea that I would cut that number by 25% every week thereafter until I glided to a soft nicotine-free landing.

Three words: Doomed to fail.  Cutting down is a lie you tell yourself so you don’t have to quit right now.  The tobacco industry counts on this.  So does the nicotine patch industry.  Adding nicotine to your system just makes you all the more addicted to it. 

What I love about patches is that nicotine is the major carcinogen in cigarettes. It’s also the primary addictive substance.  With the patch, you get all the carcinogen and all the addiction without the joy of smoking.  It’s one of those instances where human beings do something so counterintuitive that you start to believe we can be talked into anything.

Send rich people to Washington and hope they take care of the middle class.  Take five dollars off your purchase by putting it on a brand new credit card with a 26% interest rate.  Avoid making $1,200 worth of repairs to your car by trading it in on a new one – and the commensurate sixty months of indentured servitude.

People don’t behave logically, at least not all the time.  They often don’t even behave in their own best interests.  And that best the question: Do your characters have to apply rigorous reason and sound judgment to their every decision?  No, but fiction is largely about making choices so if someone is going to do something the reader will find counterintuitive you’d better pave the road that leads to that decision with some damn good justification. 

What could possibly justify acting counter to your own interests?  It’s kind of funny, but the Church has a list of seven pretty good ones: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride.

Think about that last one but substitute Arrogance for Pride and then remember every villain in every spy movie who said, “Shooting is too good for him.  Tie him to an elaborate Rube Goldberg device that will slice off his testicles in approximately thirty minutes!”  This, of course, gives the hero time to escape and later hoist the villain with his own prideful petard. 

And let me tell you, seriously, if I ever become a villain I will live by the mantra that shooting is perfectly suitable for my enemies.

But as long as we’re butchering Shakespeare, let’s just remove his gall bladder by talking for a moment about Macbeth.  Mac, as he’s known to his friends, has a really good job and his boss really likes him.  He also has a solid friend in MacDuff – confusing because everyone also calls him Mac.  Makes you wonder how anybody knows who’s being talked about in Scotland – and an aggressively upwardly mobile wife.  So what does he do?  He puts extra money in his 401K and takes trips in the RV to the Highlands where he can relax and blow off steam.

Just kidding! He kills his boss, takes over his job, kills his best friend’s wife and kids… Let’s just say his decision making skills aren’t the best to begin with and then they go rapidly downhill.

Why?  This guy is introduced as a great and heroic leader of men in battle.  The three homeless women he runs into in the beginning of the story seem to think that the has a kernel of evil glowing inside him.  His wife is no help.  She’s all over him about not moving up the corporate ladder fast enough and she says everything except, “I will do that thing I never do if you get this promotion.” to send him off the deep end.  But is that really enough to lead a smart man to make such a stupid decision?

Actually, yes.  We all have a tiny kernel of evil glowing inside of us and, whether it comes out as avarice or sloth or arrogance, we can be pretty easily manipulated by it.  How else to explain otherwise perfectly intelligent people falling for the Nigerian 419 scam?  Or buying lottery tickets?  Or paying for the undercoating on a new car? 

In the end, your characters’ decisions have to make sense inside their operating environment.  If they’ve been acting like a dunce for the rest of the story, they can’t believably solve a complicated cipher in the last chapter even though this very thing happens every day.  If they’ve been motivated purely by avarice, they can’t suddenly give the money away to an orphanage.

Not that characters can’t have complicated inner lives.  Blade Runner has one of the most fascinatingly complex characters ever created for the screen.  Roy Batty starts out the film very much like a classic Hollywood villain but ends up a sad mess of conflicted emotions who has come to value his own fleeting life so much that he can’t stand to take it from his worst tormentor.  That’s his journey and it’s all there in the movie if you pay attention.  I think with a little editing you could change Blade Runner to The Roy Batty story, no reshoots necessary.

That’s something to think about: The Villain’s Journey.  We’re always talking about the hero’s journey but what about the villain?  If it’s true that the villain is the hero of his own story, then he should have a journey as well?  Right?  Isn’t that lack of journey what makes so many villains two dimensional?  And, conversely, the presence of that journey is what makes Blade Runner such a timeless classic? 




The Dry Spell

I’ve been going on about how I’m so fulfilled by this draft I just finished that I’m not inclined to write when the appointed hour rolls around but I think that was a bit of misdirection.  I’m in a dry spell.  I don’t feel the need to write because my inkwell has (temporarily) run dry.

It’s like when you have the car radio turned down just low enough that you can barely hear it and you’re driving along getting more and more annoyed until you want to scream.  And then you realize it’s the radio making you crazy.  It’s the same with a dry spell.  You sit down at the computer every night and assume the position as if assuming the position will summon the words but nothing comes.  At first you make up excuses but eventually you realize where you are. 

How is this different from page fright?  When you have writer’s block, you desperately want to write or have to write or need to write but nothing comes out.  There’s no story there.  That’s when you type out, “In the morning the women went down to the water…” and get on with it.  But with a dry spell, you’ve actually got words in your head.  You have a story to work on.  You just don’t feel the need to do it.

There is a definite feeling of being compelled to tell a story when you’re writing.  The story itself seems to egg you on.  It appears in your dreams.  It robs your concentration at work.  And when it’s your time to write, it slams you down in your chair and pulls your hands to the keyboard.  It also makes you feel guilty when unfortunate disturbances like your birthday and Christmas keep you away. 

But in a dry spell the story is just something you think about.  It’s something you type at, jotting down the paragraphs like notes to a future self who will someday give a damn.  That’s what I’m doing now.  I’m typing out the plot without paying any attention to style or wording, just getting the data down so I can replace it with quality work later on. 

I don’t know which is worse, the page fright or the dry spell.  The page fright is terrifying because you’re worried you may never have the words again, but the dry spell is a more insidious thing.  It makes you think you’ll never care again.  And this is one of those things that you can’t do if you don’t care an awful lot.

So, in honor of my dry spell I’m going to close with someone else’s words.  What follows is my favorite throw away joke from my favorite television show, Community.

Shirley: I’m thinking of signing up for the class on standup comedy.

Annie: Oh, don’t bother.  I dropped it right after the section on setups.  (Pause) The instructor was sooo old.

Everyone leans in for the punch line but she goes back to reading.

The Hardest Part

I left school in 1978 and promptly set out on a cross country road trip with nothing but my typewriter and what I could carry in the back of a 1974 Toyota Corolla.  I had been writing short stories since high school but I felt that I would never kick my writing career into high gear until I wrote my first novel.  This hilarious, unplanned misadventure was my way of focusing on that exact thing.

Actually, there’s probably a pretty humorous novel in the telling of that calamitous journey, but that’s not why I brought it up.  No, I brought up that first novel because I wanted to remind myself, on this day in particular, what it felt like to be so young, to have so little experience that you literally don’t have any ideas.  A pampered, suburban white kid doesn’t really get expurgated into adulthood carrying a big bag of harrowing experiences to draw from. 

Over the course of the next year, I left my home in Virginia and traveled all the way to California.  Then I turned around and went back to Texas, eventually ending up in a rented room over a carriage house in the Vieux Carre’ in New Orleans.  And all along I typed.  Every night and sometimes all day, I fed paper into the roller and banged out the next page.  Then I gathered up what I had written and disposed of it – once in California accidentally setting off the smoke detector in my apartment to further hilarious consequences – only to start over immediately.

I don’t know how many tens of thousands of words I put to paper during that journey of discovery but I ended up with a 300 page novel called Sending Down The Fare.  It was a coming of age story, obviously, because that was the only experience I had to draw on.  It was written in the present tense, mostly in long, long run on sentences, a style I had developed to cover my lack of actual style. 

Somehow, I managed to get an editor interested.  Not just any editor, either, it was Bill Thompson, the guy who had discovered Stephen King and would later go on to discover John Grisham.  But that’s also not why I brought this up.  This post isn’t even about that novel in particular, it’s about the hardest part of writing.  The waiting.

So, here you are, more than a year of your life spent in service to this stack of paper.  What do you want to do?  Send it out.  Right?  Finishing a novel is an accomplishment.  Even if it’s a terrible piece of crap, just getting to “The End” is like climbing Mt. Everest.  Who cares if it was a sloppy, dangerous climb?  You made it.  Time to take some photos of you holding a flag or something.

Don’t do it.  I mean, go ahead and take the photos, you’ve earned it, but do not ever send out a first draft.  Not even to your first readers, those poor suffering souls whom you use as a bulwark against sending out stuff that will humiliate you and possibly ruin your career.  No one deserves to read a first draft.  Not even [insert name of paragon of evil here].  Think about that.  Not even [insert name of paragon of evil here] deserves to be forced to read a first draft even though [he/she/it] is at this moment roasting in eternal torment.  That’s right, I went there.  So you must know that it’s important because I went there.

Why?  Because the human brain is a magnificent piece of squishy machinery.  You aren’t even aware of half the stuff this pale, vaguely cabbage looking thing can do.  For instance, it has the power to plug plot holes without telling you.  That’s right and it can also filter the memories of what you’ve written through rose tinted glasses.  It can also convince you that you wrote that one chapter about the unicorn that’s pivotal to the story when, in fact, you only thought about writing it.  You thought about it so hard you actually remember doing it.  Even though you didn’t.

Why?  Why does your own brain betray you like this?  Well, and this brings us back around to the main point, because writing a novel is really hard and if you knew how poorly you were doing you’d quit half way through.  Also, that idea you started with?  It was really stupid, man.  Remember how you came up with it?  You couldn’t sleep so you stayed up late drinking whiskey and watching 1970s Science Fiction movies on Netflix.  And, just to finish ripping the bandage off with one solid yank, I’ll just add that you have some “sentences” and “paragraphs” that are so ridiculously long and convoluted that if you fed them into a supercomputer you could bring down the internet.  Did you read that?  The whole internet, man.  Nobody wants that, so back away from the Send button and take a few months off.

A few months?!  Yeah, and just to be upfront about it, it’s more like six months.  And you can’t even look at a single word during that whole time.  You have to quit it cold turkey.  Quit and stay quit.

Why?  Scientists refer to the process of de-familiarizing yourself with the product of your own creativity as “Gray Matter Leakage.”*  GML relies on the fact that your brain has a finite amount of storage space.  In order to keep your head from exploding when you remember too much stuff, it gets rid of the least used information by up and forgetting it.  By ignoring your manuscript for six months, you’re basically giving your brain carte blanche to forget everything it remembered about it including plot hole plugs, nonexistent chapters, and the rosy tint it applied to your writing style.  After a couple months passes, you may wake up from a dead sleep with the horrific memory of a paragraph that was a two page long sentence that ended with an ellipses. 

Once the process of GML is complete, you can return to your first draft and read it with the same horrified expression of intense embarrassment that any stranger would have had you sent it out.  Now, before the depression sets in, take a moment to imagine what that would have done to your career.  The next book you write may be a potential best seller but, and trust me on this, agents have long memories.  If you want to get over sending out a first draft, you’ll have to change your name and your address and possibly your sex.

Here comes the fun part: Depression.  Okay, that’s not the fun part, it’s the worst part, but it’s also the part where you find out if you’re ever really going to be a writer.  If you get depressed, get drunk, and vow never to put yourself through this masochistic process again then you’re never going to be a writer because, published or not, good or not, popular or not, this is part of it.  A crucial part of it.  If, on the other hand, you do all that stuff and then three days later find yourself picking through that first draft to find the parts that can be salvaged, then you might never become a writer but you will get better at writing.

If I seem overly harsh in this post it’s because I just finished the first draft of a SciFi novel and today is the first day of the six month moratorium.  I stayed up late watching American Horror Story with my daughter last night instead of writing, the first day I’ve taken off in months, and I’m spending my time writing blog posts today.  I am eerily reminded of what it was like when I quit smoking.

Right now, in my mind, it’s the single most brilliant thing I’ve ever written.  We’ll see how I feel about it in March. 

* This is not true.  No scientist has ever used this term.

To The Future

What I love about science fiction is its ability to both predict and shape the future.  Satellites, telecommunications, virtual reality, warp drives.  SF writers plant an idea in the public consciousness decades before it becomes a reality.  If you think about it, that fictional presence may be a necessary component in the psychological process of accepting drastic change. 

Back in 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote a sensational book called Future Shock that detailed the effects rapid, unyielding change has on the human psyche.  Essentially, he argued that too much change too fast was causing people to disconnect from society as they became fatigued by information overload. 

So, imagine that the Altair PC never happened, the KayPro Z80 likewise never occurred, and IBM never legitimized the whole personal computing industry.  Now imagine that, as you’re shoving punch cards into a mainframe one day, the IT department brings you a modern, multi-monitor computer, complete with windowed multi-tasking operating system and the Internet.  And all this comes to you without the entertainment properties that were engendered by William Gibson’s groundbreaking cyberpunk masterpiece Neuromancer. 

I don’t think you’d have a meltdown.  I think you’d take one look at the box, its pretty displays and its “alleged” content from a worldwide network of attached computers and go back to feeding cards into the mainframe. You’d have no choice but to believe you were being pranked.

Whenever you bring up this idea in mixed (stiffs and nerds) company, someone (a stiff) will glibly remind you that science fiction never predicted the cell phone or the rise of personal communications.  But one actually did.

The President’s Analyst (1967), a satirical comedy in which the President’s psychoanalyst succumbs to the paranoia of treating paranoid spies and government officials and runs off.  In not too long a time, spies from all sides are after him, some trying to save him, others with less noble intentions.  In the end, SPOILER ALERT, it turns out the one agency he has to fear is AT&T.  Remember that back in 1967 there was exactly one phone company in the U.S., a company Lilly Tomlin used to parody (later) in SNL ads with the tagline, “The Phone Company, we don’t care because we don’t have to.” 

Be that as it may (and I can attest from personal experience that they absolutely didn’t care), the point I’m trying to make is that the whole plot of the movie turns on a plan by AT&T to embed a phone in every person’s jaw.  They want the analyst, played by the matchless James Coburn, to convince the President that this is a good idea.

Why?  Well, for all the things they actually have now.  They may not be a monopoly anymore, but they can now track us every minute of the day, monitor our interests, record our conversations, and bill us by the minute.

Many of the ideas put forth in science fiction novels will probably never come to pass, but some will and it will be the decades of accepting these ideas on a fictional basis that will prepare us for the day that they become science fact. 

So, let’s raise a glass to the writers who invent the future.

The Line Pushers

There’s something about a good book that gets my own creative juices boiling.  Not that I’m thinking, “Oh, he did this then I can do that, too.”  More along the lines of, “Wow, if he pushed the envelope over there, couldn’t I push it over here?”  That successful transgression into new territory makes it seem a little more okay for me to take similar steps in a different direction.

This is all part of the process of remaining sane.  All day long, without really noticing it, we are constantly asking ourselves if we are within the bounds of acceptable behavior.  That’s how society works.  People who don’t ask themselves that question or who give themselves unreasonable license end up naked on the subway yelling about the government.

We are social animals which means we live by a social contract that asks us to stay within the lines as much as possible or to at least have an excuse (prescription medications, I’m an alcoholic!, I’m addicted to sex!, etc.) when we act out.

This need to conform can make the creative process even more difficult than it already is.  Not only do you have to ask yourself, “Has this been done to death?” and “Can I add anything new to the body of literature by writing yet another sexy vampire story?”  You also have to ask yourself, “Will editors see this as controversy bait?  Will readers shun me as a deviant if I have my characters do this?”  And, if your parents are alive and read everything you write, the big one: “What will my Mom think about this?”

That’s what amazes me about true visionaries like Hunter S. Thompson, Philip K. Dick, and William Burroughs.  They never stopped to check in with their social contract to make sure they were still somewhere in the vicinity of the lines.  They just went out and did what they did, successful or not, until they died miserable and alone.

It’s that last part that gets me, I think.  I like being happy.  I like having a family.  I like being able to walk down the street without people calling the police.  So when I read someone like Neil Gaiman or John Scalzi or Neal Stephenson, relatively normal people who do extraordinary things, a little part of me goes, “Whoa! They’ve moved the lines again.  I have a little more breathing room.  I can try something new.”

As long as my Mom doesn’t find out.