Antagonists Need Love Too

Here’s something we haven’t talked about yet: antagonists. Urgh, that mean kid in school who is just relentless! The one who picks on the main character for being smart/weird/tall/anything at all. The one who makes life difficult.

More often than not, when I read these characters, they come across as a flat, simple, undeveloped sort of mean. So many bullies, especially in middle grade, are just mean for the sake of being mean. But you know what’s a lot more fun to read? Motivated mean.

I want to empathize with the antagonist.

Pure meanness is never believable. It’s hard to relate to a kid who beats up another kid, or tortures spiders, or sides with the evil aliens taking over Planet Margon unless we can believe that kid has something in her life that makes readers go “oh, yeah. I can see why she made that choice even though I wouldn’t do that.”

Let’s look at everyone’s favorite bad guy, Snape. He’s awful to young Harry Potter, and as it all unfolds that he has history with Harry’s parents, slowly, Snape becomes relatable and super sympathetic, squeezing our hearts by the end of the series. Rowling handles this neatly, expanding on the story as Harry is growing emotionally, and we don’t all have the luxury of 7 books to unpack our antagonists that way. So how can we do it?

  • Spend as much time with your antagonist as you do with your protagonist. Write as thorough a character sketch before you start writing. Consider her home life, the expectations the world may have of her, her inner conflicts.
  • If your antagonist isn’t human, give her some human qualities (like the jealousy of Hal in 2001).
  • Show readers what she cares about. Does she visit her grandmother in the home each week? Does she volunteer at the dog shelter? Does she recycle clothes into dolls for kids in Appalachia?
  • Give readers a taste of where she went sour. Are her parents bullies too?
  • Show the similarities of your antagonist and protagonist. If they both love collecting Lisa Frank stickers, that will help make your antagonist ever so slightly rounder.
  • Show the history of your antagonist and her relationship with the protagonist. It can be something seemingly small that somehow stuck with the antagonist and grew. (Confession: when I was in 7th grade and had few social graces, I once commented that a classmate wore the same pants two days in a row. I had no memory of this, but I met the person as an adult, and she brought the moment up. It had affected her in a “mean girl” way, and I have to say, I still hate thinking about it. My point is, tiny things can have unexpectedly big consequences.)

By rounding your antagonists, your whole story will become much more engaging and memorable. They say reading fiction makes people more empathetic, and that starts with being able to understand the mean kids, doesn’t it?


Beyond the Great Whatever

A while back, I talked about slang and how a little goes a long way. But I’d like to dig a little deeper into one of my personal pet peeves: the use/overuse of whatever.

Whatever is crucial to the teenage language, is it not? It ends sentences. “It’s this old show or whatever”.

It IS a sentence.

“Danica, do you hear me?”


And that’s how kids sound. I understand that. But it’s not the only way kids sound. And even the ones who sound like that sometimes don’t sound like that all the time. The thing I find so upsetting about it is that whatever is the end of the line. It’s the period. It’s the conversation ender. And in writing and reading, it’s hard to bounce back from.

I think as adults, that’s how we hear it. A kid whatevers us and the conversation is over. You’d have to pull pretty hard to pry that conversation back open. But that isn’t always how kids talk to each other. And as YA and middle grade writers, it’s our job to give kids a window, not a mirror, to paraphrase something I’ve heard often (and believe completely). And so we have to imagine what comes after the whatever when we’re not present. What does whatever stand for? Write that instead. It will make your characters endlessly more interesting.

Here’s an example.

“Dude, why do you always call me a Herman Munster in that singsong voice?”

“It’s from this thing my dad likes about some old election or whatever.”

Sounds like something a sullen teenager would say. Or even a kind of charming teenager. But that conversation has been shut down. There’s nothing to pick up, no thread to follow. As a writer, you could leave it there, OR you could dig deeper and find out more about your characters.

“Dude, why do you always call me a Herman Munster in that singsong voice?”

“It’s from this old song parody from the Bush-Kerry election when my dad was working as a staffer in the Senate. He sings it all the time. ‘This land is my land, this land is your land. I’m a Texas tiger, you’re a liberal wiener.’ It’s those same guys that made that stupid dancing elf video your aunt sent us all at Christmas. I think This Land was their first video. It’s pretty funny actually.”

This conversation is open. There are lots of places to go, and your characters have interests and we know what they think is funny. It might sound like whatever in real life, but most of you are writing fiction, so your characters can be as open and non-sullen as you want. And interesting characters and open conversations are more likely to make it out of my inbox than even the most realistic mirroring of teen-talk. Or whatever.

PS That video still exists and I still think it’s funny.

Who Are You?

So many picture book manuscripts begin with a character introducing her-or-himself.

My name is Jiminy and I’m 5 years old! I love chimichangas!

With only a few exceptions, very few books begin this way. I mean, this is how we make new friends, right? We introduce ourselves and maybe share a few details about what we like. But how often do we walk away from that meeting thinking  “that is a person I can’t wait to climb a mountain with? She really gets me.” For me, it’s rare. Comparing things we have in common is baseline acquaintance stuff. I mean, we all like Kimmy Schmidt, right? But I’m not writing you into my will because of it.

The more interesting conversations and meaningful friendships are ones in which we relate to something deeper that our new friend has experienced and subsequently shared. In books, real emotional connections are formed when people feel like they’ve been in the shoes of the protagonist (whether kid, adult, or chicken).

The best picture books are not just about a character and a list of their traits, or a list of things they did that day. They are about a person who is growing and changing and having experiences and reacting to those things and getting feelings and then dealing with those feelings.*

As you draft your picture book, think about who the protagonist is, and what they are like after you’ve hung out with them for a year or two, instead of who they are on the first meeting. Your book will make a much more lasting impression on readers who think of the character as an important friend.


*Yes, this goes for non-fiction too.

Name Game

Here is something I’ve talked a tiny bit about in social media, and want to address with a few more words here: character names.

I read so many manuscripts where the names seem like throwaways.  It seems like many writers subscribe to the “first thought best thought” school, using the first name that pops into their head. More often than not, it comes across as unconsidered. It’s Sally or Billy or Bobby or Timmy or Jane. I have nothing at all against these names, and in fact, sometimes they are the perfect choice. (Author Peter McCleery chose Bob for Bob and Joss Get Lost for the internal rhyme, and for a joke I won’t tell you about that works really well in the book. Due out 2017.) But if your character is named Billy because it’s the first thing you thought of, you can do better.

Would you name your child the first name that occurred to you? I super duper hope not. There are so many marvelous names in the world, and parents (and pet owners) spend forever coming up with just the right one. A name can reflect so much about the character and story and add a layer of meaning, even. Sometimes it’s a symbol. Sometimes it’s a metaphor. Sometimes it’s ironic. The best ones are a couple of things.

For instance: My favorite dog-friend is a miniature Schnauzer whose name is Titan. That’s funny because he’s little. But it’s also meaningful, because his owner was obsessed with Days of Our Lives, and Titan Industries is the biggest corporation in Salem. Two reasons for one name!

Fantasy writers have a double struggle, because what are the chances that your Space Ninja from an alternate plane will be named Dave? But now you have to make up a name that sounds real. I have read many unpronounceable names, and when I do, I want to throw things. Woerud or Permnk or Xch. Take a page from Suzanne Collins. Katniss is a real plant. It’s edible. Gale is a strong wind. Peeta is a kind of bread (with a minor spelling difference). These names reflect nature and the world they live in, but allow us to step right into a place we know isn’t exactly ours. (I kind of wish Peeta was named Marble Rye, though.)

Speaking of Gale, it’s Dorothy’s last name in the Wizard of Oz. Get it? Dorothy Strong Wind? That’s not an accident.

Turning off the main road for a second: Can we just not with alliterative animal names? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. My name is not Heather Human, so why are all squirrels sur-named Squirrel? Why can’t a squirrel be named Roy Feliciano? I’ll give the exception award to Betty Bunny because Betty Bunny is the only one in her family who has Bunny in her name, and her siblings are named Henry and Kate and Bill. In fact, there are lots of exceptions to this complaint, but in general, try harder.

I’m not saying that every character in your book needs to have a weighty, thoughtful name, but how can it hurt? Moreover, when I read manuscripts with throwaway names, I wonder how long the writer considered it, which then leads me to wonder how long they considered other things in the story. Your characters are at least as important as your guinea pig, so spend some quality time picking.

Here are a few I’d love to see: ChiChi, Fenella, Huxley, Kizzy, Zowie, D’Artagnan, Eustace, Remi, Miggy, Jansen, Dan (JK on that last one.)