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?

Title: Untitled

Titles are a funny thing. The good ones intrigue book browsers, grab attention, and are memorable. The best ones describe a whole book in a few words. (Some, on the other hand, are not as clever.) And so it’s normal that writers spend a lot of time stressing over giving their manuscript the very most intriguing, grabby, memorable title.

However, from this side of the table, I gotta say, titles are about the least important part of the work I’m considering. Yeah, it’s nice to be catchy in a query. But I’d estimate about eight times out of ten (four out of five, then), a title changes, sometimes multiple times, before it hits shelves. In at least one case, I’ve seen a title change after it was published.

Even if a title doesn’t change, it’s almost always part of a discussion at some point in the editorial process. So when writers and clients ask me what I think of their title, the truth is that I generally think of all titles as “working titles” until they are printed on jackets. It’s not something I focus on in critiques or edits, unless I think it’s wildly inaccurate or misleading. But as part of the query process, it’s not a make-or-break aspect. Make it as good as you can, but also know it may change a dozen times, and then a couple more.

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?”

“Whatever.”

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.

Aaaand ACTION!

I read a lot of YA manuscripts that are super interesting. Great premise, smart, insightful writing, nicely developed character arcs, marvelous dialogue. But they just aren’t working.

Interrobang! (WHAT!?)

It’s true. More than once I’ve read a manuscript I really like but for one fatal flaw: nothing happens. I’d say, when I was an editor, this was the number one reason a manuscript got the gong at acquisitions.

In picture books, it’s generally pretty easy to spot. Texts in which nothing happens usually come in the form of a list. It might be a list of things a kid does in a day. It might be a list of something that kid loves. Maybe it’s a list of traits they enjoy in their menagerie of monster friends. But a list isn’t a plot.

It takes a bit longer to identify in middle grade and young adult novels. I’m usually reading along for a while, enjoying some great banter, the dialogue carrying me away like the best late-night conversation with a friend. But then I realize, the scene is a late night conversation between friends. And so was the last one. And the one before that was at lunch. And the one before that was in the car on the way to lunch.

It’s a trap some of the best writers fall into. Scenes of people discussing things that have happened off-page are stories in which nothing actually happens. I want to see the character actually run their grocery cart into the ankles of their crush, setting off a chain of events they have to react to, instead of telling their sister about it the next day over mochaccinos at the mall. A next-day dialogue (or whenever it happens) removes the reader from the scene, creating an impenetrable barrier between the reader and the action.

Here’s a little test to tell if your manuscript has enough action: act it out, or at least imagine it as a play. If your scene is of your protag whispering deep thoughts at the library, it’s not so fun to watch. The conversation might reveal a lot, but it’s a bit of a snooze for the reader. If your protag is at the library whispering, and then decides to throw a paper airplane at the jerk librarian (just kidding, all librarians are the coolest), that’s action. If that happened on stage, it would be fun to watch, and it likely makes something else happen.

It’s not the most exciting example, but I think you understand that your character needs to do things. Do things that lead to other things, I mean. Because sure, stirring mochaccino foam and sighing and thinking are technically action, but a whole play of that would be pretty tedious. We’d be in a pretty weird place if Nike had told us to Just Talk About Doing It.

 

No Frills Book Review: The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

Welcome to the first in a series, the No Frills Book Review. This is where I basically repeat here what I’ve been saying to people in real life about books I’ve read.

Have you read The Nest by Kenneth Oppel? Holy crap. What a weird and great read. I can’t tell you much about it without giving it all away, so just trust me. I’m not sure it’s truly a book for kids, but it is creepy and wonderful and you’ll read it in about an hour. Everyone in the office totally devoured it with the same response. This is the kind of book you’ve never read before, but it also feels like it’s always existed.

See? No frills.