Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Secrets to Writing for Kids: Even Villains Have Mothers

I get where Hook's coming from. Ticking clocks drive me nuts, too.
We all grew up on tales of "Right versus wrong!" It's simple and alluring to fall into happy clich├ęs and easy tropes when writing for kids—they won't know the difference, right? Giving them something familiar (a cackling mastermind, a power-hungry stepmother) will provide something to hold onto as this story bumps along. Just give your evil queen some maniacal laughter and have her whisk away a toddler or two, and you've built your own DIY, straw man antagonist.

But when our audience is young, diverging matters most, when the shades of gray between black and white will stand out and be observed. This is likely a stupidly simple and unnecessary thing to point out, but teaching right vs. wrong as unyielding dichotomies is a very restricted and claustrophobic way to go about teaching anyone anything. Nothing in this world comes in such stark contrasts, such easy-to-discern choices. It's nice and simple to write a story that way, sure—but it's hardly helpful in the process of growing up, when children are encountering new life situations and moral quandaries every day, to only have black and white examples to choose from. (I have written many a long, rambly post about how books are a great safe space for children to explore mature situations and emotions, allowing them to be better prepared if or when they deal with these situations in real life.)

And, in a perhaps more important arena, you're missing out on a lot of potential richness in your storytelling. What's the point, if not to entertain?

Even Villains Have Mothers

This perhaps sounds trite and obvious, but really sitting down and thinking through this statement (imagine your antagonist going to a therapist, and the therapist says, "Tell me about your mother") can reveal a lot in a short stint about whether your antagonist is two- or three-dimensional.

And of course, it's not that all antagonists' conflicts must be tied up in their mothers—in fact, I'd probably weigh carefully whether to hinge a backstory on dead parents anymore—but that it puts you in the mindset of considering your antagonist as a human with a past, with a family or, at the very least, someone who brought them into being.

I know it's obvious to see it literally spelled out like that, but just humor me for a few more minutes.

I stumbled into this fairly obvious realization when, after submitting a manuscript, I got this note back:

"Your antagonist feels like a cardboard cut-out. How did she get this way? She must have some reason or logic for justifying to herself the terrible things she does."

Badness Always Thinks It's Right

We all have internal systems of justification for our behavior. Have you ever done something you're not proud of, but after the fact said to yourself, "Well, the situation was like this, and I was feeling like that, and so that's why I did it." We need reasons for our "bad"—we look for ways out of being the bad guy by re-framing what happened, and then we don't have to feel responsibility for it.

A good antagonist, a truly interesting and compelling antagonist, is going to spend a lot of time re-framing situations to fit their own narrative, of spinning long justifications for what they've done; often, to make themselves the hero (and, sometimes, the victim) of their own tragic story.

It's a better set-up for conflict later, anyway, when the villain is so set in their thinking that they're the hero, and like a hero does, they must fight to the bone to preserve the moral house of cards they've built—to protect their cognitive dissonance.

The Gray Payoff

It's less simple than the cardboard cut-out, sure. There's one obvious payout: a more complex character arc brings the reader deeper into the story, and perhaps even divides their loyalties, so they become more invested in the conflict.

But a complex moral fabric also provides an endless well of curiosities. Plumb the trough of antagonist backstory for inciting incidents and excitements to keep your plot moving along. Find even more levels at which your antagonist and your hero can collide—or, in a more complicated and interesting twist, perhaps levels at which your antagonist and your hero see eye-to-eye, but some conflict of interest keeps them at odds. (It's like watching two people who are debating a point, but both of them are really saying the same thing. That frustrated feeling you get—why can't the two of them see that they're both on the same side?—that's great for keeping a reader flipping pages. It always makes me think of Harry and Snape's relationship, fighting for the same thing but never able to notice because they hold such prejudice against one another.)

Some tips for writing great villains:

- Sit down and craft a short tale about your villain before your story begins. Where were they born? Who were their parents? How were they raised? Does this filter into who they are now?

- Think about villains as if they were heroes. What are their internal conflicts (where does their internal justification system trip or fail? Do they overlook those failures consciously?) and external conflicts (somewhere along the way, does something in your story shed light on this, and force a villain to confront his own inconsistencies?).

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