Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Four Dimensional Villians: Off-stage action, impact and character

...and there will probably be more posts on this subject as I work it through, lol

I'm over at savvyauthors this week, doing a workshop on organic writing--my favorite soapbox. I love workshops (although I'm having a hard time with this particular forum. It's a tech issue and hits me since I do most of my thinking between 12-4am) and the questions that come out of them. Questions get me thinking.

One woman asked me about off-stage action. Some of it flowed--some...took a little longer. Showing off-stage personality? Hey now.

Answers are like mosquitoes. Buzzing around, waiting for you to swat them. As soon as I figured it out, I ran around like a maniac looking for a pen. Any pen. My arm is always covered in ink. One day I'll get a "to-do" tattoo, to keep it organized.

The easiest way to show off-stage action is by its effect on character and plot. People tend to use foreshadowing, but that only works to an extent. A good way to show the difference between foreshadowing and off-stage action is “the killer in the alley”.

In foreshadowing, the heroine would walk past the alley on her way to work, and she’d shiver. Maybe she’d step in something nasty that looks like congealed blood. Then her day would go on, and nothing more would be mentioned because the point has already been made—something is going to happen in the alley. It sets the stage for later, when the road is blocked off and she has to go through the alley to get home and footsteps start after her.

It works great when the story is plot-driven, because this point has to happen “here>”. They’re layered, but what and why are less important than the actual story event.

In a character-driven story, when we have off-stage action, it’s personal. There’s somebody out there with his own agenda and that agenda happens in real-time, just like the story. Someone is always watching our heroine. There’s always a reason for events to happen. At the same time the heroine is shivering as she walks past the alley, there are people out in the road re-striping the median. Road crews turn to watch her go. Think of a Stephen King movie, where it’s creepy how other people always know what’s going on. The caretaker smiles. The road crew turns to watch her walk away. The glass in the window of the corner drugstore is cracked. There’s a flash of white material out of the corner of her eyes.

And events?

Why is she walking?

The villain sabotaged her car. He’s smart. He wants her walking. Maybe he knows if he can only find a reason for her to stay behind, at 10pm the road shuts to let the paint dry on the turn lanes. And in this particular city, there are tourist/pedestrian markings on the sidewalk that also have to be repainted. Once a year. On this one night.

Foreshadowing is just a “part” of off-stage action.

And why her? What is it about her that makes her the target? Is she a blonde with one wide red streak? Does he kill only blondes with one wide red streak? Did they meet in an event she only vaguely remembers? Has he been following her, waiting, ever since?

In other words—the villain must be tied to the heroine (or hero) in some way.

1-dimensional? The villain kills women with blonde hair with one wide red streak.

3-dimensional? The villain kills women with blond hair with one wide red streak because while his mother was dying in the hospital (slowly. He loved her, but after a few weeks, he was just waiting) he decided to take this nurse up on her offer and was having sex in a broom closet when his mother had a major heart attack. There was no one close enough to save her, and he blamed the nurse. (The woman with blonde hair and a wide red streak)He also blames himself. He’s carrying tremendous guilt. He’s also still attracted to women with blonde hair with a wide red streak, but it was his lack of self-control that caused his mom to die. See where I’m going with this?

He has a core event, too.

And that core event “creates” the story and makes him three dimensional.

He’s killing the nurse, over and over. He can’t kill her enough because of his guilt. But…at the same time he’s wildly attracted to the “nurses” and because of that, he has self-loathing. He probably sexually tortures the women, while trying to stay self-controlled, so he’d come across as cold and detached, maybe with a sheen of sweat.

He doesn’t need to be on the page. But the consequences of his actions do.

The murders? (in the paper) The signs around town saying “road closure on…” (which the heroine doesn’t pay attention to since she has a car and knows she’ll be home long before then)

Think of two pieces of string. They run side by side. They have to. And in some places, they almost touch because they’re part of the same story. And in some places (like where the villain is revealed at the end) they get tangled, but still aren’t “one” thread. Just two separate threads mashed together to create the “one” story and flowing wildly towards the part where they stop.

How to show off-stage personality? (the hard part of the question...)

Two words.

Depth and what.

Let's use Kenny the blonde-killer.

Even through we know his core event--what drives him and why--we're still thinking in three dimensions. People you can't "see" have a fourth dimension up in your head. You need to know this guy enough to "show" him. It's not just story points bouncing off core events--it's the "depth" those points bounce into or off the core event.

In other words, you might know he hates blondes with a wide red streak in their hair. Given an opportunity, he'll kill one. What he does next shows his personality.

The kind of person who simply stalks them, pulls out a sniper rifle and does his business is different from the guy who kills her cat, kills her kids and cuts her into little pieces. Even choice of weapons shows personality. An ax--big, brutal and gory--isn't the weapon for a cold, angry man with a lot of self control. Maybe that guy uses a skinning knife.

Off-stage personality runs on implication. I do this in "this" way, and that implies...what?

If my heroine finds a body that's been hacked--with an ax--into bloody dog food, as a reader I'm going to think "large" and "upper body strength", maybe "anger", because right or wrong, we all have our internal profiler.


Hailey Edwards said...

I knew it wouldn't take long.

*soaks up the goodness*

jodi said...

It's all your fault, you know. :) All I wanted to do was sink into depression and stare at the ceiling. I'm going to start my prologue workshop off talking about you, so you'd better sell to NY by then, damnit.

Hailey Edwards said...

No, your brain is far too valuable to waste by sinking into depression and staring up at ceilings. There are in there who need your help. ;)

epic said...

I like this. Villains are 10 times more important than heroes, who are vanilla and boring. Do little boys want to be Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader? DARTH VADER.