Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Westside Writers Schmooze Talks Villains, Antagonists, Quiet Books, and what moves YOUR story forward

Lee sported a Dick Dastardly moustache,
but this is the closest to a photo of it we could find!

38 of us gathered Wednesday night May 12 to schmooze and talk craft. We reveled in home-baked cookies, muffins, and flowers (THANK YOU, EVERYONE!!), and settled down in a big circle to get to the dastardly content of our characters.

We started out by noting that most stories contain both internal and external conflict (as in the picture book "A Visitor for Bear"). Then we discussed different, classic models for external conflict, and shared picture book, MG and YA examples of each. Here's a taste:

Character versus Another Character (conflict with villains, antagonists, and rivals)

The Harry Potter series (MG fantasy)
A Series of Unfortunate Events (MG fantasy)
Roald Dahl books such as Fantastic Mr. Fox (MG)
and even picture books like "Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus"

and "The Monster At the End of This Book," which cleverly pit the main character against the reader

Character versus Themselves

Grumpy Bird (picture book)

or versus their addiction... as in "Wintergirls" (YA, dealing with eating disorders)

Character versus Society

"Skin Hunger" (YA fantasy)

"Horton Hears A Who" (picture book)

"The Little Engine That Could" (picture book)

Character versus Nature

"Hatchet" (MG adventure)

Character versus Technology

Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer (YA)

And other classic themes for conflicts:

Youth versus Age

Physical Obstacles (like mishearing someone, as in the picture book "Falling For Rapunzel"

We also discussed quiet books with seemingly no conflict, like "Every Friday"

and concept books for the very young about exploring the world.

This led to a discussion of the range of villainy we find in children's books, from the cartoony to the epic to the idea that, once you get to know them, most bad guys aren't so bad after all. This led to a lovely discussion of genre, age range, and setting up the rules, expectations, and worldview of your book.

As a group, we looked at this simple example:

a girl goes to an ice cream story to get an ice cream, she gets it and it's delicious

and noted that while that may make for a lovely afternoon, it's not much of a story.

We put the story through our "complication machine" (a box drawn on a piece of paper) and brainstormed all the obstacles that could keep our main character from achieving her goal too easily.

What if she has to clean her room first? ("Youth vs. Age")
She loses her money on the way to the store?
The store is closed?
The electricity goes out and the ice cream starts to melt? (everyone liked the ticking clock element of this one!)
The old person in line in front of her can't make up her mind.

Rita brought up a point from Nancy Lamb's chapter "The Mid-Story Crisis" in The Writer's Guide to Crafting Stories for Children, that there often comes a moment when--for any number of reasons--your main character can no longer get what he or she wants. Each time this happens, it gives rise to a new, even more powerful motivation. (And this can happen many times!)

And as an example of how this might work in our going to the ice cream store example, Greg Pincus suggested that maybe the ice cream brainwashes everyone who eats it and so instead of the girl wanting an ice cream, now she wants to find out who's behind this dastardly plot- so she can make ice cream safe to eat once again!

There was much talk of the Emperor behind Darth Vader in Star Wars, and the heirarchy of rival, enemy, and ultimate villain of the Malfoy son, father, and Voldemort in Harry Potter.

One attendee recommended the book The Power of the Dark Side: Creating Great Villains, Dangerous Situations, & Dramatic Conflict, by Pamela Jaye Sm

Lee brought up some of the three-dimensionalizing exercises for antagonists from Creating Characters Kids Will Love, by Elaine Marie Alphin

Rita brought up the suggestion from The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, by Christopher Booker, that all villainy ultimately comes down to one, universal trait: selfishness. Villains (to the extent that they ARE villains) want something that benefits only themselves. Our hero, on the other hand, is always striving for something that goes beyond his or her self interest.

In this context the group brought up books featuring less than selfless main characters, for us to debate:

Diary of A Wimpy Kid
I Am A Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President

We discussed how every character thinks they're the star of the story (like the Apothecary in the movie Shakespeare in Love,) and how the villain doesn't necessarily know they're the villain - to them they may be the hero.

This led to our final exercise for the evening, which was to challenge everyone to put their own characters through the "complication machine." (Remember, draw that box on a piece of paper!)

We had people do this for their antagonist - defining what that character wants (writing that in the box) and then brainstorming obstacles to them getting that.

And now, at home, even if you were there, you can do it for your main character as well.

Overall, it was a lively, engaging evening, and we all learned a lot - and gained some inspiration - from an evening talking about the bad stuff that makes your story GOOD.

Thanks to all the bakers and attendees and to all of you reading this blog post as well - it's a wonderful community we've got here!

Join us next month on Wed June 9th, when we meet to discuss... (drumroll...)

"Getting Published: Query Letters, Networking, and What You Need To Know"

Query Letters. Cover Letters. Writing that darn synopsis. Business Cards. Blogs. Web sites. Conferences. How do you find out which editors and agents are looking for what? And how do you gain access to them? Which reference sources have the information you need? How do you not get overwhelmed by all the information? Come talk about the business side of being a writer. For Picture Books through YA, non-fiction and fiction, writing your manuscript is only the first part...

Please RSVP to if you plan to attend. This is the topic everyone wishes we did *every* month. We hope to see you there!

Rita and Lee


  1. You guys are sooo great!!!! This is both interesting and h-e-l-p-f-u-l. Thank you ;^).

  2. edie pagliasottiJune 2, 2010 at 12:41 PM

    Congratulations Rita and Lee on providing such a fantastic Schmooze. You are helping so many members learn how to better hone their craft.



    P.S. Dastardly Lee -- it suits you, like the moustache...!

  3. Great analysis and tips. Thanks!

  4. Thank you Rita and Lee, for this wonderfully informative, fun, inspiring and challenging overview of your Schmooze!! Very much appreciated!


  5. Great topic. Love the breakdown of the different conflicts and the examples.

  6. Thanks, Rita and Lee, for these great (and practical) ideas. Lots of opportunity for participation and sharing of ideas at a schmooze

    Marilyn Donahue
    (Inland Area Schmoozes)