Building a Better Villain (With a Little Help from Magneto, Loki, and Gollum)

I never read comic books as a kid, so when I went to see the very first X-Men movie, I didn’t quite know what to expect. So, imagine my surprise when the movie began at the gates of Auschwitz as a young Eric Lensherr is being ripped away from his parents. Imagine my even greater surprise when, at this horrific moment, his powers emerge.

It takes guts to tell a story in which the reader or viewer so immediately sympathizes with the person who’s supposed to be the villain in the story. Of course Eric becomes Magneto. How could he not? And that he and Charles Xavier are such old friends adds still a layer of depth to this character.

Now, it doesn’t hurt that Magneto is played by Ian McKellan in the movie, who is, without question, a source of amazingness in the world. But the depth of the character lies in the comic books and in the story they chose to tell on the screen as well. This is not your run of the mill villain. This guy’s got a purpose—and one you can thoroughly understand.

What got me thinking about villains, you might ask? Well, I’m currently revising a story that has a (completely non-supernatural, fantasy-based) villain in it. And I want her to be more than just the villain.

But it’s also because I saw this on The MarySue:

Tom Hiddleston, Loki

A movie poster featuring the villain, and only the villain. Sure, there’s one of Thor, too. But having seen both the first Thor movie and The Avengers, I am here to tell you that there’s a reason why folks love Loki—and it’s not just Tom Hiddleston’s boyish good looks (though that helps, of course). It’s just that he’s a much more interesting, nuanced character than Thor is.

And being someone who reads a lot of fan/geekgirl stuff, it’s clear that the makers of the second Thor movie (and the second Avengers movie) are fully aware of this. In fact, in a recent interview, Joss Whedon tried to explain why Loki’s not going in the next Avengers movie, basically by admitting that the movie’s about the Avengers, not the villain. Or in other words, Loki might be just a hair more popular than some of the actual Avengers.

The Lord of the Rings, GollumThen there’s Gollum, both on the page and on the screen as performed by Andy Serkis. But for an accidental finding of a ring, Smeagol (who becomes Gollum) might have lived, if not a happy life, at least an uneventful one. The hints of Smeagol still emerge in Gollum, making for a heart-wrenchingly duality in him. Alas, the ring eats away at him and ultimately destroys him. Sure, the supposed villain in The Lord of the Rings is Sauron (and even Saruman). But Gollum steals the villainy show on every level, just because he’s so much more than just a villain.

So, how do you build a better villain? I guess the only answer I’ve come up with thus far is to make him or her a real person as well as a force of badness—to make a really compelling villain you first have to make a really compelling character. Which is no small task.

And with that, my little exploration of sci-fi and fantasy villainy is finally over. Just be glad I spared you my treatise on Anakin Skywalker….

Just Say No…to Almost Everything

There aren’t many things that Nancy Reagan and I have in common on the surface of things, but I’m finding myself more and more often thinking about her “Just Say No” campaign back in the 80s. This is not because peer pressure has been steering me toward drugs (thankfully). It’s because I’m really bad at doing it.

Got a social commitment that you need me at? Perhaps a playdate that adds chaos to my world? Some freelance work, you say? I have a really hard time saying no. But as this fall swings into full gear, my schedule begins to get unbearable, and I’m stretched far too thin, it’s time to learn how to say no.

Why can’t I ever do this? It’s born of two things, I think: 1.) not wanting to let anyone down; and 2.) not being able to accept that I can’t do everything. I’m a juggler, a multi-tasker. How else would work, writing for school, writing not for school, and my family all be coexisting in my life? So, to say no is to admit that I can’t do it all.

But you know what? I can’t. Right now, I’m trying to focus on what’s important and let the extra stuff fall a little bit by the wayside. I guess I’m the opposite of Ado Annie from Oklahoma. She “cain’t say no” but in a fun way. I’m learning to do the opposite in a sanity-preserving way. But check back in June. I bet I’ll be back to “yes” once again!

The Recipe for the Perfect Romantic Hero

Every good baker knows that a recipe is really just a jumping off point. You might like nutmeg, while I prefer cinnamon. You’re all about cocoa powder, while I favor melted dark chocolate in my brownie. It’s all a matter of taste.

The same holds true for literary romantic heroes. You might like them dark and brooding, I’m all about funny and charming. But as I write and rewrite not one but two different YA stories, I’m thinking about what ingredients make up my idea of a romantic hero—and how best to create a fella that appeals not just to me, but to (hopefully) a larger audience at some point.

So what makes a good romantic hero in my book? It takes equal parts of the ingredients below


When it comes to creating a hero with humor, Jane Austen might have fashioned something akin to perfection in Northanger Abbey’s Henry Tilney. He’s got a great sense of humor—so much so that occasionally it’s hard to get him to be serious. But when the going gets tough, Mr. Tilney rises to the occasion. Even if he might joke around as he’s doing it. Never was there a more delightful literary clergyman, or one with whom the reader can more readily share the heroine’s completely obvious affection.



And not just of the romantic variety (though clearly that’s a must as well). The ideal in this category for me is George Elliot’s Will Ladislaw, the young man who ultimately captures the heart of Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. Even when Will is idling his time away on his cousin’s dime, he’s passionate about art, beauty—and his cousin’s wife Dorothea. Ah, youthful enthusiasm. But even Will settles down to a real pursuit and career at last, and he’s got politics and reform on his mind. His zest for the downtrodden and ignored—as well as for the best heroine in all of literature (yep, I said it and I meant it)—make him pure romantic hero gold.


On a certain level, rare book seller George Friedman in Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector seems completely wrong for Jessamine Bach. He’s too old, too set in his ways, too cultured, and too much of a carnivore for the twenty-something tree-hugger. But theirs is a love affair born of books. And any man who goes about wooing with a perfectly ripe peach and a T.S. Elliot reference is a man worth keeping. Never has eating a piece of fruit been laden with so much sexual and intellectual tension.


The Ability to Change and Grow

When Brigan meets the titular character in Kristin Cashore’s Fire, he’s not able to like or even remotely trust her. And when you have ugly family history of epic proportions between his father and hers, who can blame him? Unlike some folks, though, he’s open to seeing who she is as a person (or in this case, a human-monster hybrid) and eventually to trust her. That he falls so deeply in love with the one person he most despised speaks not to some weird “opposites attract” plot device, but rather to depth of his character. Which makes Brigan something of a dream come true, romantic hero-wise, and Kristin Cashore downright brilliant for creating him.

So does identifying all of this make it so much easier to write a wonderful romantic hero (or two, as is the case right now)? Alas, no. But it does give me some key ingredients off of which to base my recipe. And take it from George Friedman: it’s fun to experiment in the kitchen.





At the Intersection of Writing and the A-Team

There are days when the words just flow off my fingertips and onto the screen—when I can’t type quickly enough to get down what I need to (and subsequently skip multiple necessary words in the process). There are days when, like the machinations of a well-planned A-Team operation, everything just falls into place.

I’ve had a couple of days like this of late, and it’s kind of a gift. Getting not just words but whole pages of them out at one time; having a piece of story (even entire chapters) pop out in one fell swoop. When this happens, I have a true Hannibal Smith moment, and treasure how much I love it when a plan comes together.

Then there are other days when I pity the fool (in this case, sadly, me) who attempts to write anything at all. These are the days when this whole endeavor feels like an exercise in frustration—one that will add nothing to my life in general but gray hair and a whole lot of eyestrain.

It isn’t just the golden days of flowing words that keep me going on this path. It’s the sweet spot that lies in between the gold and the despair—the days when I think it’s a lost cause and then realize something important about the story I’m writing, or the one I’m attempting to revise—that make up my writing life.

Sometimes, even when you least expect it, a plan does come together. B. A. Baracus can get on that airplane after all. Face uses his charm to turn a seemingly hopeless situation around. Even Murdoch’s craziness comes in handy at just the right moment.

And a little puzzle piece of your work falls into place, right where it should be.

The Novelist—a New Take on the Game of Life?

For the most part, I am not a gamer. Okay, for almost any part, I’m not a gamer. I’m married to one. I have friends who are addicted to one game or another (or several all at once). But it’s never really called me. Once the Atari went the way of the T-Rex, I kind of lost all interest.

But when I saw an article (or three) about this game, The Novelist, I was intrigued. I’m trying to be a novelist after all, so this seemed to hold potential. So, I watched this trailer and…kind of lost all interest.

First of all, I’ve read too many VIDA statistics about how the deck is stacked in favor of male writers not to be a little disappointed that the game’s creators chose a male writer. Although given the male-dominated world of gaming (or at least the perception by men that it’s their world and not ours), I guess it’s not all that surprising.

To make this game even more difficult to want to play, The Novelist and his artist wife seem to be spending the summer in a giant house by the water during which time neither of them have to work in a way that, well, earns money. But they struggle! You have to help them navigate their struggles to juggle work and home life. I’m not saying that being a full-time artist doesn’t come with it’s own time-management problems. I’m just saying that two parents with this kind of money aren’t struggling in the same ways that the vast majority of writers and other artists are.

Even aside from this, the idea of spending any of my free time (or $14.99!) on a game that’s all about the difficulties of juggling work and parenting seems…like life not entertainment.

Sure, this isn’t supposed to be real life—it’s a game, after all. But I want some fun and escapism in my down time. And a game about a writer struggling to write and take care of his kid sounds a little too much like art poorly imitating art (some of us have to work, too, after all!) for me to take the plunge on this one. But if you do, let me know what you think.

Time Out: Acadia National Park

IMG_0107The moment I’d been waiting for all summer has now come and gone, leaving lovely memories in its wake: our family trip to Acadia National Park in Maine. Acadia is by far one of my favorite places in the whole world, and over the last couple of years, it’s been a real joy introducing my kiddo to the park.

Every day, rain or shine, we hiked. One day we had torrential downpours, so we did some very modest hiking. IMG_0127

The rest of the time, we hit a different mountain every morning. We swam in the afternoons.


We took the challenge route up Gorham Mountain so we could explore caves with whole worlds of tiny organisms living in them.SAM_0733

We had lunch at Jordan Pond House (lobster stew and popovers…bliss) while we gazed at this view.SAM_0686

Afterward, we visited one of my favorite spots in the whole park… SAM_0688

which I love all the more because I’m not the only one who loves it.


When you sit on the bench, this is what you see. We sat there for quite some time.


We ate ice cream at a different place every day and danced in the streets of Bar Harbor to Petula Clark.

On our last night there, we drove up Cadillac Mountain to watch the meteor shower and gaze at the stars.

And we relaxed in a way that we cannot ever seem to do at home. No email, very little cell phone reception, all work left behind. Honestly, I didn’t write a word the entire time I was there, and by the time we finished each day’s activities I was even too tired to read. It was that wonderful a vacation.

Of course, now it’s back to the grind of regular life, in which there are deadlines to meet and far too much work to be done in order to meet them. But we had a wonderful trip, and one that (I hope) has left us all recharged and ready to tackle regular life again!


Where Story Ideas Come From

Graves Island Lighthouse can be yours for the right price. (Courtesy of the Boston Globe)

This lighthouse is for sale. For real. It’s on Graves Island, a collection of rocks on the outer edge of Boston Harbor. And according to the Boston Globe, it’s currently on the auction block. If you buy it, you have to deal with the lack of running water and electricity. And the fact that you have to climb a really tall ladder just to get inside the place.

But then, look at it. This lighthouse is kind of the visual definition of scope for the imagination. It’s still a working lighthouse. If you’re okay with all of that, it can be yours for the right price.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I found this riveting.  Just the image alone must be worth at least 1,000 words. Probably a lot more.  The picture and the accompanying article in the Globe, are getting tucked away in my file of story ideas. It’s filled with strange and quirky pictures, or snippets of history that I find fascinating, or stories like this one. I love my story file.

Inspiration isn’t easy to come by, as any writer will tell you. But sometimes you can see the possibilities in some odd or wonderful place. I’m busy right now. Far, far too busy, in fact, to think about starting another story. But someday, I’ll sift through my story file and I’ll find this again. And who knows where journey will take me from there?