The Most Dastardly Villain of All

Sometimes it seems as if most books and movies today are glorified comic books, epic battles between the good and the impossibly evil. Conflicts in which there are no shades of gray must be satisfying for many people, since such books sell by the millions, but I like a little more subtlety in my conflicts, a little more reality.

In a world that seems to be run by the major corporations, the stories where a lone hero takes on a megalithic corporation, brings down the owner of the company, and saves the world just are not plausible. Though I’m sure the presidents of the major corporations think they are indispensable, they are not. If they are eliminated, there will always be others to take their place, and the corporations will go on doing whatever it is that they do.

Because I know this and cannot escape it even in a world of my own creation, the conflicts in my books tend to be less clearly defined than good versus evil. Of course I have heroes and villains, but the villains are not always dastardly ones, though my other characters may perceive them as such. The villains are the heroes of their own story, and though a corporation is often the villains’ vehicle, my heroes don’t bring it down.

I like my heroes to find a romantic partner, but I prefer that partner to be a co-protagonist. It seems to dissipate the energy of the story if the male and female leads are always in conflict. I find it more satisfying when they bond together in their struggle against fate (or against another character as the personification of fate). To me, the biggest villain around is fate. What is more unfair, more murderous, more disastrous, more villainous than fate?

Because of fate, people get sick, die, have accidents, lose the one they love, lose their homes, freeze in winter, swelter in summer, get slammed by hurricanes or tornadoes, get washed away in tsunamis. No human villain can compete with such destruction.

My heroes never bring on their fate for the simple reason that I cannot sympathize with characters who are the cause of their own problems, and why would characters ever have to cause problems for themselves when life itself is always ready to cause problems for them? This is especially true in my poor stalled work in progress. Everywhere my hero turns, fate throws another fit and leaves him to deal with the mess. Sounds like real life, doesn’t it? We make plans, but life doesn’t consider our plans before deciding our fate.

My heroes are always slow to meet their fate. To begin with, they are usually laid back types, but during the course of the book, they are forced into action and then become dedicated to their mission.

Fate, of course, has other plans, and so conflicts escalate throughout my books, just as they do in life. When fate comes knocking on the door, everything changes. And that’s when a real story, not a comic book, begins.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

So, Why Are We Supposed to Care?

The above-the-fold story on the front page of the newspaper today was about the hardships of small marijuana farmers. That once fabulously lucrative crop now only nets one-fourth the money that it did in its heyday (or perhaps I should say “hayday”). Industrial growers, new seeds geared toward indoor plants, and the push for legalization have made things tough for small, independent growers.

This seemed sort of a tactless (I’m being kind here) article to publish after a summer of droughts when food crops dried up and family farms disintegrated to dust, but beyond that, why are we supposed to care about the small independent marijuana farmer? This is like having to feel sorry for burglars because corporate greed has left nothing for them to steal. Marijuana may someday be legal, but it is not now (except for a few isolated instances) and it certainly wasn’t back in the seventies when these people started their “farm.”

It’s a good object lesson for writers, though. If you want readers to care about the plight of your characters, you have to give them something and someone to care about. In this case, the writer tried to paint a sympathetic picture — after the crop is cashed in, the farmers won’t have enough left to take their usual celebratory trip to Hawaii. Again — why are we supposed to care? They worked outside the law for decades, and while the law never caught up with them, the laws of supply and demand finally did. Seems like justice to me. So, why are we supposed to care?

This is a good question to keep in mind when you are writing your books. Too often people take short cuts, for example, relying on a mother character with rebellious teenagers to garner empathy. Such a character may gain immediate sympathy from women in that same situation, but readers who have never had children need something more than a flat insert-self-here-character to make them care. The character needs to be struggling with something more universal, such as the character’s feelings of rejection or abandonment from her almost-adult children, or conflicting loyalties between her husband and her children, or her struggles to deal with her own rites of passage.

Sometimes all you need to do to make a character sympathetic is to give them simple wants. In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, all Kate wants is a good night’s sleep. She’s been haunted by her not always thoughtful behavior during her husband’s long dying, and sleep eludes her. Ideally, her plight should gain empathy — most of us have struggled with insomnia, most of us struggle with regrets, and most of us have dealt with loss. At one point in the story, Kate does step outside the law (though the law of survival took precedence over the interim laws of the quarantine), but by then, you know the character, her motivations, her struggles, and, you don’t have to pause in your reading to ask, “So why are we supposed to care?”

Have you ever had difficulty killing off a favorite character in your story?

No. For me, story is sovereign. Everything must serve the story, and if the death of a favorite character will serve the story, then that’s the way it has to be. To be honest, though, I haven’t yet killed off a favorite character. The ones I have killed were created to be killed, and I took great glee in doing so. Mostly, I’m not one for being selective in my killings. In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, I decimate Colorado. (I am using the word in its proper context here — I kill off a tenth of the population.) In Light Bringer, I hint at the destruction of vast numbers of people, and in my current work (that isn’t progressing very rapidly) I do, in fact, kill off almost the entire population of the world. After all that carnage, what’s one more character killed off, favorite or not?

Here are some responses from others authors about difficulty of killing off a favorite character. The comments are taken from interviews posted at Pat Bertram Introduces . . .

From an interview with Dellani Oakes, Author of Lone Wolf

I greatly dislike killing a character and avoid it if I can. However, there are times when a character must die to advance the plot. The one who upset me the most was a guy named Murdock Pickford. He’s in a prequel to my sci-fi series. Murdock is a nice guy. He’s kind, capable, loving and forgiving. He’s engaged to a woman who’s pregnant with another man’s baby & he agrees to raise her as his own. He’s thrilled about the baby, excited about getting married—and he has to die, horribly, brutally, for the book to move forward. I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried when I had to kill him off.

From an interview with Jocelyn Modo, Author of “Revolution Lovers”

In Revolution Lovers something truly horrible happens to Adie…I’ve avoided that scene since I wrote it. I can’t look at what I did to her, don’t want to face what I did to my beloved character. I feel silly saying it, but I feel guilty about hurting her.

From an interview with Rod Marsden, Author of “Disco Evil” and “Ghost Dance”

When you deal with the supernatural killing off a characters doesn’t mean they won’t return. I have had characters return a number of times after death to either help or hinder the living.

From an interview with Christine Lindsay, Author of “Shadowed in Silk”

I have to laugh at this as it may sound horribly brutal. But I have no problem killing my characters off at all.  In all of my books I kill off at least one secondary character, sometimes more as is the case of Shadowed in Silk.

I love having my strongest Christians die. I often cry as I write the scenes where they are ready to meet their Lord. And sometimes bad characters have to die too. I try hard not to think of their eternal situation, and remind myself that they are fictional characters — not flesh and blood — and I am not God.

What about you? Have you ever had difficulty killing off a favorite character in your story?

(If you’d like me to interview you, please check out my author questionnaire and follow the instruction.)

Dazzling the Audience

When I was invited to speak at the Scribbler’s Retreat Writers’ Conference in St.Simons Island, I accepted, though I hadn’t a clue how to give a speech. The last time I stood in front of a group to give a formal talk was during a speech class freshman year in high school. We were supposed to give a demonstration speech, I remember, and I decided to be clever. So, when my scheduled day came, I stood in front of the class and announced I was the representative of the Emperor’s New Clothes Manufacturing Company. I held up one invisible garment after another and proceeded to describe every style, every fabric, every frill. When I finished, the teacher frowned at me and said, “Your speech was very good, but it would have been better if you had used real clothes.”

Just goes to show you, one shouldn’t try to be too clever. And I took that to heart when I wrote my speech on “Creating Incredible, but Credible, Characters” for Scribbler’s Retreat. It was simple, more of an introduction to the art of creating characters than a full-blown exposition. I wanted to spend most of my hour showing them how to create great characters, not telling them, so I prepared a character questionnaire to help them delve deeper into the social, physical, and psychological aspects of their character. My plan was to have them create a character as a group so they could see how conflicts, plot, and subplots grow along with a character.

I didn’t have time to practice my speech before I left, so I figured I’d do it on the plane. Yeah, right. It had been so many years since I’d flown that I didn’t realize how impossible it was to do anything on a flight except get through the hours. When my idea of studying my speech on the plane didn’t work out, I figured I could do it once I got to St. Simons. That would have been a good idea except for . . . Did I mention this was a resort area? Right on the ocean? In the south? I went for a walk on the beach, and happened upon a trolley leaving for a tour of the island. I hopped aboard and was entertained with tales (and some tall tales) of the island’s history. When we returned, I was still in tourist mode, so I went to the lighthouse, and walked up all 129 steps to the top. And so the time went.

Despite not studying my speech, I wasn’t nervous. Until . . .

I’d met fellow speaker Chuck Barrett, author of The Savannah Project, so I particularly wanted to hear his speech, which came right before mine. He talked about point of view, a difficult topic that he handled well, and at the end, everyone applauded. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that people would applaud at the end of my speech, and that thought panicked me. So I went to the front of the group, thanked the woman who introduced me, and froze. Just for a second. Then I remembered that this was my party, and I could do what I wanted, so I smiled, told the story about my Emperor’s New Clothes Speech, and sailed right through the rest of my talk. I think I might have stammered a few times, but people were kind. Then, when we got to the questionnaire, I dazzled!!

Well, it was more that the audience dazzled me. When they caught on to what we were doing, their eyes lit up, and I knew I had them. Many people contributed to our character — a beautiful 27-year-old woman of French descent and a shady past. A certain fellow in her life wanted her to make them a fortune as a stripper, but she was resisting him. She wanted a simpler life, the life of a writer. She had a best friend, who loved her, and a sister who hated her. And she had a daughter she’d given up for adoption when she was sixteen.

We could all see this woman, as if she were a part of the group. Afterward, several people told me that I helped them see how to overcome problems they were having with their own characters, which is exactly what I’d hoped for. Oddly, I can’t remember the applause. I only remember looking at each of the participants and thanking them for making the experience so wonderful.

Did I Really Write a Feel-Good Book?

It will be interesting to see what people say about my books; I’m beginning to think I have no idea what I wrote. For example, A Spark of Heavenly Fire is the story of four ordinary people who become extraordinary while struggling to survive quarantine and martial law in Colorado. It was supposed to be a hard-hitting novel with an edge, but my proofreader told me, “You might do well. I think people are ready for a feel-good book.”

A feel-good book? Where is the edge? The horror? The feeling of doom? According to said proofreader, “Those elements are in the background, but the characters are the story. And they are heartbreakingly real.” Oh.

I thought I couldn’t write good characters. Most books on writing (and many authors) say that a writer has to feel what her characters feel or else the reader won’t feel the characters’ emotions. If you don’t cry, neither will your reader. But I don’t feel what my characters feel. Writing erases emotion, takes me to a place of serenity. And serenity is not generally where you want to take a reader. But I am deliberate in my choice of words and in the details I include. Perhaps those elements combine to help overcome my lack of emotion.

Of course, I generally don’t feel the emotion in the books I read, either. Often, despite the blurbs and reviews that extol the great characters, the characters seem to be only props on which the author hung the story, and a banal story at that.

Perhaps, after all, I won’t mind if I haven’t written a book with an edge. There are plenty of those out there. But I do like my proofreader’s description of my book. He wasn’t the first to use the phrase “heartbreakingly real” about my characters, and with any luck, he won’t be the last.

I can live with that.

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Faith and Fiction

Suzanne Francis, author of Heart of Hythea, Ketha’s Daughter, and Dawnmaid, has kindly consented to be my guest today. On the subject of Faith and Fiction, Suzanne writes:

We can all think of a series or two where religion plays a major role in the plot-like the Left Behindbooks by LaHaye and Jenkins or the Mitford Series by Jan Karon. Whether or not you agree with their beliefs, these are authors who have placed their own faith squarely at the center of the books they write.

Should we do the same? I can think of three reasons why we might.

–Spirituality is a deeply personal attribute, part of what makes us individuals. No two people, even two who belong to the same faith, believe in exactly the same things. Our faith, even if it is atheism, is a fundamental part of who we are. That is something we can use to differentiate our writing from all other authors, something that will allow us to claim it as our own.

–Most of us with religious beliefs feel that these tenets make us better people-that is why we follow them, after all. Many authors of fiction-like Ayn Rand or Jack Kerouac-have used the voices of their characters to present their own beliefs to the world. If we have an understanding, something that helps us, should we not also share it with others?

–Every author wants their characters to be multi-dimensional, to come to life for the reader. If we do not give our creations a spiritual dimension, then they are lacking one of the most essential qualities of humanity-the one thing that separates us from all other animals. Even if our character never discusses his or her faith or lack thereof, it must still be in the background affecting everything he or she says and does.

But how do we go about placing our beliefs in the context of our fiction without sounding artificial or preachy?

It pays to spend some time thinking about what you actually believe and how it affects your everyday life. That becomes the starting point. Do you have doubts? Have you suffered for your faith? Do you speak of it with others, or is it private?

Once you have a handle on that, then you can decide how much or how little you wish to include. Maybe you will put a single line in the mouth of a minor character. That might be enough. Alternatively, you can give a main character some of your convictions, and let it emerge little by little through their actions. Or perhaps, like C.S. Lewis, you can write a whole series of allegories around the things you believe. (But I think the Chronicles of Narnia is very preachy!)

In Song of the ArkafinaI gave one character, Arkady Svalbarad, a faith very much like Buddhism. I am not a Buddhist, not really, but I find the some of the philosophy very useful in my day-to-day life. Here is an example from Ketha’s Daughter:

—Nodding, he turned to his pack, and retrieved his tin plate and a small knife. He was hungry, and the rabbit smelled good, though it had been a year since he had last eaten any flesh. That was another thing he learned from his teacher in T’Shang — respect for all living creatures. But Dawa had also impressed upon him the importance of kindness to others, and that meant accepting any gift without complaint or reservation. So he ate the rabbit with pleasure and shared what food he had in return.—

Everything about this character is colored by his faith-both his successes and failures are measured against it. It gives him a genuineness I could never create otherwise.

My own belief system I would loosely describe as Paganism, though probably not the kind you are thinking of. I don’t own any robes, or do any rituals or chanting. But I do believe in the immanence of God in all things, and I hold the Earth to be sacred. I gave my convictions to a group of wanderers called the Firaithi. From Ketha again:

—“Still,” insisted Arkady. “It must be very difficult – always traveling like this. Do your young people not grow tired of your rootless existence?”

“Of course, some do,” admitted Huw. “Perhaps two or three each year decide to leave the Kindreds and make their way in the world of the Gruagán. But we raise our young ones to honor Asparitus, so most come back to us after a few years.”

“Asparitus? What is that?”

Huw stared thoughtfully at his sister Eira’s neatly painted caravan. “I don’t know a word in Maraison that means the same thing. Asparitus is our way of life. It means to tread gently on the Yrth, to use as little as we are able, and put back as much as we can.” He frowned. “We have very little, compared to the Gruagán in their fancy houses. They think of us as impoverished tinkers and thieves, when they think of us at all. But truly, Kadya, few of us would give up our place here amongst the Kindreds for all the gold of the Gruagán. Asparitus is all the treasure we need. Do you understand, my brother?”—

That is very, very close to the heart of my own faith, only lightly cloaked in the language of the Firaithi.

How will you clothe your faith in your fiction?

To find out more about Suzanne, read excerpts, or buy her books, check out her fictionwise book page.