Lessons Learned from William Lindsay Gresham’s #NightmareAlley: Don’t Do the Spook Show.

Ah, the lure of the Dark Carnival.

As one who deeply loves Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, how could I NOT be fascinated by the trailer to Guillermo del Toro’s latest film? The combination of carnival lights and period noir ignited something electric, something…unnatural, yet all too true to the darker corners of human nature.

I found the graphic novel, the original novel, and even the Tyrone Power adaptation from the 1940s before treating myself to the new cinematic adaptation of Nightmare Alley last week. (Babysitters are damned hard to come by these days, and Bo got to see Halloween Kills by himself in November. My turn!)

For those curious about the premise of Nightmare Alley, here’s a blurb:

Nightmare Alley begins with an extraordinary description of a carnival-show geek—alcoholic and abject and the object of the voyeuristic crowd’s gleeful disgust and derision—going about his work at a county fair. Young Stan Carlisle is working as a carny, and he wonders how a man could fall so low. There’s no way in hell, he vows, that anything like that will ever happen to him.

And since Stan is clever and ambitious and not without a useful streak of ruthlessness, soon enough he’s going places. Onstage he plays the mentalist with a cute assistant (before long his harried wife), then he graduates to full-blown spiritualist, catering to the needs of the rich and gullible in their well-upholstered homes. It looks like the world is Stan’s for the taking. At least for now.

Published in 1946, Nightmare Alley was adapted into film the following year and put author William Lindsay Gresham on the literary map…for a while, anyway. This novel was his only popular publication, and in the early 1960s Gresham took his own life by overdosing on medication. In looking at his brief biography on Wikipedia, I notice a parallel between his life and Nightmare Alley’s protagonist, Stanton Carlisle: both seeking community and purpose, only to judge all as a con afterward. Carnivals are full of deception–of course they are. But so is show business, so is psychology, so is religion, so is the amber drink of the bottle and the counselors who are supposed to break you free from the bottle so why even bother leaving the bottle at all…

All give false comfort. All deceive with the most dangerous power of all:

Hope.

A powerful thing, Hope. It has the ability to drive out despair, grief, and anger. It has the ability to ignite empathy, love, and trust. Countries rise and fall upon the revolutions spurred on by Hope. Religions millennia old root themselves in Hope.

Hope brings many to the Ten-in-One show. Be it Molly, the Mamzelle Electra; Zeena and Pete, a pair of mentalists who wowed crowds until Pete took to drink; or Stanton Carlisle, a young man determined to make himself in a world of marks and saps.

The crowd was coming out of the geek show, gray and listless and silent except for the drunk. Stan watched them with a strange, sweet, faraway smile on his face. It was the smile of a prisoner who has found a file in a pie.

We’ll return to that geek show in a moment. First I want to highlight a specific exchange between Zeena and Stan in the third chapter, for much of Stan’s story ties back to these words:

“I’ve always stuck to the mental business. It don’t hurt anybody–makes plenty of friends for you wherever you go. Folks are always crazy to have their fortunes told, and what the hell–You cheer’em up, give’em something to wish and hope for. That’s all the preacher does every Sunday. Not much different, being a fortuneteller and a preacher, way I look at it. Everybody hopes for the best and fears for the worst and the worst is generally what happens but that don’t stop us from hoping. When you stop hoping you’re in a bad way.”

Stan nodded. “Has Pete stopped hoping?”

Zeena was silent and her childish blue eyes were bright. “Sometimes I think he has. Pete’s scared of something–I think he got good and scared of himself a long time ago. That’s what made him such a wiz as a crystal-reader–for a few years. He wished like all get out that he really could read the future in the ball. And when he was up there in front of them he really believed he was doing it. And then all of a sudden he began to see that there wasn’t no magic anywhere to lean on and he had nobody to lean on in the end but himself–not me, not his friends, not Lady Luck–just himself.”

Perhaps it is Zeena’s final note on self-dependence that prevents Stan from taking Zeena’s words to heart; there are multiple flashbacks to Stan’s childhood in the novel, where his mother’s deceit and father’s abuse taught him that everyone lies and no one is worth real trust. But readers cannot help but absorb Zeena’s other lessons: that everyone is looking for hope and will take it wherever they can get it. That believing one’s own hustle will only lead to a dark place of liquor and hopelessness, and when hopelessness sets in, all is over.

But at this early point in the story, Stan’s not worried about hopelessness, hope, or anything else. Money’s all that matters to him, and he sees the money to be made in the carnival acts. Even The Geek–a person who bites the heads off of chickens and drinks their blood–is a major draw. When he questions Clem, the manager of the Ten-in-One, about where a Geek is found, Clem explains a Geek is “made” by exploiting an alcoholic’s desperation for drink.

“So you tell him like this: ‘I got a little job for you. It’s a temporary job. We got to get a new geek. So until we do you’ll put on the geek outfit and fake it.’…[After a week] you say, ‘Well, I got to get me a real geek. Out you go’…[And] you drag out the lecture and lay it on thick. All the while you’re talking he’s thinking about sobering up and getting the crawling shakes. You give him time to think it over, while you’re talking. Then throw in the chicken. He’ll geek.”

Remember this.

Stan first maneuvers himself in to help Zeena and Pete with their mentalist act, slowly asking for tips and tricks about cold reading people. He picks it up quickly, so quickly he’s able to talk down a sheriff and his raiding officers from shutting down the carnival. Through seducing Zeena and poisoning Pete, Stan gets a hold of the codebook for their mentalist act and then seduces young Molly to come with him as his partner in the nightclub circuit. A few years of this, though, make Stan hungry for more, and he shifts into spiritualism with a fake ordination certificate from a church correspondence school.

Both film adaptations skip the preacher portion of Stan’s series of cons. From a storytelling perspective, I do not blame them. Initially, I thought this was because Religion is too important to too many potential movie ticket-buyers to be included in the films, but I can see now that removing the “preacher” phase of Stan’s evolution tightens up the narrative so we can get to Stan’s next con: applying his “mentalist” powers to “help” the wealthy communicate with their dead loved ones.

Molly hates this shift away from their stage show, feeling it too deceitful and mean to play on people’s grief. But Stan will not listen.

I’ve met half a dozen spook workers in the past year and they’re hustlers, every one of them. I tell you, it’s just show business. The crowd believes…isn’t it better to give them something to hope for?

Stan successfully persuades Molly to play along, promising her a happy marriage and child one day while threatening her with exposure as a fraud the next. For a while, Molly deceives herself that Stan is just struggling with the pressure of the business, that their relationship will go back to its happier days soon. She bets her hopes on a future where Stan will stop trying to one-up his own game.

And that is her mistake, for Stan has already chosen to bet on the power of another woman to help him.

Ooooh, psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter is slick. Slicker than Stan, I’d say. She attempts to out his “mentalist” con while he’s performing, and when that fails, invites him for a consultation where she quickly sums up his sleepless, nervous character.

Dr. Lilith Ritter was regarding him from across a wide mahogany desk. She went on, “I thought I’d be hearing from you, Carlisle. You were never cut out to run a spook racket solo.”

Stan, so bloody sure of himself, is certain he can use Dr. Ritter’s connections with the upper echelons of the city to get enough clients–and dirt on their pasts–to keep the “spook racket” going until he’s cleaned out the lot. He believes his own hustle so much, he never once considers Ritter to have her own con at play.

Whether you want to go with the del Toro’s adaptation of Ritter using Stan to get back at the wealthy Mr. Grindle who scarred her, or Gresham’s novel version of Ritter using her sexual appeal and domination to con Stan into deceiving Grindle so that she could “heal” the man with therapy and then marry him and his wealth…there are just so many ways to interpret this character that I cannot fit into this post. Honestly, no character in this story, be it film or book, is dull. In all the adaptations, though, it is Ritter who toys with Stan’s body and mind, breaking his alcohol abstinence and drawing out Stan’s confession of murdering Pete.

A stubborn thing, Hope. Stan so badly wants to prove the world’s nothing but marks and saps that he can shake down to his heart’s content. He’s sure no dame would be stupid enough to go against him. He even starts feeling he can handle the liquor AND take on the powerful Grindle for all he’s got thanks to Ritter’s information.

But the con falls apart. Grindle sees through the facade Stan puts on Molly to make her appear as the ghost of Grindle’s past lover. Grindle vows revenge at any cost. Molly flees on her own while Stan runs to Ritter for money and help…only for Dr. Ritter to act as if she has no clue what he’s talking about. He’s suffering delusions, she’s been nothing more than his therapist for months, it’s time he be committed for his own sake, she of course only wants what’s best for him.

Instead, Stan runs. And drinks. And runs some more. He’s soon one more bum among the others in a nameless camp, lost in alcohol with the shadow of Grindle eternally on his heels and in his nightmares.

~*~

A deceitful thing, Hope. It can make us see what we want to see. Back in the early days of the carnival, Pete tries to help Stan understand the role of Hope’s Deceit in cold reading people:

(and I do wish I could share this whole scene because the prose is so bloody brilliant, but I’ll do my best to condense it for you here)

“…Then I jump right into the reading. Here’s m’crystal.” He focused his eyes on the empty whisky bottle and Stan watched him with an uneasy twinge. Pete seemed to be coming alive. His eyes became hot and intent.

“…through the ages certain men have gazed into the polished crystal and seen…Slowly, shifting their form, visions come…”

Stan found himself watching the empty bottle in which a single pale drop slanted across the bottom. He could not take his eyes away, so contagious was the other’s absorption.

…Pete’s eyes burned down into the glass. “…A boy is running on bare feet through the fields. A dog is with him…Happiness then…but for a little while. Now dark mists…sorrow. I see people moving…one man stands out…evil…the boy hates him. Death and the wish of death.”

Stan moved like an explosion. He snatched for the bottle; it slipped and fell to the ground. He kicked it into a corner, his breath coming quick and rapid.

[Pete] crumpled into the folding chair…”didn’t mean nothing, boy…Stock reading–fits everybody. Only you got to dress it up…Everybody had some trouble. Somebody they wanted to kill. Usually for a boy it’s the old man. What’s childhood? Happy one minute, heartbroken the next. Every boy had a dog. Or neighbor’s dog…Just old drunk. Just lush. Lord…Zeena be mad.”

Again, Stan doesn’t listen.

Or perhaps he does, wrongly. He could not deny Pete’s power in that moment of clarity with the empty bottle. He felt the draw of Hope that one could really see the past, see the future. He knew what Pete was doing, but in that moment of Pete’s crystal-gazing, Stan did not care. And that is the power Stan wants to hold over others for his own gain.

How can such a soul find redemption?

Let us fast-forward to the end now, and see for ourselves.

The movies don’t bother with something that Gresham writes next, and it’s a pity. It’s one last deceitful hope–this time by Gresham on us.

Stan spots an ad in a newspaper for Zeena’s horoscopes and bums rides to the address. There he finds Zeena making a living off of horoscopes for newspapers and some other subscription services. She cleans Stan up and offers him help to find another carnival until Grindle’s hunt dies down. During his stay, Stan has stopped drinking and is even working on developing a new mentalist alias.

Perhaps this really is a new beginning! we readers think.

And then we see Stan stealing from Zeena’s earnings before she gives him money for the bus.

He hasn’t learned.

Not at all.

By the time Stan arrives at the new carnival, he is completely soused. The manager McGraw wants nothing to do with him…at first.

In the office trailer McGraw was typing out a letter when he heard a tap on the screen door…The bum was hatless, shirt filthy. “Allow me t’introduce myself–Allah Rahged, top-money mitt reader. Best cold reader in the country.”

McGraw took the cigar out of his mouth. “Sorry, brother, I’m full up…I don’t like a mitt camp. Too much trouble with the law.”

The bum was eyeing the bottle, his red eyes fastened on it…”Hey, mister, how ’bout [a] li’l shot ‘fore I go?”

“Yeah, sure. But I just happened to think of something. I got one job you might take a crack at. It ain’t much, and I ain’t begging you to take it; but it’s a job. Keep you in coffee and cakes and a shot now and then. What do you say? Of course, it’s only temporary–just until we get a real geek.”

What. An. ENDING. In terms of prose, in terms of narrative arc, in terms of twist.

But unlike the book and del Toro version, Tyrone Power’s 1947 adaptation chooses to take the audience past this moment of Stanton becoming the Geek–

–and down the redemption route.

Oh look, Molly is at this carnival as well, and oh look, Molly sees Stan is the new Geek, and oh look, Molly can get through to Stan and the power of love will help Stan heal and there IS hope after all! Hope can be found in Love!

We even get a little moral of the story from the bystanders watching Stan and Molly embrace: “How can a guy get so low?” one asks. Another answers: “He reached too high.”

Aw, isn’t that sweet? If the worst of us, like Stanton Carlisle, can be redeemed, then maybe we can be redeemed, too.

This, my fellow creatives, is the REAL Spook Show. This ending, right here, is a narrative deceitful hope, and it will not hold up.

A man who has seduced, killed, and constantly swindled isn’t going to magically sober up in the last two minutes and be back in love with the girl he was willing to dump for the dominatrix psychiatrist. Even del Toro doesn’t go this route for Stanton Carlisle in the new movie, for he knows that in a tale like Nightmare Alley, there is no hope for such a man. Clues throughout his movie (as well as Gresham’s novel) make it clear to us that Stan is not a soul that can be saved.

You cannot apply glowing paint to a picture of a heart, dim the lights, pump sounds of heartbeats in through hidden speakers, and tell us that’s a real heart. We know the hustle too well by now.

Any story that pulls such a con will always feel hollow at its end, the deceit a taint upon whatever true strengths in narrative the story shared. Do not build the spook show, writer.

Do not look for hope where there is none, reader.

For there shall always be those fictional souls born to be damned.

~STAY TUNED!~

Thank you all so so SO much for listening to the December podcast series Blondie and I did together! She loved it so much that she wants to start her own blog and podcast. Proud Mama moment, indeed! I’ve got some goals to share as well, and after wandering around Nightmare Alley, I neeeeeeeed to make good on my promise from last year and write about comedy.

Also, I’m looking for authors to interview in 2022. If you’ve got a new release planned or just want to connect more with other writers and readers, please let me know by emailing me on my Contact Page.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

My #BookLaunch #Countdown for #FallenPrinceborn: Chosen Continues with #WritingTips on #Plot and #Character

Hello once more, my friends! I thought it’d be fun to continue sharing some of the inspiration for my Fallen Princeborn characters, this time including some kickin’ writing advice I got from the craft books 45 Master Characters and 20 Master Plots.

“But I hate templates!” Of course, no one wants their story to be considered some sort of cookie-cutter tale. What’s cool about these particular craft books is their analysis of how far back certain kinds of stories and character types go, and in so doing shows why these kinds of stories and characters are timeless and therefore always relevant no matter what the story.

First, let’s talk plot.

It’s all right to let yourself go when you write, because you’re using the best part of your creative self. But be suspicious of what comes out. Plot is your compass…Fiction is a lot more economical than life. Whereas life allows in anything, fiction is selective. Everything in your writing should relate to your intent. The rest, no matter how brilliantly written, should be taken out.

20 Master Plots is likely a book I’ve mentioned here before, but I can’t help but re-recommend it for both inspiration and reflection on the primary shapes a story has taken through literature. Now I love pantsing my way through plot development like many other NaNoWriMo folk, but when it comes to a series, stuff has to fit, dammit, and if you don’t take time to make things fit, you are promising yourself a story-world of plot holes and problems. You may very well mixing several of the “Master Plots,” such as Rivalry, Rescue, or Riddle, and there is nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is losing sight of what those Master Plots need in order to complete the story. For instance, I know I’ve got some Riddle in mine, as Charlotte’s curious abilities to handle Velidevour magic are not yet explained. Were I to leave that unexplained book after book until the series ends, readers would understandably give me a good rap with the knuckles and ask what’s going on. Pursuit is another Master Plot I use quite often, which Tobias defines here as–

Two games never seem to fail to capture the imagination of children: hide-and-seek and tag. Try to remember the excitement of being on the hunt and finding where everyone was a test of cleverness (how well you could hide) and nerve.
Tag is like that, too. Chasing and being chased, always trying to outwit the other person. We never lose our appetite for the game. For children as well as adults, there’s something fundamentally exciting in finding what has been hidden. As we grow older, we grow more sophisticated about how we play the game, but the thrill at the heart of it never changes. It is pure exhilaration.
The pursuit plot is the literary version of hide-and-seek.

Perhaps you’ve seen thrillers, suspense, and/or mysteries referring to the “cat and mouse” chase within the story. Welp, there you go! We love this game of seeking what’s hidden, or hunting the baddie. It means a constant foray into uncertainty with high stakes, and dire consequences will befall whomever fails. This drives any pursuit within Fallen Princeborn: Chosen, and I promise you now it will only grow in the stories to come.

Liam keeps an arrhythmic staccato pace with Dorjan. Scattered leaves and pine needles hide an array of sharp rocks. Liam’s feet seem to find them all, but with the sparks of Charlotte’s touch still alight within him, he cares little about the pain. Only Dorjan’s nose matters now, tracking the scent of their quarry. He slows, checks the ground, speeds up. Slows, checks the ground, speeds up. They move like this out of the sun-baked brambles and into the tattered forest.

A branch breaks. A creature cries. But nothing is close enough, not yet.

Dorjan is the first to slow. He points where a few drops of oil speckle upon a pine’s crusted sap. The brittle cove around them bears a pathetic green compared to the lushness of the foliage surrounding Rose House.

Then Liam feels it—a prickling around his wrist. Blast it. Already the mark is alive and moving. “The Wall is close.” He strains to look past the scattered clumps of life around them but sees nothing of the Wall surrounding River Vine.

Dorjan sniffs the air. “And Campion’s got company. Two, by the smell of it. Bully for us.”

The first time I read 45 Master Characters, I had already drafted my series’ first book (Stolen), and it struck me how much this description fit Dorjan, my rogue Princeborn who’s appeared in both my novels as well as my novella Night’s Tooth. Unlike other Velidevour who don’t care much about devouring the desires of an adult or child, Dorjan takes extra care to defend human children to the point of killing his own kind, as he does in Stolen:

Human once again, Dorjan grabs Jamie by the neck and pins him against a tree. “You wonder, do you, why I do this. Why I hunt you and Campion, why I seek a duel with Cein. Know, then: I do this for Jennifer Blair, whose brother you unlawfully stole, an innocent, a borderland child. A child!” His fist breaks skin and muscle and bone. Blood splatters Dorjan and leaks from Jamie’s mouth.

“Just… human… just… human…” he murmurs like a broken toy,
hiccupping between words.

“A human worth far more than you or me,” Dorjan says with a low voice that begins with a quiver and ends on a battle cry as his fist tears in and then slams out of Jamie’s ribcage, heart in hand. The moment his last artery snaps, Jamie’s eyes deteriorate into dull gems, onyx. Then mist. Another breath, and his entire body blows away in a cloud of violet embers.

Dorjan studies the black heart a moment before pitching it far into the trees.
“Let me know if Cein and Campion get my message, will you?”

Every character needs motivation to be what they are, be it through principals, wants, needs. Whether or not that purpose lifts them up to heroics or plunges them deep into villainy is up to you, fellow writers.

…the Male Messiah may not know of his connection to the Divine, but he may just be driven to accomplish something important. In this respect, he isn’t working on a spiritual goal. It seems his whole life is for one sole purpose and that purpose affects the lives of thousands of people…The Male Messiah has the ability to see the whole picture when it comes to problems. He never jumps to conclusions or gets involved in the gossip or drama of everyday life…

As the Punisher, he’ll curse the man who has “fallen” to teach him a lesson. He wants to break the man’s ego. He’ll kill the man’s spirit to transform him into his image. He may try to justify himself to others, but they’ll never fully understand his power or the burden he carries. They view his reprimands as harsh and uncaring. Many will leave his side, unable to follow his rules and treatment…He feels his word is law.

Just one unmet need–love, hope, peace, whatever else–and one’s soul is cast in darkness. This struck me good and hard as I developed another character in Fallen Princeborn: Chosen. You will know him when you meet him, this carrier of pale fire and song.

Stay tuned for my next post to read his introduction as well as information about a cracking podcast I got to do with fellow indie fantasy author Neil Mach.

Oh, and my kindle countdown sale begins October 23rd! If you know someone who loves dark fantasy and romance, now’s the time to send them to my Amazon page, nudge nudge. 🙂

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#writerproblems: #writing awesome #characterdesign in three sentences or less.

Yes, I know that hashtag #characterdesign is more of an art-related thing, but it fits with this little lesson learned, believe you me.

This week started with its usual chaos: calls at 5am for a substitute teacher in 5th grade–no wait, Kindergarten. No wait, art, just art for aaaaaall the grades, can you do that? Bash wakes up with a swollen eye from Lord knows what (don’t worry, it left just as mysteriously as it came), university students re-submit work I had already flagged as inappropriate for the assignment requirements. On top of all this, another university contacts me to schedule an interview for a full-time gig. (insert excitement and anxiety here.)

Meanwhile, I did my best to stay in the writing community loop, reading about the racial controversy over American Dirt and learning from fellow indie author Michael Dellert that The Arcanist is calling for western speculative flash fiction:

Is there another short story inside me for the bounty hunter Sumac? I asked myself as the twelve-year-olds tried to stab each other with colored pencils. 1000 words didn’t feel like a lot of wiggle room. Night’s Tooth was meant to be a short story, after all, but writing a fantasy western inspired by Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name trilogy meant a LOT of slow-but-tense moments. Thus, the novella instead of the short story. (Click here if you’d like to read one of those moments.)

As magical showdowns percolated in my mind, I continued planning my excursion into the “dark, impulsive, whiny villainy” of Disney’s Star Wars. I had my collection of Robert McKee Story quotes at the ready for studying the bizarre mix of Hux and Kylo interactions in The Force Awakens and shift from there into the smothering subversions of The Last Jedi.

That is, until my perusal through Agatha Christie’s short fiction sparked a little something that I just had to share.

So we all know that when it comes to short fiction, you gotta pack a lot into a tiny space. Plot, character, setting–aaaaall that jazz has gotta be played at a heightened, almost truncated speed. There’s no time for meandering interludes or long drum solos.

(RIP Neil Pert. I know he wasn’t a jazz player, but Bo’s a HUGE Rush fan, so he’s been showing concerts to the kids and now I’m stuck in a land of music metaphor that doesn’t jive and we’re just going to move on because I clearly have no sense of what decade I’m in.)

Agatha Christie wrote over a hundred short stories. If ANYone knew the importance of keeping the story elements thrumming along, it was her. This is especially clear when she describes her characters. Like any good musician, Christie’s style moves sweet’n’slick with just the right amount of flourish.

Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself; and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so.

“How Does Your Garden Grow?”

In just three sentences, we’ve got a sense of this character’s physical appearance, interests, and mindset. Christie doesn’t dwell on the minutiae, like what Miss Lemon wears or how she does her hair. That all falls under “unpreposessing appearance.” But some readers whine when they can’t “see” a character without more precise detail. What if we picture different things? What if we don’t see the character the same way the writer did? THAT CHANGES THE READING EXPERIENCE, DOESN’T IT?!

Honestly, folks, does Miss Lemon’s outfit affect the story? No. Does it matter if each of us picture “a lot of bones flung together” (damn, I really like that bit) in different ways? No.

More importantly, a short story doesn’t have space to waste on that kind of detail. When a writer’s looking into contests like The Arcanist‘s, he/she can’t afford to spend a hundred words on description when forty will do the trick. Heck, even twenty’s enough for Christie in some cases. Take these character descriptions of two parents.

Mrs. Waverly’s emotion was obviously genuine, but it assorted strangely with her shrewd, rather hard type of countenance.

Mr. Waverly was a big, florid, jovial-looking man. He stood with his legs straddled wide apart and looked the type of the country squire.

“The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly”

Again, the colorful details are skipped in favor for body language and behavior. We get senses of these people–the hard, heart-broken mother, the upper-class, happy sort of father. We may not know what these two look like, but we know their body language, and in this we get impressions of their attitudes and behaviors, which are far more important than hair color.

Six months ago she had married a fifth time–a commander in the Navy. He it was who came striding down the beach behind her. Silent, dark–with a pugnacious jaw and a sullen manner. A touch of the primeval ape about him.

“Triangle at Rhodes”

Those third and fourth sentences say it ALL. “Silent, dark”–readers can already get a sense of a nasty face, but since this man’s “a commander in the Navy” then we know he’s going to carry himself like a man of authority and power. Words like “pugnacious” and “sullen” tell readers how he’s going to interact with the other characters: always negatively, aggressively, and without any sort of kindness. The fact he’s “primeval” practically forces readers to picture this character as a sort of sub-human, incapable of empathy or feeling.

And aaaaaall that characterization is given in just eighteen words.

When Poirot’s friend Captain Hastings narrates the story, Christie is also able to take advantage of her ever-lovable unreliable narrator, which allows her to misdirect readers when she so chooses.

The sixth Viscount Cronshaw was a man of about fifty, suave in manner, with a handsome, dissolute face. Evidently an elerly roué, with the languid manner of a poseur. I took an instant dislike to him.

Mrs. Davidson came to us almost immediately, a small, fair creature whose fragility would have seemed pathetic and appealing had it not been for the rather shrewd and calculating gleam in her light blue eyes.

“The Affair at the Victory Ball”

Oh, Hastings, you do love a pretty face. Poirot’s partner loves to let readers know when he’s a fan of a woman or not, consistently keen to describe her appearance and whether or not she’s attractive.Once in a while, though, he’ll catch something genuine, such as Mrs. Davidson’s shrewdness. Likewise, if Hastings doesn’t like a man, he’s obvious about that, too, and these opinions from Hastings always alter how he interacts with the characters as well as how he interprets their words and body language. This in turn affects the information readers receive, and so by the end of “The Affair at the Victory Ball” we’re just as surprised as Hastings to discover how wrong we are about these people.

Once in a while, though, Christie does allow a little drum solo when a minor character takes the stage. It seems to happen when it’s a character type Poirot, Hastings, or the omniscient narrator ignores in favor of more interesting goings-on: a mere citizen, a member of the populace where the mystery occurs. Sometimes it’s this common-ness that plays its part in getting Poirot to the mystery, such as in “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”:

Everything about Mr. Jesmond was discreet. His well-cut but inconspicuous clothes, his pleasant, well-bred voice which rarely soared out of an agreeable monotone, his light-brown hair just thinning a little at the temples, his pale serious face. It seemed to Hercule Poirot that he had known not one Mr. Jesmond but a dozen Mr. Jesmonds in his time, all using sooner or later the same phrase–“a position of the utmost delicacy.”

“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”

And this bit from “A Cornish Mystery” is a lovely reminder to readers and writers alike that every setting’s character, no matter how bland and un-unusual, is still a person with problems, fear, and feeling.

Many unlikely people came to consult Poirot, but to my mind, the woman who stood nervously just inside the door, fingering her feather neck-piece, was the most unlikely of all. She was so extraordinarily commonplace–a thin, faded woman of about fifty, dressed in a braided coat and skirt, some gold jewellery at her neck, and with her grey hair surmounted by a singularly unbecoming hat. In a country town you pass a hundred Mrs. Pengelleys in the street every day.

“The Cornish Mystery”

It seems Hastings spends an awful long time introducing us to a character that’s just one of a hundred one would pass in the street–81 words, in fact. Why so much time on a single, ordinary character in a short story? Hasting’s description creates an expectation of ordinary-ness, regularity, typicality. But of course, Christie being Christie, this time spent on an ordinary character comes with reason: this ordinary character, this one of one hundred, is murdered. Why would someone murder this one Mrs. Pengelley out of a hundred one would pass on a country town street?

Ah. That is why the reader reads on.

So when you work on your own character designs, writers, always ask yourself what matters more: the character’s appearance, or behavior? The character’s look, or feelings? A character’s choices are often the influence of action and pacing, but there’s no denying that sometimes, a character’s appearance alone may twist the narrative into surprising directions. What matters is that you share character traits important to the story. Picturing a character’s apparel means little when readers cannot see a character’s attitude.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

Back to The Young and the Restless of Disney’s Star Wars villains!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#lessons Learned from #GarthEnnis, @DarickR, and #TheBoys: not all #heroes want to seek redemption.

When we read stories of good vs. evil, we often see a clear demarcation between heroes and villains. One aspires to protect and save, the other to destroy and waste.

Then there’s stories like The Boys that come along and shatter that demarcation into nothing.

Now I’ve discussed this series in a few other posts about character: about inserting trauma into backstory, providing a moment of vulnerability so readers see layers, and making characters face Monsters readers know all too well.

But now it’s time to define the, well, indefinable. The hero who’s beyond all redemption.

The antihero.

Billy Butcher is the leader of The Boys, a government-backed group created to keep the corporate-backed super-heroes from taking over the world. Butcher meets all the marks of a tragic hero. His wife Becky was raped by Homelander, the most powerful of all the superheroes (aka “supes”), and died when his unborn baby tore its way out of her stomach. The baby nearly killed Butcher with laser vision, forcing Butcher to beat this baby to death while his wife bleeds out in front of him.

Tragic backstory doesn’t get much darker than that.

From a writer’s standpoint, it’s shocking that we learn this much about Butcher by the sixth issue of the series–six out of seventy-two.

Why do we get this monumental information so early? Isn’t this the sort of thing that’s dropped further on down the plot, when reader engagement is high and they want to know more about where the characters come from? After all, we don’t get the backstories of M.M., Frenchie, or The Female until Issue 35.

Frenchie, Mother’s Milk (M.M.), Wee Hughie, Butcher. The Female’s sitting in front.

First, Butcher’s using the information to motivate Hughie, the protagonist readers follow through this series, to join The Boys. Hughie himself lost his girlfriend when the hero A-Train crushed her against a wall during his fight with a villain. Mutual loss bonds the two characters.

Loss isn’t all that drives Butcher. There’s a reasoning–a philosophy, if you will, or a code. It takes me back back to the stories of the “lawless” West, or even the classic Robin Hood; just because a man is lawless doesn’t mean he’s rule-less. It only means his rules and society’s laws don’t sync up. Now whether his rules benefit others outside himself could be up for debate, I’d say–Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name comes to mind. He’s clearly out for personal gain in For a Fistful of Dollars. Sure, he helps a kidnapped woman and her family escape, but that’s only to screw around with two warring families whom he’s scamming for all they’re worth.

Butcher, too, has his own set of rules, and he doesn’t care if they jive with anyone else. He tells the CIA director in Issue 1:

Superpower’s the most dangerous power on Earth. There’s more an’more of’em all the time, an’ sooner or later they’re gonna wise up. If you can dodge bullets or outrun tachyons or swim across the sun, you’ve better things to do with your life than save the world for the two hundredth time. One day, you might twig what you’re really invulnerable to is your humanity. An’ then God help us all.

Butcher to Dir. Rayner, “The Name of the Game” Part 1

A lot happens to prove Butcher right. The Boys fight a huge number of supes who rape and kill for fun, their atrocities almost always covered up by the Vought Corporation. The public goes right on devouring the stories told in Vought’s comic books like they’re the truth of the world. One by one, Butcher marks The Boys’ targets and plans how to take that team of supes down.

Everything he does or says serves whatever it is he got planned. He don’t waste nothing’–not time, not words, not effort. Not even a goddamn smile, Hughie.

Mother’s Milk to Hughie, “Get Some” Part 2

The Boys maim and kill a number of supes, be they street teams or a Nazi disguised as a Norse god. So long as they’re just killing bad guys justice won’t touch, then everything’s okay, right?

Right?

This is what we tell ourselves. As readers, we escape into stories to see comeuppance served because so often the justice served in reality is unsatisfactory. In fiction, the detectives catch the bad guy. The villain’s plot to take over the world is thwarted. The bad guys, the really bad guys, pay for the crimes.

Characters can be antiheroes who do horrible things because they’re still heroes, if only just. We’re sure there’s something good in them, and we’re willing to wait out the horrible things in order to see that goodness come to light.

And we see Butcher with that goodness, if only just. The miniseries Butcher, Baker, Candlestickmaker takes readers into Billy Butcher’s past. We meet Becky. We see her and Billy Butcher fall in love, get married. We see the charming side of this antihero, and his heart.

We see Becky die, and the aftermath.

Loss rarely breeds good things. Strange, how often we look for tragedy in our heroes–the loss that drives them to fight for justice, for making things right. We forget that revenge and ambition do not always lead to bettering the world. Clint Eastwood comes to mind again, this time as Dirty Harry in the film Dirty Harry: Magnum Force. There’s a crew of cops out to take justice into their own hands, and they want Harry to join them.

It’s the Point of No Return. Harry is invited to cross it, but he refuses.

Butcher, on the other hand…well. He crossed it long, long ago.

Readers get a preview of Butcher’s true nature in Issue 14, when he sets off a genetic detonation device that kills 150 supes who did took money to help start a coup in Russia. In Issue 28 (The G-Men series I’ve written about before) Butcher is fine killing a supe team of teen boys; later, if not for Hughie, Butcher would have killed a team of mentally challenged superheroes simply for cussing in front of him. These two teams weren’t trying to overthrow any government. Heck, some were genuinely trying to help the citizens of their town.

Where is this antihero’s rules, his personal code? Butcher gives one version of his code to Hughie after the G-Men slaughter:

But we ain’t here to make things better, are we, Hughie? We’re here to stop’em from gettin’ worse.

Butcher to Hughie, “We Gotta Go Now” Conclusion

Okay, that sounds somewhat justifiable. There are many problems in the world that can’t be eradicated. Sometimes containment’s the best one can hope for.

But a flashback with Butcher’s mentor Col. Mallory sheds a brighter, nastier light on the true rule Butcher lives by no matter what the rest of the world says. When Butcher and Mallory discover a convention of supe children have all been gassed to death, Butcher doesn’t care. To Butcher, the only good supe is a dead supe.

I’ll tell you how you neutralize the potential threats: you f***in’ drop the lot o’ them. Every single arsehole in tights, you do’em…No one should be allowed to walk around with what they’ve got, it’s just too much of a risk.

Butcher to Mallory, Issue 55

As far as Butcher’s concerned, any super-human of any kind must die. It doesn’t matter what he/she did or didn’t do. It doesn’t matter who that person is, if they were born with the powers, or if Vought injected them with the DNA-altering chemical Compound V to create those powers. If a person has powers, they deserve to die. Mallory even warns Hughie to watch his back around Butcher, because for Butcher, this personal war with the supes is never going to end.

There is no one on earth who hates like that man does.

Mallory to Hughie, Issue 55

I’m not going to tell you how far Butcher will go in his personal war–I’ll let you find out via the comic series or the upcoming TV show.

(Warning: the trailer’s pretty true to form with the comic, so carnage and cussing abound. Only watch if you can handle that sort of thing.)

Antiheroes are compelling because we really, honestly, truly do not know what they’re willing to do in order to fulfill their code. There’s a level of wretchedness we expect heroes will not sink to; there’s a level of goodness we expect villains will not aspire to.

But antiheroes don’t give a shit about reader expectations or presumptions. They will do whatever it takes to reach their goal.

And readers cannot help but follow, compelled to discover what goal could be worth such a path taken through the shattered demarcation between good and evil. With every step taken readers’ feet will bleed upon the shards, and like the antihero, readers will complete the journey…but will never be the same.

~Stay Tuned Next Week!~

More interviews with authors both indie and award-winning are lined up for your enjoyment, as well as a journey with Bo and me into the mysterious North Woods where a ghost stands, lonely and waiting. On top of all that, I’ll be taking you into the Wild West for some fantasy adventure. Bullets and magic will fly…just not to the Will Smith song. Pleeeease not to the Will Smith song

Oh, and just to toot my own horn for a second, I’ve written my own batch of flawed characters with their own Points of No Return to cross…or not.

You can check out my novel here.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!