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Portrait of a Villain

Heidi here, reporting progress for once.

It’s almost embarrassing to admit that, in just a couple of hours, one highly structured writing exercise adorned my bare plot with complex characters, details of setting and multiple red herrings. Truly, it happened.

After pantsing my first novel, I swore I’d never go through that again. I was already using Scrivener, though not handily, so I bought Stephanie Draven’s Plot Your Book in a Month with Scrivener. Then came the miracle.

Draven starts you off on characters, and you have to do it her way. The exercise requires you to set up eight, count them, eight, separate folders under each character’s template. These are Vocation, Vulnerabilities, Strengths & talents, Flaws, Ideals, Beliefs that must change, Goals and Problems. For each, she demands of you five examples in your character’s make-up.

I started with my villain. He was due to commit a crime (art forgery) for money. Ho, hum! But pondering his vulnerabilities (by which Draven means innocent weak points, not the character’s fault), I discovered the motive behind the motive. His desire for money has its roots not in greed, but in resentment. The origins of this are familial, but over a lifetime it has added malice to his purely personal flaw of greed.

As this dynamic developed in my head, suddenly, from nowhere at all, a countervailing vulnerability popped up. My forger works in a precise and detailed genre – but he suffers from a longing to paint in the Impressionist style. He is not at all good at it. For reasons I won’t go into, this innocent commitment will betray him.

From his resentment and malice flowed a conviction that “Hell is other people.” To him, they are either obstacles or nuisances, though he is usually careful to conceal this. It hampers him in dealing with new people in new situations. At the same time, it causes him to be a loner and to be perceived by those he encounters as lonely, a sympathetic trait.

Spending time in the character’s mind brought me into his physical world as well. I felt rather than deduced that his natural pace is slow and his focus on details. As he is well up in years, this lifelong trait can come across to new acquaintances, incorrectly, as the slowing of physical and mental faculties with age, another sympathetic trait.

This perception of his physical traits, in turn, spilled over into the creation of another character, with whom he will be in conflict. She was always going to be more than a generation younger than he, but now she is also taller, robust where he is lanky, obtrusively energetic. He, in contrast, seems hardly fit for the pace of the 21st century.

And while I was thinking physically, another connection occurred: I want the setting of my books, northern New Hampshire, to be vivid to my readers, almost a character in the story. So my villain, thin and not robust, is always cold no matter where the thermostat is set.

Draven knew what she was doing when she put the vulnerabilities before the strengths. Once I had watched my villain develop layers of motivation, it became clear that his strengths would not all appear, or in fact be, villainous. His desire for distance from other people, along with the demands his professional associations, require him to have excellent manners. His extensive knowledge of his academic specialty is necessary for his crime – but it also garners deserved respect from his colleagues and gratitude from the few outstanding students whose careers he promotes. (They, in turn, can be put to good use in his nefarious schemes.) It will also, I hope, form an additional thread of interest to readers.)

The whole exercise was so inspiring that it was hard to keep the categories separate even on the first run-through. Vulnerabilities suffered through no fault of one’s own blossomed into flaws via unfortunate methods of coping. Strengths quickly became ideals – because our own good points are always the really important virtues, aren’t they? Initial problems bred solutions that became complications of a straightforward criminal enterprise.

So thank you, Ms. Draven. If this thing ever sees print, a fulsomely autographed copy will be yours.

P.S. I have to say, the “one month” thing isn’t working out. Each new exercise takes me days to think through and tinker with. However, if you’re a wo/man of steel, and don’t eat or sleep much, maybe you could manage it.

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Diagnosis: I’m suffering from TCTW Syndrome

I had forty-five minutes of free time Friday morning and thought that would make a nice block of time to focus on writing my blog post. There wasn’t anything else I could do. Except breathe. I even had ear plugs and headphones on. My eyes were shut and I had strict instructions to not move. What was left to do but think?

So think I did. But not about my writing. I thought about the three inches between my face and the “ceiling”. About holding my breath for what seemed like forever. About the noise coming out of the “casket” I was lying in. About the ball in my hand that I could squeeze and immediately would be rescued. From my MRI.

The diagnosis? I am suffering from Too Cranky To Write (TCTW) syndrome. The cure for this? I thought it was hot fudge sundaes and espresso coffee bean ice cream but alas that hasn’t worked.

On Saturday, just when I’d given up hope of ever writing again due to the TCTW delivering a fatal blow to my creative juices, we drove by the abandoned house where I’ve staged a murder in one of my abandoned novels. My mind rewound to this novel and almost instantly I conjured a new murderer and a new plot twist. (Now I want to abandon my current project and return to the old novel. I hate when that happens.)

I’ve driven by this house hundreds of times, taken photos of it for inspiration for the setting. Then how, after all these years of staring at the house, did I miss the red fire hydrant on the front lawn? Or even worse, the damn fire station right next door? I can’t have that. It would be hard to explain the house burning down with the fire department as a neighbor.

As best as I can figure, I’ve been so fixated on the house that I’ve not even noticed its surroundings. That happens in my writing as well. I become hyperfocused on one aspect of the plot and fail to see what else should be happening. Or what my characters who are waiting in the wings for their cues are doing.

What I find of interest is how this relates to Heidi’s most recent blog. The house is an actual character in the novel with a crucial role to play. Unfortunately, as occasionally happens to human characters, it has to be  sacrificed for the benefit of another character.

And just like that, I’ve banished my TCTW syndrome. All it took was a moment with a mystery that’s been on the back burner (or in the wood stove pile) and I’m writing again. But I’m still a wee bit cranky….

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