Blog Archives

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.

Advertisements

Forgeries and Hoaxes

I took a busman’s holiday today. I’m starting to plot my second book and, needing to get a blog post out, I gave myself permission to noodle around online, seeking useful info for my plot and a blog at the same time. My next set of murders involves forging medieval manuscripts. So it’s perfectly legit for me to find out how to do that, right? Just because I enjoy it doesn’t mean I’m not working.

I had great hopes of a news story on NPR yesterday. Seems the French police arrested the CEO of Aristophil, a Paris dealer in manuscripts, who has collected billions of Euros from investors for “shares” in his portfolio of assets. But alas! for my murders. These manuscripts seem to be perfectly real. The police claim it was the investment management that was shady — a giant Ponzi scheme. In any case, the court is having the collection sold at auction, so if you’d like to bid on the manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, you’ll soon have the chance.  [Breaking news! The French government has stepped in to declare the Sade manuscript a national treasure. It’s out of the auction. Sorry.]

It turns out that the University of Delaware’s Library possesses a special collection devoted entirely to forged manuscripts. It was the gift of Frank Tober, a chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project. His interest in the subject began with the chemical methods of detecting fraud, but twisty subjects lead to twisty trains of thought. Before he was done, Tober had branched out into counterfeiting, the forgery of artwork and furniture, hoaxes, and imaginary books and libraries.

At first I thought the pickings were slim for me in the Tober collection: it has only one forged illuminated manuscript. It always pays to keep digging, though. The Tober manuscript is one of hundreds produced about a century ago by the “Spanish Forger,” whose work still lurks in museum collections today, although many have been identified. And the art market always adapts. The Spanish Forger’s work is now eminently collectible. And probably easier to forge than the original manuscripts. (Plot idea here?)

Of course, when you are surfing the web, diversions and byways are legion. Searching for forgeries naturally brought me to hoaxes. I was thrilled to find a “Museum of Hoaxes,” right in San Diego, where I will be visiting in another week or so. Well, almost there. Only a hundred miles away. I could visit! And the web site kindly gave directions:

We’re based in San Diego, California. If you’re in the downtown area, get on i-5 north and keep driving until you see a giant floating jackalope off to your right. You can’t miss it! If you reach LA, you’ve gone too far.

Oh, boy! I’ll just… Wait a minute. Just drive north? Till you see a floating jackalope?

Maybe I’m not really competent to write about forgeries, far less spot them.

The “museum” is, of course, just a web site. I would have tumbled to that eventually, when I scrolled down to the “Staff” section:

Alex
Curator Pretending to be in Charge of a Museum

Boo
Deputy Curator in Charge of Fire, Electricity, Dead Pigeons, Insane Hamsters, Frog Skeletons, Poltergeists, and Medical Curiosities of All Kinds

I seem to have wandered far from my serious and entirely justified research project. And it’s lunch time. I’ll leave the rest for another day.

%d bloggers like this: