The Storybook Villain

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So I’m twelve chapters into my sequel and something is bothering me—there is no obvious villain in the story. Or should I say I still haven’t decided who, among the many characters, I want to assign the role to.

Literature is littered with too many cases of cardboard villains who, for reasons unknown, have decided to exist solely for the pleasure of thwarting or doing harm to the protagonist. These days, however, it’s hardly enough to be a baddie, just because. One’s gotta be a good baddie, complete with a credible backstory, unjustifiable yet understandable motivations, a dangerous but persuasive personality, an underlying vulnerability, and so on.

Given the implications, and how I’ve grown to care deeply about every single character, no matter how minor or major a part they play in the story, I’m going back and forth on several possible scenarios. Even the possibility that the baddie is everyone and no one.

Stop overthinking it, just write, I tell myself. But to pull off a convincing showdown between opposing forces, I first have to be convinced—and I’m struggling with the struggle because I’m a toughass critic when it comes to these things.

Because here’s the thing: I don’t want to have a villain simply for the sake of having a villain, especially the sort that everybody loves to hate. And then I wonder, more generally: in life, do we even need villains in order to overcome obstacles? Granted there are many irritating people in our lives who’ve made difficult situations almost unbearable—but are they the issue itself or just the catalyst that forces us to face a more significant, pre-existing problem?

Pondering on the subject of villains has got me a little introspective, I’ll have to admit. Revisiting my history of run-ins with ‘baddies’—and dredging up memories that are tied to specific times and places—has not been easy. Also, in order for me to reframe these unpleasant individuals within a larger narrative, a fair bit of reconditioning is involved.

That’s been an interesting exercise, to say the least.

As I unpacked my memories (especially ones I’d much rather forget) and reconsidered their place within my mental catalog, I was able to detach them from the emotions that went with the particular encounters. As a result, many horrible people of my past started to look less like the powerful and enigmatic villains I’d made them out to be, and more like, well, people. Yes, they were manipulative, calculating, opportunistic, and mean-spirited, but still just people.

And as I examined the various instances in which various ‘baddies’ made my life hell, I noticed that my fears and insecurities—and how I responded to them—were a common thread.

These same fears and insecurities were the real villains, whose rules everyone played by, me and my tormentors included. The ‘bad guys’ only won because they recognized this fact, and I didn’t. As a result, even if I believed myself to be on the side of ‘good,’ I lost. Every single time.

As someone who grew up reading any book she could get her hands on, and being thoroughly acquainted with every storybook villain imaginable, I always assumed the bad guys came to bad endings. The evil character was always, always vanquished, no matter how seemingly weak the protagonist was. Because that’s how it is in fiction. Good always wins.

But frankly, since I began to write my own books, this whole villain conundrum has made me think twice. Why did I always assume a novel’s main character was ‘good’ just because they narrated the story, and that the antagonist was someone outside themselves?

So what happens if the villain lies both without and within? I guess I’ll have to keep writing to find out.

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Happy 2018: New Year’s Resolutions

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Photo via Pixabay

Happy New Year, folks! I hope 2018’s gotten off to a wonderful start for you.

For a number of reasons 2017 wasn’t the most productive year for me, nor the most conducive in terms of writing and self-improvement. But I really do feel the gears shifting for 2018 and I’m hopeful I can meet some milestones I’m setting for myself. Namely:

  1. Finishing my sequel. I’m 10 chapters in and I think I have another 5 to go. Fingers crossed that the manuscript can be completed by Q1. See point number 4.
  2. Getting an agent/publisher. I’m keener to explore the traditionally published route this time, but self-publishing may still be an option—especially if I get a grant again.
  3. School Tour. Are you an educator, principal or school administrator? Book me for a storytelling session and drawing workshop. I’m populating my calendar with visits to local and international institutions, and looking forward to meeting literature-loving kids.
  4. Making writing a priority. I didn’t carve out and commit to proper ‘writing days’ in the past year, which explains a lot about my output (or lack thereof). Toward the end of 2017, when things began to wind down at work, I had more opportunities to write, and I was amazed at how easily the pace picked up and how quickly the ideas translated into prose. I suppose writing is like working a muscle—the more you put it to use, the more naturally it flows. Previously I’d always felt so ‘stuck’ and unmotivated because writing was something I did only after I’d completed my ‘more important’ assignments and chores. And how do people normally feel about that very last item on their to-do list? Less than enthused, I’d imagine. So yeah, writing will take precedence this year and I will give it the attention it deserves.
  5. Less time on social media. YouTube, Facebook and Instagram have definitely been blackholes into which chunks of my free time disappeared, and I’m determined to limit this unproductive use of my mental bandwidth. Besides, FOMO is real.
  6. Rejigging the spiritual life. An extension of point number 5, which is to unplug from the noise and spend more time in prayer and contemplation. 2017 was exceptionally anxiety-riddled (actually my entire life has been), exacerbated by health scares and feeling overwhelmed by a combination of work and mom stuff. So the spiritual life fell by the wayside somewhat, especially when I chose to numb myself with brainless distractions (back to point number 5 about too much time on social media).
  7. A book club. I read voraciously, my bookshelves are bursting at its seams, and my Kindle is about to explode. So it makes sense to either start my own book club or join one. Perhaps something to explore with the schools?
  8. Decide what I want to do with my ongoing Everything Takes Forever series. Adapting it into an e-book was my original intention, but I wonder if I should explore building a larger narrative around it and structuring it as a non-fiction chapter book.

What about you? Do you believe in New Year’s resolutions and have you set any? Somewhere, somehow, I assume everyone’s striving always to be a better version of themselves, so here’s hoping 2018 takes us one step closer to that.

Happy birthday, Rachel

Illustration by Luzia Bione, via Pinterest

Hi, I’m still here. Sorry that I went dark for awhile.

The truth is, I started drafting this post 2 (almost 3) months ago, but I was never really satisfied with it, feeling it somehow did not convey what I wanted to say. So I edited and re-edited, and eventually got bored and left things dormant. And the thing about writing is, if you don’t carve out a specific time to do it—or if you do, but don’t honor the commitment—other stuff comes up, and life just gets in the way. That’s basically what happened.

This post was supposed to be a birthday letter to myself. But the more I wrote on, the more I hated it. Everything was coming off as self-indulgent and disingenuous, and I was beginning to bore myself. I’d love to clap myself on the back and feel happy about how ‘far’ I’ve come, but those were yesterday’s battles; today has its own unique ones, so does tomorrow, and so forth. What’s today’s hindsight gonna be worth five or ten years down the road? No, I wouldn’t repeat the Hallmark-card-worthy spiel about not sweating the small stuff, savoring every tiny moment, and how everything works out in the end. Who doesn’t know that? Nobody. Who’s tired of hearing it? Everybody. There would no cheesy letter to my past or future self.

But still, I was fascinated with the idea of writing a plain, old-fashioned letter. If I only knew who to address it to.

Around this time, I was reading and quite enjoying Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons. In it, the protagonist, Gil Coleman, has a houseful of books stuffed randomly with letters from his wife, Ingrid, who disappeared mysteriously years ago. He’s ailing and dying of cancer, and his two daughters come home to take care of him after a mishap. Throughout the novel, the author intersperses what’s happening in the present with Gil and his daughters, with Ingrid’s letters. Readers get to read first-hand the contents of these beautifully written and wonderfully detailed letters, stuck in the most random of books ranging from classics to cooking instruction manuals—but never is it mentioned whether the intended recipient—Gil—ever discovers them. In particular, one of these letters is about Gil and Ingrid’s relationship, written in reverse chronology, from the broken-down state of their marriage all the way back to their giddy courtship days. I thought that whole idea was just amazing, and though I will never hope to pull off such a feat as masterfully as Claire Fuller does, it inspired me and got me thinking.

And so I wrote a letter. To nobody.

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