“Carole Baskin killed her husband!”
If you haven’t heard that sentence a million times, you’re lying. We’ve all seen Tiger King by now (or at least are familiar with the premise), as well as the reactions. Some folks are just memeing, others legitimately believe in the conspiracy. The general population seems to view Joe as the hero in this feud, and are certain that he shouldn’t be imprisoned.
Now, let me just give everyone an overview of his acts, so you can really understand how insane that last sentence was. He murdered several tigers, abused hundreds of other tigers, groomed three young men into marriage and ensured that they never left his property, made death threat after death threat to Carole Baskin, and quite possibly tried to hire someone to kill his rival. And those are only the drastic criminal offenses. That list went on for five lines, there is no possible way you can say Joe Exotic is the hero of this narrative.
So why are we solely targeting Carole Baskin? Sure, she’s not a good person either, why are some people hating on her while defending Joe Exotic?
Because Joe is our protagonist.
Tiger King isn’t just an exposé on the exotic animal industry—it’s a narrative of how Joe Exotic landed himself in prison. Whether or not it was intentional, centering the narrative around Joe makes people more empathetic towards him. We see the world through his eyes, we see his tragedies, we feel bad for him. Take the arson of the alligator exhibit. We first see everyone’s melancholy, then the view is centered around Joe. His grief towards the loss of the alligators, how that affects him. We’ve already empathized with his loss. Sure, there are a few accusations and even proof that Joe had a motive to burn the exhibit himself, but that empathy has already set in. And this empathy is reinforced throughout the entire series, masking his terrible acts with our own feelings.
And our empathetic protagonist has himself an antagonist. Evil Carole Baskin is stalking Joe, she’s trying to get his whole zoo shut down, and look! There’s a whole episode on how she killed her husband! Not to mention Joe hates her guts. She must be the bad guy!
While we get to see Joe’s numerous low moments, we only hear of Carole’s previous tragedies. And while Joe is front and center throughout the whole show, Carole has one episode of her own, which is dedicated to her possible murder and nothing else. Then she falls into her role of antagonizing Joe and nothing else. Just as the narrative framed Joe to be an empathetic character, it framed Carole to be an evil antagonist.
Your narratives have the same power. You can make the worst characters seem more empathetic, and vice versa. Make sure you’re portraying the narrative you desire, and that people will take away the morals they should. Take the lessons from Tiger King:
People will automatically find your protagonist empathetic. Make sure they’re a character you actually want to empathize with.
If you want an unempathetic protagonist, don’t give them chances to show empathy. Cast doubt before, not after possibly empathetic situations.
Enemies of your protagonist will automatically be seen as worse than they may actually be.
If your antagonist is meant to be empathetic, give chances for them to be seen as such.
The morality of your text reflects the morality of your characters.
Overall, realize that morally ambiguous characters must be written/portrayed with care. People will accept whatever narrative you present without question, and more impressional readers will accept the morality of your protagonist and go against whatever your antagonist stands for, unless you take the time to cast doubt. Tiger King failed to take that needed precaution, and because of that, people accepted Joe Exotic as moral and empathetic. You can learn from those mistakes.
Hello, friends, and welcome back to the Column! Today, we’re discussing genre and the Milkshake Hypothesis.
Now, a milkshake—strawberry, chocolate, vanilla, cookies n’ cream—is always a win, for me at least. But the best milkshake is obtained when you break the bounds of sweet perfection. Ever heard of the Pink Cadillac? My dad invented it at a Fuddruckers in New Mexico, but now its a staple of the Route 66 Diner. It's a milkshake, half strawberry, half ground up Oreo. Crunchy, creamy, sweet, and tart. It’s one of the best milkshakes ever invented, and that’s not because it’s the best of a single flavor. It’s because it is the best of many.
The world’s most provocative literary worlds have the same attributes as the Pink Cadillac. Variety.
There are few art forms that give you the freedom and medium to build entire worlds your way, and while some people are strict genre folks, most of us have varying interests. For example, one hundred people may agree that they all love fantasy, but if you ask each person to explain further, you’re gonna start getting different answers.
“I like the fantasy with romance,” he’ll say red faced.
“Fantasy Horror,” she’ll say with a wicked gleam in her eye.
Then, some nerd will say, “Historical fantasy,” because they like seeing cameos and hints toward obscure historical figures. (That nerd is me.)
So, when humans are so varied and interested in so many things, why do writer’s confine themselves to one genre? Why do we pick vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry?
Why are we afraid to write what we want to read?
Well, in the professional world, there’s a good reason why genre blending isn’t widely encouraged. Publishing firms are genre specific, more often than not to streamline advertising. A good case study of this is Laurell K. Hamilton. She’s been writing the same series for nearly thirty years now, and her commentary on the evolution of the publishing world is enlightening. “You say that I combined romance, fantasy, and horror, but Anita Blake is a hard-boiled mystery series, too,” she said in an interview, speaking to her own twenty-seven book long series, which began in 1994 and continues to this day. She later explains that her first book was rejected over 200 times before finally being accepted, mostly because publishing firms didn’t know where to put it. The horror firms didn’t want it because it wasn't horror enough, mystery didn’t want it because it was too fantasy, and the list went on and on. Then, when the series was picked up, it was notoriously hard to find in bookstores. It was in a different genre section at every shop. Rough, right?
Well, no. People found Laurell’s books, people who had gone in looking for a mystery and came out with that and much more. More importantly though, Laurell got to write what she loved for twenty-seven years. She’s built a world she clearly adores, and that her cult following adores along with her.
Writing is the creation of something you love. If you love true crime and science fiction, then write both. Don’t restrict yourself because you’ve been told you have to pick.
In fact, not picking a single genre and embracing an amalgamation of your interests can be the best thing you’ve ever done. Now, I’m not saying go buck wild and confuse your audience, but like the Pink Cadillac, most things are better when you have them exactly how you want them.
Even if it’s obscure and super specific and you think no one will like it, at least one person will. You.
In the end, I’d rather spend 30 years writing what I love and having a small audience than write a smothering series for 5 years that has a massive audience.
So, my dear friends, make your Pink Cadillac. Your audience will follow.
Do you have any specific questions about genre that weren’t answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will answer it when our next entry is posted. Note: Questions posted after 3/12 may not be answered.
A bare-knuckle, heart-pounding, intense fistfight. A frail, tiny girl standing on stage in front of faceless thousands. The high-speed adrenaline rush of a car chase, or the heartbreaking silence of a couple in the midst of a personal feud. Finding a roadblock in your neighborhood, or the ticking clock of a bomb doomed to level a city. Throughout this broad range of scenarios, one thing is common: the element of conflict.
Conflict is the backbone of every story ever told. Compare these two tales:
Now, why was the second story more engaging than the first? It’s a simple, almost obvious answer: humans crave conflict in all its forms. Conflict is how each and every one of us has gotten to the position we are at, both individually and as a species. Humanity has overcome everything life throws at us, from predators to natural disasters. Even you, the reader, might have suffered through a hard class or a family crisis, coming out intact. These conflicts make up the stories of our lives, shaping who we are as people. And, in a novel, they are necessary to shaping who our characters are as people.
Many teachers or literary scholars will try to create labels to define conflict. You’ve heard these terms before in your english classes: man vs nature, man vs society, man vs. self, etc. But, these categories don’t necessarily explain how these conflicts work, instead classifying them in terms of genre convention.
I prefer to think of conflict as a single entity, a predictable one at that, but one who wears many different masks. Conflict’s main goal is to make life as difficult as possible for our protagonist. On the other hand, our protagonist’s main goal is to overcome the conflict however they can. Part of the joy of Conflict’s life is the struggle, because he doesn’t consider it fun unless the protagonist is actively fighting back. A hopeless, pessimistic protagonist is boring to read about, because it doesn’t seem realistic to most people. Regardless of how we act in real life, each of us likes to believe that, if we were put in the same situation, we would try to escape it. When we find a protagonist that feels the same, we see ourselves in them, and we start to empathize with their journey.
Conflict is not particular about the specifics of his attacks against the protagonist, and often manifests in many forms, each affecting a different aspect of our protagonist. The protagonist might face a main conflict against a powerful tyrant, but also face personal conflict from his family, his loved ones, or even himself. Think of Hamlet. The titular character faces opposition from Claudius, his uncle who has taken the crown following Hamlet Senior’s untimely demise. While many look at this as the most obvious conflict, Hamlet is also forced to stifle his love for his romantic interest Ophelia and wrestles with his own indecisiveness, a fatal flaw. The ways Hamlet deals with these issues reveal more about him as a person, a pattern we must follow in our own stories. The more conflicts a character faces, the more insight we gain into them as people.
By the end of the novel, the conflict must be resolved in a satisfying way, usually as a result of the climax. By the end of the second tale, the conflict was established, but the protagonist had not overcome the problem. When the man wakes up from his jelly-induced coma, the author must decide how he (the character) will recover from his wounds and keep going in his quest to create his peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Is this a story of a man overcoming the struggles his world throws at him? Will it be a cautionary tale about how the deliciousness of a PB&J corrupts the good-hearted and virtuous?
It is up to you to decide.
Do you have specific questions about conflict that weren't answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will answer it when our next entry is posted. Note: Questions posted after 2/27 may not be answered.
There are many times in life where you encounter the biggest slog in the middle of something. Take a school year, for instance. This excerpt is being released at the tail end of January, a point where spring break is barely visible on the horizon and summertime only a dream. For many high schoolers, especially seniors, this time is often marked by drowsiness and a severe lack of enthusiasm. Grades slip, tardies are handed out more regularly, unexcused absences become the norm. By late March, however, the slump ends for many as exam season comes into focus, giving them a renewed sense of purpose, a “climax” if you will.
The point of this lengthy intro was, in essence, to explain the main reason why many aspiring authors never complete their dream novel. While there are compulsory education laws, no truancy officers are going to come knocking down your door if you quit halfway through Chapter 12 of your sci-fi romance epic. At a certain point for many unprepared writers, they grow tired of their story as weeks turn to months, and they begin to question what the purpose of it all was. Without a clear roadmap for where they want to go, and things growing more and more aimless by the day, they eventually shelve their manuscript in the attic and move on to “bigger and better things.”
Even with experienced writers, the problem of the mid-novel slog never truly goes away and often plagues the first drafts of even the most acclaimed novelists. Many say that you should go into your novel with at least two events fully formed: inciting incident and climax. I would add a third event to that list: the midpoint.
The midpoint, as defined by mathematical terminology, is the “exact middle” of something. This is also true in story structure. Traditionally, the midpoint takes place in the middle of the second act of the story. It marks the moment where the protagonist goes from a reactionary to an active character. Instead of things happening to the character, he or she finally decides to take matters into their own hands and fight their antagonist head-on.
Midpoints are not sudden left-turns out of nowhere, of course. As with all parts of the story, it should make sense considering the sum of all previous events. At the same time, however, it must be a significant departure from the first half of the story, and this is because the protagonist can no longer have the option to act defensively. Whether it’s the capture of someone they love, a death of a close friend, or even something as simple as a phone call, the midpoint scene marks that shift. It is the scene that any reader could point to and say, with complete certainty, that this is where the protagonist realizes that they must “attack” in order to achieve their goal, whether it be spiritual or physical.
For a real-world example, take the US’s involvement in World War 2. For the first couple years of the war, while not directly involved in the confrontation, they sided with the Allied Powers by providing them resources and condemning the actions of the Axis Powers. At this point, they were simply reacting to the war and the evil practices of Germany and Japan. However, this changed on December 7th, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. With such a direct confrontation, the US had no choice but to take action and join the war. In this case, the bombing of Pearl Harbor would be considered a midpoint in the story of the US’s involvement in World War 2.
The midpoint is one of the toughest aspects of story structure to get right, but it is the linchpin that binds every great novel together. Learning how to perfect a midpoint early on is a key skill for any aspiring writer. Once you can successfully mark this transition, you will have a more compelling narrative, a more interesting protagonist, and a more captivating story.
Do you have specific questions about midpoint that weren't answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will answer it when our next entry is posted. Note: Questions posted after 2/12 may not be answered.
First person, second person, third limited, third omniscient. All perspectives have their advantages and disadvantages, though you will eventually find your preference. Today, we’ll discuss each point of view and when they’re best used.
First Person: First person is what I’ll find in most YA novels. First person allows for the reader to create a greater connection with the protagonist, since they get to see everything through the protagonist’s eyes. It works best when the thoughts and perceptions of a character are more integral to a story than the objective observations and actions. However, first person can be a challenge if I don’t fully understand my character. It needs to be personal and have a voice specific to that character, otherwise the narration and the actions/dialogue of that character don’t match up. This will completely take the reader out of my novel.
Second Person: It’s not often you find a story written in second person, much less an entire novel. The main reason? It’s hard to pull off. By making the narration from the perspective of “you,” the reader suddenly expects to see everything as they normally would, perceive things through their own eyes as opposed to someone else's. So you suddenly have the choice of either creating a more objective story, or adding the possibility of the perception of the narrator not matching up with the reader. Second person is best used for short fiction, and in works of horror, since most people will react similarly when placed in an eerie environment.
Third Person Objective: This is another hard one to pull off for a novel, since it removes that personal take readers often search for in a novel. It reads more like a documentary than anything else. However, this can be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on the content of your novel. Crime novels or mystery novels benefit from a more objective perspective. The reader acts as an onlooker, watching the events of the mystery unfold without needing the perspective of a specific character.
Third Person Limited: If a novel isn’t written in first person, then chances are it’s written in third person limited. They serve a similar purpose, seeing the thoughts of a singular protagonist. However, while first person is more personal, third person limited allows for the reader to form their own opinion. A first person narration likely wants the reader to empathize with the protagonist, regardless of their actions. Third person limited lets the reader view the actions and motives of the protagonist and decide for themselves whether or not they’re an empathetic character.
Third Person Omniscient: This is Lynn’s personal favorite point of view to write from. The narrator gets to play a sort of god, viewing into the motivations and perspectives of multiple, if not all characters. If the author has multiple protagonists, this is the perspective they should probably write from. However, this can get confusing at times for the reader if you don’t denote where the perspective changes.
Don’t be afraid to blend points of view either. Some novels have a god-like narrator who mixes in their opinion while documenting events. Your point of view will shape your story. One bad scene won’t ruin the whole piece, but the point of view stays with the entire plot. If the point of view works against the story, then it may ruin the story for your reader. But, with the right perspective, your piece can and will flourish. Choose wisely.
Do you have specific questions about point of view that weren't answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will answer it when our next entry is posted. Note: Questions posted after 1/29 may not be answered.
Questions from "How To Write An Action Scene":
How do you avoid over-describing an action scene?
Great question. The best way to avoid over describing your action scene is to look at it like poetry. Weird, I know, but stick with me. You want to use as little language as possible while portraying as much imagery as possible. You want a rhythm that imitates a heartbeat, breathing, punches, whatever as long as its physical and shrieks of mortality. In essence you want your scene to read like prose poetry. If you keep that image in mind, your scene won’t be too heavy.