Creative Writing Prompts from Photos

Unsplash is a website offering free, high quality images for blogs and whatnot. Sometimes when I’m looking for something else, I linger on certain images, wondering about the context, wondering what else is going on outside the frame. These are the photos I want to save for creative writing prompts.

WINE GLASS WITH CHICKEN LEGS

 

Photo by Jacob Rank on Unsplash

This story would (non-ironically) be horror or at least fantasy, though the writer could flip it and write comedy.

As it is, the coffee drinking guy seems unaware of what’s happening right outside the window, which puts the audience in superior position.

This is that old Hitchcockian trick of showing the audience there’s a bomb under the table, but not showing the character:

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

― Alfred Hitchcock

We are fascinated by chicken body parts, in general. At least in the West, we’re a little grossed out by their feet. This is an age-old attitude and has surely influenced stories such as the Baba Yaga category of folk tale.

The glass and chicken-leg photo could prompt a modern Baba Yaga story in which writers practise the Hitchcockian technique of writing suspense (rather than surprise).

WHITE LADY IN THE WINDOW

white lady looks out of a window

Photo by Alev Takil on Unsplash

Do you know your neighbours? Do you really, though?

AN ELEPHANT’S TEA PARTY

a baby elephant walks past an outdoor dining set

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

This baby elephant looks sad to me. I’m thinking of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I’m also thinking of that 1980s tearjerker film about Bette Midler and her best friend — Beaches — specifically that harrowing, resonant scene in which the teenage girl invites other girls to her birthday party. All the frenemies bow out at the last minute, phoning her one after the other, each with a bogus excuse. They have gathered somewhere else.

What about your take?

I WOKE UP AND…

man flies above his bed

If you could wake up with a super power what would it be? The ability to fly has been part of wish fulfilment stories since forever. What would you actually do, though, if you could fly? Would you let everyone know about this newfound ability, or would you keep it under wraps? Are you scared of heights? Is there some way you could put this skill to good use, Super-man style? Or maybe it only gets you into trouble, Icarus style.

PUDDLE PORTAL

man in hoodie at night with his reflection in puddle

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

It can be super fun to play with mirrors and reflections in storytelling.

When I look at this photo, I feel like the puddle is a portal. The photographer has foregrounded it. At the very least, this guy has a double life.

Poof and the Piglet

Poof and the Piglet is a homemade picture book written and illustrated by a 10-year-old who was given the title as inspiration. The 10-year-old has also been taught universal story structure.

Poof is the star of an entire series of books. Sometimes she has a sidekick called Worm-hoop (an English owl). This time Worm-hoop is replaced by a pig. I think she may have been influenced by the Elephant and Piggie series.

She has played with lettering on the front cover, understanding that one of the stand out features of pigs is their curly tails.

Inciting incident.



A single tree is used to stand in for a larger setting. This is a story in the minimalist tradition.

The size of the tree suggests both Poof and the piglet came towards each other. They want to be friends.

Here they are not doing anything but their faces say it all.

Plan: Poof adopts the piglet so they can always be together. But she is wrong about that. The best plans in stories involve the main character being wrong about something at the beginning of the story.

Poof is treating the pig as one might a dog. She gives him a collar with his name on it. But in the next image she is feeding him a bottle of milk, showing that she has upped her relationship from ‘pet’ to ‘baby’.

Interesting intratext with ‘Pigs in Area’. I wonder if this is inspired by Baby On Board signs in cards.

Now for the Battle. A feature of Poof is that her eyes are often wayward. This must be deliberate because the eyeballs of other characters are not wayward.

I love the body language. The mother takes her piglet away under her arm.

Poof now has slightly manga-ish eyes and she is crying. She faces the viewer so we can see she is crying.

This is the Anagnorisis phase of the story in which she remembers all the good times they had together. The illustrator is making use of comic convention with the thought bubble, and the juxtaposition between happy and sad emotions.

This is a bit of a twist ending, but unlike most twist endings, this one is nice. The pig is approaching Poof as if he is a dog. This is a more appropriate relationship. This will never be Poof’s baby and she has realised that now.

The writer has not yet learned to keep verb tenses in agreement.

Quite a few picture books end like this, with a sunset.

There were extra pages in the homemade booklet so she had the idea to fill them up with snapshots of Poof and Porky in their new life as friends.

Poof and Worm-Hoop Part One

Poof The Old Lady is a graphic novel created by two neurodiverse ten-year-olds. The running gag is that an old lady by the name of Poof goes Poof! at the end of each story. But she comes alive before the next.

The creators are best friends at school, and they both like to read and watch cartoons. They count among their favourites:

One of them loves dogs; the other loves owls. One has neat handwriting and is tidy by nature; the other can write and draw well, but her work is inclined to degenerate into scrawl, as ideas come faster than execution.

Telling stories is an advanced skill. As we learn to tell stories, we absorb the influences around us. Certain aspects of storytelling come easier than others.

Let’s take a look at a storyteller in early development. If you look closely at the stories of kids who’ve been exposed to a lot of story, it’s surprising how much they already know.

It’s not easy teaching kids how to write a story, but the writers have got a print-out of this blog post. They don’t use it as they’re writing, but if they get stuck, I point them in that direction and their plot problems are rapidly resolved.

POOF AND THE OUTDATED SAUSAGES

The young creators quickly established their own ‘rules of story’, and in line with Courage The Cowardly Dog, whoever dies or changes form in one story has to revert to their original form by the beginning of the next.

Another rule is that the mode of death must be comical.

In the Poof setting, eating outdated food is a common way to die. The authors understand the inherent comic value of sausages. Bananas work in much the same way.

Poof, as a character, has unexpected, and therefore comical, likes and dislikes. The authors have started this particular story in iterative mode, by describing Poof briefly and what she ‘always’ likes to do.

The sausage has been drawn with a Band-aid on it, because this is how the ten-year-old illustrator imagines an outdated sausage would look. Or, Poof thinks she can ‘fix’ the outdatedness of it by literally slapping a Band-aid on it. The illustrator is also making use of exaggerated size for comic effect.

As you can also see, Poof is an old lady archetype, with curly hair and glasses. Later, Poof acquires underarm hair, but the illustrator has yet to achieve character consistency and often forgets to draw it in. The pit hair is therefore random, a bit like the holes in Courage the Cowardly Dog’s teeth.

The narrator makes use of conversational narration, reminiscent of Wimpy Kid. “The thing is…”

The reader is encouraged not to buy into Poof’s fantasy of calling her fever inducing foods ‘Lord’. The speech marks around “Sausage Lord” indicate that.

By this point in the story the young writer has introduced a main character (Poof), her Shortcoming (a love for food which makes her sick, and a delusional fantasy about them) and an Opponent, the sausage, which has been somewhat personified.

Now the authors switch to the singulative (from iterative). This is the perfect place to do it.

Poof has been living on the edge, and now she has food poisoning, after a lengthy period of being okay. This is a classic story set up — a character does the same thing every day, but one day their life is shaken up. They must therefore change to cope with their new situation.

The boring details of how she got to hospital are skipped over. I believe there’s some unintentional comedy with ‘after a few weeks (3)’, which reads as if the time is the main thing, when it’s actually the sickness.

Then again, maybe it’s intentionally humorous, because the time humour continues, with the doctor saying a very non-doctor-like thing.

The writer has made comic use of a tall tale convention, or rather a shaggy dog tale convention. A shaggy dog tale is similar to a tall tale. The aim is to keep the listener interested, then end abruptly with no real climax. The listener will be disappointed and the teller will take delight in having strung them along.

Poof and the Outdated Sausages works as a story, though I did find myself wanting to know more about the Sausage Lord. As an opponent, this could have been extremely interesting. How exactly has Sausage Lord helped her out in the past? In Poof’s imagination, at least, he switches from an ally to an opponent, which is always an interesting turn of events in story.

POOF’S NEW PET

An adult writer might choose ‘shiny’ for symbolic reasons but I believe this young writer has chosen shiny because that’s how it feels to her. It’s an example of transferred epithet — it’s not the day that’s shiny, but rather than everything looks shiny, because of the strong sunlight beating down on it. In any case, I think it’s great.

The opponent is introduced right away, even before the main character is introduced. But because this is the second microfiction in a collection, and also because of the title, the reader can deduce that the main character is Poof.

Poof’s reactions are always beautiful to watch. They are over-the-top. As in every New York thriller, at some point the main character must run through traffic. This adds to the suspense.

Notice that in this one, Poof has hairy armpits.

Telling us that she nearly got hit (exclamation mark) is over-egging the pudding somewhat, but I’ll accept it.

Now we see the opponent. This is Worm-Hoop the one-eyed owl, though he’s not yet named. He is introduced very succinctly: We immediately know he is power hungry and that he desires to rule the world. He is an arch-villain.

The writer isn’t quite sure how to introduce him naturally.

The author has intuited that the main character requires both a ‘need’ and a ‘want’ and has incorporated them into one thing: The desire for a pet, and the need for something to keep herself calm.

Suddenly the opposition/hero status is flipped, and Poof becomes the predator. This is another rule of the setting: Poof and Worm-Hoop are evenly matched, like Roald Dahl’s creations in The Twits.

I can’t understand the reason for the ‘2 weeks later’ insertion. Perhaps they argue for a very long time.

Worm-Hoop, we deduce, is an English Owl, but pretends to be a different kind of owl so that Poof won’t claim him for her pet, though this is slightly ambiguous in the text. It helps to know that the creator’s favourite type of owl is the English Owl.

I do like the character design of Worm-Hoop. Owls have eyes one on each side of the head, but this is hard to draw in a cartoon. In order to anthropomorphise him by putting his expression on the front of the face, he has been given one eye in total, because you only really see one of an owl’s eyes at once. This also gives him a unique look. His beak functions equally as his mouth. Which is it? It doesn’t matter. Worm-Hoop also sweats like a human.

The narrator talks directly to one of the characters, breaking the fourth wall somewhat.

The metafictional insert ends after a minor conflict between character and unseen narrator. Sometimes these arguments go on for too long before the young writer brings the reader back into the main story. This one is a single page, so not too intrusive.

However, Worm-Hoop still appears to be talking to the unseen narrator, who seems to take the part of the reader rather than as someone who knows things the reader does not. Here, the narrator asks the character, “What are you doing?” The narrator knows no more than the reader does.

Worm-Hoop pops out of the story again, which is why the murder plot works — the reader is constantly reminded that this is just a story and no one actually dies. I suspect this narrative choice is the writer comforting herself.

The next part of the long-running gag is that Poof keeps calling her new owl a ‘parrot’, which is insulting because he is not. However, it’s natural she’d think so, since parrots can talk, and owls normally can’t.

When kids write their own stories for themselves, they get to use taboo language which they never see in their library reading material.

Worm-Hoop is so offended at this mistake that he accidentally dobs himself in as her perfect pet. If he’d only kept his beak shut, he’d have been safe and free. That is at the heart of the joke, though none of this is explained. If an adult had written this gag for a child audience, I’m quite certain they’d have explained it a bit more, but because the reader and writer are one and the same, the joke remains elliptical. Any outsider must work a little to get it.

More meta-intrusion:

Fast forward ‘a little later’ and these two now live together. The writer knows that in order for conflict to work, they must inhabit the same space, thrown together against their will. (Or, against at least one character’s will.)

It seems Worm-Hoop sometimes hoots as well as speaks English. Instead of perched on a branch, he’s perched on a chest of drawers.

He’s got his own bowl, but it’s a dog bowl.

And that’s the end of that story, which feels more like the end of a chapter. And it is. The young writer doesn’t make much distinction between stories and chapters. Some chapters are entire stories in themselves; others require several chapters.

WORMHOOP’S REVENGE

The gag in this spread derives from adult relationships, and the fact that in relationships, couples don’t always feel the same way about each other at exactly the same time.

I figure this has been absorbed from watching TV.

This chapter is more like two sequential gags than a complete story, because each follows the rule of comedy rather than the rules of story.

In the second gag, Worm-Hoop is terrified of Poof’s gigantic snoring, which juxtaposes comically with tippy-toeing by her room so as not to wake her. (How does she not wake her own self?)

Interestingly, two separate depictions of Worm-Hoop suggest he is looking at himself, sharing the uncomfortable feelings with himself. This works nicely for an owl, because of the two eyes on each side of the head, which I think the illustrator has really made the most of.

WORM-HOOP’S ORIGIN STORY

The writer knows that the reader won’t care about a character’s backstory until we’ve had a bit of action and started to wonder. This young writer is a big fan of super heroes, so is familiar with the concept of origin story.

The gag in which Poof treats her pet bird like a dog continues. I believe the writer has been inspired by stories such as The Pigeon Wants A Puppy by Mo Willems, in which one character completely misunderstands the nature of some other character, with disastrous results.

This amuses me because it’s almost a satire of all those picture books in which a baby bird/elephant/dolphin goes out into the world for the first time, by doing something scary.

Unlike your typical cute baby animal character, Worm-Hoop is gripped by unexpected bravado. Picture books don’t tend to exist for those characters, who don’t tend to require the ‘Be Brave’ books in the first place! However, these foolhardy tropes are great for comical stories like this.

A rule of thumb for illustrators is, you don’t need to illustrate what’s clearly been said in words, but breaking that rule works to great comic effect right here.

The illustrator must have realised one eye took up about the same amount of real estate on his face, and offered a comical explanation for that, too.

I think this chapter works as a series of comic gags. If an adult were writing this for children, they’d have depicted Worm-Hoop’s siblings, making him distinct from the others, Ugly Duckling style. They’d probably also have shown the doctor, and made more of that scene.

E.g. “Hey doc, can you fix my eye? It fell out when I got a surprise.”

“No can do. You lost it forever. But I’ll max the size of the other one, and then you’ll be good as new.”

“Okay.”

POOF GOES TO SCHOOL

Now we have a satire on all the ‘First Day At School’ stories, and Poof’s backstory. I believe this was inspired by the “Little Muriel” episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog.

The first gag is that she doesn’t know how numbers work. I’m quite sure this is a gag taken from somewhere else (but I wouldn’t know from where).

Little Poof has drawn herself in a childlike way, which is quite an achievement, since the child drawing the rest of the illustrations is a child, and therefore also, quite naturally, drawing in a childlike way.

Then Worm-Hoop pops in. We don’t know what just happened yet.

The big reveal: This isn’t a flashback at all. Second reveal: Poof LIKES being seven again.  Third reveal: Worm-Hoop did this so he wouldn’t have to be Poof’s pet anymore. Though this writer doesn’t know what ‘reveal’ means, she has a good grasp of the technique.

The comedown is that making Poof younger doesn’t turn back time. It simply makes her younger.

I believe an adult writer would have explained this more thoroughly. And would have possibly left the reader with more of an ending. The writer has included a Battle and a revelation (not a Anagnorisis, because these comic characters never change), but she leaves off the New Situation. However, we can deduce what that is. They continue to live together, only now Worm-Hoop has the antics of a seven-year-old to contend with. Ideally, this chapter would have ended with a comic scene showing that. For instance, Poof uses him as a non-consenting cuddly toy when she takes him to bed.

POOF’S MATHS PROBLEM

Poof has poofed back into her usual form as an old lady, but the writer has decided to keep with the maths theme. Even when she looks like an old lady, it is now clear to me that Poof is basically a naughty, mischievous seven-year-old in an old lady’s body.

Poof’s shortcoming (she’s bad at maths) and her desire (she wants to do her homework) are introduced succinctly on the first page.

The illustrator has absorbed comic book conventions after reading lots of comics. (E.g. the lightbulb for a good idea.) The reader knew Poof would think of Worm-Hoop. (The writer is making use of audience superior dramatic irony.)

Her Plan is to call for him. He comes immediately.

The illustrator has decided to use Worm-Hoop’s eye as a window into his brain. The eye can contain all sorts of symbols, and in this case, a question-mark.

The gag is that Worm-Hoop knows even less than Poof does. Poof doesn’t know how to add, but Worm-Hoop doesn’t know the meaning of ‘number’.

He therefore delivers a nonsensical response, and that is the gag.

I expected the story to end there. It works as a complete gag. But the young writer has decided (subconsciously, of course) to turn this into more of a narrative than a simple set-up and payoff, so next we have a Battle sequence in which Worm-Hoop struggles (with himself) to understand the problem. (I asked the illustrator and she tells me that button belongs to a calculator, but I don’t think that’s sufficiently clear without author intervention. The machine which doesn’t work as characters expect it to is a classic Spongebob gag.)

The gag from a previous chapter is reused. I’m not sure who the characters are in the final box. I think the illustrator is getting tired by this stage.

Story Structure: Opponents In Fiction

Henry Gillard Glindoni - The Tiff

Every interesting main character in every story needs a worthy opponent. The opponent makes the main character interesting. The main character learns through their opponent. The opponent attacks the main character’s great shortcoming. The main character deals with their own great shortcoming and grows as a result.

The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.

John le Carre

OPPONENT AS SUM TOTAL OF FORCES

So something happens to a central character that throws them off the beaten track and forces them into a world they’ve never seen. A beanstalk grows, a patient collapses, a murder is committed. All of these actions have consequences, which in turn provoke obstacles that are commonly dubbed forces of antagonism the sum total of all the obstacles that obstruct a character in the pursuit of their desires. These forces accumulate from this initial moment as we head towards the climax of the story.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

THE MINOTAUR VS HUMAN LAYERS OF OPPOSITION

The Minotaur is a really scary creature from Greek mythology — a part man, part bull monster who lives at the centre of a labyrinth. Because the Minotaur is so very scary, we can use him as a stand-in for any type of Big, Bad Baddie who threatens your main character’s very life.

In most of the best stories the opponent will be another human but it can also be ‘nature’ (e.g. in a disaster movie). Where the opponent is ‘nature’, like in Twister, the Minotaur layer of opposition comes from the cyclone.

The problem with Minotaur opponents is that they aren’t inherently interesting. In fact one can easily be switched out for another — there is little to distinguish between a troll/ogre/tsunami/wolf or any number of mythical, archetypal villains.

So what the storyteller needs, as well as the Minotaur, is a layer of human opposition. In the case of Twister, we have the rival storm chasers who serve as the humanised opponents.

In Arachnophobia, the spiders make for creepy but uninteresting opponents because their motivation isn’t to kill everyone — that just happens as default. They have no morals for us to judge. This is what makes Minotaurs (or spiders) uninteresting. Instead, the writers created a conflict between the old doctor and the bright young city slicker coming in to an unwelcoming community, where the older doctor refuses to step aside.

Importantly, not all stories contain a Minotaur layer of opposition. Traditional mythic stories do have this layer, but the new big struggle-free mythic form does not need one, because the main character thinks and feels their way through a difficult journey. She doesn’t fight a big, bad Minotaur.

PROBLEMS WITH THE MINOTAUR OPPONENT

Part of the reason I believe these new big struggle-free mythic forms are so important is because the concept of the Minotaur Opponent speaks to an adaptive but problematic aspect of human psychology: We like to imagine uncontrollable events in humanised/monster-ised form.

An excellent example of this can be seen with the clarity of hindsight in early to mid-14th century Europe. This was the era when witch trials began. The concept of the witch’s sabbath came about for several other reasons, but what made the popular concept of the evil witch really take off? A little ice age. This created a climate crisis. No one could sow their crops let alone harvest them. This had a huge impact on social networks of the period, and no doubt had psychological effects, too. These days we might call it PTSD. Many people felt alienated from their communities.

Rather than feel helpless, people invented a scapegoat. In order for a scapegoat to work, first you need a narrative. Here’s why my crops are failing, my kids are starving and my livestock has foot rot: There are witches in my village.

This belief is easier to deal with psychologically than the belief that humans are utterly powerless under the forces of nature. It gives people something to do: Medieval Europeans could regain a sense of power by surrounding their houses in witch marks, by performing counter magic and coaxing witches down their chimneys so they could burn her in their cooking pots.

In short, the witch was a significant Minotaur Opponent of early to mid 14th century Europe. As we can see from just this one example, the Minotaur Opponent is an extremely powerful storytelling technique, to the point where such stories can influence people’s real world beliefs.

The Minotaur layer of opposition continues to work so nicely in stories today because it both drives ‘regular’ people apart as well as uniting them together.

But we do need to remain wary of our tendency to translate this Minotaur Opposition into real life, especially with another climate crisis hanging over our heads.

In everyday English we now use the word ‘boogeyman’ to describe a monster who is not the real monster.

CAN A CHARACTER BE THEIR OWN WORST ENEMY?

You might be asking yourself at this point, can the main character be ‘their own worst enemy’?

The antagonist is … the thing or person the protagonist must vanquish to achieve their goal. The detective and ‘monster’ templates illustrate this well, but antagonism can manifest itself in many different ways most interestingly when it lies within the protagonist. Cowardice, drunkenness, lack of self-esteem all will serve as internal obstacles that prevent a character reaching fulfilment.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

However, if your main character’s ONLY opponent is their own self, you’re in for a tough job. Sure great stories can be created in which the main character is their own worst enemy. An excellent example is Larry McMurtry’s Hud, from his novel Horseman, Pass By. That said, McMurtry knew that in order to show the audience that the character of Hud is his own worst enemy he had to do it via conflict with other characters. He couldn’t just put him on a farm alone. Even in The Martian by Andy Weir, the story was improved with the addition of other people the base back on Earth, and the backstory which included the other astronauts. The Martian environment is plenty oppositional enough, but doesn’t make for the best story.

In very short stories, such as children’s picture books, a main character can be their own worst enemy and the story works well. Two examples are After The Fall by Dan Santat (recent) and The Chicken Book by Garth Williams (classic).

Where the character is their own worst enemy, that part goes under the ‘psychological shortcoming’/’moral shortcoming’ banner, not under this one.

If you are writing a story in which the main character’s biggest enemy is themselves, you are writing what’s commonly known as a ‘Man vs. Self’ story. This article at Now Novel has some specific pointers on how to do it.

OPPONENTS AND GENRE

The opponent will depend on the genre/type of story you’re writing.

In the simple detective story they’re catalysed by the murder; in the medical drama the patient. […] In the simple thriller form the antagonist is marked out by their desire to control and dominate the lives of others. They don’t follow the moral codes of the community; more often than not they’re an embodiment of selfishness. They are also, historically, often marked by physical or mental deformity. Le Chiffre’s maladjusted tear duct in the film of Casino Royale is the modern equivalent of Dr No’s missing hands or Scaramanga’s third nipple in the Man With The Golden Gun.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

Since ‘nature’ makes an uninteresting opponent, even when the opponent is plenty strong enough the writers will concoct human antagonists. In Twister the hurricane is the main opposing force, but none of the characters are getting on with each other, either.

If there’s a killer or an evil mastermind bent on planetary domination then they are, obviously, the antagonists [often called ‘villains’]; the patient may not behave antagonistically, but they effectively embody the illness that will be the true enemy in the drama. The antagonist is thus the thing or person the protagonist must vanquish to achieve their goal.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

RULES OF FICTIONAL OPPONENTS

They call it a conflict and with my limited grasp of the English language, the prefix “con-” is bad. Why can’t we just have a “flict”?

EJ (@cottone120) November 29, 2019

An opponent is not necessarily an enemy.

I always felt like you had to be important to have enemies. Example: Historically, Germany has had more enemies than Luxembourg. Margo Roth Spiegelman was Germany. And Great Britain. And the United States. And tsarist Russia. Me, I’m Luxembourg. Just sitting around, tending sheep, and yodelling.

John Green, from Paper Towns

The opponent is the character who wants to prevent the main character from reaching her goal.

The relationship between opponent/main character is the most important in the story.

The best opponent is the necessary one. The opponent is the character who is best able to attack the great shortcoming of your main character.

The main character will either overcome that shortcoming or be destroyed.

Opponents and mystery are closely related because a mysterious opponent is more difficult to defeat. In average stories, the main character’s only task is to defeat the opponent. In good stories the main character has to:

  1. Uncover the opponent and
  2. then defeat her.

In thrillers and mysteries there has to be some kind of mystery set up to compensate for the missing opponent (who is there, but behind the scenes). Detective stories purposely hide their opponents until the end. Until then, the audience needs something to replace the ongoing conflict between main character and opponent. In this kind of story you introduce a mystery at about the time you would normally introduce the main opponent.

It pleases contemporary filmmakers and thus audiences to think they are much more sophisticated than this, but cruelty continues to be the mark of villains, the thing that lets the audience know who they are supposed to be against. […] Innocence is central to determining whether the behaviour is cruel or not.

Howard Suber

Other characters [apart from the main character] in a story can act heroically — not just the designated main character. Even villains and baddies can very effectively portray heroic qualities. Every rounded character should manifest a touch of each archetype (The Shadow In The Hero).

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

Frequently the main character and villain’s actions look very much alike. It’s what these actions are for that determines whether we think of the character as being obsessed or committed.

The Power Of Film, Howard Suber

It’s often said that the best cops would make the best criminals — by chance they’re working on the right side of the law. Crime drama makes the most of this. In The Wire, Jimmy McNulty is a good cop because he has an intuitive understanding of what motivates the criminals he’s working with. The audience sees Jimmy himself go against the rules and resisting the hierarchy that exists within the police force.

f. Keep the opponent in the same place as the main character.

This goes against commonsense, because when two people don’t like each other they tend to go in opposite directions. But if this happens in a story, the writer has great difficulty building conflict. The trick is to find a natural reason for the main character and opponent to stay in the same place during the course of the story.

In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie is forced to spend time with Darcy when Mrs Bennett forces Jane to ride to Bingley’s mansion. There, she catches cold, and Lizzie must go and see her. Darcy happens to be there and flirting takes place after dinner, in which social convention dictates they share the same room.

The antagonist opposes the protagonist not just once but throughout. In this way the antagonist helps define the protagonist in the same way you invoke a shape by colouring in everything but that shape. Note that the antagonist needn’t be another character — it traditionally is, yes, but any persistent conflict can be truly antagonistic. A looming house foreclosure, a cancer diagnosis, a tornado made of biting squirrels.

Chuck Wendig

In memorable movies…the strongest guy around is not likely to be the main character.

Howard Suber

VILLAINS

A villain is a subcategory of opponent. An opponent equals anyone or anything that stands in the way of your main character getting what they want. A villain is ethically and morally bad. Villains tend to be power hungry, lazy, abusive, greedy all of the seven deadly sins.

The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.

Alfred Hitchcock
five go to smugglers top in which the villainous opponents are smugglers

In traditional main character stories there are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ (better known to adults as main characters and adversaries, or protagonists and antagonists). The activities of the main characters are sanctioned by society whereas the activities of the adversaries are considered wrong. Apart from pickpockets/thieves, the following groups tend to be depicted as adversaries in stories, because their ways of making a living undermine our perceptions of how decent society works. For example:

  • Smugglers e.g. from a Famous Five novel
  • Pirates in picture books pirates as just as often the sympathetic viewpoint characters, which is weird given that in real life they are criminals
  • Gypsies also oft-utilised by writers from the First Golden Age of children’s literature e.g. Enid Blyton
  • Highwaymen Julia Donaldson’s Highway Rat is a picture book example.
  • Wolves Since wolves became an endangered species recent stories often turn the wolf into the victimised character.
  • Foxes Straight out of Aesop, foxes are like wolves only more wily
  • Witches and other supernatural, folkloric creatures

Note that only two genres require a villain: mystery and thriller.

I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.

Stephen King

What puzzled me about villains was why, when they were masquerading as respectable citizens, their essential no-goodness wasn’t as obvious to people on the screen as it was to me in the stalls. How could Pinnochio be so stupid as to be led astray by the patently wicked Fox, or Snow White not know the Queen was up to no good? Had the Queen been flesh and blood and not a cartoon she might well have been played by Joan Crawford, who was always something of an enigma to me. I never liked her, and with her gaunt face, protruding eyes and instinct for melodrama she seemed the embodiment of evil, yet she was often cast in the role of heroine… Claude Rains was another puzzle. He was determinedly silky and seldom unsmiling, sure signs that he was a baddy, though not always. […] Banal though the general fun of films was, I learned, as one learned in fairy stories, about good and evil and how to spot them: the good where one would expect only degradation and squalor, and treachery and cowardice to be traced in the haunts of respectability. I learned about the occasional kindness of villains an the regular intransigence of saints but the abiding lesson had to do with the perils of prominence… Films taught you to be happy that you were ordinary.

Alan Bennett, from Untold Stories

People have a need to believe that bad things are done by bad people. And what is bad? Isn’t this defined as anything outside the common good, which is further defined as whatever the majority see as good? Why must the villain wear a black hat? Because if he didn’t, how would we know he was the villain?

Stephen Dobyn, from The Church Of Dead Girls

Charlie Jane Anders has some counter advice to a popular chestnut given to writers when creating villains, and I agree it’s time we need to say this:

One piece of writing advice I hear a lot is, “Nobody thinks they’re the bad guy. Everyone’s the hero in their own story.” Which is true, I guess. But I worry people understand this to mean “every character needs to have sympathetic, relatable motivations.” Which is NOT true. 

There’s no shortage of people in the world who enjoy being cruel to people who are more vulnerable than they are. There’s plenty of people who think of the world purely in terms of dominance and power, or who pride themselves on being able to “do what has to be done.” 

In my writing, I’m very interested in the problem of evil, and a lot of my stuff features well-meaning people who make horrible choices. But I’m not interested in excusing destructive behaviour, or necessarily sympathizing with it. Not all villains have to be lovable/relatable. 

George RR Martin is very good at showing the internal monologue of people who do monstrous things, without softening them at all. Meanwhile, Shakespeare famously has one of his villains declare his undying hatred, “yet I know not why.” Not everybody is equally introspective. 

Bottom line: evil is real. Cruelty is real. We have to grapple with them in our fiction, whether it’s a lighthearted romp or a grimdark adventure. And I don’t feel like sympathetic evil is always the right choice, depending on the story. /END

@charliejane

Related Links On Villains

VILLAINS AND GENDER

Villains are traditionally gendered male. A female villain is seen as just that a ‘female’ villain. Her gender is something extra. This means that decision makers can decide at any time that we’ve at ‘peak female villainy’.

THE FAKE-ALLY OPPONENT

Often it is chaos, rather than evil, that is the enemy.

Howard Suber

You’ll find those attributes (chaos and evil) are embodied in people, or especially in children’s literature as people stand-ins such as talking animals.

In other words, the opponent isn’t necessarily of evil intent. The opponent isn’t necessarily a ‘villain’. Case in point, the fake-ally opponent.

Definition

The fake-ally opponent is a character who appears to be an ally of the main character but is actually an opponent or working for the main opponent.

Plot is driven by reveals, which come from the steps the main character takes to uncover the true power of the opposition. Every time a main character discovers something new about an opponent—a revelation—the plot “turns,” and the audience is delighted. The fake-ally opponent increases the opponent’s power because the fact of his opposition is hidden.

Raison d’être

The fake-ally opponent forces the main character and the audience to dig below the tip of the iceberg and find what the main character is truly up against.

Fake-ally opponents are also valuable because they are inherently complex. This character often undergoes a fascinating change in the course of the story. By pretending to be an ally of the main character, the fake-ally opponent starts to feel like an ally. So they become torn by a dilemma: they work for the opponent but want the main character to win.

When To Introduce The Fake-Ally Opponent

You usually introduce the fake-ally opponent after the main opponent, but not always. If the opponent has come up with a plan to defeat the main character before the story even begins, you may introduce the fake-ally opponent first.

  1. Who wants to stop the MC from getting what she wants and why?
  2. What does the opponent want? She should be competing for the same goal as the MC.
  3. What are the opponent’s values, and how do they differ from the MC’s? Most writers never ask this question a big mistake. A story without a conflict of values, as well as characters, cannot build.

PLOT TECHNIQUE: THE ICEBERG OPPONENT

 Making the opponent mysterious is extremely important, no matter what kind of story you are writing. Think of the opponent as an iceberg. Some of the iceberg is visible above the water. But most of it is hidden below the surface, and that is by far the more dangerous part.

There are four techniques that can help you make the opposition in your story as dangerous as possible:

  1. Create a hierarchy of opponents with a number of alliances. All of the opponents are related to one another; they are all working together to defeat the main character. The main opponent sits at the top of this pyramid, with the other opponents below him in power.
  2. Hide the hierarchy from the main character and the audience, and hide each opponent’s true agenda (true desire).
  3. Reveal all this information in pieces and at an increasing pace over the course of the story. This means you’ll have more reveals near the end of the story. As we shall see, how you reveal information to main character and audience is what makes or breaks your plot.
  4. Consider having your main character go up against an obvious opponent early in the story. As the conflict intensifies, have the main character discover attacks from a stronger hidden opposition or attacks from that part of the opponent that has been hidden away.

Header painting: Henry Gillard Glindoni – The Tiff