Friday, May 19, 2017

The Ephemeral Antagonist: Conflict in Narrative

The most common narrative conflict we see in fiction today is what is know as Person Vs. Person. You have your protagonist working with/against your antagonist and the two play off one another creating the narrative conflict throughout the arc. This generally ends with one or more deaths/incarcerations what have you.

But there are other forms of narrative conflict that don't involve an antagonist.

There's the old standby Person Vs. Nature, which is generally exemplified by books like Hatchet and short stories like To Start a Fire (which I read in Middle-School and still haunts me to this day). For those of you not familiar with the term. It's generally a protagonist thrown up against the elements. So a blizzard or a scorching desert. It's a person vs. the jaguar stalking them through the night. (Though there are personified examples of person vs. animal where the animal definitely feels like a definitive antagonist).

We also have Person Vs. Self, Person Vs. Society, and others. They important thing is that it's a protagonist thrown up against something/someone. So, to simplify this:

Conflict =  the Protagonist VS. Something/Someone

That's it. That's conflict. Now, the truth is, not all fiction utilizes the antagonist as a person or a beast, or monster. Some fiction works quite well without an antagonist. It utilizes some other sort of conflict to get the job done. 

I tend to steer away from centralized antagonists in my work. Not consciously, mind you. While my stories do tend to have a villain, that character may not actually be the antagonist of the story or they may not have much of a presence within the story. There's nothing precisely wrong with that. There are going to be misdirects, on occasion, when it comes to identifying the root of your story's conflict. 

A trilogy I was working on last year had elements of different narrative conflicts with no unifying antagonist, and I was having some trouble sorting out why, as I'd plotted the damn things. It only later occurred to me while writing book three, that the antagonist had been a steady presence all along. I just hadn't put two and two together. Now, that said, that still wasn't the driving conflict.

The best example of another author who does what I call an "ephemeral antagonist" is JK Rowling with Voldemort. He is a felt presence throughout the series. His agents are everywhere, his name on the lips of those still around convinced he's gone for good. He's a cloud over the proceedings. No one can deny he's the series antagonist, but conflict isn't always driven by his hand directly. It's generally a consequence of his presence, but not necessarily because of direct actions he may have taken. 

I generally feel that antagonists can be the "Man behind the curtain". Pulling strings, always present, but on screen for a short amount of time while still maintaining maximum impact. Because of this, conflict tends to feel more self-driven on the part of the protagonist. You can get away with false leads and even pseudo-antagonists that mask your main villain's purpose. It's not just about conflict driving the story at this point.

We talk about plot driven stories VS. character driven stories frequently, and we should. But you also need to ask yourself, what kind of conflict is driving this story? The underlying thread should remain the same through the story and it should boil down to a single concept.

If I boiled down that trilogy I talked about earlier, it'd be pretty simple. The protagonist really just wants her father to be proud of her. That's her overriding desire, the conflict is that he's dead and that's never going to happen so she keeps striving higher and higher. The other conflicts are secondary to that goal. So the conflict at the center of it, is not with the antagonist really, but with Self. This is a common thing to see within YA narratives really, as they tend to be about Growth regardless of genre. So while you may have these characters going through all of these things, their core conflict is going to be Self and on occasion Society with villains thrown in to give you something to focus rage on.
 Figure out what your core conflict is, that thing driving you character forward, and then build your narrative arc from that. This is why many people will tell you to start your story near or at your inciting incident, as this is what the conflict comes from. It's going to inform everything else that happens, and will be reflected in the ending of the book. If you can do that, your resolution is going to feel a lot stronger, more earned.

Don't be afraid of not having an personified antagonist in your story. Not every story is going to have a mustache-twirling villain to focus on. Sometimes, it's just the wind howling outside the window. It's the crushing weight of an immovable force. Conflict is core to narrative. So if you're struggling with your story, go back to the conflict.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Let's Get Tense

So, you know how when you start a story and you pick your POV? You settle comfortably (or realize half-way through draft one that you're in the wrong one) and that is that. Sometimes you might have a multiple POV or alternating POVs.

What about tense? Sure, there's present, past and future tense and they all have their place in writing. I for one, am sick of novels that give me the prologue/intro in past tense and then dunk me into present tense for the rest of the book (especially in first person). The sensation is very similar to being doused in cold water. Shock. It's a difficult tense/POV combo to do well and without it sounding intrusive or repetitive. There are maybe three authors I've read where I didn't even realize they'd done it until it was pointed out.

That's how how well it was done. A POV/tense combo should be a backdrop. It shouldn't get in the way of the story your telling, but be the tapestry into which the story is woven. If it stands out, people are going to notice. This is one of those fundamental issues you'll probably hurdle early on in your writing.

But what about more delicate matters of tense? That's right, I'm going to talk about intentionally switching tense in a story for effect.

I had a writing professor in college who saw that I had done this very thing, noted it and told me to keep doing it. It's something you may have to fight a bit over, and it has to be used sparingly. But tense is something that can really showcase a narrator, other characters, settings, etc.

For Example:

The castle's gloom stretched across the valley. 

The castle's gloom stretches across the valley. 

The castle's gloom will always stretch across the valley. 

So, in past tense this implies that perhaps this gloom is gone. Present tense implies it's a constant, something that is and always will be. Future tense also gives this implication, though using more words and has a bit more clarification for a reader who may be briefly confused by a tense change.

That said, they might not be at all.

This works for character traits as well.

My sister might be the most frustrating person I knew, but I wasn’t about to leave her alone in a graveyard crying.

My sister might be the most frustrating person I know, but I wasn’t about to leave her alone in a graveyard crying.

See that? Knew becomes Know and now the reader gets the feeling that this is state of permanence. It lends something the voice of the character. A bit of world-weariness even. Know has more impact that Knew in this context. Technically, yes, you are switching tense within the sentence, but this is also first person. A narrator's voice may not always be perfectly grammatically correct.

A narrator's voice may not always be perfectly grammatically correct. 

I thought that needed to be repeated. In all, changing tenses is a tool that you can use when shaping your narrative. Use it well, and sparingly, and you can deepen the reader's understanding of your characters, settings, and themes. 


Friday, April 28, 2017

The Alchemist's Widow: Winter's door ~ Time Heals

<<Parts Nine - Eleven

Winter’s Door
“So explain this again.” The tall building on Brick Street had an ominous and eerie feeling.
“Winter has his territory blocked off within Nowhere. You can only reach it through this door.”
“Okay.” I walked up the steps to the front door. The lock was rusty, but the key didn’t seem to mind. It slid in as easily as it had every other lock and turned smoothly. There was a click, and the door came open easily. Clutching the key in my hand, I stared into the threshold. Unlike every other door to Nowhere I’d seen thus far, it was not black. The vision within the door was a field of snow.
“Are you ready?” William asked.
I closed my eyes, and nodded. “Yes.” I went through the door, and upon reaching the other side, it slammed shut. I could hear Maurice and William pounding on the other side. I grabbed the handle, jerking with all my might. But to no avail. This side bore no keyhole, and if Maurice could not open the door from his side, there was little hope of it opening for me.
Someone clapped behind me. Slow, sarcastic claps. I turned around, feet starting to get cold as snow seeped into my shoes. My shoes. Not the perception of my shoes. My shoes in actuality. I was myself again.
“Welcome to my world, Catherine.” He was not tall. But he was not short. His eyes were the blue of the ice around us and his hair was the color of sand. “It’s taken you sometime, longer than I expected.”
“Do I know you?”
“Yes…and no.” He smiled, flashing canines that were just a touch too pointed to be friendly in a smile. “I am Winter. I am the man that took your husband. But in the world out there, I have another name. They call me Daniel.”
“Officer Dan stops by once a week.”
He was too handsy by far…his cologne was overpowering…
“Officer Dan.”
“Indeed.” He smiled again. “You’re so cold, Catherine. So very cold. I just wanted to help you. Things—never would’ve worked out with you and David. His family never approved and you—you can’t even bring a child to term. At least, not his child.”
His words should have grated against my ears, but instead fell soft as feathers and with the warmth of a steady fire. He walked towards me, and I found myself frozen. My feet would not move.
“David was so mistaken. I never wanted him.” He was within arm’s reach, but I couldn’t move. He reached out and stroked my cheek with a cold hand. “You…Catherine. You’ve always been the one I wanted.”
I couldn’t bring my voice to speak; it lay frozen behind my lips.
He drew even closer, just a handbreadth away now. “The one I cared for. The one I love.” He leaned in and kissed my cooling lips. I couldn’t move. “Now, now you are mine.”
The key was still in my hand. It shouted at me, screamed and berated. Fight! Fight back Catherine!
The cold was eating away at me. He was doing this. I pulled memories of David from my mind. Summer afternoons spent in the shade. A spring picnic in the park. Our honeymoon off the Mediterranean. All warm and full of his love. The ice around my heart cracked. A loud snap jolting through my body.
Walking, hand in hand, to the market on the weekends. Dreaming together of the future, naked to the full moon’s light. Whispered kisses in the shadows. David brought me into the light.
The ice cracked again, and crumbled. I balled up a fist, and punched Daniel in the nose. He staggered back, hand going to the blood starting to leak from the extremity. “You bitch!”
I smiled. “Aren’t as good as you thought, are you?” I took a menacing step forward, “Now, where is my husband?”

Never Anger a Lamppost
“He is gone. Removed. You can never have him. Don’t you see? This is what’s best for you. Anything that reminded you of David was poison. Had to go.” He smiled. “Your baby—was killing you, and that…cat. It only reminded of David. I couldn’t let you suffer like that.”
“You think I wanted my baby dead?” The audacity of the man struck me in roots giving place for rage to settle. “You think I hated having Variel around? She is still with me. She’s kept going. Kept me sane. You think I wanted to find her body?
“Blood—pouring out of her ears, her nose…her mouth.” I wiped at my own mouth in reflex. “You think I wanted my baby dead? Dead and blood pouring out of me. It was everywhere.” I stared at my hands for a moment before looking up at him. “I can still smell the death on me. That was you?
Fear caught his face. I didn’t know what he saw, but I felt myself changing. Felt the wind catch at fabric around my waist and elbows. Grey and black tatters of a gown. The gown was alive in itself. It was alive with my grief. Alive with my rage.
“I would never do anything to hurt you—”
“You never loved me. You only wanted to possess me. You’re a coward. You’re a selfish coward.” Tears flavored my words intermittent with rage.
Objects began to appear around me. Stones and books and silverware, a lamp post and a mail box. More and more in a ring around myself and him.
“Where is my husband?” My voice cracked like a whip.
“He will never have you! He can never escape me!”
“You’re wrong. I didn’t make it here on my own. Someone helped me.” I opened my hand to reveal the silver key I’d clutched so hard the outline of it was embedded in my hand. “David helped me. He brought me the key. He set me on the path. Now you will give him back to me.”
“No! No! He his mine! And you are mine!”
The inanimate clamored around me. Let us… Let us… Let us…
I knew what they wanted. “Your life will end here, in blood and sorrow if you refuse me again.”
“You think you frighten me little girl? I’ve killed hundreds like you!”
And their bones spoke to me from the ground, soft whispers of long ago life. Let us… Let us… Let us…
I closed my eyes for just a moment. “Give him back. Please.”  I spoke over the maelstrom of tiny voices.
“Please? Please?” He laughed. “Never!”
I sighed. “Then you will get no mercy from me.” I let go of the control I had over their bloodlust. Bones rose from the ground and went first, battering into the man. And then the silver and the stones and the books. The lamppost and the mail box.
I turned away, but couldn’t quite block out the sound of his gurgled screaming.
“She did say please.” I looked down, Variel sat facing Winter’s bloody end.
“I couldn’t hold them back much longer anyway…I killed a man.” I closed my eyes again and my stomach heaved.
My knees grew cold as snow seeped through the fabric of my tattered gown. I pressed the palms of my hands against the ground to steady myself.
“It’s all right.” Variel rubbed against my arm. “Wash your mouth out with some snow.”
I took her advice, ridding myself of the after burn of the bile with the cold clean taste of the snow.
“I have to find David.” I pushed myself up to standing and took a good look around. All I saw was snow and a corpse covered in twitching objects.
“You have to look past the snow. There were two things Winter was good at, illusion, and death. Just, see what’s there.”
I breathed deeply of the brisk air, and looked. All around me, all I saw still was snow. “Nothing.”
“I know you can do this. Concentrate. He must have a home here. A fortress. The inanimate within are clamoring for you. Listen, see.”
I closed my eyes to better hear. At first, all I could hear were the contented sighs of the bloodthirsty. I pushed past them, past the cold of the still stone beneath my feet and the bones too tired to join the fight.
Chairs and a table. Shelves. A fire. Smoke. I could smell it. I opened my eyes and looked up into the sky where the smoke pooled and cast my eyes below it and looked.
The stone building appeared out of the haze. Reasserting itself into the landscape with genuine relief. Variel purred. “Well done.” It was immense. A veritable disaster of architecture from every part of the world one found stone castles in. Fluted turrets met starkly against watchtowers as solid as mountains. Stairs grew from every direction and some ended abruptly, going nowhere.
But there was a door. A clear entrance into the chaos.
I nodded sharply and walked up to the door. It was ajar. The fortress and its furnishings seemed to welcome me. Call to me. I smiled and stroked the lintel gently. “Well done,” I whispered back to it.
One could feel the entire place warm.
But there was a source of cold. A deep, dark cold the house could not warm. I followed the twisting halls of stone back and deeper. Deeper to the heart where the source of the cold was.
Bone-numbing cold that chattered my teeth and turned the tips of fingers blue. It was a shard of ice. Huge, it filled the center of the circular room I found myself in. Its blue tiled floor was cold beneath my feet. The walls were pierced with doorways going in every direction.
Doorways filled with images of places I knew. The cemetery. My house. Hanover Street. The territories of the Wizard and Locksmith. The Library. He’d been watching. Always watching.
I looked up at the pillar. It was smooth and perfect. Precisely clear but for a single imperfection close to the floor. A dark blotch. A strange, large blotch. A man-sized blotch. With the clarity of understanding I rushed to the side of the trapped man. He was embedded deeply within the ice. His arms stretched out in defense, his hands reaching for something.

Variel whistled. Which surprised me as I hadn’t known cats could whistle. But then, Variel wasn’t just any cat.
“That’s a pretty potent work.”
“How do I get him out?”
“Well—” Her words were cut off by a strangled mrowl.
“Variel?” I turned around.
She hung in midair, grasped by translucent hands attached to a translucent form. Winter.
“Let her go!” I swung at him, only to fall through his non-existent form.
The ghost of Winter laughed. He laughed, and laughed. But his laugh cut off as Variel’s claws dug into his chest. Apparently he’d forgotten Variel wasn’t altogether alive. She looked at me, smiled her catty smile and bit down into his throat.
It was some instinct in me that screamed. “No!” But before I could blink, she had sucked him into herself and fell prone to the floor. “Variel?” I moved to her side and knelt, laying a hand on her. “Variel?”
She still smiled, and as I watched, her form faded away.

“Cats are the gatekeepers of death,” David said with a smile. “I figure it’s good to have one around. They keep the spirits that refuse to rest at bay. Of course, they say for every life they send, they lose one of their own.”
“And how many lives has Variel got left you think?” I stroked her ears and snuggled closer to my husband.
“She’s an adventurous creature, but I bet she’s got at least one left.”

“No!” I pounded the floor where she’d lain with numb hands. My tears catching in the gullies between the tiles. Running like rivers amidst islands of cool blue.
I stood and ran to the ice trapping my husband. I pounded my hands against it, dug at it with my nails. One tore off, bleeding sluggishly in the cold.
“David!” I shouted at him. Pounded and tore and shouted again. “David!”
His eyes, which had been closed just a bare moment before, opened. Bright green and piercing.
“David!” I pounded harder, desperate for the ice to break. “David! Please, David! Please!”
One hand moved, clenching into a fist. And then the other. I could see the glint of his wedding ring even through the ice. I pressed my hand against the ice. Willing it to push through to him.
“David?” His hand closed around mine. I stepped away, pulling him free of the ice.
He collapsed against me and we fell to the floor in a heap of arms, legs and dripping clothes. Steam waded off of him in little waves. “Catherine,” he said softly. “Catherine…” He kissed me. He kissed me so fiercely all the cold left my body.
Everything was warm and welcoming. Every hurt, every lonely night washed away in the life of that kiss. There seemed to be water all around me, warm, life-filled water.
The pillar of ice was melting.
“David. We should go, we can’t stay here.”
He drew away, and his smile warmed me down to my toes. “You’re right. But what about Winter? He’ll never let me go. How did get past him?”
“Winter is dead, David.” I swallowed. “He’s dead.”
I met his incredulous eyes. “I killed him. The inanimate, they killed him because I could not hold them back. I didn’t want to. And his ghost attacked Variel. She took him. Sent him onward. He’s gone. He’s really gone.”
There was no repulsion. David lifted me into his arms and stood. He kissed me again, I thought I would melt. “You did only what you had to do. I have faith in that.”
A shot of sound snapped through the air. The pillar of ice was starting to crack. “We have to go.”
“You still have that key?” I opened my hand. He smiled. “Well done. Hold tight to me.” I didn’t need further prompting. I clutched him tight and he took off running. We slammed through the doorway as the ice fell behind us in deadly shards. Shattering at our heels.
I opened my eyes on my own bedroom. There were arms wrapped around me, I was warm, and dry. I rolled over within the loop of arms. David smiled at me. “Good morning,”
“Good morning.” I kissed him. “You aren’t going to leave me again, are you?”
“Never again.” He pushed my hair out of my face. “You are the bravest person I have ever known. I love you Catherine.”
“I love you too.”

Explanations are Not Forthcoming
“Catherine?” It was my mother, pounding on my door. The shower was running, David. I smiled, picking myself out of bed and shuffling over to my bedroom door. It seemed Maurice had taken the time to fix it.
With a new deadbolt even. Bless him.
I unlocked the door and opened it on my mother in mid-knock. “Good morning.”
“Good morning? Good morning?” Her voice raised several decimals. “You’ve been gone. Vanished. No one has been able to find you anywhere!”
“Well, I wasn’t anywhere. I was Nowhere. Now. If you excuse me, I want to take a shower.” I started to close the door, but she stopped me.
“Catherine Elizabeth! I want an explanation. You ran from the hospital, you vanish for days at a time. You rave at Mr. Crowley about David being alive and now you have the audacity to brush it off like it’s nothing?”
David stepped behind me and wrapped his arms around me, giving me a quick kiss on the cheek. “Good morning, Mom.”
“You see, I told you he was alive.” My mother fainted, falling to the floor with a fairly significant thump. Maurice and William were quick to step up to help her away.
“Don’t worry about a thing,” William said. “We’ll explain everything to the family.”
Maurice nodded in agreement. “Far past time. This family has too many secrets.” Now that, I could agree with.

Time Heals
“Mommy! Mommy! Look what I found!” My daughter rushed up to me, chocolate brown pigtails waving behind her, barely contained by her blue ribbons. In her hands she held a squirming kitten. “Isn’t he adorable?” She held him up for my inspection, green eyes twinkling with mischief.
“Precious.” The kitten was nothing special at first glance. Black with white feet and bib. His tail thrashing in irritation.
“Can I keep him?”
“Hmm…” I lifted him from her inexpert grip to take a closer look.
“I’ll call him Mittens and feed him and keep him clean and everything!” she promised emphatically.
Mittens? The kitten decried. My name is not Mittens. On closer inspection, one could see the pattern of darker black stripes. Amidst those stripes was an image. A key.
“I don’t think he looks like a Mittens, Victoria.”
“Then what does he look like?” David asked, peeking at the kitten over my shoulder.
Monty. The kitten mewled. My name is Monty.
“Monty. He looks like a Monty.”
My daughter frowned at the kitten for a moment, and then clapped her hands. “Does that mean he stays?”
I smiled at her and glanced back at David, who nodded. “Yes, that means he stays.”
Oh good, he purred, Cause I’m hungry. I laughed, cuddling the kitten tight and then drawing my daughter in for a hug. David wrapped his arms around both of us.
My daughter squealed in happiness and basked in the warmth and love of my family. At long last, I won the war and Winter had no hold on me.

The End. 

Part One>>