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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

How to Be Evil and Make People Cry - guest post by Katie Daniels

Have you ever had someone cry over your book? Have you ever had the satisfaction of hearing a reader's demand for more, that you not leave them on such a cliffhanger? If not, would you like to?

I'll let you in on a little secret. I'm not that good of a writer. I know this, because I know people who are really good writers and, let's face it, they're amazing. People who spin words the way spiders spin webs—effortlessly, and perfectly. To them writing is like ballet, and how many people really have what it takes to be a ballerina?

That's the bad news. The good news is that most writers are not very good. You don't have to be a Prima Ballerina in order to jam in front of the mirror. You don't have to have an unfair amount of inborn talent in order to impress a crowd. You just have to know how to cheat a little. Even really successful, popular authors were once right where we are now—muddling along and envying the genius of writers like C.S. Lewis or Neil Gaiman.

The most important thing is that you need to be you when you write. Your narrator's voice needs to be your voice, carry your fears and emotions along with it. You need to take your own identity and push all your confidence and insecurities, secret desires and hidden guilts into your characters and make them alive.

This isn't the same as write what you know. You can be a straight white male writing about a black lesbian woman—that doesn't matter. What matters is that you both have insecurities. You both bleed, dream, cry. We're all human, and it's that humanity that brings our characters to life.

Of course you're not going to become a master author overnight. Learning to write generally takes a lot of hard work. You spend months writing, years editing, even longer realizing then no amount of editing is going to make the plot work, and then starting over. I spent ten years and one million words pouring my soul into various attempts at novelization before I decided I was good enough to attempt publishing. Now, a year later, I realize how much I still have to learn, how far I have to go before I'll actually be any good...but being published is a lesson in and of itself and the key thing is to press on.

At least your soul will grow back, right? As long as you keep feeding it bits of life it will remain healthy enough to chop up into little pieces when you torment your characters. Get out on occasion and breathe. Consume other stories. Listen to music. Talk to strangers. Visit new places. Then come home to your dark lair and and recreate them into your own personal monster. We'll make you into a Dr. Frankenstein yet.

But enough with the pep talk. I was going to tell you how to be evil. Remember how we established that very few authors are naturally talented? Very few people actually realize that fact. The majority of the population of readers can't tell the difference between someone with heartbreaking skill and someone with a diabolical plot device. All they care about is whether or not an author makes them feel something. All they want is a character real enough to make them laugh, or cry, or roll their eyes. And, with enough practice, anyone can do that. Here's how.

1. The Technical Basics. This is the easy part. This is the part any slug with a computer can figure out. You need to have a coherant story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. You need to watch for continuity errors that will snatch your readers out of the story. You need to do research and check your facts if you're writing in a historical era, a location you're not familiar with, or real-world science. You don't have to get it 100% correct, about 78% will do most of the time, although 85% is preferable.

2. The Characters. As previous stated you need well-developed characters. You need to know things about them even the readers don't know. Where did they grow up? What's their favorite color? Try throwing flat characters into unexpected situations and see how they react. Try throwing them into someone else's developed world. Find someone to character role-play with you. Dig out some of those endless character development sheets people are always creating. Or just bring them to life in your head like a 3D model—everyone has a different method of creating characters, and they all work. The point is that they need to live. What do they do when they're not in your novel? Do they ever break the fourth wall and talk to you? When you go a month without working on your draft do they get bored and go party with characters from your other novels? If so, this is a good sign that they're alive. Alive character are good. Dead characters won't win the hearts of your readers.

3. The Stakes. Look at some of your favorite books. Look at the stakes. The higher the stakes are the more likely you're very emotionally involved when reading that book. In “Write Your Novel From the Middle” (A book I highly recommend) James Scott Bell says that the stakes should always be life or death, and I couldn't agree more. It doesn't have to be literal life and death—in a romance novel, having the relationship not work out would result in the emotional death of the character in love. In a political thriller the stakes might be the death of a character's career. In a real-life vignette it might be something more subtle, like the psychological death of a small town girl who never gets away from her boring life to have a little adventure. It could be a metaphorical death of a character who goes over to the dark side and loses his soul. But whatever kind of death it is, that's how high the stakes need to be. No one ever got emotionally invested in a conflict that basically amounts to: “Waffles or Pancakes?”

4. Pain. Ah yes, now we get to the nut of the matter. Deep at heart we are all of us masochists. We like pain. We really like to see our characters in pain. Somewhere in the course of your plot, whether it's a time travel novel or a coming of age short story your MC needs to be in serious emotional, psychological, or physical pain. He needs to be tormented either literally or metaphorically. Does he struggle with making the right choice? That struggle needs to keep him up late at night, make his appetite go away, and otherwise make him appear pale, haggard, and exhausted. Is he a spy? Getting beat up and then getting up and getting on with it will twist the heart strings of all the teenage girls in your audience.

It doesn't always have to be graphic. In “Even Villains Fall in Love,” by our lovely hostess Liana Brooks, the main character is tormented by the idea that his wife might no longer love him. She doesn't dwell on the issue or spell it out in detail but it's there, constantly, wearing down both the main character and the readers. We feel his pain, anxiety and fear, and as a result we root for him and want him to win. But there's nothing wrong with blatant evil torture either, as long as it's well written! Have your character break a bone, get beat up by a bully, or ingest poison. Or, better yet, do something horrible to someone near him and enjoy the emotional fall out! I guarantee your readers will be on the edge of their seat, right there with you!

5. Throw in an Evil Twist. This is my favorite ever part of evil authorship. Do you want readers to really hate you? (In that “I hate you so much I can't stop reading” kind of way.) Turn the love interest into the villain. Have the Dystopian government your character is trying to overthrow be genuinely good after all. Have your sidekick turn traitor at the worst possible moment. Turn your MC into the villain! When your readers think that a character is safe, kill them off Joss Whedon style. The possibilities are endless! The only trick is to make it unexpected, and introduce it when your readers are least likely to expect. But be careful—there needs to be a purpose and a meaning that all ties into the ending or else you'll have violated rule #1 and you'll just have dissatisfied readers poking holes in your logic.

6. In Conclusion. Basically, in order to be an evil author you need to be willing to manipulate readers. Show off your best scenes to friends and ask what they like most about it. If their response is “meh” then there's probably not enough emotion in it. Emotion can be done badly, yes, but if done properly there's no such thing as too much of it. Is your story lacking that certain evil punch? Raise your stakes. Get someone shot, or kidnapped, or have a heart attack. Make bad things happen at the worst possible moment. Pile up catastrophe after catastrophe Jim Butcher style and sit back and laugh maniacally as the poor main character tries to get out of it.

Or wait, actually, that might be a bad idea since YOU are the one who has to get them out...

But you don't have to be good. You don't have to be brilliant. Any competent writer can jerk the heartstrings of most readership with three-dimensional characters, life or death stakes, high emotional currents, and a reasonable dosage of pain.

Why should you listen to me? Because I've done it. You may not find my books on the NY Time Bestseller list, or being nominated for a Hugo award any time soon, but I've lost track of how many teenage girls I've made cry.

And as an evil author that's the only measure of success I need.


Like what you read? I'm running a blog marathon event all month called “Imagine This.” Head over to VaguelyCircular.com for a celebration of ideas and creativity in speculative fiction! With a new post every day, dozens of guest authors (Including Liana Brooks!), and giveaways every week I'm sure there will be something to catch your fancy.

Also, be sure to head over to supervillainoftheday.com to read my evil comedy action and adventure series! You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll be surprised. And, with any luck, you'll see me for the evil villainess I really am.


Katie Lynn Daniels is the self published author of the superhero parody “Supervillain of the Day”; a series of compact novellas rather than full length novels. Like many of her kind, she is an eccentric with more hobbies than actual qualifications, who takes sadistic pleasure in making her readers cry. She is a fan of the Internet, freedom of information, creative commons, and Neil Gaiman. She is also a professional singer/songwriter/harpist, and performs regularly at the Scottish Highland Games, using  the opportunity to break every genre convention in music performance. She has two short films in post production, and lives on a dairy farm in Kentucky with her parents and eight younger siblings.


In a world without superheroes, tabloid reporter Jeffry Lewis Floyd turns into a rogue supervillain hunter, teaming up with a reluctant police sergeant from Scotland Yard and striking fear into the hearts of henchmen and law enforcement alike. Join them as they battle villains from the laughable to the bizarre, from Buckingham Palace to the Tower of London, defeating the forces of evil with little more than quick thinking, nearby junk, and enough sarcasm to split a watermelon. 

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