Saturday, July 30, 2016


In the midst of working on a new manuscript, I suddenly found myself asking a question that SHOULD have had an obvious answer—especially because the story I am telling involves manipulation, crime, even murder:


While I could easily write down the name of the killer, he wasn’t really the foe of the MC. I could name the characters who manipulated others or kept guilty secrets, but none of them were cut-and-dried baddies out to destroy my narrators. This question got me to thinking about the question of literary antagonists.

In genre fiction, where the term “villain” can frequently be substituted for the word “antagonist” (and correspondingly, the protagonist can be seen as a “hero,” naming the main character’s foe can be fairly simple. Here are a few examples:
  • HARRY POTTER series by J. K. Rowling. ANTAGONIST: Voldemort (shhhh!)
  • CINDER (Lunar Chronicles) by Marissa Meyer: ANTAGONISTS: Cinder’s stepmother; the evil Lunar Queen
  • THE FIFTH WAVE by Rick Yancey: ANTAGONISTS: The Others, Commander Vosch
  • GRACELING by Kristin Cashore: ANTAGONISTS: King Randa, King Leck
  • In the JAMES BOND oeuvre, there’s an actual catchphrase - “Bond Villain” – not unlike the “Dark Side” of the STAR WARS universe.

However, let’s try this same exercise with new and old realistic fiction titles:
  • ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES by Jennifer Niven: ANTAGONIST(S): Mental illness; Theodore Finch (also a protagonist – and his own worst enemy)
  • THE TRUTH ABOUT FOREVER by Sarah Dessen: ANTAGONIST: The past; the pain of loss that prevents feeling
  • THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald. ANTAGONIST: Tom Buchanan? OR Narrator Nick Carraway’s dream of being with Buchanan’s wife, Daisy? OR everything that kills the American Dream?
  • THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by J. D. Salinger. ANTAGONIST: Holden Caulfield (protagonist) is his own antagonist through his cynicism, distrust and inability to conform with social norms.

I realize I am not inventing any wheels here. This is basic stuff. HEROISM can be political, social, physical or emotional. VILLAINS can be external enemies or internal demons. You can confirm these basics with good old Merriam-Webster, who defines  ANTAGONIST is “…one that contends with or opposes another” or at where ANTAGONIST is described as “…a character or a group of characters which stand in opposition to the protagonist or the main character...from Greek word “antagonist─ôs” that means opponent, competitor or rival.”

Nonetheless, it is a worthy exercise to clarify the kind of ANTAGONISTIC characters, emotions, or other elements at play in your story and to develop them as fully as you do your PROTAGONIST and supporting “positive” characters.

Try holding your current manuscript up to the examples listed above. Which title most closely aligns with your story’s protagonist/antagonist dynamic? Can you think of another book which is a better match? Consider reading that title to see how the author fleshes out these elements and apply these insights to enriching your own story. 

Happy Writing!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Grief and Imaginary Worlds

There is a curious correlation between loss and tricks of the mind. Do we use our imaginations to battle grief? To deny it? To make it make some kind of horrible sense? Here are three gorgeous titles which explore this connection and may just break your heart.


"A World Without You tackles grief, mental illness, and family dynamics with both grace and generosity...Readers will emerge from this book a little stronger than when they entered.” —Emily Henry

I particularly appreciated Beth Revis' portrayal of "well" sister, Phoebe, whose viewpoint is depicted in contrast with her mentally ill brother, Bo. About her relationship with her parents, Phoebe observes: “I don’t have the luxury of allowing myself to break...Because if I break, they’ll break too.

A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness

There's no denying it: this is one profoundly sad story. But it's also wise, darkly funny and brave, told in spare sentences, punctuated with fantastic images and stirring silences. Past his sorrow, fright and rage, Conor ultimately lands in a place...where healing can begin. A MONSTER CALLS is a gift from a generous story­teller and a potent piece of art.  —The New York Times

My favorite quote: Stories are important, the monster said. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.


"Seventh-grade narrator Suzy Swanson will win readers' hearts as she silently struggles to come to terms with her complex emotions over the death of her former best friend."―Shelf Awareness

Friday, July 1, 2016

Two Chilling Covers for Sunny Days...

Some people like to beat the heat with swimming pools and frosty beach drinks. For me, summer's scorching temperatures are best cooled by shivering through the pages of scary, suspense-filled books!

My copy of THE FIXER by Jennifer Lynn Barnes is packed and ready for my Thursday cross-country flight. Having gone to college and worked in Washington, DC, I have a soft spot for that setting--also the scene (well, thereabouts) of my favorite television show, THE AMERICANS! Plus, Jennifer Lynn Barnes is an honest-to-goodness PhD scientist and all that brainiac-ness (?!) shines through her sharp prose.

The enthusiasm of my Viking editor, Kendra Levin, for this star-review-laden project made me race to the bookstore for Janet Fox's THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE. I started it as my plane took off from JFK and finished, breathless and sleepless, as I touched down in Amsterdam a last week. Set in a Scottish castle during WWII, this creepy and compelling tour de force is anchored by a feisty-yet-realistically-insecure main character, Kat. And Janet Fox is a true writer's writer, Vermont College MFA, and insightful student of the craft.

What do you do to keep cool? Have any shiver-worthy titles to recommend? TWEET ME!