6 Benefits of Always Having Multiple Writing Projects

With a Type A personality, I have to admit that there’s something beautiful in being laser-focused on just one thing for a while. You can get into a state of flow that enables you to produce a draft more quickly.

But I’m also a realist. I’ve learned that, in most cases, it’s better to have multiple writing projects going at once. The benefits include

  1. Pivoting to a different project that best suits your mood or attention level, which improves writing clarity, authenticity, and accuracy.
  2. Staying active and feeling more productive even as you wait to hear back from beta readers, editors, agents, etc.
  3. Setting work aside to work out kinks more naturally, rather than trying to force solutions in the moment.
  4. Being able to practice different types or styles of writing
  5. Improving time management through more serious task scheduling and prioritization
  6. Being less stressed and allowing yourself to quit what doesn’t work because you know all of your eggs aren’t in one basket

But this doesn’t mean you should overdo it. Ambition is great, but there are limits to how much you can bite off and chew. If you have some great ideas for articles, novellas, books, etc. but already have yourself scheduled, it’s okay to push those ideas out. Just jot them down with enough detail that you can pick them up later. Ask yourself which writing projects best fit your overall writing goals, and leave the ideas that aren’t ideal for those goals on the shelf.

As for how to pick your writing projects, ask yourself

  • Will this project bring in income?
  • How will the project influence my relationships?
  • Are any projects more timely, or are they evergreen?
  • Which projects do I keep coming back to or thinking about?
  • What type of commitment does the project involve in terms of time, expertise, and resources?

Personally, I’ve found that having two or three big projects (e.g., novels) and 5-10 articles a week is plenty of variety. You might find that you can handle less or more, but you absolutely need time when you are not writing. It’s during that time that your brain gets a chance to recover and you can experience all the amazing things that later can be fodder for the page. Be self-aware, find your rhythm, and then don’t quit.

Yes, Opinion Writing Is Real Writing with Real Value. Here’s Why

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Let me start by saying I don’t lose the irony that this entire post is, in fact, going to be my opinion.

With that out of the way (phew!), I’ve been trying to spend more time interacting with writing groups on social media, and not too long ago, someone happened to make the comment that opinion or editorial writing had no value compared to “real” journalism. They accepted the philosophy of Bill Bullard, who quipped that “Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding.” It’s a sentiment I’ve heard before and likely isn’t going to die any time soon.

But it’s also a sentiment that, to me, is flat-out wrong.

I’ll make it clear that I have intense respect for “real” journalists, the people who go out and report news and studies with serious integrity related to the facts. They are absolutely storytellers in their own right and have a fantastic understanding of how to both inform and engage people quickly. Done well, those stories can change how people think and inspire them to take action, even if the journalist achieves relative objectivity in the way they report.

But opinions can be transformative, too. As an example, I’ll point to Steve Jobs. As Simon Sinek summarizes in his TED talk, for years, people believed that to sell well, you need to focus on the product, highlighting its features and quality. The “what” came first, and the “why” was secondary. But Jobs believed that the real way to engage people and market was to tap into emotions. If you could communicate the why behind your business and get your audience to feel something first, then you could find the people who shared your vision and get them to respond not just to a single product, but to any product you made. That’s why Apple customers don’t just buy iPhones. They buy music players, televisions, speakers, computers, and all kinds of tech gear. If Jobs hadn’t asserted his thinking and challenged the status quo, then Apple wouldn’t be the successful company it is today.

Or take Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He didn’t step up to the podium and give an “I have the facts” speech. He simply communicated a dream. A vision. An opinion. His work dramatically changed the course of the Civil Rights Movement. And in the same way, people today lobby for different shifts based on what they believe, including women’s rights and sexual orientation. Protections and liberties that are in place exist only because enough people came to hold the same views.

Some of the most well-known and respected authors of all time are also some of the best thinkers, writing their observations and concepts about the world. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, wrote many essays on nature, self-reliance, and experiential living. Jean-Jacques Rousseau championed the idea that the people had the right to rule, and he also promoted education and moral character. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote on everything from history to religion. Should we ditch all of their manuscripts simply because they don’t require fact-checkers or appear on the front page of The New York Times?

In sum, writers have penned opinions–and subsequently changed the world–practically since the beginning of time. This is not to say that their work is superior to traditional journalism, but rather to say that neither form of writing should be minimized. Both have purpose, influence, and sway, because people always will want to understand as much as they want to connect. They want to know what other people experience and feel like insiders. That’s one of the reasons why real-life autobiographies, along with reality TV, are so popular.

So if you want to write a news piece to inform, do it. If you want to share your views or a story from your life, do it. And it’s okay to do both–I’ve written advice-oriented pieces about my experiences or ideologies on the same day as I’ve written about a science study, and often back-to-back. You are not limited or confined, and you shouldn’t let anyone discredit you because you’ve written one style or the other. The only rule is that you write in a way that is clear and easy to understand. Follow that, and to hades with the trolls.

Traditional Publishing, Independent Publishing, and Self-Publishing: What’s the Difference?

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If you’ve written a book of any sort, you’ve got three big options when it comes to putting your pages into the hands of readers–traditional, independent, and self-publishing. These three options are very different animals and will suit different authors in different ways.

Traditional publishing

Traditional publishing usually involves the so-called Big Four publishers (Penguin Random House/Simon and Schuster, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Macmillan) or any of their imprints. You typically need an agent to editors seriously consider your work, and you query the agent in much the same way you would any publisher/editor. Work is extremely competitive, with houses publishing just 1-2 percent of submissions.

Working with a traditional publisher can be ideal in that large houses generally are expert marketers. They know how to get your book into all the major retailers and can help you set up all kinds of publicity events. You can sell a larger number of books as a result. A big downside, however, is that the publisher often takes quite a bit of control over the production of the book, which can take years. You might be asked to do significant rewrites and typically don’t have too much say over elements like cover art.

Pay from a traditional publisher typically includes a small advance ($2,000-$20,000). Royalties can be on either gross or net sales and generally are between 5 to 15 percent and max out around 25 percent. But remember, you need an agent! They’ll take another 10 to 15 percent of your earnings. However, going with traditional publishing requires zero upfront investment.

Independent publishing

Independent publishing tends to combine elements of traditional and self-publishing. You still submit to houses, but the houses are much smaller and typically are more willing to take some risks in terms of what they publish. They tend to offer their authors more flexibility and a more collaborative relationship through the publication process. They can handle the printing and warehousing of physical books, which often would be too expensive for authors to do alone. They also can set their own royalty structures and usually provide larger advances than traditional publishers do. Many independent publishers are open to writers who do not have an agent.

Self-publishing

With self-publishing, you have to cover all upfront costs, including marketing and distribution. You use a service like CreateSpace to format your manuscript and get a formal ISBN. Then you use a service like Amazon to take the prepared manuscript and distribute it. Distribution can be purely digital or include print-on-demand (POD). You can get your book into bookstores with the POD option, but because the distribution is so expensive, you likely won’t make any money. If you opt not to distribute into bookstores, however, you can earn royalties of 40 to 60 percent, and you don’t need to worry about finding an agent or paying them additional fees. Payments also usually happen faster.

Most writers who self-publish do so because they want to maintain control over the creative aspects of their work. But successful self-publishing requires considerable marketing work and business savvy.

The bottom line

If you don’t mind losing some of your artistic control to have an experienced publisher do the heavy lifting for you, and if you don’t have a lot of money to put up upfront, traditional publishers likely would be a good fit for you. Independent publishers might be the best option if you need some guidance but want more of a say in publication. Self-publishing can be the easiest path to producing your book and usually offers the biggest royalties, but you’ll need to invest upfront. It’s a good choice if you want maximum artistic control.

All this said, as an author, you don’t have to stay in one camp or another. Some writers self-publish some projects and use independent or traditional publishers for others. Simply consider your preferences and the goals for specific work when deciding which path is best for you.

 

Querying? Here’s How to Speed Up the Process

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Regardless of whether you’re sending off a short 300-word article or a novel, querying is a major part of a writer’s life. The trouble is, it can take an ungodly amount of time if you don’t create and use a strategy. Here’s what you can do to speed things along and get good results.

1. Create a drafts folder in your email.

For every piece you have, create a query letter in your email. Place the drafts in a separate folder that is clearly labeled, and unless the submission guidelines state otherwise, place “[query–[Last Name]–Title of Piece] in the subject line. The only blank areas should be the recipient’s name and the date. This allows you to search for the draft within your email client, and when you send it out and get responses back, you can see at a glance which submission you’re getting messages about.

Once you have your query drafts, when you find a publication, editor, or agent you want to send it to, copy the text into a fresh email. Then fill in the name and date details and add any information you can to personalize it, such as similar titles the publication has run.

2. Set up auto-reminders.

Tasks like sending follow-up emails or noting that an agent is past their typical response time can be difficult to keep track of. Use a system like Query Tracker or even Google Docs to set reminders about each task. This way, you don’t have to spend extra time double-checking whether you’re up-to-date–you can just follow your reminders as you go and get ‘er done.

3. Use color coding.

If you’re tracking everything in a spreadsheet, color coding will allow you to quickly sort your rows and columns by the status of the query, type of query (e.g., fiction), or other factors.

4. Summarize guidelines. 

For every publisher, agent, or editor you want to submit to, create a spreadsheet row with all pertinent information you’d need to submit, such as the agent’s name or the query email address. Include a cell in this summary row with a link to the submission guidelines for later reference. Then, in a final cell, list all of the pieces you plan to submit to that publisher, editor, or agent. This way, you don’t spend time looking up website URLs again, and you quickly can cross off agents, publishers, or editors for each piece after a query is finished.

5. Schedule time.

Many writers query whenever they have a moment, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But scheduling time in advance allows you to get in the frame of mind to work with real focus, and you can set yourself up to work when you know you’ll have quiet or won’t get interrupted. It also makes it less likely that you’ll push the querying to the back burner, as it’s an official calendar event.

Remember, no matter what hacks you use to make querying go a little faster, it’s still a process that’s going to take a few months at a minimum. Most publishers, agents, and editors have a standard response time of eight to 12 weeks, although some will respond in two to four weeks. So no matter how many queries you can get out, you’ll have waiting to do. Since you’re going to have time on your hands, my advice is always to have multiple irons in the fire. Work in batches, tweak based on the feedback you get, and then try again.

9 Ways to Know It’s Time to Stop Adding Detail to a Piece of Writing

 

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Details can make or break a piece of writing. They allow people to get a clear picture and can trigger all kinds of emotional and mental responses. At some point, though, you simply don’t need more. How do you know when you’ve reached this point?

  1. Imagine you were summarizing or creating an abridged version. Is including the information necessary for the reader to understand what you meant? If not, you probably can leave it out. Many details are simply “nice to have” or asides, rather than foundational.
  2. Ask yourself what narrative service the detail offers. For instance, does it somehow provide a plot clue? Evoke an emotion or symbolism? Give a glimpse of a character’s past? If it’s not providing a service, then it’s dead weight in the draft.
  3. Consider balance. Does adding the detail put too much weight on one character or plot point? Does it throw off the pacing of the piece by keeping the reader in one place?
  4. Instead of focusing on every word of your draft, read it fast a few times. If you find yourself skimming over the same details each time, then they’re probably not adding value.
  5. Consider your technical limits. Maybe you could write a 200,000-word behemoth, for example, but if your genre standard is just 80,000, let yourself type a final period and move on.
  6. Think about norms. Writing for a specific audience usually means you include some “insider information” by default. If you’re just reiterating what your audience already should know, then you’re not doing them any favors by including the detail and might even come off as condescending.
  7. Ask if the detail refreshes what’s common. Anybody can say “The girl had brown hair.” It’s new to say “The girl’s hair was the color of the sturdy walnut trees, fringed by wisps of willow that grew around her ears.”
  8. Consider the reader’s imagination. If you’re laying out everything to such a degree that the reader can’t visualize anything for themselves, back off. Get them started with just two or three brush strokes and then get out of the way.
  9. Ask if the detail is your best option. The best details usually tell something unusual or specific.

5 Things No One Tells Writers (But Totally Should)

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If you’re taking writing seriously, then you probably already are familiar with some of the most common truths of the trade, such as the fact lots of great manuscripts end up in the slush pile. But there are tons of other realities that people should clue you in about (but probably haven’t).

1. Editors, agents, and publishers are just people. 

Because editors, agents, and publishers have a certain amount of expertise, and because they serve as gatekeepers for getting work to readers, writers often put them on a pedestal. But they’re prone to the same excitements, limits, and needs as everybody else, and like everybody else, they’ve probably downed a few pints of Ben & Jerry’s during peak moments of stress.

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You’ll find some writing industry pros who are fantastic and some who are jerks. And at the end of the day, if you don’t send that email or call, they’re out of a job. So see them for the humans they are. Give them empathy and don’t be afraid to reach out or ask questions.

2. Multiple projects protect your sanity.

I’ve had rare instances where editors emailed me back the same day, and even rarer instances where it was within the hour. The typical timeframe for a response, however, is 2 to 4 months. During that time, you have two choices:

  • Ruminate every waking hour about what the agent, editor, or publisher is doing and what they will say because you have nothing to distract you, OR
  • Be productive on something else so your anxiety doesn’t turn you into a shriveled raisin of despair.

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Trust me when I say that the second option has more advantages. Not only do other articles, stories, novels, etc. help the time pass faster, but they also offer consistent practice and more opportunities to be published/make a sale. So get into a rhythm, and develop your own system for tracking everything you’re doing.

3. You’ll spend a ridiculous amount of time Googling.

Even if you’re the best writer on the face of the planet, facts you need might not already be in your brain. Whether you need to figure out the accurate length of a typical medieval sword or you have to grab the latest disease statistic, Google is your best friend. And just like your local library (which I still highly recommend)…

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The problem here, of course, is that it’s so easy to get pulled down the rabbit hole into information you don’t need. It can be hard just to discern what’s going to be useful and what won’t be. So you need to set limits for yourself and get as specific as you can with the questions you are asking. Learn a little about how SEO works so your results actually are relevant. Lastly, make sure that you take the time to create whatever bookmark folders you’ll need, because nothing is worse than trying to use your Internet history to find something you didn’t digitally file.

4. Your pace is your own.

Join any writing group or community online or just read about writing and you’ll likely get the impression that you have to write at the speed of light (or maybe faster). Even publishing “schools”–and there are some good legitimate ones–sell packages based on the idea of getting more books out quickly.

But creativity is not aware of the clock. The brain links pieces at a schedule we can’t put on the agenda. Not only that, sometimes writing isn’t just going through finding words or researching. It’s dealing with truly personal, deep trauma or other emotions that you can’t rush. So if it takes you just a few months to crank out a novel, more power to you. But if you end up as the snail watching a bunch of squirrels spastically scurrying to the finish line, don’t sweat it.

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All that matters is that you don’t quit, and that you keep the focus on creating something with real quality embedded in it.

5. You’ll need to draw the line.

Any piece you write can become a “baby” to you. And in the quest to treat that baby right, it’s natural to go to it multiple times, revise, and try to make it even better. But there comes a point where all you’re doing is changing, not improving. For me personally, I know I’ve hit that point when the revisions are smaller and more grammar-focused, and I’m not really adding or taking anything away that would have a strong influence on the plot. I also know I’ve reached that point when I feel more at ease about the text and have a sense that I’d be totally OK with others seeing the last draft. Remember that leaving one project means that you can enjoy starting another, draw the line, and don’t keep looking back.

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In my view, most people who go into writing don’t go into it truly understanding how to be great at it. It’s a constant learning process, even for people who “naturally” can put words on the page. But because it requires such an enormous commitment, you should have a sense of what you might experience. The points above provide a small glimpse into that. More truths that are true for you will be clearer over time, but whenever you’re in doubt, talk to people in the trenches. They likely will be happy, because of the writer’s inclination, to tell their story for your benefit.

How to Write a Solid Article Introduction Using AMAP

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Web and magazine articles are some of the most consumed content in the modern age. But what happens if your intro paragraph stinks? Because of the sheer quantity of pieces out there, if your introduction is subpar, readers will ditch you fast. To rise above the noise, for most articles, you need to hook people right away with attention-getter, motivator, assertion, and preview sentences (AMAP).

The four parts of the intro, defined

Your attention-getter is your introduction’s hook. It can take a lot of forms. Stats, sayings/quotes, facts, or descriptions all work, so think about your audience and how they tend to think or work.

Your motivator explains the attention-getter or gives the reader a reason to listen. It can identify the source of a quote to offer authority, for example, or it can provide a curiosity gap. The best motivators show direct relevance between the hook and the reader’s needs, wants, or interests.

The assertion is your thesis. This is where you make the claim or overall point for the article.

The preview summarizes what you’re going to cover in the article to support the thesis. The trick is to do this in a way that leaves some room for a little header variety. Otherwise, you just sound like you’re repeating yourself.

The example right in front of you

If you go back and look at the introduction for this post, it follows the AMAP strategy. I start with a fact, build a little curiosity with a question, assert that readers will leave without a good intro, and then outline AMAP.

Storytelling and other uses

Unless you’ve been under a rock, then you know that the best writing emphasizes great storytelling. People want to connect and empathize as they read. That’s what pulls them in. Although AMAP is meant more for straightforward pieces, such as how-tos or explainers, you still can use it with great artistry. Here’s a sample I whipped up:

When the dry season came, the water ran out. I tried not to show fear, but my mind could not help think about whether the drought would devour us. Unless we walked to the camp more than 100 miles away, we would not make it. What water was left in the river was too dirty, there was no way to grow food for our bellies, and the sky was an endless blaze of light.

So don’t think for a minute that you can’t apply this format to a great short story or even a novel. You can. With a little tweaking, it even can get you started on a query or promotional blurb/excerpt (e.g., When the dry season came to Yanta’s village…can they overcome the dirty river, food shortage, and blazing sky to reach the camp 100 miles away?). Because remember, you’re just catching the reader’s attention, making your point, and summarizing.

When to leave AMAP behind

AMAP doesn’t apply as well to more journalistic/news pieces, which jump right into the events/facts. It also isn’t the best choice if you’re directly transcribing an interview–that just needs a single sentence saying what the transcription covers, who was involved, and when the discussion happened.

Another consideration is editorial preference/style. Some publications or sites always want their pieces to follow a specific feel or format. They might say, for example, to use quotes only in the main body of the article, or they might favor a format where there are only one or two sentences to begin. Always review pieces that already are up or in print to decide if AMAP will work.

Variety is valuable, but for a quick start, AMAP has incredible strength

AMAP is a specific method for approaching introductory paragraphs. It’s ideal for articles, but it’s applicable to other purposes, too. Even though I don’t recommend using it every single time because of the value of variety, it’s a powerful technique to have in your writing arsenal. Pull it out when you need to get started on pieces quickly and a little templating makes sense to get yourself moving.

5 Things You Can Do To Improve Your Writing Instantly

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If you want to improve your writing, then the best way to do it–by far–is to just write, and to do it a lot. There’s no magic quick fix for honing your own style and becoming comfortable with the entire process. But there are some habits and strategies that can make a dramatic improvement in just minutes.

1. Say the words.

Yes, you have to go back and clean things up. But part of what makes writing work is that it feels conversational and relatable. Reading your writing aloud or verbalizing as a part of outlining process helps you find your flow. If you’re tripping all over yourself in a spot, then you probably can say it in a simpler way or find alternatives that fit the rhythm of the writing better.

2. Download a tool.

My favorite here is Grammarly, but there are increasingly sophisticated options. Some even are starting to utilize AI to generate content and predictive analysis to make suggestions. The key here is to remember that the software is not the boss. It is simply a second pair of eyes, your Editor-in-a-Pinch. YOU still have to be smarter than the technology and think about how the suggestions/changes will influence the reader’s experience. But they can help you notice areas that need clarity or correction very quickly. They also can get you to think more out of the box and feel OK about chucking what doesn’t work.

3. Psych yourself up.

As a writer, your job isn’t just to tell the story (e.g., Fact A, Fact B, Fact C). That’s boring as hades. What makes it engaging is empathy. Readers have to feel something for the work to be memorable and have an influence on their thinking or behavior.

Conveying feelings in your writing happens more naturally if you’re feeling those emotions as you work. In this way, it’s every bit of performance art as acting or singing. It can be exhausting if you truly embrace and put everything into it. To get yourself in the right mindset for a scene, do anything that gets you in the mood you need to convey. Listening to music tracks is an easily accessible option I use all the time. But you also can go for a walk, go somewhere new, drink your favorite drink, play a video game or even sort your stuff. The only rules are that whatever you do has to be 1) easy to stop and pivot from 2) safe for you and others.

4. Pay attention to your body and environment.

I’m not talking so much about general self-care, although things like enough sleep and choosing healthy foods definitely influence your brainpower. I’m talking about your natural rhythm during the day. For example, most of us slump during the afternoon, and I find that I write more words per hour in the morning before everyone is up and it’s quiet. Try to figure out when you do your best writing and then make sure that you’re scheduling in those windows. Take care of the more routine jobs for your writing that you can do pretty automatically, such as backing up your files, when you know you’re not going to be at your creative best.

5. Conduct a poll.

Whether you need to know which ending scenario people like better or just want to see which phrasing people prefer, a poll is a super fast and efficient way to get feedback. Social media platforms make it easy to connect with others for this purpose. When all is said and done, you’ll be left with a draft that’s easier to understand and gets a better response from your target audience. It also can help make you more aware of your shortcomings or biases so that they don’t find their way into your work in the future.

Most great writers admit that improving at the craft is something that never stops. Like them, you should seek to get better and learn more about writing over your entire career. But sometimes simple changes can make a huge, immediate difference in the quality or quantity of your work (or both). Give these strategies a try, and then let me know in the comments if they’ve helped you along.

 

How Challenging Yourself With Short Writing Deadlines Can Boost Your Judgment and Confidence

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If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, then you already know that I’m a huge advocate of not forcing writing if you’re just not feeling it. Forced writing shows its seams and almost always loses its luster.

But let’s assume that you’re having a great day. The words are flowing faster than your coffee. In this case, it often can be worth it to challenge yourself in terms of pace/deadline. The challenge doesn’t have to be outrageous–a mild shift is totally fine. If you normally take three hours to write a chapter, for instance, just aim for 2 hours and 50 minutes. Or if you normally do 500 words an hour, aim for 525. But you can test yourself harder, too, such as doing 3 articles instead of 2. You just have to be realistic, because if the challenge is truly impossible, then you’ll only end up missing the mark and feeling defeated.

So why do this?

The point with this strategy isn’t to add stress. Remember, it’s something to use when the writing is working for you. The point is to encourage yourself to trim away the fat. When the deadline is shorter or the pace is a little faster, you have to trust your gut. You can’t get caught in the weeds when looking for sources. You have to make good decisions on the fly about what’s relevant or necessary. You start to grasp that you don’t need everything. It’s training your judgment.

I’ve found that, when you do all of these things, something miraculous happens. Your true voice starts talking. Even though you might be conscious of all your technique or audience or any number of things, your self-censorship deflates, because you just don’t have time to worry so much. You have to just do. It’s all about just finishing. And over time, you’ll start to feel more comfortable not waiting for yourself. It’s a major confidence booster.

None of this means that the draft you produce is going to be perfect. You still have to go back and polish. But if you combine this strategy with others, such as using a template, then you can produce solid content fast and reliably and increase the odds that the end result is closer to who you actually are. And in my view, the value for this can’t fit on a price tag.

Rethinking the Traditional Protagonist and Antagonist

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In traditional writing, there’s almost always a clear protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist is the character (or idea) that represents everything good and right. The antagonist is the character (or idea) that represents everything bad and wrong. The story is, at the core, not about the characters at all, but whether good will triumph over evil. We anticipate that good will win out, but we still pay attention because we want to see the novel path that the author chooses to get good to the finish line.

In an article for Electric Literature, Elyse Martin points out that there’s been a surge toward trying to blur the lines with characters, particularly when it comes to female villains. The concept, Martin argues, is that writers and producers have been relying on the idea of female virtue to “rehabilitate” female villains–that is, they’re trying to give the villains a “cause” or reason for being bad, under the pretext that the villains really are inherently good, “were it not for x”. And in Martin’s view, that’s a mistake. We should just allow the villains to be bad, just because they’re bad.

Martin’s article stands as evidence of how people are playing with the protagonist/antagonist idea and how people are responding to it. I take Martin’s point in that, sometimes, there really is no underlying reason for being bad. Sometimes, a person has no deep trauma or backstory–they just really enjoy being an arsehole. That’s it. And the predictability of them being a jerk–and the protagonist later squashing them like a bug–is oddly comforting and enjoyable.

But I’m not so sure that, as writers, we have to draw a strict line all the time. Part of what makes life so challenging–and interesting–is that people aren’t 100 percent consistent. Great people can make horrid mistakes, like the loving family man choosing to cover for his boss’ lies. People who always have looked out for #1 can decide to do the right thing, like a death row inmate who donates his organs and gives others a second chance at life. Emotions can disrupt the usual logic, and reason can become clear. A million caveats can change decisions. A great example is in Star Wars, when Darth Vader–a main antagonist–becomes a hero by saving his son, Luke Skywalker, from another antagonist, the Emperor.

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In my view, blurry boundaries between antagonists and protagonists can make a book better. We can be on the edge of our seats because we aren’t sure which side they’re on, what they’re going to do, or who to really root for. This lack of clean lines creates intense anticipation and curiosity.

The key, I think, is knowing your audience and setting. If you’re writing for little kids who don’t have a ton of life experience and who can’t think as abstractly, for example, then black and white roles can be more favorable. But if you’re writing for adults, then they’re going to be able to understand far more nuances that color the characters in different ways. And in the same way, if you’re going for a more modern book with a realistic setting, then having a person who does only bad or good all the time can seem too fake.

So think about what your reader is going to need, as well as whether positioning your characters as antagonists or protagonists is going to make sense for the circumstances and plot line. If black and white works in one book and not another, then that’s OK. Let the books be what they must, and just have fun.