The Anti-Villain (and what the heck that is)

The Anti-Villain (and what the heck that is) I loved a post last year in the Writer’s Digest blog titled “How to Create an Antihero That Readers Love.” It got me to thinking (a dangerous undertaking, according to my husband) about what the perfect anti-villain would be, and I immediately identified a classic example. Did you say Severus Snape? Oh yeah. You are right on. Severus Snape is an antagonistic character in the epic Harry Potter series, no doubt about it. He and Harry are far from bosom buddies, and for good reason. Not only does Professor Snape think Harry is an arrogant ignoramus too much like his father, but even better, Severus once had a thing for Harry’s mum. Yeah…complicated. SPOILER ALERT (I mean, seriously, if you haven’t read the whole HP series, why are you reading blogs about children’s writing…?): Severus is not the evil thing he’s made out to be, and his performance in the seventh book will simply break your heart. Yeah, a good anti-villain does that. They are redeemable. You hate to love them, but in the end, you almost do. So here, in no particular order, are four more anti-villain categories worth considering in any YA or MG novel… The parent/child conflict (Twisted). So yeah, we all fought with our parents at least a little in our formative years (if you didn’t, writing authentic young adult or middle grade fiction will be a challenge). One of my favorite representations of this conflict, with a very flawed parental character, is the father-son relationship in Laurie Halse Anderson’s In the novel, we do not like Tyler’s dad. No we do not. He behaves like a complete a**hole. He proves that any mom or dad can be as much a bad guy as any bully or evil government. But in the explosive ending, we see a shred of hope for the relationship and how the love of a parent toward a child will often keep him or her from being completely irredeemable.   The evil government (The Legend trilogy). Since I brought up the concept of evil government, I might as well comment on it. I love the character of Elector Anden in Marie Lu’s Legend, Prodigy, and Champion. Anden is the son of the evil predecessor, and main character June has all the reason in the world to hate him. But even though he leads a corrupt government and is in direct opposition to the... read more

Stepping Beyond the Flaws: Favorite Picture Book Characters

Every young child loves heroes of the big screen……Spiderman, Big Hero 6, even villain-turned-hero, Gru. These characters look the part and possess extraordinary abilities. But I would suggest that favorite picture book characters make a choice to step beyond their flaws, taking readers on a journey that redefines possible. Lincoln Peirce (author of Big Nate books) agrees in a Today Show interview. “A character whose responses to hardship, crisis, or danger we’d like to think ourselves capable of.” (March 15, 2014) Ladybug Girl (Ladybug Girl at the Beach, Somar and Davis) claims she’s ready for wild ocean waves on her first visit to the beach. Pretending to change her mind, Ladybug Girl masks her fear with sand castle building and kite flying. Even a double-dip ice cream cone can’t replace her real desire –splashing in the waves like everyone else. Only when her treasures, a sand bucket filled with beautiful shells, are carried away by the tide does Ladybug Girl reach deep within herself for courage waiting to be released.  Ladybug Girl races into the water without hesitation, rescuing her treasures and discovering big, bad waves aren’t that scary. “Ladybug Girl isn’t afraid of anything!” Who can’t relate to fear in unfamiliar territory? And most raise a protective shield so no one will see it. Only in crisis are we forced to drop our shield and step over the fear. Children love walking beside Ladybug Girl as she discovers newly-found, exhilarating courage. In contrast, Pout-Pout Fish (The Pout-Pout Fish by D. Diesen) settles for a grumpy, dreary, sulking persona. The clam, jellyfish, squid and octopus suggest he lighten up but he only makes excuses. “With a mouth like mine I am destined to be glum,” he tells the octopus. When a shimmery fish plants a kiss on his pouty mouth, Pout-Pout Fish is transformed. The unexpected turns his frown right-side-up, proving he really IS able to change how he feels. With a new name, Kiss-Kiss Fish trades his drearies for cheeries at last. Excuses can become a protective shield for attitudes that need renovation. Do circumstances determine our destiny? Readers of every age can relate, even pull for a twist of fate. In the Pout-Pout to Kiss-Kiss transformation, children learn possible trumps impossible when they believe. Deborah Ellis, author of Moon at Nine, also stands on the premise that favorite characters step beyond their flaws: “They are kids who believe they are lacking in something others have, yet they... read more

Buying Time with First Lines

For writers, words are our medium, our passion, and—especially for those of us hoping to turn our hobby into a profession, our currency. Whether it involves the agent or editor whose eye we hope to grab, the product our words purchase is time. Yes, time translates to money, but let’s ignore that for now. Agents receive countless queries a day, and most, in this day of e-submissions, request pages pasted into the email in addition to the query. If you’re on twitter and follow agents such as @Ginger_Clark or @bradfordlit you’ll read their posts where they discuss the crazy amount of time they spend going through contracts and negotiating for clients—clients that come first. Not that they and other agents don’t care about writers in the slush pile, but there are just so many. Translation: our writing better be special for the agent to make it to the last line of our submission much less request additional material. Enter the opening line. The first line is your opportunity to show the agent or editor you have the ability to engage, to capture, and to entice. What goes for people goes for writing—you never get a second chance… Once he or she opens your query, you’re on the clock. Let’s examine some lines that work well and why. It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die. Wow. This is the opening line from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. Great lines create intrigue, questions in a reader’s mind that need to be answered, and this one is loaded. What happens on the first of November? Why is someone going to die? Why is the narrator so sure that someone is going to die? With the promise in hand that someone will die, the reader is fixated not only on who it will be but why and how. Further, without ever speaking of the weather, the reference to November provides a flavor of autumn. When combined with someone dying, you really can’t help but think of the day that comes just before November 1—Halloween. These thirteen words are doing a lot of work. There is one mirror in my house. Short and sweet from Veronica Roth’s mega best seller, Divergent. In only seven words, she has created a great deal of intrigue and set the stage. The most pressing question is why one mirror? Is there something that makes mirrors dangerous? Is there something wrong with the... read more

First Line Poetry

“One day the Nouns were clustered in the street. An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty. The Nouns were struck, moved, changed. The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence.” –Permanently, 1st Stanza, By Kenneth Koch             I have learned that first lines don’t come first. Yes in the technical sense they do, they are the first words read after the title, but they aren’t written first. With all they are expected to accomplish, how could they be? One has to choose each noun, adjective, and verb carefully. First lines set the tone, voice, point of view, and pace. They provide the essence, the theme, and the setting. They introduce the character, conflict, and tension (Kole, Mary. Writing Irresistible Kidlit. Writer’s Digest Books, OH, 2012). The first lines invite the reader on a journey by stimulating delight, curiosity, horror or empathy (Rogers, Cindy. Word Magic for Writers. Writer’s Institute Publications, CT, 2013). Instead the first line is cut, polished, and perfected after many drafts. Like the poet who uses few words to accomplish an emotion, so too must the writer. The writer needs to know her story inside and out to attempt these words properly. I decided to combine my enjoyment of both children’s novels and poetry to help show what works to excite readers’ emotions and hook them. There is horror in the first line of T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherised upon a table:” This line always gives me chills, but I can’t wait to follow. The same is true of the suspense of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard book, “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” Lois Lowry’s The Giver has foreboding, main character, and setting, “It was almost December and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.” Maya Angelou certainly gets my empathy in Still I Rise, “You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies, you may trod me in the very dirt but still, like dust, I’ll rise.” I instantly root for her. The reader may not be familiar with Rick Riordan’s world but they get a hint of it and the main character’s frustration in The Lightning Thief’s first line, “Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.” I feel the injustice immediately in Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of... read more