DEFINING MY TERMS

It’s rather funny how a word sometimes sneaks into a family and gets itself adopted. Where does it come from, I wonder? I’d very much like to know.

—Jean Cocteau, Intimate Relations (Les parents terribles)

In pretty much all of my writing about writing I tend to fall back on certain words that I understand might cause a little confusion, since often they can be interpreted in more specific ways than I might actually mean at the time. This week, please allow me to quickly dig into a few of them in hopes of allaying any concerns you might have that I’m pushing everyone into some broadly genre-ready or “old school” or “pulpy” way of thinking about genre fiction in particular or fiction in general. For what it’s worth, as a reader (and therefor as an author) I tend to be attracted to the far ends of the genre boundaries. Either give me wildly entertaining action-heavy space opera, sword & sorcery, and monster horror, or show me some literary approach to the genres completely unlike anything I’ve ever read before. The stuff in the middle is fine, but I like the ends. This might explain why some of my favorite fantasyscience fiction, and horror novels include authors as stylistically diverse as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Haruki Murakami. This will color my definitions, especially in terms of:

VILLAIN

When I say “villain,” please, by all means, feel free to sub in words like antagonist or rival or opponent… What I mean here is the character who is in conflict with the hero (see below). And yes, your “villain” can be, in the tradition of authors like Jack London, the environment, or an idea, and so on. Does your villain have to be “evil”? No. These could simply be two people who disagree, since I’m also working from the widest possible definition of conflict as well (again, see below). In some cases villains are easily recognizable, like Darth Vader or Ramsay Bolton, but that’s not only what I mean when I say “villain.” Likewise…

HERO

Star Wars worked because balanced against the uber-villain Darth Vader was the classic hero Luke Skywalker. But coming as it did in the spring of 1977, a hero like Luke was a bit of surprise for the American moviegoing public. Movies of the 70s had become steeped in the concept of the anti-hero. These are people we’re not quite sure about, who could go either way, or are downright terrible (Dirty Harry, for instance). So when I say “hero” I mean protagonist, or even “main character.”

Who’s story are we really following? Who are we most identifying with as readers? That’s your hero, whether or not you’re describing a super nice person, someone fighting for truth, justice, and the American way, or a tough cop who’s maybe just one percent less corrupt than the other cop (the villain). Still, I’ll make the case for a “good” hero, as Anne Lamott did in Bird by Bird: “In good fiction, we have one eye on the hero or the good guys and a fascinated eye on the bad guys, who may be a lot more interesting. The plot leads all of these people (and us) into dark woods where we find, against all odds, a woman or a man with the compass, and it still points true north. That’s the miracle, and it’s astonishing. This shaft of light, sometimes only a glimmer, both defines and thwarts the darkness.”

And for both hero and villain, I’m absolutely not affixing a particular…

GENDER (ETC.)

Absolutely there is no gender restriction on any story’s hero or villain, nor do I ever want anyone to think that any character can or can’t or should or shouldn’t be either a hero or a villain based on sexuality, race, religion, neurodiversity… anything but what that one individual person wants and how that one individual person sets out to get (achieve, prevent, etc.) that thing. As a reader and as an editor I’m delighted to see a diverse set of characters in…

CONFLICT

Yes, I love sword & sorcery, where “conflict” tends to mean guy cleaving monster in twain with his mighty battle-axe, but that’s not only what I mean when I say conflict. The conflict at the heart of your story does not have to in any way include violence, any sort of physical confrontation, or even any particularly harsh words traded between your hero and your villain. Any time two characters find themselves in any way in disagreement with each other they are, at least by my definition, in conflict. Ultimately, until you have something like a hero in conflict with something like a villain, you have no…

STORY

Which I tend to use broadly to mean any work of fiction of any length. So if I say something like I just said above, that goes as much for a novel as it does a short story. Or a screenplay, or…? A story is a story no matter how long it takes to unfold. And a story is made out of…

PLOT

If you still think you’re writing, or should write, “plotless” fiction, I’ll refer you back to a previous post that I hope will blow that up for you. Plot, as I see it, in any case, is the stuff that happens as a result of characters in conflict. In his book Story Trumps Structure, Steven James explained it this way: “Stories are transformations unveiled—either the transformation of a character or a situation, or, more commonly, both. If nothing is altered, you do not have a story, you simply have a series of images or a chronicle of events.”

Since characters tend to take an active role in that, thinking of ways to get what they want (or better yet, need) then it could be said that all plots are “character driven.” But if you are dragging characters through a bunch of things that start and end beyond their control, you might find you’re being accused of having written “plot-driven” fiction, and though I’d advise against it that seems to have worked out okay for Dan Brown, so what the hell… But in any case, “plot” may be a four letter word, but don’t be afraid of it, all it points to are the things that happen in your story.

And that’s it, though if you find any other terms you’ve run across here at fantasy Author’s Handbook or any of my books on writing, drop ’em in the comments!

—Philip Athans

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In Writing Monsters, best-selling author Philip Athans uses classic examples from books, films, and the world around us to explore what makes monsters memorable—and terrifying.

You’ll learn what monsters can (and should) represent in your story and how to create monsters from the ground up.

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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