What Ken Follet Taught Me: Part 1

In 2006 I started Pillars of the Earth, and though it was a little too racy, I was determined to finish the gargantuan volume. That was until my favorite character died. In case you’re wondering, this was the same reason I stopped reading the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. Then, a couple weeks ago, I noticed that PotE was available on OverDrive Media through my local library, and my determination was renewed. I decided to tackle the goliath head on. I powered through the audio version in roughly a week. The nudity and intercourse scenes are gratuitous, but I did appreciate the way Follet had woven complex characters into overarching themes.

I learned a lot from this novel and wanted to share some thoughts over a 2-part blog called “What Ken Follet Taught Me.” (If that doesn’t supercharge my SEO than I don’t know what will). PotE had some amazing villains, some were awful throughout the novel, while others were created through circumstance. So for the first installment, I’d like to discuss  villains: what is the difference between a good villain and a great villain, why you should never ever waste a great villain, and finally, why it’s important to make sure a villain’s demise is emotionally satisfying to the reader.

What is the difference between a good villain and great villain? PotE has no shortage of villains, but the two most vile are William Hamleigh and Bishop Walren Bigod. The former is much more sadistic and malevolent, but the latter frustrates the heroes at every turn. While listening to the book I eagerly anticipated their demise, and even told my wife how much I hated them, and that’s when I realized that Follet had created, not just good villains, but great villains. A lot of stories have characters who do horrible acts, but I had an emotional reaction to these characters. I had to find out what Follet did to elicit that response. As I continued to listen to a mp3 version of the book, here’s what I found: there are attributes of these characters that I connect with.  I assure it’s a minute connection, but it’s there nonetheless. This is the genius in crafting a great villain: give them characteristics that your audience will identify with. Anyone can create a psychotic ax wielding killer, but the reader doesn’t connect with that character. If you want the reader to connect with the villain ensure they have a rounded personality: faults, hopes, fears. Allow them to have ambition, albeit skewed. In other words let them be real. One thing you should never do is try to explain why they’re so evil, that should be apparent in the story. The difference between a good character and a bad character is how they respond to conflict.

The difference between a good character and a bad character is how they respond to conflict. TWEET THIS

Why you should never waste a great villain? Once you have a great villain, it’s important not to waste him. There’s plenty of examples of this in film and novels, and especially true with the two villains mentioned above. Spoiler alert, they both make it to the end. When I was fifty pages into this book I wanted them both to lose, when I was 300 pages in I wanted them to pay for their crimes, and by page 600, I was, as I said before, longing for their death. However, it occurred to me that Follet had just spent a large amount of the book crafting these characters to being the epitome of evil, and if he killed them off, it would be an incredible waste, although incredibly satisfying to the reader. He would also have to replace them, but with whom? Could he have a character turn heel, sure, but at what price? Isn’t better to keep the evil character going; with longevity they become more despicable. It also allows the author to provide an inaudible commentary about the systems governing the society where someone so vile could not only thrive, but continually become more powerful. Great villains, like great heroes, take time to craft, don’t throw away all of your hard work.

Great villains, like great heroes, take time to craft, don’t throw away all of your hard work. TWEET THIS

Why it’s important to make sure a villain’s demise is emotionally satisfying to the reader? 

When William Hamleigh killed my favorite character, I was so frustrated I put this book down and didn’t pick it up for ten years! Not only was I distraught over the death of that character, I was irate that William didn’t immediately pay for his crimes. Where was the lightening from the sky? Where was the justice? Wasn’t good suppose to triumph over evil? Again, I was forced to ask, what the hell is Follet doing? I found his point amazing. With a simple, pointless death of a beloved character the reader was forced to feel what all the characters being oppressed in the novel felt: meaningless, hopelessness, and injustice. In addition, when I listened to the death scene a second time, I knew that William couldn’t die, not at that time, anyway, he had to meet his demise at the hands of those he had hurt most: Aliena.  When that moment in the book came, it was so tense and so well done. William, however, did not die, he simply lost everything he had. This of course was satsifying to the reader, but there was still more to be done, so he had to live on. For the reader to experince the highest state of emotional satisfaction, the villain had to meet a nasty ending with no hope of absolution. In addition, other character whom William had hurt had to have a hand in it, Prior Philip starting the crusade after the Arch-Bishop’s death ultimately culminated in William’s death. The most satisfying part was that Aliena watched his death with eyes wide open. A great villain will have such an integral part of the plot that his or her death will involve several chracters, the major themes, and, possibly, the climax. Great villains deserve great death scenes too.

Great villains deserve great death scenes too. TWEET THIS

The Benefits of Beta Readers

After I read Dark Places  by Gillian Flynn, I  thought it was a good idea to see how a professionally published author approaches acknowledgements. I was impressed with Flynn’s ability to individualize the gratitude she extended, and this is a practice I try to emulate. I was also surprised that she thanked so many people. It’s easy to see a work of art, and fall into the trap that it was the product of one person, but nothing could be further from the truth. In addition to the many influences and experiences that go into that piece of art, there’s a host of individuals that assist in other ways. In the Flynn’s case, these people helped her with research, read her drafts multiple times, and offered her encouragement when she needed it most.

Having seen how much Flynn puts into her acknowledgements, I decided it was time I made a more conservative effort to find people to read my manuscripts. I reached out to people on twitter, Facebook, friends, and even co-workers. I did my best to stay within my target audience, but found that some of the most interesting advice came from those who are outside of that range. These outliers noticed discrepancies others overlooked, and called out unrealistic actions that fans of the genre accepted. Their input was and continues to be an invaluable part of helping my stories be more realistic and believable.

When I tell people that I’m a writer, the second question they ask is: “What do you write?” After I explain my genre of choice, if they appear interested, I also add my motivation for writing. At this point in the conversation, most are giving me the consolatory head nod, as if to say,  yeah, you and everybody else, buddy. There is the occasion when someone remarks how they’d love to read my work. I take note of this and when a draft is ready, I send it to the list of emails I’ve compiled. Out of the dozen of people I contact, about 1-out-of-3 will let me know they’ve read the manuscript by the deadline I’ve communicated (I do, after all, have self-imposed deadlines to keep). With this elite group of people I set up feedback sessions.

Feedback sessions are perhaps the greatest benefit beta readers provide, because it’s where they do the work for me. They don’t actually write the story, no that hard work, which also happens to be the best part of being an author, is all up to me. Instead, what my readers do  is tell me what’s working and what is not working. To ensure each session is successful, I bring a list of questions that address specific concerns I have about the manuscript: What did you think of this character, did you find it funny when this happened, how was the level of gore, was the character’s motivation believable? Most of the feedback I receive revolves around general like and dislike of characters and story. Asking the same direct questions to all of my readers allows me to obtain the information I want and need.

The last benefit I’ll highlight in this post is the encouragement given by my readers. There’s a meme that reads, If there’s a writer in your life, give them a hug. Trust me they need it. My wife shared this on my Facebook feed, so she knows my pangs. A writers life can be full of ups and downs, as attitude is often dictated by output and time allotted to the craft. So encouragement, in all forms, is an elixir that can keep our writing alive in the dreariest of moments, or surge us onward like a tidal wave of creativity. A readers excitement, even at this stage of my drafting process is infectious. When people love a product of my imagination, it’s a powerful tool of affirmation that is only surpassed when a stranger gives his or her hard earned cash to purchase that product. Of all the gadgets, knick-knacks, and e-books available for purchase online, they chose mine and yours. In a similar fashion, readers, though friends and family, don’t need to be kind, but they are. They took time to read our story, and then took more time to give feedback. They care about your product, and they care about your success, otherwise why would they contribute to enhancing your output? As as side note, every group of beta readers should include a couple of Krampus-like characters to round it out and balance the feedback; sugar coated feedback goes down easy, but it doesn’t help anyone. It’s honest, critical feedback that improves our work. TWEET THIS 

In closing, if you don’t already use Beta Readers to their full potential, I hope this blogpost encourages you to do so.  Writing a story has never been the act of a soloist, but a product of a team consisting of readers, editors, fans, experts, and a writer.

Are you Feeding your Dream Killers?

Do you love slugging away day after day, hour after hour in your day job?

Cause I don’t.

The “9 to 5” version of ourselves is what I like to call “Clark Kent.” It’s the version where we put the smile on with the suit. It a necessary concession, for now, because the bills need to be paid. This version, however, isn’t who we really are. This is just the alter ego we use to blend into the rest of the world until we can be ourselves. Those are the precious moments we yearn for, when the world, and everything in it, finally make sense.

So, I find myself wondering, if I love being Superman, why do I sabotage that time? Instead of doning my cape and soaring through the air, I’m changing into my pajamas and vegging with mindless youtube clips, and endless strolling of my Facebook feed. That’s when it hit me, like a Kryptonian meteorite: I’ve been feeding my dream killers.

Dream killers are those activities which don’t help us to achieve our goals, and they don’t help others (like providing or caring for a family). They simply suck up all our time and give us nothing but regret in return. In the world of business they’re called non-value add tasks.  Can you name your dream killers?

Mine are: Youtube, Facebook, and Words with Friends.

Feeding these internet dragons is easy, it’s comfortable, and it provides instance gratification. The problem is that these dragons are not my dream, and feeding them doesn’t get me any closer to realizing that dream.

So if you’re like me, and you find yourself providing a schmorgesborg for your dream killers, than the diet starts with answering one little question: how important is your dream?

I didn’t ask, if you’re dream was achievable; I’m not a fortune teller (and neither are you). I simply want to know if your dream is important enough for you to make a change. If it is than remove a couple of those tasks from your daily routine and let the starvation begin. If it’s not, well, than perhaps you love being Clark Kent and working at the Daily Planet. If that’s the case keep doing what you’re doing, and fatten up those dream killers. Just remember, anybody can do what Clark Kent does, but there’s only one Superman. You’re the only one who can be you. No one else can write like you, or sing like you, or draw like you. No one else can achieve your dreams.

Just remember, anybody can do what Clark Kent does, but there’s only one Superman. Only you can do what you do best. TWEET THIS

Author Joshua Cole

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