Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Villain With A Cause

Recently, I found time in my schedule to see not one, but three movies. One in the theater, one a Netflix DVD, and one from my own library. Each of these movies had the obligatory ANTAGONIST, so I thought I'd compare them.

First up, Peter Rabbit, the 2018 offering starring James Corden. Peter is an incorrigible bunny with a bent for mischief. His nemesis, after old Mr. McGregor dies, is the latter's great-nephew, Tom. Upon learning about the death of the uncle he never knew existed, Tom moves into the old house intent on selling it so he can buy his own toy store. He has recently been unjustly let go from Harrod's and he wants to build his store near theirs to rub their noses in it. There's a fabulous quote from Tom on this subject from the movie, but I can't remember it. When this London-bred man goes to the country to see his uncle's house for the first time, he's disgusted to find every woodland creature has taken up residence and he must now clean the place out.

Tom isn't really all that bad. A little OCD, maybe. But he starts out as a meticulous employee of Harrod's, and becomes the unwilling owner of a country home with a "vermin problem." Wouldn't we all be a tad stressed out if our new home was overrun by everything from a hedgehog to a male deer with a full rack?

Enter the beautiful neighbor next door, Bea, who takes care of the creatures, Peter being her favorite. She tells Tom, "We share our land around here." They form an attraction and we see Tom in a different light through Bea's eyes. I begin to like the guy, and his face is actually attractive when he smiles. Tom's redeeming quality is his love of toys and making people happy. He has this conversation with Bea:
Bea: What do you miss most about the store? And don't say having everything in its proper place. I get it. You have control issues. Thomas McGregor: I miss being helpful. A parent or grandparent comes into this shop looking for a gift for the child they love. I ask a few simple questions and know exactly what they need. Thomas McGregor: I love helping people get what they want. [pauseThomas McGregor: Especially when they don't even know that they want it. Those are the best. 
Tom has a passion and this blip in his plans has brought out the worse in him. In the end, he redeems himself and lives happily ever after with his love...and her woodland creatures.

The next movie I watched was The Mummy starring Tom Cruise. Boy, do I miss Brendan Fraser. But I digress. The villain in this movie is a 5000 year old princess whose destiny was ripped from her. Princess Ahmanet is somewhat narcisistic. She longs to be queen, but when her father's wife gives birth to a son, Ahmanet knows she has lost the crown. She makes a pact with Set, the god of death, and kills her father, stepmother, and the baby. She then attempts to kill her human lover with a special dagger so Set can embody him and they can be gods together. Her plan is thwarted, the unsuspecting dupe is killed by a different person, and Ahmanet is captured and mummified alive. She's placed in a sarcophagus and sent to Mesopotamia--modern day Iraq. There she stays hidden until Tom Cruise unearths her centuries later. She comes to life and now chooses him as Set's new rental home. Yes, she's evil, but she does have a cause. Her greatest desire is to become incarnate and rule the world the forever. Unlike Tom McGregor, she does not gain redemption and ultimately shrivels up and is placed back into her sarcofagus.

And lastly, in an attempt to erase all of the violence and ick from the mummy movie, (again, Brendan Fraser, where are you?) my grandkids and I decided to watch the live-action Cinderella.

I love Disney villains. In the past, they didn't need a reason to be bad. They just were. Sometimes I long for the days when I could write an antagonist and not have to come up with a reason why they're messed up. However, readers are more sophisticated now, and demand to have well-rounded plots. How rude! Cinderella starring Lily James fleshes out the evil stepmother, much like it was done in Ever After. (Had to mention that one. It's my favorite! Read what I wrote about it here.) As much as I love Angelica Huston in that role, Cate Blanchett also plays a deliciously evil stepmom. This quote sums up her cause quite nicely:
Lady Tremaine: [holding the glass slipper] Are you looking for this? There must be quite a story to go with it. Won't you tell me? Hm? Very well, I shall tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a *beautiful* young girl who married for love. And she had two loving daughters. All was well. But, one day, her husband, the light of her life, died. The next time, she married for the sake of her daughters. But that man, too, was taken from her. And she was doomed to look every day upon his beloved child. She had hoped to marry off one of her beautiful, stupid daughters to the prince. But his head was turned by a girl with glass slippers. And so, I lived unhappily ever after. My story would appear to be ended.
Cinderella's evil stepmother had a cause. She wanted her daughters to be cared for and thought she had found that in her second husband. But once again, she found herself in dire circumstances, and to add insult to injury, must live with the man's daughter whom he clearly favored over herself. When he died, it was reported that he talked of nothing but Ella and her mother. Obviously, that didn't sit well with his widow.

All three of my Friday movies had villains with a cause. And, it seems, they were all due to something happening to them unjustly. Tom McGregor had his treasured job taken away and was then forced to deal with a circumstance beyond his comfort zone. Princess Ahmanet had her destiny ripped from her, and Lady Tremaine's plans were thwarted through the death of her insurance policy, her husband.

When writing the antagonist, determine whether they will be redeemed in the end. Add to that, why they are the way they are. What circumstance or series of events has made them evil in the sight of the protagonist?

As a final note, I'd like to mention my newest book baby, A Bouquet of Brides. When I wrote the synopsis, I introduced the hero's antagonist whom I planned to redeem. But when I wrote the story, turns out, this one had redeemed himself before I even introduced him to the story. Totally changed the plans I had for him. But I found it much better than what I had cooked up. The heroine's antagonist was a different story. Read about her HERE.

*All quotes and movie photos are courtesy of 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Two Roles for the Mirror

As water reflects the face, so the heart reflects one person to another.
Proverbs 27:19 CEB

 The Case for Christ
It seems strange to blog about The Case for Christ. Not only is it autobiographical—the original book penned by Lee Strobel—but I know his daughter, Alison, from my writing circle of friends. So, I’m about to pick apart a character who is very real (in the physical sense, not from Kathy-land,) and I know one of the players personally. Weird.

But, here goes. . .

There are several types of characters in a story. The Protagonist, the Antagonist, the Mentor, etc. I’d like to address the Mirror. This is the character who becomes the reflection for the protagonist, and helps them become who they were meant to be in the first place, thus helping them complete their arc.
It wasn’t until I saw The Case for Christ that I realized there are two functions of the Mirror.

#1 One is to show to the protagonist a positive part of himself that he didn’t realize was there, bringing out the best of his personality.

A good example of this is Megamind. The blue alien, Megamind, is falsely taught that to be bad is good, (see my post on Megamind, “How to Find a Supervillain’s Essence.”) He tries very hard to prove himself a supervillain to the citizens of Metro City. But deep down, he really is a nice guy. His love for the reporter, Roxanne, is the catalyst to him finding his true self. But first, he must take on a less antagonistic body form. So, he creates a formula for shape-shifting and becomes the mild-mannered, and yawningly uninteresting, Bernard, Roxanne’s coworker. While thinking she’s talking to Bernard on a date, she sees the real Megamind. She hears his heart and falls in love. Through Roxanne, Megamind finds his true self, his true-blue essence, and becomes better for it.

#2 The other role of the Mirror is to reflect the negative aspects of the protagonist’s personality. To do this, it’s helpful if the protagonist is an anti-hero. Think of the acerbic Charlie Alnutt in The African Queen, (or really, any Humphrey Bogart movie.)

In The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel is an anti-hero. He comes off as an arrogant journalist who feels he knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there is no God. He teaches his daughter this, and he lives it with every fiber of his being. His wife, Leslie, had also started out this way, but through an event that nearly costs her daughter her life, Leslie begins to change her mind after witnessing a miracle. The family is in a restaurant where Alison nearly chokes on a gumball. A nurse, Alfie, is there and saves the little girl. Alfie is a Christian and refuses the parents’ thanks, claiming that Jesus is the one who saved their child. Alfie and her husband were going to a different restaurant that night, but she had a strong feeling they should go to this one.

Leslie begins to turn her back on the atheist platform on which she and Lee had built their lives, and she seeks out Alfie to learn more of this Jesus who saved her daughter.

Lee becomes more and more belligerent against the thought of a God of the universe. He emerges into the anti-hero as his refusal to listen to Leslie begins to rule his life. His marriage becomes strained. The more he converses with his wife, the more he sees the ugliness of his convictions, even though he’s not ready to admit it. The Mirror is doing her job by calling out the parts of Lee that God did not create.

Leslie begins to pray, “Take his heart of stone and give him a heart of flesh.” She prays this daily throughout the duration his journey.

Lee's Identity is hard-nosed journalist. Lee's Essence is what God had put in Him from the time he was knit in his mother's womb—lover of truth. 

Lee decides to settle the debate once and for all, and puts his journalistic tools to work to prove there couldn’t possibly be a God. The more research he does, the closer to the truth he comes. And, of course, God proves Himself worthy while on trial, and Lee must concede that Leslie and Alfie, and other believers he has encountered, are right. There is a God.

Had Leslie not challenged him to look within his depths to see the unyielding, arrogant man he was, Lee would have never embarked on the journey to dispel Christianity. And as a result, he never would have traded his heart of stone for a heart of flesh and come to know Christ as his personal Savior.

Do you know and love someone with a heart of stone? Be the Mirror to help them see what is really going on with them. Remember, a reflector doesn’t beat the reflectee over the head. It gently allows them to see what they already know about themselves.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Of Love and Self-Sacrifice

I finally got to see the new Beauty and the Beast with Emma Watson and Dan Stevens. After turning in a manuscript, I took a “Me Day” to reward myself. Two friends joined me, and there we were, three middle-aged women at 10:40 in the morning enjoying a child’s tale. But it is oh, so much more than that—due, in particular, to the well-rounded development of the characters.

While working on the Tree Plotter for Beauty and the Beast, (call it a hobby, called it a disorder,) I wanted to get the inner journeys of both of the main characters. This is a romance, and to craft a well-rounded romance, we must develop both characters equally. This is also called a 50/50 romance where each character shares 100% of the story.

A good romance, I believe, works when the theme applies to both characters. In fact, this should be true for any story where characters share importance. At first, I had different themes for both characters. This is okay, to a point, because there could be several themes in a story. One of Belle’s themes could be “Love Beyond All Faults.” Beast’s could be “Open the Heart.” But the theme that works for each is “Self-Sacrifice.” This overall theme is what drives the story, and shows up over and over.

Here is the Tree-Plotter for Belle:
  • THEME: Self-Sacrifice
  • INNER NEED: To accept herself as she is despite the villagers calling her odd.
  • INCITING INCIDENT: Sacrifices for her father and shoves him out of the cell to take his place.
  • TENT POLE: Beast attacked by wolves while saving her.
    • Death: Beast almost dies.
    • Connection to Theme: See's through his self-sacrifice that he's not the beast she thought he was.
  • BLEAKEST MOMENT: Sacrificed her safety to warn the Beast, but he is still mortally wounded and she tells him she will never leave him again.
    • Reflection of Inciting Incident: Was once a prisoner but has now returned out of love.
  • LESSON/DECISION: Has learned, through the love a beast, to embrace who she is.
    • Reflection of Inner Need: Because she's found a kindred spirit, she can now accept herself.

Here is the Tree-Plotter for Beast:
  • THEME: Self-Sacrifice
  • INNER NEED: Put others before himself
  • TENT POLE: Saves Belle from wolves and almost dies.
    • Death: Nearly dies
    • Connection to Theme: Sacrifices himself
  • BLEAKEST MOMENT: Belle leaves and apparently sends the villagers to kill him.
    • Reflection of Inciting Incident: More intruders, and they're bent on killing him.
  • LESSON/DECISION: Has learned that he is a better man when he puts the needs of others before himself.
    • Reflection of Inner Need: Puts others before himself

My take away: To write a tale as old as time, it's always good to strengthen the theme in a way that affects both characters.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Destiny vs Secret Desire

When it comes to human nature, Destiny almost always loses to Secret Desire. As we see in La La Land, even though two people appear destined to be together, nothing is stronger at getting it's own way than that urge living deep within us, our Inner Need, sometimes buried so deep that we don't even know it's there until it's forced from hiding. At this point, it is called the Secret Desire.

Mia, played by Emma Stone, and Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling, seem to be the perfect romantic couple. There are lots of sparks in their relationship, but often the typical romance taps into the Inner Need of the characters and fulfills whatever is missing in their lives. Not so much in real life, and La La Land depicts this, much to the consternation of it's audience (aka, me.) Did I want to see these two together? Absolutely! I write romance. I've gotten several couples together successfully. But this movie, as fantastical as it is, (dancing, singing. . .floating,) was written to portray real life. Well, some real life. Obviously some of us have had successful romance stories. I'm going on 42 years with the love of my life.

The following Tree Plotter gives us some insight as to the Inner Needs of these two characters. My take: When writing a story with real life emotions, tap into the Secret Desire and make the character's dream stronger than whatever Destiny might have planned for them.



Click on images to enlarge.

It may be cynical, but the lesson our two characters learn is, "Here's to the fools who dream." 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017



The following is a breakdown of Hidden Figures following the character of Katherine.

CHARACTER: Katherine
THEME: Equality
SECRET DESIRE: To be accepted in the world in which she lives.
INCITING INCIDENT: NASA assigns her to the Space Task Group.
TENT POLE MOMENT: Tells everyone about the bathroom and the indignities of being colored.
DEATH IN THE MIDDLE: After her eruption, her boss, Al Harrison, finally gets it and ends the segregation in his department, declaring, "Here at NASA, we all pee the same color." Thus, it's the death of segregation.
CONNECTING TENT POLE WITH THEME: The theme is equality. With the tearing down of the Colored Only bathroom sign, NASA declares that all people are equal.
BLEAKEST MOMENT: Now that Friendship 7 is about to launch, Katherine's job is no longer needed. But a problem arises and she ultimately saves the mission, but when she hands the book with the correct figures needed to launch to her advocate, Al Harrison, he quickly takes it, then shuts the door to the control room in her face. Once again she's considered too inferior to participate at the same level as her peers.
CONNECTING BLEAKEST MOMENT WITH INCITING INCIDENT: She had been promoted to the Space Task Group, but now it has ended with no more acceptance than she'd had at the beginning.
LESSON: She has recognized value in the space program
CONNECTING THE LESSON WITH THE SECRET DESIRE: She desires equality, and in the end, she learns that standing up for herself and being the best she can be has earned the respect of her peers.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Hidden Figures vs La La Land

When these two movies first came out, it was around Valentine’s Day. I asked Hubs to take me to the see Hidden Figures because I didn’t think a singing and dancing musical would be his thing. But, he surprised me the next day by asking if I’d like to see La La Land, too. Um, yeah!

I enjoyed both movies, but definitely one over the other. As the week wore on, I puzzled over this because that’s what I do now that I’ve begun learning how to write. It’s ruined movies for me, and yet enhanced them at the same time.

My conclusion was that, as far as I could tell, Hidden Figures had deeper needs than La La Land. Very strong goals for both, but really, what did the characters in La La Land need?

Let's first look at Hidden Figures. The real life Katherine Johnson is portrayed by Taraji P. Henson. Katherine’s Secret Desire is acceptance. It is noted that all three of the leads have this Inner Need. She proves this during her much-deserved tirade after Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, asks why she’s gone from her desk so long every day. Once she lays it all out for him, how she has walk to the “colored” restroom a half a mile away, can only drink out of the “colored only” coffee pot someone has placed next to the other one, and how she can’t afford pearls, the only jewelry she’s been told is acceptable at NASA, she finally gets the respect she deserves from her boss, who up until now has been clueless. She still has an uphill battle, but this scene brings home her Inner Need (aka, Secret Desire.) To be accepted by her peers. A strong case, I believe.

Now, La La Land. Mia, played by Emma Stone, is a struggling actress. She’s single and lightly dating, but her main focus is on becoming famous. That’s her Goal, a pretty strong one, I might add. But what is her need? The only thing I could come up with was her need to stay humble, even as she conquers her world. When she was a barista at a coffee shop on a studio lot, she loved that a particular famous actress refused a free cup of coffee. This is Mia’s standard to live by. At the end, when she’s finally made it, a similar thing happens as she now gets coffee. She’s the one everybody is starry eyed over in the coffee shop, and she is the one who now refuses the free cup of coffee and insists on paying. Is this a strong enough Need?

I liked the movie a lot. The singing and dancing reminded me of my favorite movies back in the MGM days, as it was designed to do. The story line was okay, but still, I would cheer for it a lot more if Mia had expressed a deeper Secret Desire than to be loved by millions and still stay humble. Sebastian was no better. I couldn’t separate his Secret Desire from his Goal, to open his own jazz club. Jazz was his life, his goal, his need to survive, everything. Really? Maybe I’ve been too spoiled with Happily Ever Afters and Romantic Comedies where the character arc starts down here and lands up there. Maybe La La Land was supposed to be just what it was. A real-life portrayal of two jaded people driven by the only lifestyle they knew. Nah! There was something missing and that’s why I chose Hidden Figures for my Best Movie of the weekend award.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Tree Plotter

On Monday, I laid out my Tree Plotter method of plotting. I'm pretty excited about it. Just last night the gboy and I were watching Disney's Pinoccio. It even worked for that! I will lay this movie out in the Tree Plotter in a future article.

The thing about the Tree Plotter is that it gives you a skeleton of your character, but also helps you breathe life into him. In the tree analogy, we take a dormant tree and bring life to it. We connect the theme with all of the branches so the character is consistent throughout. We also connect the Inner Need (or Secret Desire) branch with the Lesson/Decision, and we connect the Inciting Incident with the Bleakest Moment. This is to be sure we have a well-developed character, (well-trimmed tree ) that makes sense to the reader.

Enough with the tree talk, let's get to it!

Future films to look forward to:

  • Hidden Figures
  • La La Land
  • The BFG
  • Divergent
  • Insurgent
  • Inside Out
  • Old Fashioned
  • The Hundred Foot Journey
  • The Martian
  • And many others!

Here is the text I copied from my last post so the Tree Plotter can be found easily.

. . . I have developed a method of skeleton plotting that is blowing my socks off. I practice it on almost every movie I see, and am amazed how true it is. Now, when I say developed, I mean I borrowed a little from this writing instructor and a little from that writing instructor. You get the point. See below to get the full list of resources I’ve used.

As the title of the method suggests, I’ve taken the skeleton of a tree. . .

 . . .And filled it out like this.
Descriptions of these are as follows:
  •      Theme – Every story needs a theme. It is here on the Tree PlotterTM under the surface as a fertilizer that will feed every aspect of the tree. Themes are usually one word or a short phrase, i.e. Forgiveness, Redemption, Going Home. There could be more than one theme, but there should always be one central theme for the entire story.
  •       Inner Need – The Inner Need, or Secret Desire, rarely changes. Dorothy’s need was to be loved and appreciated. This never changed throughout the movie.
  •       Inciting Incident – Usually happens at the end of the first act, which deals mostly with setting the character up in her ordinary world. It’s also described as Crossing the Threshold, or the Door of No Return. For Dorothy, the inciting incident was quite obviously the tornado. She literally stepped over the threshold of her home—never to return in the same manner—and into a world of living color.
  •     Tent Pole Moment – I really wish I could call this something else in keeping with my tree analogy, but this is so perfect. Noted editor, author, and artist Jeff Gerke came up with this brilliant word picture. If you think of a circus tent, what holds up the canvas in the middle? The tall tent pole. It keeps the middle from sagging, which is what we’re trying to do by installing the tent pole smack into the middle of our story, or the middle of Act Two. When your story sags in the middle, kind of fizzles out for the reader, they stop reading. The tent pole can be a paradigm shift in the story, something to make the reader go, “Wait a minute!” and continue to read. It also always seems to involve a death, either literally, emotionally, or figuratively. Because, let’s face it, what better way to throw a dogleg into a story than by killing something. Note that the Tent Pole connects directly to the ground, and to the fertilizer, aka the theme. I don’t see this in a lot of stories, but there are some examples where the Tent Pole relates in some way to the theme. If you can pull this off, you’re on your way to a well-rounded, fully plotted story. Dorothy’s Tent Pole Moment was when she was captured by the witch and threatened with death. (See what I did there? Death.) In Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, Luke’s Tent Pole Moment is when they were about to die in the garbage masher. I recently saw an opposite tent pole when watching Tarzan II, the Disney animated prequel to Tarzan. (It was my ten-year-old grandson’s choice, but I kinda liked it.) In the middle of the movie, when everyone thought that the child Tarzan, who had run away, was now dead. His friends find out otherwise and go tell his ape mother who is grieving. She immediately sets out to find him, creating a shift in the story and giving the audience hope that Tarzan will be found. It still involves a death, but one that isn’t a death, if that makes sense. Well, it did to me at the time.
  •       Bleakest Moment – Just as it sounds. Nowhere to turn. All hope is lost. For Dorothy, it was when the balloon floated away without her thanks to her little dog and the only cat (apparently) in the land of Oz. This should happen at the end of the second act to kick off the third where the conclusion will happen. Just as the Tent Pole should tap into the Theme, the Bleakest Moment should reflect the Inciting Incident. This is why the branches are echoed on each side of the tree. Dorothy’s Inciting Incident was the tornado that blew her out of Kansas. Now, she has an alternative way to get back home, but alas, it’s not to be.
  •      The Lesson/Decision – This is an either/or scenario. Either the character learns a valuable lesson, thus completing her character arc for the better, or makes a decision to stay the way they are. Dorothy learned a valuable lesson that I still carry with me years after I first saw the movie on our brand-new color TV in the 60’s. There is no place like home. In the recent movie, La La Land, which I’ll be talking about at a later date, Mia and Sebastian make their own decisions: To keep on their trajectory and follow their dreams, even at the cost of their relationship. Note that according to the Tree Plotter, the Lesson/Decision should reflect the Inner Need. Dorothy needed a place where she was loved and appreciated. She found that right in her own backyard. Mia’s Inner Need, her Secret Desire, was to stay humble when she made it big. When she decides to pursue her career and she does become famous, we see her being kind to the barista, just as she had witnessed another famous actress doing in her own coffee shop when she was a struggling actress.

I plan to talk about the tree plotter a lot. Either here or on the Facebook page. There will be other aspects of the craft of writing, as well, but this Tree Plotter thing is where I’m living right now. I might as well build one of those fancy tree houses and settle a spell.

*Resources that led to the development of the Tree Plotter TM: