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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Writing a Great Villain

By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 31, 2017

The easiest villain to write is the external villain. The Alien. The shark in Jaws. The Terminator. Doc Ock, Bane, Immortan Joe. Or force-of-nature villains—the volcano in Volcano, the oncoming Ice Age in The Day After Tomorrow, the Mayan-prophecy-end-of-the-world in 2012.

The villain in "ALIEN: Covenant." Can we do better?

The villain in “ALIEN: Covenant.” Can we do better?

External villains present existential threats to our physical existence. These sonsofbitches will kill you, eat you, freeze you, boil you.

The problem with external villains, though they may occasionally deliver bestseller sales and boffo box office, is they don’t often bring out the best in the stars who must confront them.

Why? Because the stars only have to duel these villains on one level (and the most superficial level, at that): the physical.

Much higher on the Villain Food Chain are

  1. Societal villains.
  2. Interior villains.

The villain in Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night and many, many others down to The Hurricane, Precious, and The Help, is racism.

Racism is a societal villain.

An individual character or characters may personify this antagonist in our narrative, as the jury or the mob or Bob Ewell did in Mockingbird. But the real villain is all-pervasive. It’s that cruel, ignorant, evil belief—”I have a right to dominate you because my skin is a different color than yours”—that exists only in men’s minds and hearts.

Societal villains are great villains, and they have produced great stars/heroes to confront them.

Do you remember The Way We Were? The Way We Were was a vehicle for two superstars in their prime, Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, and it provided both of them with roles worthy of their peak power.

Who was the villain?

The villain, again, was societal. It was the ethno-racist belief that “Park Avenue” was different from “Brooklyn” and that people whose characters were formed in such environments—WASPy, athletic, born-golden Hubbell Gardiner and Jewish, striving, up-from-the-streets Katie Morosky—could never truly come together.

Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford in "The Way We Were"

Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford in “The Way We Were”

The chasm between them because of their ethnicities and the different worlds they grew up in was so vast that it could not be bridged even by a great love.

The villain wins in the end of The Way We Were.

But the battle against this antagonist—the passionate, complex, tragic struggle by Katie and Hubbell to maintain their love—is an epic, world-class throwdown, with layer upon layer of emotional and psychological depth. The clash with this villain was worthy of two superstars.

The stars made the roles, but the villain made the stars.

The third type of villain, and the most satisfying dramatically, is the interior villain.

The interior villain is inside the star herself.

Karen Blixen’s need to “possess” the things she loves.

Hamlet’s inability to make up his mind and act.

Gatsby’s dream of recapturing a past that never really existed.

External villains exist as metaphors. The Alien represents … what? Pure evil? Death? Pitiless fate?

But interior villains show us the demons you and I really deal with in our real lives—the crazy shit inside our skulls.

Silver Linings Playbook made stars out of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

One reason: a great villain.

"So think about that dance thing." Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook."

“So think about that dance thing.” Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook.”

The villain in Silver Linings Playbook is interior. It exists inside Bradley Cooper’s head. The villain is his obsession, fueled by his bipolar disorder, with winning back his wife Nikki, whom he has alienated by his extravagant behavior in the past.

This villain is in every scene of the movie, from first to last.

 

PAT (BRADLEY COOPER)

[Nikki and I] have a very unconventional chemistry. It

makes people feel awkward, but not me. Alright? She’s the

most beautiful woman I’ve ever been with. It’s electric between

us! Okay, yeah, we wanna change each other, but that’s normal,

couples wanna do that. I want her to stop dressing like she

dresses, I want her to stop acting so superior to me, okay?

And she wanted me to lose weight and stop my mood swings,

which both I’ve done. I mean, people fight. Couples fight. We

would fight, we wouldn’t talk for a couple of weeks. That’s

normal. She always wanted the best for me.

 

TIFFANY (JENNIFER LAWRENCE)

Wow.

 

PAT

She wanted me to be passionate and compassionate.

And that’s a good thing. You know? I just, look, I’m my

best self today and I think she’s her best self today, and

our love’s gonna be fucking amazing.

 

TIFFANY

It’s gonna be amazing, and you’re gonna be amazing,

and she’s gonna be amazing, and you’re not gonna be that

guy that’s gonna take advantage of a situation without

offering to do something back. So think about that

dance thing.

 

See the villain in there? It’s in every word and it’s more terrifying than the Alien and the Predator and the Monsters of the Id from Forbidden Planet. This demon will devour not just Bradley’s soul but Jennifer’s too if it can, and it’s in every cell in Bradley’s body, as invisible to him as water is to a fish swimming in it.

What a hero Bradley will be if he can somehow, either alone or aided by Jennifer, see the real love that’s staring him in the face and recognize this Nikki-self-delusion for the monster it is—and change himself.

Spoiler alert: he does.

That’s a hero.

That’s a star.

(And count Jennifer too, because she’s fighting the same villain.)

What made that star was the scale and depth of the villain he (and she) had to fight.

 

(more…)

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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Clueless Asks

By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 24, 2017

 

I turn down all clueless asks.

Alicia Silverstone in "Clueless:"

Alicia Silverstone in “Clueless:”

What exactly is a clueless ask?

  1. Anyone who sends me their manuscript unsolicited.
  2. Anyone who asks me to meet them for lunch.
  3. Anyone who sends me an e-mail headed “Hi” or “Hello there” (or with no salutation at all.)
  4. Anyone who asks me how to get an agent.
  5. Anyone who asks me to introduce them to my agent.

These are not malicious asks.

The writers who send them are nice people, motivated by good intentions.

They’re just clueless.

They have committed one of two misdemeanors (or both).

First, they have demonstrated that they have no respect for my time—and no concept of the value of what they’re asking me for.

Do I have two hours to meet somebody for lunch? In the middle of the working day? Why? To shoot the shit about scene construction and character development?

Or maybe the asker “admires my work” and would like to “pick my brain.”

Really?

Send me a check for $10,000 and when it clears I still won’t meet you for lunch.

Or maybe the asker wants me to blurb their new book.

Why would I do that?

Do I know them? Did we go to school together? Did we serve in the same battalion? Am I married to their sister?

The real ask in these cases is “Can I have your reputation?” In other words, “Will you give me, for free, the single most valuable commodity you own, that you’ve worked your entire life to acquire?”

The second crime these clueless askers commit is they have not done their due diligence.

Don’t ask a writer how to get an agent. Find out yourself. There are ten thousand sources online and a hundred books in the Writing section of a book store.

Don’t send a writer an e-mail with an attachment that contains your novel. What if I’m writing my own novel on that same subject? When mine comes out, you’ll sue me for plagiarism and tell the judge, “See, I sent him my book. He ripped me off!”

My lawyer won’t let me read anything that comes in unsolicited, for just this reason.

Do your research.

Learn good manners.

Find out how the business works.

My book Gates of Fire gets assigned sometimes to high school English classes. I get asks from kids to explain the theme, the structure, and the relationship of Character X to Character Y. You can see that the student (one wrote, “Please respond. Money is no object.”) has simply typed the teacher’s assignment verbatim into the e-mail.

These, I suppose, are not technically clueless asks.

They’re more like, “Hey, Stupid, lemme see if I can take advantage of you” asks.

 

(more…)

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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Warriors and Mothers

By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 17, 2017

 

 

What are the virtues of an entrepreneur?

Allison Janney as "Mom"

Allison Janney as “Mom”

What qualities of mind do you and I need if we are going to succeed as artist/entrepreneurs?

One answer (the one I usually use) is to say we need the virtues of warriors:

Courage.

Self-reliance.

The ability to endure adversity.

Another way is to say we need the virtues of mothers.

I had a dream once. I was living in New York, driving a cab at night, trying to write in the daytime. A friend came to visit. My friend was one of these wildly extroverted guys, who immediately went out on the town and came back with fabulous stories of all the fun he was having. I found myself thinking, I should be like him. Why am I denying myself everything, busting my butt day and night? Have fun, Steve! Stop being such a monk!

Then I had the dream. In the dream another friend’s wife, who happened to be pregnant at that time, came to me and sat down at my kitchen table. “Steve, you are pregnant too,” she said, “with that book you’re writing. You can’t go out partying. Your responsibility is to the new life growing inside you.”

The dream was right.

I woke up and immediately stopped worrying.

That movie that’s gestating inside you? That’s your baby.

That novel.

That album.

That new business.

The virtues you and I need to develop are the virtues of mothers.

A mother puts her own needs second (or third or fourth or fifth.) The needs of her child come first.

A mother will kill to protect her baby.

She will sacrifice her own life.

She’ll run into a burning building to save her child.

She’ll lift a Buick off her infant with her bare hands.

A mother knows how to say no.

No, she won’t go to the club.

No, she won’t drink those mojitos.

No, she won’t ingest that banned substance.

A mother eats right.

A mother gets her sleep.

A mother weans herself off Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and Instagram (at least most of the time.)

A mother is the definition of tough-minded.

A mother is the consummate professional.

She is in it for keeps.

She is in it for the long haul.

She is in it 24/7/365.

Nothing under the sun can shake a mother from her object, which is to nurture and protect and defend and prepare her baby to grow into its fullest possible potential.

A warrior is nothing compared to a mother.

Wanna be an artist? An entrepreneur?

Be a mother.

(more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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