Writing Tip: Kill your Sycophants

Photo by Viki Burton – CC BY-SA 2.0 with some significant cropping by me.

You read that right. I am advocating the murder of those you love. Well… not real people. Beloved characters.

As a writer (and often as a reader) I find that stories fall into a bit of a feedback loop. Say your character, Thangar the Warrior, meets up with Agethos the Uncouth. Initially, he’s struck by Agethos’s disagreeable scent, but eventually, they realize that they share a common purpose: to end the tyrannical rule of Edgar the Hopelessly Lame. Great. We’ve had some conflict, a bit of resolution and now a new goal for our united heroes to tackle. The story is humming along.

Here’s the danger. Now that Agethos is working with your hero, he’s never going to disagree, right? Because your hero is super awesome and everyone that truly gets him is going to see that he’s only doing what’s right…

There’s so much wrong with that! Your hero does have flaws, right? He’s making regular mistakes, and selfish choices, etc, right? So Agethos shouldn’t just be going along. Plus Agethos should also be selfish and broken. Their flaws should rub each other the wrong way. They should have differing ideas about how to take on Edgar…

The second trap, is to let those disagreements be trivial. This is not a real disagreement:

“Ah, Thangar, my excellent companion,” Agethos said, pouring the remains of the previous night’s stew over their campfire. “If we take this road to the left, we’ll get out of the forest and feel the sun on our faces.”

“But, Agethos, my pungent companion,” Thangar answered as he lounged on his bedroll, watching his friend work. “If we take the right road, we can be at Edgar’s palace fifteen minutes sooner, and free the people of Novellia from his odious repulsivity that much sooner.”

“Good point, my wise confederate. To the right we go.”

This isn’t conflict. It doesn’t matter. Now, Agethos doing all the chores while Thangar lays around on his butt… that could be the seed for a deeper conflict.

Remember, the more challenge and adversity you throw at your hero, the more interesting your story will be, and the more those challenges and adversities are caused by your character’s own flaws, the more poignant your story will become.

So if you find your sidekicks becoming sycophantic suckups, bump them off and replace them with prickly characters that keep your hero on their toes!

How do you set your characters at one another’s throats? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments section.

Sparks flying

23:07 – Just got finished with a great meeting planning for our trailer.

I need to sleep now, but I’m super psyched to get up tomorrow and work on a new script draft.

I love it when things shake loose and the ideas start to come.

This isn’t much of a blog post, but it’s what I have from today. More tomorrow.

Short Story: Follower – Part III

Here’s the final installment of my serialized short story. If you missed part I and II you’ll want to read those first. Hope you enjoy it!

Sally and I grabbed a booth in the back of a little bistro we were favored. The food was pretty mediocre, but the booth was out of the traffic pattern and it gave us a little privacy.

She looked ravishing today. A bottle blonde, with bobbed curls in a dark suit with what looked suspiciously like a negligee poking out from the jacket — while she wasn’t an unnaturally busty half-naked warrioress, I was still definitely interested.

We’d done this little dance fairly regularly for the last month, so as my pasta congealed and her salad grew soggy, I scooted closer and tried to whisper something teasing in her ear.

She scooted away with a scandalized glance and cut her eyes at my stalker, who’d parked a chair at the end of our table. “Your friend!” She muttered with wide eyes.

“He doesn’t mind,” I said, nuzzling into her hair.

She gave me a shove. “I mind.” I got distracted by the view down her blouse as she straightened her jacket, so I almost missed it when she said, “I told you before. I’m not fooling around with an audience.”

I gave my stalker a flat look and he returned it in kind.

“I’m sorry he’s so rude.” Sally used a totally different voice when she addressed my stalker. It was very professional and deferential.

I didn’t really hear his reply.

“I’m sorry. I’ve been being rude.” I said, in my rudest possible tone. “Sally, this is Stalker McFollowMegus. He insists on creepily going everywhere I do.”

To punctuate my point, I jabbed my fork down into my pasta and shoved it into my mouth.

My stalker made noises that may have been words, I’m not sure. I couldn’t really hear them over my angry mastication. But my ears pricked up as Sally replied.

“It’s just that… I think people should be allowed to do what they want, y’know?”

He nodded, as though he thought exactly the same thing. I shoveled another bite into my mouth, trying to remember what he’d asked that prompted her response… and missed what he was saying again.

It didn’t matter. Not really. I’d come here to flirt with Sally. That was what this lunch was about, and he’d forced himself into the middle of it. Now, he and Sally were chatting and I was left out in the cold.

Angrily, I scarfed down another cold bite of pasta. It tasted awful.

Sally and my stalker were having some weird philosophical discussion about people making their own choices or whether they should be forced into compliance with some standard of good behavior. I wasn’t really following it. I barely even heard that he was talking, and she was so engaged, her eyes sparkling with an intelligence I’d never noted, leaned forward toward him, almost bouncing in her seat — it made me angry. Jealous. He was trying to steal her from me. That’s what this was about.

I slammed my fork down on the ceramic plate with so much force it cracked.

Sally gave me a shocked look. “Are you okay?”

My stalker laid a hand on my shoulder, gently. I violently batted it away. “No. I’m not okay!” I shouted.

Our server apparated beside the table, showing a bit too much white around his eyes.

“Sir, you need to stop shouting. You’re upsetting the other guests.”

“I’m upsetting the other guests?” I ranted. I decided I was going to show this server just who he was dealing with. I’d stand up, puff out my chest and loom threateningly as I poked my finger in his face and told him just what I thought. I mean, c’mon! This freak show was following me everywhere. Into the freaking shower! He’d wrecked my lunch date, and some idiot had the gall to say I was the problem?

I lost a lot of momentum trying to scoot around the bench of the booth so I could get out. Then as I tried to stand, Sally grabbed my arm and pulled me back. I fell back against her, crushing her against the booth and knocking the wind out of her. She held onto my arm, though.

“Settle down.” She hissed.

I flailed my arm to get her off, but only managed to knock over my drink. Sally shrieked as 32ozs of crushed ice and a tiny bit of coke gushed into her lap.

Finally, I made it to my feet, just as the manager came over.

“Sir, we’re going to have to ask you to leave.”

“Me?” I demanded, indignant. “What about this clown?”

I pointed at my stalker. His eyes glistened with unshed tears, and there once again was that love I’d seen. He was so desperately in love with me.

The rage whooshed out of me and I felt oddly hollow. I looked at Sally. Her face was red and blotchy. Far from fetching, she now looked more dangerous than one of my warrior woman cards. Her squinty eyes were promising a harsh retribution and they weren’t trained on the waiter or my stalker, they were spearing straight into me.

“Do I need to call the police?” The manager already had his cell phone out.

I looked back at my stalker. He was getting slowly to his feet.

The broken plate, spilled glass, Sally’s ruined suit and… puffy lip? Had I whacked her on the lip trying to get up? I felt a horrible surge of shame. What had I done? So what if Sally had a stupid conversation with… whoever he was? Why had I lashed out at everyone and created this mess?

I felt a vise grip on my arm. “Come with me.” The manager said in a no-nonsense tone, pulling me away from the table.

“Stop!” The voice was strong, authoritative, and everyone froze.

This man who’d been following me all day rose slowly to his feet. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet but firm. He stood confidently, in absolute control, but without a hint of tension. Smiling at me gently, he said, “This is my fault.”

I started to protest and he shushed me.

“I will pay the damages.” He said to the manager. Raising his voice to the other customers, he continued, “I’m sorry for creating a scene.”

For a moment, it was like a tableau, the entire restaurant was motionless, as though time had stopped. It hadn’t. I could hear the faint clicking of a mechanical clock on the wall and see the second hand marching forward. Then, as though on cue, everyone went back to their meals. The manager gripped my stalker by the arm, where a moment before he’d held me, and my stalked was escorted away, to pay the bill and be ejected from the restaurant.

Sally looked up at me. “What a jerk.” She said, waving after him.

The word came involuntarily. “What?”

“That idiot, smashing a plate, yelling and making a scene… who behaves that way.”

I was flabbergasted. She was clearly pointing and gesturing to my stalker, but describing my behavior. It wasn’t just her. I could see across the restaurant, everyone had transferred their anger to him. It was as though my slate were washed clean, and he’d somehow taken complete responsibility for what I’d done.

All day long, he’s been walking along with me, smiling, encouraging, speaking quietly, and I’d been ignoring him. I struggled, trying to recall a single thing I’d heard him say today. Nothing would come.

I looked at Sally, annoyance writ large on her face as she glared across the restaurant at the man who’d followed me all day.

“What did the two of you talk about?”

Her eyes flicked to me, surprised, maybe even a little guarded.

“I was just saying I think bad things should never happen.”

I nodded. That made sense to me.

“So what did he say?”

She shrugged and shook her head. “He was saying something about how people have to be allowed to make their own choices.”

I turned and watched as he paid the bill for my meal and the plate I’d broken. Additionally, I watched as he bore the weight of all I had done.

“Excuse me,” I said, rising from the booth and crossing to the counter where my new friend was paying.

He turned and smiled at me as I approached.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Thank you for being with me today. Will you… will you be with me tomorrow?”

He gave me a probing look. “Do you want me to be?” He asked.

* * *

Morning drug me out of my reverie without compassion. I got up, took a shower, grabbed breakfast and headed to work, only to wake up and realize it was a dream. The clock said I was running late. So I rushed out the door to work and then woke up again. Another dream.

I clawed my way out of bed, stumbling drunkenly toward the bathroom, and… I saw a man sitting in the chair in the corner. He was watching me. What was he doing in my home? Had he been watching me sleep?

“What are you doing in my house?” I shouted.

He smiled gently at me, shaking his head. Something in his expression seemed familiar. Had this all happened before? It seemed eerily familiar…

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Did you enjoy the story? Did it make you think? What stands out to you? Did you see yourself in this at any point? Let me know in the comments.

Short Story: Follower – Part II

In case you missed it, the spirit of writer’s past overwhelmed me yesterday and I decided I needed to play Charles Dickens. So I’ve serialized a short story. You can catch up on part I, or read on for part II.

Going to work made me nervous. I wasn’t really surprised when he followed me out to the car and climbed in on the passenger side. What surprised me happened fifteen minutes later. Traffic was crawling slowly down I-25 toward my exit, and my phone dinged to let me know that my co-worker, Sally, who I thought was kind of cute, had commented on a Facebook photo of my dog.

“Cute dog.” She wrote.

I punched reply, and started to type “Just the dog?” When all of the sudden my strange companion snapped his fingers rapidly in agitation. I glanced up at him and he pointed desperately at the front window.

I looked up just in time to slam on the brakes and miss colliding with the bumper in front of me.

“Uh, thanks,” I said, going back to my phone.

He didn’t respond or make a sound that I noticed, but I felt sick, and put my phone away. Sally could wait until I finished my drive. I guess.

* * *

Nothing at the office felt unusual. No one commented on my strange companion, though he was there in the midst of every interaction. I could feel myself settling into this reality. Ok. So a weird guy follows me everywhere. As long as he doesn’t interfere — at least not beyond pointing out when I’m about to wreck my car — I can probably live with that, I thought. At least for the moment.

After writing a few emails and submitting an expense report, I was exhausted and felt like I deserved a little break. I’ve found this great browser game called Heroes of Mechanidar, where you fight epic battles in order to collect artistic cards of half-naked women holding swords. It’s not just women, there are also men, giant lizards, and half-snake people. But the men and lizards are pretty well covered in massive armor sets and the half-snake ladies still have large, barely-covered breasts. Not that any of that is important, except that I did feel weird about him looking over my shoulder as I played.

He looked back at me. Clearly, this seemed like a bad idea to him, but what business was it of his?

Hard work is important. I believe in it, it’s a value. Resting is also essential, though. So, I shouldn’t have felt guilty about taking a break. Clock-watching isn’t really my thing so I won’t claim that I worked a precise number of hours, or that my break was a certain number of minutes. There are guys that make everything into a legalistic thing, but I’m not one of them. On average, I think work was coming out ahead of my personal time.

I know, also, that my female co-workers might not love all the half-naked ladies, but it’s not like it was porn. It was just a game. I glared at my companion. Clearly, his presence was messing with me. Feeling guilty about taking a break at work is not part of my usual routine.

Just then, Gretchen, my boss, popped her head over the top of my cubical. Gretchen is a sixty-two-year-old divorcee. Her kids are grown, and the talk around the office is that she doesn’t have much of a life outside of work. I imagine she was never much to look at, but her cropped gray hair and well-tailored suits give her a professional air. Nimbly, I minimized my game, so only my report was visible on my screen, while also knocking my coffee mug over and ruining the print-outs I’d prepared.

“Hey, buddy. Great to see you!”

I was still fumbling to mop up the mess with a roll of toilet paper I’d filched from the employee restroom. Should I really have to purchase tissues for the office on my own dime? With all of that happening, it took me a moment to realize she wasn’t talking to me.

“Yeah, well, I’ve been pretty busy with work, y’know?” She fidgeted a bit as she answered a question I hadn’t heard. I looked up at her, my jaw hanging open a bit, and she turned to me.

“I didn’t know you two knew each other.” She gestured at the stranger as she spoke.

Gretchen knew my stalker? I wondered, did she put him up to this? Wouldn’t that be some sort of workplace harassment? Was this some secret program to check up on employees?

“You know this guy?” I asked, pointing a hostile finger at him and heavily emphasizing her potential culpability.

Her face flushed a little and she looked down. “I, uhhh… used to. It’s been a while.”

Sure it has, I thought. Gretchen was definitely number one on my stalker suspect list.

“You have the Farraday report for me?” She quickly changed the subject, and both of our eyes tracked to the brown mess of letter-sized pages, wadded toilet tissue, and spilled coffee.

“I—“ My indignation flickered out. “I need to print you another copy.”

She shrugged. “Just email it to me.”

As she walked away, I glanced back at my stalker. His eyes followed her, sad and longing.

Wait! They’d spoken. He’d asked her a question. I whirled in my chair to face him.

“You can talk!” I said with a pointing finger.

“Of course….” His smiling reply faded to a slight buzzing and I wondered about how the U.S. would do in the World Cup this year. Maybe this would be a good year for us… finally.

I looked up at him. He was staring at me. Waiting. Like he’d asked a question.

“Who are you, anyway?” I asked.

He smiled. “I’m glad you asked. I….”

My phone buzzed, and I tuned out the words as he continued talking.

Sally texted, “Lunch?”

“Yeah. I just need to send a report to G-ma. 5 min?” I typed back. Three little bouncing dots told me she was writing back. I waited. They continued to bounce. I looked at the ceiling and exhaled. How long did it take to type a reply?

“I’ll grab my jacket,” her message read.

I spun in my seat and pulled up my email so I could send the report to Gretchen.

To be continued… read part III

Check back tomorrow for part III, and take a minute to share your thoughts and comments with me below.