Broken Inside: How to Make Your Audience Sympathize

Copyright © 1998 by Madhouse

Characters are messy, sometimes. They bleed across the page in torrents of dialogue, poor decisions, tortured backstories, and over-the-top actions that drive the plot forward. If you’ve ever read a Stephen King novel or watched an episode of Game of Thrones, you know what I’m talking about. It’s the sort of thing that peak TV is built on, for better or worse.

But, for writers, there’s a question about dealing with characters: how do we make them worth following?

Here’s a hint: it’s not just cool cars and clothes. It’s about feeling.

I’d like to introduce you, then, to a little something I like to call the “Alone in the Bedroom” scene.

I can’t lay claim to being a big-time published author, but I’ve written tons of fiction over the years. Time and time again, I’ve found that there’s a recurring motif in a lot of my stories. I like gettting into my characters’ heads, sometimes to juxtapose the difference between what they’re thinking/feeling, and what they’re saying/doing. All well and good, but there are times in each of my better-written stories were a character will take a pause in the action and wrestle with their flaws or fears early on.

This is what I call “Alone in the Bedroom.” Because, in a lot of my stories, the bedroom is usually where these quiet moments take place. It’s where the College Girl comes after a long day of classes and social events, so she can drop her pollyanna mask and gripe about the pressure she’s under back home. It’s where the Friendly Vampire, who’s spent a whole night out feeding on the criminal element of their city, retreats just before dawn, sliding into their coffin and wishing they could be among normal people during the day.

Revealing trauma, and how it motivates (or frustrates) a character, is a key step in any narrative. We can’t always relate to a survivor of abuse or a criminal kingpin, but we can relate to a quiet moment where they’re mourning a loved one’s passing or debating how to proceed in life.

For an example, even though it doesn’t take place in a bedroom, let’s consider a key moment from the 2003 South Korean thriller Oldboy (spoilers to follow).

Copyright © 2003 by Show East

After the film’s bloody climax, our antagonist Lee Woo-jin (played by Yoo Ji-tae) has just reduced his longtime rival Oh Dae-su to a blubbering, ruined mess and earned his vengeance after 15 long years. Except, standing alone in the elevator, with a pistol in hand, Lee Woo-jin can’t help but picture his sister before she ended her life on a bridge, and he breaks down. He decides to end his own life, having neither joy nor purpose left with his revenge complete, and he shoots himself in the head right before the elevator reaches the ground floor. It’s a powerful scene, rendered with no dialogue, but the visual cuts between a suicide 15 years in the past and a powerful man with blood on his hands creates this beautiful, painful tension. In that moment, for all the things we might hate Woo-jin for doing to Dae-su, we end up sympathetic for the grief that his sister’s loss still brings him.

The Alone in the Bedroom scene is an unguarded moment. It’s a chance for the writer to let us peek into the character’s head (or soul) outside the main course of action. Not every story needs such a scene, but it’s still crucial to give your audience a reason to appreciate the source of a character’s pain. Hamlet is still mourning his late father and bemoaning the rotten state of things in Denmark since his uncle took the throne. Frodo Baggins is a hobbit overwhelmed with the monumental weight of carrying the One Ring into the land of Mordor. Daenerys Targaryen is a descendent of royalty fighting for idealistic causes in a cruel, savage world, wrestling with the idea that she’s entitled to a crown and throne in a land she’s never seen.

I say all this not to preach, but offer ideas to other writers. Get creative. Dig into your character’s woes, and don’t be afraid to show them to us. Sometimes you get some of your best material in those small, quiet scenes.

Is It Wrong to Like Darth Vader?

Copyright © 1980 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Well…

So, I’ve been reading up on a lot of Star Wars media. Obviously, the release of the ninth Star Wars film this Christmas has a lot to do with that, but I’ve always been a fanboy at heart.

And, yes, like so many fans, I’ve often admired the look, sound, and style of its iconic villain, Darth Vader. I mean, how can you not like him? Cool armor? Check. Voiced by James Earl Jones? Check. Wields a fiery red laser sword and strangles people with his mind? Check. Amazing leitmotif? Check and check.

Now, it’s easy to turn around and say, “Yeah, but isn’t he basically a space wizard Nazi general? Doesn’t he slaughter Rebel fighters and subjugate worlds for the Empire?”

Well, yes, Vader is all that, too. He is a villain, after all. “He’s more machine than man,” Obi-Wan Kenobi tells us, and we see most of that monstrous behavior in the original three movies. Vader is introduced standing among dead Rebel soldiers and then crushing the windpipe of a starship captain who won’t give up Princess Leia. In the Star Wars universe, Vader is more terrifying than inspiring. He’s not, say, a hero of the Clone Wars the way someone like Anakin Skywalker was.

But there’s the twist. Anakin is Vader. The hero fell, and the villain rose. Burned and scarred, unable to breathe on his own, smoldering in his hatred and pride, the great Jedi Knight has been rebuilt into the Emperor’s top enforcer. He sold out his family, his friends, and the galaxy as a whole for greater power and security. And he paid a price by losing the wife he loved, turning his children against him, and being kept in a brutal existence that leaves him powerless and dying outside his armor.

When I hear people talk about esteeming Vader, it’s always the iconic voice and the cool lightsaber and the ruthless power he wields. We never really talk about the dying old man inside the armor. We don’t talk about the conflict he experiences when introduced to his son Luke, or how he’s forced to confront the fear of losing his only son to his Master’s fury, which propels him to betray the Emperor as his final act in life. We might talk about Luke redeeming his father, but it’s always about the man Anakin was and not the man Vader has become.

Vader, for all his ominous aura and might, is far more interesting as a character with nuance. He can be brutal in one scene and regretful in another. He can be intimidating on the outside and weak on the inside.

I think that’s an issue we have with some of our esteemed characters, both good and bad. We revere superheroes like Superman and Batman, but we don’t want to be stuck with just Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne. But without Clark or Bruce, we wouldn’t have those costumed heroes. We want our celebrities to be shiny and captivating, but throw in a scandal or a failure, and we’ll turn on them in a heartbeat. True, some celebrities deserve to lose their status (feel free to skip your defense of Spacey or Weinstein in the comments below), but it’s also a sign of what we expect from them, too.

Imagine if you were a kid living in the Star Wars universe. Imagine that you grew up on some small backwater planet, and you heard stories about Anakin Skywalker, the Jedi Knight and Chosen One who could take down any enemy and look good doing it. Now imagine, years later, you learn that Anakin didn’t die heroically in battle, but he survived and became Darth Vader, the Emperor’s right-hand man and author of a thousand atrocities. Imagine looking outside your window and seeing stormtroopers patrolling your streets, knowing that the hero you worshipped became the villain who made all this possible. Even if you were told Vader was a hero to the Empire, would you believe it when your childhood friend, now a fleet officer, gets strangled for screwing up on the bridge of a Star Destroyer? Would you shrug and defend Vader if you knew he stood by while the planet Alderaan was annihilated? And even if you somehow heard, years later, that Vader turned on the Emperor and died as Anakin Skywalker once more, would you believe that, too? And would it be enough?

These aren’t easy questions. They’re not supposed to be easy. Even in a galaxy filled with space wizards, colorful robots and aliens, and faster-than-light travel, there are still hurdles to overcome. So, no, I don’t think it’s wrong to like Darth Vader. I don’t think it’s healthy to glorify him at the expense of his background as Anakin Skywalker, or to romanticize the Empire and erase Anakin’s final act of atonement in Return of the Jedi. That, after all, is what Vader’s successor Kylo Ren aims to do in the sequel trilogy.

Vader can be cool to dress up as, to quote, and to plaster all over Star Wars merchandise until the end of the world. So can a lot of other things that we enjoy. But when you get down to it, you have to remember that the image is being admired, but the character isn’t. Wrestling with character is key, but there’s nothing wrong with finding the image satisfying by itself.

Thoughts on the Star Wars Episode 9 Trailer (And on the Whole Sequel Saga)

Copyright @ 2019 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

It’s been literal minutes since I watched the first teaser trailer for the long-awaited ninth installment in the Star Wars saga. It’s been quite a ride.

I mean, where do I start? How much the title (The Rise of Skywalker) sends chills down my spine? How every shot featuring Rey, Leia, Lando, Finn, Poe, or Kylo Ren makes me giddy? How that final ominous laugh really raises the stakes for this movie?

But honestly, watching the film feels both familiar and groundbreaking. That’s a good way to describe this series as a whole. From handing over the torch to J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson to letting the saga’s biggest heroes face their curtain call as a new generation takes the stage, there’s this sense of possibility and adventure that the films invoke. While other films challenge our sense of the familiar, from Rogue One‘s gritty flavor to Solo‘s indecisive comedy and crime drama, Episodes VII to IX seem to ride on a more persistent vision.

It’s the same galaxy, they tell us, but you’re going to visit some new places.

You can chase after the things you want, they tell us, but you’ll find something you never expected at the other end.

The war might look the same, they tell us, but the moves aren’t always what you thought they’d be.

And that’s something that I enjoyed about Force Awakens and Last Jedi. Rey isn’t Luke, Finn isn’t Han, and Kylo Ren isn’t Vader. The First Order looks and acts like the Empire, but it’s nowhere near the strength of the original. Rey’s parentage doesn’t have to be the same path that Luke’s heritage took. Kylo Ren really can stand between the light and dark sides of the Force, making him dangerous to just about everyone who’d see him as an ally. And, yes, the Jedi Knights can come back to life, but doing so means making our ideas about the Force and the Skywalker legacy bigger than ever.

Much like how Marvel fans felt after the end of Avengers: Infinity War, we’re stepping into uncharted waters. Things are wildly different now, but they’re also a touch familiar. Some faces changed, some unexpected alliances took place, and the threat has asserted itself in a brutal way that leaves our heroes starting over from Square One.

So, yes, I am excited about how this series ends. And I’m excited for Rian Johnson’s separate Star Wars trilogy in the works, and for seeing all kinds of new material from a galaxy far, far away. It’s different, and it’s easy to get lost in the hype or to start assuming the finished product won’t live up to our ideals, but that’s okay. So long as we’re willing to be challenged, to be given a chance for an adventure, good or bad, we can experience it together as moviegoers, as Star Wars fans, and as kids who like making lightsaber sounds whenever we swing a broom around our living rooms.

Worldbuilding: Is It What Your Story Needs?

Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

There’s nothing like writing a good story. All that drama playing out on the big screen or on page after page of your novel. All those characters, so colorful and engaging. All the magic and wonder of getting lost in someone else’s world, be it the starship Enterprise, a Carribean beach hotel, the halls of power in Washington, or the ancient palace of Queen Nefertiti.

Now, there’s usually one problem a lot of writers face with their stories, and that can be getting started.

I’ve been through it myself. And as someone who tried for many years to write a science fiction or fantasy novel, it can be brutal when you realize that you’re spending more time trying to flesh out your setting and less time crafting a good outline for your plot, or mapping character arcs. You hit that moment (or at least I have) when you find yourself with 3 to 4 new tabs open on Wikipedia, all so you can look up Alcubierre drives for starships, negative mass for how to power said drives, Dromaeosaurus for a dinosaur species to inspire your reptilian aliens, and Star Trek for any clue as to how Gene Roddenberry envisioned the warp drive working at all.

But then, take a step back. What we have are a lot of ideas with no real story or characters around them. I could write several paragraphs explaining what I’ve learned about faster-than-light travel, but unless you’re looking to learn about the physics of future spaceflight, your eyes might be glazing over at the thought of that jargon. And, to be sure, that’s what old-school “hard” science fiction used to be. Engineers and doctors who wrote in their spare time would write stories for each other, all technically explained and justified by scientists and engineers in dialogue, even as they’re being attacked by aliens or dragged through wormholes.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Worldbuilding can be useful. It just has to have a point to the narrative.

At the moment, I’ve been rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it’s a healthy reminder of how worldbuilding works. Almost too good, since you know every fantasy writer since Tolkien has wanted to show off their Middle-earth to the masses. But where did Tolkien’s world come from? It came from Nordic sagas, Old English poems, Celtic legends, Catholic spirituality, his lifetime’s work in philology, and his native West Midlands countryside. And while Tolkien does spend a lot of time describing the countryside as Frodo and his companions carry the One Ring closer to Mordor, he never gets too lost in his own woods. He introduces songs, legends, words of Elvish, and magical occurrences all in relation to the main plot. Everything has a point, even if it makes for three very dense books of prose and poetry.

At the same time, though, you can only build so much of your setting beforehand. I’ve written some of my best stories without knowing what the setting was apart from, say, a small town loosely modeled on my hometown, or perhaps a subway station that reminds me of the London Underground. The scene is set. I don’t really need to do ten thousand hours of research into when the Piccadilly line runs, or when certain buildings in my part of California were erected in relation to the 1994 Northridge earthquake. If I only need a subway or a small town setting for the purpose of staging two people having an argument or falling in love, then that’s all I need. People want to read about the tension between those people and how it’s resolved.

Tension matters. And if your setting can add or release that tension, like a couple having a fight in a rainy New York street, or a war-weary soldier stumbling across a mythical rural town that’s been hidden for centuries, then so much the better.

Mapping My Writing Style

It’s the first post of 2019 for me. A good time to look forward, to catch of a glimpse of new vistas, to sing of the body electric of new stories to be written and read and shared and reread.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the style of writing. Not just what we say, but how we say it. I’m focused on how we string words together, how we connect this sentence to that corresponding paragraph, and how we cause lines of text, black letters on white backdrops, to become images and full-fledged scenes inside our readers’ heads. We have our motifs, our formulas, our grammar, and our cadence. Some of us prefer to sound like we speak with a Received Pronounciation; others, like a Southern drawl on a muggy August evening; and still others, like voices raised against midday traffic on Fifth Avenue.

There’s all sorts to writing that I can’t put down a definitive list. So, instead, I’ll just focus on what I have in my writer’s toolbox.

  • Colorful female protagonists
  • References to Latinx culture and Catholicism
  • Social justice perspectives
  • Frequent LGBT romances
  • Vivid descriptions of scenery as an “establishing shot”
  • Multiple interior monologues
  • Third person limited POV
  • Use of dialogue to establish character and move the plot
  • References to Shakespeare, classic works of art and fiction, and pop culture
  • Low-stakes drama and comedy
  • Description of sunlight and interior lighting to establish mood

Looking over my own list, I can see a few points worth noting. For example, I write a lot in the language of TV and films, where I use establishing shots and key lighting to cultivate my settings. My scenes tend to center on two or more people engaged in a conversation, be it a love scene, an argument, an investigation, or a nightmare. I use my scene lighting and my dialogue to build up the overall mood of every scene, to evoke something straight out of German Expressionism.

And, sure, I did include some content here. Mostly recurring motifs. I write about women, I write about Latinos, I write about Catholic spirituality, and I write with an eye toward social justice. All things near and dear to my heart. I make allusions to Shakespeare and pop culture. I am sarcastic as hell, and so are my characters. I’ve written things that try to be big and adventurous, but really, I’d rather do something small and lighthearted.

Overall, I’d say that I write about people discussing things and growing because of their discussions. I write about feelings more than actions. Take a look at any of my stories, from my Digital Eyes, Family Ties anthology to some of my newer works, and you’ll see there’s a lot of depth to what a character might be feeling over how much action they’re accomplishing. You won’t find any James Patterson thrillers or Stephen King horrors in my work. I’ve nothing against those kind of authors, but I’m more the guy whose work you pick up when you’re sleepy and you just want to curl up with something not-so-heavy on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

Style matters. Sure, you can give me a book that has more poetry than plot, and I can get bored real quick, but I also think that we can’t just write for the sake of driving a story from start to finish. We need to consider our native languages, our personal tones and phrases that keep popping up in everything we create.


Readers, if you’re also a writer, what’s your style like? Have you found yours yet, or are you trying something new this time around? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.