Losing My Religion

Losing My Religion (aka Writing Misconceptions): The Archive

 Did you know that books take a long time to write, and even longer to make it into the hands of readers?  This series is from late 2012, and it came about because I had gotten serious about writing the book (after spending two years generating the material).  The book finally came out almost exactly four years later, and now six months after that, I’m proud to say that it’s a success.  (I forgot to tell you guys that the audiobook was the Deal of the Day on Audible a few days ago, sorry!)

Losing My Religion, Part 7: Misconceptions About Tone

See, I didn’t forget about it!
Tone is the most misunderstood aspect of writing...

What I Used to Think: A writer should write to please him or herself. 
  • What I Now Realize: A writer should write to please an audience.  (Hopefully, this will make the writer happy, too!) 
What I Used to Think: The audience wants to be shocked.
  • What I Now Realize: The audience wants to be astonished.
What I Used to Think: First and foremost, the audience wants the writer to defy expectations
  • What I Now Realize: The opposite is true: First and foremost, the audience wants the writer to create expectations.  Once those expectations have been created, the audience wants to the writer fulfill most of them and then upset a few of them. 
What I Used to Think: An audience will recommend your story to their friends based on what they think of the plot, the characters, the structure, the dialogue, the scenework, or the theme.
  • What I Now Realize: The audience recommends the story based on what urges it satisfies.
What I Used to Think: “Genre” refers primarily to a setting, or a subject matter, or the feeling of the story. 
What I Used to Think: A genre story should be primarily concerned with the details of that genre.
  • What I Now Realize: Great genre stories are metaphors for universal emotional experiences. A great vampire story isn’t about fangs and blood, it’s about our internal struggle between lust and self-control.  Great Westerns aren’t about horses, they’re about the struggle between our craving for individualism and our need for community. Even the most unrealistic genre stories should be metaphors for how things really feel. 
What I Used to Think: A genre-switch in the middle of the story makes for an exciting twist.
  • What I Now Realize: A genre-switch almost always alienates the audience. You’ve created expectations and now you need to fulfill them (or at least most of them).  TV shows like “Lost”  that switch genres abruptly infuriate fans. 
What I Used to Think: Once you’ve chosen a genre, you can freely mix and match every sub-genre within that genre.
  • What I Now Realize: Within a genre, some sub-genres can be combined, but others cannot.  Mixed-sub-genres often result in mixed metaphors.  Genre is a form of abstraction, and mixing genres or sub-genres can often leave you with an abstraction of an abstraction in which genre elements become disconnected from the real life emotions that they once represented.   
What I Used to Think: The audience is tired of genre clichés. 
  • What I Now Realize: Most clichés exist for good reasons, and audiences don’t mind them as long as they’re executed in a somewhat fresh way.  Every time you shed one, you must do so carefully, and accept that the audience is likely to complain that it’s missing.  Don’t just assume that they’re going to say, “Finally, a movie without that old cliché!”
What I Used to Think: Each genre implies a certain mood. 
  • What I Now Realize: The mood, such as light or dark, emotional or intellectual, funny or serious, is established independently of the genre such as in the title card of Star Wars (which subtly implies a “fairy tale” mood).
What I Used to Think: Each audience member will bring a unique and unpredictable set of expectation and assumptions to your story.  You can’t help it if it turns out that they wanted your story to be something that it wasn’t.
  • What I Now Realize: It’s possible to manage your audience’s expectations and reset their assumptions.  When re-writing your story, it’s very important to find out from your early readers about any assumptions they brought to your story, and which false expectations they formed as they read it, then re-write the beginning of your story accordingly.  
What I Used to Think: Foreshadowing is the author’s way of teasing the audience. 
  • What I Now Realize: Foreshadowing teases the audience, yes, but its primary purpose is to subtly reset the audience’s expectations.  It consciously prepares them for what might happen, and subconsciously steers them away from what won’t happen.

Losing My Religion, Part 9: Misconceptions About Writing Careers

Warning: This isn’t pretty. (Except for a little bit at the end, maybe.) 

What I Used to Think: Writing is a ticket to fame and fortune. 
  • What I Now Realize: Most graduates from my MFA program never sell anything at all, ever.  Most of those who do sell some of their work nevertheless remain below poverty-level. Even the most successful writers in this industry have no job security and no reliable benefits.  It’s an extremely risky career choice.
    What I Used to Think: When you make it to the next step on the ladder, you’ll have it made.
    What I Used to Think: An MFA program will teach you how to write.
    • What I Now Realize: Most programs, even the “prestigious” ones, are scams.  They exist to make money off your dreams, not to teach you anything.  They reinforce your misconceptions, encourage your worst instincts, protect you from any real criticism, saddle you with a lifetime of crushing debt, and dump you unceremoniously back out into the real world without any more writing skills than you came in with.  And don’t think that…
    What I Used to Think: Getting an MFA helps you get writing jobs.
    • What I Now Realize: Nobody ever got hired for a writing job because of an MFA.  In fact, it’s far more likely to hurt your chances.  Buyers know that MFA grads have a false sense of privilege, snide condescension towards audiences, and a totally naïve set of expectations.  They would much rather hear about your time in the army, or on a shrimp boat, or, best of all, prison, because those experiences grant a writer authenticity.  An MFA is the opposite of authenticity.  The best training is to get a job that forces you to listen to people and get constant audience feedback, such as journalism or stand-up comedy.
    What I Used to Think: Agents and managers are in the job of making you money. 
    • What I Now Realize: They’re in the job of making money for themselves by maintaining a monopoly on access to those who purchase writing.  They wait until a writer has already attractedthe attention of a buyer, then they insert themselves into that process to intercept some of that money, knowing that both parties have no choice but to deal with them.  If you are not one of their huge clients, they will expect you to find your own work, then demand their cut once you’ve almost closed the deal yourself. 
    What I Used to Think: The difference between an agent and a manager is that a manager is willing to develop the talent of new writers. 
    • What I Now Realize: The difference is that managers are unregulated, which means that they can insist on co-owning what you write as a condition of selling it.  In reality, managers don’t do much more to help their clients than agents do. 
    What I Used to Think:  Successful writers tend to be sensitive, non-competitive, creative-types who go into the arts because they’re not cut out for the world of business
    • What I Now Realize: Writing today is a cut-throat, high-stakes business, and those who succeed tend to have hard-edged, ambitious, type-A personalities.  The days when a sheltering editor, producer, or agent might protect an artsy writer from the harsh details of the business end are long over.  In fact, you’ll have to fight those people over every business detail if you want to be paid anything at all.  You have to have all those traits you dread hearing about in high-stakes job interviews: you have to be a self-starter, detail-oriented, and constantly focused on where you’ll be in five years. 
    What I Used to Think: You will write something great once you’re given the opportunity.
    • What I Now Realize: You have that opportunity right now.  If you don’t have representation, then use this valuable time to write and re-write several ambitious projects every year without distraction.  The work you produce now will be your ticket to the top, and it will also be your meal ticket once you’re there, because you’ll be too diverted by the hubbub to begin any meaningful new projects for a while. Right now is the prime of your career.
    Observe the world, feel empathy for everyone, turn specific human stories into astonishing universal metaphors, write every day, get helpful feedback, re-write mercilessly, excite your peers, send your work out into the world, then start on the next one right away without waiting to hear back.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Nobody has the power to stop you from writing something great ...as long as you don’t fall prey to your own misconceptions. 

    Losing My Religion, Part 8: Misconceptions About Rewriting

    Okay, folks, you may notice that I’m skipping “Part 7: Tone” and going right to our two-part wrap-up. I decided that I didn’t want to summarize my upcoming “tone” series until after it runs, partly because you guys always do a great job honing my ideas. Part 7 of this series will run at the end of that series.

    In my MFA program, they taught us that notes were rude, and that we should protect our vision zealously. They should be arrested for criminal malpractice.

    What I Used to Think: You should revise your first draft.
    • What I Now Realize: You should re-write your first draft. Rather than merely refining scenes or dialogue, you should be focused on changing the character’s personalities (which will make you change everything else) and/or re-structuring the whole story. You should not attempt line-by-line revisions until you’ve totally reshaped your script according to the overarching notes you’ve gotten.
    What I Used to Think: You don’t want to mess it up.
    • What I Now Realize: You do want to mess it up. If any part of your story is fragile or delicate, then it won’t survive the shipping process. Shake it up and pick it apart until everything that’s left is rock solid. If something comes right out, then take it out. Simplify it, or the buyers will simplify it for you, and with good reason.
    What I Used to Think: Once you think it’s perfect, then it’s done.
    • What I Now Realize: It’s not up to you to decide what’s perfect. Your peers, your early readers, your representatives, your editors and/or producers will all hopefully do a better job than you of determining what the story needs, so listen to them. If you strongly disagree with a note, set it aside for now…but don’t forget the Back to the Future rule: if one person give you that note, then maybe only one person feels that way, but as soon as two unrelated people give you the same note, then you can assume that millions of people will feel that way.
    What I Used to Think: There is one platonic ideal of what your story should be.
    • What I Now Realize: There are lots of great versions of every scene and sequence. If you keep trying out radically different versions you’ll find surprising new angles that serve your story better. Even after you sell it, the buyers will demand that you spend years re-writing and revising your story. Do so happily and heartily. Make them tear it out of your typewriter when they think it’s ready to go before an audience.
    What I Used to Think: Those who give you lots of notes are unpleasant and/or annoying.
    • What I Now Realize: A note is a big-hearted gift. The only reason anyone will ever give you notes is because they want to improve your story.
    What I Used to Think: Your early readers will tell you if your hero isn’t interesting enough or if you have the wrong structure.
    • What I Now Realize: Early readers are always willing to point out plot holes and tone problems, but they’re reluctant to point out problems they had with the characters or the structure. You have to push them to get those notes out of them.
    What I Used to Think: People who care about you will give you reliable notes.
    • What I Now Realize: At first, only people who care about you will be willing to read your writing, and they will try to give you good notes, but (a) they are probably not trained writers who can identify the real problem, and (b) they will not want to hurt your feelings about the over all quality of your work. If you can somehow get notes from peers that are not friends or family, those notes will be much more reliable. But wait, you may still think that…
    What I Used to Think: Paid instructors will give you reliable notes.
    • What I Now Realize: Your instructors may seem tough, but they aren’t tough enough, because (a) their income depends on your tuition, so they have a strong financial incentive to overpraise you to keep you enrolled and (b) they are evaluating your work against a platonic ideal that exists only in their head, not on how successful your work will be with an audience. (In fact, they often have open disdain for audiences, because of their own career setbacks.)
    What I Used to Think: If potential buyers give you notes, that means they didn’t like it.
    • What I Now Realize: If they didn’t like it, they would ignore it. Notes prove that they have engaged with your story, and they now feel invested in making it better.
    What I Used to Think: Buyers who give you notes will be happy if you make about 50% of the changes they ask for.
    • What I Now Realize: Buyers expect you to re-write everything they had a problem with and much more. Regardless of any assurances to the contrary, they do not regard their notes as optional requests or debatable opinions. Rather, they regard each of their notes as sacrosanct and symptoms of even larger problems. And don’t think that…
    What I Used to Think: If they didn’t give you a note about it, they don’t want you to change it.
    • What I Now Realize: Everybody hates reading a re-write in which very little has changed. You still have the older version, and you can revert to it at any time, but for now you should keep trying new things throughout your story, improving everything, not just the things they gave you notes about.
    What I Used to Think: You should focus your attention on one or two sections of your story that aren’t working.

    • What I Now Realize: If someone tells you that you have “third act problems” or that you need “a new first chapter”, don’t believe them. Treat each problem like a polyp of an endemic cancer. Notegivers almost always misidentify what the source of a problem is. They may be upset that your ending didn’t pay off an expectation that they had formed, but, perhaps, instead of adding a pay-off to the ending, you should instead go back to the earlier sections and remove the expectations.
    Tomorrow, the big finale, for now: Career.

    Losing My Religion, Part 6: Misconceptions About Theme

    Many writers avoid discussing theme for fear of being moralistic, but this is a fundamental misunderstanding...

    What I Used to Think: Your theme is a statement of the moral of your story.
    • What I Now Realize: The theme of your story is derived from the irreconcilable ethical or moral dilemma that underlies the dramatic question.
    What I Used to Think: The hero should choose between good and evil.
    • What I Now Realize: A choice between good and evil is a no brainer, so it will be dramatically inert.  The hero should be forced to choose between good vs. good, or evil vs. evil.
    What I Used to Think: The moral dilemma should be solved at the end of the movie
    • What I Now Realize: Your story should make a statement about this dilemma without entirely resolving it.  The hero should be forced to choose between those two goods or two evils, and that choice should have consequences, but the dilemma should live on in the audience’s heads.
    What I Used to Think:Irony is the same thing as sarcasm, so only tongue-in-cheek stories are ironic. 
    What I Used to Think: Literature is more worthwhile and/or harder to write than pure entertainment. 
    • What I Now Realize: It is extremely difficult to write a story that reliably entertains large numbers of people.  Both great literature and great entertainment are badly needed, very worthwhile, and highly useful to society as a whole.
    What I Used to Think: “Literature” refers to serious stories with sad endings. “Entertainment” refers to fun stories with happy endings. 
    • What I Now Realize: Just because a particular episode of “Mad Men” may be funny or have a happy ending doesn’t mean that it’s pure entertainment without any literary qualities. Likewise, just because a “Burn Notice” episode ends with that week’s bad guy getting away doesn’t mean it was intended to be literary.  The primary distinction is that literary stories tend to be about the unintended consequences of the characters’ actions, while purely entertaining stories tend to be about the intended consequences of their actions. 
    What I Used to Think: The audience will internalize your theme once you state your theme.  
    • What I Now Realize: If you want your theme to resonate with an audience, your story must ring true-- it must reflect human nature and the way the world works.  
      What I Used to Think: Good characters serve good, evil characters serve evil, and supporting characters serve the needs of characters they support.
      • What I Now Realize: Human nature dictates that people only want what they want.  All characters must be motivated by their own self-interest, as they see it. Heroes and villains should never pursue good or evil as abstract goals.  No character should ever ask a co-worker, “What’s wrong?”, or selflessly say, “Do you know what your problem is?” All of these ring phony.  Ironically, audiences admire most those characters that care about themselves.
      What I Used to Think: Writers of stylized genre stories don’t need to worry about how the world really works.
       Next, the seventh and final core skill: Tone. 

        Losing My Religion, Part 5: Misconceptions About Dialogue

        Let’s talk about talk.

        What I Used to Think: Good dialogue sounds like real life.
        • What I Now Realize: In order to write a story, life must be dramatized.  Dialogue should be more succinct, more proactive and filled with more personality than it would be in real life.  Even passive characters should be aggressively passive. Nevertheless, don’t think that…
        What I Used to Think: Characters in a story can sound like they’re in a story.
        • What I Now Realize: Dialogue cannot sound exactly as it would be in real life, but it must mirror the structure, language, and cadence of how people actually talk, to a startling degree. In bold, fresh ways, their speech should reflect the internal logic and odd tactics that people use in real life conversations.
        What I Used to Think: You can learn to write dialogue by getting an MFA in writing. 
        • What I Now Realize: MFA programs are bad dialogue echo-chambers. Instead, you have to get out in the world and listen carefully to how real people talk.  You have to listen to what they’re saying and what they’re not saying, to ways in which their feelings are universal andways in which their jargon is unique.
        What I Used to Think: Characters in the same time, place, and job will pretty much talk alike. 
        • What I Now Realize: No matter how much they have in common, characters must each have unique metaphor families that determine their slang, their points of comparison, their exclamations, etc.  These might be determined by their home region, developmental state, or the specifics of their individual job category. 
        What I Used to Think: Your characters’ personalities will be totally transformed over the course of the story. 
        • What I Now Realize: In order to remain believable, your characters’ language should reveal at least one default personality trait that always tinges their dialogue, no matter how much everything changes.  (Even when he’s happy, a depressive character will say, “I’m actually happy for once.”)
        What I Used to Think: Your characters should use whatever argument strategy is most useful at the time. 
        • What I Now Realize: They can try new strategies when necessary, but each character should have a default argument strategy, such as evidence-based, passive aggressive, faux naïve, etc.
        What I Used to Think: Every member of an ensemble should be well-rounded and three-dimensional
        • What I Now Realize: Polarized, extreme characters are often create more dramatic and interesting dialogue than well-rounded, three-dimensional characters.  The most common way to polarize three characters is to one who is “all-heart”, another who is “all-head”, and the third who is “all-gut”.  Dialogue between three-dimensional characters reminds us of our external debates, but dialogue between polarized characters reminds us of our internal thought process, which is equally valid.
        Tomorrow: Theme!

        Losing My Religion, Part 4: Misconceptions About Scenework

        Why are some scenes so much more compelling than others?

        What I Used to Think: A scene is primarily an exchange of dialogue.
        What I Used to Think: A conversation happens when two people want to have a conversation.
        • What I Now Realize: Usually only one person wants to have a conversation.  The other should already be doing something important, and that other activity should continue to distract them both as the conversation continues.  This is why you have to know what every minor character does all day.  No one should ever be sitting around waiting to have a conversation when the hero arrives.
        What I Used to Think: Couples like to sit down and talk about their relationship.
        • What I Now Realize: Couples hate that.  This is why the love interest should have another role in the story, so that the couple can talk about the plot on one level while talking about their relationship in the subtext.
        What I Used to Think: A disagreement makes for good conflict.
        • What I Now Realize: Rather than simply disputing each other, both scene partners should try, one way or another, to get the other to do something that he or she does not want to do, and one or both of them should succeed. 
        What I Used to Think: Morally upright characters will speak plainly and directly about their goals and feelings, rather than engage in surreptitious tricks and traps to get what they want.
        • What I Now Realize: It is human nature to avoid direct conflict, both because it is unpleasant and because it is usually ineffective.  Everybody, even nice folks, gets they want through subtle verbal tricks and traps, including seduction, flirtation, passive aggression, blackmail, outwitting, and many more. 
        What I Used to Think: It’s your characters’ job to tell the audience what the plot is.
        • What I Now Realize: As the writer, it’s your job to show the plot to the audience, not have the audience explain it through dialogue.  The characters should not be thinking about or talking about the plot.  They should be talking about their own wants and needs, openly, surreptitiously, or unconsciously.
        What I Used to Think: Exposition scenes must be avoided.
        • What I Now Realize: Exposition is necessary for every story, and there is no reason that exposition scenes can’t be great, if you’re careful to ensure these three things:
        1. Exposition should be withheld until both the hero and the audience are demanding to know it.  Let the questions start to burn before you answer them.
        2. Ideally, one should trick or trap the other into revealing the exposition.
        3. The scene partner who reluctantly reveals the exposition should nevertheless do so in a way that advances his or her own goals, whether openly, surreptitiously, or unconsciously.
        What I Used to Think: A scene is about what the characters are talking about.
        • What I Now Realize: Scenes are equally about what the characters are nottalking about.  This is either because they are intentionally avoiding the main topic, or because they’re unintentionally bringing up a topic that they’re trying to ignore.  
        What I Used to Think: You should whisk your characters through scenes as quickly as possible so that they can keep pushing the story forward.
        • What I Now Realize: You must allow your characters’ volatile personalities, their emotional baggage from previous scenes, and the inherent obstacles of the setting to create friction, even if that friction slows down your scene. 
        What I Used to Think: Characters should let us know through dialogue that they are shocked by a reversal of expectations.
        • What I Now Realize: We should know before the scene begins what the characters’ false expectations are, and we should share their shock and disappointment (or happiness and relief) as the reversal of expectations occurs.  
         Tomorrow: Dialogue!

        Losing My Religion, Part 3: Misconceptions About Structure

        Many writers are dubious about learning structure, but these fears, like most, tend to be based on false assumptions... 

        What I Used to Think: Your story is about your hero’s life.
        • What I Now Realize: Your story is about your hero’s problem. Charles Dickens could spin out big sprawling epics in serialized installments, telling the whole life story of a person, or even of an entire era, but our current conception of story tends to be far more focused.  Not only do most great stories these days focus on one person, they focus more specifically on one big problem in that person’s life, and the various ways it manifests itself.  This may also be a societal problem, but we are experiencing the way that this problem affects one person.
        What I Used to Think: To begin your story, you should ask yourself, “How does my hero’s day begin?”
        • What I Now Realize: To begin, ask yourself “At what point does my hero’s problem become acute?”  Usually this is a longstanding problem (internal or external) that has only now become undeniable. 
        What I Used to Think: After every scene, you should get to the next scene by asking yourself, “What does my hero do next?” 
        • What I Now Realize: It doesn’t matter where the hero goes next.  After every scene, you should ask, “What is the next step in the escalation or resolution of this problem?” Feel free to jump ahead an hour, or a week or a year until the next moment that the problem progresses.
        What I Used to Think: Story structure was artificially invented.
        What I Used to Think: If your story conforms to classical structure, it will feel overly formulaic.
        • What I Now Realize: That will only happen if you start with an artificial structure and work backwards, but if you start by afflicting your hero with a large problem and work forward from there, you will find yourself re-discovering classical structure from scratch.
        What I Used to Think: Structure provides a locked-down, paint-by numbers formula.
        • What I Now Realize: Your structure should not dictate what will happen on which page number, nor should it be used to force your hero to do anything that he or she doesn’t naturally want to do.  Instead, it is there to remind you of what will probably happen next if you want to write a lean, powerful story that is focused on a person’s problem and true to human nature.
        What I Used to Think: Because there have been successful stories that don’t conform to classical structure, writers should reject it as outdated. 
        • What I Now Realize: Even the most iconoclastic creators usually begin their careers by creating traditionally-structured works.  Even those rare exceptions, such as Richard Linklater (whose debut Slacker had a brilliantly original structure), those creators maintain their careers by making later works that conform to traditional structure.  Everycreator who desires a long-term career, even those who love to break the mold, has to master traditional structure. 
        What I Used to Think: Heroes should be happy and content with their lives before an “inciting incident” occurs, and then they should attempt to restore their status quo.
        • What I Now Realize:  Stories should begin not with the arrival of a new problem, but with the arrival of a potential solution to a longstanding problem that has recently become acute. Stories are more compelling when heroes pursue opportunities that will make their lives better, rather than merely attempting to return to the starting point. 
        What I Used to Think: Your hero should know before committing what it will take to get to the climax.
        • What I Now Realize: It’s more believable and sympathetic if the hero has a limited perspective, and runs into unexpected conflict which keeps escalating.  The hero should try to solve the entire problem throughout the story, and be constantly surprised that things only get worse as a result until he or she finally figures out the right way.
        What I Used to Think: Once committed, the hero can pursue one plan throughout the story.
        • What I Now Realize: If you’re being true to human nature, heroes should try the easy way until this leads to a midpoint disaster, then admit defeat and try to solve the problem the hard way for the rest of the story.  When writers think of the middle of their story as an undifferentiated mass, they are likely to miss this important divide. 
        What I Used to Think: All you need to do is subject your hero to a series of social and/or physical threats.
        • What I Now Realize: In the best stories, no matter what the genre, the hero is first challenged socially (often in the form of a humiliation at the beginning), then challenged physically (often in the form of a midpoint disaster), then challenged spiritually, as the hero is forced to either change or accept who he or she really is (often around the ¾ mark).
        What I Used to Think: Heroes should declare a wise overall philosophy on page five that will see them through the whole story.
        • What I Now Realize: If anything, heroes should declare an ill-conceived philosophy early on. Only as a result of their spiritual crisis should they arrive at a better philosophy, which will allow them to finally resolve the problem in the climax.  The makers of Chinatown smartly deleted the scene early on in which the hero gave a wise statement of philosophy (“You gotta be rich to kill somebody!”) so that it would be more powerful when the we saw him learn this later on.  
        Now on to scenework...

          Losing My Religion, Part 2: Misconceptions About Character

          A massive post to get you through the holidays (Loosen a belt loop before reading...) The most important skill for a writer to have is character creation.  Unfortunately, this is also the area that is most misunderstood…

          What I Used to Think: Any sort of character can be the hero of your story.
          • What I Now Realize: “Heroes” can be good or evil, smart or dumb, triumphant or tragic, but every hero must have two essential qualities: They must be activeand they must be resourceful. Active doesn’t mean running, jumping and shooting, it just meant that they pursue their goals.  Likewise, resourceful just means that heroes must figure out novel ways to solve their problems. Even fools can be resourceful, which is why it’s impossible to invent anything that’s foolproof.
          What I Used to Think: The audience wants to like your hero.
          • What I Now Realize: Audiences must make themselves emotionally vulnerable in order to truly care about your hero. This is why your audience will look for any excuse to reject your hero, for fear of getting their feelings hurt if your hero turns out to be passive and uninteresting.  You must win the audience over against their will.
          What I Used to Think: It’s easy and boring to create a likable character, but it’s much harder and more ambitious to create an ambiguous character.
          • What I Now Realize: The opposite is true.  It’s relatively easy to create an ambiguous character.  Any conglomeration of likable and unlikeable traits, chosen at random, will result in an ambiguous character.  Getting an audience to deeply identify with a character, on the other hand, is one of the hardest things in the world to do
          What I Used to Think: In order to be likable, a hero has to do sympathetic things, like saving cats.
          What I Used to Think: There have been several recent examples of successful stories about morally dubious anti-heroes, so that proves that a main character does not have to be likable.
          • What I Now Realize: It proves just the opposite, that a great writer can make a character likeable even though that character is morally dubious. In fact, the audience loves Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Michael Scott, et al., and we do so despitetheir unsympathetic behavior. The writers have used hundreds of clever little tricks to force us to fall in love with them, despite our initial revulsion.   
          What I Used to Think: Some heroes are defined by the strengths, and other heroes by their flaws.
          • What I Now Realize: Some heroes seem more bad-ass or loser-ish than others, but they all must have a mixture of strengths and flaws, and of confidence and insecurity.  Only a careful balance of these traits will cause a dubious audience to identify with your hero. 
          What I Used to Think: All flaws are good flaws
          • What I Now Realize: All heroes need flaws, but some flaws are less alienating than others. If you want the audience to root for your heroes, it’s better to give them the kinds of flaws that you would admit to in a job interview, and those flaws should be the flip side of their strengths.
          What I Used to Think: The hero will be interesting because of an interesting backstory. 
          What I Used to Think: A hero is someone who would be heroic in any situation.
          • What I Now Realize: More often than not, the hero just happens to be the right person to solve this problem because his/her unique qualities are sorely lacking in this place at this time. The hero is the person who has the quality that everyone else lacks in this situation, even if it’s a quality that would make the hero seem villainous in other situations.  Vin Diesel’s character in Pitch Black would be the villain in any other place or time, but on that planet, on that day, he’s the ideal hero.  
          What I Used to Think: A hero should be an “everyman” who reacts the way that anybody would. 

            Losing My Religion, Part 1: Misconceptions About Concept

            Concept is not the most important aspect of story, but it’s your hook to lure people in, so let’s start with that.  Here are some of the misconceptions about concept that I started out with…

            What I Used to Think: It’s easy and boring to write a simple story, but it’s much harder and more ambitious to write a big, complicated story. 
            • What I Now Realize: The opposite is true: Every first draft is naturally going to be big and complicated.  Streamlining those events down to a simple, meaningful story is one of the hardest things to do in the world. 
            What I Used to Think: The more big ideas you pack into your story, the more meaningful it will be to an audience. 
            • What I Now Realize: The audience will be far more affected if you develop one idea powerfully than if you toss in several ideas that have no thematic connection to each other.
            What I Used to Think: Don’t tell too many people about your valuable concept.
            • What I Now Realize: The gatekeepers have already heard every possible concept a million times.  They’re looking for a unique voice and a unique vision that can reinvigorate classic stories.  If you can sell them that, then they’ll have to hire you to write it, since you can’t steal somebody’s voice and vision. 
            What I Used to Think: A good story idea is one that is one that has never been done before. 
            • What I Now Realize:  If you’ve never seen a certain concept done before, it’s not because they’ve never heard it, it’s because they’ve consistently rejected it. The story ideas that buyers buy over and over are those that resonate the most with audiences. A great writer is one that can take a classic idea, infuse it with new meaning, and make people care about it in a new way. 
            What I Used to Think: In order to create a unique story, you need to create a never-before-seen type of hero. 
            • What I Now Realize: It’s hard to create a character that is unlike any other and still have that character be recognizable and relatable.  A better way to create a unique story is to write about a relationship that’s never been seen onscreen before.  Before Silence of the Lambs, we had seen both brilliant psychopaths and and hard-charging FBI rookies, but we hadn’t seen a story in which these two were suddenly dependent on each other.  It was the uniqueness of that relationship that sold the story, more than the uniqueness of the characters themselves. 
            What I Used to Think: You can create a great story by throwing lots of obstacles in your hero’s path.
            • What I Now Realize: Obstacles are fine, but conflicts are better. An obstacle is anything that makes a task physically difficult to do. A conflict is anything that makes a character not want to do that task.  Defeating a ninja is hard to do.  Defeating your brother is hard to want to do. 
            What I Used to Think: You should just develop and perfect one concept at a time.
            • What I Now Realize: You should always be developing more than one concept, for several reasons:
            1. You can compare and contrast the various concepts with each other, you’ll get a much better sense of each concept’s strengths and flaws. 
            2. It reminds you that not all stories can be all things to all people. You don’t want to be tempted to shoehorn a dozen great unrelated characters into one story.  Let each one find the right story for them.
            3. The holy grail of writing is to finish one script and start another the next day, so you always need to be preparing the next one so that it will be ready to go.  
            What I Used to Think: “High concept” ideas are complicated.
            • What I Now Realize: The term “high concept” has changed in meaning over the years.  It used to refer to complicated, “highly conceptual” ideas, but it now it refers to the opposite: a concept that is uniquely simple. Limitless was high concept because you instantly understand the appeal of the premise: what if a pill could make you rich and powerful?  In the case of Wedding Crashers, you got the unique appeal of it as soon as you heard the title.  “High concept” now refers to a simple one-sentence concept that makes everybody say, “Stop right there, I love it!”
            What I Used to Think: A movie should have two hours of plot.
            • What I Now Realize: A two-hour movie shouldn’t have more than an hour of plot.  By the halfway point, most of the unexpected external events should cease, and the rest of the movie should be driven by your hero’s uniquely volatile reaction to the events of the first half.  Your concept should allow some room for friction, which will occur as your characters develop minds of their own. 
            What I Used to Think: When an audience watches a movie, they care about the story.
            • What I Now Realize: At first, concept is king: That’s what you’re selling in your pitch, and it’s what the studio is marketing to audiences.  But as soon as the lights go down, the audience loses interest in all of that, and from now on they’re only able to care about the characters.  They care about the story only to the degree that it affects the well-being of the characters. 
            So let’s bring the lights down, forget about concept, and move on to the most important skill of all: Character Creation...