Greetings, my dear little octopi! How are we all this fine day/night? Well, I hope? Settled comfortably? There’s tea or coffee for refreshments, please help yourselves. Have your notebooks out and writing implements at the ready? Excellent, let’s begin!
We’re going to talk about being Evil. Specifically, an Evil Author.
Naturally there are differing tastes and styles of Evilness ranging from mischievous to diabolic. You might wonder when to apply various styles, or what going too far or not far enough might look like. You might wonder what, exactly, being an Evil Author means in the first place. This post will be the first in a series of discussions on this theme; feel free to add to it in the comments, and to suggest aspects you’d like to see us review or clarify.
So, to begin, just what is an Evil Author?
Drawing from my (GeGi) own experiences, here are some deliberately vague overlapping examples of my favorite moments in Evil Authorship:
- Creating characters likable enough to win over readers, so that when the characters then face hardships and ordeals and mind-altering realities, the readers suffer with worry and empathy about their fates.
- Withholding key information, such as identities and answers to mysteries and what is actually going on in those mind-altering realities, for an extended period of time within the story, so that the reader is kept in a state of constant tension and curiosity.
- Ending scenes with characters on the brink of something they do not share with the reader, or in a state of peril, or some other sort of hook which causes the reader to exclaim and curse aloud, and then keep reading because they have to find out what happens next.
- Unexpected revelations which casts new light on everything that came before, causing the reader to have the nagging feeling of immediately wishing to reread everything to make sure it all adds up (it must, for this reason alone).
- Plot twists, at the moment the reader feels safe to take a breath and relax, which further thicken and entangle the dangers faced by the characters.
Clearly, these are all things any good author might hope to achieve, Evil or not. However, please note every example includes both in-story developments and the desired effect it will have on a reader. This is key, as every decision made by an Evil Author must be weighted by the impact it will have on Future Readers. For me, the Evilness comes from the absolute glee I take in the reader’s reactions: the more a reader gets swept away in their concern for the characters, the more I’ve succeeded in my goal. This is the heart of Evilness. It’s not born of a malevolent or malicious desire; it is pure mischievousness and the desire to be a good storyteller. Further, Evil Authorship is not the exclusive domain of the writing itself, but rather in the heart of the relationship betwixt the writing and Future Reader. How the writing affects the reader is the driving concern of both Evil Author and good storyteller.
As for the other part of the equation, well, it’s difficult to define.
Let’s look again at the examples: first we have characters. An Evil Author makes them likable, and shows them being likable before the suffering begins. We don’t expect a reader to identify with a character unless the character is worth identifying with, and the way to achieve this is through other characters and interactions, and perhaps a look at the world through their eyes. Don’t underestimate the power and importance of the calm before the storm.
Also, at some point, the Evil author evolves both the characters and the type of suffering. Without character growth or evolution, the story becomes stale. This is again true for any type of author. But without evolving the challenges the character faces, the stakes are never raised and the blow is always seen coming. The Evil Author knows to be surprising. When the reader turns the page and gasps at what is revealed, when they have to pause and exclaim and think about the implications and remember the subtle foreshadowing they didn’t pick up on…those are the moments an Evil Author strives for.
Second we have withholding information. Now, there’s a balance to this that every story needs to find for itself. Sometimes background between characters is best as hints and references, without ever being explicit (this is commonly and lovingly referred to as a Noodle Incident, in honor of Calvin and Hobbes). Sometimes there’s information we need to share right away in order to make the story or an emotional impact make sense. Sometimes things are dragged out too long, so the reader gets the wrong kind of frustrated — and yes, there is most certainly the right and wrong kinds of frustration to inspire in a reader! Think of it like this: are they frustrated for the characters, or at them? Only one of these scenarios keeps the reader engaged and emphasizing.
An Evil Author will withhold to engage; as long as the reader is engaged with the story, our work is successful. The moment the hold is lost, the moment their trust in us slips, then we have failed. They need to believe, at an emotional level, that we will share what they need to know, when they need to know it. As long as this trust is maintained, we can tease and torment them with bits and pieces, hints and clues. But eventually, we have to show mercy. We have to reward their faith in us with real answers. Not all the answers, necessarily, but enough to satisfy the investment they made in our story.
Without giving an emotionally satisfying ending, we are merely cruel. With it, we achieved Evilness. Even if we withhold an actual resolution in a few places — even if our “resolving” of the plotlines by the end of the story is open-ended and doesn’t answer all the questions — there has to be a payoff for the reader. As long as they can leave our world feeling satisfied about the journey they’ve taken, we’ve done our job. The cliffhangers, the twists, the eye of the storm…these are all tools we can use to get them there. The moment we abuse them, however, we cross from being Evil to being just annoying.
Which brings us to the importance of fellow Evil Authors and of beta readers (those trusted few who get to read the early drafts) in determining whether one has achieved Evilness.
The support of another author is critical in times of self-doubt. They will be the best cheerleaders and feed-back-givers and idea-makers you will ever have the pleasure of discussing your writing with. Enjoy the experience as you plot the fates of your characters and cackle with glee over planned misfortune and Future Readers’ reactions. There is no one better to tell you if an idea is going too far, or not far enough. They have experienced this tightrope walk before, are doing it themselves in parallel to your own journey, and they can be the first to warn you of a misstep before you tumble and to nudge you back onto the rope.
As for your beta readers, their reactions and feedback is your glimpse into the minds of Future Readers. The questions and outcries they give you (for which you give them only smug silence and more to read) can help guide you towards your Evil goals. It’s from them that you can discover what you’re missing, what isn’t clear enough, what isn’t needed, and most of all what is working perfectly. It’s from them that you can feel out the edges of a reader’s trust and willingness to go along for the ride, and thus avoid losing it.
- Evilness is good writing.
- Evilness is not malevolence towards the reader. (It can be malevolence towards the characters, as long as doing so doesn’t negate Point 1).
- Like any good storytelling, it’s all about the reader experience.
- Invest in the invaluable resource of trusted friends who understand the writing process and can give you feedback when you feel lost.
- Have fun with it! If you’re enjoying your own story, chances are someone else will too.
With all this in mind, I now close this introduction to Evilness and open the floor to comments. And remember: we’re Evil, not nasty! Play nice with each other.