I am sure that no matter where you were last night, you heard a deafening whoop of SQUEEEE followed by car alarms going off and glass breaking. That was the sound of actually finishing the first draft of a first novel. If I believe all those ‘how to be a writer’ books, last night at 8:04 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, I joined the ranks of somewhere between 3% – 10% (depending on whose stats you believe) of people who say they’re going to write a book. I’m still grinning like an idiot.
I immediately got in the car with my flash drive, and headed to Kinko’s to print it and bind it (carefully staying within all traffic rules). I’m not in the least bit ashamed to admit that I teared up when the nice lady handed it to me. I drove home and sat in my chair and held the manuscript (yes, I can call it a manuscript now) in my hands until bedtime.
Due to the sheer monumental excitement of yesterday, which carried over into today, stripping my ability to think coherently, I would like to tell you about a very nice library. The Library at the End of the Universe. The Number 13 Dirigible will drop you off right at the front door. Alternatively, you can use this link to get you there:
Check it out! You’ll love it! Most awesome library EVER!
The Librarian is the phenomenal Penelope Anne Bartotto. For September’s Steampunk Extravaganza, Penelope graciously allowed me to use her reading room to give a little talk on Villainy, a subject near and dear to my heart. Thank you Penelope for being such a wonderful host! I love your library, and I promise to clean up after my clockwork army next year…
And, since I’m still way too hyper from finishing the first draft to think anything even resembling a relevant thought, I’d like to share that talk with you. It was originally shared in the Library on Tuesday September 10, 2013. Enjoy!
“I am a plain-dealing villain…let me be that I am and seek not to alter me.”
– William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing
I would wager that when most people on the edge of the steampunk world think of the steampunk villain, one of several pictures comes to mind: the top-hatted mustachioed monologue-spouting megalomaniac mua-ha-ha-ing over the poor petticoated damsel tied to the railroad tracks, the mad scientist slaving with his minions in his secret lair to build automaton armies and dastardly death rays (well actually, the minions are slaving, he’s probably having a glass of absinthe), perhaps even the sociopathic serial killer covered in gore and smelling of insanity a la Jack the Ripper.
But the most memorable villains, the ones you continue to think about long after you close the book or turn off the e-reader, are much more than that. So how do you make sure that your Steampunk villain will lurk in the back of the mind, whispering in the dark and making your reader look over his shoulder when wandering down a lonely street? The best steampunk villains are three things above all others. They are real, they are proper, and they are intelligent.
The greatest steampunk villains are not just cardboard stereotypes prancing around for people to hiss and boo at when they walk on stage. They get up in the morning. They eat breakfast. They suit up. They have a purpose. They have conviction. That conviction may be to take over the world, but it’s for a good reason, at least in their way of thinking: if I awaken the Elder gods, the world will be a better place; if I ruled the world, there would be no more war; if I could transfer human thought into an automaton, I could save my loved ones and they would live forever without illness or pain.
There will always be those one or two sociopathic Rippers out there with no real plan other than self-gratification, but, for the most part, steampunk villains are real people acting on real motivations. So, if you want to see a villain, look in the mirror. All of us have dark thoughts, things we every once in a while would love to do but choose not to. The trick is to take that want, and cross over the line of morality. Look at things from your inner villain’s point of view. If you don’t, you’re left with a stereotype, not a memorable character.
Let me explain with a modern reference – the opening scene of Despicable Me where villain Gru gets to the front of the long line at the coffee shop by using his freeze ray to stop all the customers from ordering so that he can get his breakfast. The reason that scene hits home is that we’ve all wanted to cut in line at some point, especially when the person at the front of the line has a drink order a mile long. Gru gets to the front of the line politely and with style. He even thanks the barista as he leaves. Memorable. It would not have been so memorable had he just yelled and cursed and been rude.
And that leads to the second trademark of the steampunk villain – they are nothing if not proper and polite. In the age of steam, if you want to get the things most villains want, money, power, jewels, world domination, the most cutting-edge super-secret lair under the volcano, you have to be able to interact with the highest echelons of society. Note that your villain doesn’t have to be rich. But your villain must be able to mingle with those that are rich without batting an eyelash. And that means manners…raising one’s pinky at tea, speaking properly, and behaving like a gentleman or lady. Even criminal masterminds like Professor Moriarty of Captain Nemo behave for the drawing room rather than the back alley.
Last but never least, steampunk villains are intelligent. Imbeciles and dandyprats do not build automaton armies, research ancient artifacts, or build aether ships. In contrast, steampunk villains promote education. Moriarty was a professor after all. But this doesn’t mean that your villain has to be a mad scientist or a gadgeteer. Your villain might have a simpler goal in mind.
To put all of this in perspective, let me share the thought process behind the creation of my own alter ego for the League of Proper Villains (Find us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/sacvillains/ ). I am not a ‘maker’. My artistic talents lie in painting with words, and my villain reflects that. I looked in the mirror and thought about what my perfect world would be: no people who use single letters or numbers to spell words, no editors that leave spelling errors in newspaper headlines, no human that can’t identify the Pacific Ocean on a globe or has never read Verne or Musashi or Dumas.
I then took those ideas across the line to create Penelope Dreadfulle. Penny is a journalist who believes every human should be literate and well-read. After careful research, she has discovered that readership in the Times and other major newspapers increases when the lead stories involve scandal and disaster. She uses that insight to reach her ends. She charms her way through high society to winkle out scandal. She discreetly instigates havoc and mayhem, and then ‘arrives on the scene’ so that she can tell the stories that people want to read. She illuminates the life and times of other villains, showing them in their most nefarious light. And in doing so, she promotes literacy for all.
So dare to look in the mirror. See your plain-dealing inner villain and seek not to alter her. Embrace her, and you will create a memorable character that keeps your readers awake at night…
Thank you again, Penelope Anne Bartotto, Librarian Extraordinaire, for giving me the opportunity to borrow your reading room.
One added note, before I go. In my talk at the Library, I mentioned my own inner villain, Penelope Dreadfulle, and her crusade to promote literacy. To further her ends, I will be participating in a write-a-thon called The Night Of Writing Dangerously on November 17, 2013. The charity event is sponsored by National Novel Writing Month’s Office of Letters and Light. All proceeds go to fund literacy and creative writing programs around the world. I’d dearly love to help the next kid with stories inside fighting to get out, so, just in case you’d like to sponsor my six hours of writing mad steampunk dirigible action for charity, I’m putting a link to my fund raising page below.
Thanks much for reading my blog, and for being AWESOME!