Tuesday, April 17, 2012

You Have To Have A Hannigan

Last week I had a sick little one at home, which meant lots of laying around reading and watching tv and movies. As she reached the end of her usual go-to entertainment, she decided to watch Annie, a beloved classic she'd never seen up to that point. I sort of cringed when she announced that was what she was going to watch because those songs have a way of getting stuck in my head, especially the ever-popular "Little Girls." But I let her watch it anyway, taking one for the team as "It's A Hard Knock Life" ran through my head for the rest of the day.
When Mrs. Hannigan came on the screen, I cringed. I hate how abusive she is. I hate how she screams at those cute little girls and makes their lives miserable just because hers is. I hate how she really doesn't learn from her mistakes, only seems to get increasingly more evil. Why does she have to be part of Annie's story? It would be a much sweeter story without her, after all.

And yet, Annie's story wouldn't be the story we all know (and some of us love) without Mrs. Hannigan. She adds the obstacles Annie has to overcome. She creates the conflict and if there's anything I have learned about telling a great story, it's that conflict must be present-- ideally on every page. One of my favorite quotes on writing is by James Scott Bell, who says in his book The Art of War For Writers, "Readers read to worry." I've never forgotten that, and when I go to write a book, I make sure that I give my readers something to worry about.
We worry about Annie because we know that Mrs. Hannigan is out to get her. Even when she's not in the picture, we feel her lurking there, just offstage. To tell a good story, we must create that sense of tension. Every great story has to have a Hannigan or your reader will feel that something is lacking.
In the story I'm working on now, I realized I needed a villain-- someone who could reveal something the main character is trying to keep secret AND stand in the way of what she wants at the same time. This past week I wrote the scene where she comes in, and I did my best to make her someone that the reader will hate to see enter the room-- just like Mrs. Hannigan. I made it clear that she's packing her own agenda and, for reasons of her own, really wants to damage the main character. The character who, incidentally, I want my reader to be rooting for.
Villains exist to do awful things to the main character: Throw banana peels down as they're running away, cut the life rope they're hanging onto, tell that secret that could destroy their reputation, make the move on their boyfriend, marry their father-- you get the point. Mrs. Hannigan didn't just grab Annie's arm too hard and make her scrub floors. She tried to keep Annie from getting adopted and then when that didn't work, she committed fraud to try again. What a boring story Annie would be without all that going on.
But you know what? We wouldn't have anything to root for either. We'd never see the height to which Annie can get to if you didn't have Mrs. Hannigan trying to pull her down at every turn. A good villain does two things: provides the obstacles to keep the main character from getting what she wants while also giving the main character cause to triumph over those obstacles-- to see what she had inside of her that she never knew was there, or come to terms with something she's been resisting for a long time.
I am learning to write good villains and to not be afraid to let them throw some pretty awful stuff at my main characters. I plan to print a photo of Mrs. Hannigan and put it in my writer's notebook so I can look at her... and be inspired to be utterly mean and awful every once and awhile.
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Zibilee said...

Oh wow! Blast from the past! I HATED Hannigan, and thought that she was the worst villain when I was 8. I love that you are going to use her for the inspiration for your book, and I think that having a picture of her there in your notebook will inspire some great evil-doing in your plot! Great post today!

Arlene Grimm said...

A timely post Marybeth as I am struggling with a 'villian" in my life right now and I hope I can learn what God is trying to tell me in this situation. Right now it just seems like things are getting worse! Yesterday I turned on my radio in the car and heard a preacher say, Fair weather does not make good sailors. I felt like he was speaking directly to me. So I am hanging on to the wheel of my ship in this storm, steering on to brighter days hopefully. Thanks for your faithfulness in blogging...I always read your blog in the morning and I really enjoy it. Looking forward to your new book as well.

Alycia Morales said...

Thank you Marybeth for the reminder of the importance of the villain in our writing. And for our ability to learn and overcome when facing down our foes in life and story.

By the way, I love the new look of your blog! Very nice!

Kathy B said...

Isn't it funny how we sometimes like our characters so much, we hesitate to 'raise the stakes' with villains, even though we know it's necessary. I've been thinking about this more with my kids. I pray an 'easy life' for them. Health, good friends, happiness, success. Yet I know those aren't the things that cause them to grow. We all need 'villains' in some way or other. Blast!