Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

“Grace” Notes: How Novelist J. Edward Ritchie Rediscovered a Fertile Lost Paradise

Last month, prolific television producer Greg Berlanti (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl) secured a pilot commitment from NBC for a dramatic series about the brides of Dracula.

Intrigued yet?  I sure am!  You can already picture it:  Without knowing thing one about Berlanti’s take—based strictly on that eight-word rundown at the end of the previous paragraph—visions of something sexy, Gothic, atmospheric swirl like mist through the imagination.  Bedsheets and bloodshed.  Seduction and the supernatural.  It’s the kind of pitch in which the creative possibilities are so self-evident, a network exec—and, ultimately, an audience—is sold on the project without a further word of elaboration.

Why?

Because we all know the brides of Dracula—from Stoker to Lugosi to Coppola—but what do we know about them, really?  The pitch hooks us because it capitalizes on something about which we’re already aware… only to make us consider how much of it we’re probably (and inexcusably) unaware, and how curious we’d be—now that you point it out!—to get some of those blanks filled in.  (And that Dracula is in the public domain is all the more appealing, because no one has to shell out big bucks to secure the rights to the property; in that sense, it is almost like a natural resource waiting to be exploited by those with the wherewithal to dig it out of the ground.)

Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, workhorse screenwriters behind The Mask of Zorro, Shrek, and the Pirates of the Caribbean series, have a term for such a thing:  “mental real estate”—i.e., if an intellectual property or brand is already on your radar, half the sales pitch is in the bag before it’s even commenced.  If I were to produce an original thriller, no matter how meritorious it may be, I’ve still got to sell you on the premise—what’s cool about, what’s different about it, why it’s worth your time and hard-earned dollars—before you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt; if, however, you were to see an advertisement for, say, a new James Bond film, you don’t really need to know what that particular installment’s about or even who’s playing 007—you already know you’re going to get an extra helping of something you’ve enjoyed many, many times in the past.  Bond’s got mental real estate.  That’s the reason why risk-averse Hollywood is producing—almost exclusively at this point—endless sequels to and reboots of preexisting IPs.  And, to be fair, it works:  Consider that there are no fewer than four unrelated iterations of Sherlock Holmes flourishing at present, each taking advantage of our familiarity with the Victorian detective yet tweaking the formula just enough to hit that coveted “same-but-different” sweet spot:  Holmes as a bohemian brawler; Holmes as an aging sleuth; Holmes in contemporary London; Holmes in contemporary New York.

You don’t even have to have seen a particular movie or have read a given book in order for its premise or content to take up mental real estate.  For instance:  Ever read Paradise Lost?  Probably not.  (I’m not shaming you, by the way—I’ve yet to read past Book I myself, despite having adorned my bookshelf with an excellent annotated edition for some years now.)  But, regardless, the mere mention of it likely conjures images of winged angels and horned demons engaged in stratospheric civil war.

"Paradise Lost" illustration by Gustave Doré (1866)

“Paradise Lost” illustration by Gustave Doré (1866)

How about this, though?  What if I were to reframe Paradise Lost (also, like Dracula, in the public domain) not as some dusty Biblical epic expressed through inaccessible blank verse, but rather as an interstellar outer-space opera about cosmic warfare and power jockeying set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—a sort of Masters of the Universe–meets–Games of Thrones mash-up?  Render an ancient tale new again for a correspondingly new millennium?

FFG Cover Art

That’s the conceptual foundation of Fall From Grace, the debut novel from J. Edward Ritchie, the origin of which he explains on his website:

I came across a book by Gustav Davidson called A Dictionary of Angels.  I’m not religious, but I couldn’t deny the mysterious allure of angels and their mythology.  In my mind, they weren’t bare-assed babies playing harps in the clouds—the angels were warriors.

The original badasses of Creation.

Flipping through Gustav’s A-Z compendium, I found a factoid about how one cardinal estimated the amount of angels that “fell” after the war in Heaven totaled well over one hundred million.  One hundred million—world war on a scale I had never seen before.  I needed to know more.  But the war hadn’t been explored in any great detail in the Bible or other religious texts.  I found an angel name here and there, little pieces, but nothing concrete.  What would cause so many enlightened beings to doom their bodies and souls?  Rebellion, civil war, Michael versus Satan—I had to tell this story.  Their story.

And just as Star Wars, for all of its cosmic dogfights and political machinations, was ultimately a cross-generational father-and-son story, Mr. Ritchie’s retelling of the rebellion in Heaven is predicated on a fraternal melodrama between angels Michael and Satan.  This is an Institutionalized tale—a “Family Institution,” in particular—in which the sons of the disembodied “Creator” (or “God,” if you like, who plays no direct role in the story, but is rather wisely kept a celestial abstraction), Michael, His prophet, and Satanail, His heavenly administrator (“pope and president” as Mr. Ritchie characterized their roles via e-mail), find themselves at ideological odds when it is discovered that their Father has been nursing a pet project on the other side of the cosmos—Earth—and has populated the planet with a species inferior to angels:  “Mankind.”  The revelation inspires the better inclinations of Michael’s protective nature and the baser instincts of Satanail’s.  As Mr. Ritchie explained in an e-mail:

One of my main goals with FFG was to make it part of our universe, a part of our history.  The story isn’t taking place on some fictional realm (Middle Earth, Westeros, etc.), but something that very well could have/does exist within our reality.  It is very much science fiction in that I include scientific concepts like evolution, the Big Bang, wormholes, etc., instead of it being the creationist or diehard religious version of the tale.

The design of Heaven is built around the concept of “as it is in Heaven, so it is on Earth.”  If you think about people’s perception of angels, divine beings, how do you craft a story that is in any way relatable?!  How could a story about angels in paradise possibly correlate to the human condition?  Humanizing angels and Heaven was a big issue I had to tackle.  I had to find a balance of humanity and divinity.  That’s why the act-one setup (the first nine chapters) is so important:  Who cares about the destruction of paradise if you don’t properly establish it?

 

THE DETAILS IN THE DEVIL

Indeed, the novel’s entire first half is devoted to establishing the “society” of Heaven, the pantheon of angels, the complex dynamic between Michael and Satanail, and the fallout from the discovery that, to borrow a sci-fi trope (more mental real estate!), they are not alone in the universe.  Of all the characters, Satan probably holds the biggest piece of psychic realty for most readers; he becomes the “one to watch” throughout the story, because while his fate is predetermined, his path is largely paved by the author’s particular choices.  I asked Mr. Ritchie how he went about reinterpreting the fiend of all fiends for his take on the mythology:

SPC:  Probably my favorite depiction of Satan is Al Pacino’s John Milton from The Devil’s Advocate (1997).  He’s got all the de rigueur traits you’d expect—he’s omniscient/omnipotent, charming and seductive, vengeful—but then they added this totally unexpected facet to his characterization:  He’s a genuine man of the people.  He describes himself as “the last humanist,” and admonishes God for being an “absentee landlord”—and a sadistic one, at that, being that he gifted mankind with freewill only to then set the rules in opposition.  “I’m here on the ground with my nose in it since the whole thing began,” he says. “I’ve nurtured every sensation man has been inspired to have.  I cared about what he wanted, and I never judged him.  Why?  Because I never rejected him—in spite of all his imperfections.  I’m a fan of man!”

You went a very different route, necessarily, with respect to Satan’s motivation in Fall From Grace:  He feels threatened by the existence of mankind, and seeks to destroy it as the ultimate act of insurrection against his Father.  How much of that comes from Satanic tradition, and how much was your own imagination/interpretation?  Tell me a little bit about how you came to arrive at this precise characterization.

JER:  When developing Satanail, I wanted to adhere to certain preconceptions about him from the very beginning, such as his innate pride, but I also needed to establish him as one of the most respected, beloved angels in Heaven.  The same characteristics that become twisted and define him as evil were also what once made him great.  Everyone has an idea in their heads of the “Devil,” but who was Satanail the angel?  The best villains are the ones whose virtues are twisted into sin through conflict and tragedy, often stemming from family.  Anakin Skywalker wasn’t born Darth Vader…

When the story begins, Satanail is damn near physical and mental perfection.  He is a sociological and academic genius.  A true “angel of the people” whereas Michael is more reserved and distant.  Family is the core of the narrative in Fall From Grace.  It’s a story about sons—brothers—and their absent Father.  One day, Satanail is told that his Father has created new sons—Mankind—and that Satanail and his people’s lives will now revolve around serving Mankind.  That incites a maelstrom of new feelings within Satanail that he’s never experienced and heightens other character flaws hiding beneath the surface.  Jealously.  Anger.  Fears of inadequacy.  What’s so wrong with the Host [a.k.a. all of angelkind—Ed.], with Satanail, that their Father had to create new children?  Defiance is both a logical and emotional response for Satanail.  He wants to hurt his Father as grievously as possible.  What better way than to destroy what Father apparently now holds most precious?  Mankind.

Much of this story is how Satanail becomes Satan.  Once he commits to that persona, shedding all of his grace and morals as an angel, he is on the path to becoming the classic embodiment of evil.  My Satan could very well end up becoming like Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate.  Who knows how Satan will feel about Mankind after thousands of years?  Remember, this is only Book One in a trilogy.  Michael and Satan have far more to go through before they truly become the iconic hero and villain of lore.

Unlike Paradise Lost, which dealt with both Satan’s banishment from Heaven as well as the more intimate “domestic drama” of the Garden of Eden, Fall From Grace doesn’t much explore the fall of man, perhaps leaving that particular plot of intellectual acreage to be cultivated in the aforementioned subsequent installments.  Wise move.  In a “postnarrative” era in which audiences are placing an ever-greater premium on expansive world-building (consider, for example, the colossal success of Game of Thrones and the Marvel Cinematic Universe), drawing upon Christian mythology for story material is tapping into a deep wellspring indeed.

 

FEEDING FROM THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE

For anyone looking to lay claim to their own piece of mental real estate, inspiration is everywhere:  Peter Pan is getting the prequel treatment in an origin story set for release next week; the son of Rocky’s Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) will be featured in his own film this fall, thirty years after Apollo himself died on the canvas in Rocky IV (a brilliant way to capitalize on a beloved brand without straining credibility by putting an aging Stallone back in the ring yet again); and Victor Frankenstein (opening the same weekend as Creed in a battle—or boxing match?—of brand recognition) tells of the titular mad scientist’s formative years as a med student, as seen through the eyes of Igor.  Don’t you wish you’d come up with any of those?  The creative possibilities aside, it doesn’t take a marketing maverick to sell an audience on new takes on Peter Pan, Rocky, and Frankenstein.

It is, of course, not enough to find your own parcel of mental real estate—one does need to make the property one’s own.  Brand recognition didn’t do this past summer’s Fantastic Four any favors, nor The Lone Ranger two years before that; both of those efforts traded on known assets without making their interpretations seem sufficiently different, culturally pertinent, or remotely necessary.  Additionally, it was recently announced that Elizabeth Banks will be “rebooting” (oh, how I deplore that ego-protective—and habitually misused—term) Charlie’s Angels, but she’d be wise to consider this first:  Drew Barrymore has made no fewer than three attempts to revive that passé franchise (in 2000, 2003, and 2011), and the public response was “No, thanks.”  Sometimes a creative enterprise is just of its time; it spoke to the concerns and preoccupations of its day (as good art and entertainment should), and can’t—or needn’t—be made relevant anew.  Choose your subjects carefully, and, most importantly, find new, worthwhile takes on them.  Highlight a subordinate character (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), focus on parts of a popular story that perhaps happened “off-screen” (Maleficent), or try juxtaposing mismatched genres (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).  Choosing an entity with pedigree only means you’ll have an easier time publicizing your work, not an easier time realizing it on the page; it isn’t a license to get lazy, merely an opportunity, under the best circumstances, to put one’s own spin—one’s own stamp—on folklore.

Take a cue from Mr. Ritchie:  An accomplished screenwriter specializing in world creation, he has brought a cinematic, visionary approach to a subject with a literary tradition dating back to the Old Testament that’s been reinterpreted and re-envisioned across three millennia; far from a mere exercise in recapitulation, that’s an act of awe-inspiring creation unto itself.

Fall From Grace by J. Edward Ritchie is available on Amazon.

15 Comments

  1. Mr. Carlin,

    What a fantastic piece. One of the hardest skill sets to hone as a writer, or reader, is to be able to identify and explain the core themes of a story. As an author, it is a great feeling to see someone fully understand what I strived to achieve with Fall From Grace. Your blog continues to provide premiere literary and structural analysis. Keep up the good work. I look forward to seeing these talents applied in your upcoming novel!

    • That means the world, Jeff — thanks so much for that. And thank you for letting FFG serve as “guinea pig” in my discussion on mental real estate!

      Readers of this post should be advised that there’s so much more to the novel — including a host of angels under both Michael and Satanail, all with their own crucial roles in the story — that didn’t even get mentioned in this analysis. I encourage everyone who reads this to learn more about the book on Jeff’s blog, and to sample the first nine chapters free of charge on Wattpad. And please come back here to post your thoughts on the matter! We’re open for business 24/7.

      Wishing you only the best of luck with your book, Jeff, and eager to hear updates about future installments…

      Sean

  2. Your posts are always thought-provoking, Sean, but I found this one particularly so. The wheels began turning right from the opening paragraph.

    I’ve often imagined a story line in which Lucifer repents, or is even restored to his former status of honor, respect and beauty. It would certainly get people talking, since it would evoke a sense of blasphemy among religious people, and (I think) wild curiosity among many who, religious or not, would feel it had some sort of taboo to it. But why not such a story line? Is it really such a stretch even within the scope of a book which describes a God who is love itself, who is omniscient, and who forgives “as far as the east is from the west”? The same book has Jesus telling a parable about a son (known to most as “The Prodigal Son”) who selfishly turns on his father, demanding his inheritance before his father is even dead, and then goes off and lives in debauchery for years. In the end, this son spends everything and winds up facing not only hunger but a widespread famine (i.e., just reward for his crimes), but decides to return home and beg to work as a servant in his father’s house, for food and shelter only. Yet upon his return, he finds that his father has been waiting out front every day for his return. The father runs the distance to close the gap between them and not only accepts his son back, but throws a party and immediately returns him to his former status. The elder son complains. “Why does he get special treatment and forgiveness, when I did what was right and stayed here with you, working hard, all these years?” Is it such a stretch, then, to extend the parable to a scenario in which Lucifer tires of his ways and mayhem, longs for his old “family relationships,” and is, in the end, welcomed back and restored by his Father?

    In Ritchie’s take on things, I also found myself thinking that it is not all that unlike the reactions of human children when a new child is born. Here’s Johnny, an only child who receives all the love and adoration and attention from his father and mother for a time; but then along comes baby Suzie. And not only is Johnny now having attention diverted from him to this foreigner (this “new creation”), but he is expected to join in caring for her by sharing his toys, watching over her, bringing mommy the diaper bag, etc. So Satan feeling just this way should not be foreign to readers. I suspect there will even be empathy for him.

    With regard to mental real estate, I think there are two keys. Just jumping on any old bandwagon won’t work. I think the real estate has to be based on something time-honored (however this is achieved), and which (as you point out, Sean) allows new depth of character or a new angle on something or someone who did not hold a lot of “screen time,” so to speak.

    Despite the proliferation of ideas about Satan in the modern world, the Bible itself has remarkably little to say about him. We don’t know his origins. We know little about his character transformation. And it’s not even clear what his motivation is. We know even less about lesser “demons.” So Ritchie’s premise (or mine) fits the bill. It comes from a time-honored source, and it delves further into a side character who holds some level of mystique and about whom little is known.

    The same is true of Dracula’s brides.

    How about Maleficent? Yes, the most notable source about her is considered a classic now. She is not the main character. And we know little about her story, only her archetypal role in the story. And while the recent movie version wasn’t a new idea (cf Wicked), it was new to her character, and so it worked.

    Charlie’s Angels? Hardly time-honored (today’s teens and younger adults wouldn’t even know who they were). The characters never had a mystique. And it was a series. They were the same three characters every week, just “doing new stuff.” So moving them a couple of decades forward and giving them even more new stuff to do – isn’t great mental real estate to build upon.

    Another way of looking at it might be that strong mental real estate for exploration would be that where an archetypal character (“good” or “evil”) is broken out of the archetype and given breadth. To have become an archetype implies that the source is older (“time-honored”); and breaking an archetype is adding depth of character.

    Now I’m just afraid that I gave away my great idea on the story of Satan’s return to grace. I know I could write it, I just can only defray my focus in so many directions!

    • Erik,

      Thanks so much for the amazing, detailed response! It is a testament to both how thought-provoking Jeff’s book is and to how much care you put into all that you read and comment upon.

      I think a story about Satan making a conscious, sincere effort to repent would not only make for an epic narrative, but a morally complex one perfectly reflective of our morally complex times. What would the road back to a state of grace entail? Is redemption possible even for the most wicked? And is a universe bound by opposing mutual forces even capable of doing without the evil he represents? Wouldn’t something have to then fill the vacuum left by his enlightenment? And if that makes evil a necessary natural phenomenon, does that render Satan’s quest for atonement a fool’s errand? Those are some of the existential thematics that would get me excited about tackling a story like that.

      Wicked, Maleficent, and even this proposed brides of Dracula series are all part of a new trend of “revisionist fairy tales” that are extremely popular at present because of their heightened brand awareness (mental real estate) and free public-domain usage. (The TV series Once Upon a Time is an interesting specimen in this regard, because it has taken what were originally closed-ended morality tales and re-envisioned them as a cross-pollinated, open-ended venture in postnarrative pattern recognition.) My next novel after Escape from Rikers Island also follows in this vein — it explores a heretofore untold aspect of a very popular piece of folklore — that I’m incredibly excited about, I’m just not ready to discuss yet (other than to say it’s a consciously closed narrative with a moral takeaway, just as EFRI is).

      Here’s the thing about story ideas (whether we’re talking about original concepts or new variations on preexisting IPs): They are not innately good or bad — they just are. Rather, it is always a question of execution. A movie about a pet detective doesn’t sound particularly promising, and yet Ace Ventura is hilarious. Sending a seasoned Indiana Jones in search of an extraterrestrial relic in the Atomic Age makes perfect sense, and yet Kingdom of the Crystal Skull didn’t entirely cohere (for all sorts of reasons I may very well explore in a full-length post some day). A writer needs to have a sense of what he’s working with foundationally, what he wants to do with it conceptually, and how he plans to deliver on its full potential executionally. That’s where craft comes into play. Knowing what’s worth pursuing (e.g., not Charlie’s Angels) is a question of taste. Both are cultivated; both work in tandem; both are in short supply in the halls of Hollywood studios and prodcos at present.

      But, the beauty of a story idea is that it’s just a seed — a dime a dozen; worthless if left unfertilized. How many versions of Dracula have there been? Of Holmes? Of the devil? Yet there’s no shortage of creative, commercially successful, culturally relevant interpretations, because it’s all about the unique approach a particular artist takes to the material. That’s not something that can ever be plagiarized. Somebody may very well be midway through writing the story of Satan’s return to grace as I type this, but it won’t be Erik Tyler’s take on the concept. I could beat that brides of Dracula series to the punch with a short story I could write, edit, and publish before year’s end, but it would probably bear little resemblance to whatever Berlanti’s cooking up — and wouldn’t even obviate the need for it, necessarily. If an idea is sound, and if masterful craft has been applied to its development, your voice and worldview will be the thing that distinguishes the resulting story in the end — the thing that sticks with the reader/viewer long after the novelty of the initial hook has been forgotten.

      Sean

      • Very cool discussion.

        The idea of Lucifer’s return to grace has been with me for decades. But your questions have caused me to think about the story line in some new ways. Allegedly, Satan “took” one third of the angels with him in his fall from grace. There are no details given, but it is assumed that they just agreed with his take on things in the heavenly realms. If Lucifer were to seek repentance, then, there would be an immortal host of angelic beings who would be reacting to this. Would they feel cheated that they’d spent eons in separation over ideals he wasn’t willing to champion anymore? Would they see him as giving up or as reasonable? Do demons have friendships? Did Lucifer have any close or right-hand “friends” as it were – maybe one who would entice him the entire time to give up his quest for redemption? Might this confidant create real tension and doubts in Lucifer’s mind if God puts “proving tasks” before Lucifer or seems unfair / unloving? Is this confidant a female (or equivalent)? In other words, could Lucifer be the “tempted” and not the “tempter“?

        Of course, others of the Fallen might have been thinking the same thing for eons, but didn’t think there was any way for redemption, based on the way things ended with God, perhaps. But would they try along with Lucifer when they saw his resolve (and perhaps signs of hope, however slim, that it might work out)? What kind of further schisms might evolve among the Fallen? Who might align themselves to take over in Lucifer’s absence? Would Lucifer fight them on it, to hedge his bets?

        Very interesting …

        • Many of the “missing details” you bring up, Erik — like the legions of unnamed angels that were banished with Satan, and why they chose to reign in Hell rather than serve in Heaven — are dramatized in subplots from Fall From Grace that I didn’t cover in this post as they weren’t directly relevant to the thesis. Though their stories in FFG are but one interpretation, I think you can take inspiration from how Jeff was able to expound upon Christian mythology and the imaginative way in which he filled in the gaps in the Biblical narrative. That process starts with exactly what you’re doing: asking questions and then demanding answers — even if you have to provide them yourself. That, after all, is the elemental drive to tell stories.

    • Erik,

      I spend quite a bit of time in my novel establishing Satanail in all his legendary glory. As the rift begins between the angels, there are many readers who are likely to side with Satanail’s point of view. Everything that he goes through, emotionally, is very foreign to him, very human. Imagine how distressing it would be for a supposedly perfect being to suddenly be bombarded with such powerful feelings and fears. Satanail is not an “I want to end the world” villain. He’s a good soul with the weight of a species on his shoulders that becomes overtaken by the evils he feels are necessarily to save his people. One of the biggest challenges of the story was humanizing the angels without robbing them of their divinity; to find ways for people to connect with them. That’s why the family dynamic was so important to me.

      Thanks for your comment. I think you would really enjoy the novel!

    • Erik, your comment about Lucifer finding grace again reminds me of research I’ve been doing in a similar vein. You might want to do some research on the Yazidi faith, in particular their “Peacock Angel,” often described as Satan, who repented bitterly and whose tears actually extinguished part of the fires of Hell. I feel safe in sharing it, since I imagine what we’d do with such an idea would be vastly different. That, and I’m always happy to encourage ideas I like, so. 🙂

      • I’ll look into the Yazidi faith, Ben. I always enjoy learning more about this wide world and the people in it. As to whether I’ll ever get to writing this story … who knows. I’m writing, that much is for sure.

      • That’s interesting, Ben — I wasn’t aware of the Peacock Angel, either. It just goes to show that inspiration is everywhere, just waiting to be plucked out of the ether. Sometimes you learn a new piece of information like that and know immediately how to apply it to your work; most of the time, though, facts (and intellectual artifacts) get stored in the attic of your brain, collecting dust out of sight, until one day you make a connection in the course of writing/brainstorming, and all of a sudden that “thing you remember hearing about one time” leaps to the forefront and demands to be put into use. I’ve come up with many ideas over the course of my career that I’ve tried to force into working (usually to no avail), and I’m always surprised when they resurface later in a more appropriate forum — and a more creative capacity. It’s like matchmaking, in a way: The ideas are already out there, it’s just a question of whether you can put two of them together and, in doing so, create a unique union — a brand-new entity — that is greater than the sum of its parts.

  3. I have to admit, Sean, I’m glad that you found this book and gave it a full hearing. It rocked my socks, and I greatly enjoyed reading your thoughts.

    From my own perspective, I find it kind of interesting that we all approached the story from different angles. You were struck by the mental real estate and the building of Satan, but for me, I was much more impressed by Michael. I think it’s a safe bet that I’m the most religious of all of us, and so I was expecting Satan to be interesting. Wasn’t it C.S. Lewis himself who pointed out that Milton had the problem of his Devil being so much more interesting than his God? Many Christian writers feel constrained to make their heroes church-y, and thus, tremendously uninteresting.

    Mr. Ritchie, clearly, didn’t have that problem. (“Thank God, ” he muttered around the tongue in his cheek.) And so, his Michael is much more relatable, and much more impressive as an exemplar, than any number of Sunday School stories. He’s not perfect, he’s what Satan could have been and vice versa, but he maintains his goodness in a practical, non moralistic way. Blew my mind.

    Wish I had more time to go on, but work is starting up again. Thanks again for the post, and your thoughts on this story and the “real estate”!

    • Ben,

      Finding the balance between hero and villain is always difficult. Villains tend to be (in my experience) easier to write, so I put a lot of effort in to Michael’s multiple layers. The key is flaws. Neither hero nor villain are perfectly good or evil. Finding the nuanced gray areas makes all the difference. By making the reader question Michael’s decisions, he becomes that much more of an interesting character.

      -Jeff

      • I’m in absolute agreement there, Jeff. I find the same thing to be true, probably for the same reason I mentioned earlier, and it’s been a challenge getting to liking heroes as much as villains. I think you might just be right, about flaws and nuance bring what would make such a character interesting, too.

        That said, I do find it kind of interesting that, at least as far as I’ve seen, people tend to remember and put a lot more weight on the hero’s flaws than the villain’s. Makes it trickier to find that balance, you know?

        • Here’s the thing about character flaws, Ben: Both your hero and villain should have a so-called “fatal flaw,” but it’s generally only the hero that pushes through a transformational arc, whereas the villain’s flaw (typically) becomes the catalyst for his downfall. The reason most stories seem to put more emphasis on the hero’s “fatal flaw” is because the plot is designed to force him to confront that personal shortcoming — over and over and over again — until he finally grows past it. If we were to take The Devil’s Advocate as an example (since it’s a closed-ended morality play and it came up for conversation in the post above), both the protagonist, Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves), and antagonist, John Milton (Al Pacino), have fatal flaws: Kevin is obsessively ambitious — at the expense of his own ethical compass — and Milton is vengeful. But, the plot exists to test Kevin, and, in the end, he pushes through his transformational arc: He chooses ethics over ambition (at personal expense). Milton, however, does not arc (nor should he).

          Character arcs (and fatal flaws, too) are really, really tricky components of storytelling (I discussed arcs briefly at the top of my “Rendering a Verdict” post); for most writers — even experienced pros — arcs are mystical facets of narrativity that come from the heart, not the head. And yet, time and again — probably owed to that very intuitive approach — we see examples of “failed” character arcs in movies. For example, at the end of Fast & Furious 6, Hobbs has a reconciliatory moment with Dom in which he says, “I never thought I’d trust a criminal.” But, it rings hollow (as everything in that shitty, morally reprehensible franchise does) because Hobbs was never established (in that movie or even the previous one) as someone with trust issues. So, the filmmakers were going for profundity, but they failed because they offered a payoff with no setup. Likewise, Tony Stark has an arc in Iron Man (learn ethics) and Iron Man 3 (recover from his PTSD), but in Iron Man 2 (which was a rushed production, and it shows in the final product), I counted something like three different arcs they tried to saddle poor Tony with (never give a character more than one to deal with per story), and none of them were satisfying because none of them were properly executed.

          Which begs the question: How the hell does a writer deliver on an emotionally resonant transformational arc? For my money, only one man has “cracked the code”: David Freeman. He not only shows you how to give your character a consistent fatal flaw, he’s even codified and quantified character arcs (yes, there is a finite number of variations). I can’t go into what he teaches in great detail here, alas, because it’s his intellectual property, and it is only available via workshop (he hasn’t, unlike Blake Snyder, published a book of his methodologies), but I can’t recommend his weekend-long seminar (which, I’m told, will soon be offered online) strongly enough. He demystified the art of storytelling for me; his Beyond Structure class — not to sound melodramatic — changed my life. If you really want to learn the nuances of characterization, he’s your man.

    • Well, that’s the thing about a great piece of art, Ben: It inspires a panoply of different reactions and interpretations. The thing that really struck me when I got into the book was that it was a science-fiction story — not nearly the lofty Biblical epic I was expecting! That’s what got me excited about what Jeff did in Fall From Grace, and it’s the aspect of the novel I was eager to explore in my literary analysis. In addition to the “mental real estate” angle that I discuss at length in the post above, in many respects FFG is a “genre mash-up”, too, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which only illustrates that there’s nothing new under the sun (to borrow a Biblical phrase); rather, the art of storytelling is about merging previously unrelated ideas/notions in new and exciting ways. And the tools/techniques I’ve promoted on this blog can help you do that; Jeff himself is an experienced screenwriter who — I can assure you — takes a very disciplined, methodical approach to the act of creation.

      Thanks for weighing in, pal. Happy to know you’re a Fall From Grace fan, too, and that we’re spreading the good word together!

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