To Be A Writer, Know Yourself

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Writing is a continuous journey that never ends and writers learn constantly from their writing. No one writer can claim to be such if they think they already know everything about writing, everything about what and how to write. If you know anyone who claims that, that person is a total sham.

In reality, writers need to dig deep inside themselves to write. They need to find out how long they can sit at a desk or wherever they like to write. If they can’t sit for an hour at a time and devote that single hour to pure writing, they won’t be able to sit for days on end, writing the stories that haunt their dreams in their sleep or their thoughts when they are awake. They need to know what motivates them to write. If they don’t know why they want to write—nay, if they don’t know what they need to write, they won’t be motivated to finish anything. They need to understand what makes them want to live, because that could be the reason their characters want to live. They need to know what makes others live, because that will be what motivates other characters. They need to know what moves them to act, to do things, to behave in certain and specific ways, because that knowledge is what will move their characters as well.

Imagine how boring and limited a writer’s works would be if they only knew one person. All their characters would think, feel, act, and react like that person. Imagine how egotistic that character would be if the writer thought he or she knew everything. Every story you write is based on something you learn about yourself, about people. Your story started long before you were born and will, most likely, continue long after you die. Your job, as a writer, is to understand the minutest details of your story, how it evolved and unfolded throughout the generations that resulted in everything your are, which means you need to understand everything and everyone involved in your story. Your writing will continue at least (hopefully) until you shed your corporeal being, thus you need to keep up with your life, with everything that evolves and unfolds inside and around you until the words no longer flow from you, because that will keep your stories going.

Every story you write is based on something you learn about yourself, about people. Your story started long before you were born and will, most likely, continue long after you die. Your job, as a writer, is to understand the minutest details of your story, how it evolved and unfolded throughout the generations that resulted in everything your are, which means you need to understand everything and everyone involved in your story. Your writing will continue at least (hopefully) until you shed your corporeal being, thus you need to keep up with your life, with everything that evolves and unfolds inside and around you until the words no longer flow from you, because that will keep your stories going.

Writing a Novel in 3 Days Takes a Village

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Whew! That is all I can say. As many of you know and have followed on Facebook, I signed up for the 3-day novel writing contest that ran from September 2 at 12:01 a.m. and ends September 4 at 11:59 p.m. The average submission expected is about 100 pages of double-spaced manuscript in a standard font of 11 or 12 points.

Why would I do something like that?

My first and strongest motivation was to prove to myself that I could do it. My second motivation was to jump start a new novel, get myself pumped up and inspired to write, especially since I have just completed the sequel to my second novel.

I did not write the third book to my series. Instead, I came up with about a dozen ideas I’d been toying with over the years. I narrowed that down to about half a dozen ideas, and then was playing with a single idea that I really liked. By the time midnight of September 2 arrived, I started writing that idea, but after a page of writing, I figured I needed something with a clearer progression of events.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a script that I intended to develop into a screenplay for a tv show. It was based on a story that had been playing in my mind, developing for several years. I took that script to a workshop and developed a bible for it, with two- or three-line descrioptions for twelve episodes. I had mentioned to a friend that I might just turn it into a novel, or a series of short novels and worry about the screenplays later. I never got to start that.

I pulled out my notes for the script bible and, using that as an outline, wrote the novel for the 3-day contest. I never touched the script and developed the novel completely from the characters and story that had been living in my head for the last 5 years or so.

Thank goodness for typing fast. I churned out an average of 4 pages per hour, so that in 50 hours since I started, I had my novel. My story developed mostly the way I had intended, but by characters did surprise me a little and a development I had not planned for crawled into my story. I don’t feel bad about that, because I quite like the way it turned out.

How did I survive? On coffee, hard-boiled eggs, bananas, apples, watermelon, peanut butter, chips, and pop. For the first time in a long time, I did not turn on the TV and leave it playing in the background as I usually do. I did not even read my bedtime book. I did not check my email.

I did, however, post my intent and my progress on Facebook. The best part about doing that was that so many friends kept me going, cheered me on, urged me on, and supported me throughout this whole weekend. I did start at 12:04 because I wanted to make sure I was well into September 2 when I started. That meant I had not slept since I woke up around noon on the 1st. I kept writing until almost 6:30 in the morning of the 2nd because I wanted to get a headstart and I wanted to see what my pace would be for the weekend. I took my first nap until 10 in the morning, then went promptly back to writing for another 6 hours or so. At that rate, I hit the 70-page mark after my first 24 hours and had about 2 more chapter to go to finish the story. Hurray! I didn’t think I could do it–actually thought I’d be writing all the way to the last minute. The good thing about that was I could catch up a bit on sleep Sunday morning and didn’t get up till 10, so I got a full 8 hours! Then I wrote straight till 6–8 hours of writing! and completed those last two chapters, which turned out to be 3 chapters because of that little twist my characters threw in. That gave me a lot of time to start proofing a bit and beefing up my descriptions, checking for a bit of consistency, all those little things. I got to sleep by 1 a.m. Sunday night or thereabouts, didn’t get up till around 10:30 in the morning of Monday, and worked straight until I finished my first pass around 5:30.

Of course, when I say I wrote straight, that included bathroom breaks and drink breaks, and a snack break here and there, mostly 5-minute breaks after a couple of hours or so. Everytime I reached a logical stop, I’d post an update on Facebook.

I have to admit I wouldn’t have survived as well without my Facebook friends watching and cheering me on–they are my village and they kept me going. Naturally, it helps to be a manic writer. I am so pumped up now, I’m ready to jump into my next novel writing project!

I am celebrating with pizza!

Getting Ready for a 72-Hour Writing Marathon

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The Weekly Writing Post I send out every week is about giving writers links to opportunities to submit writing to contests. A small portion is devoted to conferences, workshops, fairs, or festivals of the literary kind. Okay, so I missed a week again. That’s because I was busy winding down my summer tutoring by writing individual student reviews. I might have gotten side-tracked a bit on a couple of other things as well, including wracking my brains for new novel ideas. That’s because I did register for one of the contests included in this newsletter. Yes, one of the reasons I continue to compile this newsletter is because I do troll the internet for writing contests with the intention of submitting to them. In the 5 years or so that I’ve been sending out this newsletter, I might have submitted to less than 5 contests, so I figured it was about time to get a little more serious about my writing. I was planning to get this edition out earlier because I missed last week’s issue and if I didn’t get it out before midnight, there wouldn’t be an edition this week either, because midnight tonight is when the contest begins (12:01 a.m.) and I hope to complete a novel (the first draft, that is) by midnight (11:59 p.m.) of Labor Day. Talk about celebrating Labor Day. It’s the epitome of the labor writers slog through each time they write any long work.

Setting yourself down at a desk, chair, or whatever it is you like to sit in to do your writing, for 72 hours straight is the kind of crazy thing creative people do. Not a lot of people can imagine writing a novel in three days, but think of it: the aim is to write approximately 100 pages in 72 hours; that’s approximately 1.4 pages per hour, or roughly 4 pages every 3 hours. Double-spaced at 12-point Courier yields approximately 250 words per page, or a total of 25,000 words. If you use 10 or 11 points, you might fit 300 words per page, bumping your total number of words to 30,000. If you use a more modern font like Times New Roman, Arial, or Calibri, you could easily get 300 words per page. Considering the numbers, you’re really just writing an extra-long short story or a fairly short novella. That really isn’t bad considering Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea has only 27,000 words; Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men has 30,000 words; Animal Farm by Orwell also has 29,000 words; Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has 28,000 words. All told, you’re not in bad company writing a short novel.

In preparation, I have set out my coffee maker, chopped up a whole watermelon, stocked up on snacks, and had a really solid supper. Will I have time to eat in the next 72 hours? I’ll definitely have to make time, but I won’t be wasting time cooking. I will be taking short walks every now and then to the bathroom or to replenish my coffee or snack bowl, grab a drink of water, or just stretch both legs and my brain. Yes, my fingers too. I imagine typing 72 hours straight will induce some form of cramping. I might even nap if I get out enough pages under time.

There has been a lot of advise online about how to prepare for such a challenge, but the best thing I can say is to just go ahead and do it. Use whatever preparation you normally do when preparing to write, whether it is writing outlines, character and setting sketches, timelines–these will work for most writers because, writing a novel is like any other project, which will benefit from planning and preparation. Unless you’re a manic writer. And then you just sit down and write. That’s really all it boils down to.

Why Submit to Writing Contests?

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Have you ever submitted to a writing contest? About a month ago, I signed up for the 3-day novel writing contest because, yes, I am a manic writer and I felt it would be a good idea because (1) I had nothing better to do, (2) I had just finished revising the sequel to my first novel, (3) I wanted to give it a couple of weeks before I went into another revision to incorporate some suggestions made by a friend and beta reader, (4) I had about a dozen novel ideas festering in my mind, (5) I needed to jump start my writing to get a new novel started that wasn’t the sequel to my series, and (6) I’d been telling myself to start writing and submitting to some contests for years.

The temptation to maintain my manic writing strategy is much stronger than the logical part of my brain that is telling me to start an outline or a timeline or make notes. You have to give me credit for at least writing down potential titles with descriptive phrases to remind me what that book would be about. I have actually gone as far as listing some characters for one of those ideas. Is that what I will write about after midnight tonight? Who knows? There’s a strong possibility I’ll run with that idea, but there’s also a possibility I’ll jump at another idea.

The point is, I’m writing for a contest. It’s not the first contest I’ve signed up for. I’ve submitted to a couple of free contests and even some paid ones with modest fees, but I’m very selective mainly because I have very limited funds to spend on contest registration. Do I wish there were more free contests? Absolutely! However, those free contests also have very modest prizes. Regardless of the prize, though, writing for contests gives us that practice of writing for others, writing under pressure, and submitting our writing to the scrutiny of judges.

I’ve won one major national literary award, so that was a huge affirmation, but it took several very good friends to convince me to submit a play I had written. Winning contests gives us just that—affirmation that our writing is good enough to stand out from the rest. Any other component of the prize—the money, certificates, medals, and contracts—are all icing on the cake.

10 Tips to Dynamic Dialogue

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Sure, you find yourself talking to your characters. That’s not a bad thing at all, really. In the first place, you can use your dialogue with your characters in your stories. The downside is, you have to be about a dozen different people for each novel–a lot less for shorter fiction. If anyone accuses you of being schizophrenic or having a multiple personalitydisorder, tell them you’re an author. They’ll understand.

Here’s another big downside to creating dialogue and pretending to be different characters in your book: they start sounding like you. Yup. Every single one of them. Same pauses, same expressions, same intonation, same vocabulary, same expletives.  You might get your main characters right and give them a couple of unique identities with unique dialogue, but the rest of your characters could be a whole cast of mini-yous. That could be a real complication if you want to create spin-offs or create a sequel or worse, a series. The other major complication is when your dialogue is just a conversation that doesn’t really go anywhere, pretty much like your daily conversations about what you had for breakfast/dinner/supper, how your day went, what’s on TV, what you’re reading, what’s on the news, etc. This kind of dialogue is mundane and can just drag on forever, boring you readers, and getting your story nowhere.

The big question is: How do you get great dialogue and avoid the pitfalls? Here are 10 tips to improving dialogue in your stories.
1. Model your dialogue on different people. If your character is a cop, go watch a cop and listen to him speak. If he’s a detective, he’ll speak differently from a beat cop. If your character is a doctor, observe how doctors speak. Find a doctor to listen to so your character sounds like a real doctor.
2. Consult experts to test read your dialogue. If your character is in a highly specialized field such as law, consult a lawyer to make sure your dialogue sounds like a lawyer is speaking, especially in workplace scenarios, i.e., courtroom dramas.
3. Watch a lot of good TV or movies. It’s the next best thing to finding a real live expert to follow, model your characters after, and check your writing for authenticity.
4. Drop all the expletives, especially if they’re your favorite bad words. You can convey ideas effectively with accurate, precise language without having to pepper your writing with cursing. In the first place, it’s distasteful. In the second place, it’s weak, especially if you use it all the time. In the third place, it makes for difficult reading. Finally, it’s really pointless. It doesn’t do anything except make your characters a little more colorful, but if you need to resort to expletives to liven up your writing, then you simply are not a good writer.
5. Drop the foul language. As in real life, foul language is a major turn-off. Even if you have a character with the tendency to speak foul language because they never got their mouths washed out with soap, it doesn’t mean you have to fill your story with the same language. There are milder, more socially acceptable alternatives for all expressions, no matter how crude or foul. There are also more creative words that can be just as effective. Of course there are advocates of stark realism who will insist that it is part of the character. Challenge your vocabulary and skill by learning how to suggest or imply the foul or crude language. That way, each reader can supply their favorite bad words according to their tolerance or culture levels. Furthermore, see #5.
6. Drop all the filler words such as er, hm, mm, um, uh, unless they accurately represent what the character is saying at the moment. If you happen to have a character who stammers, it’s enough to show the stammer in a single conversational line and limit it to the occasional word spoken nervously. In some cases, punctuation is effective enough–or more effective. Use ellipses, hyphens, and dashes to indicate pauses or breaks in speech, or use a dialogue tag.
7. Drop word mannerisms such as now, so, like, well, and, and whatever other word mannerisms you find appearing at the start or end of most sentences. This works not only for dialogue but for the rest of your writing as well.
8. Drop the small talk. Unless it is extremely necessary to show small talk, skip it and go straight to the meat of the matter. In the first place, it distracts the reader. In the second place, it often digresses from the important topics. In the third place, it wastes time and ruins the pace of your story.
9. Drop the pleasantries. This is also small talk. You don’t need to talk about the weather or ask how everyone else is before getting to the point. Just get straight to the point. In the same way, you can dispense with long drawn-out goodbyes unless you’re trying to make a point or that’s what the story is about or it’s an important part of the story. In most cases, it probably won’t be.
10. Limit some word use. Dedicate a few words or phrases to specific characters. This usually becomes a character’s signature phrase. However, don’t have your character saying that signature phrase all the time. You don’t need to remind your readers that’s what a particular character says all the time, all the time.

Show, not Tell, with Dialogue

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Many of my writing students avoid dialogue because they struggle with it, and rightly so. Creating convincing, concise dialogue is a challenge that compounds writing stories. What they do not realize is that dialogue helps writers show rather than tell.

Consider the effect, for instance, of writing:

She wore an attractive, brightly-colored dress.

This is you, the author via your narrator, telling your reader what she wore.

Compare that to the effect achieved by the following:

“Do you like my dress?” Darlene said as she twirled in a full circle, flouncing the skirt as she did. “I think yellow looks good on me,” she smiled.

In the first example, your writing presents the reader with adjectives for a dress, but does not provide any action. The reader will either gloss over the sentence or, if imaginative, create an image of “she” in the dress, which could be yellow, orange, red, yellow-green, or some other bright color or a mixture of colors. Neither does the reader have the vaguest idea what the dress looks like. Is it long or short? Loose or fitting? Straight or flouncy? Unless you elaborate on that sentence by adding more descriptions, there will always be a lot of room for interpretation—sometimes more than you want.

In the second example, we know who “she” is—Darlene. We know she’s wearing a dress and it has a skirt that flounces as she twirls. We know the dress is yellow. More than that, we know Darlene likes the yellow dress and is light-hearted, expressive, and in a good mood. How can we tell? Because someone in a bad mood wouldn’t care much about wearing a bright, cheerful yellow; a more serious person would not be caught twirling to show off a dress; nor would an introverted or shy girl twirl, show-off a dress, and more than that, think aloud that they looked good in anything.

While the color or style of a character’s outfit might not always be relevant, sometimes we need to include more vivid descriptions because they provide readers with a clearer picture of your story. The trick is not to weigh down your story with bulky descriptions that can be made more memorable and effective with dialogue.

We Bloody Murderous Writers

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Many times, we worry about how to make characters as realistic as possible. There is a great deal of advice out there, including some tips I’ve shared with students and readers. Because we are writers, however, we will forever be plagued with doubts about convincing our characters are, among other details. How can you tell your characters are real enough? What are some sure signs they’re alive and kicking–on the page, that is?

You know your character is as real as they come when:

1. You hear their voices in your head. They never stop talking. Sometimes they talk to you, sometimes they talk among themselves. Sometimes they even talk to themselves, but make sure you hear them! It’s so bad you begin to think you are schizophrenic.

2. You carry on conversations with them. You’ll start answering them in your head, but soon enough, you’ll find yourself talking aloud to them. If anyone asks you, you can always claim it’s your imaginary friend or enemy or frenemy. Or you can pretend to be talking into your bluetooth device. Your choice.

3. They argue back. At this point, your characters are becoming more aggressive. They enjoy debating with you. The worst part is that they’re almost as good as you at arguing!

4. They have a mind of their own. They think they’re really smart and can solve their own problems. The problem is, they also create their own problems.

5. They do what they want. Just when you think you’ve got everything wrapped tightly, they’ll go ahead and do something totally unexpected. Sometimes you think they just want to spite you. Of course, they could just be teasing. But you have to remember they do have a mind of their own, so you can’t always control them.

6. They control your story. That’s right. Because you can’t always control them, they often end up controlling your story. They’ll literally pick up that figurative ball and run with it. No kidding. Of course they’ll get into trouble, then you’ll have to fix it for them.

7. They wake you up in the middle of the night. That’s right. It’s not enough that they keep you up late, they’ll wake you up in the middle of the night for the most trivial matter. Naturally, they’ll make sure you have to get up and hunt for that notebook or pad that should have been on your nightstand, but because they always wake you up, you’ve probably taken that pad somewhere else where you could argue with them in private, assuming you still share your bed with someone else.

8. They demand to be written. It’s not enough for them to just exist in your head. They’ll nag you until you write them into a story. Mind you, remember #6.

9. They want to live forever. It’s not enough that you write a story about them. They want you to write more and more stories also about them. This is called the serial temptation, when they haunt you and keep on coming up with all sorts of outrageous situations for you to write them into. Then they force you to solve their problems.

10. You value their opinions. If your characters are truly trustworthy and full of integrity, they might just be able to solve their problems on their own, in which case you are off the hook and all you need to do is let them control your fingers and do the typing or writing.

11. You talk about them as if they were real people. When you find yourself talking with other people about your characters as if they were realy people, then your characters are certifiably real! At this point, other people might even ask you how your characters are, what they’re doing next, what they think of certain things, and so on and so forth.

At a certain point, your characters will permeate your life so much it won’t feel right being without them. On the other hand, they could be taking over your life, in which case you might be drawn to murderous intent. There will always come a time to kill your darlings and we are all guilty, we bloody, murderous tribe of writers!

How Real Are Your Characters?

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Besides the physical challenges of being a writer and the obvious release it gives any megalomaniac tendencies you might have, writing also challenges the psyche. As a prolific writer, you have written several stories—fiction, of course—with characters you have either modeled on real-life personalities or whom you have created completely out of nothing. Every writer does that. However, you want your characters to be as real as you can make them so you treat them like real people. You give them personalities and let them exercise free will. You develop them, give them words, then give them triumph or defeat. You make them rise to the heights of success of fall to the depths of despair. You are their god, their creator, and you can do whatever you want with them, including kill them, as many a famous writer has adviced. On another level, you might treat them as your contemporaries and hold

On another level, you might treat them as your contemporaries and hold conversation with them—what better way to develop dialogue, after all, than hold a real dialogue with characters? You argue, fight, wheedle, convince, threaten, compromise, order, intimidate, contradict, and defy them. Quite naturally, they will argue, fight, wheedle, convince, threaten, compromise, order, intimidate, contradict, and defy you in return.

You can share secrets with them, confide in them, become their best friend and confidante, even become their lover and share sweet, intimate, sensual discourse with them. You encourage them, motivate them, sometimes even chastise them. In some cases, you will have had enough of your characters after a single book and shut the voices between the covers. In other cases, you will be haunted by the voices. Your characters will not leave you alone. They will keep you awake with endless debates, wake you up in the middle of the night, interrupt your most intimate moments, join you in the shower, argue over every meal, make you miss appointments or your stop so you end up riding the bus farther than you want to or need to. They will distract you and preoccupy your mind so your tv shows go by without your knowing what happened, you completely forget what you went to the grocery for, and people look at you strangely because, yes, the worst has happened, you now talk to your characters aloud in public. In that case, congratulations! Your characters are as real as they can get. Time to break out the champagne. Oh, and don’t forget an extra glass for your favorite character.

A character by any other name is not as sweet

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Are you one of those writers who actively model characters on real people? Come on, admit it! You’ve probably endowed one or more of your protagonists with the traits of some real live hero you’ve met or read about. It could be a personal hero, like your grandpa, grandma, dad, mom, or a favorite uncle or aunt, or even an admired teacher or the school’s hottest athlete or cheerleader. You’ve also probably imbued some of your antagonists with the traits of your annoying kid sibling or cousin, a school bully, or your parents at their worst moments. As a fiction writer, you need to protect the identities of your models, whether positive or negative. Here are some ways you can do that.

1. Use a baby name book. There are all kinds of baby name books, from traditional baby names like Robert, William, Mary, and Anne, to unorthodox baby names like Rainbow, Amber, Opal, and Strawberry.
2. Use first names of famous people and mix up their surnames, like Hillary Regan or Scrooge McTrump.
3. Use foreign names like Liam, Cohen, Vladimir, or Rajesh.
4. Use a phone book and pick random surnames to match your invented first names.
5. Use names of real people you know, but don’t use their names on the characters they’re like. That way, people can’t say, “Hey, that’s what’s-his/her-name!” Throw them off by using their names on characters totally unlike them.
6. Change their gender. If there’s a guy you really hate, turn him into a despicable female character.
7. Change their age. You can safely make a character younger or older than the model by up to 10 years. The older your model, the easier to change the age. On the other hand, you could also turn them all into kids, which shouldn’t be too hard if they’re really very childish in real life.
8. Change their professions. Put them in a profession or job that’s very different from what they do in real life.
9. Invent new names with new spellings, depending on their age in your story. Take your cues from real life. For instance, Chyna, Asya, Justynne, Cayden.
10. Look up the most popular names for a particular year to match the year your character was born.
11. Use symbolic or meaningful names, for instance, Frank, Chastity, Hope, Gallant, Rush. Is the name “Scout Finch” symbolic? Or Robinson Crusoe?
12. Unless you are writing about life in earlier centuries or an alternative futuristic society where names are assigned as a way to identify social or economic status or an allegorical story, you might want to avoid using surnames that identify profession–unless it’s a fictional historical name attached to a family that carries on the same profession. Unfortunately, that could run really close to being tacky, campy, forced, or tongue-in-cheek, so be very careful or be very convincing.
13. Of course, if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, there’s no limit to the kinds of names you can invent. And if you need to use numbers to name your characters–if that’s what your story really is about–go for it.

How you name your characters is as important as how children are names. You need to consider: will your characters live up to their names? Will the names become as memorable as Jay Gatsby or Sherlock Holmes or Scarlet O’Hara? Do the names suggest anything about the characters? If the characters were real, how would they feel about their names? Remember, your characters are your babies. Name them well!

Authors Rule! (Mwah-ha-ha!)

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There is so much more to writing than the physical challenges. The immense strain we subject our bodies to when we choose to be writers, however, comes with a huge benefit that will satisfy even the most extreme megalomaniac among us. That benefit is becoming the supreme rulers of whatever worlds we create.

Exercise your imagination and indulge yourself. Have you always wanted to rule an island paradise? You can create one—or as many as you want! Do you want to be the ruler of the most powerful country in the world? Or perhaps, you want to elevate your humble nation or town into the most powerful government you can think of. It’s not only nations you can control. You can control worlds, galaxies, and multiverses.

And you’ll never be lonely. You can people your worlds with anyone you want. Bring all the kith and kin you want. There will be as much room for them as you declare. You can set up your leaders, heroes, and citizens and give them everything they desire—jobs, wealth, power, knowledge—whatever suits your fancy.

Of course, you can’t have a world without villains because that would be boring. This is your chance to take anyone and everyone you hate or has done you wrong in some way or another and show the rest of the world just how evil they are. The best part is you can give them the exact punishment they deserve! They can lose an eye, hand, foot, or any other body part you wish. They can be crippled. They can be as ugly and horrible and unfortunate as you wish them to be. Above all, you can subject them to the worst forms of humiliation, suffering, and torture and, in the end, you can kill them or condemn them to eternal damnation. At this point, you are allowed to hunch your shoulders, rub your hands together, and emit the most demonic laugh you can come up with!

If all that doesn’t fulfill your delusions of grandeur, then you’re really a megalomaniac and need to see a psychiatrist!