Does Your Story Need a Bad Guy?

A writer asks if his work might suffer because he doesn’t write “antagonists”, by which he means there is no specific person for his hero to fight. He writes books about climate change and how it affects his characters.

My answer: “Of course you have an antagonistit’s NATURE”.

Traditionally, there have been five types of antagonists in literature:

Man against Man

Man against Nature

Man against Society

Man against Himself

Man against the Supernatural

Recently, another antagonist has been added to the list:

Man against Technology

AI by geralt from Pixaby

Picture by geralt from Pixaby

Given those choices, how do we figure out which of those antagonists fits our needs?

Man vs Man: You can look at any of the Hero sagas for this theme, whether it’s Beowulf or Batman. It’s also a common theme in mysteries, westerns, and romances, where the villain (whether murderer, rustler or ex-girlfriend) must be vanquished in order for the protagonist to succeed.

Man vs Nature: This theme is found in Moby Dick and The Old Man and The Sea, but also in stories like Cast Away and The Towering Inferno, where the protagonist must either use the natural world to save himself, or fight a natural force to save someone else.

Man vs Society: Here, the most commonly cited author is Jane Austen, whose characters are always bumping up against the artifices of 18th century England. To Kill a Mockingbird is another fine example, as is Riders of the Purple Sage, where a woman is pitted against the strictures of Mormon society when an unscrupulous bishop wants her for her wealth.

Man vs Himself: While Hamlet is the most obvious example of this theme, Riders of the Purple Sage also shows us this conflict, as the woman’s non-Mormon champion, Lassiter, must give up his guns to gain her trust and, eventually, her love. Lassiter’s internal struggle to reconcile himself to a non-violent solution to their dilemma is just as strong as Hamlet’s, though his ultimate act is much different (no spoilers here!)

Man vs the Supernatural: Whether it’s called Fate, God, or a wizard’s spell, conflicts can be found from the myths of Prometheus and Loki, to the witches in MacBeth, through to Harry Potter. It also includes vampires, flying monkeys, as well as the zombie apocalypse.

Man vs Technology: Both Brave New World and 1984 demonstrate the challenges of technology changing our life in ways we could not anticipate. Other good examples of this conflict are 2001:A Space Odyssey and Frankenstein.

frankenstein-by skeeze from Pixabay

Picture by Skeeze from Pixabay


Now that we’ve explored the kinds of antagonists, the question is: can a book have more than one antagonist?

We’ve already seen two examples of antagonists in Riders of the Purple Sage. We could also see it in The Towering Inferno, where the protagonist is not only striving to save people from the fire, but trying to discover what went wrong, while the builder is hiding the cost-cutting measures he employed in construction.

In my forthcoming book, Whispers in the Canyon, the human antagonist is dead before the story begins, but that doesn’t mean his evil deeds died with him. My characters, Adam Donovan and Jesse Travers, must deal with the aftereffects of the abuse Jesse suffered at her dead brother’s hands.

These two also have problems with nature to be faced, and the Man vs Himself theme rears its ugly head when Adam begins to blame himself for not recognizing Jesse’s plight earlier.

So, if your manuscript doesn’t have a “good guy” and a “bad guy”, and there’s something other than that (or several other somethings) causing problems for your hero, never fear. The antagonist of your story doesn’t have to be human at all.


Ask Giff: He had or He’d had?

#amwriting #grammar

Question: I was wondering about one thing. In my sentence, would it be “he’d had enough” or “he had enough”?

He’d had enough. He could handle his sister’s complaining, but…

Answer: He’d had enough” will work better for you.

“He had enough” is usually quantifiable, eg: “He had enough breakfast cereal to last for a year”, means he’s got enough cereal stocked up in the pantry to last that long.

Whereas “He’d had enough breakfast cereal to last for a year” means he’s so sick of breakfast cereal he doesn’t want to have any more for a year.

So in this case, by using “He’d had enough”, you’re saying he’s sick of his sister’s complaining, and inferring that he doesn’t want to hear it any more.

Thanks for your question. Slainte!

Got a question for a grammar nerd? Submit it via the About Me/Contact page and I’ll be happy to answer it!

Later, Look Back: Another Shortcut for Fixing Misplaced Modifiers

#grammar #amwriting #amediting

Modifiers, as we’ve discussed, are the words we use to provide additional information about another word. Modifiers include adverbs, adjectives, and clauses. Today the focus is on modifying clauses and how they relate to our stories. The problem known as “misplaced modifiers” occurs when the clause or phrase is not connected to the word(s) it’s supposed to modify, and so causes confusion. I discussed the first rule of modifying clauses in this article: First, Look Ahead.

Briefly, the first rule is: when a sentence opens with a modifying clause, the clause must refer to the subject of the sentence. But what happens when the modifying clause comes after the subject of the sentence? Then the clause must modify the last noun (whether a person or thing) that appears in that sentence. (Exception: there must be agreement in gender; when dealing with a pronoun or possessive, you’d go back to the last person of that gender who was mentioned.)

For example:

Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when he kidnapped his sister.

The modifying phrase here is “when he kidnapped his sister”. In this case, the last male person referenced is Bill. Therefore, the “he” in the modifying clause must refer to Bill. Substituting Bill for “he” in the sentence, we wind up with this:

Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when (Bill) kidnapped his sister.

It makes no sense at all, but it’s an easy fix. Substitute the kidnapper’s name (or another identifier) for “he”, and we have:

Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when Mike kidnapped his sister.


Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when the intruder kidnapped his sister.

We could even turn it around to:

When the intruder kidnapped his sister, Bill vowed to get her back at any cost.

All three of these sentences are correct and all now properly identify the person who did the kidnapping. But until we identified the other person, all male pronouns belonged to Bill.

Here’s another example:

Never buy a car from a dealer with a broken odometer.

You figured it out, didn’t you? The last person named was the dealer, and he didn’t have a broken odometer. The modifier belongs to the noun “car”, and the proper way to phrase this sentence is:

Never buy a car with a broken odometer from a dealer.

As with the first rule, it can be apparent what a writer means in a sentence like Never buy a car from a dealer with a broken odometer. But it’s not up to the reader to interpret our work. It’s our job as writers to say exactly what we mean to say.

Here’s a third example:

Looking in vain for an answer to the questions, all excitement dwindled.

This one is fairly easy to recognize as wrong. But it may not be so easy to identify the problem and correct it, because the problem doesn’t fall solely within the modifying clause. The problem is that the sentence doesn’t have a proper subject/verb combination. It doesn’t say who was looking for the answers, or whose excitement dwindled. In fact, this sentence (or I should say “statement”) consists of two incomplete clauses.

Every sentence needs to give the reader someone/something to whom they can attribute the actions that are represented. So the correction would be:

As Bill looked in vain for an answer to the questions, his excitement dwindled.


As we looked in vain for an answer to the questions, all of our excitement dwindled.

Most of these were pretty simple fixes. The problem is not usually how to fix misplaced modifiers, it’s how to find them in the first place. So how do you recognize a misplaced modifier when you’re editing your own work? Just as the first rule of thumb is FIRST, LOOK AHEAD, the second rule of thumb is:

LATER, LOOK BACK.  When the modifying clause comes later in the sentence (after the subject), look back to find the last person/noun mentioned. If the clause correctly modifies that person or noun, you’re golden. If it doesn’t, your sentence needs work.

Again, as in our first article, some will say that a previous sentence or paragraph contains the necessary information to show the reader what we mean. But the simple fact is that every sentence needs to stand on its own. Sentences are the building blocks of our work; every sentence needs to say exactly what we want it to say, without interpretation. To protest that the information needed is in the previous paragraph, or in the next sentence, is the equivalent of saying it’s on the previous page, or in the next chapter. Or on page 45 of Oliver Twist.

“But wait,” you say, “aren’t there exceptions to the rules?”

Of course there are. But we can only get away with breaking the rules if we stick to them most of the time. Then, what we’ve done is considered “poetic license” (or “literary license” if you prefer). Otherwise, it’s likely to be seen as just plain laziness.

Got a sentence/paragraph that you don’t know what to do with? Is it keeping you up nights? For specific input on a specific problem, send your sentences (up to 150 words) along with your question, using the About Me/Contact Info page on this blog. Be sure to put “Ask Giff” in the subject line. Grammar is my passion and I’m happy to help!

First, Look Ahead: A Shortcut for Fixing Misplaced Modifiers

#grammar #amwriting #amediting

We’ve got a fairly complex question this time, with more than one example. A friend of mine, also a writer, is having some trouble with modifying clauses, also called modifying phrases. Modifiers, as you may know, are the words we use to provide additional information about another word. Modifiers include adverbs, adjectives, and clauses. Today the focus is on modifying clauses and how they relate to the characters in our stories.

The problem known as “misplaced modifiers” occurs when the clause or phrase is not connected to the word(s) it’s supposed to modify. The first rule of modifying clauses is:

When a sentence opens with a modifying clause, the clause must refer to the subject of the sentence.

I just recently came across a perfect example in my own work; this sentence has been there for at least three years now and no one (including 2 critique partners, 3 beta readers and my mother) had noticed it.

Since childhood, John Patrick taught his children …”

The opening clause must modify the subject (John Patrick), so this sentence makes no sense. It actually says:

Since John Patrick’s childhood, he taught his children…”

You’ll probably say it’s perfectly obvious that what I meant. But it is, nonetheless, completely wrong. I’ve finally corrected it and it now reads:

As this child and his siblings grew, John Patrick taught them…”

I replaced the original modifying clause with a complete clause: one that has its own subject and verb. A pretty simple fix.

Now let’s look at a couple of the examples that were giving my friend agida*:

While he explained his presence, Bill appeared and…”

Since the opening clause modifies the subject (Bill), both “he” and “his” in this sentence refer to Bill. When you substitute Bill’s name for the pronoun and possessive, this sentence says:

While (Bill) explained (Bill’s) presence, Bill appeared and…”

Obviously, Bill could not be in the middle of explaining things just as he appeared. However, the sentence before this was about George. George was the one explaining his presence, so the modifying phrase belongs in George’s sentence. Another simple fix.

Here’s a third example:

While doing interrogations on Bill’s case, George told him about the incident last year.”

Insert the subject, George, into the modifying clause, and the sentence says:

While (George was) doing interrogations on Bill’s case, George told him about the incident last year.”

However, the reader has already been informed that George is a “person of interest” in the investigation. The opening clause actually refers to the cop who is doing the interrogations. To correct it, it needs the cop’s name in it:

While Mike was doing interrogations on Bill’s case, George told him about the incident last year.”

Again, a simple fix. The trouble is not usually how to fix a misplaced modifier, it’s how to recognize it in the first place.

So how do you recognize a misplaced modifier when you’re editing your own work? The rule of thumb is:

FIRST, LOOK AHEAD. When the modifying clause comes first, look ahead to find the subject of your sentence. If the clause correctly modifies the subject, you’re golden. If it doesn’t, your sentence needs work.

If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know that I’m not a big fan of all the Rules. To me, there are two kinds of rules–the ones that improve our craft from the ground up, and the others that are simply a sign of the times. The rules of sentence structure fall into the first category: without them, most of us would be writing gibberish. I call them eternal rules, and they’ve been followed by every accomplished writer from Shakespeare on. The more modern rules (like the “said/ask” rule, the “no adverbs” rule) were dreamed up about two generations ago and are probably transitory; in two more generations, other – even more modern – rules will take their place.

The eternal rules create logic and symmetry. Many times, what seems logical to a writer will be confusing to a reader. As writers, we have the inside scoop – we know exactly what we mean to say. But the reader is depending on us to make it perfectly clear to them as well, and the misplaced modifier rules will help to ensure that we do.

So, do you want to know what happens when the modifying clause comes in the middle of a sentence? Check out this spot next week.

* For those not familiar with the term (or the spelling), agida is Italian slang for heartburn. Pronounced ah-jid-ah.

ASK GIFF: Traditional vs Modern Definitions

Our question this week is not actually connected to a “work in progress”, but I decided to go ahead with it, as the answer might be surprising.  A reader asks:

What is the difference between regime and regimen?  I hear people use “regime” to describe a program, like diet or exercise, all the time.  However, my mother says this is wrong and the word should be “regimen”.  Please settle our dispute.

Nicholas II

Nicholas II

Popular usage can overtake the traditional meaning of a word, and this is a case in point.  Historically “regime” has been used to indicate a method of government, and particularly one in which the head of state passes his position to his descendants.  For instance, Czar Nicholas II of Russia was the last of the Romanov regime, while England’s regime of Windsors includes Elizabeth II, and the kingship will be passed to one of her descendants, probably Prince Charles.

“Regimen” is the word that traditionally describes a diet or exercise program, or actually any specific activity done on a set basis.  So whether you practice piano every day before dinner, play in a softball league every Saturday, or have a 10-step process for doing your make-up & hair for a night out – that’s a regimen.

(As an aside, one other thing I’ve heard is the use of “regiment” for “regimen”. Regiment as a noun is a term alluding to a specific unit of military forces. Or as a verb, it means to control, organize, or delegate.  It really makes no sense when substituted for Regimen.)

But to get back to the question: technically speaking, your mother is correct.  (Mom always knows best, doesn’t she?)  However, it’s become so common to use “regime” for “regimen” that some on-line dictionaries will give you both definitions interchangeably when speaking of a plan of activity.  I have not seen “regimen” substituted for the traditional meaning of “regime”, and I kind of doubt that it ever will be.  But one never knows!

Language is a living thing and is always in a state of flux, whether we like it or not.  I personally prefer to stick to the traditional meaning of both words, because (a) grammar nerd, and (b) resistant to change. But I have been known to accept new words (though “impacted” as a verb makes me grind my teeth!)

Ask Giff: You’d better!

Our question this week is from a reader and writer who’s concerned about the difference between “You’d better” and “You better”.

Question:  I’ve read suspense novels by two different best-selling authors in the couple of weeks. While writing my own suspense novel, I’ve used the phrase “You’d better (do such and so)”.  But one of these authors uses the phrase “You better” instead.  Which one is correct?

Answer:  There’s no clear-cut right and wrong here.  It usually depends on when a person was educated, and there are also regional differences.

Anyone who attended school prior to the 1970s, would probably have learned to say “You’d better” (short for “You had better”).  Today, with education’s emphasis on science, computers and math, young people usually use “You better”.  The second phrase is gaining quite a wide acceptance.

In my personal experience, I’ve noticed that those of any age who are from the South and the Mid-West usually say “you better”.  It’s pretty popular in New York City as well. I can’t speak for other areas of the country as I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting them.

So the question isn’t which one is right. It’s how deliberate you want your characters to be with their language. And for different characters, the answer might be different. If your character is the CEO of a major corporation, she’ll probably say “you’d better”. But a teenage character would probably not.

And when you come down to it,  “You’d better” doesn’t actually make more sense than “You better”. Truth is, the traditional meaning of “better” as a verb is to improve or exceed, and that’s not how we’re using it in either case.  Yet everyone knows what we mean when we say it.

Conclusion: While “You’d better” may add some tone to a character, there really isn’t a right or wrong these days. I don’t think readers are going to be upset or put off by either usage.

ASK GIFF (or: a real live Grammar Nerd wants to answer your questions

Got a grammar question? Got a sentence that needs something, but you’re not exactly sure what? Tenses don’t jive? Can’t tell if you need a colon or a semicolon?

Well, I’m that kid in school who was always “first hand up” when it was time to diagram sentences. Yeah, a real grammar nerd. Grammar makes me happy, and misuse of it drives me nuts!

So I’m offering you the chance to pose your grammar questions here. Now, I don’t mean your technical questions – there are plenty of on-line resources for that, and my favorites are listed on the “Writers’ Resources” page here.

But sometimes the technical resources (aka “the rules”) don’t help a lot in real life. I remember trying one of the “grammar checkers” and, after it had eliminated the words it didn’t like (including “complex” words, which it defined as any word over 3 syllables — simplicity, anyone?), my 14-word sentence was reduced to “Brian have home.” Not quite the idea I was trying to put across.

So I’m looking for a specific question about your sentence or paragraph that needs help. Something you know isn’t quite right, but you just can’t seem to find the answer that unravels your confusion and makes it work.

To give you an idea of how I might answer, here are a couple of real examples from real people I’ve worked with (used with their consent, of course):

Question #1:  I have two versions of this sentence, and I need to know which one is better:

  1. She watched him amble through the gate and disappearing into the darkness as he walked down the beach.
  2. She watched him amble through the gate and as he walked down the beach, he disappeared into darkness.

My Response:  In the first sentence, the tenses don’t agree. It should either be:

  1. She watched him amble through the gate and disappear into … OR

  2. She watched him ambling through the gate and disappearing into …

But I don’t think the first sentence, even with the correct tenses, reads all that well. It seems to say he ambled through the gate as he walked down the beach. I’m pretty sure that’s not what you have in mind.

On the other hand, your second sentence already has agreement between the tenses and it’s easy to see just what you mean. However, I’d suggest eliminating “and” and using a semicolon instead. Why, you ask? Because, though the two clauses are related, each one has its own subject. In the first clause, it’s “she”, while in the second one it’s “he”.

So for me, the optimum sentence would be: She watched him amble through the gate; as he walked down the beach, he disappeared into darkness.

Question #2:  I’m having trouble with this sentence, and can’t figure out how to make it better:

He had a square face with a wide nose and a strong jaw-line, his dark-brown hair pronouncing his warm blue eyes.

Response:  I understand exactly what you mean to say. The problem is that “pronounce” as a verb means “to say”. You could go with “his dark-brown hair made his warm blue eyes more pronounced” or “his dark-brown hair played up his warm blue eyes” (or even “the warmth in his blue eyes”, if the other sounds too sing-song to you.)

So what do you say?   Want some help with a sentence, a comma, a verb? Send your question through the ABOUT ME/CONTACT page; I’ll post at least one every week (anonymously if you like), and give it my best shot!

Oh, goody! GRAMMAR!!!!