Pets Are People Too

When you write about people, you make sure to draw them as individuals with a particular combination of likes and dislikes, strengths and foibles. If the people in your story have pets, you should treat them the same way. There is no universal “dog” or “cat” personality, and the key to writing a memorable pet is to make sure they have their own unique flair.


Winston and I attempt a selfie.

If you don’t happen to own the pet in question, looking up traits of the breed will help you with a starting point. Siamese cats are typically quite vocal, for example. Giant dogs—think Mastiffs or Great Danes—tend to be lower energy and obedient because they were bred that way. My own basset Winston shares a common trait with many basset hounds in that he likes to think for himself. He is slow to follow commands because he wants everything to be his idea. Bassets were bred as hunting dogs meant to roam ahead of their people and so their independent streak is strong. How strong? Well, there is one obedience school that simply won’t take bassets. But don’t confuse a basset’s lack of a desire to do what the human says with a lack of love for the human. Bassets are strongly bonded with their people (and other pets in the house) and will follow you from room to room.


But you can also have a 100% pure-bred animal that behaves nothing like its kin. If you don’t happen to have a dog, bird, cat, hamster, etc., you can find discussion forums where people share stories about their pets to learn the range of crazy behaviors that animals will evince. I lived with an average-sized cat for a while who could shake the whole house by “boxing” on a bedroom door that didn’t sit tight in its frame. Another cat I knew would take his human female’s dirty underwear out of the hamper and carry it around with him. He’d also come running like a dog when she returned home, so if she had company with her, they would be greeted by a Calico kitty with a bra in his mouth.


Maybe your fictional rabbit is crazy for green peas. Perhaps the cat in your novel likes to sit on top of the fridge and pass judgment on all your food choices when you open the door. My mother once had a cockatoo who liked to imitate the noise of the doorbell to make the family dog run barking to the front door. Then the bird would laugh and dance. Ha!


Pets = love. Unless your pet is a holy terror. That can be funny in fiction, too.

Winston gives me plenty of ideas for Speed Bump, his fictional counterpart. Winston will go belly-up if you try to pet him. The underside of the dog is the best part for scratching, in his opinion. He smells like a hound, which means he emits an odor reminiscent of corn chips. Speaking of chips, he will wake from a sound sleep at the scent of popcorn. And with his considerable nose, he can detect popcorn from two floors away. However, he hates bananas (but not banana muffins). He loves little kids, whom he views as fellow puppies, but is distrustful of men with beards—not to mention the fearsome plexiglass cow outside the ice cream shop. At doggie daycare, they call him “The Mayor” because he makes the rounds, talking to all other dogs on the premises.


The more individualized you can make your story’s pets, the more they will seem real. You want readers to hear the meows and feel the fur. You want the creatures galumphing, slinking, and skulking right off the page.


Reed and Ellery: Yeah or Nah?

With the advent of All the Best Lies, I’ve been getting more reader feedback on whether Ellery and Reed should be a couple or not. Sentiment runs about 90-95% “They belong together forever” with about 5-10% of readers firmly in the “Ew, that’s gross” category. I feel like both sides have a point, which is why Ellery and Reed are so much fun to write. If they were a perfect couple, they’d be boring. But are they too taboo? Let’s review the evidence on the “Ew, gross” side:

1. They met when Ellery was a kid. She was fourteen and Reed was a grown-ass adult in the FBI. For some readers, understandably, this is a non-starter.
2. He rescued her. This fact, plus the age difference, creates the impression of a power imbalance that is sometimes uncomfortable.
3. They met because of a serial killer. He’s always going to be between them.

Reed and Ellery generate plenty of heat, but should they be a couple?

Meanwhile, the “Aw, they belong together” side has points to offer as well:

1. They understand each other in a way that literally no one else on Earth does.
2. They like each other. You should get to date who you like, as long as everyone is a consenting adult.
3. They are both adults now.
4. They fill in each other’s blindspots. Reed’s monied background means he doesn’t understand what it’s like to go without, and he sometimes misses motivations or part of a case that Ellery sees better. He also has a bit of a “fix-it” complex. Ellery is a constant reminder that he can’t fix everything, nor should he try. Ellery rushes headlong into danger while Reed is more circumspect. She is something of a misanthrope. Reed gives her hope for humankind.

The yin-yang of these two points of view is what makes them interesting to me as a writer. I see the “Ew, gross” side even if I do not completely share it. To me, the deal-breakers would be:

1. If Reed had any authority over Ellery, now or in the past. He’s not her boss. He has no control over her job or her future.
2. They had interacted a lot when she was a kid. As it stands, they met once. It was a dramatic meeting, to be sure, but then Reed disappeared from her life. He had no bearing on the kind of adult she turned out to be. He did not know girl-Ellery in any real capacity. He knows her only as an adult.
3. If she were a new adult. If Ellery was twenty-two or twenty-four, still getting her bearings on the adult world, it would be a different story. Reed would feel like a creepy influence. But she’s thirty and stands firmly on her own two feet.
4. If she had nothing to teach him. If their relationship was all about Reed breaking down Ellery’s walls, if he had no emotional learning to do himself, then the relationship would be hopelessly unbalanced.

So, in sum: those crazy lovebirds. Will they make it or not? I have no idea! Stay tuned.


I get questions about my books all the time, but there is a frequent one that always stumps me: “Is your book scary?” I’m never sure how to reply. To me, they are not scary, but I go to bed each night with Forensic Files reruns on the TV. The first book involves a serial killer, which is a frightening premise and a non-starter for many readers. Yet others who like dark, disturbing stories find it tepid, like a Lifetime movie. There is no slashing of body parts on the page. There is no long internal narrative from the killer about stalking or dismembering the victims.

This creepy house just looks like a scary story waiting to happen.


It’s funny to me that the same book can be described as “a nice, light read” and “relentlessly sinister,” but it all depends on your point of view. I’m a firm believer in letting readers take what they want from a story. My intent shouldn’t matter. That said, I don’t set out with an intent to scare anyone. But the books aren’t meant to be entirely comfortable either.

As I’ve mentioned, Ellery and Reed are very loosely inspired by real people around the edges of the Ted Bundy case. I was reading a book on Bundy years ago and was struck by how he was a wrecking ball through so many lives. There were the murdered victims, of course, and their loved ones left behind. But also: the cops, prematurely aged by what they’d seen; Bundy’s fiancée and her daughter; Bundy’s own daughter, conceived on death row; Carol DaRonch, Bundy’s most famous living victim who ends up in every Bundy movie, even forty years after the fact; the young women in the sorority house in Florida who weren’t attacked the night he went through the place with a log, bashing heads in; the young women who were attacked and lived, including a dancer who could no longer dance.

I even met a man who happened to be named Ted who ended up on the wrong end of a cop’s gun, just because he shared a name with the infamous serial killer.

So, the books aren’t so much about the serial killer himself, at least not to date. They’re about everyone else who has to live with the crater he left behind. You can lock him up or even execute him but it doesn’t undo all the damage. Justice is imperfect.

I guess if I had to declare any kind of authorial intent, I would say I want the books to feel real. Crime is scary, and that fright can linger even after you survive it, even if the fear is mostly in your head. But surviving means you get to experience the other joyous parts of life, too, like sharing a meal with a friend or rubbing a warm dog belly. I make sure to put those parts into the story as well. Does that make it “light”? Or “grim”?

You get to decide.

Storytelling, Writing, Writing Advice

Happy Endings

As difficult as it is to begin a book, it may be even more challenging to end one, at least in a satisfying fashion. Not all “good” endings are happy ones, and indeed, if you force a happily-ever-after onto a story that didn’t earn it, the ending is unlikely to leave readers feeling satisfied. Here are some elements to consider when crafting your perfect ending:

Your last words are as important as your first.

1.     Has the central tension been resolved? If so, get off the stage as soon as possible. In a mystery, this is usually the point where the villain is revealed. In a romance, this is when the characters get together and admit their love. In a literary novel, the ending can be tougher to spot, but it’s usually when the main character has learned whatever insight they were lacking at the start of the book.

2.     Make sure your ending is earned. The rest of the story should be leading to the final point so that when the ending arrives, it seems just. My family watches baking competition shows where someone is eliminated at the end of each hour until finally a champion is crowned. At the start, especially, there are so many bakers that the producers would have hours more footage than they could use. They have to choose which parts to include in the “story.” We joke that so-and-so is getting the “going home” edit, but there is truth in this line. At the end, when a baker is voted off, viewers have to understand why this person is getting the axe. If the producers didn’t show you their struggles and instead focused on a different baker’s lovely meringue technique, you’d be confused when the final vote came in. It’s the same with a book. Your story needs to relate to the ending in a way that makes sense.

3.     Don’t tell all you know. It’s a good idea to leave some mystery at the end of your book, even if it’s not a mystery. It can be tempting to wrap everything up in a bow. Have your side characters fall in insta-love. Move your hero into a James-Bond-type pad. Have your heroine’s mother call her up and apologize for all those mistakes from years ago. Maybe the killer is caught but there is a lingering question of whether the dead man’s wife knew him long ago and may have arranged for the murder. Or the couple gets together but her best friend, who pined for the man herself, remains unsettled. Or your hero, who’d believed that money could buy happiness, realizes his error but it may be too late to save his relationship with his son. Readers like endings that make sense, but they also value some open questions. It gives them something to think about when the book is done—and makes for lively book club discussions!

4.     Think about your last line. Writers can spend ages tinkering with the opening sentence of a book because it’s your first impression. A killer first line can help sell a novel. Similarly, your last line is also important. It’s your parting shot. Your lasting impression, as it were. If you’re lucky, it can help sell readers on your next story.


When My Best Friend Didn’t Want to Be Friends Anymore

Amy and I were as close as friends could be.

As a kid, I had a close friend, the kind you send BFF messages to on cheap gray school paper when you’re supposed to be listening to the math lesson. We’ll call her Amy since that was her name. Amy and I attended a small elementary school, with only one class per grade, so we were together every year. She was more of a tomboy than I was—good at athletics, never wearing dresses or skirts, her hair styled short like a boy’s might be. We shared a love of scary movies, junk food, and imagination games. She was my only competition when it came to academics. We were the smart kids, constantly measuring ourselves against each other to see which one might be better. If there was any kind of school-related competition that required more brain than brawn, like ‘who can read the most books in one month’ or ‘who can spell the hardest word,’ either Amy or I would take home the title.


Pictures of us back then show two girls with their arms around each other, dressed up in homemade costumes for Halloween. Or the pair of us running into the distance, preparing to roll down some enormous hill. We spent every minute we could together, right up until we didn’t.


The change started when we were eleven and entered middle school, which was filled with older, tougher kids. Amy decided to overhaul her image. She permed her hair and started wearing short skirts and heels. She downplayed how smart she was. I didn’t recognize her anymore, and increasingly, it seemed she no longer recognized me either. We didn’t sit together at lunch. We no longer talked on the phone. Still, I considered her my friend and hoped we might rekindle our relationship. I invited her to my twelfth birthday party. To my wonderment and delight, she said yes.


I felt the old thrill when she agreed to come. It would be like the old days, the two of us making stupid jokes and stuffing ourselves with cake and candy. I’d been wrong to read her chilliness at school as anything personal. She still saw me. She still cared.


The party was a small affair, just a few friends and a cake at my house. The minutes ticked by and Amy didn’t show. Maybe she forgot, I told myself. Maybe she got sick. I would have to call her afterward to make sure she was okay.


Then more than an hour into the party, our doorbell rang. I ran to answer it with hope in my heart, the rest of my party guests hot on my heels. Sure enough, there was Amy on the other side. But she wasn’t alone. She’d brought along a couple of her new friends, popular girls with teased hair and thick makeup. I’m convinced they didn’t even know I was alive until that very moment.


Awkward and stammering, I invited them all in for cake. They didn’t move past the entryway.


“Here’s your present,” Amy said, thrusting a drug store bag at me. “I can’t stay.” She may have even said sorry. I can’t remember. What I do recall with searing clarity is how humiliated and awful I felt in that moment, how stupid I’d been to misjudge our relationship. Amy wasn’t my friend anymore. She hadn’t been for some time. I’d just failed to realize it.


I got the message that day. My mumbled thank-you to her as she and her new crowd departed from my mother’s kitchen were the last words I spoke to Amy, or she to me. True to her new identity, she no longer took classes with the smart kids, not even when we got to high school and there were lots of us—some of whom were even popular and cool.


I wonder about that moment at my party and what Amy’s point-of-view might have been. Had she felt pressured to say yes to my face when she didn’t ever want to come? Had she wanted to come at first but then her new friends convinced it her would be uncool? Did she just feel sorry for me, this person she was leaving behind on her fast-track to middle-school stardom? My guess is that Amy doesn’t have any memory of this party. Maybe she has some alternate moment of truth about our shattered friendship that I’ve completely forgotten because it was not significant to me. Perhaps she glimpsed a ragged stuffed animal in my locker. Maybe she sized up my hopelessly unfashionable clothes. She would have seen that I didn’t have the tools or vocabulary to be the kind of person she was becoming; indeed, I never would.


I think about turning points like this in relationships, and how momentous shifts can sometimes be one-sided. Amy wasn’t trying to be the villain in my story. She just wanted to survive sixth grade. I think about people’s attempts to reinvent themselves and whether that’s entirely possible. Was the Amy I had known and loved still in there somewhere, or did she have to be killed off for Amy to transform? I think about these moments of sudden clarity, how dizzying they can be. How they leave a brand on your memory that feels hot to the touch after decades have passed. I think about how they make for great storytelling, and how we as authors search for these moments to bring our characters to life.


I think about Amy.

Writing, Writing Advice

The Best Writing Advice

If all else fails, get yourself a magic laptop like this woman has, where the letters just fly in all by themselves.

Now that we’ve covered the worst writing advice that I’ve seen, here is the flip side: best writing advice I can share. It’s not nearly all the useful tips that you can find, but so much of writing advice is idiosyncratic. Outlines work for some authors but not others. Some writers succeed by writing every day. Others write prolifically in one-month bursts with long breaks “off” in between. As a writer, you have to try out different strategies to find what works for you. However, there are a few pieces of advice that are applicable to just about everyone:


  1. Read widely and with attention. Definitely read the kind of pieces you want to produce, whether that’s poetry, thrillers, romance or memoirs. Study the ones that are popular and/or critically acclaimed and ask yourself: what are the audiences responding to? How did the author successfully tell her tale? What structure did he use? Read outside your area as well to get ideas that will help keep your writing fresh.
  2. Follow the “because” and “but” rule. If you find your story has scenes that are strung together with “and then,” it’s probably not a story. It’s a series of events. To build a narrative arc, the scenes must be linked in meaning, not just chronology. Example: a detective at a murder scene believes the woman who called in the emergency is the killer so he decides to take her downtown for questioning, BUT then a second body turns up two miles away, killed in the same fashion. Or: He takes the woman downtown for questioning, and she confesses BECAUSE he tricks her into revealing her shameful secret past as a unicorn juggler.
  3. Get outside eyes on your work. Ideally, you want someone with editorial experience to critique your work before you trot it out in public. It can also be valuable to have feedback from a few readers who love the genre you are writing in. The editor will hone your prose and spot the plot holes. Readers will tell you whether they are dying to turn the page to find out what happens next.
  4. Pay as much attention to your last sentence as you do your first. It’s imperative to hook your reader on those early pages, but the last pages are what will linger with them after they have finished your story. A successful ending means that your readers are more likely to pick up your next one.
  5. Join a professional writers’ association. If you are interested in publishing, it’s vital to make connections with others in the business. These are people who once stood where you are, and they can offer advice to help you succeed. They’ll point out pitfalls and sand traps and help you figure out what path is most useful to you. Soak in their knowledge, put it to good use, and when the time comes, you can return the favor to another newbie starting out.
Writing, Writing Advice

The Worst Writing Advice

If you’re an aspiring writer, or even an established one, you run into reams of advice on how to improve your craft, sell more books, hook an agent, etc. Lots of this advice is valuable. Some of it isn’t. Here, I present to you some of the worst writing advice you will find in the industry.

Woman looks at her type writer in frustration.
This is me too often, glaring at the page. Why make it even harder than it needs to be?
  1. Write What You Know. This is a hoary chestnut from days of yore, but it still gets repeated often and everywhere. It’s ridiculous. Writers invent stories about realms that don’t exist and tales of adventure from the year 1066 when none of us was there to bear witness. I write about serial killers, and please believe me when I assure that you I’ve never even committed one murder, let alone multiples. This piece of writing advice is backward, you see. It should be: Know What You Write. You don’t need to write about your personal experiences. In fact, if you’re as boring as I am, you probably shouldn’t. But you do need to do your homework. If you’re inventing a new universe, you need to take the time to establish the rules of that world and understand how it works so that you can bring it to life for readers. If you are writing about a historical era, then you have to research that time in detail before you can put your story there.
  2. Don’t Use Adverbs. This piece of advice often gets traced to Elmore Leonard and Stephen King, and it’s just crap. For one thing, both Leonard and King use adverbs in their work. You know why? Because adverbs are an entirely useful part of speech. They add flavor and pizazz. You know who uses copious adverbs? JK Rowling. She seems to be doing okay for herself, writing-wise. Sure, like all words you put in a story, deploy your adverbs with intention, with care. If they don’t enhance the sentence, by all means, cut them out. But don’t toss them out entirely because that’s just silly.
  3. Focus on Building Your “Platform.” The caveat with this one is that for non-fiction authors, a platform is highly valuable. This is because the subject of your book and the subject of your platform are tightly entwined in non-fiction. (Example: mommy blogger puts out a book on parenting tips, or a recipe blogger publishes a cookbook.) But for fiction, your platform just isn’t as important. Your job on social media is to be a person, not a constant shill for your books. As such, social media itself doesn’t move many novels. Having a large audience doesn’t guarantee they will buy your books. A writer I know is friends with a famous comedienne, and he wrote a fairly funny crime novel. She hyped it to her TWELVE MILLION followers multiple times, but the book still tanked. So, don’t worry about amassing likes on Facebook or followers on Twitter. Go to the places where your people hang out and focus on being a person. This won’t get you necessarily build your “likes” but it will make you for-real liked, and it will slowly gain you valuable connections in the industry.
  4. Don’t Publish Until You Have a Bestseller Idea. Oh, that we could all be sure when we had a bestseller idea. The truth is you don’t know. And even if you have the idea, and even write the wonderful book, it doesn’t mean your book will turn into a bestseller. There is alchemy that goes into bestseller books, parts that not even the publisher or author control, and landing one is a little like getting hit by lightning. The best you can do is to go out with your pole in a rainstorm. Your book is your pole. If you keep them hoarded under your bed and never put them out there, then you lose all your chances. Besides, you learn something from every book, knowledge that is rolled into the next one, so if you sit around waiting at the idea stage, you’ll never get that deep knowledge that might transform you into a bestseller one day.


So there you have it. Writing is tough enough without having to worry about any of this stuff. What should you worry about? Stay tuned, and I’ll reveal that part tomorrow.

Family Life, Writing


My family is setting out on a cross-country road trip that takes us almost as far as you can go in the continental United States, from Massachusetts to Southern California. We have a bunch of stops staked out along the way to see sights and spend time with friends, but we don’t have a lot of “must do” on the agenda. I realized as I was planning this trip that it is very similar to how I approach writing a novel.


Our tentative map across the USA, with a few definitive stops marked along the way.



I know the beginning point, the endpoint, and a few “stops” in between. But the precise path I will take to get to these places and the characters I will encounter along the way are a mystery when I start writing. I’ve found that if I know too much about the journey ahead of time, I lose interest in taking it.


Some writers fly almost entirely by the seat of their pants, and they are aptly named “pantsers.” They start with a premise and begin writing with no idea of how the story will turn out. They wait for the characters to tell them the ending. I am in awe of these writers because this whole enterprise sounds terrifying to me. What if the characters never reveal their secret? My book would have no ending!


Other writers are “plotters” who map out every twist and turn before they begin the tale. They take satisfaction in having the bones of the story in place so that they know it will have good structure. They may do full character bios so that they understand their people deeply before writing about them. I admire these folks completely and often wish I could be more like them because the whole business sounds so reassuring. The story is all right there in the outline! All you have to do is hang some words on it! Writers who pen stories rapidly often swear by this method. There is no hem-hawing over a blank page in the morning. The outline tells you exactly what scenes are in front of you that day.


I am, alas, a hybrid of these two groups. The optimist would say I get the best of both worlds, whereas the pessimist would say I get the worst. I say it depends on which day you ask me. I can’t imagine setting out on a long journey, whether that’s a 3000-mile road trip or a 300-page novel, with no sense at all of where I’m headed. I need a destination. I have to know whodunit and why. Likewise, I can’t bear the tedium of having every road mapped out in advance. Where are the surprises? The unexpected stops or character developments you never saw coming? So I am left with my approach, which is to do a rough sketch with a clear beginning, a definitive ending, and a mostly murky middle.


Today we prepare to set out from Boston, and in September, we’ll be in Los Angeles. What happens in between is anybody’s guess! As long as no one is murdered at any point in this story, we’ll count it as a success.

Family Life, Writing Advice

Lessons on Writing from the Piano Man

Friday night, we took our nine-year-old daughter to see Billy Joel perform at Fenway Park. He’s her favorite, you see, because she was born in the wrong decade. The concert shook the baseball stadium as hard as any Red Sox playoff game, and The Piano Man can still tickle those ivories at age sixty-nine. Joel was in a reflective mood as he took us through the songs that made up his career, and I came away feeling inspired as an artist. Here are some of my takeaways from Joel’s wisdom:

Billy Joel performs on stage at Fenway Park.


  1. Not every piece you produce will be a hit, and that’s okay. After opening with a couple of chart-toppers, Joel down shifted into several of his lesser-known songs. At the third one in a row that he introduced by saying, “This one…was also not a hit,” the audience chuckled. Joel protested. “Hey, I spent just as much time writing the non-hits as I did the hits!” It’s hard to know when you produce a story or a movie or a song whether it will resonate with your audience. The best you can do is keep on creating.
  2. How you feel about your work right now may not predict how you feel about it later. Joel performed “The Entertainer,” which he says he wrote during his “cynical period.” The song details all the downsides of being a hit singer—the constant travel, the pressure to conform to a certain popular aesthetic, the sense that you’ve lost control of your art. Decades later, Joel is amazed and grateful that he can still pack a stadium with thousands of fans. “Thanks,” he said sincerely, “for showing up.”
  3. The best way to have a great idea is to generate lots of ideas in the first place. As Joel noted, he’s had more non-hits than hits. But he didn’t give up or go away angry at the first song that failed to make the charts. He kept writing and eventually he created more hits that are still in the rotation on pop stations today. This is a hoary chestnut from the writing world but it remains true: you are only a failed writer if you stop writing.
  4. You never know where you may find your biggest fans. Most of the people at the concert were solidly in Joel’s demo—my age and older. We’re the people who grew up with his music. But we were there because my nine-year-old loves his songs, these pieces written decades before she was born. Once you put your art out there, it can go places you’d never expect, and touch people you’ve never met.

    My daughter, rapt, watches Bill Joel perform her favorite songs.
  5. Once you put your art out there, it’s not quite yours anymore. It belongs to the people. “The Entertainer” deals with the frustrating aspects of this truism, but Joel is now in his closing act and he is thinking more of his legacy. The songs aren’t his to keep forever. They are inherited by the fans who will carry them forward.


“Piano Man” is beloved almost to the point of cliché among those of us at a certain age, but one of the reasons it persists is that there are so many places in the song to see yourself. Are you the waitress just trying to do your job while getting hit on by the guys? Maybe you’re the real estate agent who prized career over family, potentially to your regret. Or maybe you’re the bartender, someone could really make a mark if you “could just get out of this place.”


We’re sharing a drink we call loneliness because we’re all lonely at one time or another. No one was lonely at Fenway on Friday, though, when the band cut out and the crowd sang the “Piano Man” chorus in a thundering, unified roar. Joel sat on the stage and took it in, the emotion pouring out at him from these masses who had adopted his song and made a home for it in their hearts.

Writing, Writing Advice

The Monster at the End of This Book

One of my favorite childhood reads was “Grover and the Monster at the End of This Book.” In the story, Grover the Muppet begs the reader not to turn the pages because he’s heard there is a monster at the end and he’s afraid. The shocking twist is that lovable old Grover is himself the monster at the end! I was thinking of this kids’ classic the other day while reading advice on how to craft a memorable villain. Your book’s monster, according to this advice, should be a reflection of the hero. But what does this mean?

Grover despairs that there is a frightening monster at the end of the book he is in.


Sometimes, it means that your protagonist and your antagonist share the same flaw, especially at the beginning of the story. Maybe they are both stubbornly independent and believe themselves to be uniquely gifted. The villain, however, ends up using his or her powers for evil, whereas the hero overcomes this flaw to band together with others to defeat the villain.


It also means that your villain should have roughly the same power as your hero. There’s a reason Sherlock Holmes goes up against Moriarty, a cunning antagonist who is a worthy foe for someone as brilliant as our iconic detective. It’s also the reason you so often see superheroes fighting some ‘bad’ version of themselves in comic action movies. If you’re a Hulk, then it’s not interesting to see you fight a bunch of little guys. Instead, you get to tango with a tricked-out, mean-tempered version of yourself.


This doesn’t mean that every protagonist/antagonist needs to have literal super-human powers. It just means their skillsets should be evenly matched, whether that’s an actual army or the ability to spread gossip through a small town.


A memorable antagonist should also bring out a unique side of the hero. In the Hulk example, the Hulk is both a villain-fighting hero and a kind of antagonist for Bruce Banner. He forces Banner to wrestle with relatable human problems like controlling one’s temper but also keeps Banner from living the normal existence he often craves.


Another strategy is to give your villain and your hero the same goal or dream, which puts them in natural competition. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert has two primary antagonists—Quilty, who also wants Lolita, and Lolita herself, who wants to get away from Humbert. Giving your hero and villain a shared goal can be a way to flesh out your story as the reader may be forced to question whether the villain or hero’s strategy is the best one. For example, you could argue that Danny Kaffee and Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men have a shared goal of protecting U.S. troops, but they have very different ideas about what that protection looks like.


All of this is to say that, unlike Grover, your hero won’t find himself literally at the end of the book. But he or she should find a part of themselves, a new understanding that the villain is uniquely designed to precipitate.