Monthly Archives: May 2014

Other Types of “Villains”

There are other types of antagonists besides people.

We love stories where we can recognize a person, a character, that our hero must fight and overcome. It makes it personal. And we like personal.

“He was a good cop. They killed his partner. Now it’s PERSONAL.”

But the antagonist of your story doesn’t have to be a person.

It could be a test or a challenging situation or a disease or a math problem.

Sure. A math problem.

But whatever your antagonist is, the same rules apply. Even if it is a math problem, it needs depth and character. What kind of math problem is it? Why is it so difficult? Does it unlock some secret? Is it the hero’s father’s greatest failure? The math problem should have history and meaning, just like any great antagonist.

You can be really creative with this. Or layer antagonists. Think of the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. We had the Nazi antagonists, who shot his father, which means that Indy needed to move through the obstacle course (each obstacle a mystery with spiritual meaning) to save and heal his estranged and eccentric father. Do you see the different layers there? In one act, trying to get the Grail, Indy was fighting the Nazis, fighting to save his father, and fighting the mysterious and allegorical obstacles. Each had depth and character even if not a real person.

Whether your antagonist is an object or situation or a person, your story will connect with people when you give it meaning and depth, when it is personal for the hero or protagonist.


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Villain More important than Hero?

In a story, you have an antagonist and a protagonist. The protagonist is usually who we root for. What is she going to do? How is he going to achieve his goals? Her goals should be something we can relate to or even be inspired by. His values should be similar enough that we want him to succeed.

And often, in a story, there is a person or group of people standing in the way of achieving that goal. That person against our protagonist is the antagonist … or to use an older idea, the villain. Or as my kids call it as they’re running through the house dressed up like warrior princesses or ninjas, the BADGUY.

In literature, we came through a time period where there were clear ideas of good versus evil, no more clear than in comic books or cartoons for kids. It is simple and – if done correctly – even inspiring. But of course literature has always loved its anti-heroes, flawed people choosing even against their own nature to do what is right. We can relate better to flawed characters. We know better our own faults and weaknesses and feelings of powerlessness against the dark world around us.

Which leads us to the antagonist.

To use comic book characters as a simple example, villains are important to the whole story. Villains often define the hero. For Superman, a near invincible man, his antagonist is an evil genius. At first in the comics, Lex Luthor was just this evil scientist making bad weapons and stuff; then as the comic industry adopted the anti-conservative Christian viewpoint dominant in much of the mainstream media, Lex became a corporate mogul … then for a while when Bush was president, a politician.

Part of what Superman had to overcome was his own limitations. Not physical but philosophical. He needed evidence against Lex Luthor. Man to man, he could kill Lex with a thought, but Superman stood for truth and justice (but not the American way anymore … that had to go, too). He could not simply kill Lex because Luthor was bad. He needed proof to send to the authorities. That is justice, to Superman.

So here we see Lex Luthor as an important tool to help us define Superman, the hero. Throw in Luthor’s scientific ability to figure out Superman’s one physical weakness, Kryptonite, and he’s the best villain for Superman. Otherwise, you have to give Superman antagonists that are as strong as he is and then you end up leveling a city when they fight. Not as great for character (sorry, Man of Steel).

Batman is another great example. He is a self-made hero, controlled and prepared to the extreme and fighting for the innocent. His villain? The Joker, an brilliant agent of pure indiscriminate chaos and death that Batman, also because of his own values, will not kill.

These are comic book examples, but hopefully you get the point. The villain, especially in our culture today, becomes even more important than the hero. The villain gives our hero something impossible to overcome and that says a lot about our hero (or anti-hero). Gone are the days of flat villains who are just evil and want to do bad things. Give them depth and character, and your story and hero will be better for it.

One more personal note: be creative with your villain or antagonist. For me, at least, the flat evangelical Christian, corporate mogul, or conservative politician, it is all overdone. It is lazy writing, to be honest. I’m not saying stay away from these people as your villains completely. You believe what you believe, but I would roll my eyes just as much at violent Arab Muslim terrorists without any real character or motivation other than the flat stereotypes we’re used to. There’s been a good deal of effort to humanize the Muslim extremists, and for the most part I appreciate the effort and the writing is better for it. For the good of writing and literature, needs to start happening ¬†with some other stereotypes, as well.


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Tips on the First Draft

The first “novel” I wrote was really a collection of first person short stories that told a longer story, called A Poor Man’s Roses. It was fun and a great learning experience, and when I “revised” it, I really just added a lot of extra scenes that I wanted and bloated the poor book beyond logic. It wasn’t something I’d show anyone now, but that’s how the process worked then.

The next “novel” I wrote, Twilight of the Gods, I wanted it to be a contemporary urban fantasy, an epic one, and so I just wrote a lot and made it really long. I had no idea about revision, so I wrote the “first draft” and was done. A few years later, I went back and revised a couple things, but not much that was major (mostly cut down on the level of violence and crude language).

Once I learned more about revision, I started writing the first draft of The Living Stone, and I made the mistake of trying to revise as I went. I like to have beta readers as I go. It really helped me with Twilight of the Gods to keep going and finish the book. But as people gave me feedback with The Living Stone, I would go back and revise or rewrite certain sections. I rewrote the first chapter 7 or 8 times. In the end, it created way more work for myself once I got done with the book and went back for more editing and revision.

So I learned. When I got into the sequel to The Living Stone, The Blades of War, I just wrote it. My beta readers gave great feedback, but I resisted going back and fixing anything. I saved their comments (much easier to do now in the digital age) and kept writing. Knowing better how to revise and edit this time, I will streamline the process.

My tip, therefore, is to just write the first draft all at once. If you have beta readers along the way as I like to do, then file away their suggestions or critiques and come back when you’re done with the whole thing. Doing the first revision, then, you can look at it from the big picture and make it better as a whole work, fitting in the details to your overall vision.

I have already broken this rule, though … I started another book, Rise of Night, over Christmas break and probably should have finished it but got sidetracked with The Blades of War. Coming back to a book like that is hard to get back in the flow, but I love the story. We’ll see how it goes …


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