Remember the bad guys on those shows you used to watch on Saturday mornings? Well, these guys are not like those guys. They won’t exercise restraint because you’re children. They will kill you if they get the chance. Do not give them that chance.
Helen Parr, The Incredibles
There are a lot of quotes I’ll pull from for writing about combat. However, when I think about adversaries this is one from Helen Parr is the one I always come back to. It emphasizes a critical failing that most writers have in the initial setups with their villains, with their mooks, with enemies in general. They spend so much time thinking about the fight with the bad guy that they forget about the bad guys. They forget that whatever conventional rules or moral truths their hero clings to, their bad guy doesn’t have to share. They won’t play nice, they won’t pull punches, and they play by a completely different set of rules.
They will kill you if they get the chance.
Who are your characters adversaries? What do they do? What is their history? A character that has spent their life working as a mercenary and guerilla fighter for African warlords, poaching and running illegal goods is going to be on a very different and darker level than a teen practicing aikido and karate. They live their life with much higher stakes and are likely to respond accordingly. If you’re writing and this conflict set up is just to show that your protagonist is a bad ass, if you take this one on one fight like these characters exist in similar worlds then the scene really does have a problem. (Other than the fact the protagonist probably just opened the door to be greeted by a jury-rigged claymore. Boom.)
All combat histories are not the same, context changes everything. If you want the reader to take your story seriously, then you should take your antagonists seriously. Don’t be afraid to call your protagonist out for their overconfidence. Don’t be afraid to call them out on their protected status. This is especially true when writing about teens and other children facing adult enemies. If your teen has not lived a violent life (or even a violent but protected life) and is out on their own for the first time, they will discover the world they thought they had a grasp on is entirely different. Teens are always in a transitional stage, they are moving into adulthood, they are growing up but not there yet. Respect that they don’t know everything there is to know (even if they think they do), respect that they’re status has been protected by some other force as they grew through childhood and now they’re fair game. If they fuck up, they’re going to have to get themselves out of it and the cost of screwing around can no longer be bartered off to anyone else. Innocence is on the chopping block.
My favorite part about the Helen Parr quote is that it is not about Syndrome, it’s about his minions. The guys we laugh at in superhero movies, the duds, the screw ups, the window dressing, the guys the main characters never really have to worry about. Now, now they have to worry about them. Pixar wasn’t afraid to show us how fragile Dash was when after all his punches to one of the bad guy; it just takes one to knock him off the flyer. It wasn’t afraid to point out that when Violet thought she could disappear into the water and hide, the mook could problem solve by throwing dirt in the water to show her outline. Even though the kids did win, it was made clear that we shouldn’t take these characters lightly. They weren’t people who could be easily beaten by average children and that’s part of what made Violet and Dash’s victories sweeter as they grew into heroes.
If there are enemies in your novel who are dangerous, then they are dangerous for a reason. Pay your respects to these characters by making your protagonists way past them hard. Don’t cheapen the journey by making things easy or the fight one sided. Stack the deck against your heroes and let them find their own way through the darkness.