Tag Archives: writing villains

Q&A: Antagonistic Heroes

So, I’m trying to write a horror/physiological book but the main character is the antagonist. I’ve seen many people saying the main character has to be relatable and I’m not sure what to do about it?

 So, there’s a catch here, I need to point out. Having your main character as an antagonist, in the strictest sense, isn’t necessarily that out there, but it’s also not what you’re thinking of.

So the antagonist is the character who works against your heroes. It doesn’t matter who they are, and there are entire genres built around stories where the main character is also their own worst enemy.

Technically, you can break this apart. Usually it’s aspects of the character working against themselves. For example: and alcoholic character’s antagonist could easily be their own alcoholism. In that sense, your main character would be both the protagonist and the antagonist.

A specific example would be The Gambler, with Mark Wahlberg. The main character is a compulsive gambler. It’s part of who he is, and that aspect is the film’s main antagonist. So, the main character is the antagonist.

Now, there is another side to this, and I suspect this what you were thinking of to begin with. You can tell stories where the protagonist is the villain. The immediate example that comes to mind there are the Ripley novels by Patricia Highsmith. These can be, reductively, described as a series of mystery novels where the killer gets away. Your protagonist can be the villain.

Making a character relatable helps, but what you need is a protagonist that’s compelling. One that grabs the audience and holds their attention. Being someone the audience identifies with can help getting there, but that’s not the real goal. It’s mistaking the shortcut for the destination, understandable, but potentially deceptive.

Also remember, most villains should have compelling, plausible, motivations driving them. The trick to getting an audience to side with your villain is digging into that motivation. There are many villainous or borderline villainous characters that audiences are quite happy to excuse their behavior, because they look at their behavior makes sense.

So, you can a villain who’s getting revenge for whatever, or working to defend their home. You can present a scenario like this, where your protagonist is the bad guy. Not even, the least bad, but straight up the villain.

There’s also plenty of room for protagonists who are evil, but principled. Such as an inquisitor for an evil empire. Even a corrupt cop can make for a compelling protagonist.

Ironically, a couple Nicholas Cage films come to mind immediately, including Lord of War (where he plays an arms dealer) and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (which is both a very long title, and an equally bizarre film where Cage plays a corrupt cop.) Seriously, Bad Lieutenant is a really strange trip of a film; if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch. (Also, a film where the protagonist pulls double duty as the primary antagonist.)

In some ways, all you really need for a villainous protagonist is a character who doesn’t care about social norms, ethics, morality, or any other pesky distractions on their path towards getting what they want. This can persist even if their goals are laudable.

Some long-form examples of heroic villains include, Michael Chiklis’s Vic Mackey in The Shield, or Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer in 24. In both cases, we have characters who are presented as heroes, but are willing to “do whatever it takes” to achieve their goals, justifying it to themselves that they only people they really harm are deserving of their fate. This can be a seductive mindset, but it’s also worth remembering these characters are doing some pretty horrific things. That said, The Shield put this conflict at the front of the series as a major theme, while 24 had a hard time admitting Jack wasn’t a good person.

Your villain needs to have a coherent plan. Then they just need to look for the most efficient path to their goals. Note: this does not mean they need to create an unnecessary bodycount to get their message across. There’s no value in killing everyone in your path if you only need to kill one person. Of course, if other people try to get in your way, that’s their funerals. I’m not saying your character can’t be a sadist, just that they don’t need to be one.


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Q&A: Powered By Pain

Can you use pain to keep yourself going? I’ve experienced back pains where the waves hurt like hell but at the same time sort of feel good to endure. As a fiction example, I’m think Kylo Ren punching his own wound at the end of TFA.

Yes, you will learn to do it if you engage in any kind of exercise on a regular basis, especially if you do any sort of competitive sport. You don’t need to train in martial arts or be a martial combatant, but there are entire philosophies built off the concept of using the general discomfort you experience while working out as a  motivating factor. Mind over Matter is one example. The Determinator as a character archetype is another. Sith philosophy is built around this concept dialed to eleven and taken to its most toxic extreme.

The healthy usage of pain involves learning to distinguish real injuries from your body’s complaint. In this way your body protesting when you push yourself to a sprint over the last half lap at the end of a mile feels really good. Pain becomes a mental and physical block to overcome and push past to new heights. That discomfort feels good. This becomes a tool for self-empowerment, and its a cultural cornerstone for anything… and everything. It’s everywhere, you just never learned how to look for it.

I get knocked down, but I get up again. You ain’t never gonna keep me down. – Chumbawamba.

In the real world, this tops out with some very toxic behavior by athletes, martial artists, soldiers, etc, where they will themselves through serious injuries in an attempt to ignore them for short term gains and result in permanently injuring themselves. Not resting when you’re sick and trying to power through it is one example, being restless and frustrated by your injuries, getting back to training before you’ve fully healed, etc.

Whenever we come through a difficult or painful experience, that experience empowers us. What we’ve endured, whether that pain is emotional or physical becomes a source of strength. We’ve overcome, and we’re proud of that. On the flip side, Positive Pain is also the philosophical basis for “oh, you’re so weak” attitudes, putting people down because they’re not “strong enough”, and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” are based on the idea that the pain and hardships you experience are good for you. That if you’re having trouble then all you need to do is toughen up. See also: child abuse as a disciplinary tool.

Kylo Ren is a terrible example of the Sith utilization of pain as a tool for personal empowerment, he’s not on the radar for the crazy stuff they get up to, and barely for the real philosophy. He certainly doesn’t use the philosophy or purse it in a meaningful way. Lord Sleeps With Vibroblades is probably the best example of this Sith taken to the extreme end. (In Legends, the Sith are secondary to the true Pain Kings of Star Wars i.e. the Yuuzhan Vong. They make the Sith pain obsession look healthy by comparison.) Kylo Ren’s not really out there for a Sith or martial arts philosophies about using pain to give yourself a power up/invincible/make you immortal. Which is a thing in Star Wars with the Force. The more you beat on a Sith, the more you fight them, the more powerful they become. In the case of Darth Sion, you literally have to talk him to death.

Luke fighting against Vader is Luke playing to Vader’s strengths, which is why Vader spends the entire battle in Return of the Jedi attempting to emotionally unsettle him. Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader is a philosophical conflict, which is part of what lends the scene so much weight.

The Sith use their emotional conflict, inner turmoil, and internal strife to empower themselves. That is… Sith. Their training is actively physically and emotionally abusive in order to transform them into a character Powered By Pain. They don’t whine about it, they conquer it, they take pleasure in it, they enjoy suffering. They turn that pain into power, and inflict their negative emotions, their own suffering onto others. Some of the most powerful Sith are internally being torn apart, all the time, they’re tearing themselves apart. They start out abuse victims and those who survive conquer to become abusers themselves, that is the Sith cycle at its core. They’ll inflict trauma and misery and pain and suffering and and loss and terrible injury because the emotions those experiences will bring out make you strong. Access the Dark Side with raw rage, terror,  constant/immense physical pain, weaponize all three, add a dose of killer ruthlessness, and you get Darth Vader.

Look at him.

He’s in constant pain, his pain makes him angry,  leaves him enraged, and his hate for the world makes him a terrible force to be reckoned with. He is empowered by pain, by fear, and by rage. He’s mastered his emotions, weaponized them, and now forces others to experience shades of what he has.

Through pain, find strength. Through rage, find clarity. Through injury, know thyself.

A Sith is a wounded animal lashing out at the world around them,  raw, passionate, terrified, selfish, self-obsessed, incredibly destructive to those they encounter and just as desperately self-destructive. They taught to be that way by their master, then become it themselves as they learn to their own inner struggle. A Jedi finds strength in making peace with their wounds, in healing, where a Sith takes strength from letting themselves bleed. A Sith stalls out the healing process, and breaks their drivers stick in order to remain stuck in Stage Two out of the Five Stages of Grief: Anger.

If you lack a solid understanding of the way rage presents itself within the human condition, its varied nature, and varied approaches then you’ll end up with an angsty, whiny, immature teenager like Kylo Ren. You end up thinking the pain is what’s important, the rage is important, but rage poorly directed is impotent in the narrative scheme. Without maturity in your understanding, you get a child lashing out in a temper tantrum. They’re going nowhere.

Kylo Ren destroys a console with his lightsaber (wasteful) when things don’t go his way, he actively destroys what he needs to succeed. Darth Vader murders the admiral or captain responsible for the mission’s failure and immediately replaces them with a more motivated underling, he’s getting rid of impediments to success. One is a petulant self-sabotaging child, the other is the worst day shift manager who is still getting shit done.

Pain is not the important part, the willpower and drive to endure and overcome is. You’ve got to do something with your pain. This pain becomes part of what motivates you to succeed.

This is ten percent luck
Twenty percent skill
Fifteen percent concentrated power of will
Five percent pleasure
Fifty percent pain
And a hundred percent reason to remember the name.
– “Remember the Name”, Fort Minor

“The world treated me poorly so I will respond in kind” is really the starting point for a Sith, and this attitude upgrades into high key drama with black cloaks and sworn oaths of vengeance. They are living incarnations of the Id run amok, often wallowing in the worst aspects of humanity driven to the darkest extremes, but their pain (usually) comes from a real place. What makes them so compelling, I think, is that their behavior and their experiences are a natural extension of what the audience has experienced in their own lives. Their response to that pain is cathartic, and the attitude is natural; even sympathetic. We’ve all wanted to be selfish, devoted to our own ambitions at the expense of all else without societal judgement. The Sith are easier to understand than the Jedi.

Kylo Ren is a terrible example of this philosophy because he doesn’t take ownership of his pain, he blames others for his injuries, he doesn’t weaponize his suffering. In comparison to other Sith, his pain and internal strife are window dressing. They don’t mean much on a narrative level, his pain isn’t driving him to become stronger. He’s not using his passionate and painful emotions to fuel his strength, achieve greater enlightenment, or his strengthen connection to the Dark Side of the Force. He complains about the pain he experiences, he complains about how unfair life is, he complains about being in pain and seeks audience sympathy for the “unjust circumstances” surrounding his life. He’s like a whiny teenager,and, since he’s thirty, his development’s pretty arrested. That’s… not great, Bob. Compare him to Dooku, Ventress, and Anakin Skywalker. Their pain and rage catapulted them into actual narrative action, became the foundations of their characters, and led to ambitions they pursued for their own personal gratification.

Powered by Pain is a personality type that finds its extreme in The Determinator, they are willpower embodied. The more difficult the situation becomes the stronger they get, the more they’re energized by events, and they just keep getting up time after time. No matter what you inflict, they keep coming.

Characters who embody this philosophy even just a little are either those who find strength in what they’ve endured, or bullies lashing out at the world around them as they run from pain. You will either be a slave to pain, or you will face pain and take control of what hurts you. In this process, you’ll either become a kinder, more compassionate individual or someone who is colder, crueler, more distant, less sympathetic, and even elitist toward others’ “weakness” on the emotional spectrum.

The TLDR to your question is: yes.

Overcoming pain is absolutely one means of personal empowerment, both physically and psychologically, and an experience every single person reading this has shared to varying degrees (even if they don’t realize it.)

The problem is the conversation is so much larger than you might imagine, so fundamental to a multitude of cultures around the world, so embedded in the human psyche and popular culture that we really can’t have a quick discussion about it.

‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off.
– “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift
Yes, even Taylor Swift has this philosophy going on.

So, do me a favor, and leave Kylo Ren at the door. He can’t come in. He’s a weak-willed, lilly-livered wannabe with delusions of grandeur. He’s a bully, he has a “strong” exterior but his insides are crumbling. He’s more a vague cosplay than the genuine article, playacting. The Elric brothers from FMA are much better examples when it comes to using personal tragedy and physical injury as a motivating force to achieve your goals. They’re a much more positive example too.

If you want to be empowered by pain, you’ve got to run at your problems and not away from them. Use your fear as a catapult, let it propel you toward conquest.


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Q&A: Sadism

True or false: Pointless sadism can get in the way of winning a fight? Like, if you’re focused on inflicting as much pain as possible instead of finding the most efficient way of killing someone? Could a villain’s cruelty actually be his undoing, maybe? Or would the evil overlord either have died or learned his lesson long ago? What pitfalls should you avoid if you decide to go this route? Would this be the way to go in a story with a light tone (but not outright comedy) that’s light on realism?

The problem with too much sadism (or sadism that is self-admitted to be pointless) is that your villain needs to actually get around to doing their job and moving the plot forward. It’s important to remember that a character’s proclivities in combat are signs of their personality and hints into their ability to achieve success. A villain who cannot control their own sadism and has no one higher up to control it for them or direct those habits toward useful goals, a la Rabban and the Baron Harkonnen from Dune, is going nowhere fast.

This can be a real problem to the narrative if your villain’s self-motivation leads them to hole up in some small village high in the Caucus mountains in order to fully engage in their sadism unchallenged while a hero similarly lacking in motivation is twiddling their thumbs in the United States.

When you’re setting up your plot, you need a villain whose interests match the intended narrative course. This is especially true when the villain is the one whose action and motivations are driving the narrative forward, the one putting pieces into play for the hero to respond to. If they never do that, you have no story.

Like all predators, a villain that’s into sadism and who can’t control their own impulses is going to take the path of least resistance. Which is why I said a small town somewhere with a disorganized military, poor response times, and no ability to fight back. If all they want is to inflict their will on others, to indulge their worst base impulses, enjoy causing havoc, then they’re logically going to go the way of other tinpot dictators. They are going to go somewhere they can exploit poor conditions in order to get what they want.

The problem with these sorts of characters is not that they aren’t realistic or that this can be their undoing (it certainly can be), but that they have no motivation to be where they are. This is both a blow to your narrative and to you because you ultimately wind up with a substandard villain.

An evil overlord may be evil but they’re still an overlord, there’s an internal justification for how they achieved that position on their own merits. Overthrowing another government isn’t small potatoes, this is someone with the capacity for planning, who got the vast majority of the population on their side (at least temporarily), and who is capable of strategic thinking if not planning. They’re also politically savvy. All these traits belong to someone who can control their impulses, who may be a sadist and may enjoy torture but who also knows when to indulge. They know how to orchestrate the blunt instruments around them to their advantage, even when they are the biggest monster on the table.

One gets to the top by understanding what they need to do and then doing it. However, they need motivation to get there and this motivation must be specific to their circumstances rather than generic. When you’re looking at a specific Monster of the Week setup whether it’s Power Rangers or Sailor Moon, the big villain has a specific goal that they’re putting a specific piece into play in order to achieve. In the case of Sailor Moon, the bad guys in the first season were trying to locate the silver crystal and all the hijinks start from there. They had a reason to be where they were, had a specific goal they could verbalize, and a plan to achieve it. The heroes job was to disrupt that plan. In the case of Dune, we have three sadists from House Harkonnen, one idiot and two attempting to play each other while all being manipulated by House Corrino off an ages old feud with House Atreides. Arrakis is not a reward, it’s a killing ground used by the Emperor to rid himself of potential rivals.

When you lack A and B with just a sadist, we wind up with characters like Semirhage from The Wheel of Time who spends multiple books doing a shadowy something but whom we mostly just see kidnapping individuals in order to perform experiments on them. (This is because we don’t know initially where any of them are or who they’re pretending to be, sometimes for several novels on end.) The series’ game of “Find the Forsaken” sometimes had a bad habit of undercutting the Forsaken.

Your villain needs a plan which coincides with the heroes in order for them to clash. A specific, internal justification is always better and will always prove more successful than an external justification. They need to be there for the narrative never answers why they’re there in a satisfactory way for your audience. They’re there because they’re the villain is not actually an answer.

Why here? Why now?

Those are important questions to delve into. It may take the heroes and the audience the entire narrative to work out the true reason, but its important that both the villain and the author have the answer or some inkling of it from the onset. The secondary motivational why lies in the character’s backstory, but the initial one should be easy enough to find. Just remember to look for that internal justification from the villain, why they’re doing what they’re doing and what it is they want. The needs of the villain and the needs of the hero and the needs of the narrative must coincide. If you plan for your villain to do the thing (rather than ultimately fail at the thing on their own power rather than be stopped by a hero) then they must be someone capable of doing the thing. Someone who would have succeeded if there were no meddling kids around to stop them.

The Baron Harkonnen was always destined to fail, not because of Paul, but because the Emperor would have ultimately stopped him. Arrakis was too big a prize for him to ultimately control. The Emperor, however, could have succeeded in his plan to rid himself of both Houses if Paul and Jessica had both been someone else. If they’d been normal, a normal consort and a normal child of the nobility. In Paul’s case, Arrakis and the spice was a catalyst for unexpected transformation.

In answer to the question: if the head honcho villain never learned their lesson prior to meeting the hero then it is likely they’d never have achieved their position. They’d lack the ambition, control, and cleverness needed to pull off their plots. The important thing to remember is that the villain always faces resistance, and faced resistance before your hero arrived on the scene. Others have tried to fight the villain and they failed. You’ve got to answer the question of why those others failed and in such a way that doesn’t make their sacrifices worthless or meaningless. If it was some easy solution, someone would have come up with the answer and tried it.

An easy work around for this is to come up with the plans that were tried and did fail. This will pull double duty for you of better establishing your villain’s true capabilities and know when your heroes are making stupid mistakes. Don’t make the mistake of assuming the random population in your narrative is totally helpless or incapable of standing up for themselves.

Remember, a sadist incapable of controlling themselves is a blunt instrument. One put to purpose by another and given direction. The fear they inspire is real, but their weaknesses are obvious. One can’t win on fear alone. The fear is there to keep you from fighting back, but the structure put into place is what will keep the average person from going anywhere.


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Q&A: Let the Wookie Win

Is shocking/disgusting someone a good way to get an opening? My antihero was captured by a villain; the villain and are waiting for the right moment to strike. The villain starts the “we’re similar” routine and my antihero chimes in & describes being a cannibal to throw them off (the villain naively assumed that all heroes are self-righteous sheep of the gov.) and create an opening. Would it be an effective tactic, or would they be better just going at the guy w/ out the cannibalism confession?

Pro Tip: Never lie beyond what you’re capable of selling.

Your lie needs to be believable, and one you’re willing to follow up on if your bluff is called. This is the necessary quality of the liar. If your protagonist is not willing to happily eat a few bits of raw human flesh to prove their point then it’s a bad lie.

1) David Hasselhoff is my father.

You didn’t believe that, did you? Of course, you didn’t. Even if you were hopeful it might be true, you’d want proof. This is the problem of the unbelievable lie, the farther we are from what is expected then the more you need to prove that it is real. Saying you’re a cannibal is like saying your dad is David Hasselhoff, you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is. In this case, your mouth is happily eating sauteed bits of human flesh.  (If you’re savvy you’ll realize I pulled Hasselhoff from Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and are therefore even less likely to believe me than before. Also, this is a lie Peter Quill told when he was nine. Kids are terrible liars.)

2) People with certain backgrounds are naturally geared toward assuming dishonesty.

I’m not going to categorize this as a villain trope. It isn’t. If you’ve been lied to a lot in your life, you’re going to be naturally suspicious and assume people are lying to you. These include abuse victims, kids from rough backgrounds, victims of bad parenting, bullied children, latchkeys, criminals, spies, and, yes, supervillains. You’re problem is you’re working from the assumption that people are inherently gullible, and will believe whatever comes out of your mouth. Someone whom life has taught to be paranoid as a means of self-preservation and on the lookout for scam artists is much more difficult to lie to, and more difficult to reach in general. Natural skepticism is a kicker.

For example, you’re going to have a lot of trouble lying to a crime boss because the crime boss is used to being lied to. Self-preservation and survival requires they be savvy enough to discern truth from fiction. They’re likely to be even more suspicious when you start telling them what they want to hear.

3) What is the natural outcome of your lie?

“Shoot him.”

Bye, bye, little hero.

You say you’re a cannibal and this other person believes you. Say this is in complete defiance of the personality they assumed you had. Cannibalism is a violation of social mores, one that is way past what most people (including evil people) are willing to tolerate. Cannibalism is the sort of evil which makes a villain feel good about killing you. Yes, this is the disgusting that’ll get you killed by a group of criminals who profess any level of morality. You don’t want to tell lies that make people more likely to murder you. You didn’t create an opening, you made the situation more dangerous. Sometimes openings are created when a person gets angry, but this isn’t one of them.

Chances are though, they’re not going to believe the cannibalism assertion until they’re cramming human flesh down this character’s gullet. You could probably get them incensed if they saw your hero eating raw meat off a corpse like an animal or cooking a human over a spit. Anything less than that, and they’re just going to laugh in your face.

“Did you really expect me to believe that?”

4) Through the mirror darkly, we’re similar, you and I.

This requires the two to actually be similar. If the villain is assuming all heroes are the sheep of the government, and this includes the anti-hero, then why did they approach them? If this is their assumption, then why didn’t they double check with the character’s actual actions? Your anti-hero is taking actions that the villain relates to, sees a similarity with, and they are moving to make them an ally. This situation would require that the villain thinks they too are a government sheeple.

They are approaching the hero because they think the hero is a sheep and therefore gullible? What would they get out of that? Or because they are a sheep and they think the hero is like them? If it’s the latter, then the character is yelling, “I’m a cannibal!” at the top office in a Manhattan skyscraper. Those working in government understand how deeply the corruption runs, and there are far too many wolves wearing sheepskins in the government for this to be plausible. Also, despite their best intentions, the hero is a government bootlicker and been rounded up by a professional skilled at finding them. (The villain’s position is too precarious for them to be making stupid assumptions. Don’t undercut them like that, you’ll wreck your narrative.)

These scenes work in fiction and create tension because they’re true. The villain presents a compelling argument which appeals to the hero, they have something they want, they are something that the hero wants to be, or the hero has the potential to be them. (Or the hero’s own actions are making their case for them.)

“Look at yourself. They hurt you, and for what? For every person who thanks you, another curses you. They paint you as a villain. They think you’re bad as me, think you’re worse. Your actions have allowed the corporations to rake in billions. Allowed them to wreck lives, steal homes. You’re a schmuck in service to a status quo, oppressing the very people you insist you’re saving!”

If your villain is not presenting an argument which has the hero going, maybe you’re right. Then the scene isn’t good for much. The above example feels compelling, right up until you realize that the villain is working off the expectation that the hero cares about how others see them. Some heroes do. Some heroes really care about how other people view their actions, and let them decide what is or isn’t right. This could be a legit argument. The second half about serving the status quo is going to hurt the hero who thinks they’re doing the right thing and has never thought about the unintended consequences of their actions. Both are legitimate arguments, and could nail a hero on two levels.

You’re not a hero, you’re a villain. You’re worse than I am, and here’s why.

Drama is reliant on actual character struggles, and unless the villain is a cackling psychopath, they’ve got motivation for what they’re doing.  They have reasoning, logic, and self-justification. They can explain their position and sell that ideology convincingly to others. The means and choice of action may be the point of contention.

You could convince Frank Castle to gun down corrupt millionaires, but not their families unless those family members were equally guilty.  The villain might be killing everyone, snatching up their holdings, and re-purposing the cash to offshore accounts in full Robin Hood of the Guillotine style. They might be killing the rich to terrorize them, stealing from the rich, and feeding war orphans in Somalia. Or fueling their ill-gotten gains into non-profits meant to rebuild infrastructure in poor communities abandoned by their politicians.

5) We’re Similar is an ideological argument, forcing the protagonist to think through their position and allowing the audience to re-consider the narrative.

A “We’re similar” setup is utterly worthless if the two aren’t actually similar. Certainly not in a convincing way, if there’s no ideology or desire at play then the scene just ends up as an ego stroke for the protagonist. There’s a compelling setup which lets the audience and the protagonist think and decide their own ideology in context to the story, or there isn’t.

Vader’s “Join Me” setup is very compelling for Luke. Luke wants his father, he’s worshiped his father, Obi-wan’s stories about his father are part of the reason why he wants so badly to become a jedi. And everything he believed, everything he was told by the people he trusted turned out to be a lie. “What I told you was true, from a certain point of view.” No, that is a lie. The truth is his father is alive. He may be a villain, but he’s alive and, as far as Luke knows, the last of his family. Luke’s origins are tied up in Vader, his past, his family, his hopes, and his potential for darkness. That’s where the drama is. That is the choice. That self-denial is what makes Luke a hero, just as his trust in his friends, his willingness for self-sacrifice, and his belief in his father’s potential goodness/the hero he once was existing inside the monster.

“We’re similar” is about internally difficult choices for your characters, and externally they’re narrative echoes. One has the potential to be the other. Luke could become Vader, but Vader could’ve been like Luke.

Allow your villain a compelling argument, one which might sway your hero and disturb them to the point where they go, “I’m a cannibal!” because they’re so freaked out by the fact the villain has struck the core of who they are or how they see themselves.

You’ve got the setup flip flopped. Your villain isn’t the naive one, your hero is.

6) This scenario isn’t about making your hero look awesome, the scene is actually about your villain.

Your hero being compelling can be the outcome, when well handled, but that isn’t the point. Within the narrative, these scenes are actually about the villain. This is the audience’s chance to understand the villain, their chance to really see them for the dangerous enemy they are, and create a new level of tension between the narrative’s protagonist and antagonist. This is about showing why your villain is so very dangerous, beyond their physical skills and penchant for violence. We experience their charisma up close as new information is revealed,  we see them in a new light. More information is shown.

“You should be careful of him, Robbie.”


“Because he’s you. He understands how you think, knows what you’ll do and where you’ll stop. And you? You’re afraid if you start thinking like him, you’ll never give it up.”

The hooks are real.

“He showed me things, Alec. He showed me the future, showed my potential, and what I could be if I stop struggling; who I could be if just embrace the power.”

“And that frightened you?”

“No, the future excited me. The monster felt right, I felt right, I was whole and complete. I came home. That’s why I’m terrified. Now I know this thing sleeping inside me is who I really am.”

Your hero has to wrestle with some real emotion, face down their inner monster and consider what makes them a hero. This is especially important for an anti-hero. They do some very terrible things in the name of what they believe is right.

While it’s often tempting to show off your hero, the tension created by your villain is the linchpin of your narrative. Your villain is the shadow your hero works against. They ought to be better, smarter, and more clever than the hero. When you damage their street cred, you can’t get it back. If the hero overpowers them, whether its physically or verbally, they won’t be frightening anymore.

Luke escapes Vader by, essentially, falling to his death. He’s not just looking for an opening or trying to outsmart his enemy, he’s desperate to get away. You can escape the villain, but you can’t beat them. Well, not if you want them to last until the climax. Sacrificed in this scene? Sure. Otherwise, you need your villain functioning.

Writing a villain is like walking a tightrope, you need just enough victories for them to keep them dangerous. In the Adventures of Robin Hood, Erroll Flynn’s Robin keeps winning right up until he doesn’t. He has a major victory, then due to his own overconfidence gets captured at the archery tournament, thrown in the dungeon, and sentenced to death. He has to be rescued by his Merry Man and a plan devised by Maid Marian, who risks her own safety sneaking out of the castle to find their meeting place at the local tavern. We never question Robin’s competence, but we needed the reminder that Prince John, Gisbourne, and (especially) the Sheriff of Nottingham are dangerous. The audience gets overconfident right along with Robin Hood, then the wind is snatched out of our sails. The loss reminds us that Robin’s strength is in his friends and the loyalty he inspires, and he is vulnerable when alone.

Your hero can take more competence hits than your villain, they can suffer more losses, and they can come out ahead. Your villain has to win, and they don’t win when we make them look stupid, foolish, or naive. They didn’t reach whatever position they’re in by being any of those things. They worked hard to get where they are. The villain is in a much more precarious position both internally within the narrative and externally from the audience perspective. They must earn their place every second they are on the page, and their threat must remain genuine. It is tempting to focus on the hero, but your responsibility as a writer is to remember the villain’s danger must be consistently proven to your audience.

7) If you don’t respect your villain, your audience won’t either.

This one should be self-explanatory. Your villain isn’t dangerous just because you say they are, you’ve got to prove it. Show, don’t tell. Give them more credit. Excise ignorance and naivete from your vocabulary. They know what they’re doing.

8) Let the wookie win.

C3-PO still gives the best advice. Sometimes, you’ve got to play the losing hand in order to get out of a bad situation alive.


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Q&A: Evil Organization Caught Being Evil – News at 11

Commonly, when a character escapes Evil Organization™, they stay low and try to avoid getting their face in the news. Could doing the opposite and making themselves as obvious and well-known as possible work instead because it would be more obvious if someone tried to kill them (especially if they dropped hints that someone might be after them)?

Well, if you’ve trademarked your company, “Evil Organization,” then you’re probably not too worried about the headlines. You may also have some branding issues that Marketing will want to discuss with you, but, that’s a different issue.

“Evil Organization caught eating kittens!”

“Yeah, well, no surprise there.”

So, in concept, there’s a couple factors to consider with your approach. Because, in the right circumstances, it could work as a deterrent.

Does the organization care about its public image? Normally, you’d think the answer is yes. Especially if you’re talking about a business. But, when you’re talking about a pseudo-government agency, or something like a criminal enterprise, or conspiracy, they might not.

The simplest way to look at it is, a company that runs a chain of department stores will care far more about how they’re perceived publicly, than a supervillian hiding in his volcano lair.

If they don’t care about their public image, then publicly waxing your protagonists isn’t a problem.

In fact, depending on their reputation, it may be a boon. If your characters are on the run from a crime family, a very public execution would actually work in their favor.

The old cliche about, “all publicity is good publicity,” doesn’t quite hold true. But, if you’re attempting to cultivate a reputation as someone who should not be messed with, a public, and messy, execution or two can do wonders for keeping people in line.

Will it face any significant backlash for its behavior? If you’re talking about an individual, sure. Even if the evil conspiracy is just a room full of businessmen and their hired gun, then they could be rounded up, arrested, put on trial. There could be consequences if they’re caught. But, if we’re talking about something like a government agency or a drug cartel, that starts to go off the rails.

With criminal organizations, then your character would become another statistic. One of many dead due to violence. A tragedy that, as I mentioned earlier, would actually benefit them. Serving as a warning to everyone else to stay in line and do what they say. Now, there are diminishing returns for this kind of an approach, but that’s something your characters could only enjoy posthumously.

If the conspiracy your characters are running from have hooks in the law enforcement community, it may not be possible for your characters to hide in plain sight. Even if it’s a business or corporation, they could still find themselves subject to arrest, if the company started providing evidence of criminal acts (real or otherwise) committed by your characters.

Can it still get access to your characters without exposing itself? This should be somewhat obvious, but the organization might not need to publicly out itself to kill your characters. Depending on who they are, it might not even be possible to connect the killer to the people pulling the strings.

If the evil organization has the capacity to execute a covert assassination, your characters gained nothing by taking this approach.

Really, this question supersedes the others. If the answer is “yes,” your characters are screwed.

In fact, by taking this approach, your characters may have put themselves in a worse position. It’s entirely possible the organization may not have the resources to find them, if they’d fled to the dark side of the moon, and kept out of sight. But, they’ve publicly told their foes where to find them.

There are potential applications for this. If your characters want to drag their foes out into the opening, sticking a big, “here I am, come get me,” sign on social media will bring them in. But, that’s the opposite of going into hiding, to avoid their foes, and more something to do when you want to definitively eliminate your foes.

If your characters want to lure the organization into a compromising situation, this may be useful. It’s one thing if a covert hit squad can actually find and kill your characters. But, it’s another if they can be coaxed into assaulting a high society cocktail party when your characters aren’t even there.

There’s also a few big problems with this approach.

Everyone wants to be famous. I realize this isn’t strictly true. There are plenty of people out there who are quite happy to pass unnoticed. However, there are many people who do want to be famous. Actually getting to that point is hard, time consuming, work. It’s a skill set.

Cultivating a fan base, keeping people interested, building up your brand. This all takes time, and effort. It’s not something you can just, flip a switch, and achieve (unless you are improbably lucky).

This means there’s a long time frame between your character announcing their existence, and the point that they’d actually enjoy any protection from their fame. It also means there’s no guarantee they’d ever reach a level of fame that actually offered any protections.

Being famous is inherently dangerous. Actual celebrity assassinations are fairly rare, though they do happen. That said, fame is a peculiar creature, which has an unfortunate effect on many. People, complete strangers, sometimes not entirely stable strangers, want to get close, participate, feel like they’re part of it.

Spend any considerable time following entertainment news, and you’ll see a long procession of weirdos breaking into peoples houses, attacking others. It is a real phenomena. In an attempt to find safety, your characters are actually putting themselves in more danger.

You can’t control what people care about. Honestly, this is something to keep in mind as a writer, but it applies to your characters as well. Sure, your characters can make themselves publicly available, suggest that they know things, draw attention onto themselves, and hope that will provide protection, but it might not.

This is also one of those things where people might not care about your character at all until after they’re dead. Which is a partial victory, I guess, but doesn’t do them much good.

It’s also entirely likely your character simply wouldn’t manage to reach enough people to draw them in, especially if they’re regularly making comments that sound like they’re six sunflower seeds off becoming a full blown conspiracy theorist.

Like I said earlier, there are applications to this approach. Your characters could make use of it as part of a larger plan. Particularly if their goal is to expose the evil organization somehow by provoking them. But, it’s still incredibly dangerous, and wouldn’t provide much, if any, protection.


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Seasons greetings to you! Q: how do pull off the Reveal of the Hidden Villain? The heroine didn’t know she was the Big Bad ’til Part 3, nor was she visible or near the heroine. They do have a personal connection, but my trouble is showing that. D:

I don’t usually nitpick the way a question’s phrased, but in
this case, “The heroine didn’t know she was the Big Bad,” is an ambiguous way
to phrase it. This could mean either that your protagonist didn’t know who the
villain was, or that she didn’t realize that she was in fact the antagonist all
along. Of the options, the latter is more of a head trip, so I’ll hit that too
on the way out.

When it comes to structuring a story, where the villain is ambiguous,
identifying them will be a persistent thread through the story up to that
point. It may be the entire focus. A very loose structure these kinds of
stories work with is that your protagonists spend their first act working to
identify their foe, the second act learning about them and formulating plans to
go after them, and the final act putting their plans into motion, and
scrambling to pull out a victory.

I say, “very loose,” because you can step back and really
mess with the structure. Such as having your characters know who they’re going
after from the beginning but working to prove it, or learning a lot about who
their foe is without actually putting a name or face to them (which is what you’re

If you want to look at this in an overly mechanical way;
your characters are going to be spending the story trying to collect
information. That’s the currency that drives their story. They need pieces of
it to put together who is responsible. Missing even a few pieces along the way
can critically undermine their ability to accurately anticipate who they’re
working against. This has a knock-on effect of further distorting their
expectations and perceptions of what’s to come. One mistaken assumption or
missed clue can lead to erroneous assumptions that form the basis for theories
that are further removed from the truth.

Most good mysteries operate off a very careful formula: The
author drops the evidence about what really happened in front of the
protagonists and the readers, mixed into a larger collection of red herrings,
and relevant information that the characters do seize upon initially.

Bad mysteries will usually withhold the information necessary
to contextualize the rest, and then pull it out in an effort to keep the
audience off balance. Often with the intent of making the protagonist seem
preternaturally intelligent. Really, all the author did was lie to the
audience, and then stick their pet in the spotlight.

In case it’s unclear: Please, do not do this. Having your
audience get ahead of your biggest reveal is not the end of the world. Sure,
some will be smug about it, but realizing the author was, in fact, playing fair
with their puzzles can make the material infinitely more interesting on a
return trip.

Also, it’s basically impossible to hide anything from your
audience. If you have a character who’s secretly the villain, a savvy reader
will realize it due to Ebert’s Law of Conservation of Characters (assuming you’re
writing with that in mind). The easiest way around this is to make sure that
your secret villain is actually pulling double duty, and not just there to be
the antagonist, but we’ll come back to that in a second.

Roger Ebert’s Law on Conservation of Characters holds that
every character in a film (or any media, really) needs to serve a purpose, so
by eliminating each character who serves a necessary narrative function, you
can immediately identify the killer/traitor/secret santa/whoever you’re trying
to hide from the audience.

The thing about this is, it is really good advice. Good writing is, usually, concise, clear, and
easy to understand. You’re communicating with people, and presenting as little unnecessary
information as possible is a strength. (The red herrings in mysteries are an
exception to this, but you should still strive to deliver them as quickly and
concisely as you can.) It’s worth remembering, some of the texture for your
material is necessary for selling the
scene. But, you need to be asking yourself, “do I really need this line?”

The same is true of characters. If a character doesn’t need
to be in your story, they probably shouldn’t be there. This is more pronounced
with films, where each character indicates that they were important enough to
include in the story and pay an
actor to stand there and deliver the lines. It’s one of the reasons why you’ll
often see minor characters excised from adaptations, while their only critical
dialog is migrated to one of the more important characters. With this in mind,
Ebert would run through the cast and simply look for someone who wasn’t doing
anything useful. Thing is, this does work in writing as well.

This is what I meant about the antagonist pulling double
duty. It’s not enough to show that they’re the villain, if you really want to
hide it from the audience, they also need to be the mentor, love interest,
perky sidekick, CGI “comic relief” atrocity, or the protagonist.

Once you know what their role in the story is, and the fact
that they’re also secretly the villain, you have a lot of room to work with, and you can set up some fantastic subtext
tension for your villain, that is only obvious on a second reading.

For example: if your protagonist is being mentored by the
villain, and the villain genuinely cares about the protagonist’s growth as an
individual. They have an immediate conflict of interest. They may honestly want
the protagonist to grow, learn, and have a better ability to understand what
they’re looking at, while still advancing their own agenda that the protagonist

When you’re working with something like this, it’s important
to remember that people can want two separate things, and due to the actions of
others, those goals can come into conflict with each other. It doesn’t mean
that you immediately pick a side, but it will put some hard decisions in front
of you. Or, your characters in this case.

If you’re still wondering how to tie your characters
together, it’s the connections like this that you’re probably looking for. At a
very simple level, “how do you show a connection between two character?” You
put those characters in a room and have them interact. You let them show their
relationship with each other. Whether that’s romantic, platonic, mentor/pupil,
patron/client, or just shared history. But, you show that.

The other option is, of course, that your heroine is also
the villainess. There’s a lot of ways you can run with this idea, that range
from cheesy to profound. The cheesy end includes things like a character who
swaps between two separate persona. Without something to justify it, this
specific approach tends to undermine the whole, “I didn’t know I was the villain
all along,” thing. There are ways to pull it off, where someone ends up
investigating their own under the table operations, without realizing it,
because they’ve insulated themselves from that level of their criminal
enterprise. For instance, you could have a corrupt cop, who knows they’re a
corrupt cop, but doesn’t realize that the drug dealers they’re investigating
actually work for their proxies. A situation like that wouldn’t, usually, last
long, because one of their minions would ask them what they’re doing.

Another classic option is the doppelganger. This may simply
be a copy of the character from somewhere else, a supernatural simulacra, an
alternate version from the future, whatever. There are uses for stuff like
this, but it’s tricky to work with. I’d scratch it off the list entirely if things
like mirror universes didn’t also allow you to play around with a radically
different interpretation of your characters. In traditional folklore the doppelganger
was a sign of one’s impending death (though not at the hands of the doppelganger
itself). Make of that what you will.

Finally, you can have a protagonist who is, in fact, the
villain, as a result of their actions. Heroes and villains exist on a very fine
line. The actions of the hero are sanctioned based on the context of those
actions. When you start to strip that context, or reveal it as a lie, it
becomes very possible to present someone as the hero only to realize, at the
end, that they really were a villain all along.

There’s two ways to approach this. The first is that your
character comes to their villainy over the course of the story. By abandoning
their principles in pursuit of victory. The cliché is, “the road to hell is
paved with good intentions,” though I much prefer Buckminster Fuller’s, “Those
who play with the devil’s toys will be brought by degrees to wield his sword.” However
you want to abstract this, the arc is that your character grows from a hero
into the new villain. It’s one hell of a third act revelation, when they can
step back and in a moment of introspection, realize they’d become what they
fought against.

The other approach is that your character was always the
villain. This may be that your noble freedom fighter was, in fact, a ruthless
terrorist, who distorted the facts to soothe their own conscience. They may
have viewed their actions as justified, when they actually violently
overreacted at every turn. Their casual cruelty may have been the very thing
that fed the movement they were working against, justifying the group they perceived
as the villains.

To quote Michael Douglas’ Bill Foster in Falling Down (1993), “I’m the bad guy?” “How’d
that happen?”


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Hey Stark, thanks for answering my question and sorry for my choice of words. Sorry also for bothering again. I obviously wasn’t clear enough so I will try to explain. Since I’m the one writing the story, “demon” is more of a name than anything else. The demon has a human body and is “powerful” because he barely gets hurt by anything, he can even be on fire and it won’t bother him. He’s also super strong and let’s say he knows a fair amount of fighting styles, tactics and techniques (cont.)

(cont) and so he’s superior to my mc, who knows nothing about fighting
except the basics and whose strenght is cardio. If barely anything hurts
him, not even being on fire, I know my mc will never be able to defeat
him directly. I just want my mc to be able to learn something that might
save him if the “demon” ever gets serious. Like I said, I know nothing
about fights but wanted my character to be able to survive withou having
to rely on a “miracle” that ruins the story. Hope this is more clear 

Okay, I’m going to start by saying: don’t apologize.

Part of the reason why we avoid taking fantasy questions is that while we can discuss what is possible for us, we can never really give you specific tips and instead generalities. The first rule to understand and internalize when writing fantasy is that you must (or at least should) figure out the specific rules that allow it to function. Terms referring to general monsters like demons, faeries, vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, unicorns, etc, are for the most part worthless because they contextually change with the setting.

Even if you explain at length, we may not be able to help you or even point you in the right direction. We do have a fantasy and urban fantasy tag, and we’ve talked about writing monsters in the past. However, it’s a much, much bigger subject than most people realize if they haven’t spent a lot of time interfacing with the genre.

So, instead of any of that, let me talk about antagonist/villain building.

#1 Rule: Build an antagonist you, the writer, can figure out how to defeat.

It’s very easy to create an OP villain. Villains are fun, they will run your story if you let them because that’s just their nature. They want that spotlight most of the time and it’s their way to say “Neener neener, you’ll never defeat me.”

It is much more difficult to build a protagonist who can reach them.

Especially if you buy into their BS.

However, should you do so, you’ll end up in a corner with your head in your hands like you are right now. Crying about how you need a miracle to win.

Well, every hero and villain you write come from you. The same ingenuity that made your villain a swaggering unbeatable asshole in the first place means your hero can come back swinging.

When you figure out how to defeat your villain (note: not how all stories say you’re supposed to defeat your villain), then you can develop a plan of action or a character arc which focuses on getting your hero where they need to be in order to win.

Usually, this will encompass the plot of your book.

Spend more time with your hero.

Spend more time with your villain.

Try working from the inside out rather than the outside in. The answer often lies less in what they’re capable of or they’re statistical abilities but rather who they are.

And, honestly, if you genuinely can’t figure out how to defeat your villain, then you can always kill your hero and see what happens next.

#2 Rule: Define what winning means.

Violence is about exploiting your opponent’s weaknesses. You act in a
manner so as to become aware of your surroundings, pay attention to
what the villain does, and develop a plan of action which exploits their

Horror movie monsters are terrifying because they are
the unknown. You, the audience, don’t know how they work or where
they’re going to come from next. The characters in the movie definitely
don’t know and it’s that lack of knowledge which leads to terror and

Terror and uncertainty are what keep you from developing the plan necessary to come out on top.

What does it mean to win?

It doesn’t have to be the classic ending. It can be over throwing an evil overlord or simply be survival or sacrificing just to ensure your friends survive.

#3 Rule: Figure out the enemy’s weakness.

If your villain is impregnable, that means you haven’t spent enough time with them. Antagonists/Protagonists need balance. If the villain is genuinely undefeatable in physical combat and the hero can’t catch up… try something other than combat.

One of the major problems which came from Buffy’s approach to monster hunting/fighting monsters is that it pretty much always boiled down to: “punch the monster”. That’s because the monsters on Buffy were initially there to highlight the human experiences rather than be the focal point of the show.

When a lot of people chase Buffy, they often chase the “punch the monster” aspect which is ultimately the show’s least interesting aspect. The drama mostly revolves around the monsters like family drama, friend trouble, and emotional trauma which one cannot punch through to victory.

If you can’t come up with physical flaws, try intellectual or emotional ones.

If you can’t figure out how an underdog might win, go spend some time watching some Horror movies with happy-ish endings, abused, gutsy protagonists standing up to their abusers, and some sports movies.

Guts and grit rather than “Haha, sir, we are now evenly matched!”

Check which storytelling motifs you are using such as “The Chosen One” and look to others who have used something similar.

The more you know, the more options you have.

#4 Rule: Balance it out.

One of the major problems when you’re an inexperienced writer is a concept called balance. Balancing your antagonist with your protagonist so that they are scary but defeatable can be tricky and usually when you get stuck in the cog wheel, it means you’re coming at it from the wrong direction.

I have no idea what that direction is, by the way.

Some gets an upgrade, someone gets walked back, or a new compromising solution is reached that is neither a total victory or a total loss.

#5 Rule: Trust your gut.

One of the big, and sometimes most difficult, skills to learn is trusting your gut. If you have a thought that keeps coming back over and over, address it.

Less right way or “supposed to be”, more your way.

If you’ve got a character that is honestly trying to say, “I can’t beat this guy conventionally, the gap is too big.” Then take a leaf out of the great stories of both literature and cinema by trying an unconventional approach. Maybe he needs a cadre of friends to help him win. Maybe he needs to pull a Sarah Connor and run for his life then come back stronger. Maybe he’s gotta try a Ripley.

Maybe he isn’t perfectly set up to have that big boss battle and maybe that’s okay. It doesn’t mean his ending can’t be epic, or that he’s weak, or a bad character.

A Normal Joe facing impossible odds is not going to turn into Rambo overnight. He won’t, but him figuring out how to fight the villain he can’t beat might be the story. And if it is, then it starts by running then trying to figure out the villain and how they work rather than getting a power upgrade to be totally badass so they can fight now.

Figure out the story you are trying to tell and damn the rest.


(Tumblr is also screwing up the italics right now, so sorry for the inconvenience.)

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So, I’m writing a story where the main character is being targeted by a really powerful demon (lol), but the mc only has basic training and hasn’t died yet because his enemy is basically playing with him. Could you give me some links as to how I can improve my character, so he won’t get pwned anymore and so that he can eventually beat the demon? I want the fights to still be realistic but I know nothing about fights. Thank you for your time!

I loathe questions like this. Not just because of “lol” and “pwned,” though those aren’t doing you any favors.

We get a lot of questions that boil down to, “how can my character win against vampires, werewolves, demons, or the cyrokinetic, space monkeys that took over the med-sci annex.”

The problem is, “demon” is a basically meaningless term. Unlike most kinds of monsters, you can’t really narrow this one down. Demon could range from an ill-defined monster, to the former agent of a monotheistic deity that was directly responsible for creating the universe your characters live in.

Bonus points in that we’re talking about a “powerful demon,” which is exactly as meaningless. Powerful in comparison to what, exactly? More powerful than a talking rat with glowing red eyes, but no other supernatural powers?

If you’re talking about demons of the fallen angel variety, then there’s a pretty decent chance nothing your character can do will affect it. Something directly involved in writing the laws of physics, and capable of entering or leaving the world on a whim probably isn’t going to be particularly impressed with your right hook, or a nuclear detonation. This is assuming it has a physical form at all, and isn’t simply a possessing entity.

If it is a disembodied spirit that possesses its victims, there’s not much your character can do to harm them. Especially if the demon can jump bodies on the spot. At that point all your character can do is hurt their friends, while the demon messes with them. Or, end up getting possessed themselves, and watching as the demon murders their friends and loved ones.

If you’re talking about a physical being that ported in from some kind of exothermic afterlife, then sure, your character might be able to do something. Especially if you just mean, “powerful” in the physical sense. Of course that kind of a demon could easily be enormous.

It really depends on your setting.

So, what can your character do? Get his teeth kicked in. Outside of games, demons are almost never about piling on more force. They require your characters to be more intelligent, more cunning. It’s a creature you can’t punch, or chainsaw to death. You probably can’t outwit it. Your character needs to be careful, and look at the situation they’re in. Also, possibly, the exact moment your villain completely loses control of the situation… assuming they haven’t been a demon the entire time.

I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of heroes who survive based on the villain’s largess. Maybe it’s just that I don’t have the requisite supervillain mindset (or actually read a few Evil Overlord Lists). I mean, honestly, if you’re a maniacal supervillain who refuses to off the hero, you’ve no one but yourself to blame when they inevitably come up with a last minute plan to foil your schemes. If it was me, I’d just wax them and be done with it. Nothing good can come from letting a hero wander around your territory making little messes.


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What do you think of a character who has plot armor as their magic power? Like, they can get shot in the shoulder but not the head, so they dodge towards the head rather than protecting it. I feel like it might be a fun sort of twist on a genre where the character can’t die regardless of in-universe acknowledgement, but I’m worried some would find acknowledged plot armor boring even though they already knew the character would live even if the character didn’t know they had plot armor.

It’s not plot armor if it’s following the internal rules of the setting.
I’ll say this again: Plot armor only applies when you’re breaking the rules of
your own setting to get a character off the hook. A character who cannot die
because of in-universe reasons doesn’t have plot armor.

Having characters that are immune to harm is a pretty significant writing
challenge. It’s not insurmountable, but it does take more effort and care. The
jeopardy your character faces, needs to be a little more sophisticated than,
“what if I get hurt,” and “what if I die?”

Physical harm is usually enough to maintain tension for a normal character.
This can fail hilariously if your audience is so annoyed with them that they
actually want to see your character come to harm, but that’s a unique

When your character is completely immune to physical harm, you need to think about what
they’re actually doing, and what will actually happen if they fail. One man or
woman cannot be in two places at once. They cannot protect everyone. A cagey
foe can use that against them, distracting them by threatening their friends or
family while enacting their real plan. Or even simply finding ways circumvent
their immunities.

As a philosophical statement, all power must derive from somewhere. This isn’t
really a theological statement (though you can use it as one, if you really
want). For a character who has a power which renders them immune to harm, there
needs to be a cause. A smart villain can use this against your character.
Identify the source, and you can start to understand the limitations, or find a
way to subvert it. A character who receives their protection from some divine
source, might be mislead into betraying their creed, potentially invoking the
wrath of their deity in the process. A character who is protected by a mystical
artifact may only be protected from certain kinds of harm, or from certain
sources. Alternately, the artifact in question may be vulnerable to harm, not
necessarily physical.

A character who cannot be hurt is simply another puzzle for your villain to
solve. A character who is complacent in their immunity and careless with their
secrets is inviting their foes to find a way to break them.

Even a careful character who tries to hide their immunities is still
vulnerable to a foe who starts looking outside the box and finding a way to
stop them. If nothing else works, simply burying them in rubble or concrete
should be enough to slow them down, if the villain has a plan that’s close to

They may also look for means to temporarily strip your character’s immunity.
This may be as simple as a separate MacGuffin that renders your character
mortal, or it could be an attack on the source of their power, as I mentioned

Never underestimate the value of a kind word and a human shield. One of the
easiest ways to stop a charging hero in their tracks is to set them against
someone they care about. Turning their friends and allies against them, by
misrepresenting their actions is a legitimate option. It doesn’t matter if your
character can’t be harmed physically, when you can get their best friend or
true love to stand against them. Hell, sometimes just calling the cops or city
guard will be enough to stop an invulnerable hero in their tracks. Are they
really willing to fight their way through innocents to stop your villain? If
so, what will the long term consequences be?

A superhero who turns on the cops, guns down their best friend, and manages
to stop a hitman from assassinating the president has still destroyed their own
public image, and can never go back to who they were before. In the eyes of the
law, they’re still a murderer. Maybe that was your villain’s true goal all
along. Not to kill your character, but to make
suffer for opposing your
villain in the first place.

Of course, your villain’s true goal may have been to use your immortal hero as
an example of everything that’s wrong with superheroes, and why they need to be
hunted down and obliterated, or they may have had a plan to spin the entire
situation so they come out looking like the real hero, and use your character
to cement their rise to power.

Having a character who can’t be hurt is an entirely legitimate choice. It
requires a different approach to how you handle them, and it requires a
different kind of story. You can tell some really fun stories with them, the
only limit is how ruthless you want your villains to get.


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I need some help, in my novel my main character has a lot of skills with swords but people on my fantasy planet have powers, so when my main character battles the villian won’t it seem usles to use swords when they can use powers?

Okay, I think you’ve mentally ended up in a rock, paper, scissors conflict. Which is it goes round and round until you decide one is inherently superior to the other so there’s no point in using it like rock or paper. Everyone chooses rock, right? So the best choice is paper! What’s the point of using scissors if it’s always smashed by rock? Even though scissors are still a viable option as they cut paper, they get ignored because they’re seen as less useful.

Except, scissors cuts paper. If someone comes to a match expecting their opponent to throw rock and think the best move for them is paper, then you change your move to… you guessed it. Scissors.

Right now, you’re thinking of those swords like some people think of scissors. Useless because everyone else has a rock. So step back for a moment, if your character is surrounded by people with powers and but has none of their own, they put their time in training with swords (or a variety of different weaponry, give them some credit here) then wouldn’t a part of their training also focus on dealing with people who have powers? Wouldn’t that be part of what they’re preparing for as it’s an eventual inevitability?

You have a character who is an underdog. They are absolutely at a statistical disadvantage, which is sort of the point of your story. However, if your characters are at a disadvantage, they don’t need to enter the conflict as if it’s on an even keel. If your hero cannot fight your villain then they must find a way to either:

A) Find aid to defeat them, some way to bring themselves up to their level by way of a friend helping them or through some other means. (If you’re writing a love story then it’s often the lover combining their powers with the hero to empower them.)

B) Find a way to bring the villain down to their level.

C) Subvert the villain’s advantages through some other means.

D) The hero goes to certain death, intentionally playing for time on the hopes or plan that someone more capable is going to defeat the villain.

If you can’t defeat someone conventionally, you find alternatives. If you want a “man to man” kind of fight then you build your hero and antagonist as equals where the skill difference between them is manageable or can be managed by the story.

You can build a very interesting story around a hero going on a quest or finding a way to subvert the villain’s magical powers. They might start feeling that it’s impossible and then through their journey with a side of character development realize that they either 1, don’t need to go through it alone (power of friendship), or 2, they figure out a solution to their problem that they can handle by themselves.

You have to decide that though and you need to come up with it yourself.

What you’ve created for yourself is the old analogy:

“Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.”

And now you’re gotten stuck on it. Your hero brought a sword to a magic fight. It seems impossible when you look at it from that direction. He’s totally outmatched, right? Magic beats swords. Guns beat knives.

However, the fact is that the knife can be quite dangerous in a gunfight, most people who do don’t stand opposite at ten paces and wait for the go signal so the other guy can shoot them. They start close and attack before the guy with the gun has time to draw. Can’t use a gun if you can’t get it out of your holster. It takes time to aim and fire. If the guy with the knife starts within grabbing distance as most muggers do, already has the knife out, and closes the distance then it’s over long before it gets started.

Funny, isn’t it?

Not so much, actually. The knife/gun thing happens in real life and people have died as a result of it. A large portion of people who choose to carry a gun as a form of self-defense get caught up in the same idea you did with magic. That so long as you have the gun, it trumps other weapons. All the hours put in at the shooting range don’t help much if they haven’t been practicing point shooting, quick draws, and learning to be aware of your surroundings.

Statistics, advantages, and conventional wisdom all have their place but when they’re keeping you from stopping, sitting down, and problem solving your situation. If you’ve hit a dead end then it’s time to go back to the drawing board and your setting’s magic system. Powers and magic needs limitations, it’s easy to make it so that they can do everything but not only is that unhelpful, it’s also boring. Sit down and think about limits and weaknesses that you can put on the setting’s magic system. There’s Vancian systems like in Dungeons & Dragons for wizards where they can only perform a certain number of spells per day or ones they’ve memorized. There’s Fullmetal Alchemists’ equivalent exchange.

One of my favorites is from L.E. Modesitt Jr’s Saga of Recluce where the forces of Order and Chaos meant that you could only perform certain types of magic certain ways with nasty side effects such as headaches, backlash, and extreme hunger just for doing it, much less doing it wrong. Chaos mages, though far more aggressive and actively destructive, for example were all doomed to die young and turn to ash. Their magic aged them rapidly. Those who totally immersed themselves too much in chaos could be killed simply by coming into contact with an object created by an Order wizard and even metals commonly associated with Order could be toxic such as an iron arrowhead. Order wizards, meanwhile, build. They can live for a very, very long time if they maintain their rigid orderly lives, but order is also extremely dull. Their creations can be actively destructive, but they themselves are limited to protection. They can only work magic through objects such as a staff whereas Chaos wizards just channel. Both groups need to eat a substantial amount of food or they start to waste away as the magic they use has a direct effect on their bodies equivalent to performing strenuous exercise. They can be blinded or even killed by overdoing or channeling too much magic.

One of Starke’s favorites is Mage: the Ascension (note: not Awakening) an urban fantasy/punk rock RPG system from White Wolf which features a concept called Paradox. Mage’s world is built on a consensus reality and the power of will, if everyone believes that there is no magic then there is no magic except for that one guy over there with a lot of willpower who decides there is and is now overriding everyone else. The trick with magic and paradox is that you can do magic, so long as you don’t get caught. If you get caught doing something that shouldn’t exist according to the consensus then you receive reality backlash that makes the spell go awry. Paradox doesn’t care about your intentions, it only cares if you did it.

This brings us to the “Threefold Law” in Wicca which firstly a real religious tenet and secondly is similar in concept to karma. It also appeared in Gerald Gardner’s 1949 novel according to the Wiki:

“Thou hast obeyed the Law. But mark well, when thou receivest good, so
equally art bound to return good threefold.” (For this is the joke in
witchcraft, the witch knows, though the initiate does not, that she will
get three times what she gave, so she does not strike hard.)

If you use a fantasy magic system in line with the Threefold Law then it’s an ethical test for your mage. You do good with your magic then you’ll receive good, but do bad or selfish acts and you will receive bad in turn.

You may not want something that costly for yourself, but it’s worth going through the fantasy section at your local library and making note of the different magic systems, the costs, and what they affect.

I’m not the biggest fan, but Jim Butcher’s Furies of Calderon starts with a protagonist who has no powers and has to live by his wits. (The first (few?) books anyway.)

So, instead of pondering your hero, ponder your setting and your villain. Once you know how both work, it often becomes easier to see the path out.


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