Tag Archives: writing villains

Q&A: Antagonists and Villains

How do you write a good antagonist? on that point, how do you write a story from the villains POV, but still make them a likeable character without glossing over how evil they really are? P.S I just found this blog and it’s rlly great! sorry if my question is confusing, I’m not very good at English

There’s a writing truism to keep in mind here, “everyone sees themselves as the hero of their own story.” That’s very important to remember when creating a quality villain.

There’s not a lot of reason to be evil just for fun. If your character is doing horrific things, they probably have a reason. Digging into their thought process can be unpleasant, but it is valuable for making them into a relatable character.

Done well, there’s nothing wrong with a villain as the protagonist of a story, even when that character is supporting a horrible system, or committing evil acts the way. For example: there’s plenty of Star Wars stories focusing on bounty hunters or Imperial officers as the core characters.

In less, black and white settings, bouncing between both sides of a conflict with your PoVs can help to understand the nuances of the situation in a way you generally don’t get if you stick to one side alone. It can also be useful to understand the mindset and philosophies of each side.

So, what do you do?

First, let’s split this a little bit. A villain is one of “the bad guys.” They represent part of an opposing force, which probably works against the protagonist. I’m sticking a bunch of conditionals in here because it’s possible to have villains who aren’t, actually, hostile to the protagonist.

For example: You could have a corrupt cop who is a villain, but doesn’t care about the protagonist at all, as their investigation doesn’t threaten him. More disturbingly, you could a corrupt cop who benefits from the protagonist’s investigations, leading to an awkward situation where they’re a villain, but not an antagonist.

An antagonist is a character (or force), who works against the protagonist, and opposes the progression of the story. Again, this is a bit conditional because it can lead to some weird edge cases. A character’s psychological issues could be their own antagonist. There’s also no moral judgement associated with an antagonist. A character who oversees your protagonist could be an antagonist by trying to keep your character from breaking the rules.

Having covered that, a good antagonist simply needs to be someone who has a reason to oppose your protagonist. They don’t need to be evil. In some cases, the antagonist may even have the best interests of your protagonist in mind, but, they’re working against them, and that’s why they’re the antagonist.

In many cases, thinking an antagonist needs to be evil can actually harm the story as a whole. How many novels have you read, or shows have you seen, where anyone who opposes the hero must be secretly evil? Especially when the hero is already prone to making some pretty questionable choices? In cases like that, it actually cheapens the story. There’s nothing wrong with an antagonist who tries to stop your hero, with good reason, and is even sympathetic to them, but still can’t let them off.

A villain is a little different. Like I said, these are the bad guys. They do bad things. They harm others. They need a goal. They need a plan. They need to have reasons for the things they’re willing to do.

A good villain makes all of these pieces fit together. They have a plan to achieve their goals which will (probably) harm others. They may be callous about it, or they may have attempted to find a solution that minimized collateral damage. They’re not simply killing puppies for fun, they have reasons for what they’re doing.

There’s no easy way to plot this out in abstract. You need to know what your villains want, and from there plot what they’re willing to do. They should expect some opposition, and have a few reasonable backup plans for things not going their way. At this point, the more reasonable their plan looks, the more disturbing it will be. Also, the easier it will be to sell to the audience.

Don’t gloss over what they’re doing, give your villain the opportunity to honestly present their position, and trust your reader to understand that this is evil.

-Starke

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Q&A: Villain Security Services

I was wondering what kind of guns security guards of a building would carry (not specific models, just the types). From my research it’s small guns. But are there any exceptions? I am writing about sketchy millionaires and their houses/facilities house small armies and small prisons. They have many enemies and they are really paranoid about safety. Could they insist on bringing heavier weaponry in? Would it be possible and convenient? I want to give a realistic approach. Thank you! 🙂

There’s a lot to unpack here, so, let’s take this in no particular order.

I’m not going to harp on this too much, until it’s relevant, but, millionaires don’t really have the funds to do what you’re talking about. This is more in the range of the billionaires. If you’re talking about someone who outright owns buildings in a major metro area, and controls a major corporation, that’s probably someone who’s net worth runs to ten digits.

With that said, small arms (or “small guns,” if you prefer) accounts for most firearms. Basically, if it fires a projectile under an inch (so, .100 caliber), it’s small arms. This includes, handguns, automatic rifles, shotguns, LMGs, DMRs. Basically, anything short of a rocket launcher.

Okay, so profiling this, there’s a wide range of situations here, and even with money, a lot of things that simply aren’t worth the legal scrutiny. So, suddenly you need to start considering the kinds of places you’re talking about, and what’s being done there.

First of all, even if your backing is a billionaire, funding is not unlimited. In the context of how you approach your day-to-day life, sure, but in the larger context of someone running a business, not so much. They may have the money to outfit everyone with top of the line military hardware, but that stuff’s expensive, and if you’re talking about a corrupt corporate exec in a developed nation, outfitting your office security with assault rifles is going to be more of a liability. On the other hand, the head of a drug cartel is going to get a lot more value out of arming their personal bodyguards with serious combat gear.

If your shady exec is operating an office in a major metro area, they’re going to have access to an armed response team from the police. That means, arming their guards with anything more than handguns (with, maybe, some shotguns or semi-auto rifles) in the security stations is a non-start. If something happens that justifies a more armed response, they can call in SWAT. Or, failing that, they may have mercenaries off site (assuming that local law enforcement can’t be trusted.)

This office building scenario also works off the idea that they’re not going to do anything visibly illegal in the middle of the city where anyone could see. Or, if they are, it’s going to be well hidden. That same building could have a high-security bunker dating back to the cold war, which has a very different security profile.

Assuming that the local police are effective, then having armies of mercenaries deployed in urban areas is going to require some kind of external authorization. Now, they might use them very selectively. Deploying a squad here or there to deal with specific problems and then slipping back into hiding once they’ve completed their objectives. In that case, we’re probably assuming the range of military hardware: Assault Rifles, Shotguns, DMRs, possibly even Anti-Materiel Rifles, as the situation warrants.

Somewhat obviously, if your mercenaries start opening fire on crowded city streets, that’s going to draw the attention of the police in short order, and no matter well equipped and trained they are, they’ll be outmaneuvered, outnumbered, trapped, and then either captured or killed. That’s something your millionaire can’t buy his way out of.

Houses are a little different. It’s easier to justify keeping a small security detail on site, and arming them with semi-auto rilfes and shotguns. In some states they could even kill intruders with impunity. But, there’s some things here you might want to consider that open their options up a lot.

If the house is a mansion outside of town, and police response would be (understandably) delayed, they can get away with a lot more. Your millionaire would have more room to simply kill and disappear someone. Now, this isn’t without limitations, but, keeping mercs on site, who simply dispose of someone who shouldn’t be there, and wouldn’t be missed (or at least, wouldn’t draw a lot of attention from their disappearance), is disturbingly plausible. At that point, the mercs simply need to be able to get rid of the body (which is easy), and any durable evidence, like the victim’s vehicle, which is doable. Dump their car in a bad part of town and let it get ransacked and towed? Or just torch it. There’s options here. Things like assault rifles might raise eyebrows, but they’re unlikely to draw attention out there.

When you say small prisons, you don’t mean small prisons, you mean black sites. These are incredibly illegal, and the kid gloves are off. These tend towards more conspiracy driven narratives because very few people will have the means to fund one of these without leaving a paper trail, and move enough people through them to justify the expense. Even if they did, the risks associated with discovery are astronomical.

Staffing a black site would involve mercs, full military hardware, and a somewhat remote location. We’re talking out in the desert, where no one will go looking. It also means they need to be able to fully shield themselves from anyone ever figuring out who they are. That requires a mess of shell companies, which, we’re back to the conspiracy, because those shell companies will leave a paper trail.

It also means your millionaire is now bankrupt. Maintaining personal bodyguards isn’t too expensive, even in the extreme you’re looking at less than $250k a year in expenses. Chances are, their income can cover it, if they’re so inclined. However, spending hundreds of millions on a remote Bond villain lair, and then outfitting it with henchmen? Yeah, that’s going to tap your millionaire’s net worth pretty hard. At that point, the question would be, “where did your money go?” With huge expenditures on a remote build site, where all it takes is one low level contractor accidentally posting photos to Twitter for the entire idea to start to coming apart at the seams.

I suppose it would be possible, for them to be hiding it under a ski resort or something, which would be all kinds of goofy, but we are, functionally, talking about the villain’s lair from a superspy novel at this point.

So, real talk for a second, your character has, functionally, unlimited funding, and wants to eliminate a foe. Do they:

  1. Spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a facility out in the desert, staff that facility with 50-100 people, any of whom could now destroy their financial empire or blackmail them?
  2. Hire a hitman to kill their foe?
  3. Or, feed information to their foe through a third party, and then litigate the hell out of them the instant they try to take the information public? Destroying their foe’s career, life, and reputation, in the process?

If you answered 3, you’re probably familiar with what happened to Gawker.

Or, you remembered that mid-2000s Spiderman comic where Norman Osborn (The Green Goblin) sued the shit out of Ben Urich for outing him as The Green Goblin. I suppose that’s possible too. And, yes, that is a plausible outcome for trying to expose a successful businessman as a supervillain, even when that successful businessman really is a goddamn supervillain.

Option 2 is cheap, efficient, and leaves far less of a paper trail. A one time payment from your character to someone else. Who may even be one of their employees (so this gets bundled into payroll as a bonus for whatever.)

It’s worth noting that, option 1 is only really, attractive to intelligence agencies (and, shadowy trans-national conspiracies that have been operating since the dawn of civilization because logic and reason left the building at this point.) You could make it work if you’re moving the victims across national boundaries into countries that really don’t care, but this is still the domain of actual spies, and state actors, not angry corporate executives.

The first option also, technically, works if you’re talking about criminal enterprises. If your character is a drug lord, it’s not really a surprise that they’re torturing people in the back of an auto body shop and dumping their body in a landfill somewhere.

Now, there’s an edge case here that’s worth considering, if your corrupt corporate exec is operating a mercenary company. That would justify the existence of a black site (as it’s intended as a military base), but we still have problems. Mercenary companies aren’t that valuable. And the risks they’re taking on are not worth what they’re getting out of it. Obviously, this is a little different if their activities are occurring on the other side of the world, but it’s still easier to simply have someone snuff a troublemaker or enemy and dispose of their corpse.

The funny thing about all of this is, 3 is a very safe option. Best of all, it’s legal. You don’t have to kill someone to destroy them, you just need to be able to throw money at them until they’re no longer relevant.

When it comes to the security itself, you’re asking to skip over what really does set it apart, the hardware.

A normal, armed security guard might be sporting something like an older gen Glock, Smith & Wesson 5900 series pistol, 1911, some M9 (Beretta 92) knockoff, or a number of other cheap, reasonably reliable, handguns.

In contrast, your millionaire’s security team may be equipped with higher end, or at least better looking, weapons. They may be carrying things like H&K USPs, Walther P99s, Beretta PX4 Storms, FNX series pistols, FN Five-Sevens, or SIG Pro variants.

In the cases of things like shotguns, the changes are more subtle. You might still see something like a Remington 870, or a Mossberg 500, but the better funded group would have higher grade examples of models.

With rifles, you would see a difference depending on the millionaire’s outlook. If they’re the ones looking for weapons, you might see things that look slick, like the War Sport LVOA, while if they have someone in procurement with a military background, you’re more likely to see things like the HK416.

In rare cases, where the millionaire’s interests are in the military industrial complex, you might see stuff that’s very recent, like HK433 rifles, Desert Tech MDRs, or Glock 46 pistols. Or, slightly unusual weapons, like the Kel-Tec KSG shotgun, or Vector SMGs.

The result is, the difference will be in how well equipped their guards are likely to be. In fairness, this also isn’t proof of anything, because a non-corrupt corporate exec, with reasonable security considerations, could outfit their security with high end hardware, as appropriate. (Yes, including up to full merc teams in some overseas locations.) And, it’s also possible your paranoid, corrupt, exec wouldn’t splurge for better gear on their office security. Again, if something goes wrong, they can call the cops. The same is true of their personal bodyguards. Things like S&W 5900s, or Glocks are still solid, reliable, service pistols. They’ll will get the job done. They may not be flashy, but how cool you look doesn’t matter in a gunfight.

-Starke

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Q&A: Writing that Intimidating Darth Vader Character

How do you illustrate someone that’s absolutely terrifying in a fight? I’ve got this plate-wearing, greatsword-wielding character designed in the style of Darth Vader or the Terminator, but I haven’t found a way to ‘show’ that she’s this terrifying, freakishly strong juggernaut without being sloppy or a blatant power trip, or turning other characters into ‘oh she’s so scary’ plot devices.

The answer is pretty simple, but also difficult in practice because the answer to writing intimidating characters is a concept called “presence”. In film, this is usually referred to as screen presence but in fiction (and in life) we’ll refer to this as body language.

There’s a mistaken assumption that you need to be large to be imposing, but what makes Vader and the Terminator so imposing is actually their body language and the way they’re framed. In their case most of this is visual, in the color palate, in the costume, but it’s also there in the body language. If you want to riff these characters in fiction, then you need to focus on how they behave and how the people around them react to their presence.

Why are they intimidating?

Why do they scare people?

You need to delve into the nitty gritty to translate what you’re feeling and seeing onto the page. You’re making a mistake in assuming that the character’s tools, the armor, the great sword, will do the work for them; but that’s not what makes someone intimidating in written fiction. You have to show what that armor and weapon mean.

The easy version of intimidation is total domination, total mastery, and total control. See below:

Lifting her eyes, Kadi took in her mother’s lazy stance, her blade in an almost ready position. She snapped forward, silver and green flashing in the mid-afternoon light. Re-appeared just behind her on the windowsill, ready to thrust.

Her mother’s blade caught her in the gut.

Kadi struck with her blade, blood spilling past her lips.

“Good,” her mother said, knocking the strike away. She caught Kadi by the collar before she fell, yanked back into the room, and flung her across it.

Kadi struck the wall, tumbled to the floor. Twisting, she landed on her feet. The blade spun in her hand. She rushed forward.

Her mother’s eyes gleamed yellow. “Your form and shape are tools.”

Their blades met in a clash of sparks.

“Control the flow of blood, and your body will not die until you wish it.”

She brought her blade up as her mother pressed inward, twisting sideways. Dodging her mother’s punch, she struck toward the inside of the thigh.

Her mother slipped away. “Never yield. Continue after the last enemy is dead.”

Their blades met again, and slid along the sharpened edges. Gritting her teeth, Kadi ignored the pounding in her ears. Her blood slipping down her stomach. She flicked the blade up, and drove the tip toward her mother’s neck.

Her mother’s foot caught Kadi’s gut wound, kicking her into the opposing wall.

Kadi landed hard.

“Get up.”

“Wake the Dead” by C.E. Schmitt

Keep in mind with this training sequence, the characters in this passage aren’t remotely human. So, you don’t have to worry about the long term ramifications of damage to a physical body. The purpose of the sequence is to teach both Kadi and the character about a body’s disposable nature. Kadi is learning how to fight through extreme injury, and even death.

You’ll notice Kadi’s mother doesn’t move from her position at all throughout the scene. Kadi attacks her, trying to break her defenses. We see her give Kadi a gut wound, save Kadi from falling out the window, and see her attack the gut wound. We see Kadi focusing while her mother instructs, multiple attempts by Kadi to attack her mother none of which are successful.

You don’t need to ask the question: who has the power in this scenario? It’s clear Mom does.

If you want your character to be intimidating in the classic villain sense then, not only do they have to win, they need to win without breaking a sweat. They should exude a sense of confidence whenever or wherever they go, regardless of what room they walk into. Other characters in setting get a chill just hearing their name. Knowing they’re nearby makes even seasoned established badasses freakout and suggest heading for the hills.

You have to let them do their thing, let them win, and let them keep winning until the time comes for them to lose.

Characters like Darth Vader and the Terminator put incredible pressure on the heroes until the end of the film, they evoke feelings of fear and desperation because they are so unfazed by the best warriors and conventional tactics. They represent overwhelming power, they are so unconcerned with ensuring their impending victory that they walk rather than run. By their own design, they’re better off used sparingly than spending the novel front and center or acting as the protagonist rather than the antagonist. These two aren’t just villains, they’re supporting characters. This is the Terminator, even in films like Terminator II where he’s a re-programmed good guy rather than a bad guy. He’s a bodyguard. There to kick ass, take names, and bond with John Connor. After all, Sarah Conner is the hero of both Terminator films. (OG Sarah Conner in Terminator II is not a bad character to look at for this kind of stone cold badass.) Due to their designed role as supports, you have to do a lot of work to remake them into protagonists.

As you’ve discovered, writing a character who is convincingly scary and intimidating is more difficult than it sounds. You have to walk your talk, and walk your walk. If you oversell and can’t make good, the character falls flat. If you tell without showing, then the tell has nothing to back itself up. You can’t tell me the character is a dangerous, unstoppable juggernaut and have the heroes defeat them two pages later. You oversell the character, and eliminate reader trust. They might not believe the next villain you trot out is a legitimate threat, which undercuts your narrative tension.

They need to live up to their reputation.

They need to inspire fear in others.

We need to see why people fear them and their skills.

Attitude – “I don’t have time for you.” These characters tend to be gruff, but they’re mostly condescending. They tend to be reserved even when they take up space. They’re in the rare situation where both their rudeness and confidence are justified by their ability to back it up. (You have to justify it, you can’t expect them to do it on their own.) You have to really stack up the odds for them to start getting ruffled. Therefore, it’s up to you as the author to figure out the narrative limits within your own setting. This way, you can keep your story consistent from scene to scene. One thing is common with all these characters is they take up space, they’re unapologetic about it, and when they walk into a room everyone notices. Also, get off my lawn.

One versus Many is an old hat narrative trick to establish a bad ass via fight scene. You need to be careful overusing this one, and then there’s the question of whether or not you as the writer can write a 1vX scenario. Juggling multiple enemies looks easy on screen, but isn’t when it’s just you trying to figure out how you write that.

The 1vX ups the ante when the seasoned antagonist takes on other top tier members of their group/established narrative badasses solo and handily wins. Well, you know they’re strong.

Deeds – What have they done to be worthy of their reputation? A warrior who slaughters farmers at the request of their overlord comes off as a bully. A warrior who slaughters the king’s best soldiers and then slaughters farmers afterward without mercy is goddamn terrifying.

The Power Stance – This is where the character stands forward facing, shoulders squared and chest lifted. Head up. The juggernaut fighting style involves not moving much unless you have to. They don’t draw their weapon unless they need it. You should probably view the weapon draw as the character signaling she’s getting serious, rather than her first go to. She’s not going to be serious in a bar fight because this is a character for whom the normal rules of safety don’t apply. (Also, the armor significantly limits all threats.)

Everyone Wants to Be the Best – The climb to the top is long, hard bitten, and fraught with danger. If you have a character who is the best at what they do like Darth Vader, you should respect the time and effort they put in to get themselves there. These characters often have very specific and job oriented personalities often to the point of obsession. For someone to be so on top as to have the reputation they do, they must have killed a lot of people. They’re the ones with a target on their back, the one everyone’s gunning for, who everyone wants to kill, and that doesn’t bother them at all.

Establish the Bottom – If you want to establish how much better a character is than everyone else, then you need to figure out and establish both the low bar and the average bar before jumping at the high bar. If the high bar is all people get, then they’ll think that’s where normal is. You need to establish why the power and skill gap between this character and others is so immense right from the get go, from our first interaction with the character. They should be pulling things off other characters can only imagine. For this reason, they usually don’t work well as POV characters.

Walkin’ Into Danger Like It’s Tuesday – Yeah, you know the famous line from Bison, “The day I graced your village was the single most important day of your life but, for me, it was Tuesday.”

The horrors they inflict are foundational for other people but, for them, what they do is normal. They’re the chaotic tornado upsetting other people’s lives, memorable to other people, but other people aren’t usually memorable to them. After all, they’ve done this for so long the faces begin to blur together.

Again, See Below:

The hellbeasts stalked into a semicircle, their long jaws slavering as they grinned to display razor sharp teeth.

“Get behind me, Emma,” Chastity said, drawing her blade. She stepped forward. “It’s going to be all right.”

Beside her, Jayse pulled his pistol. He didn’t question Chastity, they didn’t need Emma freaking out. Still, with the five hellbeasts in front of them, more on the rooftops, neither of them could make any promises about keeping an untrained neophyte safe. Chastity lacked the skills to deal with this many wargs on her own, and she was low in the rankings. He’d have to dip into his own powers to even the scale, even then he couldn’t make any guarantees.

The hellbeasts lunged.

Emma screamed.

The world exploded in a flash of hot white light.

Sharon Kelso stood where the hellbeasts had been, watching dust particles left behind by atomized bodies drift through the air. Her right hand stuck in her jean’s pocket. Her eyes glowed bright white. A small, winged imp-like creature squatted on one shoulder. Casually, she broke off the end of a candy bar and handed it to shriveled green thing.

The little imp snatched the bar, stuffed it into its mouth.

Kelso tilted her head, surveying each surprised face in the circle. “Go home.”

“Yeah, yeah!” the little imp yelled. “If ya don’t, we eats ya!”

“Eats! Fucker wants eats!” cried a second, tucked behind her leg. It titled its head, mimicking its mistress. “Wait. Can we eats them, Boss?”

Keso smiled faintly. “Not yet.”

“We can’t eats ya yet!” the first imp yelled.

The second shook its fist. “Stay for dinner, and we will!”

Kelso looked away, her expression dispassionate. “Go.” Her blazing white eyes scanned the nearby alleys, studying the shadows. “I don’t babysit.”

Jayse got to his feet, brushing off his arms. He tried to catch Kelso’s eye. Failing, he sighed and slipped his dagger back up his sleeve. She was definitely in one of her moods. They’d have to talk about her people skills, or lack thereof later. He resisted the urge to shove his hands in his pants, that’d just confirm he was still the disgruntled teenager Stewart believed he’d let himself become. “We should do what she says.”

“S-s-she just disintegrated them,” Emma whispered.

“She does that,” Chastity sighed.

Emma blinked. “Just like that?”

“Yeah,” Chastity said.

Jayse pushed back his hair, his eyes on Kelso. “There’s a breach in the sewers, third level. You shouldn’t go alone.”

She glanced at him, the light dying in her eyes. Brown irises flickered yellow in the street lights, and, for a moment, he saw confusion there. Then, her lips curled into one of her creepy, villainous smiles. The light flared back up inside her pupil as she rubbed her nose. “Amateurs.”

“Amateur! Amateur!” the little imp on her shoulder cried in a sing-song voice, and the second joined in to chorus, “amateur ashes all fall down!”

Jayse stiffened.

“She’s Number One for a reason, Jayse,” Chastity said. She reached out, and tugged at his sleeve. “We should let her do her thing.”

She’s Number One?” Emma squealed. “Wait. Number One? What does that even mean?”

Chastity smacked her forehead. “I knew we never should’ve let Emma out. There’s a dimensional breach. We got crossways of Kelso. Stewart’s gonna kill us.” She sighed heavily, biting her lower lip. “Our luck sucks.”

“You’ve no idea how right you are,” said another voice from behind them.

Kelso looked away, and the fiery light returned to her eyes. She walked down the alley, her shadow spread up one wall but not the other. As her shadow moved across concrete and brick, a pair of wings lifted off her back. Kelso finished off her candy bar, tossed the wrapper, and kicked off the manhole cover at the alley’s end.

“See you later, suckas!” the imp cried.

Kelso, imps on both shoulders, dropped into the sewers.

“Great,” Emma muttered. “She’s an asshole and she litters.”

“And she could stick all your internal organs on the outside of your body with a wink,” Chastity said.

When you encounter this character, they should feel like someone you really wouldn’t want to meet in a back alley.

– Michi

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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.

-Starke

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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.

-Michi

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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.

-Michi

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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.”

“Why?”

“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.

-Michi

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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.

-Starke

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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
describing).

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
opposes.

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?”

-Starke

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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
weaknesses.

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
uncertainty.

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.

-Michi

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

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