Tag Archives: writing villains

Strength in Adversity

On the Knight post last week, Brainstormideas made a pretty good point. It was something I glossed over, because I was “doing the math in my head”, and forgot to really explain the reasoning.

@brainstormideas said: If you’re writing a novel, I think this would be an interesting conflict for the story. What with her challenges with training and fitting in. I would certainly read it. If it was too easy it wouldn’t be an interesting read.

This is absolutely true. Your stories need adversity. Without it, you don’t have a story. At the most basic level, creating adversity is trivial; all you need are elements that make your character’s life harder. That’s easy, hard part is balancing that against what your character can handle, to create a compelling narrative.

When you’re creating the adversity it doesn’t need to actually be a physical opponent. It can be an internal failing; hubris and addiction are both classic examples that can create compelling stories without requiring an external foe.

You, as the writer, control your story’s universe. When someone says, “you can’t do this in your world,” that isn’t strictly true. The hard and fast rules that govern the real world don’t apply. They survive as guidelines. “Paint within these boundaries unless you really know what you’re doing when you cross the line.” But, no one’s going to stop you.

You can throw overwhelming force at your character, and have them come through smiling and spouting witty one-liners. No one (outside of an editor) will stop you. But, that also doesn’t make your hero more awesome, or stronger.

Characters don’t suffer adversity the way real people do. Oh, most writers want them to be as close to authentic as they can get, but that’s not the same.

When a real person gets put through hell and comes out the other side, it’s on them. They suffered, endured, and moved beyond it to survive. When a character gets put through hell, they present the illusion of suffering and endurance, but it’s the author who has to move them beyond it. Push too far, and your audience’s suspension of disbelief will break, killing the credibility of everyone below.

Setting the stakes too high, and then wining through authorial fiat is really a loss. Your characters didn’t overcome the challenges you put in front of them; you cheated for them. And, in the process you created another Mary Sue.

Set those stakes to low and you’ll be left with a character that feels overpowered, even if they’re not. They become “giants in the playground,” and even under the best circumstances, your story won’t work unless your characters are picking on someone their own size.

Properly balancing adversity is not easy. You need to present obstacles that look insurmountable, that you can chip away a piece at a time. You need to make sure your characters are prepared for their opposition, without making it look like you tailored them to overcome this specific issue. You need to make it look like it’s still a continual threat even as you close in on your story’s climax.

If your protagonists aren’t supposed to overcome their adversity, just to survive, then you can actually push much stronger adversity at your character. Let me offer an example of how this works, using the Knight question:

If the goal is to present a character who staggers through her training, battered but defiant, then pushing her into training nine years after all of her peers started is actually fine. She’d be somewhere between a pariah and a tourist for her fellow knights. She’d never be fully accepted, but if that’s not the endgame, it doesn’t matter.

You can even do compelling things with her further down the line, where she has the formal recognition, but not the social connections that come with her position.

If your goal is for your hero to overcome, find acceptance among her peers, become a full member of her knightly order in good standing, then starting her nine years late is a bit too far. Just by being put into consideration by a patron, she’s already going to be marked out by anyone who got their “on their own merits,” even if they were really there because of their own backers.

Just being a teenager provides enough internal adversity to hang a story on it in any setting. You can look at the YA section of nearly any bookstore if you want an example of that.

Having her enter training late will add more tension, even if it’s just a couple years. But, asking her to play catch up for a decade of work is overkill, even if the purpose is just for her to never be fully accepted.

We’ve both see this a lot, even in published work, where the adversity is ramped into the stratosphere on the idea that it will make the characters more badass. When you’re setting up adversity, it is really easy to go too far. Creating a villain that is too competent, stacking the deck too hard against your character, and getting a situation where there is no way your hero can win. If you don’t want your hero to actually win, that’s great.

I don’t think The Empire Strikes Back would work nearly as well, if Luke and Leia cheated a win out of the end. The point isn’t victory, it’s surviving, and in the process, it’s compelling as hell.

But, by the same measure, if you do want your heroes to win, you need to balance your antagonists to allow it without just throwing the whole game.

-Starke

FightWrite: Respect Your Adversaries

Remember the bad guys on those shows you used to watch on Saturday mornings? Well, these guys are not like those guys. They won’t exercise restraint because you’re children. They will kill you if they get the chance. Do not give them that chance.

Helen Parr, The Incredibles

There are a lot of quotes I’ll pull from for writing about combat. However, when I think about adversaries this is one from Helen Parr is the one I always come back to. It emphasizes a critical failing that most writers have in the initial setups with their villains, with their mooks, with enemies in general. They spend so much time thinking about the fight with the bad guy that they forget about the bad guys. They forget that whatever conventional rules or moral truths their hero clings to, their bad guy doesn’t have to share. They won’t play nice, they won’t pull punches, and they play by a completely different set of rules.

They will kill you if they get the chance.

Who are your characters adversaries? What do they do? What is their history? A character that has spent their life working as a mercenary and guerilla fighter for African warlords, poaching and running illegal goods is going to be on a very different and darker level than a teen practicing aikido and karate. They live their life with much higher stakes and are likely to respond accordingly. If you’re writing and this conflict set up is just to show that your protagonist is a bad ass, if you take this one on one fight like these characters exist in similar worlds then the scene really does have a problem. (Other than the fact the protagonist probably just opened the door to be greeted by a jury-rigged claymore. Boom.)

All combat histories are not the same, context changes everything. If you want the reader to take your story seriously, then you should take your antagonists seriously. Don’t be afraid to call your protagonist out for their overconfidence. Don’t be afraid to call them out on their protected status. This is especially true when writing about teens and other children facing adult enemies. If your teen has not lived a violent life (or even a violent but protected life) and is out on their own for the first time, they will discover the world they thought they had a grasp on is entirely different. Teens are always in a transitional stage, they are moving into adulthood, they are growing up but not there yet. Respect that they don’t know everything there is to know (even if they think they do), respect that they’re status has been protected by some other force as they grew through childhood and now they’re fair game. If they fuck up, they’re going to have to get themselves out of it and the cost of screwing around can no longer be bartered off to anyone else. Innocence is on the chopping block.

My favorite part about the Helen Parr quote is that it is not about Syndrome, it’s about his minions. The guys we laugh at in superhero movies, the duds, the screw ups, the window dressing, the guys the main characters never really have to worry about. Now, now they have to worry about them. Pixar wasn’t afraid to show us how fragile Dash was when after all his punches to one of the bad guy; it just takes one to knock him off the flyer. It wasn’t afraid to point out that when Violet thought she could disappear into the water and hide, the mook could problem solve by throwing dirt in the water to show her outline. Even though the kids did win, it was made clear that we shouldn’t take these characters lightly. They weren’t people who could be easily beaten by average children and that’s part of what made Violet and Dash’s victories sweeter as they grew into heroes.

If there are enemies in your novel who are dangerous, then they are dangerous for a reason. Pay your respects to these characters by making your protagonists way past them hard. Don’t cheapen the journey by making things easy or the fight one sided. Stack the deck against your heroes and let them find their own way through the darkness.

-Michi

On Villains: Some Thoughts

Personally, I love villains. Whether that villain is physically represented as a person, the crushing weight of external circumstances crushing down the hero, or their own internal antagonist pushing them around by their flaws and fears, a good villain is one piece that a story can’t do without.

What is the role of an antagonist?

The role of an antagonist is to create conflict within the story. This is their primary role. If they are not an acting catalyst for conflict in the narrative, then you’ve got a problem. (Your hero should also be creating conflict.)

Make Them Better Than Your Hero:

What is your hero’s goal in life? What is it they want most in the world? Who do they want to be? What do they want to be good at?

Give those traits to your villain.

When your villain is everything that your hero thinks that they want in life you can create great conflict by having them reevaluate those goals. You worry the reader because we know that the villain is a better X, be that a better leader, a better strategist, a better fighter, or a better politician. It gets even better if they fit into and are good at the things the hero is not good at. Your hero may be the greatest swordsman in the world, but he sucks at world play and politics. This may seem like an advantage at first, except that the villain can control all the inner workings of the city and control public opinion. Where the hero is a battering ram, the villain is a spider plucking at their web. The hero must find a way to get to them, but they have to do that without landing their ass in jail.

A great representation of this strategy (when it’s handled right) is Lex Luthor versus Superman. Lex Luthor is the corrupted version of all the ideals Superman has sworn to uphold. Superman can’t just go battering down Luthor’s door and deal out justice, he has to prove that Lex is in the wrong. But, Lex is protected by government officials and public opinion, every time Superman tries to catch him, Lex slips away. The same is also true for Lex, he sees in Superman all the power that he dreams of having. He wants to be the Lex Luthor version of Superman and it gnaws away at him.

Take Them to the Extreme Edge:

Hero: “I want to be free.”

Villain: “I want to be free and the only way I can be is if I enslave everyone else.”

See the difference?

Some antagonists live in extremes and they take it to the furthest edge. A noble goal on it’s own is just a noble goal and it may even be the same goal that the protagonist has. In fact, if your hero is someone who hates the status quo and wants to be free but is forced by the villain to defend it through the virtue of their own ideals then you have some great internal conflict. In the end, your hero and your villain want the same thing but the ways that they go about getting it is what makes all the difference.

Through the Mirror Darkly:

Some of the best villains and hero match ups are drawn from the same place with the added bonus fear that if the author flipped them around that they would each become the other. I always hold up Darth Vader versus Luke Skywalker in the Original Star Wars Trilogy as one of the premiere examples of this theme.  Vader represents Luke’s possible future, he is what Luke could become and what Luke fears he will become. Vader acts as a looming threat in the narrative, not just to the success of the heroes physical, real world goals but also their spiritual ones. As we learn more about Vader, we know that the monster was a man once and that leaves the possibility open that any Force wielder (in this case Luke) could become him. More than that, once we know the truth, we know that Luke will continue to put himself into danger to save Vader and that brings him into orbit of the villain that acted as the catalyst to make Vader what he is. As the narrative evolves between the three movies, what Vader’s role changes in what he represents thematically. However, without him, the narrative would completely fall apart.

-Michi