Tag Archives: protagonists

Power Up: Writers Amp up your Battle Plans

We’re a culture that loves super heroes. Look at the movies released every year from the genre; Batman, Superman, The Avengers, Spiderman, and the list goes on. In the superhero world, the power is usually on the good guys side. I mean no mere mortal can take on a Batman. For a battle to exist, the antagonist has to rise to the same ‘super’ status of our Batman character. Novelist Michael Shaara defines a story as the power struggle between equal forces. (Burroway)

Watching a boxing match between mismatched fighters or a game in which one team whoops up on the other is no fun. We want that competitive battle everywhere, especially in our fiction. For writers, this means spending just as much time developing your antagonist as you do your hero. Match the two in a lot of ways. This allows them to truly battle for the shifting of the balance of power. However, somewhere in there plant some small differences which allow for the final triumph to fall with the character you choose. (As a reader I’m hoping the good guy wins, but I’m a sucker for that kind of thing.)

Check out your WIP. Pit your two against each other in an arm wrestling match. Who will cheat? Who is physically stronger? Who’s mentally more agile? In an end of the book battle, will it be to the death or will one simply put down his weapon? These two should see themselves as equals. If they do, they know the other represents a true threat. Thus, the reader knows it also.

As a fan of the superhero genre, my favorite bad guy has always been the Joker. He’s twisted and proud. In literature, I love to hate Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird. He represents man’s darkest nature. Who is your favorite bad guy from books or film?

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Home of the Brave

We live in an age of heroism. It’s in our films (seen a comic book based film lately?) and our novels and our news reports. Unlike the sixties, we have revered our troops for their bravery in the field. We take these boys (for the most part) from their video games and attempts to nail pretty girls and place them in the worst that hell here on earth has to offer. From deep within the human psyche, they find the courage to do things most of us could not even conceive. When we think of bravery, there’s a common list: police officers, firemen, soldiers,  people who risk the ultimate daily for the rest of us.

When we think of bravery, it’s easy to think of the obvious. I don’t want to diminish that, but it’s not the type I want to talk about here. If you look at those comic heroes, Peter Parker?  A nobody until a lab accident makes him Spiderman. Bruce Wayne? A rich orphan whose psychopathy turns him into the elusive crime fighter in an attempt to right the type of wrong that robbed him of his parents. What’s the point? Bravery is a trait inherent in all of us. It is circumstances that awaken it.

When I place my character in the right set of circumstances, it doesn’t matter who he was before. It doesn’t matter what traits he exhibited or how he manifested himself in life. In the right set of circumstances, he can find that gut entrenched trait that will cause him to rise against the largest of foes. David didn’t take on Goliath because of who he was, but because of what he had within him.

When you place your protagonist in the right circumstances, he or she will display the type of heroic behavior one would expect. We see it everyday. I have a friend battling breast cancer. Her courage amazes me. I know single mothers struggling to raise families with no help. I couldn’t do that, I say. In the right circumstances, maybe I could. Until the circumstances are right, we don’t know. Until you give your character the opportunity, you won’t know either.

Brace yourself though. Once you give them the chance to shine, the book is all theirs. You’ve lost control to a certain degree. Feel good about it.

What circumstances do you provide for your characters that require the inner reserve and strength we call bravery?

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Evil Let Me Count Thy Ways

I’m reading The Queen by Steven James. He’ll be a speaker at OWFI which our group attends every May. This is the most recent in a series and only intending to read one of them I became hooked. (Isn’t that the point?) The thing that has struck me with this latest book is different from the others I’ve read by him. Maybe I’m just noticing it because I’m also reading Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches. However, I’ve been really drawn in by the assassin. Bad guys are usually drawn in two ways: all bad or bad but with underlying reasons that allow us to at least understand how they became “bad”.

Steven drew this character with the black and white of the mathematician’s mind. Ordinarily, I would not guess this would be effective. However, this character’s world is clearly painted for us with the parameters that he has conceived as acceptable. He can kill easily with little concern and no guilt. However, he will not kill women and children and will not allow the killing of women and children. This is a matter of importance to him when he is framed for the murders of a mother and child.

He easily dispatches a deputy to allow himself to escape authorities but then the hero’s bravery in attempting to save that deputy draws him in. Rather than leave the agent to die of hypothermia on the river bank, he calls 911 AND retrieves the body, wraps it in a tarp, and leaves it beside the road for medics to find. Of course, he does this right after murdering the trucker whose truck he then commandeers for his getaway.

The contradiction of the black and white world he lives in makes this assassin more human on the page than some protagonists are. In spite of the evil he does, I find myself cheering when he does things that are redeeming, such as saving the agent.

One of the reasons I like reading craft books and novels simultaneously is it’s good to see craft applied in what you’re reading. James has certainly mastered the principles of a villain of worthy adversary for his main character.

What have I learned from this?

Make your villain worthy of your protagonist’s respect and vice versa. There is a degree of gamesmanship at work with these two roles. The best stories will pit the two against each other. Only with that mutual respect can the game really play out well for the reader.

Make your villain a worthy opponent. Your protagonist is smart and talented, good at what he does. The villain is his equal and in some cases more. He must push your protagonist to the limit. The two characters drive each other and the action forward.

Villains need as much dimension as any other character. There is more there than just a bad childhood. Does the villain struggle with esteem issues or is his ego out of control? Educated? Not? How does that impact how he interacts with the protagonist? What drives him on? What will stop him in his path? This is the primary question for your protagonist. If he wants to stop this guy, he needs to know the answer. That means, you-the writer, need to know.

Give your villain a history. He can be a man of mystery to the reader but not to the writer. Regardless of whether you’ll use any of it in the book itself, write a history of your shadow character. This way you know why he does the things he does. You will know where he draws the line and why.

I don’t know why James’ assassin has a thing about killing women and children. I don’t need to know. The mystery of it fascinates me. The only person who really needed to know was Steven James. Reading The Queen, it’s obvious, he does.

How do you make sure your villains are multifaceted?

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