And now, without further ado, here's Jim himself!
Better Heroes Need Badder Villains
I’d like to thank Emily for giving me a chance to guest post today. For those of you who enjoy rooting for the characters in a novel, I say that it is equally important that your hero have a compelling villain that poses a real and credible challenge to them. Authors who can successfully deliver both sides of the conflict can drive their plots to new heights.
In my latest novel, Confessions of a D-List Supervillain, I mix that equation up a little by starting off with a villain who finds himself dragged, kicking and screaming, down the path to redemption. Mechani-Cal’s foil is a superhero named Ultraweapon. At the start, Cal is jealous of Ultraweapon ‘s fame and money while despising him at the same time. Gradually, that dynamic changes.
Think about the legendary supervillains that really stood out and made the heroes facing them that much better than the run of the mill opponents. What is Superman without a cunning Lex Luthor to test himself against, Batman against the Joker, or the Fantastic Four without Doctor Doom? (The mole man … c’mon!) When I look back at the Star Wars movies, I still can’t come up with a villain that tops Darth Vader and that scene right near the beginning of the first (well technically the fourth) movie with him striding down the hallway, flanked by stormtroopers and then proceeds to choke that rebel officer. That, my friends, is how to make an entrance.
Staying with that same series, I have the other end of the spectrum - Darth Maul from the … um first movie. (Though technically it was the fourth one made. Okay, I’m confused now too.) Anyway, I’d seen the promos with him and his twin lightsabers and I thought he was going to be a seriously bad dude. So, he gets off his starship in the desert looking for the Jedi Knights, Padma, and so-to-be little orphan Anakin. I’m expecting him to get jumped by like a dozen of those sandpeople so that he can do some slicin’ and a dicin’, establishing that he is a force to be reckoned with or going into town and threatening someone within an inch of their miserable life for the information he wants. What did we get instead? He sends some little remote controlled drones out to locate them. Grand bad guy entrance scene … denied.
Finding a bunch of hiding Jedi - there’s an app for that!
I could write a whole blog entry alone on how The Phantom Menace almost destroyed the Star Wars franchise, but let’s get back to the subject of impressive heroes needing equally impressive villains. Building up the antagonist to the main character is crucial whether we’re talking about superheroes or a YA based High School angst fest. Giving the reader someone to actively root against will make them root even harder for the hero/protagonist to win.
Of course the problem going down that path can be what I refer to as “Holy Smothering Villains, Batman!” syndrome. The first Batman movie (Keaton and Nicholson vice the Bale and Ledger reboot) was so successful that the movies following it became more about what actor was going to play the next bad guy than that little thing called the plot. By the time they got to Arnold as Mr. Freeze, or maybe it was Jim Carrey as The Riddler, most people lost interest. The lesson here is to not overdo it and look for ways to make the antagonist economically sinister (maximizing the badness, but minimizing the amount of space they consume in a novel - every scene with them in it needs to underscore their inherent wickedness) without letting them take over the narrative and diminishing your hero.
In my writing group, I recently critiqued a manuscript that “redid” The Count of Monte Cristo along the lines of Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies. I admit to only reading the original’s wiki summary as I prepared my critique, but I found myself wondering why the Count (now with added vampiric powers) felt the need to enact that whole convoluted revenge scheme when he now possessed the means to literally kick down their doors and go all Bram Stoker on their French hineys. Given that there was no counterbalancing upgrade to the bad guys in the storyline, it seemed like needless overkill. Maybe it’s just me, but I want the people I’m rooting for to actually work for it as opposed to just steamrolling over everyone. Where’s the fun in that?
Of course there’s the opposite end of that spectrum as well - Lord Voldemort. Not only did he have video game like “extra life tokens,” but he was so ridiculously overpowered that, without the author’s hand inventing new ways for Harry to have a snowball’s chance of defeating him, the hero had no chance of beating him. I bought the whole brother wand thing at the end of book four, but somewhere between the Death Eaters holding back over the prophecy sphere in book five and the “good luck” potion that prevented any of Harry’s friends from suffering injury at the hands of the Death Eaters at the end of book six my ability to suspend my disbelief vanished in the face of massive Deus Ex Machina. Please don’t ask me my impression of book seven.
Books one through four - lightning in a bottle. Books five through seven - too big to fail at that point. The Harry at the end of book four was a defiant fighter and he had a chance. I was pulling for him. The Harry in book seven didn’t deserve to win and lucked his way into the victory circle. I was just glad it was over.
In conclusion, the main character of any adventure story needs tough obstacles and fierce enemies to overcome. The situation must be dire, but not insurmountable. The reader needs to believe that the hero has a chance to prevail, but also a chance to fail to invest emotionally in the story. A victory through luck isn’t as satisfying as one that the reader can see being earned. I’d like to think those are exceptions and that authors, like myself, who are trying to get established can’t afford to run counter to this advice. There’s no guarantee of success in this business. After all, I just trashed several megamillion dollar grossing movies and three sevenths of the most financially successful series that is likely to be produced in my lifetime. So what do I know?
Thanks again to Jim for stopping by today. Harry Potter people- please don't kill me!
-The giveaway is for one digital copy of Confessions of a D-List Supervillain by Jim Bernheimer.
-To enter, please comment on this post with a way to contact you.
-International entries are welcome- that's the power of digital books people!
-The giveaway will run until Friday, May 27th at 11:59 pm EST. The winner will be contacted via email and will have 48 hours to respond or else a new winner will be chosen.
Comment to enter and good luck to everyone!