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Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Creating a Worthy Antagonist

I want to welcome back Jodie for a discussion of the all-important bad guys.

CREATING A WORTHY ANTAGONIST

by Jodie Renner

You’ve outlined a plot and created an appealing, complex protagonist for your thriller or other crime/action fiction — great start! But what about your antagonist? According to James N. Frey, “the villain is your best friend, because the villain creates the plot behind the plot — the plot that has to be foiled by the hero.”

The hero or heroine of your suspense novel needs a worthy opponent who is standing in his/her way and threatening other innocent people. As James Scott Bell says, “Without a strong opponent, most novels lack that crucial emotional experience for the reader: worry. If it seems the hero can take care of his problems easily, why bother to read on?”

And thrillers and other crime fiction need a downright nasty bad guy — but not a “mwoo-ha-ha” caricature or stereotype. If your villain is just a wicked cardboard caricature of what he could be, your readers will quickly lose interest. As Hallie Ephron says, “Characters who are simply monstrously evil can come off as old-fashioned clichés.”

To create a believable, complex, chilling villain, make him clever and determined, but also someone who feels justified in his actions. Ask yourself what the bad guy wants, how he thinks the protagonist is standing in his way, and how he explains his own motivations to himself.

How does your villain rationalize his actions? He may feel that he is justified because of early childhood abuse or neglect, a grudge against society, a goal thwarted by the protagonist, a desire for revenge against a perceived wrong, or a need for power or status — or money to fund his escape. Whatever his reasons, have them clear in your own mind, and at least hint at them in your novel. Like the protagonist, the antagonist needs motivations for his actions.

To give yourself the tools to create a realistic, believable antagonist, try writing a mini-biography of your villain: his upbringing and family life, early influences, and harrowing experiences or criminal activities so far. As Hallie Ephron advises us, “Think about what happened to make that villain the way he is. Was he born bad, or did he sour as a result of some traumatic event? If your villain has a grudge against society, why? If he can’t tolerate being jilted, why? You may never share your villain’s life story with your reader, but to make a complex, interesting villain, you need to know what drives him to do what he does.” Creating a backstory for your antagonist will help you develop a multidimensional, convincing bad guy.

Many writing gurus advise us to even make the antagonist a bit sympathetic. James Scott Bell says, “The great temptation in creating bad guys is to make them evil through and through. You might think this will make your audience root harder for your hero. More likely, you’re just going to give your book a melodramatic feel. To avoid this, get to know all sides of your bad guy, including the positives.”

Bell suggests that, after we create a physical impression of our antagonist, we find out what her objective is, dig into her motivation, and create background for her that generates some sympathy — a major turning point from childhood or a powerful secret that can emerge later in the book.

Not everyone agrees with that approach, however. James Frey, on the other hand, says “in some cases, it is neither necessary nor perhaps even desirable to create the villain as a fully fleshed-out, well-rounded multidimensional character.” Many readers just want to a bad guy they can despise, and are not interested in finding out about his inner motives or his deprived childhood. That would dilute our satisfaction in finally seeing him getting his just deserts.

Frey does feel it’s extremely important to create a convincing, truly nasty villain, one who is “ruthless, relentless, and clever and resourceful, as well as being a moral and ethical wack job,” and one who is “willing to crush anyone who gets in his way,” but doesn’t feel it’s necessary to give us a great deal of information on the villain.

As kids, we loved to see good prevail over evil, and the nastier the villain, the harder they fell — and the greater our satisfaction. Perhaps Frey’s “damn good villain” hearkens back to those times, and his ultimate demise evokes greater reader satisfaction. Forget analyzing the bad guy — just build him up, then take him out!

On the other hand, many readers today are more sophisticated and want to get away from the caricatures of our popular literary heritage… hence, advice from writers like Ephron and Bell to develop more multidimensional antagonists with a backstory and clear motivations.

I’d say there’s room for both approaches in modern fiction, and probably the thriller genre favors the “just plain mean and nasty” villain. Never mind the psychological analysis of the bad guy—we just want to see Jack Reacher, Joe Pike or [fill in your favorite thriller hero or heroine] kick butt!

What do you think? Make the villain nasty, evil and cruel through and through, or give him some redeeming qualities to make him more realistic? Show some of his background and motivations, or just stick with his current story goals and plans?

Resources:

Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel

James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller

James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing

 

 

Jodie Renner is a freelance manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction. Check out Jodie’s website at www.JodieRennerEditing.com and her blog, dedicated to advice and resources for fiction writers, at http://JodieRennerEditing.blogspot.com, as well as Crime Fiction Collective, of which she is a founding member.

 
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Posted by on October 20, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Tension on Every Page. Part III

Tension on Every Page, Part III

In parts I and II of this series, we discussed the importance of showing tension on every page of your novel; specifically, creating a gripping opening, using bridging conflict, leaving out the boring bits, and making every scene compelling. Here, we’ll take it one step further to give tips on creating complex characters with complex problems, continually complicating the issues and raising the stakes, and writing a satisfying conclusion.

Create a complex, many-faceted, determined, sympathetic protagonist

Readers won’t start to worry about a character they don’t care about. Make your main character interesting, multidimensional, determined, clever, and likeable – but with inner conflicts – and give readers enough detail about him early on to make them empathize with him and start to bond with him.

Create complex problems with escalating conflict
The more complex and challenging the problems your protagonist faces, the more compelling a read it will be for your readers. And as your hero struggles to overcome the odds, raise the stakes even more. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “As your protagonist becomes more and more entangled in obstacles, make certain that what he fears most is on the stage. […] Then, as these fears are exposed, toss a wrench into his plan.”

And his problems and conflicts need to be difficult and complex enough so readers don’t see an immediate solution, which would dissipate all the tension. As Donald Maass says, “Easy-to-solve problems are easily forgotten. Complex conflicts, on the other hand, stick in our minds, nagging for our attention.”

Also, in terms of fiction technique, Maass specifies, “conflict must undergo complication. It must twist, turn, deepen and grow. Without that constant development, a novel, like a news event, will eventually lose its grip. To break out, simple plot structures need high stakes, complex characters, and layered conflicts.”

So how can you improve the plot of your breakout novel and make it more compelling? According to Maass, the solution is to “make conflict deeper, richer, more layered, more unavoidable, and more inescapably true.”

“In breakout fiction, the central conflict is as deep and as bad as it can possibly be.” – Donald Mass

 


The problems also need to be serious enough, and the antagonist clever, determined, and nasty enough that they’re worthy of your hero, so he’s sufficiently challenged to create a compelling story, and his struggle results in definite character development and growth. (See my article, “Creating a Worthy Antagonist”.)
Conclusion

In summary, Donald Maass spells out in detail the kind of ongoing, deepening tension needed for creating a page-turner, a breakout novel: “Conflict that holds our attention for long periods of time is meaningful, immediate, large scale, surprising, not easily resolved, and happens to people for whom we feel sympathy.”

On the other hand, “Problems that are abstract, remote, trivial, ordinary, easily overcome, and/or happening to someone for whom we feel little … cannot fuel a gripping novel.”

The five essential plot elements, according to Maass, are: sympathetic character, conflict, complications, climax, and resolution.

And of course, in fiction, we want all or most of the problems and conflicts to be resolved at the end, for greatest reader satisfaction – but preferably in a surprising way, with an unexpected plot twist, and resonance. As James Scott Bell say, “The key is to leave readers satisfied in an unpredictable way.”

Maass sums it up: “So, what is it about conflict that makes a story a story?

* It makes us care by bonding us to a character.
* It sustains our interest through constant development and escalation.
* Finally, at its unavoidable peak, it brings us face-to-face with our deepest anxieties.
*If we face them and prevail, our anxieties are relieved. In the resolution, we enjoy peace.”  (Jodie’s bullets)

Resources: James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing; Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel; Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us.

Copyright © Jodie Renner, January 2, 2012

 

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor who is always looking for another good fiction manuscript to help take to the next level. Her tagline is “Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing.” Please visit Jodie’s website at www.JodieRennerEditing.com.

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 
 
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