Can your bad guys be… “good?”

Good and evil, night and day, black and white, chess and checkers, Stephen King and James Patterson, and chutes and ladders. Everything in life has an opposite. Since authors write stories that model real life, even stories have that opposition inside of them. One such example is the good guy/bad guy relationship. I guess technically I should be referring to them as the protagonist (the hero) and the antagonist (the villain). 

Since I’ve been on this kick over the last few weeks about what makes a “good” story, I thought that I’d write a column about what makes a “good” antagonist. Every story that has a protagonist, must have a rival, someone that will test and possibly defeat the hero of the story. In the last series of columns I wrote, one of them detailed the fact that the hero needs to face increasing obstacles right up until the climax of the story. Well, ideally, the antagonist would be the one that provides these challenges. The reason for that is that the antagonist is the opposite to the protagonist in terms of objectives. 

mh“This is the character who most stands in the way of the hero achieving his or her out motivation,” states Michael Hauge in his book Writing Screenplays that Sell: The Complete Guide to Turning Story Concepts into Movie and Television Deals.

Hauge goes on to say that the antagonist, he calls it the nemesis, doesn’t necessarily have to be nefarious individual. “A nemesis can obviously be a villain but might also be an opponent, a rival, or even a good guy, as long as the character is somehow standing in the way,” he writes.

On a side note, this book is amazing. Even if you never plan on writing a screenplay it’s something every writer should read. You can find it here.

There are millions of examples to choose from, but for some reason my mind always sneaks back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Don’t worry late comers to the MCU, I won’t spoil the plot of Avengers: Infinity War (2018). I’ll just spoil the plot of Thor (2011). If you haven’t seen it (like my friend Ben) by now then it doesn’t really matter because you probably won’t see it anytime soon. 

Really, all you need to know about Thor is that he is the opposite of Loki in just about every way possible except for gender (interesting factoid, in the comics Loki does turn into a female). Thor is strong, blonde hair, courageous, muscular, Asgardian, says what he means, and destined to rule his world of Asgard when his father (Odin) dies. Loki is weaker than Thor, dark hair, cautious, is proved to be a Frost Giant and not an Asgardian, manipulative, and is not designed to rule his people.

thor and loki
You can even tell by this shot that while Thor is partially shadowed (meaning he’s good but conflicted) Loki is almost completely shadowed (meaning he’s 90% evil).

The hero and villain of Thor grow up together and are told that they are brothers. In fact, they form a brotherly bond that lasts till Avengers: Infinity War even though Loki constantly betrays Thor. The thing that causes them to part from the same path is that both Thor and Loki desire to be the ruler of Asgard when Odin dies. This is what turns Loki into the villain. While Thor is trying to do what his father wishes, Loki manipulates his brother into disobeying Odin causing the king to exile Thor until such a time that he becomes worthy of wielding the power of Thor’s hammer. 

Another element to a “good” bad guy is the need to humanize the villain and make the audience sympathize with the character. Loki was meant to die at the end of Thor. Because of the reception he received from the fans, they brought him back for the first Avengers movie. One element to that fandom Loki created was due to Tom Hiddleston, the actor who played Loki. The second element was the way the writers created the character.

deadThe last thing I’ll touch on is that even though there isn’t an obvious antagonist, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the antagonist around. Some of you might be reading this and thinking “But Jim, what about zombie movies and books? Can the zombies be the antagonists?” Technically I suppose. Zombies like to eat human flesh and the humans don’t want their flesh eaten. However, If the zombies are the bad guys, they’re probably sentient undead like in the film Dead Snow (2009). Since we’re talking about “good” bad guys, zombies will most likely never be the antagonists. Why? Because they can’t be humanized. No one is going to want for the zombies to win. The late George Romero was inventive when he directed his zombie films and knew this. That’s why the antagonist is always a living human opposing the morality of the protagonist. In Romero’s films, the zombies were simply the event that causes the two parties to come into conflict. 

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Night of the Living Dead (1968) wasn’t about how to defeat the undead. The main conflict was between Ben (front) and Harry (standing behind Ben). 

Now, some of you might be thinking “But Jim, you didn’t even mention films like Sharknado (2013) where the shark infested tornado is the antagonist.”

I didn’t mention that because we’re talking about “good” antagonists. 

Step Three: Add just a pinch of detail and description

Now that I’ve covered the meat and potatoes of a “good story” let’s talk about what kind of seasoning you should add to your meal. When you eat your dinner, have you ever tried it and thought that it lacked a certain seasoning or condiment? Have you ever cooked something and watched people ruin it by adding an insane amount of salt, pepper, and/or ketchup?

Now, understand that when books are concerned, readers can’t add those types of condiments. However, there’s one thing that fans can do to distort the fiction that you’ve spent so long to create. That’s right, I’m talking about fan fiction. For those that don’t know that term, fan fiction are stories that take place in the universe of your book. The stories may vary between fan created characters interacting with your “canon” characters or alternative stories that involve the “canon” characters placing them in different situations.

And those situations can get pretty weird people. Fun Fan Fiction Fact (or what I like to call the Quadra-F): Fifty Shades of Grey was originally a Twilight fan fiction. I’m not sure what’s creepier: a story about angsty teenagers that have immortal stalkers watching them while they sleep or a story about a poor reporter falling in love with a rich dude with a certain fetish that’s based on that angsty teenage/stalking vampire romance.

Now, before I have the Fan Fiction community finding out where I live and coming for me with pitchforks and torches, I want it known that there is absolutely nothing wrong with fan fiction. For some writers, it’s easier to write a story using the characters, plot, and world building that another author has tirelessly crafted. I’ve always maintained that it doesn’t matter what you write (within legal limits that is), it’s that you write. Writing fan fiction could be your way to grow as a writer and I would hate to discredit that idea.

On the flip side of things, if you spent hours slaving away to create this intricate feast for your loved one and when you serve it to them they decide to take that meal and create a completely different meal and serve it to other people. Even though that’s a scenario that would most likely never happen, it fits my rather thin comparison I’m trying to make so I’m going with it.

Plus, it’s derivative. What happens if someone reads your fan fiction and then decide to write a fan fiction about your fan fiction? What happens is that you’re now entering into Inception my friends.

How much detail should an author write before it gets excessive? Well, that really depends on the story that author is telling. For example: A reporter is writing his editorial about the story writing process. Unbeknownst to the reporter, a crazed fan has broken into his house with plans of killing him. Now in this fictional narrative, the author of the story decides that the reader really should know about that laptop the reporter is using. It’s a 2011 MacBook Air with a nine inch screen and it runs the latest OS which is Sierra version 10.12.6 and the processor is a 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with a memory of 4GB and runs the NVIDIA GeForce 320M 256 MB graphics card. It’s also a metal grey with some weird space decals covering the apple on the front of the laptop, but just the left half of it.

That paints a rather detailed picture of the laptop, to be sure, but is it really needed in the story? Yes and no. If the author decides to use the laptop as an essential part of the narrative later on then maybe those details are warranted.If the author has the reporter defend himself against the crazed fan by bashing the laptop upside the fan’s head, then as an editor I’d have the author remove those excessive details.

If you give your readers too much details, it bogs down the flow of the narrative. Doing that may cause the readers to become aware of the real world and put down the book.

Besides, readers read because they want to enrich their imaginations. If you force feed them too many details, their imaginations won’t be able to do its thing.

Lightly salt that story with details, don’t drench the thing in it!

I think that ends this series on what I believe it takes to write a “good story.” There’s more ingredients to be sure and maybe I’ll do another series. A part two, if you will. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you here next week. I’ll know if you aren’t here.

I always know.

Motivating your characters

There’s nothing cooler than being asked for advice on how to write a story. I was at church last Sunday and while waiting to talk to the pastor, a young lady comes up to me. She said that she heard that I had published a book and that I might be able to help her with her own book she’s writing. We sat down and I gave her a very brief crash course on storylines, how to shape a plot, and the general beats of a story. I asked her what her character wanted, what is the main character’s goal. That’s where she was having trouble.

Honestly, it’s a tough question. Because there are two types of desires that your main character, really all your characters, have. There’s the outer motivation and the inner motivation. The outer motivation is what your characters visibly hope to accomplish by the end of the story. The inner motivation is the reason for the outer motivation, something that the character thinks will lead to self-worth.

Take the classic film Shrek (2001) for example. If you haven’t scene the film (cheap pun, but I’ll take it), it’s about an ogre that has his swamp invaded by fairy tail creatures. He goes on an epic quest for the lord of the land to rescue a princess. If he can rescue the princess and return her to the lord, he’ll get his swamp back and be left in solitude.

Starting out, Shrek’s outer motivation is to rescue the princess. His inner motivation, what drives his outer motivation is his need for isolation. As the film progresses Shrek falls in love with the princess. At this point, his motivations change which is perfectly fine. Your characters should grow throughout the story which will most likely change their motivations.

With Shrek now love struck, his outer motivation is to win her love. His inner motivation is, duh, his newfound love for the princess.

Now you might be thinking to yourself,”but Jim, that’s a movie and not a book. How does that apply to anything?”

Before you come to my house with pitchforks and torches, allow me to explain that books and movies are very similar when it comes to developing your characters and storyline. Plus, the film was based on a fairy tale book by William Steig. I could list an endless amount of films that were originally books.

The question now is which should you develop first, the character’s motivations or the plot line? This could be a chicken/egg scenario. How do you know what the character’s motivations are if you don’t know what’s going to happen during the story?

That really depends on the genre that you’re writing. Look at The Lord of the Rings this time. If I were Tolkien (man that would be cool) I would have started with the big threat of Sauron. Creating that backstory and world, and then creating a way to destroy Sauron once and for all. Then you create Frodo and Sam and their motivations.

Of course, that might change if you’re writing a romance novel. Then you’d have more of a character centric plot including a possible love triangle. That love triangle is obviously the outer motivations of each of the three characters. Then you’d shape the plot around them.

As always though, it’s really what you want to do as an author. If it works for you, do it the way you want. I think next week I’ll write about some of the characters you might include in your story and what their importance is. What would you want me to write about? What do you want to know? Leave me a comment!