Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Credible Bad Guys

I'm a huge Supernatural fan.  I've been hooked ever since I saw the opening episode(although, admittedly, I saw it in rerun).  There's a special magic about the show, and I've looked around at others to see if the magic can be captured in another place.  However, from Grimm to Sleepy Hollow, nothing has come close.

It could be the cast of characters isn't as great, or that the wrong actors are playing them.  Perhaps it's the locations or the backstory.  I'm sure that these elements come into play in this regard, but when I gave it a lot of thought - yes, I know...lots of thought about a TV show...that's just how I roll sometimes...other people can solve world hunger - I decided that a big piece of it was that the bad guys simply aren't credible.

Heading down this road, it came to me that the villains need some modicum of success.  No, that doesn't mean they should win in the end, but they have to have enough success during the story where the viewer starts to have legitimate fear that maybe, just maybe, the villain will pull this off.  In Supernatural, the demons occasionally win(for at least an episode), and the monsters have been known to escape.

In our work, we have to create a similar effect.  You can't build tension if the villain is easily overcome.  In the Harry Potter novels, Voldemort was a worthy foe because one got the sense that he just might prevail.  Admit it - when he used the Avada Kedavra curse against Harry, some of you thought that he really killed the hero.  In the Thrawn Trilogy, Tim Zahn lets the reader think that Thrawn is near invincible, and Thrawn enjoys the occasional victory.  These things give the bad guy the credibility he needs to build tension and put the reader on the edge of his or her seat.

Sometimes our tendency is to make our heroes so awesome that they can sweep aside the villain without a second thought.  That's an okay tactic to use if the good guy/bad guy dynamic isn't central to the point of the book(perhaps you're using it as a vehicle about the hero's personal journey or you've decided to use that to set up a broader storyline), but if, as with most novels, the tension between the two is the central tenet of the story, then you can't just make the hero winning appear easy.

Many of us, at heart, are romantics, and we always see the triumph of good over evil, so it pains us to write anything resembling a victory of evil.  However, if we want true tension in the tale, then we have to overcome our natural predilections and put the bad guy on top for a while.  They need to be real and be capable of winning.  If they're not, then the reader will get bored.  Sure, we'll feel great about the good guy winning, but that victory will be hollow, for there was no effort expended to get there.  And where's the fun in that?

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