Creating an interesting Villain

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So last week I spoke about making your hero interesting. This week I’d like to flip the coin and give some attention to your villain. 

Just as your protagonist needs to be relatable and understandable, so too does your villain.

Something I should have mentioned in my last post: You, as a writer, need to rethink your ideas of good and evil, and whether or not they actually exist.

Doing this can really open up your characters, allowing the line between hero and villain to grow so thin that it barely exists any more.

You also need to redefine what you believe the word Antagonist means to you. Your antagonist doesn’t have to be a horribly evil wizard who wants to take over the world. He doesn’t even have to be a person. Your antagonist could be a sword, or a ring of power. It could even be an aspect of your protagonist’s personality.

The only thing your antagonist HAS to do is cause conflict.

In the story of Smeagol and Deagol from Tolkien’s ‘the lord of the rings’, who would be the antagonist? Smeagol? Deagol? Or the Ring of power that corrupts them both, causing Smeagol to kill Deagol in his desire for it.

Something that you see a lot of in Fantasy lately is the idea that your MC is a young, unimportant farm boy, and the villain is the all-powerful evil sorcerer, or the corrupt King, or the dark overlord of hell itself.

But what if it was the other way around. What if your villain was a spiteful young farmhand who hates the benevolent King that everyone else loves? Why does he hate him? Maybe his family was killed by bandits and he feels that it’s the King’s fault, because he is in control of the Kingdom and he does nothing to stop the bandits that plague the land. So he sets out on a quest for vengeance, hoping to find the King and kill him for an imagined slight.

What if you wrote your book from the perspective of a villain? Would the story have a happy ending? What would that even mean? Would a happy ending be one where the villain wins, killing the hero and taking over the land?

One of the most important things to remember when writing a villain (or any other character for that matter) is character motivation. Why is the villain trying to take over the world, why does he want to kill the benevolent King that everyone else loves?

It’s often in the character’s motivations that we find a way to love them.

If your villain is trying to kill the King and take over the world, you have to ask why. Saying that it is simply because he is evil and greedy just won’t cut it these days, you have to give him a good reason.

Let’s say that thirty years ago, the Kingdom was embroiled in civil war. Two wizards were warring against the rightful King, trying to force him to accept magic in a world where it is feared and hated. The King eventually won, and had the two mages hung. Those two mages had a son, who they had kept hidden throughout the war. Maybe he snuck away from hiding and was present when they were hung. From there, a burning desire for revenge rises up in the young man, and all he wants is to kill the man that took away his parents.

He bides his time, growing stronger in the magical arts, keeping himself hidden. He plans to kill the King and take the Kingdom for himself. He will make the Kingdom perfect, he believes, by legalizing magic, thus freeing his friends who are being hunted to near extinction. He will cleanse the Kingdom, and bring about an age of peace and prosperity.

We can all understand those motivations. He wants revenge, and to make the world a better place, something I’m sure we could all empathize with. It is his methods that we must find abhorrent.

He wishes not only to capture and kill the king, but the entire royal family, ensuring that there can be nobody to challenge his rule. He will gather up every man, woman, and child that opposes them and he will kill them, to ensure peace.

Those are methods that we could never agree with.   

Remember that your villain (if he is an actually person) must be someone who’s motivations we can sympathize with, but who’s methods we find abhorrent. 

Creating an Interesting Protagonist

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Gone are the golden days of the perfect hero. No more can our protagonists run through their worlds with a perfect knowledge of everything. Never again will your Main Character begin the story with an inspiring moral compass or a laudable sense of ethics.

Readers don’t want that kind of hero, it’s boring. Nowadays, people want their heroes to be relatable, to suffer and, through great effort and struggle, achieve what they want.

They want heroes who will struggle with tough decisions, act immaturely sometimes and be a little bit irresponsible. This way, when your protagonist reaches the end of the book and learns some kind of lesson, the achievement is worth that much more.

Oftentimes, you’ll find that a writer will create this kind of protagonist using the “reluctant hero” archetype. The farm boy who becomes the chosen one, the farm boy who turns out to be the first Dragon Rider in a hundred years, the heir to a Kingdom who refuses to claim his Kingship, the list is almost endless.

The “reluctant hero” is extremely prevalent in modern Fantasy simply because it works, and I’m not saying that you shouldn’t create a reluctant hero for your own story, if it works.

But, as I always say, why not do something a little different? What if your main character is the great, powerful wizard who accompanies the chosen one? He needs to teach this simple boy everything that he needs to know to fulfil his destiny, and I’m sure that can’t be easy.

Is he maybe an old man, tired of all the bloodshed he’s seen in his long life? Is he himself a little bit reluctant to teach this poor, innocent young man to take lives with abandon? Is his anger at the evil king perhaps turning slowly to pity and sorrow? What barriers would he have to overcome? Eventually the chosen one must complete the task on his own, so what will your protagonist do then?

Will he move on to play his own vital part in the fight like Gandalf of Tolkien’s ‘The lord of the rings’? Will he continue to guide the chosen one from afar, like Dumbledore in Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’?

What if your MC begins the story as a vicious fighter, a mercenary with no love of anything but gold and a good fight? How will his values change throughout the story? Does he meet the princess of a besieged nation and fall in love? Maybe that love causes him to take up arms against the princess’s enemies. Will he make friends among his fellow soldiers? How will those friendships help him become a better person?

If you really wanted to write something a little different, you could even ask questions like “Is my protagonist really even a hero at all?” or “What if my main character is actually the villain?”

One of my favourite flawed characters of all time is Boromir, from Tolkien’s “The Lord of The Rings”. A lot of people saw Boromir as the minor villain of the first book, and in a sense he was. Except that he was actually the most awesome character ever written and the greatest hero the world has ever seen.

I could write books about Boromir, but we don’t have time for that. Instead I’ll show you something I found during my online travels. There is a little bit of rough language, for any sensitive viewers out there. Also, spoiler alert, I should say. Though if you haven’t seen the movies or read the books yet, are you really ever going to?

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That passage gives me Goosebumps. Boromir is, in my opinion, the ultimate flawed character.

I’ve barely scratched the surface here when it comes to creating relatable characters, and there is a lot more that you could do. My best advice would be to analyse the characters in your favourite books or movies, figure out what makes them so awesome, then take that and find a way to incorporate it into your own work.

Remember: Good writers borrow, Great writers steal.

Creating different Races in a Fantasy setting

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First I want to apologize for the delay in posting; I had major issues with my laptop yesterday.

From now onward, I’ll be posting on a Wednesday, so keep an eye out!

Today I want to talk about one of my favourite parts of the Fantasy writing process: Creating races.

We all know the archetypes, of course: Elves, Dwarves, and Humans (that only know of the other two as myths).

Now I’m not saying that you can’t use these archetypes as they are and not write a great story. There’s a reason these are archetypes, and they definitely work.

But why not do something a little different? Tree dwelling elves in your story? Why not make them massively tall, skinny creatures with a greenish hue to their skin. Their hair is often reminiscent of moss and technologically, we humans far outstrip them. But maybe they’re also ridiculously powerful elemental mages. Are they a peaceful people, only using their powers over the elements to help it grow and flourish? Or are they a warlike people, always trying to grow their borders through conquest? Are they teachers? Healers? War-mongers?

There’s a saying that I read once that really changed the way I work:

“Good writers borrow, Great writers steal.”

What that means is simple:

A good writer will ‘borrow’ the concept of the elves (for example) of modern Fantasy and then tweak them to suit his story.

A great writer will ‘steal’ the same concept by making the elves completely his own. He will only draw inspiration from the elves, but the creatures he creates will not be recognizable.

For example, in my own novel, the Alfakyn are based on a mixture of Tolkien’s Elves of Rivendell and my own interpretation of early Viking society.

There are a number of things to consider when creating a new race:

You have to ask what their role in the story is. If that same role could be filled just as easily by a group of humans, then you need to fix it. However, if their race is crucial to the outcome of the story, then they have to stay, and they have to be awesome.

You need to find out how they are different from the humans. Not just physically (though that part is important), but also culturally. You need to ask questions about their general personality, philosophy, cultural events, holidays, forms of government, etc.

You need to know where and how they live. Do they dwell in proper settlements, similar to human villages and towns? Do they live in the woods and forests? The icy tundra to the north, or the tropical beaches of the South? These questions are important because they will help shape the race, giving them qualities that are unique.

Do these people have different abilities? Are they magical? Faster or stronger? Or are they weaker than Humans in every way?

What is the relationship between this race and the Humans? Are they friendly? Do they fear one another? In many fantasy worlds, the elves are often feared and mistrusted by humans, or else they are seen as myths or fanciful fairy tales.

Every single question you ask about your race gives you another opportunity to make them your own. I’m not saying that you should look at the way other writers have done this and then just do the opposite, that’s just lazy. Instead, choose each answer based on their role in the story, and their interactions with your protagonist and your antagonist.

Different races in your novel can add a very special something to your novel, and, if done right, can turn your novel into something spectacular.

However, if done wrong, they can detract from the entire story, and no matter how great the plot is or how well developed your characters are, if your races are carbon copies of one another with a few physical differences, you’ll find that people won’t be interested in reading about them.

Using Dungeons and Dragons class roles when writing Fantasy

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Dungeons and Dragons (more commonly known as DnD or D&D to players) is a fantasy tabletop roleplaying game (or tabletop RPG). This means that there is no board, no video, and no controllers. Dungeons and Dragons is a game played predominantly in the imaginations of the players.

A group of people (six being the best, with five players and one Dungeon Master) gather together. The Dungeon Master serves as the game’s referee and storyteller, while also maintaining the setting in which the adventures occur and playing the role of the inhabitants. The players then make decisions on behalf of their characters.

The game is great because, as a player, you can do almost anything you want, though for most actions, a toss the die is required. But that is a discussion for another time.

I won’t go into all the detail of the game itself here, because there’s (literally) enough to fill a novel. Instead I’m just going to talk about one aspect of the game, that being character creation.

It’s enough to say that each player will create a character, and that character will be one of many different species, and, more importantly, one of many classes.

The classes of DnD each have their own skillset; things that class can do that other classes cannot.

I’m not going to run through each class here because there are about twenty four (last time I checked). I’ll limit myself, then, to five of the main classes.

These are namely the Cleric, the Fighter, the Ranger, the Rogue, and the Wizard.

The Cleric is a holy warrior, calling on the divine power of his (or her) gods to aid him in battle. The cleric is also a healer, and can bolster his companions, uplifting their spirits and allowing them greater strength. Miranda Lyonette, of the ‘Eli Monpress’ books by Rachel Aaron could be classed as a Cleric.

The Fighter is exactly what you think he is: an expert in armed combat. He relies on his muscle and skill with weapons to see him through. Excellent in close combat, and extremely difficult to kill, the fighter is generally the “tank” of the group. Wyeth, from my own novel ‘Alfakyn’, can be loosely classed as a Fighter.

The Ranger is a wilderness warrior; an expert tracker and scout. He excels at hit-and-run fighting and is a master of both the blade and the bow. He can vanish into the woods like a ghost, and bring down his foes before they even know he’s there. Aragorn (as Strider), from Tolkien’s ‘The lord of the Rings’ is a Ranger.

The Rogue is a thief, scoundrel, and jack-of-all-trades. A rogue can slip in and out of the shadows at whim, flit through the battlefield without fear of reprisal, and appear from nowhere to put a blade in the enemy’s back. Nico, again from the ‘Eli Monpress’ novels by Rachel Aaron, could be called a rogue.

The Wizard is a master of potent arcane powers, spurning physical combat in favour of awesome magic. The wizard can cast spells that change the battlefield, and research arcane rituals that can alter space and time. Gandalf, from Tolkien’s ‘The lord of the Rings’ is probably the best example of a wizard.

Of course, each of these classes can be mixed and matched as much as the writer desires. Each can inspire an entire series of adventures, and can seriously shorten the amount of time you spend on character creation.

The class of your characters can also inspire conflict in your story. If your Fighter-like character needs to get into the palace without being seen, he might have a slightly more difficult time than a rogue. At the same time, your rogue-like character could get stuck in the woods, facing a troop of enemies all by himself. He wouldn’t really be able to sneak around because all of the attention would be on him.

In any given DnD game, these five classes would be among the first chosen, as they possess most of the skills a party of players would need in any given situation. That does not mean, however, that your novel has to be the same.

Writing a party of five characters can be challenging as they all need to interact equally with both one another and the story. Choosing two or three of the classes and mixing them around a bit could be one solution. You could create a mix between the Cleric and the Rogue, not only allowing that character to fulfil both roles, but also creating a really interesting contrast between the thief and holy warrior.

Another solution could be to simply leave out certain classes. This could heighten tension when your party comes across a situation that they aren’t really equipped to handle.

I have barely scratched the surface here, and I strongly suggest that any aspiring Fantasy author take a closer look, not only at the character creation aspect of the game, but also at the game itself. Gather some friends, choose your characters, create your adventure, and explore your imagination. I guarantee you will thank me.

 

(You can find most of the important information in the ‘Player’s Handbook’ and the ‘Dungeon Master’s guide’, both of which are available on Amazon. A brief internet search will certainly set your feet firmly on the road as well.)

Author Bio

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My name is Michael Mountain. I’m twenty two years old and I live in Johannesburg, South Africa, in the cradle of Humankind. I am the author of ‘Alfakyn’, a Fantasy novel about a man who is betrayed by his brother, and his quest for revenge. The novel is available for download as an eBook here.

When I was eleven years old, I was not into reading at all. As far as I was concerned, it was boring. The books that I was given to read at school barely held my attention for five minutes, and I was a whole level behind every other child in my grade.

Then one day, I fell ill with the flu. It was a nightmare. For three weeks I didn’t even have the energy to get out of bed. I was on holiday at the time too, so I didn’t even have the thought that I was missing school to console me. I would just sit in my PJ’s all day watching T.V.

For a little kid who just wanted to go outside and play in the sun with his friends, it was terrible. Then one afternoon, about a week into this torture, I was lying on the couch with my mom and my dad, and my dad said something that would change my life. He said that we should take a drive to the closest mall and buy a book.

I wasn’t interested at all, but I wanted out of the house. So I got dressed, did my best to tame my mop of hair an off we went. We browsed the bookstore for what felt like ages, and soon I began to regret coming out. I wasn’t interested in the books, I wanted to go back home and play playstation. My mom was standing in the kids section, reading the blurb on the back of the first Harry Potter book. I walked up to her, my head hanging, sighing as loud as I could.

My dad joined us there soon after and decided that he would buy Harry Potter, if only because my mom wanted to read it. I didn’t choose a book, I didn’t want one.

When we got home, I flopped onto the couch and began looking for a movie I hadn’t seen yet.

My mom nagged at me to read Harry Potter, and after an hour or two of this, I caved. I was bored, there was nothing else to do, and I secretly wanted to prove to myself that this book was just like any other. I knew that I wouldn’t enjoy it, and so I (rather masochistically for an eleven year old) sat down to read it. And then everything changed.

I loved it. It was the most amazing book I had ever read, and even though it took me three days to read nineteen pages, I was hooked. I finished the book and begged my parents to the buy the second and the third. Two months later, the fourth book came out and I dragged my parents along to the midnight release at our local mall.

I began to read other books, looking for things similar to Harry Potter, and before the year was out I was two levels up in my reading at school.

I remember thinking one day, about two years later, that it would be the coolest thing on Earth to write books for a living. Not because I thought it was easy, or because you can do it from home, but because I wanted to do for others what J.K. Rowling did for me.

I went through school, keeping my dream a secret, afraid of what the adults would say. When I was sixteen, I eventually told my principle that I wanted to be an author. He pushed me to take journalism instead because “It’s pretty much the same thing right? Except journalism is a real job.”

I did what he said. I stopped writing and focused on school. I excelled in English, and all my teachers agreed that I would make a fine journalist. I forced myself to be happy every time I heard them say it, and after a while it worked. I would smile and nod and describe my plans to study journalism as soon as possible.

Then I finished school. I decided to take a gap year, maybe do a few courses, and learn some new skills, before jetting off to varsity. The first course I did was a creative writing course through the University of Cape Town and Random House-Struik.

After the first module, I realised that that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. All of my assignments were praised and I was told by my tutor that if I kept at it, I would be published someday.

I dropped the idea of journalism, and told my parents that I was going o be an author. They were a little horrified I think.

For three years, I wrote, trying my best to perfect my novel. Sometimes I would stalk away from my computer in disgust, lamenting my failure as an author and a human being. Other days I would sit at my keyboard for five or six hours and the words would just flow.

I sit here now, and I look back at that eleven year old boy, and I think about how far I’ve come. I may not have worked constantly toward my dream, but I never forgot it. And neither should you.