The Most Dastardly Villain of All

Sometimes it seems as if most books and movies today are glorified comic books, epic battles between the good and the impossibly evil. Conflicts in which there are no shades of gray must be satisfying for many people, since such books sell by the millions, but I like a little more subtlety in my conflicts, a little more reality.

In a world that seems to be run by the major corporations, the stories where a lone hero takes on a megalithic corporation, brings down the owner of the company, and saves the world just are not plausible. Though I’m sure the presidents of the major corporations think they are indispensable, they are not. If they are eliminated, there will always be others to take their place, and the corporations will go on doing whatever it is that they do.

Because I know this and cannot escape it even in a world of my own creation, the conflicts in my books tend to be less clearly defined than good versus evil. Of course I have heroes and villains, but the villains are not always dastardly ones, though my other characters may perceive them as such. The villains are the heroes of their own story, and though a corporation is often the villains’ vehicle, my heroes don’t bring it down.

I like my heroes to find a romantic partner, but I prefer that partner to be a co-protagonist. It seems to dissipate the energy of the story if the male and female leads are always in conflict. I find it more satisfying when they bond together in their struggle against fate (or against another character as the personification of fate). To me, the biggest villain around is fate. What is more unfair, more murderous, more disastrous, more villainous than fate?

Because of fate, people get sick, die, have accidents, lose the one they love, lose their homes, freeze in winter, swelter in summer, get slammed by hurricanes or tornadoes, get washed away in tsunamis. No human villain can compete with such destruction.

My heroes never bring on their fate for the simple reason that I cannot sympathize with characters who are the cause of their own problems, and why would characters ever have to cause problems for themselves when life itself is always ready to cause problems for them? This is especially true in my poor stalled work in progress. Everywhere my hero turns, fate throws another fit and leaves him to deal with the mess. Sounds like real life, doesn’t it? We make plans, but life doesn’t consider our plans before deciding our fate.

My heroes are always slow to meet their fate. To begin with, they are usually laid back types, but during the course of the book, they are forced into action and then become dedicated to their mission.

Fate, of course, has other plans, and so conflicts escalate throughout my books, just as they do in life. When fate comes knocking on the door, everything changes. And that’s when a real story, not a comic book, begins.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Even Fearsome Creatures Have Enemies

While walking in the desert today, I saw a dead rattlesnake. I hesitated to take a photo, not wanting to memorialize death, but it was so beautiful lying there, that I went ahead and snapped an image of it. Although it looked vibrant, as if it were sleeping, I could see that it had been run over. This made me think how even such a fearsome creature as that Mojave green rattler had enemies, though its four-wheeled killer was one it could not even imagine.

And so it is with a story’s villain.

For a hero to overcome her nemesis, she has to come at the villain from a different direction, not go at the villain from his position of strength. If the villain is the strongest person in the world, he cannot be vanquished by the second strongest person, but he can be vanquished by intelligence, perhaps even middling intelligence. If the villain is strong and smart, he can be vanquished by a determination to win at all costs. If the villain is smart, strong, and equally determined, he can be vanquished by esoteric knowledge, something the villain cannot even imagine.

My NaNoWriMo project has no villain. My poor character has to deal with her husband’s death, the loss of her home, the loss of her daughter’s respect. Since he had been the focus of her life, his death left her unfocused. Moreover, she finds out he is not who she thought he was, so to find out who she’s been all those years, she has to find out who he was. I’m wondering if her way out of this conundrum is to do or be something she’s never thought of before, something that until now has been unimaginable to her. Like what? I don’t know, but it will give me a direction to follow.

What about your characters? Do you have a hero/villain situation? What special strengths does your villain have? What special strengths does your hero have?

Creating a Character — Part V

Interesting characters make interesting stories, not the other way around. Cardboard cutouts and comic book heroes serve the needs of many popular books today, but I want more than that for my current work. A tongue-in-cheek apocalyptic novel, it could easily dissolve into foolishness without a well-developed character to give it credibility. During my last few posts, I have been profiling this character, but he is still not fleshed out. He needs physical characteristics, though not all characters are defined by the way they look. If I remember correctly, Mark Twain never described Huckleberry Finn.

Does it matter what my character looks like? I won’t know for sure until I start writing the book, but I doubt it. He is an ordinary guy who becomes extraordinary because of all he endures. Now that I think about it, that is the basic plot of all of my books, and one I never get tired of reading or writing. I realize that to sell in this tight market, a book has to immediately capture the attention of an agent, an editor, a reader, and to do that you need more than an average guy. But I am so tired of reading about gutsy females, stone-cold business executives, leftover war heroes, beaten-down cops, bitchy/successful/beautiful/rich women, muscle-bound gunslingers, that an average guy suits me and my story just fine.

My main characters all tend to be stoic, which make them seem unbelievable or standoffish. Most people like to experience emotions vicariously, and if characters react stoically, it makes it hard for readers to identify with them. So I need a character tag: a habit or trait that helps Chip stand out from the page. It’s a simple thing, but I decided he likes candy — not just any candy, but something specific like licorice or butterscotch. He always carries a few pieces with him, and then one day not long after the world ends, he reaches into his pocket for a candy that isn’t there. This, more than anything else he has experienced, tells him that the world he knew is gone, and his stoicism slips. Does he cry? Scream? Have a temper tantrum? Throw things?

I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out after I write the book.