We are now officially taking requests here at Magical Words….
The other day, Faith asked me to post on epic fantasy Big Bad Uglies in the context of my own work. In particular, she wanted me to write a bit about the duality of conflict — the external and the internal — that she so eloquently described in her post last Wednesday, and to relate it to my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle. I’m going to do most of what she asked, but not all. As the MW contributor whose work (up until now) is closest to traditional epic fantasy, I have wanted to weigh in on the subject since she began her wonderful series, but I happen to feel that I handled the two sides of conflict far better in my later work than in those first books. We all aim to improve our craft as we write, and in this respect I certainly feel that I have . . . thank goodness . . . .
My villains/bad guys/BBUs tend to be a bit different from the epic fantasy norm. I don’t use evil gods or supernatural beings with the power to destroy the world single-handedly. It’s not that I don’t enjoy books that use such villains. I do. I loved LOTR. I thought that Rakoth Maugrim, the Big Bad in Guy Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, was a terrific villain. Same with Lord Foul, in the Thomas Covenant books. But I didn’t feel that this type of villain was right for my books for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t think I would write that sort of bad guy very well. But more to the point, while I enjoy occasionally reading books with the Evil-God type bad guy, I find the frailties of the human soul far more interesting as a source of evil, particularly when I’m writing. Ambition, greed, envy, vindictiveness, faithlessness, bigotry — these have spawned unspeakable evils in our own world. Shouldn’t they be enough for fictitious worlds as well?
Granted, I mix in magic, and I make my bad guys powerful enough to be a threat to the people around them and all that’s good in the worlds they inhabit. But I also work hard to make my villains the heroes of their own stories. What do I mean by that? I definitely don’t mean that they are the heroes of my books. Rather, I strive to make their backstories and their motivations understandable, even deserving of sympathy. Put another way, I don’t like to write characters who are inexplicably and unredeemably evil. If you look at all the villains, large and small, in my books — Sartol, Cedrych, Dusaan, Lici, and the rest — you see that every one of them felt justified in what he or she was doing. In their own POVs, in their own conceptions of the worlds around them, they were the heroes of their stories. Not only that, but a simple recitation of their motivations would lead my readers to say “Yeah, I can see that. I may not agree with his/her methods, but I understand the reasons.”
I like to write in shades of gray, and I think that fantasy has suffered from too many books written in black and white.
But of course, Faith was also interested in that duality of villainy I mentioned earlier. Our heroes don’t only have to defeat the Big Bads they confront in the climactic battles, they also have to overcome their own faults along the way. As Faith points out, that is, in many ways, the far more interesting struggle. That’s the one that gets at emotion, at those frailties of the human soul. In a comment I wrote in response to one of Faith’s BBU posts, I mentioned that I like to make my heroes and villains reflections of one another. They might have similar magics, similar backgrounds, similar motivations. They might even look alike — in Winds of the Forelands, Grinsa and Dusaan could almost be brothers. Well, let me take that a step further. I think that there should be parallels between a hero’s struggle with his/her own faults and his/her struggle with the Big Bad. If the Big Bad is driven by bigotry and envy, then my hero should have to wrestle with his/her own biases and jealousies before being able to prevail. In my opinion, internal conflicts and the external battles should reinforce each other. This begins to get at theme and motif, at giving your story a more powerful purpose and message.
Faith also mentioned balance in her Wednesday post. It’s a subtle point, because she wasn’t saying that the powers and abilities of the hero have to balance those of the villain. Instead, she was getting at a couple of things that have been important to me in my writing. One of them A.J. touched on recently. If you’re going to write an Evil-God BBU into your book, you’d better have a good explanation as to why this all-powerful creature hasn’t already taken over the world and destroyed all its enemies. You can do this through worldbuilding (bury the SOB under a mountain — that ALWAYS works….) or your magic system, or through a technological advance. Whatever. It has to make sense in the context of your story. And second, you have to make the evil’s omnipotence convincing enough to terrify but also convincingly vulnerable to something, so that eventually your hero can prevail. This is another reason I like human villains. Even the most powerful sorcerer has some weak spot. Again, though, balance doesn’t mean that the hero’s power equals that of the Big Bad. Think about LOTR, Harry Potter, the Percy Jackson books (which I just finished and enjoyed thoroughly, despite their occasional faults). In all of them, and in all of my books, too, the villain has more power than the hero, at least in the ways that the villain thinks are important. The villain’s powers run deeper, or are rooted in a greater knowledge of magic. The villain is bigger and stronger and seems to have the upper hand at every turn.
The only way that the hero can prevail is by drawing on other skills and resources. My good guys rely on cunning, on friendship and love. They do the unexpected and without breaking any rules of magic, without undoing any of the worldbuilding upon which the stories rest, they find a way to overcome the big bad’s advantages. Ideally — again bringing this back to the internal conflict — they are only able to turn the tide of battle when they have overcome whatever emotional and psychological struggles they’ve been working through, and, also ideally, prevailing in that internal conflict relates directly to the path they find to victory over the Big Bad.
There is a lot to think about in planning all of this stuff, which is why in past posts I have emphasized the importance of the End Game. You don’t have to outline, or give up being a seat-of-the-pantser, if that’s how you like to write. But for me when a story works, the hero and villain, the internal and external conflicts, the resolutions of the various dilemmas faced by the good guys — all of these things are woven together. These are just my preferences, of course. Some might see too much contrivance in all those parallels I mention.
What about you? What kind of BBUs do you like to work with, and how do you like to kill off the bastards?
I’ll be away from my computer much of the day, but will try to respond to comments at time allows.David B. Coe