Characters: The Great Satan, Part 4


I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date! MW!!! Sorry, y’all. No excuses.

This is the fourth week of the BBU here on Faith’s post day! Yes, the last one was in …May? June? And yes, I am overwhelmed. The hubby would then ask, “Why is no ever simply whelmed?” (gotta love him.) But Overwhelmed in a good way. Just enough stuff going on to keep me on my toes and not so much that I want to sit down and cry.

Today is Recurring Nemesis Day. Break out the fireworks, pass around the hula-hoops, and open a keg of organic grape juice! Yes, we’ve covered the RN before, but I’ve been thinking about them a lot and I wanted to share my current thoughts.

[In case you have forgotten]
BBU = Big Bad Uglies = the antagonist
MC = main character = hero
AS = applecart scenes
AC = applecart character
New this week:
Recurring Nemesis = RNBBU or just RM
Next week (maybe): Balancing good vs. evil = GvE

As a reminder, *Applecart Scenes* (AS) is the disparaging name my college writing teacher gave to the scenes in books or movies where the MC chases the BBU through town and they hit cars, bust glass windows, and spin through fruit carts. But nothing of substance happens. It’s an action scene, but it takes us nowhere new. It is little more than filler to plump up page count. Any scene or character who could be wiped out of the story without a change in the plot’s outcome, has become, for me, an applecart scene or an applecart character.

As I said before, I’m not attempting to cover everything about RNs. Mostly, I hope offer a starting point for discussion, with the hopes that it will help our readers, commenters, and posters to chat about RNs.

Conflict is what makes a book work. We read for character and emotion but if the character doesn’t have conflict (s) to resolve, it’s not a story. I’ve shared my thoughts on a few of the many differences between the BBU’s of mysteries, thrillers, traditional romance, romantic suspense, and traditional fantasy, but RN needs something more. He has to be bigger, meaner, tougher, with a *really* good motivation.

The RNBBUs take us in to a whole new realm of possibility, and not only in fantasy and UF, but frankly in every genre. While the RN in fantasy can the take the ultimate antagonist into whole new depths of eeeeveeeiiil-hood, the problem still comes back to this: What in the world might a character want so badly that his evil doings will last through a ten book series to be revealed and the character disposed at the very end. 

In a thriller, especially a thriller series, which generally takes place around crime scenes, and where the RN is most often a fiendishly clever serial killer, the RN has a built in motivation. Ummmm… He wants to kill. But the reason *why* he chooses to kill and chooses to kill in *just this bizarre way* is the important part.

 For the RN to work in a long running epic work of any kind he must:

  1. draw upon common cultural archetypes and yet have twists that make him unique
  2. he can start out as a 2 dimensional, flat character in book one
  3. but he must want something *very, very badly*
  4. the writer must convey that desire (even if the RM’s desire itself remains hidden for several books) quickly (in thrillers, here is where the psychology of the killer RM {read motivation} comes in to play)
  5. over the course of a series the RM must develop a personality himself
  6. over the course of a series the RM must contribute to the conflict of the  individual book’s story arc as created by the writer
  7. over the course of a series the RM must evolve and / or be further revealed, page by page, pulling the reader deeper into what has then become an epic story arc
  8. usually will contribute to the MC’s recurring subplots
  9. done wrong, the RN becomes nothing but an AC that leaves us unsatisfied

The problem that I’ve always had with RN characters in a lot of epic fantasy is that all they want to do is “Destroy the world! Kill all the people! Leave nothing behind but death and destruction!” Um…and why is that? Okay, I get it when, in hard, techno sifi, if the BBU is a creature that needs a sulfur atmosphere to live in and wants to remake Earth in his own species’ image. Terra-forming (or, um, Ublannafing-forming) makes sense then. The BBU will destroy Earth for humans, but make it over for Ublannafingers. And even with our current batch of terrorists, I get the whole, “We will take over the world and destroy technology and wipe out the evil satans for our god and return to the proper 12th century lifestyle.” I get holy fanaticism. (Well, sorta. Okay, not really. But I accept that it exists.) But the destruction of Earth has to be part of a plan for it to work. So what I’m saying is: Your bad guy, when he is an RN, he must want something. Something hugely, very important.

In the Star Wars series, I get that Darth Vader (my fav RN) was potentially evil from youth and went to the dark side. Power corrupts, no doubt. But the overlord he answered to? Didn’t work for me on a motivational scale. And, as I said last time, about LOTRs, the internal conflict of the Ring Bearer was far more interesting to me, as a reader, than the RN dark cloud on the horizon. For me, the only way that either RN worked was that balancing act between the MC’s external and his internal antagonists. The Ring Bearer was trying not to become corrupted by power. Luke Skywalker was…um… trying not to become corrupted by power.

Even in Stars Wars and LOTRs, the Evil Overlord, RN became a trope, a device, to drive the story. But the real conflict was always between the character and himself. Do you write an RN? Does he fit the profile? Or better yet – can you tell me why I’m wrong? Debate is the spice of the writer’s life.


9 comments to Characters: The Great Satan, Part 4

  • I have a RN in both of my WIPs. One is a demon trying to get revenge on the MC (small spiteful goal) and trying to get back into the earthly plane so that she can rule earth (big scary goal). The MC has the tool she needs to get to her big plan.

    In the other WIP (the one co-authored with Sarah A) the RN is the hovering-in-the-background supporter of the BBU in book one, and is able to disappear when he fails, and will be the overt BBU in books two and three. (It’s a trilogy). He wants to be king because he believes he’d be better at it than the current king (the MC’s father). He genuinely believes the current king is bad for the nation and that he can do a better job. He even amends his plan to be Prince Consort (that is, marry our MC) when his first plan fails. Nothing like an evil character who believes he’s doing what’s Best For Everyone.

    But all in all, I like RNs. I think Rowling did a good job with Voldemort. I liked Darth Vader, too. And the moment he actually becomes evil in the third (or sixth, or whatever) episode was really both scary and tragic. I think long series without some kind of overarching RN are hard to pull off. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had that problem. So in the end, they brought in a BIG BBU, and allowed the series to end not by destroying the bad guy (ultimately impossible, as evil is perpetual) but by freeing the MC from her constraint. (SPOILER ALERT!) In the end, they beat the First, but also free the power of the slayer so that all potential slayers become slayers. So, now Buffy isn’t THE ONE anymore. Rather than defeating all evil, they multiply the good and free the MC. I thought it was a great way to end the series.

  • Pea-Emily, In number one: Dual motivations are great for series! And I like the personal part of the MC having the tool needed. It adds instant intensity and pumps up number 3 in the list quite well!

    In number two: I love the BBU who thinks he is doing good for all, but is really dong good for self. Sounds like most politicians, and it is a totally human reaction. I especially like the way he is forced to change between book one and book two.

    I too, thought Buffy was well handled, over all. Darth… Hmmm. I think that trilogy lost a lot of the hero aspect of all the other chatracters, and that (to me) left the ending and metamorphosis of Darth flat. However, it may well be that the reason I didn’t like it, is that the MC was poorly done. (Very poorly done IMHO.) The balancing good and evil felt lopsided. The MCs didn’t develop. So maybe Darth’s change woudl have been better when balanced with a hero who changed as much.

  • Faith,

    Without getting repetitive because we talked about this a Great Satan or two ago, yes, I do have a RN, and he has a relatively small ultimate goal (maintain the throne despite the fact that there’s a true heir out there). The power is important to him, but he’s not “must take over the world” crazy. His goal doesn’t change but how he handles it does, as the more he does, the more he gets the MC’s attention and makes her feel that taking the throne is necessary. Meanwhile the MC has to struggle with her own issues, including whether or not she *wants* the throne.

    My biggest challenge, the way I see it, will be maintaining momentum in the second book, and keeping its own story. It’s a trilogy and one of the things that annoys me is when the first book in a trilogy is a great stand-alone, and the second is just the first half of a two-parter. (Say what you will about the third movie, but the Spider Man trilogy did this pretty well. The events in the second film were unique enough, with their own plot, while the third movie dealt with the overall plot.) So in the second book, for me the RN needs to become a bigger threat, but he isn’t the main BBU of book 2. Or at least, he remains an issue to be dealt with later.

  • Moira, you are so right about book 2 and 3 in a trilogy. To get sales numbers going, especially for a writer with that first book deal, is important. Book 2 *must* have a bait and hook that will stand on its own. The BBU in book 2 really needs to be as *big* as possible. When he’s just a bridge BBU, the series falls flat.

    Balancing book 2’s BBU’s power against the power of the series RN requires a deft hand. I think it helps if the two are related in some way. If the writer can relate all three in some way, and *especially* if the relationship is not obvious at all, that is a killer RN.

  • I ask this just to see what the answer is; not because I have a firm opinion. But does a series have to have a single BBU? Is it possible to have a series of escalating BBUs? Maybe BBU turns out to e a pawn of BBU2, who in turn is revealed to be a pawn of BBU3. What would be the pros and cons of that kind of approach?

  • Edmund Schubert! Have you been reading my Rogue Mage series?
    (laughing) Yeah, I thought about getting into all that escalation and layering of BBUs, but here it is, encapsulated:

    Con Number 1.) Frankly I think it’s hard to do without it reading like a ploy. I *think* I managed to avoid ploy-dom in the RM series — with the help of a good agent and editor — but not on the first draft or the second. This is probably the greatest difficulity facing a writer who uses multiple BBUs. After the first switcheroo, the reader starts to expect it.

    Con Number 2.) Writing the third book is usually *really* hard, trying to keep the relationships and layered BBUs in order and the balance between the good and evil … um … balanced. Keeping the reader engaged while the plots in RM grew and branched was very difficult. It was like building a house, working in three deminsions.

    Con Number 3.) Word count places limits on writers that were not there just a few years ago. It’s hard to do all you need to do in a layered plot line series with layered BBUs when bound to 100,000 words per book.

    Pro Number 1.) I like the *multiple BBU concept* a lot. Most readers love the unexpected, especially when they didn’t see it coming, but can go back and spot clues on the second read.

    Pro Number 2.) It allows the reader to play detective and to get caught up in the seeming descrepancies that then work out. Yeah. Very cool.

    Pro Number 3.) Really big bang for your buck. As a thriller reader, I *loved* that approach!

  • 11on2d6

    Edmund Schubert, the series I am currently working on is going to have escalating BBU’s like you mentioned, but rather than having them linked, for example one manipulating the other to do his/her dirty work, I decided to try something a little different. Essentially what I’m going to do is have my MC and bbu2( the overarching bbu of the series) have to work together to stop bbu1, this “quest” will leave a residual effect on bbu2 that starts him/her down the path of evil. However I’m going to ensure that there are markers throughout what will essentially be book 1 ( quest to stop bbu1)so that the transition process isn’t just out of the blue and all clunky.

    If that makes any sense, that is how I’m planning on doing Multiple bbu’s.

    I guess to me it ties very strongly into what Faith was saying in her article, the bbu must believe what they are doing is right and moral, if their goal is more of a gray area, than pure evil it makes sense that they would try just as hard as the MC to stop an act of pure evil. After all, the best BBU should believe that they are the hero no?

  • I like what you have to say in this series of articles. I am always in favor of the antagonist being a developed character with a believable (if not logical) motivation.

    The only thing I don’t like from this are the constant acronyms. I got confused between RN and RM, and then I hit the comments and RM is not only Recurring M?, but also Rogue Mage.

    I find it amusing that so many in academia accuse youngsters of L33t Speak and txt-talk, yet use more acronyms than NASA.

    I would actually have enjoyed this more had we just used terms like antagonist and protagonist. Or even simply “the bad guy.”

    Sorry to have a less than positive comment, but I otherwise really enjoyed following this series and look forward to more!

  • 11on2d6 — that makes great sense! I like it. I really like the way the ultimate BBU changes and evilves. Lovely!

    David, I plead guilty! I work in the medical field so I am inclined to them. And yes, it turned out to be rather difficult going, so I think if this makes it into the WM book, I’ll ask the editor to change them. Good comment!