The Great Satan…
Or… The Axis of Evil
Or… The enemy of my enemy is my friend
Or… The BBUs
Despite the subtitles this is not a post about religion or politics. I was brought up Southern and according to my mawmaw, “We don’t talk about things like that, Punkin…”
((Which is one reason why slavery, the genocide of the American Indian, and government approved racism were permitted, and a thousand lesser evils took / take place. No one talked about the pink elephant in the room. But really. That is not what this post is about.))
This post is about the believable bad guy, the antagonist, from the “quiet guy next door” who keeps to himself, grows beautiful azaleas, and kills children on weekends, to the Satan of religion. David’s post last week, and the back and forth comments, stimulated this train of thought—Bad Guys—the Big Bad Uglies (BBUs). Is this approach the only way to look at BBUs? No. But it’s the way that preys on my mind today, so I’m going with it. It isn’t a scholarly look at the antagonist, (I’m no scholor) but an experiential one as reader and writer.
For the next two weeks, I want to take a good look at BBUs, not just from a fantasy standpoint but from a current literary marketplace standpoint—an overview from the perspective of a fantasy / UF / mystery / thriller writer. Why? Because culture shapes how we see evil. The evil character as viewed by someone in ancient Greece is going to be different from the evil character as viewed by someone from the same time period but living in Central America. Their cultures were vastly different so their vision of good and evil (or maybe, right and wrong, or social and antisocial) were different.
Similarly, albeit not quite so spectacularly, the readers of different genres will view antagonists differently. The overall literary market leads and / or follows current culture and shapes what kind of BBUs will work and not work in our books.
I’ll start with a view of the BBU in other genres and then move to fantasy and UF next week. Why should writers of fantasy and UF and other fantasy subgenres even care about the BBUs of other genres? Because they all have attributes in common, and understanding some of those aspects of the antagonist can help in a clearer vision of the antagonist in fantasy.
I’ll look at BBUs through the following questions:
- What makes them work?
- How do we keep them from becoming formulaic? (The pseudo-Satan.)
- What mistakes do we writers make that allow them to become formulaic? (Just another way of looking at number two above, with a different perspective.)
- And how do we as readers contribute to the success or failure of the BBU? (Culture and the reader.)
Interwoven is also a partial comparison / contrast between BBUs and MCs (main characters).
Mainstream literary favorites may have no particular BBU. The antagonist in the novel can be the sea, the current culture, some aspect of the MC’s personality (such as the refusal to give up anger and hatred), mother nature, diamond mines in Africa, ghosts from the beyond, whatever. That antagonist is taken from the concept of conflict:
Man against nature, man against himself, etc.
Less often is the conflict between humans: man against man. The antagonist in literary novels can also be the darkness in a human soul, not an entity outside of the MC. But I’m not a literary novel writer, so I’ll leave that genre to others better qualified. However, I’d be interested in seeing what others in group and in the MW community have to say about literary antagonists. The input of the scholars among us might shed some light here.
My AKA, Gwen, just finished a rewrite of Ashes to Ashes, (first US release coming this summer!!!) which is a mystery / slice-of-life / Southern fiction about a woman whose wonderful, perfect husband dies of a stroke. And she discovers that he wasn’t so wonderful. Instead, he cheated on her with her best friend, was involved in shady business deals, and left Ashlee and her daughter in deadly danger with no idea who the BBU coming after them is or what he wants. The antagonist in this novel is the boy next door BBU. This was an easy book to write in terms of the BBU. Most traditional mysteries are.
One quick note – there are as many sub genres in mystery as there are subgenres in fantasy, such as hardboiled, police procedural, woman in jeopardy, etc. I’ll not try to make mention of all the others, but will concentrate on traditional mystery. The traditional mystery is well encapsulated in the Agatha Christie novel and the TV show, Murder She Wrote. Someone dies, and the non-police sleuth solves the crime.
If we look at the traditional mystery BBU in terms of the above four questions we get:
- What makes them work? The traditional mystery BBU may have several motives for the crime committed, but he needs only one motivation. Of course, he must also have opportunity, means, and the will to do evil. Usually this motive is simplistic—money, revenge, money, romance, power, and, did I mention?, money. Think Murder She Wrote, or most any TV show dedicated to crime solving. The genre of traditional mystery is perfect for television, because the plot isn’t heavily layered and the BBU isn’t multifaceted. A lot of the individual Buffy the Vampire Slayer shows were mysteries cloaked in urban fantasy (UF) clothes. A crime was committed (a human was drained of blood or whatever) and Buffy had to find and dispatch the evil one.
- How do we keep them from becoming formulaic? To keep the BBUs from being formulaic, murder mystery writers use two main devices: the unusual form of a murder (being pickled in vinegar, drowning in a vat of beer, exposure to a rare poison, accidentally falling on a stake meant for another vampire) and bait and switch. In bait and switch, they offer the reader two or more possibilities of characters who might be the BBU. All are eliminated through the course of the story, leaving the one guilty BBU. Then they sometimes do one last bait and switch and reveal the *true* BBU. It’s a puzzle shared by writer and reader. (YA fantasy writers often introduce such a simplistic BBU, but we can cover that next week.)
- What mistakes do we as writers make that allow them to become formulaic? BBUs are characters who believe they deserve all the goodies. In traditional mysteries, they believe they have the right to perpetrate whatever crime has been committed. When we writers make it too obvious who the BBU is, and / or make his motivation too multifaceted, the mystery is no longer just a mystery. It is the more simple nature of the conflict that rings true as a traditional mystery.
- And how do we as readers contribute to the success or failure of the BBU? By picking up a mystery, the reader accepts the premise that a crime will be/has been committed and the bad guy will be identified and caught (sometimes punished) by the book’s end. The genre tells us this will happen. If we read a mystery we are therefore partly responsible for our own willingness to accept the crime committed, no matter how bizarre, and our own suspension of disbelief. If we are smarter than the writer and figure out the puzzle, we won’t enjoy the ride nearly as much. That said, figuring out who the BBU is and beating the writer at his own game is half the mystery fun! So it’s all up to the reader, to play the game that was set in motion by the writer, and be willing to be led along his literary puzzle path. If you are thinking about this suspension of disbelief in terms of fantasy, you begin see to why the BBUs in all literary forms have some similar characteristics.
Thriller BBUs are tougher to write and tougher to analyze because:
- The level of inherent violence is higher.
- The BBU often is known to the reader.
- The BBU often is known to the MC.
- The pace must be tighter and the BBU is usually on a deadline to achieve his evil ends.
Thriller BBUs must have strong, believable motivation(s) for the reader to accept the rising suspense and the common rising level of violence. I like writing and reading thrillers because the plot can take such delicious twists and turns and the BBU can be fully fleshed out. He becomes a well-rounded, four-dimensional character, unlike a lot of traditional mysteries where the BBU is often a two dimensional character. Like the MC, the BBU in thrillers can have (often *needs*) a past, a present life, personal needs, personal failings, personal strengths, good and bad aspects to his character. He may rescue cats on Saturday and kidnap the children of politicos in Argentina on Sunday. He may be married, attend religious services, believe in heaven and hell, work a fulltime job as a doctor, veterinarian, town councilman, or any other upstanding job. And yet he is a BBU. His need to do the evil in the book must be clearly laid out and justified. To him at least. The reader has to believe the BBU will act in a way contrary to society and the BBU’s justification for his actions has to be well laid out, at least in his own mind. If he is a contract killer for hire, he needs to be humanized, even in the face of the crimes he commits. Hannibal Lector’s justification was that he was smarter than anyone else, and belonged at the top of the food chain: he was clearly a psychopath with a taste for human flesh. It was enough for the time. But current readers have had a belly full (I know. I can hear the groans from here) of Hannibal look-alikes. Today’s thriller BBUs have to be more. And here is where the characteristics of the BBU begin to cross the lines into some subgenres of fantasy.
If we look at thriller BBU in terms of the original four questions we get:
1. What makes them work? The thriller BBU often needs more than one major motivation for the crime(s) committed, and must also have opportunity, means, and the will to do evil. This BBU requires the reader to *feel for him* in some way. Taking a another look at the BBU Hannibal Lector (unique for its time and social culture) Lector was smart, erudite, neat, clean, educated, smiling, appearing kind and well-balanced. A lunatic, but the appearance was riveting. It was a first for the suspense thriller. Being a first, creating a first-time-ever BBU is the easy answer to making them work. I’ve had a few that stood out as unique over the years. But if the totally unique BBU is impossible in your creative process, one can also take bits and pieces from existing tropes and toss in some unique, non-stereotypical traits to make the current-market-BBU work. How do *I* do this? I research the new trope BBUs so I don’t plagiarize by accident, and then play around with bizarre-O concepts until I find some that work for me. Then I humanize him, giving him good qualities and characteristics so the reader can like him. The point here is that thriller BBUs need to stand out and have an edge. The antagonist in Intensity by Dean Koontz was a unique character for its time, and frankly more interesting to me as a reader than H. Lector. I also recommend Intensity as a book to study for the way the author wrote rising suspense. Excellent!
2. How do we keep them from becoming formulaic? If the BBU is not known to the reader, thriller writers use multiple bait and switch—the mystery concept turned up two notches. This type of story offers the reader several possibilities of characters who might be the BBU, but most are eliminated only at the climactic scene, often by killing off several. Often by violence. All are eliminated one way or another, leaving the clear guilty BBU. Except he may not be the real BBU. There are more often baits and switches and the *true* BBU is often killed in a climactic, violent scene. If the BBU is on screen—meaning that the reader knows who he is, but he hasn’t been caught—then who he is and how he evades capture must be different and keep the reader guessing. The fact that he is free to act must play into the storyline.
3. What mistakes do we as writers make that allow them to become formulaic? Thriller BBUs are characters who believe they deserve all the goodies, and they want to wreak havoc and cause pain. (Mystery BBUs on crack.) Thriller BBUs must have something extra or the character loses all power and intensity. Thriller BBUs need that extra edge, extra push, extra whacko twist to make them stand out. Traditional mystery BBUs can be a little formulaic because the reader is willing to accept some responsibility and for his own suspension of disbelief. Not so for thriller writers. The writers have to step up the BBU a *lot*! Copycats beware! The series-long BBU is this character, appearing and reappearing in the MC’s life, become fully fleshed out as we learn who and what he is and what makes him work.
4. And how do we as readers contribute to the success or failure of the thriller BBU? Thriller readers have to be willing to be confused, shocked, twisted around backward in our thinking, and left gasping. We have to be willing to be taken into controversy (mystery writers do this too, but not nearly as much), willing to have heart palpitations when the book is done. It is up to us to accept the … well, the dare thrown down by the writer and his conflict and his BBU.