The Great Satan Part 1


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:

  1. What makes them work?
  2. How do we keep them from becoming formulaic? (The pseudo-Satan.)
  3. 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.)
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. The level of inherent violence is higher.
  2. The BBU often is known to the reader.
  3. The BBU often is known to the MC.
  4. 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.

Next week – fantasy and UF BBUs.


18 comments to The Great Satan Part 1

  • Wow. This a lot to digest. Thank you for putting in the time to write this up. I can’t wait for next weeks analysis.

    At one point you were discussing how time/location/culture/etc can alter the nature of a BBU. That made me think of the Russians. Growing up in the 70s and 80s in America, the Russians were often depicted as the BBU (in thrillers especially). But when the Cold War ended, there was no unifying BBU. That lasted for several years until 9-11. Nowadays, Muslim terrorists tend to be the BBU, but because they lack the structured organization that the Russians had (no KGB, for one), modern thrillers have had to alter the way they approach telling the tale. You can’t just “find & replace” the word Russian with Muslim terrorist. The entire story has to be restructured — particularly because of #4 — what the reader brings to the experience.

  • Faith> this is awesome! It makes me think about the kind of BBU I’m dealing with in my WIP. I’ve got two, one that is really a Satan figure (a demon–not much to redeem there) but a lot of fun for pure evil, and the other like the mystery one. He thinks he has a right to what he wants, etc. He’s working for the BE (big evil), and will come to learn that it isn’t really better to be at the right hand of the devil than in her way. I’m also writing a “thriller” in that one of the POV character is the lesser bad guy, the audience knows who it is (before the protagonist, though not by much).

    All of this makes sense and really helps me catigorize the things in my head and see how they’ll help the plot take shape, etc.

    And I love the notion of the ability to be free to act for a villain. What better way to move a plot forward than to have the BBU do something horrid?

  • Okay, I know it’s BBUs, but I’m reading it in my head as “Boo-Boos” and we used to call my younger daughter “BooBoo” so this is a little weird for me…

    That said, nice post, Faith. A lot to chew on here, and I’m looking forward to seeing how you handle Epic and UF BooBoos next week. Somewhat naturally, as I read I tried to figure out how my villains in the new work fit into the structure you outline. I’m writing fantasy, but with a mystery twist, and also with a UF pastiche, though it’s 18th century UF. And I realize that I have two villains. On the one hand, each novel has its mystery style bad guy. But the series also has a recurring nemesis for my MC who is more of a thriller villain who is well-established — one of the bet characters I’ve ever written, actually. My MC has to defeat the mystery villain in every book, but really the best he can hope for in his larger struggle with the thriller villain is a stalemate. That’s the tension that drives the series. Anyway, thanks as always for getting me thinking!

  • Stuart, that is so true, and it meant an entire subgenre of mystery disappeared over night. Robert Ludlam went from absolute king of the thriller to nobody. Until that time he was the highest paid thriller writer in the biz. It took him years to figure out how to write in the new world. And thanks!

    Emily Pea Faerie, shorthand for my favorite way to sped up the pace and add suspence is: Kill someone! (Not a suggestion to commit murder, but a notice that it’s time for something big to happen.) While I actually do sometimes kill off a character, I’m really saying that the BBU needs to make some headway in his own goals and the MC needs to feel the possibility of doom. Doom barking at his feet builds suspence.

  • David, Thanks. ( I actually see BBUs as Bubbahs. But don’t tell anyone. ) You really aught to be writting the epic BBU post, but I’m going to try my hand at it. (You’ll have to chime in. A lot!)

    The recurring nemesis is a great character, and writers in different genres have handled it in interesting ways. The mistake writers often make there is failing to consider — What happens when the RNBBU is finally defeated. The series pretty much stops. Pat Cornwell faced this when she killed off Kay Scarpetta’s RN and her lover at the same time. The books stopped resonating, even after Pat brought the MC’s boyfriend back to life. A second, handy-dandy RNBBU who makes an appearence several books before the end is helpful, but Pat forgot that. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll add that in to next weeks post. Thanks for the idea!

  • This was fantastic Faith! Thank you! Mine is a werewolf story, with a twist on the modern werewolf mythology. I have two BBUs, the first being the wolf that bites my MC, thus ushering her into the hidden paranormal world, and the second (primary) is actually the pack leader. I’m not even halfway finished with the novel, but your analysis has already helped me frame my villains better – the first is more of a mystery villain, and the second is more of a thriller villain. I’m anxious to hear your take on the differences for the UF villain next week!

  • “quiet guy next door” who keeps to himself, grows beautiful azaleas, and kills children on weekends

    I read that line and burst into giggles. I’m going to go finish reading your post now, but I had to warn everyone how horrible I am. 😀

  • Misty – you’re not horrible…I had the same reaction! Of course, I’m a little sick and twisted… 😀

  • Megan, glad it helped. A lot of young editors and writers think all characters need to be well defined and fully fleshed out. But often an important character is important for only one characteristic. Unless it is a red herring, leading the reader to assume the wrong party is the BBU, a traditional mystery writer need not always tell the reader a lot about the secondary characters. In fact, telling too much can distract from the important part of the story — the way the MC solves the crime.

  • Misty, Megan, I come from a long tradition of the truely twisted. (grins) (Yes, I have secrets. No I won’t tell!) And I’m glad you got a giggle — that was my intent.

  • Wow, I feel like I just took the first part of a Master’s course in BBUs. Thank you for the detailed analysis of BBU’s. I have a few not-so-BBUs all the way up to THE BBU in my WIP. Your post has me thinking about them now and how I can improve as I’m going through revisions.

    I am looking forward to the upcoming posts on BBUs!

  • I had teh exact same response as Stuart: Wow. Lots to digest here!

    Great stuff, Faith. I especially like your delineation of the mystery/thriller gap, which I always find tricky to pin down.

  • Alistair, glad it helped, though I have to say that there is a lot more to the mystery and thriller BBU than I covered. We could spend months on them, but that would bore me!
    You said>> I have a few not-so-BBUs all the way up to THE BBU in my WIP.

    I like books where there is more than one BBU, each with his own agenda. They are tricky to write, and frankly I’ve seldom attempted it, beyong the recurring nemesis David mentioned. Good luck with your BBU’s and WIP!

  • AJ, I do run on, dont I! 😀 (bleagh…)

    I have to admit that traditional mysteries (sometimes called cozies for those of you who never read them) bore me to tears. My mystery writer friends will now stone me to death… But the BBUs in cozies can be very different from the BBUs in police proceedurals and very different again from the BBUs in hardboiled or professional mysteries or any of the other mystery subgenres. It’s hard to pin down, and I am quite sure there are a lot more differences between them than the ones I mentioned.

    And when a subgenre spills over into thrillers (as in when a police procedural picks up the pace and the BBU comes after the cop, or the timeline is narrowed down into heart-stopping tension) the differences become so murky I can’t always decide what a book is. Except that thrillers pay more and sell better than mysteries. There’s always that.

  • Great post, and I’ll mirror, lots to digest here.

    One of my main POV characters in my WIP goes from Protagonist to Antagonist throughout the course of the book due to his actions taken to try and defeat the BBU (who he feels responsible for helping create). And in the larger series I want to write that follows this story he becomes the secondary BBU to a mini-Satan level BBU.

    However, even that Satan level BBU isn’t just some crazy evil rampaging across the world. Over the course of the series the reader follows him from ten year old child to prophecy-fulfilling BBU who threatens the balance between Light and Dark. (And he’s not even the biggest BBU of them all in my overall universal story arc!)

    I’m looking forward to the Epic Fantasy and UF BBUs posting as well, especially since that’s the area I’ve read and written the most in.

    While there are obvious villains in my book some will also come as a surprise (as will some good guys).

    If I have greedy, angry, pain-inflicting nasty villain in a story he is never the main BBU. I prefer to use a character like that as an obstacle to either protagonist or antagonist, or to throw off the reader as to who they really need to worry about.

    Even in Epic Fantasy I don’t want everything to be clear cut. If one simply reads through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles its amazing how many times nobles switched sides all day long just to come out, even temporarily, on the winning side.

    Thanks for this post.

  • CE, glad you are getting something from the post. Evolving BBU’s are wonderful to play with and can add so much pathos and intensity to any worsening conflict. And the muliti-BBU plot can be a very past-paced one, avoiding the artificial *apple cart* scenes that lesser (or lazier) writers use to attempt an increase in tension.

    This is named for the scenes where the chase takes the cars through the market and they hit carts, making a mess, but not really accomplishing anything. We see it used a lot in epic fiction where the journey causes a problem but the writer’s resolution feels like a page-stuffer, only there as filler, not really accomplishing plot-based forward motion nor increasing the conflict.

  • Sarah

    More! I’m really looking forward to the UF part especially, since I’m struggling to develop my BBU as a character. Part of the struggle is that he might have been redeemable, but he’s not anymore. His moment (moments really) of choice passed a long time ago. I have trouble writing scenes with him because I’m trying to write a character who’s power hungry, highly focused, violent, and charming, except to the protagonist who’s his sister and doesn’t buy the act at all. I feel like I’ve got two separate characters, rather than one integrated character who’s able to show different faces to different people. I’ve written a character who can barely control the urge to kill his own sister, but who has others convinced he’s a charming, reformed fellow. Unfortunately, right now he’s more like two separate characters than one complex one.

  • Sarah, you picked a hard concept to work with, but a brilliant one, if you can make it work. I vaguely recall a book years ago with a two-faced BBU character, but it isn’t coming clear – except that I think it was one of Katherine Kurtz’s books. If any of this flags a memory in anyone, please toss in a thought.