This is the third week of the BBU here on Faith’s post day!
BBU = Big Bad Uglies = the antagonist.
MC = main character = hero.New this week:
AS = applecart scenes
[For those who might wonder, there is a reason why I make up my own names for things that have perfectly good names or terms already associated with them. A.) Proper names can make things sound harder than they are, and writing is hard enough! B.) I’m Southern, and we give nicknames to everything. C.) I work in a hospital and it isn’t unusual to hear entire dialogue spoken in initials. All of which means that I’m predisposed to using them.]
For those of new to the site, *Applecart Scenes* (AS) is the disparaging name my college writing teacher (who was a critically acclaimed writer as well as a 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 vegetable carts. But nothing of substance happens. In applecart scenes, the reader learns nothing new from the mayhem. The tension is not heightened. It’s an action scene, but it takes us nowhere new. It becomes 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 even (for the purposes of this post) an applecart character.
As I said last week, fantasy has its own BBU possibilities, taking us into new realms, with new species, and new potential for conflict. Conflict is what makes a book work. We read for character, (and after David’s post on Monday, I’ll add “–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. I didn’t attempt to cover all the differences. Mostly, I’ve offered a starting point for discussion, with the hopes that it will help our readers to analyze their own BBUs and find ways to tighten them up. And maybe get the other writers and commenters here at MW to toss in a few gems that will round-out / add-to my own thoughts.
BBUs (not to include the recurring nemesis) across the genres have a lot in common (duh) but the differences can be quite distinct, especially when we mix in magical, mystical, mythical monsters. (Try to say that fast three times!) Today I am sticking my toes into a pond owned by others when I look at—with an outsider’s eye—the BBUs of epic fantasy … which I’ve never written.
When done right, epic fantasy BBUs draw upon common cultural archetypes and yet have twists that make them unique. Done right, the BBUs are personalities themselves and contribute to the conflict created by the writer, evolving and / or being further revealed, page by page, pulling the reader deeper into the epic story. Done wrong, they are nothing but AS that leave us unsatisfied.
In all good writing and storytelling, there are always two (or more) BBUs, an external BBU that drives the plot conflict, and the internal BBU that drives the MC’s character development. I’ve waited until now to mention this because in epic it is so easy to see the varying and interlocking BBUs, the external and internal antagonists that drive conflict and create passion in our characters. Think LOTRs and the internal conflict of the Ring Bearer. It was far more interesting to me, as a reader, than the dark cloud on the horizon.
A poorly created external BBU can be an applecart character when he is secondary to the real conflict. Like the BBU in LOTRs, he becomes a trope, a device, to drive the story but the real conflict is that between the character and himself. The real reason for the LOTRs storytelling was real conflict within each of the characters. The BBU was the distant cloud on the horizon, but not a believable persona himself. I don’t want to tick anyone off when I say this, because I loved LOTRs! I read the books and bought a boxed set when it came out and gave another collection to my nephew who reads. Loved it! But the external BBU was … well, as I look back, he was boring. The internal BBUs were far more interesting and drove the story in far better ways than the BBU on the horizon. But let’s look at the biggest, baddest, external BBU anyway…
When it comes to epic fantasy, which has one major story arc, the external and internal BBUs should evolve, be layered, and even be added to, from chapter to chapter and book to book. If the writer does his job, it works. For instance, the biggest, baddest BBU, in my (fake) series about Matilda, the warrior princess, might be Morog, the seven-eyed god of death, to whom Matilda is destined to be the spring sacrifice that brings good crops. Let’s name it the Epic of the Sword of Ulum, (ESU, natch) book one of the three book series, epic fantasy. On her quest to reach Morog, (and kill him / imprison him / whatever it takes to stop the yearly sacrifices) Matilda must pass through Dwarveland where Grog, the evil, blind king of the dwarves attacks all interlopers. Morog is still the biggest BBU of the series, but Matilda must defeat the lesser BBU (and thereby gain in strength and acquire the shield of the hero Ulum) before she can kill off Morog. All well and good, but if that is all she does, the visit in Dwarveland is an AS. To take the story to the next level, Matilda must also face, perhaps even conquer, her fear of the dark, which is an internal BBU. And perhaps she will need to win Grog’s respect as part of uniting the peoples of the world to fight Morog. And perhaps she also has quick tongue and a hot temper—additional internal BBU’s—which she has to rein in to deal with Grog. As she grows past this, the story takes on depth and intensity. The point to remember, is that every BBU needs a purpose related to the plot conflict, as well as to the internal conflict of the MC. So how might I add a layering or evolution to Morog? Perhaps one eye closes each time Matilda achieves the acquisition of one of Ulum’s weapons. Perhaps he loses part of his retinue or warriors. Perhaps his plans change and he grows angrier—and therefore less coherent about his plans. Perhaps he begins to watch Matilda with two of his eyes and that leaves an area of country empty of his view. And that is where Matilda’s twin brother is gathering forces… For every action there should be an equal but opposite reaction.
If we look at the external BBUs of epic fantasy in terms of the original four questions from part one in this series we get:
- What makes them work? External epic fantasy BBUs are usually, literally big bad uglies—the evil king of death, the evil snow queen, the evil priest of San Jose, or our evil Morog, the seven-eyed god of death. To make them work, they need personalities with motivations that counter the hero’s goals. In other words, they must be evil. Like traditional fantasy, epic BBUs can have fantastical weapons, powers, gifts and unlimited motivation, but this is, more often than not, on the god-like or satan-like scale. I mentioned earlier (part 2, I think) that in the Thorn St. Croix, Rogue Mage series, the biggest BBUs were—literally—the dragons of the Revelation. Deciding the overall motivation of the BBUs took time and world-building, because I was determined they would not be just the evil creatures of old who wanted to destroy the earth, kill, kill, kill, yada, yada. I wanted them to be different, yet they had to fit within comfortable cultural parameters my readers might recognize. If the BBU’s killed, there had to be a reason behind it. If they destroyed, there had to be a reason for that too. In my series, my BBUs didn’t care about the earth (green and pretty or brown and dead) but they were stuck here, unless they could find a way back to the source of their species’ power. If they could get back to the source of power, they could leave Earth and go do important stuff (like rearrange the universe to suit them). Earth was their prison, and they had much less power while stuck on their prison world. The *good guys* (equal in power to the BBUs but still connected to their species’ power center) put them here. With humans. Humans who were dying from the predations of the dragons’. Humans who were dying in the internecine war. The *good guys* were not stopping that. The good guys were killing humans too. Which was a nice balancing act between good and evil, and power against power. The motivations made the BBUs work, and the actions and motivations of the powerful *good guys* added more conflict that affected the internal conflict within each character.
- How do we keep them from becoming formulaic? (The pseudo-Satan.) In my opinion, for the external BBU to work in today’s market, it all boils down to motivation and balance. A.) His actions have to be believable within the confines of the world-building. B.) The balance of power between good and evil (or between shades of gray) has to work. C.) The fact that he is all powerful, yet hasn’t (so far) beaten down the puny humans, has to make sense. It doesn’t have to be spelled out, but it has to be reasonable, should the reader stop to think even for a nanosecond. In the Rogue Mage series, the BBU’s were the Dragons of Darkness, balanced by the winners in their war, the Seraphs of Light. One species, two versions (visions) of them. Humans were in the middle, and their choices, reactions, and desires created additional conflict, most of it internal. In any epic story, the characters’ internal conflicts should be challenged by the external BBU’s actions and motivations.
- What mistakes do we writers make that allow them to become formulaic? I think there are several common mistakes. A.) The presence of the all powerful weapon AJ wrote about recently. Anything added in by the writer that upsets the balance of the conflict too soon, or too completely, weakens the plot and the suspense. B.) The timeline for the action is too lengthy. As in traditional fantasies, the BBU needs to be on a fairly short timetable, one that makes sense to the reader, or that the reader can believe in even if he doesn’t know yet what it is, and one that is just long enough to last the number of books planned by the writer. If we have eons for the BBU to accomplish his evil ends, there is no urgency in the story. C.) We forget to give the BBU motivation. Even if the BBU is a dragon, he must want something. If he does evil, we need to let the reader know that there is a reason why, even if we don’t show it yet. That knowledge, even before we share it with the reader, will give a sense of believability to our work. In the Rogue Mage series, I couldn’t figure out a way to introduce the biggest BBU and his motivation early enough. Ideally, I’d have brought him in before the end of the first book and the death of the minor BBUs, but I couldn’t figure out how to do that, and so I alluded to him, without giving a clear view. It was enough, apparently, as no one seemed to mind, but it was wasn’t perfect.
- And how do we as readers contribute to the success or failure of the BBU? The suspension of belief is required here in huge measure. We have to believe in (or want to believe in) magic, other-worldly power, cosmic war, the bigger-than-life battle between good and evil. And we have to be willing to follow the author’s vision through an epic storytelling.
Next time I write, I’ll cover the Recurring Nemesis. (RN)
And maybe I’ll get in to Urban fantasy. (UF)
But it may be after ConCarolinas. Do you have your ticket yet????
(I wrote this on Monday. If I am slow to respond to comments today, It’s because I’m typing one-handed after getting my elbow injected. Ooooowie.)