OVERKILL is UNDERKILL; Wreck That Hero NOW.

A guest post by Jabe Stafford, @oculuswriter


Your antagonist has no excuse for letting the hero win. He or she has all the power and resources at his or her command, yet that valiant bastard always throws wrenches into every evil plot.

Victory is earned, not given, and the reader can freaking TELL when victory is given and not earned. Readers matter most, so wreck your hero honestly for their sake. Make ‘em work for that goal. It should mean something. The antagonist you’re writing shouldn’t give a turd burger about virtue or what’s right or the heroine’s pain. Walk all over anyone necessary for that villainous goal. They say, “Every character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.” Well guess what? Water is life, and your antagonist has all the water in her pocket. If you’re not overkilling that protagonist, it’s underkill and becomes B- writing instead of A+ writing that sells thousands of novels. The world needs stories with A+ writing, so be that author and overkill your protagonist so the end of Act 3 means something!

The meaning is in the struggle. Wins that’re handed to your protagonist feel just like those scratch-off lottery tickets where you win the exact amount you paid for the ticket. If the reader feels indifference at your protagonist’s victory or your antagonist’s smear campaign, then you gotta struggle more as a writer. Everyone knows what filler tastes like – stale french fries you settled for ‘cause there’s nothing better around. That’s how you get your story put down, so make it personal. Murder the protagonist’s favorite person. Weave something out of your hero’s comfort zone into the first few chapters. Chances are, your MC isn’t used to something out of their area of expertise ruining them. Adaptation to that something will SHOW the reader how much the MC’s goal means to them. When pain matters less than X/Y/Z goal does, then you’ve hooked the reader.

Setting that hook means making that reader care about a character, then wrecking that character’s life. It can be the MC, the Relationship Character, or the setting or anything else. Keeping that protagonist or love interest alive means sacrificing a helluvalot. Read up on the Hollywood Formula to learn how to build up that tension. When a character knows your MC well enough to tell them what they desire, then dies as a result of standing up for him or her, you friggin’ KNOW it means something. Readers want to care, so show how many important people your villain will trample over to reach their evil ends. It’s your protagonist’s job to step up for what they want, whether it’s a glass of water or true love or world peace. Nothing they wanted before the Fateful Decision (aka Inciting Incident) matters, and yes, you CAN use the protagonist’s old wants against them. The villain certainly would, so why shouldn’t you you heartless writer you? No sending minions to do your antagonist’s job for her. That’s half-ass.

Half-assery ain’t overkill, and nothing less than overkill will make your antagonist believable. That ain’t just because reality is actually nasty. Readers won’t think your villain’s into it if they send minions or only follow through on part of their plan. As a reader yourself, you’ve seen the send-in-the-cannon-fodder decision often. It might’ve hooked you as a kid, but post-elementary-school? No friggin’ way. You know as well as your readers do that the MC is capable of handling all but the antagonist’s pressure. Underkill isn’t even in your antagonist’s mind. If it is, then you know which scenes will need re-writing when you come to the second draft and third draft steps.

(Confession: I re-wrote half a manuscript because the antagonist’s backstabbery was so easy to predict. That feeling when you hit points like that? It’s shame. It happens. Grow from it. Re-build and make a badass villain and not a half-ass one. Readers will adore you for it.)

Overkill that protagonist. Wreck the hero now. Villains with blind spots for whatever reason will be interpreted as cheap plot devices and not as honest confrontations. Your antagonist should want their glass of water even if it kills the protagonist’s entire family tree. That bad guy didn’t earn that position of power just to say, “Okay, I’m gonna pretend no one’s coming for what I got.” You want to sell a lot of novels? Rip that protagonist’s heart out the same way you’d rip the reader’s out. When your MC learns to fight for their heart harder than your villain can take shots at it, you’ve got a stellar story.

Never stop writing. You know, ‘cause the world’s the villain and it’s doing all it can to stop you from finishing that manuscript. It’ll do twice as much to stop you from revising it, and thrice as much to prevent you from submitting it.

Overkill is underkill – build that dream now.



Jabe Stafford: Author, Villain, Supergenius. (The caption is ours; he’s rather more modest than that.)

Jabe Stafford enjoys writing stories about alcoholic angels and drunk demons. He likes chatting ’em up after they’ve had a few, and the stuff they say is so bizarre that it makes his life of writing and office work sound mundane by comparison. The demons seem most interested in his years as a martial arts instructor, but then they brag about magic and challenge him to arm wrestle. Don’t arm wrestle a drunk demon or a sober one. Just read about ’em.

His wanderings have taken him to the UW-Madison Writer’s Institute and the Write-By-The-Lake Retreat. He writers with the Middleton Creative Writers, where his fellow authors hear those stories about the demons he tried to arm wrestle. He’s earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from UW-Madison, a Teaching Certification from Edgewood College, and a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.


Minions Matter Most

A guest post by Jabe Stafford, @oculuswriter

One person sure as hell didn’t build The Pyramids on their own.

Or the Death Star.

It was people with goals to meet or family to care for that did that.

Villains gotta help others in order to complete their nefarious schemes. Equipping every marching minion with the lasers and shields they’ll need to protect their brains is a no-brainer. Hand your jabronie slimes some weapons and say, “fire that way,” and see how important it is to teach them to manifest hands and shoot. No teach, bad shot, no face. Minions need their faces. Armchair Dark Lords get less respect than Rodney Dangerfield unless they’re seen on the battlefield, igniting the armchair and assuring that ‘Died-by-La-Z-Tov Cocktail’ goes on the heroes’ tombstones. Minions matter most, and the greatest villains know how to lead them best.

What is it a minion’s gonna need? Anti-gravity boots? Spreadsheets? A dozen laser shurikens? Leading means preparation not just for you and your handlebar moustache, but for your flunkies too. Doesn’t matter how overloaded the antagonist is. One flunkie in a wife beater VS any decent hero = cannon fodder enemy syndrome. Readers can sense that shit. If you write a bunch of chapters with ‘eh, that doesn’t matter’ obstacles in the way, your book gets put down. Either your baddie’s losing sleep and cranking out hardcore equipment for the crew, or he’s put-down-able. Even CEOs know mercs don’t come with their own equipment and if they do, it’s probably not up to the standards you’ll both need to beat Noblehead’s head in. Minions matter most, so treat them like they’re important in your writing and your villain’s eyes. Equip them.

Teach them too. Show-and-don’t tell demonstrations of your minions’ skills make for dadgum good storytelling. If your minion is willing to backstab old friends for that sexy sexy reward, then they earned it. That’s how your villainess will know how much the henchmen have learned and what else they’d be capable of knowing. “Dumb as a styrofoam brick” has no place on any minion’s resume, and ain’t no antagonist got time for twelve or more years of schooling henchmen. Teach ‘em what they’ll need to reach your pure goal and put ‘em in situations to use what you taught. Faith built on a foundation like that is the best kind of evil to read about. The antagonist who gives back blurs the lines of good and friggin’ evil like six shots blur the roadway. (Think and drive, don’t drink and drive.)

And your antagonist should be out on that roadway, uppercutting cars and wrecking every step in the protagonist’s plan. Name a villain off the top of your brainpan that only gave orders and succeeded. Closest I can think of is a wrinklebag who zapped his servant’s son and a bald mob boss that fights maybe three nerfed people in three seasons. Those backseat bad guy types get overshadowed by ambitious underlings so fast it’s like a solar eclipse flash mob. Pure ecstatic villainy for thirty seconds, then disappointment and yuck the rest of the time. Do you want readers to associate “yuck,” or, “terrible,” or their synonyms with your antagonist? Then write a villain who does shit and thinks a few steps ahead of the M.C. Minions will follow a bad guy that goes to bat for them.

Prior proper planning prevents piss poor performance in your minions. Gun fight coming? No knives for them. Laser fight coming? No dart guns for them. Leading your underlings means knowing what they know and sharing what they’ll need to learn to keep them in black cloaks and you in power. Cronies gotta know these things, but even cronies won’t stay on the payroll if the Big Ol’ Boss is more sloth than boss.

Minions – and writing – matter most. Don’t neglect ‘em.


Jabe Stafford enjoys writing stories about alcoholic angels and drunk demons. He likes chatting ’em up after they’ve had a few, and the stuff they say is so bizarre that it makes his life of writing and office work sound mundane by comparison. The demons seem most interested in his years as a martial arts instructor, but then they brag about magic and challenge him to arm wrestle. Don’t arm wrestle a drunk demon or a sober one. Just read about ’em.

His wanderings have taken him to the UW-Madison Writer’s Institute and the Write-By-The-Lake Retreat. He writers with the Middleton Creative Writers, where his fellow authors hear those stories about the demons he tried to arm wrestle. He’s earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from UW-Madison, a Teaching Certification from Edgewood College, and a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.


Trust Your Local Villainess

a guest post by by Jabe Stafford – @OculusWriter

How does a despicable killer get you as a reader to trust her? 

By following through on her plan.  

Whether she’s snuggly, charismatic, or cool and collected on the surface, she’s got a plot. Pre-meditated set-ups in storytelling are the hidden laser cakes in a space alien food fight. Your villainess will make damn sure to hit the hero where he isn’t super-competent. She knows her actions and their results are a window to the soul of her plan, so she’ll put up psychedelic tye-dyed curtains to distract both the reader and the hero. 

Writing a set-up that builds your reader’s faith in the villain AND terrifies them in ways they never knew they liked is tough. Here’s a tip or three to help make the evil happen. 

(The big one is: Don’t stop writing even when you think it sucks. Words on the page can be improved. The blank page you shied away from can’t.) 

It takes fewer than one tentacle to count the number of bumbling villains who stayed bumbling and succeeded. There’s a reason She-Go was a better character than that guy she worked for. She called out her boss’s bumbling, acted on her own (*cough* better) plans, and became a fun-to-watch badass for it.  

Building a plot and earning the competence to carry out that plot intrigues the reader and stymies the hero.  

So do that.  

Don’t hand the reader a list of reasons why your villainess is a mastermind.  

Show it.  

She won’t interrupt the hero only when the plot demands a rise in the tension. Show it often and use it to build genuine tension. Every fight she wins against Strongjaw McGraw or Princess Crownyhead shakes their story arcs, earns her a victory she can build on, and grows the reader’s faith. When she shows up again, it’ll be exciting and unexpected. You’ll have as much of a blast writing those clashes as the reader will enjoy watching them.  

No part of no plot nowhere includes the words, “Let’s clash with the hero on his own ground where he’s strongest.” You gotta do the exact opposite of that if you wanna write the villainess of a lifetime.  

If Strongjaw McGraw’s a third degree blackbelt and UFC fighter, your villainess will shoot him from afar or hit him where he’s incompetent. If Princess Crownyhead is the best witch in the royal court, then why would your villainess’s victory rely on out-magicking her? Not only is that kind of behavior unbecoming of an antagonist, it leads to ZERO character development on the hero’s part.  

The M.C. of a novel I’m querying is a robotics professor with A.I. bees at his command. Think he’s got any military training or equipment? No friggin’ way. The antagonist knows this and uses stealth tactics, SWAT gear, and guerrilla ambushes that the MC has to learn to anticipate if he wants to survive.  

A villainess’s competence can build the reader’s faith in her, but it can also multi-task for you in that it fuels the MC’s character development. Weaponizing that swarm of A.I. bees is a type of growth in several ways, and it’s one of many developments both rivals make. The rival that grows, deals with the consequences, and counters the other’s abilities better triumphs, and that usually ain’t the hero.  

Your hero’s gonna grow and learn to succeed unless you’re writing a sick-nasty tragedy. Your villainess knows he’s watching for any hint, clue, or opening that will shed light on her unknown plan. Does she need a laser cake to frame a moon’s king for the murder of an alien saint? Then she’s gotta mask her actions and their results.  

Insert cliche about actions speaking louder here, ‘cause it’s dadgum true.  

Stealing X and Y, but leaving Z will inform the hero about her upcoming villainy. Hell, the things your villainess didndo could give her away. Writing a villainess that’s too clearly after one thing will give the hero all the info needed to deny that to her. Lies, acting, and doing things that seem to go against her plot help with that. They add that I-love-to-hate-you flavor that many good villainesses need. And a tasty set-up gets bland-ified if the reader or the hero can put it together too early. So make her lie, cheat, and steal her ass off, then re-attach it and repeat.  

How can you get readers so hungry for your villainess that they drool on the page? 

By having fun building a set-up the villainess will follow through on. 

It can be two sentences on an index card, a full-on outline, or something you add when re-writing. That plot is a weapon in a slasher villain’s hands. It strikes the weak points like wolves on moonless nights. It’s gonna get bloody and need cleaning like any well-used murder weapon. Readers like to be scared and satisfied when the plot drops and wubs them in all the right spine-tingly ways. Use these tips well. 

Go forth and make the evil happen in your stories. 

That was my plot this whole time. 

Happy Halloween!

 

 

Jabe Stafford enjoys writing stories about alcoholic angels and drunk demons. He likes chatting ’em up after they’ve had a few, and the stuff they say is so bizarre that it makes his life of writing and office work sound mundane by comparison. The demons seem most interested in his years as a martial arts instructor, but then they brag about magic and challenge him to arm wrestle. Don’t arm wrestle a drunk demon or a sober one. Just read about ’em.
His wanderings have taken him to the UW-Madison Writer’s Institute and the Write-By-The-Lake Retreat. He writers with the Middleton Creative Writers, where his fellow authors hear those stories about the demons he tried to arm wrestle. He’s earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from UW-Madison, a Teaching Certification from Edgewood College, and a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

Violence Is Ice Cream

a guest post by by Jabe Stafford – @OculusWriter

Books are dessert.

Violence is the ice cream topping.

When you go out to dinner and you find three scoops of vanilla on your sushi, you know someone is friggin’ around or pranking you instead of making sure those flavors go together. Ordering a medium sci-fi waffle cone, then getting a triple-bloody sci-fi horror romance with zombie sprinkles feels as bad as it sounds, especially when you didn’t expect it. Ice cream ain’t the only weapon in a food fight, so if the point of the story you’re writing is violence, then it better be used extremely well or the story’ll melt like it fell out of the freezer and into Hell. The Seventh Circle. With the flaming rivers.

Want readers inhaling the brain food you spent months or years writing? These responsible violence tips will help you get readers to say, “Whoa, did you see that?” instead of, “Ugh, did you see that?”

Never stop writing.

Readers come in knowing their all-time favorite genres and the genres that cause involuntary cookie-coughing. Genre labels help writers and readers gauge how many scoops of violence they want in their brain food. A horror novel will need more violence and vivid descriptions of that violence at times. For urban fantasy, fantasy, and sci-fi, one scoop of violence will do unless the specific injury or expression of that injury is critical to the plot. Sub-genres are helpful, color-blasted labels too. A slasher is gorier than a thriller. Thriller would be gorier than a police procedural. And romance probably ain’t gonna have gore at all. Same concept applies to age range. A middle-grade story will contain an ounce of violence to spice up the action and the stakes, while an adult story can benefit from slathering half a gallon of violence on the right scenes. Picking out the right genre and sub-genre for your work in progress can guide you to the right flavor of violence. You want readers gobbling your book down and not up-chucking bad reviews or abandoning the book outright, right?

Don’t ever stop writing.

Who hates being tricked, deceived, or lied to? I just made you stick your hand up like back in grade school. The violence in your story is in your hands, so it’s up to you to set up audience expectations like domino ice cream sammiches. Use your first chapter as a sample tasting. The amount of owies appearing in chapter one should be somewhat proportional to the overall amount appearing in the whole manuscript. Starting with romance only to lead into multiple serial killer murder competitions is like putting squashed roaches underneath the yummy flavor the reader ordered. Don’t actually do that. With the roaches. They’re endangered. And gross.

Never ever stop writing.

(We’re not saying Jabe is a dark magician, but this IS the picture he sent us.)

Over-the-top nutball violence can be part of a story’s charm once a writer establishes the right genre and sets up the right expectations. Name two of your favorite crazy-violent movies or books. Go! That dark utopian sci-fi with legalized violence under certain circumstances? Yep, they did it well. The classic medieval action story where severed flying limbs reveal the spirit of the story? Yep, they did it well too. It was meant to be gratuitous and they still told a story. If it ain’t believable even in the context you worked your rump off to set up, then it’s too much. And we’ve all read books that hit that Too-Much moment. Want to write a cheesy action horror, a brutal comedy, or a farce? Layer on the bloo-er, ice cream, but remember that no one can eat from an overflowing bowl. Seek out those beta readers as crazy as you are and ask them, “Is there too much murder-death-kill going on and why did it hit you wrong?”

Take a break once in a while, but dadgummit, keep writing.

Stories and *ahem* ice cream can multi-task better than a futuristic supercomputer with ten genius brains. Violence makes for rare, emotional moments in some genres and it paves the characters’ paths in others. Prior proper planning prevents egregious exsanguination. A murder-burner-page-turner of a story can flow like an elegant river from your manuscript, or it can smash the levee down and drown you and the reader in “ugh”s. Take responsibility for your violent scenes, read across multiple genres, and ask people for feedback on your story and the ice cream in it. Books are dessert, so get to know the best toppings.

Confession: This whole blog was a self-nag as well as a helpful sharing session. We’re all working to build the right amount of villainy into our stories together. Let’s do this thing and keep writing!


Jabe Stafford enjoys writing stories about alcoholic angels and drunk demons. He likes chatting ’em up after they’ve had a few, and the stuff they say is so bizarre that it makes his life of writing and office work sound mundane by comparison. The demons seem most interested in his years as a martial arts instructor, but then they brag about magic and challenge him to arm wrestle. Don’t arm wrestle a drunk demon or a sober one. Just read about ’em.
His wanderings have taken him to the UW-Madison Writer’s Institute and the Write-By-The-Lake Retreat. He writers with the Middleton Creative Writers, where his fellow authors hear those stories about the demons he tried to arm wrestle. He’s earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from UW-Madison, a Teaching Certification from Edgewood College, and a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

Snuggly Villains

Snuggly Villains

A guest post by Jabe Stafford

Villains commit some terrible deeds, but that’s not why we want to snuggle them. Lovable evildoers are such a dastardly challenge to write. Sometimes an antagonist you pit against your heroine ends up hollow like a chocolate bunny. Gas station night managers sound more exciting than your bad guy on the bad days. If your she-terror sees more couch potato time than action, kick her off it and chuck the couch into orbit. Heads-up: these better-villain tips are things you’ll need to do and re-do at some point, ‘cause no antagonist is, “eh, good enough.”

Straw Man is a term you probably heard when you weren’t listening in English class. Antagonists that are only stereotypes or are only there to be beaten are Straw Women or Men. Were you motivated to care about the cannon-fodder enemies in the latest game you played or novel you read? Then build the habit of not treating your own villains that way. A solid Straw Woman cure to practice is writing from the antagonist’s POV, whatever it may be. First Person, Third Person Close, anything. That villain doesn’t even have to be a narrator in your story. Doing this and reading your own villain’s lines back to yourself will reveal some truth. “Yep, that sounds like a B movie I’d never watch.” “I can tell this bad guy’s faking his role, so the reader probably can too.” Once you hit the point where you could hug your antagonist or see her hoodwinking others into loving her, you know you improved as a writer.

Keep writing.

Villains with the voice of a bored DMV employee are such a drag. They repel reader interest, they radiate unworthiness, and they get dismissed almost as fast as you do when facing said bored DMV employee at the actual place. Starting off with a villain who sounds like this is all right sometimes if it means you build momentum and write 2,000 words in a day. It’s not all right to let this antago-bro or antago-sis stay bland. Don’t mistake willingness to wreck the hero’s life as excitement. Most villains want hero-wrecks. Yours wants more. She wants to be branded onto the brains of readers for her twisted perspective, her daring, or how close she is to being good if only this one tiny thing would change. But it won’t. ‘Cause she’s an exciting villain your readers will savor when you build a stronger voice for her. Search for common words, habit words, and run-on sentences in your baddie. Replace them by hand, one by one, with richer synonyms and short-but-addictive phrases. Don’t know what she’d say? Write some more until you come to a confrontation where you know she’d never say basic things. If writing from the antagonist’s POV isn’t enough, try twenty questions with your antag. Jotting interview questions and answers you got from an imaginary interview with her will drag more of her voice from the sassy or pissed-off depths of her heart cavity.

Keep writing.

Bad guys gotta eat too, so get ‘em hungry. Lazy villains and plot-convenience enemies aren’t a challenge to the hero or to themselves. What’s your antagonist got to lose if the protagonist wins? Did cursed porcu-bees get him rich and the hero’s siccing lawyer clerics on him to ruin his revenue and reputation? That antagonist fought hard to be public enemy number one thru ten. (Or to get whatever reward came with that status.) The most snuggleable villains are ones that gradually descend or that are so memorably active that the reader can’t help but love them despite their crimes. So make those crimes craveable to read. Challenge yourself to write down multiple reasons for each of your antagonist’s choices or crimes. “X was the easiest way,” and, “Y got him more thrills,” and, “Z was the way to make sure no one else knew I did it.” Anything can go on that list. Desire to see the hero suffer more, or to murder the hero because death means no more guff from that hero. Passion to prove he can control or outwit others, often many others, at once. Cold devotion to one goal with a few sincere emotional moments that hint at remorse or a love before the frigid soul takes over again. Or just because it was fun. That glee on the baddie’s mug has to be earned, but taking the time to flip-flop their motivations might lead to even more unique villains. Finding the three most ready-at-hand options for an antagonist’s crimes is a good way to weed out the week and predictable options. Try that next time your villain flops down on the couch and refuses to obstruct the hero. It’s a two-for-one too: if the reader can only see the antagonist’s intent once in a while, and they see the plan pay off despite being unable to guess the intent, they’ll trust in your villain. And then you have them.

Keep writing.

“Eh, good enough” villains ain’t snuggly. A bread sandwich is more satisfying than a Straw Man antagonist losing or winning. Readers develop mistrust-o-vision when a villain’s voice sounds mediocre or skippable. Unmotivated baddies that can’t be bothered to scratch their own asses won’t kick your hero’s the way it needs to be kicked. Villains make the heroes, so keep writing and enjoy being bad. For good story’s sake.

Jabe Stafford enjoys writing stories about alcoholic angels and drunk demons. He likes chatting ’em up after they’ve had a few, and the stuff they say is so bizarre that it makes his life of writing and office work sound mundane by comparison. The demons seem most interested in his years as a martial arts instructor, but then they brag about magic and challenge him to arm wrestle. Don’t arm wrestle a drunk demon or a sober one. Just read about ’em.
His wanderings have taken him to the UW-Madison Writer’s Institute and the Write-By-The-Lake Retreat. He writers with the Middleton Creative Writers, where his fellow authors hear those stories about the demons he tried to arm wrestle. He’s earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from UW-Madison, a Teaching Certification from Edgewood College, and a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.