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 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.