[GUEST POST] Faith Hunter on Big, Bad, Ugly Antagonists

Faith Hunter, fantasy writer, was born in Louisiana and raised all over the south. Under the pen name Gwen Hunter, she writes action-adventure, mysteries, and thrillers. As Faith and Gwen, she has 25+ books in print in 28 countries. Blood Trade (Penguin/ROC April 2013) is the latest release in her urban fantasy Skinwalker series and features vampire hunter Jane Yellowrock. Her Rogue Mage novels — BloodringSeraphs, and Host — feature Thorn St. Croix, a stone mage in a post-apocalyptic, alternate reality, urban fantasy world. These novels are the basis for the role playing game, Rogue Mage. For more information, visit Faith at her website, Twitter (@HunterFaith)or drop by her official Facebook page to connect with her and other fantasy fiction fans.

Antagonists — The Great Satan, the Axis of Evil, or, as I like to call them, the Big Bad Uglys

by Faith Hunter

I started my book writing career in the police procedural marketplace with two co-written cop novels set in the District of Columbia, and published by Warner Books. They were followed by a number of thrillers: Woman in Jeopardy thrillers, a four book medical thriller series, paranormal thrillers, and mainstream mystery / thrillers. Now I write urban fantasy – the Jane Yellowrock series, under the name Faith Hunter – and because Jane is a bounty hunter of sorts, tracking down BBUs of a paranormal nature, I do a lot of thinking about antagonists.

Jane is a broken protagonist who hunts down vampires and other non-human bad guys when they go psycho and break the law – both the human laws and the paranormal laws – and she makes a good living at it. And yes, Jane is a Cherokee skinwalker, able to use post-Newtonian physics, quantum mechanics, genetics, (and sometimes geology [read: rocks]) to change shape into similarly-massed, female, mammalian predators. Yet, even though I am writing in an alternate, paranormal reality, with non-human characters, I draw from that long-ago bank of knowledge gained from writing the police procedurals in my early career.

I am still writing antagonists who must be believable within the artificial world I create, within the rules of an ever evolving genre, within the culture of a world with fewer enforceable, physical borders, which has become a melting pot seething with ancient hatreds, ongoing cultural, ethnic, and religious battles, and fewer places to hide. In other words, my artificial world is a lot like our own, but with woo-woo stuff in it.

BBUs are characters who believe they deserve all the goodies. Like our current North Korean maniac, they believe they have the right to perpetrate whatever evil they want and they believe that the action described as evil by all the other characters (I suppose that you could read countries), is really good and right. A character like Kim Jong-un, one raised on lies and fed a steady diet of hatred, would make a perfect BBU in a paranormal universe because he’s so over-the-top that he’s become dangerously silly…and just dangerous.

Going back to the police procedurals, Hannibal Lector’s justification for his version of the evil-crazies was that he was smarter than anyone else, and belonged at the top of the food chain (koff-koff). 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 BBUs have to be more. And here is where the characteristics of the thriller BBU crosses the lines into Urban Fantasy.

BBUs have to offer more than: “I want the castle and lands and will kill your intended to get them!” Or: “Yes, I am the one who murdered your father, the King! But he wasn’t really the king, he was an imposter. I am king! We were switched at birth!” Or: “I must have an heir and I have chosen you for the vessel. Mwahahahahaha.”

The pseudo-Satan antagonist needs to be more. In my opinion, for the (external) antagonist to work in today’s market, it all boils down to motivation and balance.

  1. His actions have to be believable within the confines of the world-building.
  2. The balance of power between good and evil (or between shades of gray) has to work.
  3. 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 for even a nanosecond.

In an Urban Fantasy world, the believable bad guy, the antagonist, can be anything—vampire, werewolf, other magical critter, or human—but because the world is artificial, writers have to work doubly hard to make certain that the antagonist is believable, and it takes much more technical work to make the reader suspend his disbelief than it ever did in the mystery / thriller market. Seriously. It’s harder.

Like any good thriller writer, I know many of the tools to accomplish this.

  1. Motive and motivation – which are not the same thing. A character may have motive, but no desire to perpetrate a crime or an evil deed. So my BBUs must have both, and the motivation needs to be extreme.
  2. The tools to accomplish the evil deed(s). Even Sauron had tools – both the ones he had, and the tools he needed to make the Earth a living hell. Kinda like Kim Jong-un, but with a better wardrobe and likely with a better haircut.
  3. Non-formulaic crime or inciting event. In mysteries / thrillers set in all genres, writers use the unusual form of the inciting event or crime (a murder victim being pickled in vinegar or drowning in a vat of beer, exposure to a rare poison, accidentally falling on a stake meant for another vampire, magical death, theft of the man-made neutrino bomb, appearance of the galactic neutrino bomb, etc.). In Urban Fantasy it has to be even more different. In Skinwalker, the first of the Jane Yellowrock books, my BBU was a skinwalker who had stolen the form of a vampire to become something else, but the transition didn’t quite work. Keeping his physical form, paranormal power, and his position in the local vampire politics, resulted in the ongoing perpetration of evil. And no one in the artificial world I’d created knew that the BBU’s transition was even possible, so it worked.
  4. Bait and switch. In bait and switch, used most often in police procedurals, a writer offers the reader two or more possibilities of characters or events who/which might be the BBU. All are eliminated through the course of the story, leaving the one guilty BBU. Then the writer does one last switch and reveals the true BBU. It’s a puzzle shared by writer and reader. I’ve used this once or twice in the JY series and it’s just pure fun!

Like thriller antagonists, in Urban Fantasy—as opposed to other forms of fantasy—the antagonist often possesses an inherent level of personal violence and perpetrates a higher level of external violence. He/she/they are often known to the reader, are often known to the main character, and the pace must be tighter than in other forms of fantasy, with the BBU usually on a deadline to achieve the evil ends.

Thriller and Urban Fantasy antagonists must have strong, believable motivation(s) for the reader to accept the rising suspense and the expected, rising, level of violence. Letting the reader in on the motivations allows the plot to take such delicious twists and turns, and the BBU can be fully fleshed out. He can become a well-rounded, four-dimensional character, with personal needs, desires, a past, (hence the fourth dimension, time,) a present life, 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 and turn them into zombies. He may be married, attend religious services, believe in heaven and hell, work a full time job as a doctor, veterinarian, town councilman, or any other upstanding job. And yet he is a Big Bad Ugly because he puts his own needs, desires, and beliefs in front of the same needs, desires, and beliefs of others. Just like in thrillers.

So next time a BBU leaves you unsatisfied and hungry for more (yes, that was a Hannibal comment, too) take a look at the character and see what he’s missing.


You may also want to check out the post from Faith’s last visit to SF Signal, Top 10 Ways To Know If Your Girlfriend Is A Vampire.

And be sure to check out our giveaway of Faith’s new novel, Blood Trade!

71 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Faith Hunter on Big, Bad, Ugly Antagonists”

  1. Well, that was heinous soullessness.

    All of my favorite authors are artists like, Iain Banks.

    They have political and philosophical motives for writing and that’s what drives their plots, villains, and heroes.

    I know a variety of people who torrent books, then pay for them, IF the writer has written a quality book. Writers who set out to create Book Style A, then B, then C cannot possibly create something worth reading, rather they’re a machine producing a shallow product.

    That’s what makes the various elements highlighted in the article BORING and cliched. I’m sure certain genres have gone out of existence, because they were so by the numbers, universal disgust ensued.

    1. And how do you know Ms. Hunter’s books are heinously soulless and shallow cliched by the numbers products? How do you know that she does not have political and philosophical motives for writing? Have you actually read any of her books? Or did you simply rely on your ingrained prejudices about the urban fantasy and/or police procedural genres?

      1. I didn’t say anything about the books, I remarked about the article.

        It’s hideous, like the admissions of a hack!

        Would I spend money, or even steal the books of a person who sounds so dull, no. Might I be wrong, yes.

        I’m not going to gamble eight bucks to find out nor bother with the frustration of torrenting the material.

        Like I said about Iain Banks, I read his explanation and inspiration for his work, it was like reading the thoughts of a genius. I used to talk to Michael Moorcock; he’s another author who has political and existential messages and is impressively interesting. I’d carry both of these guys around on my back if necessary.

        If you’re writing assigned formula novels based on what’s currently marketable, DO NOT ADMIT IT, at least to me.

        1. Dear un-named person.
          Wow. How rude.
          Thanks for not stealing my books. That’s what torrent is, you know.
          And BTW — ever heard of tongue-in-cheek?
          Faith

        2. Ok as Faith knows, I don’t usually chime in on these kinds of things, for one we all know Faith is a great author and two, as you can see Faith can take care of herself with her wittiness…… But, I’m going to say my peace here. I’ve read many, many books and almost all of Faith’s, I’ve even read Iain Banks, such as The Wasp Factory. So now that everyone understands that I have some insight here I can say that I truly believe that the person who write the above post is totally off his rocker. I’ve always thought Faith was a genius and if you have red her Thorne St. Croix books and then the Jane Yellowrock ones you can’t help but see what kind of literary genius she is. Faith got me into the Urban Fantasy genre. I’n sorry to rain on you parade TheAdlerian, but I’m not sure you would know a great author if the walked up and slapped you. Now let me make this clear, I’m not saying that Iain Banks isn’t a great writter, I am saying that Faith is. So my advice to TheAdlerian is, you might want to read the books then the article before bashing someone…… Now with that said I most point out that this is strickly my opinion and everyone is intitled to there own. Good day all.

        3. I found your reply to this article to be rather silly. To think that a book written by formula is not worth reading is just… well I can’t even find words. There are a LOT of books that are written by “formula” that are very excellent. No matter if it’s the old “prophecy-rise-up-and-discover-your-abilities” formula, or “good-vs-evil” formula, plenty of writers use them with great success. What matters is the writing and the characters and the actual story of how they get there. Maybe you didn’t like Harry Potter, but those series were written with a formula and look how big that was. So simply to attack this article like this is very rude. Now, let me address something else. Anyone who torrents a book is stealing, end of story (pardon the pun). It doesn’t matter if you go back and pay for it, it’s theft. If you don’t want to pay for the book, visit your library. I don’t like Ian Banks. I could never get into his writing. But I don’t like a lot of the material published by Moorcock. That’s a personal opinion and I think it’s very rude to attack someone who spent their time writing a book for others to enjoy. You should think things through a bit more before posting an attack like this.

        4. Whoa, someone got the wrong impression. These guidelines aren’t a formula to pumping out boring, write-by-number books. They’re the cornerstone of any good book, and Ms. Hunter has been kind enough to share her experience. These are just good advice on making a good character, which is essential to plot and keeps a reader’s interest. People who write for political or philosophical motives but don’t meet any of these criteria produce rambling, boring, plot-less stories. It’s like saying you don’t need that as long as you, the author, have a personal REASON to write.

          You can follow these guidelines and still write a book that isn’t good. But you can’t write a book that is good that doesn’t adhere to these. Iain Banks is a favorite of mine too, but you’ll notice that his books also meet these criteria. (Altered to fit within a different genre, of course – you won’t find werewolves in a Banks novel) His antagonists are believable, etc.

          This isn’t about commercialism or how to sell books, it’s about how to make your antagonists realistic to your audience, and that’s important even if you’re writing is meant to convey a message about your politics or whatnot. Otherwise you’re just writing to yourself, and while authors do write for their own pleasure, obviously another purpose is to make it available to an audience. It’s also how to make a better quality story, period.

          Think about it like this. If I’m building a deck on my house, I’m going to follow guidelines and basics on how to make the best quality deck I can. I’m not using these guidelines to go out and make a business mass producing decks, but I want to be proud of the quality of my work so that I can enjoy it. And if my guests do too, great. Same thing with this article – practicing these concepts will give you a better story, and the author can take satisfaction in a better result. It doesn’t mean you’re mass producing novels.

          Oh, and by the way, as someone who actually HAS read her books as well as Banks’s, I can tell you the result is far from heinous soullessness.

    2. What a stunningly rude and ignorant comment. As Cora asks, have you read any of Faith Hunter’s books? Have you ever written a book yourself? Do you understand that “torrenting” books is piracy and therefore illegal?

      If you knew anything about the Jane Yellowrock series, you would understand that Ms. Hunter is, in fact, an artist. She is a brilliant writer whose books sell well because they are good.

      And if you knew anything about writing and the publishing industry, you would also understand that writing with “political and philosophical motives” is no guarantee of high quality, and that authors who write Urban Fantasy series are not necessarily hacks. Iain Banks and Michael Moorcock are terrific writers. So is Faith Hunter. The fact that she writes something different from what Banks and Moorcock write, something other than what you happen to enjoy reading, does not make her any less accomplished. If you wish to judge a person’s approach to writing, you must first look at the finished product (preferably a legally obtained copy) and read it for yourself. If you’re too lazy or too blinded by your own biases to do even that much, that’s your own business. But then your opinions on such things are worth nothing.

      1. Thanks David.
        By my title, the post was clearly written tongue-in-cheek. I admit that Mr. or Ms. No Name did blindside me by the insults. *heinous soullessness*??? Really? LOL

    3. May I say, you may have mixed too many drugs… Just a thought. “Read again, when sober, you should,” says Yoda.

  2. I enjoyed the article as well. I have read all of the Jane Yellowrock books and also Ms.Hunter’s Rogue Mage series, and, in my opinion, they are very well written pieces of art. I can’t compare them to an Iain Banks novel as I have never read any of his work because it doesn’t appeal to me. When I read urban fantasy or any other type of novel for that matter, I do so to be mentally transported to a different time and or place. Ms. Hunter’s novels do just that. If I were wanting to read a novel that is so intense I would have to do research myself in order to understand the world/universe the author was trying to show me, it would not serve the purpose of entertaining me, which is what I am looking for, a well thought out story that always keeps me guessing with some humor and snark added in. If I wanted intense, I would read a newspaper which to me is anything BUT entertaining. So, bravo Ms. Hunter on your books, (and this article). I enjoy ALL of your writing. Be it novel or article, you always leave me entertained.

    1. Thanks Denise, you took the words right out of my mouth! I felt the same way about the article and the same way about books! Give me a good story line any day, I have enough to worry about in “real life!”

  3. Great post! My son is an aspiring writer and I’ll be printing this one out for him to read. Thank you so much for giving of your time and wisdom!
    jo
    Claws rock!

      1. OH, I already have! LOL, he’s 21, so he’s probably already heard most of what he shouldn’t. ;) Right now he’s spending more time actually writing than reading about writing. Probably should do a bit more reading about it, but he’s got lots of time, God willing. Right now I’m mostly excited about him **finally** submitting a short story. He’s beat that poor thing for 18 months now, so I’m hoping he sets it free soon.
        Thank you so much for your encouragement! There’s just never enough of that anymore. Too many people want to tear down instead of build up. I never did understand that. (smh)

        1. Jo: I’ve been writing for quite a while and if there’s passion there, I’ll be the first to tell him to never give up that dream. No matter what happens. If it comes back, keep moving forward. I’ve been working at building up the confidence to try to publish after over 20 years (I’m 42) and I admire him for starting now. I’ve just been picked up, but I started sending very late (a few years ago). I hope to see his work out there and wish him much luck. :) Don’t quit. Ever.

  4. Love the insight! the explanations for BBU’s were made perfect sense and now I will be looking deeper into characters and their motives and motivations(there is a difference ;) )

  5. Mrs. Hunter has been an inspiration to me, and I love her writing. This article has some very good ideas as to what a BBU should be, and uses modern issues to point out those things.
    Thanks, Faith. :)

  6. I really appreciated the insight into how to give a character depth. Too often a character seems like a caricature, but never in Faith’s books. Now I know why!

  7. Interesting article. Thorough knowledge of important writing tools to develop characters successfully is not a symptom of “soullessness” or a shallow work. Far from it, authors who know and apply these mechanisms skillfully are able to create a much more cohesive finished product. If you have wonderful world-building skills, like Hunter possesses, and develop a lovingly detailed backdrop but can’t people it with well written characters where does that leave you? The paranormal/urban fantasy market today is flooded with graphic trashy romance books masquerading as suspenseful action mystery/thrillers. I find the Yellowrock books a refreshing change of pace with fast moving plots and characters that are smart, complex, well motivate, snarky, conflicted, and sexy without being over the top. Well done, Hunter, well done.

  8. My turn to be rude. You sir are an aspiring book snob. If you don’t like it don’t read it or comment on it. And I said aspiring because you do not have the intellect to be a true snob. And now for my true self to come out. Faith darling you so totally rock love faith and thorn

  9. I highly enjoyed the article above and am a fan of Faith Hunters work.
    I agree wholeheartedly that every time a “BDU leaves you unsatisfied and hungry for more ” it was from the lack of development of the antagonist and am always disappointed when this is the case. I cannot name how many series I have lost interest in just because the main characters were no longer as developed as they once were or were never fully developed characters since the start of the series. Faiths work has not disappointed me in this way and her characters and stories are always fully developed. Makes for much better reading in my opinion! Keep writing for us Faith and I will keep buying!

  10. Holy cow! I love how someone can write a lovely article showing humor and intelligence, sharing her story about how she writes and creates and someone comes along to impress everyone with his big words insult and disdain dripping from every word. Stop being such a snob! Faith Hunter has written some of the best books I have had the priviledge to read.

    1. Thanks Taryn. And now he says, “Inside the cover you have a mass produced Twinkie and outside the standard wrapper.” Yup that’s me. A Twinkie stuffed with heinous soullessness and wrapped in standardness! LOL

      1. That, my dear Faith, (can I call you Dear?) was the funniest self-description that I have heard in a looooooong time. “A Twinkie stuffed with heinous soulessness and wrapped in standardness.” I snorted soda out my nose when I read that! Keep up the INCREDIBLE work! Your devoted fan-girl, Amy

        1. Any book, no matter what genre, that so completely transports the reader TO that world and makes them feel a part of it, keeps them emotionally involved with the characters and leaves them anxiously awaiting the next one, is a great book. Soulessness and standardness most definitely don’t apply to Faith Hunter or her works.

      2. At least you have standards, Faith! This guy seems to be much more impressed for his ability to spell big words than his love of the facts. As some of the others have said – he’s a snob. Well, this plain old reader would rather read a well-thought-out Urban Fantasy (especially if you write it, Faith!) than someone else’s thoughtless attempt to express an opinion no one cares about. Keep writing, Faith, you rock!! I like that you’re a Twinkie – you’ll be around for a very long time… Let’s see – Jane Yellowrock #45 coming right up!

  11. Great article/post. My daughter loved it and is now editing her first 40k words.

    Faith,
    Love your books and keep holding your head high. Trolls are everywhere.

  12. What an amazing and ridiculous slam; however, good food for those of us who DO recognize Faith Hunter’s artistic ability in her books. Of course novels are written in a pattern, just as any literary device is. It’s the author’s talent that makes the book interesting, exciting, and enjoyable. I found reading about Ms. Hunter’s process fascinating and recognize it as similar to other authors whom I know personally, who use their talent to take the form and put interesting and delightful content in a form, tweak the form, and develop the tale and the characters to make a thoroughly enjoyable book. THANKS, Adlerian, for giving us all an opportunity for rebuttal. Having read your comments, I find you a just tad bit pedantic, but that may be your style…not my preference. It’s obvious that there are many more fans of Faith Hunter than non-fans, and I find that an superb statement about the books she writes. I’m very well read in many genres, and Ms. Hunter’s books are some of my favorites, because they take me on a journey away from my 2×4 life into a world of adventure and fantasy that’s just plain fun!

  13. Faith I read the article. I just finished book #5 & have loved them all sofar. I have always known what BBUs were but thanks for explaining it from the direction inwhich u write. Now I have a whole new look @ where they are coming from. You know it also makes me feel that maybe even our good guys ( or girls) can even have a badside to them when needed. I say keep up the good work & can’t wait to read the next book ( & hopefully many more after.

  14. I’m going to stick by my comments.

    There’s a huge difference between art and product.

    The article illustrates the difference and why, as I’ve said, genres get run into the ground because of draining forumla. Even the artwork on the covers fall into the formula trap. The classic example being the back shot of a hot girl, sporting a tattoo, in tight leather pants.

    That has been made fun of countless times.

    There you have some soulless business person who discovered the image sold some books. He then commands every artist employed to recreate the same crap. Inside the cover you have a mass produced Twinkie and outside the standard wrapper.

    Books and snack cakes CAN be similar.

    AND, my real name IS TheAdlerian, look me up and we’ll do lunch.

    Not really, my name is as much that, as yours was Gary!

    1. Your real name…whatever…

      Credentials, please? Otherwise I call the stuff that comes from bull anuses.

      And no author has much say in what is put on their covers. Why don’t you maybe crawl under that rock you slunk out of and go away. You are one of the problems with both independent and mainstream publishing nowadays, some douche who thinks their proverbial shit views don’t stink and everyone else su><0|2zz. Ya know, opinions are like arseholes. Get over yourself. If you think you can do better, put it out there. My challenge to you. Go for it. Or are you too chicken to put your work out there instead of lambasting others?

    2. TheAdlerian: You are a *silly* person. I love to read. Be it the classics or comics. Faith writes wonderful, dark UF, with evil, charismatic vampires and the settings are lush and full. And make me hungry when she’s writing about NOLA. She is also an amazing writing instructor. One of the wonderful things she does that is incredibly helpful is contribute to a blog for fantasy writers and writers to be.

      This article was fun. It isn’t meant to be a deep description on the mechanism and motivation of the big bad ugly in Shakespeare. (And maybe it is, since Shakespeare was apparently writing about vaginas when he wrote ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.

      I’m looking forward to reading YOUR new book, and hope to see the cover YOU choose. Since I only know of one author that does have artistic control of her covers, I don’t think that will be too soon.

      Thanks for the laugh,

      Mud.

  15. P.S. to TheAdlerian:

    Faith’s excellent article above, describing her reasoning for how her characters are developed and written by a successful author, comes with the weight of empirical experience and authority regarding the subject matter, which, as a reader of books, you cannot have.

    Though you do have a right to an opinion, the pretense of expertise in writing appears to have fallen flat in this instance.

  16. Wonderful advice from my favorite urban fantasy author. And Faith definitely follows her own guidelines in BLOOD TRADE, her most accomplished Skinwalker novel thus far.

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