[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 — Bloodring, Seraphs, 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.
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.
- His actions have to be believable within the confines of the world-building.
- The balance of power between good and evil (or between shades of gray) has to work.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
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