Monday, January 14, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Villains Made of Straw

One of the easiest traps a writer can fall into is making their villains just be wrong.  Especially if your story has some kind of political slant to it.

I mean, sure, it makes things nice and simple for you: bad guys are bad, so good guys win by being right and good and awesome.  High fives!  Also: boring.  Since your bad guys only exist to prop up arguments that you, the author, think are stupid, you'll frame the argument in the easiest way to knock down.  And since your protagonist's arguments are just so filled with your righteous rightness, they never face up to a real challenge. 

That's really easy to knock some holes into.

Case in point:  I recently was reading a handful of reviews for a SF book that takes a decidedly political stance.  There were, to be fair, many 5-star reviews, written by people who share that political stance, because the book validates their worldview.  But there were also many 1-star reviews, hammering the holes in the heroes political system, and how the bad guys were made to look like incompetent buffoons propping up an idiotic regime. 

Another case in point: Heavily armed Stormtroopers defeated by teddy bears with spears.

Yet another: The West Wing is now streamable on Netflix, and the strawmen don't get much more scarecrow-like than Gov. Ritchie, the Republican candidate Pres. Bartlet faces in his re-election campaign.  Ritchie is a stuffed shirt, and you learn all you need to know, all there is to know, in his response to hearing about a Secret Service agent killed in a random bodega robbery: "Boy, crime.  I don't know."  This is a guy who literally has nothing to say.   It sets up a satisfying slapdown*, but it doesn't create an adversary that's worthy of Jed Bartlet.

That's the key: nothing makes your heroes more interesting than giving them who is not only worthy of them, but who also can make a cogent argument explaining that they just might be right.  Give me a real, detailed antagonist that you, the writer, can believe in as much as your hero.  Then you've delivered something interesting.


*- "For the record, 'Boy, crime, I don't know' is when I decided to kick your ass."

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