Frontline Lackeys

azogWriting a series has its own peculiarities, especially when the plot arc stretches across the books.

One of those is the issue of the villain in the first book. Usually the hero doesn’t have much direct battle time with the ultimate bad guy. Most epic bad guys I’ve met are powerful enough and the developing hero starts out weak enough that the hero’s team would be toast.

Imagine Luke’s final show down with Darth Vader and the Emperor in the first movie. He hadn’t even met Yoda or trained in the Force.

Granted, there is the option of forcing a fight and having the hero flee, but that gets old and has a demoralizing effect.

Usually there is a secondary villain.

They create a sub plot that offers a sense of satisfaction when it is overcome or defeated – a short term win

They also add urgency and tension to book one

Some times, the first book doesn’t even give a clear identity of who the ultimate enemy is.

I ran into that problem. In Secrets of the Dragon Seal, my ultimate evil never “shows it’s face”. So this is something I had to deal with myself, to create a worthy adversary in Book I. Plus, having watched The Last Airbender and the recent Hobbit, which both dealt with this issue, it’s been on my mind. I’ll be discussing examples from mainly these two shows and how they handled it.

Basic Candidates for Book I Villains:

Minion for the Big Bad Guy: In the Last Airbender, Admiral Zhao serves the Fire Lord, who is the ultimate enemy. (Other examples, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings)

Renegade, separate subplot: In the Hobbit movie, they have a “Pale Orc”, Azog the Defiler, who spends the whole show hunting the heroes yet is not (at least as far as I’m aware) connected to the main enemy, Smaug.

Each type has it’s Pros and cons.

With the minion method you have a built in motive with plenty of back up clout. It naturally leads toward the ultimate plot and battle. One problem I saw with Admiral Zhao is that it felt like they relied too much on the Fire Lord. He was just following orders and the Fire Lord’s plans to catch the hero. In the end I felt that undermined his strength and danger. He felt rather like a straw man.

Don’t use tomorrow’s bad guy as a crutch.

Minion or not, this is the villain of a book and needs to be dangerous in their own right. The tougher the obstacle, the greater sense of success in overcoming at the end.

With the Renegade, there is no apparent connection. The renegade may exploit situations caused by the larger story, but the idea is that this villain has their own plans and reasons to cause problems.

This can add some nice depth, sub plots and catch the hero between the proverbial rock and a hard place. In the Hobbit it certainly adds an extra amount of tension and a nice face off. It even helps move the book closer to potentially a stand alone tale, depending on how this plot wraps up. That could be valuable in marketing it.

A potential downside is that building up another villain and plot takes screen time and backstory. Done half-baked and you have danger of confusion. Over done and it could hijack your intended main story.

The latter option is probably best for those with a smaller set-up of the larger plot in book one. Perhaps a story line where the ultimate enemy is either unable to be pro-active or simply doesn’t deem the heroes any significant threat yet.

Whatever you choose to use, remember, create a villain worth fighting, dangerous and urgent. That sense of satisfaction and success from a good win will help keep your readers coming back as much as the hook.

So, what other lessons have you found about dealing with First Book Villains?


About Ren Black

Part-time novelist. Weekend artist. Full-time Mother. Ex-poet. Perfectionist by training. Compulsive researcher sporadically. Prone to fits of linguistic commentary Unorthodox Renegade occasionally. Sarcastic by habit... Dreamer Always... Consider Yourself Warned

2 comments on “Frontline Lackeys

  1. All very good points. It’s made me ponder my own villains and sub-villains. Alas, I grew up watching anime, where there’s always at least a five-villain hierarchy. He’s the bad guy! No, he was just working for the REAL bad guy! Wait, he was working for an even BIGGER bad guy! And the heroes have to level up and find the Power Within to achieve their new super form or whatever.

    I have two WIPs right now–one the Big Bad uses the Rival as a puppet villain for the heroes to fight for a while. The other one, the heroes are dealing with a Doctor Who-ish timeline in which effects are happening before the cause, and naturally they don’t meet the villain responsible until the end. But the Big Bad lurks behind most of the plots (kind of like Voldemort) until the last book where she gets her comeuppance. 🙂

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