Writing Advice: Villains #01

Villains are some of the most memorable of characters – a good villain is a treasure trove of potential for storytelling. Writing villains, however, can be somewhat tricky—which is why I have resigned myself to writing about some of the pitfalls your primary antagonist shouldn’t fall in.

A villain is someone who can best exploit your protagonist; the good villain will make life a hell of a lot more difficult for anyone who’s actively trying to go against them. Writing someone who can’t stand his own against your hero doesn’t just make for an easy challenge – it makes for an unmemorable villain.

Brandon Sanderson has a knack for writing villains; two excellent examples are the Lord-Ruler and Steelheart. Both are extremely powerful figures, memorable for their menacing presence, as well as the constant threat they exude for our heroes’ very existences.

If your villain is powerful, don‘t just talk about it, either. Illustrate his potency; show Dark Lord Jim crushing his enemies one by one, as the depths of his efficiency slowly sink into the minds of your readers! Inaction is a villain’s worst nightmare – that is, unless you’re going exactly for an inactive villain, ruled by paranoia, like the Black Company series’ Longshadow. In cases like his, inaction works; but not in many others.

Make the threat from your villain feel very tangible. There’s a lack of balance between his power, and your protagonists’ and that’s how it should be for the threat to feel impactful. Going back to the Lord Ruler, there’s a villain who wields power far beyond that of Kelsier and Vin; the two Mistborn Allomancers could never face him in a one-on-one battle and survive.

A good way to go about indirectly showing a villain’s power and influence in your world is via other characters’ reactions when the villain’s name comes up. Are they mildly worried, or downright terrified?

When Darth Vader walks on deck irritated, every Imperial officer falls silent, and the air is thick with dread. The Emperor’s chamber on the second Death Star stinks of despair. Even with Vader absent, Imperials are fearful and speak in hushed whispers whenever the Sith Lord is spoken about; the same goes for Sidious, as well as for the villains I mentioned earlier – and many more, besides!

This is where today’s installment of Writing Advice wraps up! It’s by far and away not the last time I’ll speak about writing villains – there’s so much to say! In fact, think of this as merely an appetizer. Until next time!

Top Ten Things I would do if I were a wizened old wizard

  1. I would use my illusion magic to scare the crap out of innocent villagers, citizens and unsuspecting servants, cantankerous old man that I am.
  2. I would cross bridges when I get to them, not burn or destroy them outright; if I were to destroy any bridges, I’d be sure to do it well out of the reach of any demonic, fiery whips.
  3. I would use my trickery, sharpened to a fine edge after long years of practice of my arts, to get fellow colleagues into all sorts of trouble.
  4. I would find my way into the court of some nobleman, and prove my loyalty by giving an awful lot of good advice, but never being more helpful than I absolutely have to – we wizards are a lazy bunch, and going above and beyond is not something we’re prone to do. If you’re looking for self-sacrifice, expect to find it over the next couple of weeks, on my blog…
  5. I would become a soldier, hungry for some adventure in my twilight years! It would doubtlessly end badly, as the sheer amount of magical texts I’d need to practice my craft will require no less than a dozen mules, several experienced caretakers, and a librarian almost as ancient as I am.
  6. After my soldiering days miraculously come to an end, I will find my home destitute and cold, my servants slaughtered and my apprentices causing mayhem all throughout the region. I would thus begin a great and dangerous quest to wreak vengeance upon those responsible™.
  7. I would join those responsible™ for my great personal calamity, for they will prove to be too numerous for my old bones to handle. If you can’t beat ‘em…
  8. I would wake up one morning, and find my new band of thugs and scoundrels has left me behind. “Tuu much buuks,” I will find a note written next to my favorite sleeping log. A betrayal so foul that I would get a heart attack.
  9. I would, upon barely overcoming the failure of my ticker and realizing that death is near, become deathly afraid (heh-heh) and transcend the natural laws of my wizardly profession; in a sentence, I would fall mad, dig into forbidden lore and possibly end up a horribly unpleasant lich…or at least a necromancer!

Oh, did you expect a tenth entry? A wizard Never quite goes that extra mile, you know…

My bi-weekly Top Ten lists were originally inspired by Peter’s Evil Overlord List. The next installment, “Top Ten Things I would NOT do if I were a wizened old wizard,” will be out on Friday!

Thursday Spotlight: The Emperor’s Soul

(By Brandon Sanderson)

I tend to read a lot of Brandon Sanderson’s works – with good reason. Each book in his Cosmere has a cleverly developed magical system, a cast of enticing characters, and often enough, unique worldbuilding that leaves breathtaking visuals in my mind long after I close the covers.

The Emperor’s Soul takes place on Sel (or Seol) – the same planet that is home to the events within Sanderson’s first published novel, Elantris. Don’t let that scare you off, though; both works have only the murkiest connections to one another and you won’t miss anything for not having read Elantris before picking this novella up.

The events within The Emperor’s Soul encompass one hundred days – the time of mourning that the emperor Ashravan, ruler of the Rose Empire has to mourn the death of his empress, due to a failed assassination attempt. Only — and that is known by a chosen few — the assassination attempt failed just barely. The emperor, after having taken a head wound is in a vegetative state, and no healer can restore him to his former state.

Enter Shai, a Forger of uncanny skill, and a thief like few others, betrayed by an accomplice and held captive by the Rose Empire. An unwitting pawn at first, Shai proves most adept at deducing the hidden motives of her captors.

The Adepts, who have everything to lose should Ashravan not be restored, plan on using the Forger’s skills for a singular purpose – to Forge the Emperor’s Soul anew…even if what Shai is doing is considered the greatest taboo in the Rose Empire.

And now, here’s a few more reasons you might really enjoy this novella:

  • A clever, capable female protagonist and characters from backgrounds tailored to mirror Earth’s Asian cultures;
  • An intuitive magical system;
  • A compulsive liar forced to deal in truth instead;
  • A high-ranking official who’s not actually corrupt to the bone;
  • Loads of art, described really well, and last but not least;
  • You’re a hardcore Sanderson fan; but then again, if you were, you’d probably have read that already.

You can buy the Emperor’s Soul either as an e-book or paperback, or as part of his collection of shorter fiction, Arcanum Unbounded.

The Unintentionally Helpful Villain, Vol. 2

Diary Entry #0085

Many of the peasants have deserted my realm. Much did their betrayal sting, and much did I weep and foam at the mouth as I ordered they be hunted down and slaughtered.

Diary Entry #0086

The peasants did not desert. They ran into the forests to pick poisonous mushrooms for the war effort against the Council of Darkness. Too late did I learn of this — my demons and revenants did burn them and freeze them before I could intervene. I weep for their noble sacrifice.

Diary Entry #0087

The spirits of the peasants are now haunting my fierce demons and my loyal revenants. The War Effort suffers for it. I have decided to sacrifice the demons and revenants in order to appease the newly-made spirits.

Diary Entry #0088

The villagers – those that did remain in their homes, and those that found themselves amidst the Spiritual Plane – rejoiced at this! Like a hero did they celebrate me!

The Council of Darkness did not much like such a title pinned on mine fiery chest, and so they sent another legion of their abominations unto my nation-state.

What happens next, I cannot say.

If you’d like to catch up with the Unintentionally Helpful Villain’s misadventures, click here!

Writing Advice: The Messy First Draft

It has recently come to my attention that a lot of people who’re enthused to write become quickly disillusioned with the craft because of how unlike their ideas that first draft ends up looking. To you I say: Do not despair.

The way I – and many actual writers – use the first draft of a short story or novel is for the sole purpose of sketching the skeleton of whatever you’re setting out to write. Whether you take your time drawing in some of the details, filling out a number of the blanks – that’s your decision. It comes off as secondary, in any case. The basic tenant of your first draft is to get the idea out there before it fades away into some obscure corner of your mind or disappears entirely.

We’ve all had those – brilliant ideas that didn’t survive the test of time because of our unwillingness to write them down.

The key to doing the first draft write is this: just write. Don’t second-guess yourself, don’t go back and edit, and don’t second guess your choices. Just put the ideas on paper.

There’ll be plenty of time for all that later.

And if the idea of a crappy first draft still horrifies you, do me a favour. Write the first draft of a short story in one go. Then, take your time to edit it – but don’t forget to save that rough version of your story. Take a week for the second edit, a week for the third one, maybe a week between the two. Once you’re done, go back and reread that messy first draft.

The improvement over it will make you feel so much better!

Writing isn’t glamorous – and the first draft is particularly dirty, filled with spelling errors and inconsistencies and a plethora of other mistakes. It’s your job as a writer to turn the sliver of potential underneath into something worth reading!

What’re you waiting for?

Top Ten Things I would NOT do if I were a middle-aged Villager in a High Fantasy setting

1. I would NOT tolerate the cruel and petty nobility (if that’s what they are), and would instead take arms against the vile scum! Viva la revolución! (That’s peasant for ‘kill the lords of the land!’)
2. I would NOT be disheartened by the supposed villainy of my lord ruler, if he has shown himself merciful and understanding towards me and my fellow villagers. PR makes good masters look bad, and the cruel ones – bad!
3. I would NOT find my courage only in a bottle. Bottles are bad places to keep one’s courage, no matter what the press tells you.
4. I would NOT treat my sons like slobs of meat. That’s good pretext for some patricide right there.
5. I would NOT treat my daughters like gold coins, trading them to curry favour with the rich merchant next door, or with the unpleasant nobleman with peculiar nightly hobbies.
6. I would NOT refuse any help to strangers in need, but I won’t solicit it, either. Who knows what man or woman I might allow into my poor village hovel?
7. I would NOT set out to be an annoying villager. You know the type – they always chase after others, murmuring about village law, and the rules, and how stuff ought to be…No one likes those. No one!
8. I would NOT discuss my mysterious past with anyone. Even a villager has a right to privacy!
9. I would NOT go investigatin’ strange noises during a blood-lit full moon. That’s just askin’ for trouble; no sir-e, thank you very much!
10. I would NOT be angry if my sons didn’t want to follow in my footsteps. For as long as at least one did. Someone has to inherit the farm… The old lady needs to be taken care of, after all!

Spotlight Thursday: The Black Company

(By Glen Cook)

The Black Company is misery curdled, but also ancient and intriguing.

I paraphrase one of the very earliest paragraphs that caught my eye in the Black Company. Glen Cook’s novel is that rare breed of fantasy that forswears lengthy, intricate descriptions for the benefit of literary minimalism.

That’s not to say that Cook’s prose isn’t memorable – far from it. The gritty world that the Black Company inhabits is realistic and vivid, and it comes alive under the pen strokes of Croaker – Company Annalist and physician of the Company. It’s a position of greater importance than it might seem – the Annalist keeps the very soul of the Last Free Company of Khatovar alive.

It is through Croaker’s perspective that we readers come to know the amoral world the Company inhabits – a world colored in greys and red – and through his experiences that we learn of brotherhood the likes of which is seldom so well captured, even in similar fantasy series.*

And yes, The Black Company is a series of nine whooping books that chronicle forty of the most tumultuous years in the Mercenary Company’s history. There’s a little something for everyone:

  • ancient scary-as-shit wizards;
  • the most badass female antagonists; (to be read as: The most badass antagonists)
  • girls crossdressing as boys to get into the military;
  • great dialogue(!);
  • tiny frog-faced wizards picking at one another;
  • silent types screwing everyone because of their inability to express themselves;
  • snarkiness that would make most everyone and their grannies blush;
  • and much, much more!
  • (feat. “Teach your grandma to suck eggs, Croaker,” an offense so strangely beautiful, it makes reading the books worth it just for these words)

It’s a gripping tale that deserves your attention. A fast-paced series (for the most part) with some of the most memorable characters I’ve had the pleasure to read about in the medium for some time.

It deserves your attention!

*The Malazan Book of the Fallen, which is heavily influenced by The Black Company, manages the same feat quite well.

Top Ten Things I would do if I were a middle-aged Villager in a High Fantasy Setting

1. The first whiff I got at an evil overlord’s army coming my village’s way, I would pack and hit the road, four girls and one boy in tow.
2. I would always keep my farmer equipment in top operating shape, just in case an orc attacks me and all I have is my scythe nearby.
3. I would conscientiously do my job without complaining, and make sure that my son/daughter is well-prepared to save the world when the time to leave home in search for better things is at hand.
4. I would drink in only reasonable amounts, and do my hardest to save some coin for a rainy day or a painfully long winter.
5. In the case that I do not have enough coin to survive winter, I would be sure to only work for legitimate employers, who are not interested in resurrecting ancient deities thanks to my manual labor.
6. I would try keep as many of my countless spawn on the farm for as long as possible, while respecting their desires.
7. I would take care of the village inn as best as a limping veteran can, with the help of a kind-hearted but foul-mouthed overweigh cook and three mildly attractive barmaids—in addition to the four children and the wife. It is possible that the cook is also the wife, though. You never know.
8. I would make sure to keep an air of mystery around my youth. What happened during the years when I ran from the village and got my leg hobbled is none of my fellow villagers’ business; plus, peasants like to talk, so I might as well give them something to talk about.
9. I would only clash with members of the Women’s Council, Circle, or Assembly when absolutely necessary. My wife will pull my hair out if I, a silly man, try to have a say in their business.
10. I would go hunting on a regular basis, using my bow and uncanny villager tracking abilities. It is well known that almost no one can track as well as a villager on the hunt for a meal, or use a bow to take those tasty morsels on four feet down!

My bi-weekly Top Ten lists were originally inspired by Peter’s Evil Overlord List; my first entry is centered around the Evil Fantasy Overlord in order to honor that list and its maker! The next installment, “Top Ten Things I would NOT do if I were NOT a middle-aged Villager in a High Fantasy Setting,” will be out on Friday!

Top Ten Things I would not do if I were an Evil Fantasy Overlord

1. I would not put a critical part of myself and my power into a trinket, then lose it, and allow free access to the only place that holds the means of destroying the bloody bauble.
2. I would not summon any dark gods or arch demons in order to usurp their power, unless I know for sure that I’m up for the task. These creeps are dangerous.
3. I would not kill every single incompetent officer in my army; I’d much rather demote them. An Evil Overlord’s army is always in need of grunts, and fodder.
4. I would not poison the land and turn it barren; I intend to rule, and that requires food, as well as subjects to feed.
5. I would not rush into a battle without my honor guard, no matter how intimidating and powerful I may seem. Heroes have the tendency to make the worst out of great situations like this, and I ain’t losing my fingers to broken swords like *some* I could name…
6. I would not prepare a needlessly convoluted method of execution for my most dangerous enemies. Incineration was good enough for Joan of Arc, it’ll have to do for everyone else, too.
7. I would not subscribe to any vindictive revenge fantasies that will result in my unfortunate death.
8. I would not enforce any caste systems.
9. I would not deter any caste systems.
10. I would not marry someone who is only marginally less powerful than me. Power couples have a way of exploding, and not in a good way…
11. I would not overdo the virgin sacrifices. Okay, maybe just a little.

My bi-weekly Top Ten lists were originally inspired by Peter’s Evil Overlord List; my first entry is centered around the Evil Fantasy Overlord in order to honor that list and its maker! The next installment, “Top Ten Things I would NOT do if I were an Evil Fantasy Overlord,” will be out on Friday!

Oh, and why 11, when I said Top Ten? It’s because I like to go one step above and beyond!

Spotlight Thursday: Unnatural Creatures Part 1

I love short stories. There’s nothing quite like a short story to give you a condensed look at an author’s unique vision, style and ideas. Short stories will suck you in their unique worlds and you will end up wondering where the hell a half hour went by the last page. They’re difficult to write and yet very rewarding; your imagination’s the limit!

Today’s post covers the first three stories within the anthology “Unnatural Creatures,” which was prepared by Neil Gaiman. Let’s get down to it!

Gahan Wilson’s Visual story presents a tiny ink-like blob on the linen cloth of a very uptight gentleman. A simple enough problem, if a bit annoying…only, the spot disappears. Later, it reappears and it’s bigger, at that. As you might imagine, the right and proper gent doesn’t take too well to that lapse in his perfect, orderly life. I won’t go any further with the spoilers, but suffice to say, the visual elements are a big part of the story;

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees
Tales of great civilizations seldom include slaver wasps familiar with the intricacies of cartography, but this is just one such tale. It’s written by E. Lily Yu, and it won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer—I assure you, it’s very well deserved. I learned loads about wasp cartographers thanks to this story –for example, that they see bees as their naturally subservient slaves. Wasps are also fairly cruel insects, as they cut the heads of bee envoys left and right!
But that’s okay, really—anarchist bees are here to help!

The Griffin and the Minor Canon

This one felt slightly more familiar to me in terms of…feeling. I don’t know much about Frank R. Stockton, other than that he lived and died well over a century ago, but his story is a look at a simpler world with small-minded people that are not all too different from today’s; cowardly and exploitative of those ready to face hardships for their benefit. Something in this story reverberates with me…perhaps it’s the loneliness of a creature that is the last of its kind, or the kindness of the Minor Canon.

Ozioma the Wicked

Nnedi Okorafor is yet another author whose works I was unfamiliar with until I read this story. It is about a girl who speaks with snakes, in modern times. She is thought a witch by all her fellow villagers, and shunned for it. This story gives me a glimpse at a world that I’m very unfamiliar with. Better yet, it awakens my curiosity, my hunger for a culture wholly different from mine; and that’s one of the many strengths of this particular literary medium.

I’ll wrap it up here for now; but I’ll be back with Short Story Talk next Thursday, showcasing more excellent stories worth your attention!

Every Thursday, I’ll showcase short stories by favorite authors, monthly ‘zines and anthologies I discover. The focus will be on fantasy and science fiction, as per usual.