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The role of a hostile villain in stories

Crumbly Writer

A discussion in another thread (at the tail end of "Best Discontinued Stories"), where we discussed the reasons behind a less popular sequel in an otherwise popular series brings up a point I think is worth discussing.

Given that an evil villain who's out to kill the hero (hero/anti-hero themes) is generally more successful than stories where there are subtler conflicts, where do we as authors draw the line?

Should we make each story a threat to the death between hero and villain, or should we sometimes dial back the threat level, simply presenting things as they are (or as we hope they might be).

Out of my 15 published books, the most popular, by far, involved someone trying to kill them outright. The less popular all involved personal struggles or attempts to overcome some obstacle. So does that mean we should avoid non-fatal obstacles altogether, or change every story to a shootout ending (like most sci-fi are now designated as "romance" to boost sales) to women.

What are your feelings on the subject, both as authors delivering content and as readers, dependent on authors delivering the types of stories you want to read?

Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

Should we make each story a threat to the death between hero and villain, or should we sometimes dial back the threat level, simply presenting things as they are (or as we hope they might be).


My vote is yes, on that option.

ustourist

If the villain is determined to kill the hero, unless they are scheduled to return in later episodes then a fight to the death is the only logical conclusion.
Where financial supremacy is the objective - even when violence and murder are used by the villains - I recall several stories where removing patent fees or open publication was a satisfactory literary ending to the threat.
With non-fatal intent, the hostile villain is a frequent character in cheating wife stories, and in those they frequently retreat from the scene with their tail between their legs, but still alive.

If the response doesn't counter the threat, then the threat remains and the hero may come over as a bit of a wimp, but fatal results would probably be less popular in cheating stories, so it will depend on the genre and the way the main characters are portrayed. Personal struggles may tend to be less popular because it is harder to identify with them.

Dominions Son

@Crumbly Writer

I have a few thoughts.

1. Why do you want to draw a line at all?

This comes down to why you write. For me, I have a few stories in my head that want to be written. If I could complete a story that is popular enough to sell, great but it's not why I write and it won't drive what I write.

On the other hand, if your motivator is $$$ then you have to draw the line and put your effort into what will sell, but you have lots of competition.

2. One of my in-progress stories, has a main character who is not a hero, an anti-hero or a villain. I conceptualize him as an anti-villain.

He has a strong moral code but it differs strongly from society at large in many important aspects. The primary conflict is not against a hero, but a true villain.

The MC has a male dominant world view a a secondary mind control power.

The villain is a female mastermind bent on world conquest and the creation of a female dominant society of her own design.

At first she is only aware of the mind control after he stumbles into and takes out one of her operatives, seeing him as a fly to be swatted. In time she learns the true nature of his power and sees him as an existential threat to her goals.

At that point she faces the crisis of leading a secret society directed at world conquest, not by military force, but by infiltration and subversion while trying to eliminate one man powerful enough to be almost unbeatable.

3 From a reader perspective I am a fan of Sherlock Holmes style mysteries, where the conflict is not a physical conflict of life or death, but a conflict of intellects, a conflict of deceiver vs diviner.

As an author or a reader, I don't see a problem with alternate forms of conflict if they are well presented and interesting.

I have another story I have started but not posted. This one I don't intend to post until at least the initial book of the saga length story is complete.

The initial MC is a young male with a very strongly male dominant world view who obtains god like power at the beginning of the story. There will be some traditional conflict in the story, but beyond the first book, the primary conflict is the world view of the initial MC vs the initial world view of society and how society and governments are forced to adapt to him.

The primary limit on the MC's power is range and area of effect. In a small space close to his center he is nearly omnipotent. However. How much he can change things falls off drastically with distance/ volume(space and time), like gravity.

One aspect of his power is passive, his mere existence will constantly push the world around him to be closer to what he thinks it should be.

He is effectively immortal, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, even if someone could find a way to destroy his physical human body, that would only make him stronger.

The world view vs world view conflict is expressed in another aspect of his power. Having followers, having other people adopt his world view/ethos increases his range. Both his passive and his conscious uses of his power can push harder on a larger chunk of the world.

Ultimately the only way to "defeat" him will be to campaign for an opposing world view to keep his number of followers confined. I haven't yet decided if the preexisting world leaders will figure this out before it's too late.

I haven't yet figured out if I can make this work as well on paper as it works in my head.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer  REP
Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@Dominions Son

Why do you want to draw a line at all?

This comes down to why you write. For me, I have a few stories in my head that want to be written. If I could complete a story that is popular enough to sell, great but it's not why I write and it won't drive what I write.

On the other hand, if your motivator is $$$ then you have to draw the line and put your effort into what will sell, but you have lots of competition.


I'm not suggesting that authors focus exclusively on these types of stories. In fact, I tend to personally avoid those types of stories as they begin to all sound alike after you've read a few. However, it highlights an essential conflict for authors between storytelling and focusing on reader demand/satisfaction.

Granted, it doesn't really make a huge difference. For my own stories on SOL, it amounts to only three-quarters of a point, though the effect varies between sites with some more appreciate of alternate views than others. Still, most of my most-popular stories face a direct life-or-death confrontation between hero/anti-hero (though that doesn't seem to be the biggest driver of book reviews).

My currently posting story presents this in an interesting light. It features the U.S. government(various renegade CIA operatives) attempting to assassinate the main character, but because that's not the primary conflict, the story ranks as my lowest-rated story, despite generating positive reviews and feedback, the scores remain low.

So it comes down to a question whether authors listen to what readers want or what they want to say. But even if they stick to their guns, it flavors their writing. If I can stick a crazed killer in a story, I'll increase my readership/scores. If I make it the main focus of the story--even if it's only a simple romance--then the story will do that much better, even if financial reward isn't an element.

However, mainly I'm raising the issue because it affects how I'll write a future story. A prior series suffered a disappointing (lower scores and few reviews), and someone reported it was because there essentially wasn't enough conflict--despite that being part of the design of the story. So now I'm debating ginning the sequel up to fashion an artificial conflict which isn't an essential part of the story, or simply not bothering to write it if I choose not to. In this way, the hero/anti-hero issue is dictating the story I may or may not write.

Replies:   Dominions Son
Dominions Son

@Crumbly Writer

and someone reported it was because there essentially wasn't enough conflict


Was there truly not enough conflict, or did the story feature a non-physical conflict that was too subtle.

That is the trap for a non-physical conflict. A physical conflict is inherently obvious, but a non-physical conflict can be subtle.

In the great intellectual mysteries, as opposed to more action oriented detective stories, the detective is rarely if ever in any physical danger, but the author goes to lengths to make the intellectual conflict, the battle of wits between the criminal and the detective obvious.

Such mysteries done well, still have a significant following.

Is it true that your sequel has no inherent conflict, or does it have an inherent battle of wits (or other non-physical conflict) that you have allowed to fall into the background by making it too subtle.

I say instead of adding an artificial physical conflict, pull the battle of wits out of the background, amplify it, and throw it in the reader's face.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Ernest Bywater

I've a few stories where there's no physical conflict between the antagonist and the protagonist, and they did well. The one that really comes to mind is Mack because the majority of the long fight between good guy and the bad guy is in the realm of court games and business transactions. Yet the story does well.

Replies:   Dominions Son
Dominions Son

@Ernest Bywater

Mack because the majority of the long fight between good guy and the bad guy is in the realm of court games and business transactions.


Because most people understand that business competition and court games are a form of a battle of wits/intellects, at least where an on going rivalry is concerned, in the same way that sports are a physical (and possibly mental depending on the sport) conflict.

However, while physical conflict is always obvious, mental and other non-physical conflicts are not always so obvious and the author needs to work to make them obvious for the story to work.

richardshagrin

Not an author, but I read a lot of stories. The ones I like have a wide variety of conflicts and they take time, and a lot of pages to resolve. Stories where the difficult issues are resolved immediately and impossible problems before the next chapter don't hold my interest. The problem with superman as a hero is that stories require a succession of super-villains to provide interesting conflicts. I read and abandoned part-way though a time travel western where the hero was incredibly better at fast draw than all the opponents he met in gun-fights. After the third or tenth or hundredth conflict is resolved without the hero raising a sweat (he had climate controlled armor under his clothing) I got bored and left. To some extent the same problem occurs when the hero is a football or other sports hero and he and his team win every game. Or the hero meets and makes a conquest of every girl he sees.

I am not saying I want heroes to lose to make a story interesting, but if there is no chance he won't win, what do you offer the reader to continue the story?

Crumbly Writer

@Dominions Son

Was there truly not enough conflict, or did the story feature a non-physical conflict that was too subtle.

Is it true that your sequel has no inherent conflict, or does it have an inherent battle of wits (or other non-physical conflict) that you have allowed to fall into the background by making it too subtle.

It was a complex plot, with a string of different people traveling to different locations to deal with different situations. Again, it didn't get the response many of my stories do, but the score didn't drop that much. Instead, I've largely attributed the response to the complexity of a multi-focus story. So I'm not sure how much impact the lack of physical threat represented (though it was a major element in the first two books, so readers might have been disappointed).

REP

@Dominions Son

a main character who is not a hero, an anti-hero or a villain.


I tried that theme in one of my stories. More a personal challenge of my ability to create a character totally different than what I normally think of as the main character.

I thought the story was good, not great but good. The scores were very low. I would like to think I succeeded in making my readers hate my 'hero' and what he does, rather than dislike the story.

Replies:   Dominions Son
Dominions Son

@REP

I tried that theme in one of my stories. More a personal challenge of my ability to create a character totally different than what I normally think of as the main character.


I'm trying to do a bit more than just create a character that doesn't fit the standard molds. I'm in a way trying to create a new mold. I call it the anti-villain.

The anti-hero is a character that does somewhat heroic things, but is somewhat amoral and as a result uses questionable methods. Marvel's The Punisher is the classic anti-hero.

The anti-villain is the anti-hero's opposite. He is very moral, though his personal ethos might be significantly different from society as a whole. He is something of a criminal, not out of malicious intent, but because he sees the laws that he breaks as in some way wrong or unjust. The anti-villain sees the crimes he commits as victim-less.

An example might be a drug dealer. The anti-hero drug dealer disagrees with the drug laws. However, because of his personal ethics he makes sure the stuff he sells is clean and as safe as can be. He doesn't give people freebies to get them hooked, then start jacking the prices. He doesn't deal to kids. He doesn't sell bulk to take home so you can be careless and OD. He runs a drug den, and like a bar, he cuts off customers who have had too much and at least makes an effort to keep them from driving home while they are wasted.

I would like to think I succeeded in making my readers hate my 'hero' and what he does, rather than dislike the story.


For my idea of the anti-villain, the reader shouldn't come away hating the character. The anti-villain should be at least somewhat sympathetic.

aubie56

Isn't "hostile villain" redundant?

Replies:   REP
REP

@aubie56

Isn't "hostile villain" redundant?


Not all villains are hostile.

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