July 22, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue
I realize this final installment of the Keeping it Fresh series has been delayed, but life and Sith Squirrels happen. Never underestimate the power of the dark side of the Furce.
Anywhoo…Welcome to the final part of our series on how to keep your Urban Fantasy and Supernatural Fiction from getting dry and crusty! So far we’ve covered Setting, Systems of Magic, Supernatural Beings, Plot, and Characters. Today we’re going to hit what might be the most important aspect of the story:
Antagonizing Your Hero
Whether or not your protagonist is actually a hero or more of an anti-hero, you’ve gotta have opposition for them and sources of conflict. I’m sure we’ve all heard it before, but conflict is what drives a story. The tricky part here is that most sources of conflict are fairly universal. We’ve seen them all before.
1. Pure Evil that must be prevented from taking over the world: This is a trope that comes up frequently in fantasy, where there’s no question that the bad guys are bad. Lord of the Rings has Sauron and his minions, Star Wars has the Sith, Harry Potter has Voldemort and his Death Eaters. I could come up with some examples more specific to UF, but let’s stick with these just because they’re familiar to most.
Pure, unadulterated evil is much easier to create in a fantasy cosmology because it’s easier to create a race (like say Demons) or a magic path that is forbidden (Black Magic), so any member of that race or who practices that magic is automatically an antagonist. Your readers will have no problem with wholesale slaughter of these bad guys. Their motives are easy to define: they want power, to subjugate others, and to enforce their will on the world. Obviously, someone has to stop them, right? Sweet! Let the slaughter begin!
2. The Criminal Element: This is a bit more prevalent in UF because of the popularity of protagonists that are paranormal investigators. The protagonist has to catch a killer with supernatural powers to stop their crime spree. In some cases the criminal in question may be pure evil, but they’re not usually at the level of “take over the world” evil. Regardless, this type of antagonist typically means the story is CSI with supernatural elements.
3. Warring Factions: Warring factions can be more fun to write and read because the opposition is not necessarily inherently bad, their motives and goals just differ from their competition. In the end, it’s all about who has the power and what that does to the losers. But if the opposition isn’t inherently evil, to what lengths can your protagonist go to win?
4. Romantic Conflict: Unless you’re writing Paranormal Romance, this type of antagonism is usually a sub-plot to the overall story, but I’m including it here because I think relationships are an integral part of life and thus a part of fiction I hate to see overlooked. Even if your character is already happily married, whatever larger conflicts they face as part of the story will impact that relationship. Even if you don’t intend to build a romance into the story, I think it’s practically impossible to have an asexual protagonist who faces absolutely no romantic or sexual tension. Hell, even the twisted and revolting Inquistor Glotka of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself who hates everyone and everything isn’t entirely immune.
Alright, so we’ve covered the big four sources for antagonizing your hero. Holy crap! Just four sources of conflict? How in the hell can I write something fresh with only four sources of antagonism?
What you can do is weave all of your story elements together in a way that’s never been done before. Your combination of magic system, plot, cast of characters, setting, conflicts, and even things we haven’t covered like themes are going to be entirely unique to your story. And if you focus too much on how aspects of your story may be similar to other books, you’ll only distract yourself from the story you want to tell and drive yourself crazy trying to be different.
All things considered, it’s ultimately the conflicts your character faces and how they deal with them that will determine your overall success with your story. I think the biggest mistake I made as a rookie writer is focusing too much on my protagonist and not enough on developing my antagonists. And that has led me to stumble over and over again in my writing process. I highly recommend checking out Kristen Lamb’s post, The Single Largest Cause of Writer’s Block- Might Not be What You Believe, for more on this.