Two writers on worldbuilding, fantasy, and whatever else comes to mind.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

When in Doubt, Add Villains

Plots are my weak spot.  Although I have problems developing at least one fairly major character per book, the other characters work out without much effort; the dialogue goes swimmingly; and describing things vividly and efficiently is my favourite part of editing.  But it takes me a long time to find out just where it's all going.

I wish I could report that I've discovered the key to easy plotting.  Alas, I had to get help outlining the novel I'm currently writing -- even though I knew more or less everything that was going to happen!  I have, however, stumbled upon one trick that helps move the story along: add more villains.

The story that became Safekeeping started out without a villain at all, I think, except maybe the Baron -- but I've tried to forget that appalling first draft.  Then I happened to write a scene in which one of the girls was poisoned, and the whole story had to change.  (I call such scenes 'taveren scenes', after the people in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books who twist the pattern of fate around themselves.)  It took me another full draft to find out who the poisoner was -- a minor character who'd been there all along.  That didn't fix all the book's problems by any means, but it did make it not quite so terrible.

When one villain can't handle all the work, try layers of them.  In some rough scenes for a trilogy that I've set aside (but still intend to write, someday), the king's aunt (secretly an evil sorceress) and her son were supposed to be taking over the kingdom.  They didn't seem to have sufficient motivation, though.  So in a taveren scene, it turned out that a foreign sorcerer was blackmailing her, and she was trying to seize power to counter him.  But she wasn't organised enough to make any headway, so her brother, a powerful duke, came along to make use of her in his own coup attempt.  And what about that foreign sorcerer?  He's only the servant of yet another sorcerer, who has his own views and goals ... and it will take three books to beat him, if our heroes ever do.

The conflict doesn't have to be with villains exactly.  In my current project, I've found it useful to root out needless agreement.  That 'state' that amicably split in half, centuries ago -- let's move it to living memory and make it a succession dispute about which everyone involved is angry.  That ruler whose neighbour peaceably took over his land twenty years back when he died without a known heir -- let's give him two heirs, one illegitimate but with outside support.  That will keep the characters busy.

What about laws and sacred texts?  I tend to assume that, when there are sacred laws, everyone obeys them, or pretends to do so.  But that's clearly not true of our world.  Maybe some laws and precepts are considered obsolete; maybe others are stretched to apply to cases they were never meant to cover; maybe powerful people just shrug and say that this is the way the world works, now.  Self-interested people can disagree, well-meaning people can disagree, and everything can be complicated.

I imagine there are some writers who have no trouble complicating things.  And I'm certainly not saying that stories should never involve friends, forgiveness, and reasonable compromises.  But for those who, like me, naturally make everything too tidy and friendly, there's my advice: when in doubt, add villains.  Or reasons for people to hate each other's guts.

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