Developing Bad Guys

With this post I return to talking about writing, and explicitly the Pa’adhe series.

I’ll say up front: I am still not really planning to write another Pa’adhe short story immediately after the one currently in Draft 3. I need to focus on the astrophotography ebook as I am looking at teaching an Astrophotography class in the Boise Community Education January 2013 time frame. I’d like to have that book available for the students by then.  As soon as I have that done well enough to be usable, THEN I’ll return to Pa’adhe and her crew. I already have the glimmering of a new tale, but I plan to let it percolate a while.

One thing I am doing, though, is pursuing that cold-blooded, intelligent, ruthless, and evil character idea mentioned in a previous blog post. Indeed, that is the point of this particular post: a look into how I develop my bad guy characters, including this major baddie.

As the saying goes, “bad guys are a dime a dozen.”

For short stories, that’s very true. You have a situation, you need a bad guy to push the development, and you throw one in. Sometimes it’s fun to have a recurring bad guy, perhaps one that you as the writer subconsciously recognize could be a potential new story as well as serving as a catalyst in the current short story. An example of that is the pirate captain in The Mercenaries. The Pa’adhe series is centered on a ship (the Pa’adhe), her captain, and her crew. So, it’s logical and even knee-jerk that she’s going to encounter pirates sometime. It’s a given, right?

In The Mercenaries, though, I used such a chance pirate encounter not only as a catalyst, but also as a baited hook dangled before the reader. Like a welcome star glimpsed through a rent in a storm, this pirate captain provides a tantalizing glimpse into the Captain’s past. Just as the star is seen and gone before you can use it to navigate by, the pirate captain is presented, recognized, dealt with, and the story moves on. There is a story here; the reader knows that, it’s made clear in Mercenaries that the two captains have a past.

But what is that past? When will the author reveal this tantalizing glimpse of a tale in another short story?

That’s the hook meant to bring the reader back with each new story. It’s well known that these Pa’adhe stories are not being presented in a linear story order. The next short story could be in the future or in the past in relationship to the other short stories already available for your reading pleasure. It could be the story of the Captain’s encounter with the pirate chief or I might make the reader wait a little longer.

But yes, I will write that story eventually. Why? My perspective is that because I used the pirate captain that way, as a hook to keep the reader interested in my story series, I have entered into an implied contract to provide that back story at some time in the future.

It’s only a brief, two-line entry in the story, but it is enough to say, “these two have a history!” Interestingly, though, I originally only intended it to just be a standard random pirate attack on a chance-encountered ship. As I wrote it, without really thinking about it, I increased the tension level by alluding to a specific pirate ship the Captain had already met at least once before. The relevant lines exchanged between the Captain and another character just flowed from the developing situation. I’m what’s called a pantser…I write these short stories by the seat of my pants. That means that it wasn’t until after I wrote that scene out that I realized exactly what I had done. It was only then I realized the contract I’d entered into with my readers.

As I said earlier, bad guys are a dime a dozen. Sometimes, though, in that dozen you’ll find a gem in the raw. You’ll discover that as you write, intending to create some throw-away character, something happens and you wind up creating a character that you have to develop more, even though when you first met him you had no intention of doing so. In this case, I’ve created a bad guy, presented him to my readership, and implicitly indicated this bad guy will return. That means that when I create that story, I have a ready-made antagonist, but one that I will have to develop. Having written The Mercenaries I know that I now have a pirate captain and a pirate ship I have to develop more so that when these stories are read in the correct sequence, the reader knows just what the Captain thought he saw and why he was so concerned.

In this case, it’s a happenstance in a story driving the development of a bad guy that will return. That is one way you not only create new stories but also develop distinctive bad guys for the main characters to deal with. It also means that I have to make an entry into my character notes file for this pirate captain so that I remember to check the necessary existing stories for things that must be kept consistent, like what he wears into battle or the heraldry on his sail.

Another form of a bad guy is a group, as opposed to an individual…a gang versus a mugger. In The Voyage to Caerl Headland, the first Pa’adhe story I wrote, I started writing with a nebulous idea of two rival groups, one good, one bad, and a ship captain caught between them. That was my original premise, not only for the story itself, but for the series of short stories I was thinking about trying to write. That premise for the series has long since been tossed aside but the premise of those two groups has become a part of the Pa’adhe world. By naming and using the groups, the Virohan and the Prae’aer, I had to suspend writing the story and create the back history for the two factions. I had an idea what I wanted and how the two groups interacted, but at one point in the story I had to know, not just write, but know more details about them. I needed to know, for example, the hierarchy of each group and how they were organized. This meant creating the two organizations, defining how the population sees them, identifying the overall mien of the individuals belonging to each group. Pantser or not, this was not something I could just visualize and go write on the fly. If these two groups were going to be recurring throughout the series as originally envisaged, if they were to be part of the warp and weft of the Pa’adhe world, then I had to sit down and write them out. Otherwise, I risked having a member of one group or the other do something that was incompatible with their philosophy and beliefs.

Such bad guys, and obviously good guys as well, must have ground rules laid out when they’re first seriously utilized. You can go back and modify the story to make the groups conform, but over a series of stories the best you should do is refine them, and not redefine them. Add the nuances, the idiosyncrasies, or individual personages that such groups would naturally develop to make them more real, but the ground rules governing their actions must be thought out, established, and recorded for future reference as soon as you create such a group. Only if that group is to be completely and totally wiped out in a single story and never referenced again except in passing should you wing it. Only that way will you ever need to concern yourself with keeping it consistent within a single story. Only by creating this detail ahead of time can I continue to use the Virohan and Prae’aer every so often in the Pa’adhe short stories consistently. When you read The Voyage to Caerl Headland and A Matter of Trust you will find no discrepancy between the actions of the Virohan, for example, even though you will see a change in one character who is present in both tales. That character, despite what happens, still remains true to the Virohan mythos, philosophy, etc., and it’s easy to do so because the necessary back history is already in place to govern his actions.

Individual bad guys within such a group can easily be created, presented, and discarded never to be seen again in various short stories, as happens in The Pa’adhe, yet through this planning ahead of time the behavior of such an individual is true to their respective group.

Then there’s the bad guy that’s going to become the antagonist in the series.

When I first thought of him, as I was writing Restaok (the story I’m currently in D3 with) I was deliberately looking for an evil bad guy. I had a particular scene in mind that I was going to put the Captain and crew through, but how to set it up? It was a glorious vision, I just absolutely had to write that scene and use it. I had thought of it while working on Dreamland but by the time I conceived it, I had no way to use it in that tale. I was so enamoured of that scene that I let the bad guy slide.  Again, as happens with all good pantser writers, the story wove itself towards the scene and a couple of, well, sorta bad guys developed to guide the tale the way I needed it to go. In the back of my mind, though, I was independently developing a very particular bad guy. From time to time when not writing I would think about this evil entity. Even when writing a particular tale, I might think “I could use that bad guy here” but each time I put off using him. This is what I mean by letting something percolate.

Male or female? Even now I’m not sure. Evil? Absolutely! Intelligent, of course! Who really believes dumb arch-enemies? OH! So this will become an arch enemy? Cool! Ruthless, clearly — I’ve read the Evil Overlord Manual.

So it went. I would think about this entity, this truly evil entity. As I did so, I began to develop certain aspects of the character and eventually also started writing them down. This character is intended to be every bit as vital, living, and breathing as I want the Captain to be. Since this person will not be in every story, I cannot develop the character over the course of several stories like I can, or am trying to, do with the Captain. From a glimmering seen in passing, this evil is slowly growing, like dark clouds spreading from Mordor, through idle thinking, conversations with other people both writers and not, and trying to reconcile this type of enemy I see in my mind with, well, keeping the Captain, ship, and crew safe, or reasonably so.

This leads to having to create the character “on paper” and in enough detail to be able to utilize him or her effectively, but without compromise. Any compromises have to be stated before the characters ever need to deal with them. The personality has to be developed, as does the philosophy of that person: their world view. Without all this detail created ahead of time, how can I, as a writer, reliably, believably, and consistently write scenes with results that are above all both true to the character and believable?

Little bits still come from seemingly innocent events while writing existing stories. One of the things I’ve been wondering is: Where is this being’s lair? It was actually while revising Restaok Draft 3 that I suddenly realized…no, I won’t say where it is, but I discovered that I knew exactly where this person’s home was. And it’s perfect. It fits in with the evil character, what he believes, and how she sees the world.

It’s by writing these things down into a dossier, if you will, that slowly you create a living, breathing bad guy. It’s how you discover surprising elements of her psyche and why he does what he does the way she does. Yep, that’s a confusing use of pronouns, but dang it, I still keep flipping back and forth between a male and female antagonist.

As you can see, even pantsers have to have certain characters predefined before they can use them. Doing so allows for huge benefits with minimal risks aside from the deaths, or worse, of other characters. (Maniacal laughter)

I hope this post provides some insights into how I write, but in addition how and why even I, pantser writer though I be, sometimes have to research and document bad guys used in my short stories. Much, clearly, has to do with the intended use of that particular bad guy in my stories. I am comfortable writing a bad guy on the fly if they’re throwaways only to be used in that one story. However, if they are to be used in more than one short story, then it depends on that use. The pirate captain illustrates being able to write on the fly because though he will return in another story, insufficient though tantalizing personality detail is used to identify that particular bad guy. I can develop him in the next story he’s in. The Virohan and Prae’aer illustrate the need to immediately thoroughly flesh out groups, orders, guilds, etc. to be able to reliably use them across multiple stories. Finally, the arch enemy illustrates the need to fully develop a very particular, returning bad guy prior to use in order to keep that person true to who he’s supposed to be.

Or who she’s supposed to be.

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