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Warbreaker + #3

First off, new Warbreaker Chapter: Chapter Fifty-Six

After this one, there are only three more chapters to go! (And, one of those is really just an epilogue.) If you want more information about Warbreaker, look right here.

And, it’s time for another one of my

Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling (We all Use.)

#3: Incompetence in the Bad Guys

Let’s face it. In most of the fiction we write, good (or, at least, good as represented by the protagonists) triumphs. Yet, also, it’s a great storytelling technique to stack the odds against the good guys. Instead of having them fight one foe, you make them face down a dozen. The brave warrior fights off great numbers; the clever hacker overcomes the best minds the government has to offer; the noble heroine faces down incredible odds to land the man of her dreams.

We like underdogs. And yet, because of this, we are forced to write antagonists who are flawed, incapable, and generally weak. The orcs just CAN’T be as good at fighting as the heroes. When the storm trooper shoot, they have to miss EVERY SINGLE TIME. And, if they do hit, they have to hit in a non-lethal place.

The thing is, in most combat situations, it only has to take one lucky blow to end a hero. And so, it takes a lot of smoke and mirrors, sometimes, to make a battle seem tense, yet not let the villains actually accomplish anything.

This is a hard one to use correctly, I think. In some places, you DO want the random villain to land a blow, if only to maintain the illusion that anything could happen, and that the heroes could lose in the end. And, there are entire genres where side characters (even a lot of viewpoint characters) are never safe from being killed in a random fight. I see these stories as, in a way, a reaction against the sense villains never succeed.

There are all sorts of ways around this. The above mentioned brutality is one (thank you GRRM.) Another is to make the readers empathize with the villains, so that no matter who wins, there is a sense of loss. However, even when using this methods, I think that we authors sometimes make our bad guys TOO incapable.

It’s hard to remember, sometimes, but a strong villain increases the strength of the hero. And, if the readers are going to all notice that the bad guy SHOULD have done something else, then I strongly suggest you have him notice it to.

A lot of film-makers seem to forget, or ignore, these things. And, I even see it creeping into my own writing sometimes. (There were several places in Mistborn where, at the advice of advance readers, I realized I had to make things feel more difficult–make the antagonists more clever, or more skilled–in order to not undermine my story.)

I suggest you keep an eye on this. It’s something that’s very easy to cut corners on, and even to get into print. And yet, it will make a work feel weaker, I think, and readers will notice. Even if they can’t point out just what was bothering them, they will notice.

|   Castellano