Antagonist's presence in the story

by Andrew

Question: I am working on a series of 3 or four books telling one central story. How do you write a villain like Sauron from Lord of the Rings who has really no physical presence in the first book or two?

Answer: Well, the answer for Tolkein was to introduce agents of the villain -- Nazgul, Saruman, orcs, etc. and make the villain somewhat of a mystery. I don't recall, in fact, if Sauron ever makes an appearance in the story except at great distance. (We see the Eye, but that's just his crystal ball.)

The downside of that approach is that we get very little sense of Sauron's personality. The character becomes very one-dimensional. These days, it has become more fashionable to create villains with more depth who the reader can feel some sympathy or even empathy for.

In fact, many of Sauron's agents seem pretty flat as characters -- the Nazgul in particular.

I think the most important thing you could do to make your disembodied villain more tangible is to give him/her/it the ability to communicate with other characters. Conversation reveals the character's mind which makes him more real. Think of how we get to know Tom Riddle through the diary messages in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. You could do the same
thing with text messages. Of course, the scary thing about Tom and other people you meet in cyber space is that, if you can't see where they keep their brain, how can you really trust them?

(Perhaps you're familiar with the Turing test, which says that artificial intelligence is real if you can text-chat with the machine and can't tell it's not human.)

The other thing you might do is create agents for the villain who are three-dimensional characters with physical form. We can feel sympathy for a character like Saruman or Denethor or even Theoden who has been seduced by evil much more than a purely evil character.

Another technique is to create physical symbols or avatars for the disembodied villain. These could be objects (like Tom Riddle's diary) or animals (birds or snakes have been used), or even houses. In other words, even though these things cannot communicate, their presence becomes a symbol of the evil force at work in the world.

Sometimes, however, this approach can lead to the villain become less like a character and more like a force of nature, as in Hitchcock's film, The Birds or other disaster stories. In other words, the threat is not so much an antagonist as a backdrop for the real story which concerns the other characters.

Hope that helps.

Click here to post comments

Join in and submit your own question/topic! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Questions About Novel Writing.

search this site the web
search engine by freefind

Celebrating our 2nd year as one of the...

 Step-by-Step Novel Planning Workbook

NEW! Make Money Writing Nonfiction Articles

"I've read more than fifty books on writing, writing novels, etc., but your website has the most useful and practical guidance. Now that I understand how a novel is structured, I will rewrite mine, confident that it will be a more interesting novel." - Lloyd Edwards

"Thanks to your "Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps," I was able to take a story that I simply just fooled around with and went willy nilly all over, into a clearly defined, intriguing battle where two characters fight to keep their relationship intact, and try to find a balance in control of themselves and their lives. Thanks to you, I'm not ashamed of the poor organization of my writing." - Nommanic Ragus

"I am so glad I found your site. It has helped me in so many ways, and has given me more confidence about myself and my work. Thank you for making this valuable resource, for me and my fellow writers. Perhaps you'll hear about me someday...I'll owe it to you." - Ruth, Milton, U.S.A.

"I never knew what to do with all the characters in my head, but since discovering Dramatica I am writing again in my spare time. Thank you for making this available. Yes, it is a bit complex, and it does take time, but I love it because it works." - Colin Shoeman

"I came across your website by chance. It is a plethora of knowledge, written in a simplistic way to help aspiring writers. I truly appreciate all of the information you have provided to help me successfully (relative term) write my novel. Thank you very much!" - Leo T. Rollins

"I can honestly say that this is the first website that is really helpful. You manage to answer complex questions in relatively short articles and with really intelligent answers. Thank you for taking the time to write these articles and sharing them so generously." - Chrystelle Nash

"...had no idea that a simple click would give me such a wealth of valuable information. The site not only offered extremely clear and helpful instructions but was a very enjoyable read as well. The education from your wonderful site has made me a better writer and your words have inspired me to get back to work on my novel. I wish to give you a heartfelt thanks for How to Write a Book Now, sir." -- Mike Chiero