BookPlotFilter: how to determine a villain for a story?
July 7, 2014 5:55 PM   Subscribe

So I've been pecking away at a book for a while, encountering the typical novice writer issue of not getting past 100 pages or so before things start to stall. Can you help me figure out who my heroes will do battle with?

(Note: I have no real aspirations towards being a published author - this is mostly just for fun. I write, but I don't think I'm a writer because I'm not very disciplined!)

I like what I have so far but plotting is a struggle. I have a main character and a situation I've placed her in, and have surrounded her with people, and there are internal tensions to explore, but I'm struggling to key on on my external tensions. Basically, I need an official baddie and I don't know how to settle on one even though I know what role I want them to play in the story.

My book is set in contemporary Rome, with magic and werewolves, and the baddies need to be attempting to erase the city due to old grudges (rewriting it so that it never became powerful, for example). The question is, which old enemies of Rome might suit? My first choice was Carthaginians, but I also like the idea of it being a villain from one of Rome's many wacky imperial families. (I investigated Livia for the purpose and came away loving her more than I realized I did - I may have to try and build her in as a heroine or something.)

The Etruscans are a possibility, I suppose - I would have to do more research because I don't know enough about them beyond some tomb sculpture. Germanic tribes, ditto.

So are there any specific figures or groups that could serve as antagonists to my poor, beleaguered Roman werewolves? I'd love to hear any suggestions or directions where I could target my research. I'd also be fine with pointers for structuring plot. As my fanfic has proved, I can write decent moments where characters connect emotionally, but I struggle with plot structure unless the story happens to appear mostly fully-formed in my brain at the beginning.
posted by PussKillian to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It suffers from obviousness, but I think you have to go with Carthage, just because of the erasure angle -- "Carthago delenda est" and all that..
posted by Nerd of the North at 6:00 PM on July 7, 2014

Or maybe someone just wants it to look like it's Carthage..
posted by Nerd of the North at 6:05 PM on July 7, 2014

Given the premise, you could really go hog-wild and come up with an alternate history where some totally unknown or never-powerful or geographically distant group becomes powerful if Rome isn't around.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:16 PM on July 7, 2014

I like the idea of it being someone from inside Rome who is motivated by well-intended reasons (maybe their rise to power destroyed some family relationship and they want to go back and put it right?), and they are framing Carthage for it to throw off suspicion.
posted by platinum at 6:20 PM on July 7, 2014

Will your baddies have lived during ancient Roman times (vampires or other long-lived sorts), or will they be descendants of Rome's enemies? Because you might have trouble finding a modern day Brit who doesn't think the Roman invasion was a net gain, but if you have an actual Pict they might have some very old grudges...
posted by MsMolly at 6:25 PM on July 7, 2014

Oh man, go hog wild and make it from the very beginning of its mythic self. You want it to be vengeful Achaeans who do not wish for Troy's descendents to be triumphant. They do not want Aeneas to succeed, they want Dido to live, they want Aphrodite's get to die. Oh hell, make the villain the crippled god Hephaestus whose wife did give him horns with mortal and god and whose descendents are a grim reminder of a failed marriage.
posted by jadepearl at 6:34 PM on July 7, 2014

Goths! They plagued Rome! Then they tried to join Rome! Then they plagued Rome! Then they were betrayed by Rome! Then they plagued Rome! Then they tried to join Rome again! And this cyclic love/hate thing went on and on and on till the Visigoths basically were the Roman empire in modern day Spain and parts of France.

Plus there are lots of them! Ostrogoths! Visigoths! Goths! And as Eastern Germanic people they were almost certainly intermingled with the Vandals, so pull them in too. If there was a saying about making Rome miserable, it would almost certainly have to do with the Goths just NOT GOING AWAY.

Plus you'll have plenty of excuses to have your villains rail against Gothic architecture (which has nothing to do with the Goths), and modern Goths. Heck, you might have the villain set up a bunch of Bauhaus listening pale teens take the fall in some horrible way just for the fun of it.

Give me a G! Give me a O! Give me a T! Give me an H! What's that spell? THE FALL OF ROME!
posted by bswinburn at 6:42 PM on July 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ovid is mad about being exiled over his pick-up artist guide and other secret crimes. It turns out these include writing a book on lycanthropy that has been suppressed for centuries by forces related to the Holy Roman Empire.
posted by johngoren at 6:43 PM on July 7, 2014

Stop right now. Put your manuscript in a drawer. Or a folder on your computer's desktop you never look at.

Go to an office supply store and buy a notebook.

On the first page, write in one sentence what the story of your novel is. [PROTAGONIST] wants [THING], but [OBSTACLE], so [OUTCOME]. It can be a more elaborate sentence than that, but all of those variables must be in play.

Now you have a bit of a handle on what you're even doing here.

Next, expand that sentence. There's a lot more information you're going to need to get your novel properly squared away. For one thing, you need to know a lot of stuff about your protagonist. Fill some notebook pages writing down her back story, the complicating factors in her life, why she wants this thing, etc. And obviously the thing that she wants is a lot more complicated than just being hungry or really having to pee. So write some things about that. Similarly, there's going to have to be more than just the one obstacle to her getting what she wants, if it's going to be a novel and not a New Yorker cartoon. Spend a LOT of time writing more about those obstacles, one of which is probably going to be the antagonist you're looking for. There should also probably be some ups and downs, or "two steps forward, one step back", where she makes some progress, but new obstacles spring up. So figure that out, too.

All these "interesting situations" and "connecting emotionally" and "surrounding her with an interesting cast of supporting players" things are nice to have in a piece of writing, but they take second place behind "WTF IS THIS SHIT EVEN ABOUT YO", AKA plot.

Once you've addressed all of that, you are allowed to begin doing historical/cultural research to fill in some of the blanks. Don't waste your time with it before this point, because as you've already discovered, you can type as much as you want, but that doesn't mean you're writing anything.

After you scribble away in your notebook for a good long while, the answers to your questions will make themselves apparent.
posted by Sara C. at 6:54 PM on July 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

Not the Etruscans unless you are looking for a civil war type scenario. They basically pre-dated the Romans and became the Romans.

More important than who your bad guys will be are the interesting features about them. Do the cats in the Colosseum spy for them? Do they dwell in the oldest parts of Rome that are now the Vatican? What interesting imagery can you come up with when you describe them performing their magic attacks?

I'd rather like to see it be based on either a struggle between some of the patrician families or a struggle between the patricians and the populace. After all the patricians did destroy the economy of Rome so if you made it based on just a few power mad nobles they could be trying to complete something they started long ago.

Don't forget to use Google Maps to travel around the streets of Rome so that when you describe the magic attack outside of building you can really describe the building and the vantage points of the on-lookers and you know if they can escape in the direction you send them.

How about if you make the bad guys Praetorians? They made a couple of strong power moves back in the day that could be the basis of their magic attacks.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:57 PM on July 7, 2014

On the first page, write in one sentence what the story of your novel is. [PROTAGONIST] wants [THING], but [OBSTACLE], so [OUTCOME]. It can be a more elaborate sentence than that, but all of those variables must be in play

I do have this part, to a pretty detailed extent. In short, my protagonist wants to be left the hell alone , but she's a werewolf on somebody else's territory and you don't just get to be a quiet little bunny and hope the local pack doesn't notice you so she gets dragged kicking and screaming (metaphorically most of the time) back into matters wolfy. Problem is, pack business is not just dealing with her and her shocking lack of manners, but with the villain I'm trying to figure out.

I suppose this may not be enough, but I have thought about a lot of her goals and desires and drives and have it written down. Right now she's a reluctant hero but she's starry-eyed in love with the city despite herself (and the good-looking were sent to babysit her isn't so bad either, although she's a ways away from being confident enough to go for it).

There are some really interesting ideas that are setting off little pings in the back of my brain - thanks, everybody. The idea of taking it back to Dido is genius and I may be able to poke around fruitfully in those fields. I've already had a ripped-from-the-Aneiad talking to the dead scene, so hey.

posted by PussKillian at 7:29 PM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

OK so your antagonist is the other werewolves in the pack that she doesn't want to be noticed by. Or perhaps the local rubes who Cannot Know she's a werewolf. If it's a fairly complex novel, there can be some other "baddies" complicating matters, but in order to make any goddamn sense, the antagonist has to be whoever is dragging her into the limelight she so desperately hopes to avoid.

If you want to write a story about a pack of werewolves fighting some outside Big Bad, you're either going to need a different protagonist or a different core desire for the one you've got.
posted by Sara C. at 8:32 PM on July 7, 2014

This comes off as obvious but I think its omission might actually hurt the story more: Tie it back to the myth of Rome's founding. You're writing a story about werewolves in Rome so the myth of Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf must come up somewhere, I assume?

To my mind, the she-wolf is your villain. And yes, she's attempting to erase the city, but it's not because she's evil. It's because she wants to raise an Empire of the Wolf in its place. Romulus and Remus failed her all those millennia ago. She gave them succor and they raised an empire, yes, but one that allowed humans to dominate civilization, with werewolves, with her people, pushed to the fringe.

And although this particular solution casts the she-wolf as a demigod figure, she has good personal motivations for doing what she does, just as your heroine has good personal motivations for keeping the current Rome, and the world at large, as it is. This gives you a process to thwart, which can be realized in any manner of smaller plot steps, and it gives the story a larger conflict that every character can comment upon with their own viewpoint.
posted by greenland at 8:54 PM on July 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Hah, Greenland, you have effectively tapped I to something I've been noodling. Of course I wanted the connection to the she-wolf of the city but so far she's just been something alluded to in an atmospheric sense, not as an actual breathing presence. Dangnabbit, I like it.
posted by PussKillian at 9:09 PM on July 7, 2014

I would venture to say that beginning writers make the same mistake that beginning programmers do: they kick in with writing immediately before planning the whole project.

The right way to do software is to design the entire program before writing the first line of code. And though I'm not a writer I suspect the right way to write a story is to plot the entire thing first, before you start actually writing it.

Usually when a programmer writes code without designing first, he ends up doing an immense amount of work which can't be saved. The only reasonable solution is to throw it all away and start over, working on the design the way he should have anyway. It's painful but it's necessary.

And sorry, but I suspect that's your answer too: no matter how much you like what you've written, you're doing it wrong. The right thing to do is to start over, and rough out the entire plot (in pretty great detail), and then start writing.

You might be able to save some of what you wrote and reuse it, but to keep bullheadedly moving forward because you don't want to waste your previous effort simply leads you to deeper and deeper problems. If it were software you'd end up with buggy crap that cannot be product quality and would cost more and take longer to fix than it would to toss it and start over.

Throwing good money after bad, or good effort after bad, is never worthwhile.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:22 PM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

In writing novels, there are roughly two schools: those who plan out the plot ahead of time, and those who write a "discovery draft" first and then do heavy structural revision. I've heard them referred to as "plotters" and "pantsers."

I've recently read a large amount of helpful blog commentary about various tools and techniques that can be used by both groups. I don't have the links on this computer, but googling for some combination of those terms might give you useful results. The blog I am thinking of also offered a lot of downloadable "beat sheets" that you may find sparks some thoughts.
posted by oblique red at 2:36 PM on July 8, 2014

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