Writing Fiction Tip: Make Everything Worse For Your Hero

When you’re writing fiction, think worse. Make things so tough readers are convinced your main characters have no hope of overcoming their challenges.

When they start a new novel, many authors begin with developing the protagonist; the hero/ main character. A great hero’s essential, right?

Yes, he is. However, every hero needs something to fight: an antagonist—a dangerous enemy threatening his destruction. Otherwise there’s zero suspense… You need your readers in constant suspense—so that they worry about what happens next and keep reading, long past their bedtime.

When you’re writing fiction, focus on the bad guy

Think Lord Byron.

Lady Caroline Lamb called Byron:

“Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”

My theory is that a truly nasty antagonist is essential for successful fiction. Indeed, he’s your most important fictional character.

Before I began focusing on the antagonist as the primary fictional character in any novel, novella, or short story, I dropped headlong into a huge pitfall. In several of my early novels, my antagonist wasn’t any major threat to the hero. Not only were those novels a challenge to write (because it was a struggle to create real conflict), sales were woeful.

Avoid that pitfall. When you’re creating a fictional character, focus on your bad guy. He needs to be truly mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Then make your protagonist someone who has no chance against this overwhelming enemy.

In mythical terms, remember the story of the giant Goliath, versus David. Without Goliath, who’s David? He’s just a just a kid with a slingshot.

Trust me on this: with a truly evil bad guy, your book will (almost) write itself. And you’ll have more fun. Where would the 1001 Dalmatians be without Cruella de Vil, after all? And many, many kudos to Dodie Smith for that name: “a cruel devil”… Love it.

Make it WORSE!

I’m currently doing prep for a novel I’m ghostwriting for a client, and I’m focusing all my attention on the bad guy. My main character is just a placeholder. I know his name, but that’s all—and since great character names are a pain in the rear end to develop, his name is a placeholder too.

I’ve got an oversized sticky note on my computer with “WORSE!” on it. To ensure I don’t forget, my current computer desktop image is a snarling lion… By the time I get around to focusing on my hero, creating my David will be much easier, since I’ve already created Goliath.

Writing fiction can be a lot of fun. It will be easier to write, and more suspenseful for your readers, when you think: “worse.”


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Lion photo by Bisakha Datta on Unsplash