In the spirit of recycling posts I wrote for the Fantasy Fiction Tour ’08 website, here’s another from a few weeks ago.
I believe it was Edith Hamilton in her classic work on mythology that suggested the purpose of the monsters in Greek myths was to give the heroes opportunities to demonstrate their greatness. Ie, the more powerful, terrifying and evil the creature, the more courageous, resourceful and wonderful the hero who delivered the world from that monster by slaying it. So, Perseus faces the gorgon and Theseus the minotaur and Hercules, the greatest of them all, faces twelve labors of “herculean” proportions.
For the gamers out there who don’t read Greek myths, perhaps you could think of this as the “bigger boss” theory of villains. When you finish a level in the video game you’re playing, you expect to have to defeat a ‘boss’ to move on to the next level. Generally, as the levels get more challenging and the game goes on, you expect the bosses to get more challenging, until you finally get to the end and have to fight the “biggest boss” of all.
Applying “big boss” theory to LOTR, we could say the Balrog, Saruman (while still in Orthanc), the Witch King of Angmar (lord of the Nazgul) and Shelob are all big bosses on the road to Mount Doom where the biggest boss of them all, Sauron is defeated. In my own series, The Binding of the Blade, the giant Ulutyr is the “boss” in book one, while in the rest of the story, the Grendolai Cheimontyr (the bringer of storms), the Kumatin and Farimaal all serve as bosses and Malek is of course, the “big boss.”
OK, now quickly to the point. This is a lighthearted way of saying all books need conflict & tension and fantasy is no exception. Creating cool villains for your heroes to overcome is one of the great challenges and pleasures of writing a fantasy story. It really is fun to design and then write about a good villain (if you will forgive the paradox of ‘good villain’). However, and this is the big however, for all of you working on fantasy stories of your own, don’t let the important and essential work of creating great villains for your story so occupy you that you forget or omit to give your protagonist internal conflict as well as external. Whether it is a moral dilemma or struggle like a temptation of some kind or a psychological struggle with something like self-doubt or whatever, internal conflict when written well adds extra layers of depth to your story. I think, personally, the best fantasy stories do both really well, where the characters face not only large obstacles without but challenges and turmoil within. This is a big part of why fantasy stories can be about other worlds yet connect with us so powerfully anyway.
I would be curious to hear from some of you who are working on your own stories, about either or both of these tasks – creating internal and external conflict for your characters. How do you do it? Do you try to keep outdoing yourself by making bigger, meaner villains as you go along? What suggestions or tips would you offer?