My Top Ten Films of 2017

posted in: Fantasy, Film/TV, Review | 2

I always see top ten lists of films at the close of the year and I thought it would be fun to do the same.  Granted, I haven’t seen every major release so I can’t give those a rating or even consideration.  For example, I haven’t seen “Get Out” or “Split” so I can’t include those, though I have heard great things about both films.

My taste in movies can be odd at times.  Sometimes, I will fall in love with a film for a very simple reason, which stands out and makes a lasting impression in my extensive film mind-vault.  Lists are subjective, so if you disagree or think I’m plain crazy, that’s cool.  Send me your list and I’ll give it a read and tell you why I think you’re crazy.

Note: I’ll avoid spoilers with each blurb.

10. It

A horror movie is in my top ten?!  Yes.  Yes it is.  Let me explain.  Despite being a genre that I don’t prefer, this was a very well-done film.  The acting was great, especially considering the child actors who were the heartbeat of the story.  Without their amazing performances, this would have flopped hard.  Pennywise, the villain, is not enough to make this a top ten movie.  He’s there, he’s the antagonist, but it’s how the kids band together to defeat him that makes this work.  You can check out my full review here: http://adamhenderson.net/2017/09/24/why-i-watched-it/

9. Gifted

To be honest, Gifted did not seem to be on a lot of people’s radars when it came to movies in 2017.  From the trailer, we see a precocious little girl being raised by her uncle who has a knack and ability to solve difficult mathematical equations despite her age.  It’s not really an original story idea but the reason why it made my list (besides just being heartfelt and well-performed) is a particular scene in the middle of the movie.  As the little girl is having a difficult time adjusting to the attention she’s getting for her genius, her uncle takes her to a hospital and they’re waiting and waiting (she doesn’t understand why and neither do we, the watchers) when a new father comes out to the waiting room and announces the birth of his child to his family who has been waiting for hours.  Excitement ensues and the little girl joins in.  Seriously, this kicked me in the feels and tugged the heart strings.  Check this one out if you haven’t yet.

8. Logan Lucky

Under-rated and under-the-radar.  Logan Lucky is not only fun but has great, subtle moments that you miss upon first watch.  It’s directed by Steven Sodenberg who directed the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy.  This has a similar feel but involves West Virginia, NASCAR, and Daniel Craig with a hilarious accent.  How this movie was ignored by people, I don’t understand but it is absolutely worth your time.

7. War for the Planet of the Apes

I never cared for the older Planet of the Apes films.  I was an 80s kid but only saw the first and it didn’t grab ahold of me like other sci-fi properties.  However, I have been a huge fan of the newer films.  The motion capture technology plays a big part in the performances of the “apes”.  Andy Serkis is a Mo-cap master.  Just look into his career and it’s impressive.  This is the third installment and surprised me on many levels.  Not only does it progress the story, which leads into the original PotA movie but it brings true depth to the Apes and their will to survive and find peace.

6. Coco

Vibrant and beautiful.  Coco is a stunning film with so much heart, you can’t help but walk away feeling like you did not waste your time.  It’s visually amazing as the animation continues to push the bounds and it has an amazing message of family and honoring those from the past and those in the present.  Check out my previous blog post for more: http://adamhenderson.net/2017/12/06/how-pixar-and-disney-help-me-appreciate-different-cultures/

5. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Tobey Maguire was good.  Andrew Garfield was okay.  Tom Holland is perfect.  Yes, in my mind, this version of our friendly neighborhood Spider-man was and is the best of the roster we’ve seen in films.  Keeping Spidey in high school is a must.  Not rehashing the origin story is the best decision of the story.  Having Michael Keaton as the main villain brought weight and actual conflict to the plot.  Hands down, I am most excited to see where this franchise goes more than any other Marvel property in the cinematic universe.

4. The Big Sick

This was a pleasant surprise.  I watched the trailer and thought to myself, “I have to see this movie”.  For those unaware, it’s based on a true story of how the main character met his wife.  Some things were changed for the flow of the film but the basic plot is the same.  It’s a pseudo-rom com that focuses more on how the main male protagonist sacrifices his time to be near the girl he cares greatly for while she’s in a coma (not a spoiler if you’ve seen the trailer).  What I loved most about the film is the relationship formed between him and the girl’s parents in the middle of this horrible situation.  It has heart and humor by the fistfuls.

3. Wonder Woman

I don’t know what more I can say about Wonder Woman than I already have in my previous blog post review, which you can read here: http://adamhenderson.net/2017/06/15/wonder-woman-thoughts-and-impact/

This movie gave me chills.  The No Man’s Land sequence is probably my favorite of any movie in the last few years let alone 2017.  Gal Gadot is mesmerizing and embodies the character of Wonder Woman perfectly.  Even though I did not like the climax (#bossfights), I would still give this film a high score and I can’t wait to see what they do in the sequel.

2. Baby Driver

Surprise film of the year for me.  I saw the trailer and thought it was worth watching.  Could be good.  I like director, Edgar Wright, who did Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.  Should be a fun watch.  What I got though was a fast action caper synced to the second thing I love most behind storytelling: music.  Action, comedy, and drama.  All of it is there.  Throw in slick editing and production and you’ve got what might be a universal top five film on most lists.

1. Logan

My favorite movie of 2017 is hands-down Logan.  Confession time: I cried during the trailer.  That two and a half minute video soaked in the age and conviction of Johnny Cash, covering “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails just broke me.  And yes, I did tear up during the film itself as well.  The reason, though, that Logan was my favorite movie was the finality of the character and his struggle through life.  In my opinion, there is no more tormented super hero than Logan aka Wolverine.  For almost two decades over several films, Hugh Jackman brought the titular hero to life.  Due to the nature of the film industry, it’s inevitable to see someone else don the adamantium claws but I remain convinced that Jackman brought the depth needed so we got a legitimate Wolverine and not some campy nonsense that left a bad taste in our mouths.  Go here for my complete review: http://adamhenderson.net/2017/03/06/logan-reaction/

Runner-ups: Thor: Ragnarok, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Free Fire

Call to Action: This list is prone to change since there are about a dozen movies I still need to see: The Shape of Water, Hostiles, Downsizing, The Greatest Showman, I, Tonya, The Disaster Artist, Blade Runner 2049, Battle of the Sexes, etc.  If I do make some updates, I’ll make sure to let you all know by a blog post.  I have a feeling the list could be impacted.

Book Thoughts: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Something I rarely do (pretty sure I’ve never done it in fact) is finish a book of decent length in a week.  It helps to have 16 hours of driving shotgun from Colorado to southern California though.

Initially, getting in to Ready Player One was easy.  The main protagonist, Wade Watts, introduces himself in first person and quickly begins to describe the world in which he lives and his personal struggles.  Not to get into the weeds of specifics, he lives in a dystopian future that has resolved itself to log into a virtual world called the OASIS.  Here in this virtual world, people forget the trials and hardships of their real life and become whatever they want by creating an avatar and remaining anonymous by using an alternate user name by which celebrity can be attained.

Wade or Parzival (a play on the name Percival), is what is called a gunter (fun word), which stands for egg hunter.  Already, you’re thinking, “Does that mean he’s some kind of chicken farmer in this virtual world?”  No, unfortunately, that is not what he is.  Gunters are those OASIS users who are searching for three keys (copper, jade, and crystal) which will open three gates that will eventually lead them to the Easter Egg hidden within the vastness of the OASIS by its creator.  Whoever finds it, inherits the creator’s wealth and more.  The problem is, it’s been years since the contest to find the Easter Egg was announced and no one has made headway to discover the location of the first key (copper).

There, I have to stop because otherwise we get into spoiler territory.  Honestly, the book is a fun read with plenty of sub context our society can grab a hold of as we become more advanced in our technology and move into this virtual otherworld.  VR technology for video games is getting better by the year and soon enough, I would not be surprised to see us “plug in”.

A major plus in the book for me is the references to late 70s and 80s pop culture.  The creator of the OASIS was a teenager during the 80s and therefore his difficult home life was medicated through the movies, music, video games, and comics of that decade.  I was born in the mid-80s but I have held onto that decade more than I did the 90s when I was an adolescent/teenager.  So many of the 80s references in the book hit home for me.  From classic arcade games to Rush lyrics, I found myself trying to decipher the clues to the keys and gates, thinking of the 80s and what they could mean.

Ultimately though, the characters were spot on.  Wade and his friends were strong and fun to go on the adventure with.  Anonymity is a huge theme in the book.  People perceive avatars through the OASIS but personality comes through despite appearances.  Wade learns this along the way.  There’s this desire to know who his friends are in reality but the fear that to do so might affect their relationships after being “exposed”.  How much do we see in our society today people striving to fix imperfections and form their identity by any means possible?  Identity is a major theme in the book and by the end, I really felt I understood it and was able to think about it on a deeper level.

In closing and here’s your “Call to Action”, give Ready Player One a read.  If your a fan of the 80s and all things pop culture, you’ll get a kick out of the references.  Plus, Steven Spielberg is directing the film adaptation and I can’t wait to see how the movie turns out!

Writing Likable Characters

posted in: Fantasy, Storytelling, Writing | 2
As I’ve stated many times, characters drive a story.  How well the characters are written can bring life to the world and the narrative.  Elements like setting, themes, plot twists, magic systems (for fantasy), etc. are all great but cannot effectively drive a story.  Readers become attached to the characters in the world in which they’re reading but if the reader struggles to care about the characters, it has to be asked if they even care what happens by the end (assuming they even reach the end)?

I’m going to take two examples of two “main” characters and delve into their likeability.  For me as a reader, I’m immediately judging whether or not I care about the character whose journey I am following.  Their personality is being revealed to me slowly, peeling away until I see the inner workings.  What are their motivations, passions, desires, fears, weaknesses, shortcomings, etc.  If I can relate in anyway, then I am definitely hooked early on.  If not, then I am reading in search of qualities I can gravitate towards and maybe empathize with.  If the character has obvious faults (selfish, conceited, proud), then I am reading in hopes that they find redemption and become a changed person whom I’m happy to see the maturation and growth of.

I’ll start with Quentin Coldwater of Lev Grossman’s book, “The Magicians”.  Quentin is a young man, looking to graduate high school and make the next step in his educational career.  He discovers that he has been selected to take a test that would–if passed–enroll him into a secret school for young magicians to learn magic and excel in the “arts”.  It’s not a unique story in itself and Quentin is somewhat the typical main protagonist.  There’s just one problem…he’s a bit of a jerk.

Now, he has not come from a loving family; his parents are often out of the country and having no real relationship with him and that seems to be the cause for much of his attitude towards others and the struggle he has to form relationships.  In this, Quentin makes friends but he really does struggle to have healthy relationships.  Most of this is the basis for his selfishness and insecurities.  Where he does excel as a character is his believability.  I know people like him.  I’ve seen them over the years and treat others as he does, followed by having to face the consequences of his choices and more often his mistakes.

I personally struggled to like Quentin throughout the first book and series (though I did finish it and even now cannot remember if his final moments mattered to me).  He has some redeeming qualities over the course of his story but his angst and “woe is me” attitude (all brought on himself by the way) drove me crazy at times.  So often I just wanted to speak to him and tell him he’s acting like a petulant child and needs to be better at life and treat others with respect and value.  (Of course, I could not do this and therefore read on, shaking my head in continual annoyance.)

Next, let’s take Tyrion Lannister of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series by George R.R. Martin or “Game of Thrones” for TV watchers.  To put it simply, he is quite the character.  There is depth to him that is revealed in such a way that you’re continually finding yourself liking him more and more despite some of his less than admirable qualities.  He’s a lecher and drunk but loyal to his friends and family despite the latter continually regarding him (sometimes quite openly) as being only of value because he bears the family name.  You sympathize with him because you recognize his ability to possess passion for others who have endured horrible hardships.  He abhors cruelty and is not prone to hurting others (cough, cough), often believing he can use his status, knowledge, and wisdom to get the upper hand.

Tyrion goes on a whirlwind of a journey that sees him rise and fall but always remaining who he is.  Specifics would lend way to spoilers so I’ll stray from those but as a storyteller and fan of a good story, Tyrion is one of the best out there in my opinion.

The more I read, the more I recognize these characters like Tyrion who I find enjoyable and surprising despite what I might personally regard as vices in their lives.  Do the virtues outweigh those vices?  In Tyrion, I actually do think this.  He has a propensity for getting out of difficult and sometimes life-threatening situations without comprising his established character.  His sometimes heartless reactions to situations make sense and not out of left field for someone of his capability.

As a writer, I am continually thinking about my characters more than the grand plot.  Do I want to make them likeable?  Yes, but I also want them to feel real to the reader.  They cannot be perfect in every way otherwise where’s the risk and danger?  Even if the reader has a sense that some character(s) won’t die, there still needs to be this burden of wonder that something bad or even horrible can happen to them either by way of outside forces or as a result of their choice whether that choice was honorable or not.

One thing I like to ask beta readers is whether or not the characters were complex, relatable, etc. or the opposite.  Getting that feedback helps me as a writer.  As I revise, I take the time to examine every thought, word, and action of the characters to make sure they are not simply doing something for the sake of the plot.  Rather, everything they do should be based on their reaction and/or response to what is happening around them.  Writing likable characters is forever an exploration and process of becoming a better writer.

Call to Action: Are there any examples of unlikable characters you’ve read?  Or maybe ones you did like in the beginning of a book and then did not by the end?

Slow Burn the Beginning

posted in: Fantasy, Writing | 0

I recently finished a book that started off in a way that I just didn’t prefer.  While the book as a whole was fine and had some interesting concepts and characters, I could not shake the way it started.  So, I figured I’d share and discuss this a little (this is just my opinion and in no way a rule).

The book, “The Garden of Stones” by Mark T. Barnes, is fantasy that leans towards the “epic” sub-genre.  This means there’s a vast world inhabited with diverse cultures, languages, magic systems, etc.  I have no problem with this and often gravitate towards these stories as a whole (I’ve widened my range of reading considerably the last few years though).  My problem and this was evident in this book, is when within the first ten pages I am inundated with names, places and things all at once, I automatically have to push through, trusting the story will shape itself into something I will enjoy.

(Just in case Mark T. Barnes ever comes across this blog post, I hope he knows I respect his style and enjoyed reading, happy I finished the book.  This is not a review.)

My preference and the way I choose to write my books is to start small and let the world as a whole expand in a gradual but evenly paced track.  Short of like a narrow passageway that becomes wider and wider until the whole of the cavern is open.  There are advantages to this approach that I’ve found to be more appeasing to the reader who is already trusting you to take them on a journey.

The number one advantage to not throwing the reader into a whirlwind of information is that you give them time to get comfortable with the writing style and initial characters introduced.  The world should be shown through the eyes of the main point of view character.  The reader should not be told anything that the main POV would not themselves know.

For example, if Frodo had been introduced and already knew about the One Ring, its history, Sauron, the Nazgul and so on, then we would have been denied his natural reaction and learning of these forces.  Let’s take Harry Potter next (I know I use these two different sources to make use of my examples but I feel they are the most widely known along the literary spectrum.  Having the movies helps too, hahaha!).  Harry is naïve to the wizarding world as he should be.  How in the name of He Who Shall Not Be Named is he supposed to be aware of that hidden world!  Discovery.  This is the key (and second advantage).

This is more prevalent in the sci-fi/fantasy realm of books and may cross over into general fiction, but discovery of the unknown is the greatest asset to the story!  As a reader, I want to discover who the main protagonist is most of all and that includes the world they live in and all that entails from society to the more ethereal aspects.  Show me these things through their eyes and understanding.  I prefer a slow burn at the start.  It’s what keeps me engaged.

Now, you may be one who likes a rush of the world thrown at you (find Barnes’ book if you do) and that’s totally fine.  No fault on your part.  I simply think it’s more beneficial to learn as a writer not to set out all ten courses on the dining room table rather than going from course to course.  You savor what’s put in front of you in the beginning rather than ignoring it, only to be told it was really good but now its cold and stale if you dared try to return it.  Stories are an adventure.  We shouldn’t be given a straight shot to the end.  It should zig and zag with small and great surprises along the way!

Call to Action: Are there any books that do this?  Were you turned by the method of storytelling?  Comment with examples.  I’m curious to see what’s out there (not necessarily to avoid, just as a reference).

Kill the Cliché, Twist the Trope: Magical MacGuffin

posted in: Fantasy, Writing | 2

There are conventions in fantasy literature that we know well, maybe to a lesser degree if you’re not an avid fan or reader, but you can recognize them with ease.  You can be reading/watching a story unfold, snap your fingers and say, “That’s so and so in this story…” or “I bet that’s what’s needed to solve…”  How?  Why?  Because you’ve seen it done so much, your brain does its magic and the dots are connected, always aware and finding the patterns.  These conventions that are easy to call are often clichés or tropes.

I relied too heavily on these clichés/tropes when I first dabbled in the genre and to be honest, it was good because it helped me understand and know what I wanted to avoid later in my journey as a writer.  For today’s post, I’m going to explore another one (don’t be surprised if this becomes a monthly post-type by the way).

The Magical MacGuffin.  What’s this?  Well, it’s the One Ring in Lord of the Rings, the Holy Grail pursued by Indiana Jones or King Arthur, and/or most recently, any of the Infinity Stones in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  A MacGuffin in literary terms is a plot device pursued by the protagonist to form the basis of the plot.  Now, these devices don’t always have to be magical.  You could literally take any story (from a book, play, tv show or film) and find the MacGuffin.  It could be a goal, dream, desire, object, idea, etc.  All of these fill the role.  Honestly, I don’t have a problem with the device as a whole but in fantasy, it is (in my opinion) a cliché/trope worth avoiding.

In the second book I wrote (one that has been shelved for the time being), I actually tried to take this trope and twist it.  I asked the question, “What if the magical objects in the world suddenly quit working, forcing the societies that relied on them to deal with the resulting conflicts that would naturally ensue?”  A malfunction of the MacGuffin if you will.  Now, this is an idea worth exploring and I may still do it to a degree but on a lesser scale.  Maybe a standalone novel…  There are elements in that world that I created and quite like a lot and don’t completely want to abandon.  Hmmmmm…  Yep, you’ve read it here first.  I may have just realized I do in fact have another story to put in my queue!

Back to the topic.  I struggle to get behind the idea of a Magical MacGuffin because its played out in fantasy.  Tolkien did it the best with the One Ring.  We have a magical item that is in fact filled with the evil of the main antagonist who wants it back.  The goal of the protagonists is to take that item to the only place where it can be destroyed (which happens to be in the most dangerous place in Middle Earth) all the while having to avoid its influence and the desire of others who want to claim it for themselves.  It’s actually a very good device used by Tolkien and plays better in the story as an item to destroy rather than attain.  Kudos to the master!

What we see since then is a lot of stories that drive the plot forward with magical items being the end goal (a sword, crown, horn, bowl, knickknack or patty whack).  Once attained, it usually gives the hero the power to overcome the evil one.  There are usually obstacles that bring lessons learned and help the character grow but for me, both as a reader and writer, to form an entire plot on the magical device, just doesn’t hold my attention.  When looking for new books to read, I actually check to see if the synopsis includes a Magical MacGuffin.  If so, I set it aside.

Thankfully, there is a wave happening in fantasy literature that doesn’t rely on this particular device.  Maybe there are magical items in the world but they are not the bones to hold everything up.  In my Ravanguard series, there are things that could be considered magical but play no major significance to the overall conflict.  I do introduce something that may look the part in the early chapters but as you read, you realize I’ve twisted the expectation of the convention.  The story centers around the three main point of views and their inner struggles to cope with a world that is turned onto its side.  They must rely on themselves and those they trust in order to survive.

I should be clear and say I’m not opposed to a Magical MacGuffin entirely in a story so long as there is a twist or subversion.  Let there be a price to pay in order to use it.  The One Ring actually does this.  Using it makes the wielder dependent and a slave to it.  That’s good!  To compare, consider the Goblet of Fire in the fourth Harry Potter book.  It’s a magical item that is the goal to attain.  Why?  Harry has to because he’s in the contest but what else?  I won’t spoil the book or movie but at least there’s a twist at the end that does extend the overall saga as a whole.  This is also good!

Maybe you prefer this convention for whatever the reason.  Not a bad thing.  We’re just different and have different tastes, which is great, fine and dandy.  Hopefully, that won’t keep you from reading my books (Ha!).  Happy reading!

Call to Action: Do you prefer Magical MacGuffin’s in stories?  If so, share them with me!  I’m always curious to read other people’s preferences and opinions.  Are there any that have been twisted and subverted that you enjoyed?

I’ll Take My Hero Rare

posted in: Writing | 0
Last week I talked about what I want to see in villains.  Now, it’s time for the heroes (equality all around!).We are drawn to heroes like a fat kid is to the pudding tub at a buffet.  Once identified and if impacted, you cannot be pulled away from the story.  Readers pick up a book and quickly scan the back cover to learn the name of the hero (protagonist for you layman’s)  and the conflict they’re facing.  Sometimes these are simple and sometimes you have to read it ten times to make sure you understand what the book offers.  (Side note: Writing a back-of-the-book blurb is ridiculously tough when it comes to epic fantasy…not fun.)

This inevitably leads most people to buy or not buy the book (at least it does me).  We can search and gravitate to those noble men and/or virtuous women but I have come to find as I go from book to book that I no longer want the dragon slayer, righteous lawyer, uncorrupted politician or moral secret agent.  Dullsville…  No, I want the alcoholic knight, the self-conscious attorney, shady lawyer or divorced/manic-depressant jerk of a cop.  Why?  Simple.  Because they’re interesting!

A flawed hero does the one thing and has the potential that the squeaky clean, always smelling like aftershave hero doesn’t.  They can grow.  What I mean by this is these kinds of heroes with faults have all the potential in the world to not only be self-aware of their shortcomings but they can learn from them and actually do what we do in real life.  Mature and learn from mistakes.

Now for some “about me” time: I admit, I’m not all that fond of who I was when I was younger.  I took myself way too serious, struggled with relationships due to lack of identity and self-confidence, and was just a butthead who had little self-control when it came to my emotions (always working on these things by the way).  Now that may make you crap your khakis if you know me today, but I know there are people I spent time with in my past that I was less than kind to due to my insecurities and if given the opportunity, I would apologize to them for my actions and words.  How come I can recognize this and be transparent about my shortcomings?  Well, I matured.  I grew up, had a found Jesus season (not moment or day–a whole season!), and I am able to recognize what I did wrong in my youth.

This is exactly what I want in a hero!  Even if they do not fully understand the mistakes they made or see their vices, I want to read about their revelation and then see their transformation take place from chapter to chapter.  Self-aware protagonists just make for a better read.  Show me the shady lawyer in a situation that would only further his douche-holery but when he recognizes that he’s been down that road before, he chooses the opposite route!  Let that choice actually determine whether or not he could face jail time and I’ll be slow-clapping all the way to the end of the book.

It’s about character.  A three-dimensional character can be virtuous (I’ll not argue that) but no person is completely perfect and blameless.  Well, I concede, there was this one guy.  But let’s stick to the fictional ones for the time being.  When there’s an actual cost or possibility that the hero could be injured or beaten, we as readers are so much more invested in the story.  That’s why George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series is captivating to readers.  He subverts the hero cliché on multiple occasions.  The first book, “A Game of Thrones”, actually follows the traditional trope of an epic fantasy but by the end, he turns everything on its head and you, the reader, cannot help but stare at that page (you know which one I’m talking about) and be peeved, shocked and even anxious to read on, hoping Martin was just messing with you.

I decided when I started the first book of the Ravanguard series, “So Speaks the Gallows”, that I wanted the hero(es) to be flawed.  I have three main point of views in the book and each of these protagonists are flawed in their own way based on their experiences and prejudices against the world.  The main character of my Evinsaale book is an addict and that’s revealed in the first few pages and plays an important role throughout the story.  I write these characters in these ways because I must.  I’ve written heroes in the trope-woven cloak of righteousness and virtue and I could never find their story worth telling in the long run.

Again, a flawed hero captivates the reader because you do not know what they will do in any given situation.  The unknowing is what keeps us turning each page, which is the only goal of a story–to get from start to finish.

Call to Action: Go back through books/movies/tv shows that you like.  Are the heroes/protagonists squeaky clean?  Maybe you prefer them that way and that’s fine.  Sometimes, I’ll admit, you need a hero that walks on water from time to time but consider the opposite.  Respond with a comment about the ones you love or hate.  Let’s talk about them!

Vilest Villainy Vowed to Venture

posted in: Writing | 0

(Alliteration is king.  I’m a big fan of the play on words and I hope you all enjoy them as much as I do.)

Villains.  The great antagonist exploration.  There’s a problem–or to say it better: a cliché–in fiction when it comes to the opposing force of the hero.  It’s more commonly found in epic fantasy but I’m sure it exists in other genres as well.  This cliché postulates that the villain/bad guy that brings forth the main conflict in the story is evil for the sake of evil.

Examples of this would be the White Witch (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), Sauron (The Lord of the Rings), and in any other work that calls this force by any number of fear-inducing monikers (The Evil One, Chaos, Hades, etc.).

The problem with this practice (it’s not so commonly used today due to its overuse and relying on, hence becoming a cliché) is that it cheapens the story.  I struggled to understand this in the beginning because I was subjected to the ethereal essence of a dominating figure in the books I read.  This is probably my biggest gripe with fantasy nowadays (aside from the use of other clichés i.e., farm boy chosen one, damsel in distress, etc.).

How does this go away?  Well, for each writer, they have to write their own story.  My opinion won’t dictate a change across the board (I’m not that self-centered.  Remember, just a proud punk) but I can make sure I don’t fall into this myself.  For me, I look at antagonists who bleed and make choices based on beliefs/desires; those are the ones who better suit my stories.

There are many examples of this but one that I continually go to whenever I think of a truly terrifying antagonist is the Joker portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”.  The late Heath Ledger created a character–not just a villain–that was more than what we the audience expected.  I still remember sitting in that small theater in my hometown and processing what I had just watched while the credits climbed the screen.

Years later, I’ve come to think of antagonists in a very different light.  An all evil character that rests behind a wall until it can regain its form or strength is a distant threat.  Underlings are forced to bring minimal conflict to the hero until the “end” where the big bad is at full strength and the final battle takes place.  This usually involves the hero possessing some kind of knowledge, magic, or item that solely has the ability or helps to destroy the evil one.

We all know this story right?  It’s nothing new.  For me, it’s refreshing to come across an antagonist who subverts the expected.  Put me in the mind and position of an antagonist who can be crazy, self-centered and brutal but lead me through the pages in which I get a glimpse into their soul.  No one is evil for the sake of evil.  All figures in history we would label under that term became that way for a variety of reasons.

Choice is key.  An antagonist that makes choices based on their desires, needs and/or wants is far more compelling to me as a reader and writer.  It’s funny but I’m actually unhappy when I come across a villain that doesn’t meet this expectation.  I was very disappointed in Benedict Cumberbatch’s (come on, isn’t that just one of the funniest names to say out loud?!  Rolls off the tongue) portrayal as Khan in Star Trek.  I just wanted more.  Go watch No Country For Old Men and Skyfall and in those films you get amazing villains portrayed by the amazing Javier Bardem.

I know these are all film examples but I believe these are more accessible than throwing out names of literary villains that I’m not sure would be as well known.  Oh!  I thought of one.  Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes is a great literary (and film) example.  There you go, readers.  All of these are antagonists that are more than the great evil one.  They are flesh and blood.  These are the truly terrifying villains because I cannot determine what they want or will do to get their desires met.  Sauron?  Yeah, he wants to destroy everything that is good.  Sure, I’ll be rooting for the heroes to defeat him but you always knew where he was because he was trapped in his “cell” and I could not expect him to arrive at a moment’s notice.

I hope all this makes sense.  As always, this is my perspective and something I’ve learned for myself as a writer.  A truly terrifying antagonist is one who’s motives may not always be clear and their actions can surprise from one page to another.

Call to Action: Pretty simple one for today.  Watch the link provided to get a great list of villain clichés: