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Friday, March 9

Being Evil: Plotting From the Antagonist's Perspective

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When working on a scene, we're almost always thinking what the protagonist will do and how they'll get out of it. This is just good plotting, but sometimes it can lead directly to the outcome you have planned and miss opportunities for wonderful situations.

I was working on a scene for Blue Fire and found myself in this exact situation. The general gist of the scene was, Nya has to get out of something and fights a bunch of bad guys to do it. She'll get away, but it'll be a tough fight. Since I know she'll get away, I had her acting to achieve that goal. Oddly though, it felt wrong, too easy, rather flat, and something was off. Then it hit me...

This wasn't about her trying to get out, it was about the bad guys trying to stop her from getting out.

Once I flipped sides and looked at the scene through the bad guy's perspective, it all fell into place. They have this girl trying to get out of X. What would they do to stop her? What elements do they already have in place to handle such things? It was easy after that to create the obstacles Nya had to face and overcome to get out of this predicament. And it worked so much better. (Just to be clear, I didn't actually write the scene from their perspective, just thought about what they'd do to stop her and then had her encounter those things.)

Let's see how Bob and the zombies would handle this.

Bob, Jane, and Sally are trapped in a Denny's, with zombies all around them. They need to get out before they're the ones on the lunch menu.

Traditionally, I'd examine the scene and look for potential obstacles and write them in.

Zombies are covering all the exits. They're bashing themselves against the doors and windows and the glass is going to break any time now. Sally and Jane are arguing, making it hard to focus or get everyone to work together.

I might even think about bad things that can happen.

They're low on ammo. The kitchen is on fire. Jane is injured.

Let's make it even worse (because that's where the fun is). What if these particular zombies are not the kind Bob has been encountering all along? Several of them came across a secret government safe house where test subjects for a new brain enhancing serum were being closely monitored. The zombies ate them, and now they're smart zombies.

These zombies aren't going to just whack their heads on the door until it breaks. They'll have a plan. This will certainly change how Bob acts, but even so, it'll still be along the lines of what Bob has to do to get out, and when I plot this, I'll most likely think about things that Bob can do to achieve that ultimate goal of getting away.

I have all these problems and the scene will no doubt play out like this: Zombies try to get in, Bob deals with each problem as it occurs. He runs out of ammo, searches for other lethal items, maybe even uses the fire to kill enough zombies to escape. He might be surprised at the new and inventive ways the smart zombies are trying to get him, but he'll deal with them same as always, because that's what he does. Since I know Bob is going to get out, it's more a matter of "How is Bob going to use these pieces to get out of there?" Because of that, there's no real tension that he isn't going to get out of there. The scene is going to unfold as expected.

Now flip it.

Think about it from the zombie's perspective. What will these smart zombies do to get and eat Bob and the others? Shove dumpsters against the windows so they can't get out? Create a situation where the only possible exit is into a trap they've set? Sacrifice the regular zombies to send the fire deeper into the restaurant and force Bob out?

Suddenly it's not just about Bob getting away. It's about Bob having to overcome obstacles that aren't so easy to guess the outcome. Failing here is a real possibility, so the tension is jacked high. Readers don't know what will happen next because anything could.

It's the same situation, but you're not plotting for the win, you're plotting for the loss, and then letting Bob win anyway, because he earned it by figuring out how. And by thinking like the bad guy for a bit, you're not picking the easy way out. You're creating tough situations that will require some fancy footwork to overcome.

So don't go easy on your protagonist. Really get inside the heads of those bad guys and think about what they'd do to get what they want. You might find yourself saying, "there's no way my protagonist can get out of that," but do it anyway and make them work for it. Because the harder you have to think, the harder your protagonist has to think, the more unpredictable the scene will be.

And that'll keep the reader thinking, "wow, this is a great book."

Have you ever looked at a scene from the bad guy's perspective? Plotted from the antagonist's view? How much thought do you put into what the antagonist is doing? 

If you're looking for more to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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