8.01.2019

Paying Paul

Amid the ebullience of finishing a novel, after a seemingly endless number of drafts, an author can become caught up in the idea of writing a sequel. They may have been told that the key ingredient is carrying the central core of cast members over to the new book. High among them, maybe the #2 character, is the villain. Wouldn’t it be nice . . . ? thinks the author.

The factors arguing for a resumed battle between protagonist and antagonist are pretty clear. You have built up the villain into a memorable character, allotting almost as much space as to the hero. In addition, in order to drive the book’s suspense, the two characters may have operated in separate spheres, as heroes often spend the entire book trying to identify and then locate the villain. So now that the villain is a known quantity, they could spend the entire book feinting and counter-feinting, just a barrel full of monkeys to spring on the reader. Best of all, you know both of them so well, the second book will nearly write itself.

While there are certainly series in which an overarching villain is continued from book to book, they usually are not the heavies in any one of those books. Instead, it is the kingpin’s henchman who gets down in the trenches and dukes it out with the hero. That arrangement seems to indicate that the reader is getting gypped, but that’s not true.

The reason why is: coverage. The person who keeps showing up is the one whom the reader will learn to hate. That is one of the governing principles of story logic. You control which characters will induce emotion from the reader. Aunt Millie might be a terrifying ax murderer, but if she rarely appears in the book’s pages, we’re not going to pay her much attention.

Now let’s consider the question in terms of math. Say you have allotted, out of a 400-page manuscript, 200 pages to the hero’s scenes and 125 pages to the villain’s.  By a simple number count, you can see that more than three-quarters of the book has been devoted to one or the other. If the hero is to match up with a titanic foe—needed for a thrilling climax—are you going to feature some also-ran from the other 75 pages? No. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. You can’t save the primary villain for the next book, because that is the only struggle that will satisfy readers of the first book.

Exercise: Series writers commonly use the same types over and over. Examine the scenes in which your villain appears. Write down notes pertaining to physical descriptions, type of personality, and background. Now imagine that same person in your sequel, only strip out the descriptions and background. Replace those elements with new ones. You have a new villain.

“The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.”
—Alfred Hitchcock

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine







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