Heroes Versus Slugs—How Different Are They?
Last February at the Christian Writers Guild “Writing for the Soul” conference in Denver, Abingdon Press Editor Ramona Richards and I shared an interesting conversation on slugs. You know, those losers that slime through every novel, leaving a nasty trail in their wake. There’s nothing more satisfying than creating a truly evil antagonist who makes your teeth grind and your stomach convulse. Except, perhaps, creating a love-hate relationship between your antagonist and your reader.
According to Ramona, effective antagonists are those that blind side you or leave you conflicted. They’re the ones that believe they’re doing good in doing bad and evoke feelings of empathy in the reader…only to unleash the slime once the reader’s defenses are down. This is a fine line writers must tiptoe. If you make your antagonist too evil, your novel becomes predictable. Yet, if you give your slug too many admirable traits, you risk reader revolt. Walking the love-hate tight-rope may be dicey, but it’s not impossible. Read on to find out how Clash of the Titles competitors do it.
Ann Gaylia O’Barr, author of Singing in Babylon, digs deep into her antagonist’s psyche, showing the reader why he turned into a slug in the first place. “The antagonist often has been twisted by a hurt in his own life,” O’Barr says. “He has chosen to react by causing more hurt. Some antagonists regret their choice to hurt once they see what they have done. Others feel quite justified. They see the world as mostly competitive, a Darwinian survival of the fittest. They must survive no matter who they hurt.”
Naomi Musch, author of the Green Veil, loves uncovering her antagonist’s baggage. “Getting into the skin of a dark, nefarious mind and still revealing his sympathetic side is terrific fun!” Musch says. “My favorite bad guys always have some human, likeable side. They can be charming, helpful, witty, and attractive. They don't have to be entirely bad, just misguided.”
Although Erin Rainwater, author of the Arrow that Flieth by Day, disagrees. “I know that the ‘rule’ is to make even the slugs have some element of virtue, like the serial killer who adopts and cares for an abandoned puppy,” Rainwater says. “Personally, I like the villain to be pure evil. The ultimate villain, Darth Vader, is a prime example. True, Vader turned out to have a soft heart for his suffering son, and found redemption at the end of his life, but it took three entire movies before we discovered this was even possible.”
And what about those heroes? Are they always heroic? A regular Ken Doll meets GI-Joe? Not quite. Cardboard characters weigh heavy on the page and lull readers to sleep. We want our heroes to be heroic, not saintly. We want to see their struggles, their moments of defeat, and their ultimate triumph.
According to Christine Lindsay, author of Shadowed in Silk, the most endearing heroes have a dash of vulnerability. “I love to see the interplay of vulnerability and strength in a man taking place simultaneously,” Lindsay says. “A number of years ago I saw this hand tremor in my husband when he was being mistreated in a horrible way… I gave [my hero in Shadowed Silk] the same trembling hand, as well as my husband’s steady gaze that never wavers from what is right or his commitment to getting the job done.”
According to aspiring author, Joanne Sher, “A great hero conquers his fears, gets his (or her) strength from those around him, and isn't afraid to fail.”
Clash of the Titles’ Senior Editor and author of Wounded Spirits, April Gardner, says a hero needs flaws. Big ones. “The bigger the character flaws, the harder they have to work to overcome all those obstacles we, as authors, throw in their paths,” Gardner says. “Hard work creates tension, and the more tension the better the read. We all have massive flaws, so why not put them in our characters too?
In fact, often it is through our hero’s failings we can best see his strength and the deep recesses of his heart.
What about you? Think of some of the novels you’ve read this past year. Any heroes stand out? If so, why? And what about those villains? Do you like your slugs to be slimier than snot or do you prefer to see a bit of sugar sprinkled in?