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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Heroes and Slugs by Jennifer Slattery

Jennifer Slattery is the marketing rep for the literary website, Clash of the Titles. She writes for Christ to the World Ministries, the Christian Pulse, Samie Sisters, and Reflections in Hindsight and has written for numerous others including Afictionado and the Christian Fiction Online Review. In 2009 she placed first in the HACWN writing contest and in 2010 she was a CWG Operation First Novel finalist, placed second in the Dixie Kane and fourth in the Golden Pen. Find out more about her and her writing at and find out more about Clash of the Titles, the fun literary site where authors compete and readers judge at

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?


  1. I just read Priceless, by Tom Davis, a book about a photographer who rescues several young women from horrible exploitation in Russia. Yet, even the villain of the novel, the priest who traded young girls, had a reason for what he did, his own orphaned state as a child. Obviously, this did not excuse his choices, just showed how one I would think of as the most evil of villains had a background from which he made terriblly wrong choices.

    Ann Gaylia O'Barr

  2. Boba Fett from Star Wars is probably one of my favorite villains. Though he seems like a cookie cutter villain in the original trilogy and he's just a kid in the prequel trilogy, the prequel trilogy shows that he didn't have a very good childhood. In the Star Wars books, his character is portrayed even more. Though he's ruthless, he isn't sadistic or cruel to his prisoners. (But he'll still haul them off to someone who is sadistic if he gets paid well.)
    I know in the book I'm currently writing, the majority of my villains don't have any redeemable qualities, partially because I need a few villains that I can stand to kill. If I give them redeemable qualities, I know I probably wouldn't be able to kill them, which could be a problem for me because I think readers will get upset if every villain turns good. I have experimented with using two MCs who are on opposite sides and both see the other as the villain even though neither of them are evil
    When I'm writing about a war and there's an army, I do try to make sure there are a few good guys on the bad side since I really get tired of movies where every soldier working for the enemy is evil.

  3. Ann, that sounds like a great book!

    Jessi, I haven't read or watched much Star Wars, but I've heard many say the series is an example of literary genius.

  4. Although I'm only halfway through reading Catherine West's YESTERDAY'S TOMORROW--a book i'm finding difficult to put down despite my hectic schedule--I'm loving her hero Luke. He just seems so real: full of angst & emotion yet loaded with a sense of humor, but has his act together enough that he's heroic enough to care about someone else and not just be lost in his own inner world.

  5. I think there are certain flaws we won't put up with in our heroes. Laziness, for example. We'll forgive a guy who flies off the handle or has a weakness for greasy food before we'll endure the guy who won't get off the couch and do something. True?

  6. Elaine, I love humorous heros! (That's one of the things I cherish most about my husband--his ability to bring laughter into any situation.)

    Terrie, great points! They can have struggles, but we want our heroes to have character. And I think perhaps because laziness suggests apathy. Not much romance displayed by an apathetic man, is there?


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