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11:33 pm: Breathing life into bullies
Because, you know what?

1) Do not make the bully obsessive about your hero/heroine. Really. It doesn’t make all that much sense for a character who’s meant to be a minor antagonist and not the villain of the whole piece. He doesn’t need to be in every scene. For the scenes that you do need him in, it’s not all that hard to think up a reason for him being there. And most of all, it implies that he doesn’t have a life beyond the page. In a story filled with otherwise breathing characters, a bully who appears to be on the edge of stalking the hero or heroine sticks out like a sore thumb. Or a plot that is otherwise taut and moves the characters around reasonably looks as lacy as Swiss cheese.

There’s another reason, one that may be applicable if you’re using this bully as a character to vent your own rage about being bullied on. I think a lot of people who got the social ostracism/picking on treatment in high school, middle school, or wherever are far more obsessive about their bullies than their bullies ever were about them. I can still easily remember the names and faces of people who humiliated and teased me. I doubt any of them remember mine. It’s natural for your hero or heroine to hate and resent the person who adds a little pain to their lives. It’s unnatural if the bully, filling the minor villain role or a role that puts him in higher favor with the authorities than the protagonist (also possible), plans his whole life around tormenting someone. If nothing else, he’s probably got other people to beat up.

2) Consider reasons for why he torments people other than “he’s weak” or “he’s a coward” or “he’s jealous." Those first two have become clichés in bully stories. The second one never actually made much sense to me, since the bully was also portrayed as so stupid that I don’t think he would only know to pick on people weaker than he was. And the “he’s weak” excuse is one of those stupid “good characters have inner beauty, and bad ones have inner ugliness!” plot points again. It insists that antagonists cannot possibly be complicated, complex, or have inner lives that are anything but moldy and sad. If you want a living minor antagonist, you have to stay away from that.

The “he’s jealous” thing…it’s one of the cheating, negative ways that make your heroine look special when she hasn’t earned the right to be considered any such thing. I cannot tell you how many fantasy books, particularly YA ones, I’ve read where the heroine is proclaimed to be intelligent or especially skilled in magic or sword-fighting, yet still makes stupid decisions or has skills that don’t sound that impressive. The author seems to know this, so she introduces a bully character who snipes at the heroine for having those qualities. That isn’t the way to go about it. Write her better, don’t surround her with a Greek chorus that proclaims she must be wonderful because people are so jealous of her.

3) Give your bully character at least one skill that the hero/heroine does not have. This doesn’t have to be whatever skill brings them together; for example, if they’re training in sword-fighting together, the bully doesn’t have to be better with the sword. (Though, just once, I really would like to read a fantasy story where the heroine is not a better fighter than the bully just because she is the heroine). The bully can be more clever- also a story I would like to see- quicker with the comebacks, faster, stronger, more beautiful or handsome, more successful with the ladies or men, more confident, not whiny… lots of possibilities.

Also, NO CHEATING. This does not count at all if the only reason the bully is better is because of teacher favoritism, his family being noble, only smarmy women/men being interested, the heroine having a bad ankle injury when they tried to run a race, etc. It also doesn’t count if a person in higher authority steps in and declares that the protagonist is the “winner in spirit” or some such nonsense. That turns the story into another triumphal march for the protagonist, the bully into another flat character whose skills don’t matter next to the Specialness of the hero, and really, doesn’t fantasy have enough of those stories already?

To give you a Good Example, there’s a relationship between the royal brothers Rupert and Harald in Simon R. Green’s Blue Moon Rising that has the potential to turn into a typical “The hero is better, yay!” story, but manages to avoid it neatly. Rupert is the younger son, and a cause for concern in a Kingdom with a healthy heir; there’s always the chance that disloyal factions might try to use him against his father and brother. (And the nobles of the Forest Kingdom make rats on a sinking ship look loyal). He’s offered a chance for exile, supposedly killing a dragon, but instead brings the dragon, and the princess it “stole,” back to the castle. There we get to see that Harald is not a stupid, swaggering bully-boy. He’s a cold bastard who taunts his brother, and the story does favor Rupert, but Harald is smarter than Rupert, more efficient, more loyal to the throne, and will likely make a better King.

Harald is the one bully character I’ve ever cheered on, particularly in one scene with the disloyal nobles when he does the absolute coolest thing ever. He works because he’s a person, not just a foil for Rupert.

4) Unless you are in the 10% of fantasy authors who can do love triangles well in general, do not make your bully part of a love triangle with your protagonist and his or her love interest. 90% of fantasy love triangles I’ve read don’t work, even in cases where the author can write good romance as well as good fantasy. The thing is, a good love triangle has to have suspense as well, has to offer a true question as to who the person in the middle will choose, and a lot of fantasy authors suck at suspense. This is probably because most fantasy authors suck at making the Other Woman or Other Man anything like a person. They’re so blindingly and obviously wrong for the person in the middle that you wonder why there’s any choice to be made (and I, at least, start doubting the narrative even more viciously if it insists on telling me that the person in the middle is clever, intelligent, wise, what-have-you).

It only increases when you add a badly-developed bully in there. Well, let’s see. Here’s the clever, beautiful, accomplished, compassionate protagonist, or a love interest who has the same qualities, and there’s the bully, who the author presents as a one-dimensional shadow of a character interested mostly in tormenting the protagonist and boasting about his own qualities. Who will the person in the middle choose? Gee, I wonder. I really do…

I wonder what crack these authors are on to think this is a good idea.

If you are in the 10% of fantasy authors who can write good love triangles, you still have to make the bully a real person. This works in Blue Moon Rising. It turns out that the princess Rupert “rescues” from the dragon—in truth, it’s more like him rescuing the dragon from her—is actually Harald’s betrothed. Julia, the princess, is attracted to Rupert and loathes Harald at first, but Rupert goes off on a mission for months, and Harald is charming and understands the need for people to have sex even when they’re not in love. By the time Rupert comes back, Julia has loyalties to both brothers. She also agrees with Harald on the best way of defending the castle against the encroaching Darkwood, a way that Rupert thinks is suicidal. There aren’t any stupid reasons for Julia to dither between Rupert and Harald in this book, only reasons that make sense in the context of this story.

Also, have I mentioned that Harald is confident and sexually experienced, while Rupert rides a unicorn?

I love Blue Moon Rising.

5) Don’t use clichéd bully dialogue. Please, please don’t. Here is a list of some phrases I could live without ever seeing again, particularly in a scene set just before the protagonist beats the bully up with her Mad Skillz:

“You think you can take me?”
“No one will ever beat me!”
“But you’re just a girl!”
“You’re ________ [insert insult here]!”
“HA-ha!” or some other mutant version of the maniacal laugh.
“I’m the best ever!”

Basically, any insult against the poor tormented protagonist or some praising of his own skills. Other characters, especially the protagonist, are either never shown doing this or are shown doing this, but it’s excused- because of course when the protagonist insults or bullies someone, it’s always justified. (And yes, I have read stories where the author’s precious hero or heroine bullied someone. The author just didn’t call it that, because of course once you are teased, that gives you a shining halo).

This reduces the bully to a shadow character, again.

6) If you must have an ass-kicking scene at the end, keep it short and sweet. Sometimes I think fantasy authors only put minor protagonists in their stories at all so that the hero or heroine can strut their stuff and kick the bullies’ asses in the end.

Here is my list of reasons not to do this:

1) There is almost no way to make this scenario original.
2) It relies on a lot of the caricatures I’ve already named (especially the obsessive bully who has apparently thought of nothing night and day but the protagonist coming back so he can torment her again).
3) The author’s own teenage angst issues are written across the pages in blazing neon letters ten feet high.

That said…

If you build it up enough during the story, then you can create a credible bully who still totally deserves a good ass-kicking. See Blue Moon Rising (yes, this is the Good Book today). Harald is clever and a good king and apparently treats Julia well, but in the end, well, he still wants Julia, and he still has tormented and harried Rupert in the past for being Rupert, and different than he is. There is a confrontation at the end of the book, the details of which I won’t spoil for you. But Simon R. Green gets it over with in the space of about a page. Far more important is where the protagonists are going to go after that, and what they’re going to do.

And he still managed to make it funny, and totally deserved. It was a scene where I cheered for Rupert, despite cheering for Harald earlier in the story. Had it gone on for pages and pages of the protagonist gloating (and, to me, heroes and heroines gloating are no more attractive about doing it than anyone else), I would have finished the book in a much more sour mood, instead of giggling like I was punch-drunk.

This rant is hardly going to stop authors from using stock minor villains, but I wish they would stop for the same reason I wish they would stop creating stock major villains: it denies those people any humanity. Slipping inside the skin of every character in your world makes for the best writing, I think. And if that means moving past their own teenage angst issues, so be it.

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Date:December 6th, 2012 03:50 am (UTC)
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