Getting to know my villains

Dear Antagonist

Many of the short stories I have written over the last year saw their genesis through NYC Midnight‘s Flash Fiction or Short Story Challenges. In these challenges, writers are given a certain amount of time (48 hrs for the Flash Fiction Challenge, varying lengths of time for the Short Story Challenge) to write a story of a given length based on a particular prompt. Writers compete in heats with writers getting eliminated almost every round. With such strict time and word limits, writers are not only forced to develop a fully formed story in a fraction of the time they may be used to (this is certainly true for me), but with an economy of words as well. With each round, I have come away with a huge sense of accomplishment and a decent story!

After I was done patting myself on the back, however, I began to analyze my stories more carefully. I loved most of my protagonists, but found my antagonists to be quite flat. They seemed unrealistic and their motivations flimsy at best.

As a reader, I love complex villains. Think Holland in the Darker Shade of Magic series by V.E. Schwab. Or Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Or any of the murderers in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. They bring so much more depth and, you guessed it, complexity(!) to a story’s plot. These are the kinds of villains I would love to bring to my writing.

This is admittedly hard in short format (and under tight timelines), but I’m hoping to use the stories from NYC Midnight’s challenges as a venue for developing that skill. I’m not really sure of the BEST way to do this, but here’s what I plan to try:

  • Develop his/her/their backstory
  • Think through the story from their perspective
  • Add in their POV

Think of it like meeting each of my villains for coffee (while hoping they don’t poison my pastry or follow me into an alley afterward to stab me to death). Or think of Uncle Iroh and his dramatic speech to Prince Zuko (spoiler alert: this is a major turning point in Prince Zuko’s character development). Here is the antagonist’s opportunity to shed light on and perhaps even defend their monstrous behavior.

Who knows if I will keep their POV in the final form, but I’m hoping it will at least be a valuable exercise. And really, this is just the beginning. The nature of these short format, timed writing challenges has forced me to look at my writing weaknesses in all their glory. With so little time to revise, revise, revise, these stories bring my writing crutches and plot holes to bear. Aside from the thoughtful feedback given on each story, this has been the greatest gift of the NYC Midnight challenges: helping me see where and how I can continue to grow as a writer.

Where/how are you growing as a writer?

P.S. For more information on NYC Midnight writing challenges, go to their website here: NYC Midnight | Inspiring Challenges for Storytellers. The 2021 Short Story Challenge is coming up! Unfortunately, with such an unpredictable life schedule (the little man is almost 4 months!) and me going back to work in a week (Eek! Yes, that’s the sound of excitement and loads of mom-guilt…), I will not be participating in this particular challenge this year. I will re-evaluate once registration for the 2021 Flash Fiction Challenge comes around!

Audrey Martin

Writer. Engineer. Spouse. Mother. Join me for musings on writing-life balance over a cup of tea. Or two.

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