Sequins: more and badder villains

While Dave is moving, here’s another piece of his really good advice from the archives, this one from September 2016:

A friend put up a meme about the inherent logical conflict any really good book causes: you don’t want it to end – but you want to keep reading to the end.

His comment was ‘make sure there are lots of sequels.’

Ah. Eyes that see what they want to see. I read that as ‘make sure there are lots of SEQUINS’: an excellent maxim, which promptly sent my male heterosexual mind back a back a good many years to a fine sequence of sequins.

I was rather disappointed to discover, on a second take, that all the sexy, shiny, sparkly shimmer had gone like yesteryear, and I was left with “you, author write more books. Now.” The truth is, sequels often fail to sustain that magic, and I wonder if good advice for authors might be ‘quit while you’re ahead’.

But then I never met good advice I couldn’t ignore. I’m talented like that, if I say it myself. And perhaps a sequin is the fifth sequel.

Of course one of the major problems with a sequel (or five) is that so often in a well-constructed novel, two things have usually happened – Firstly: the lead character/s have grown, quite possibly doing away with that very flaw which gave the author such a handy lever to get them into trouble (see Changeling’s Island (Baen). Secondly: in a spirit of tidiness many an author has effectively dispatched and disposed of the villain-in-chief – who was often the nastiest villain on the scene (See TOM where I was twice as efficient – maybe four times what I am in real life, and had killed off not only one really nasty villain, but two.) Of course the really smart author who pre-planned the sequel usually wisely merely sent the villain to jail or lurk in their lair pondering terrible revenge, wherefrom, as all villains are recidivists, they can emerge again, bigger and worse. Sadly this ‘clever’ often ends in the book being less than satisfying, and no-one wanting the sequel.

For the less-clever – like me — facing the point when readers start yelling “sequel, sequel, sequel!!” in a rising chorus (with just that hint of pitch-forks and torches in the background) the author probably says something meaningful like: “Mutter mutter mutter. Stupid jackass earlier self shoulda thought of this. Hmph. Wonder if I can re-animate…”

The truth is, you quite possibly can’t, especially if you killed them properly the first time. And trust me on this, if you hadn’t done a good job of it they wouldn’t be chanting ‘sequel! SEQUEL! SEQUEL!!’ outside.

So you need a fresh flaw, and a new villain. And, here’s the bad news. They’ve got to be a biggerer and worserer villain. You can just go and buy another generic bad guy off the shelf at Villains-R-US – because your heroes have proved they can beat those. And please, please don’t dream-sequence the prior victory and have it that Vladimary the Indeterminate is still sacrificing babies to the evil god Hilump after all (Yes, I really have read that plot-line. And seen it on TV). I’ve lost track of the number of sequels where the other alternative to this: Valdimary now being dead, turns into having been the mere cats-paw for Hilump… who never got mentioned in the first book. It can be done well, but very rarely is.

In modern-paint-by-numbers-generic-fiction, the villain is usually established nice and early on with a suitably gory rape/murder/child-rape which is not any way sickly voyeuristic (cough) and would happily have you leave your young daughter in the care of the author. I guess there is a reason why I’m never going to really bind to Game of Thrones, or be a vast success, because I struggle to write those sort of scenes. I sketched out what I wanted of the nasty Elizabeth Bartoldy and Bianca Casarini in the Heirs books and left that scrap to my co-authors ( Best reason yet for having them). I did enjoy writing the comeuppance scenes though.

Still – one is left with ‘what’s worse’ when looking for that next layer of villainy? Two murders/rapes instead of one? Three in book three… Both? And a bit of pillage or racism for the third. Book four has the new villain with all of those AND sexism. And book five, the new villain has all of that AND (insert suitable scary music here) homophobia. If there a book six you’re left with all of that and Donald Trump’s hair…

It doesn’t work very well, does it? Even for ardent seekers after social justice… A murderer is murderer, a thief a thief, a rapist a rapist. Yes, you can take it to murdering sweet little old ladies for fun, as opposed to whoever you wrote in that first villain… but sequel villains are hard.

I struggled somewhat with this. I eventually came up with a short list of possibilities – most of which have a common thread.

There’s nature itself – and what that brings out in people. The aftermath of a hurricane or tsunami or nuclear disaster is a fairly horrific sequel, because it almost certainly means destroying a large part of what you wrought in the first book.

Then I came up with ‘calumny’. “What the Hades is that?” I hear you say, as you roll your eyes at my folly.

Well: It’s a gumbo closely related to vegetarian chili.

Ahem. That’s an illustration of a base calumny about gumbo. Calumny has kind of fallen out of fashion as a dastardly deed, and you may well understand why by the time I’ve finished. To my mind it can be a worse deed than any of the above sins. Ancient Jewish law (from which much of our Western modern morals and law are derived) I feel was wrong about calumny. They only considered an equal sin to what the calumny was about, and punished it accordingly. I think it worse than the crime or sin.

Calumny is false witness – where the person committing calumny knowingly and maliciously lies in testifying that an innocent person did something that they did not do. So: the witness that says Fred committed the murder, while knowing that Fred was actually not even in the state – but he doesn’t like Fred. Or the woman who claims that she was raped by Fred, when actually she was an eager participant, but later thought her boyfriend would break up with her. The mattress-on-her-head girl, the plump comedienne Lena Whatsit… these are people who committed calumny.

And when you think about this, you can see why this is somewhat worse than the evil deed itself. Firstly the person who will be punished is innocent. Secondly, the victim has to live with that. Their reputation, even if innocence is eventually established, is tarnished forever. They’ll wear the psychological damage within too. But, vile though that is, in a way it is a lesser ill than they do to their society – especially to future REAL victims. The accusation loses credibility, and that shelters the true perps in future.

As story material for a sequel, it’s hard to beat. Your hero can go from hero to zero in 10 seconds flat, and the damage it will do is good material for an author, although hell for the character. Being an innocent individual – especially if the presumption of guilt rests hard on you, and is accepted by others – is a hellish predicament, a dreadful thing to do to someone. One can quite understand why the historical penalty for false witness was same as the penalty for the crime would have been. I feel – especially considering the collateral damage – that’s quite light.

Of course, part of the reason this isn’t something that the villains of many a story suffer from is that it has passed, somehow, into being acceptable – especially in politics. Both sides of the spectrum do it – but it’s of course easier when you’re a protected class. So Irene Gallo can cheerfully utter calumny about the sad puppies being bad writers, racists, sexists, homophobes etc. knowing she lies in her teeth, with the clear intent to damage the reputations and hurt careers, but safe in ‘oh you’re sexist misogynists’ if called on it. Hillary Clinton takes this a step further, with her ‘basket of deplorable racists etc.’ of her political foes – which is somewhat more vicious in that she adds the ‘some of’. That is interesting from someone with a legal background, as it places the burden of establishing innocence on the victims – as Irene did with her eventually forced not-apology.

You end up with ‘everyone I disagree with is Hitler’ – which seriously degrades the accusations. One day there may be a real ‘Hitler’ or real a sexist, and a real victim/s… and the term will be meaningless.

If you want a real social justice issue to write about, calumny and indeed false witness are much neglected ones. It was a substantial part of the villainy in A Mankind Witch (Heirs of Alexandria Book 2). I kind of like the concept, once again in my admittedly limited understanding of ancient Jewish law, that a man who remained silent when his testimony could have established innocence or guilt was just as guilty. But that has gone out of fashion, these days.

There are two other levels of nasty villainy I came up with in thinking about this. I’ve used both particularly in the HEIRS OF ALEXANDRA books, but also in Cuttlefish by Dave Freer (2012-07-24) and STEAM MOLE. Treachery and treason often go hand in hand, and although treason is out of PC fashion it’s a betrayal of the trust of one’s own people – and potentially the key to things like genocide and enslavement – step ups in the ‘nasty villain’ stakes.

Of course there is one other interesting possibility of a worse villain – and the hardest of all. And that is the hero themselves, especially when dealing things like trust and fear. When you take the psychological mess that being a hero can leave people in – PTSD for just one example – you can have one hell of a book. I’ve done that too, but not well enough for publication.

But failing all that you can always write about sequins.

Ooh Shiny…

Oh I’m punting my mailing list again. I need another 21 subscribers to get that vast number – a century, at which I threatened to send out my first test noose-letter and a copy of the short story I wrote in RATS, BATS AND VATS Universe, intended as a seed for the final Harmony and Reason book, and as a commemoration of sorts of the 100th year anniversary of Anzac Day. There’s not a lot about the inflatable rattess business in it.



  1. I think there is an important distinction between a sequel and a series that is often overlooked. A sequel is a continuation of the first story. A series is a new story that features the same protagonist and setting as the first story.

    Mystery writers frequently write series books. One can read the Nero Wolfe books, for example, in whatever order you happen across them because they are all stand alone stories. The publication order matters little to the stories. Nero is obese & obscure and Archie is rough & ready in all of them–they have no need of personal character development arcs because the original character is what the audience wants.

    Furthermore, although the publishers like to put phrases like “the most fiendish plot” and “his most dangerous challenge” in the blurbs, by and large the villains are of a similar level of villainy. Murder is murder, and Rex Stout didn’t feel the need to make each murderer worse than the last.

    Most sets of novels about the same protagonist today contain elements of both sequel and series. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden and supporting characters do change over the course of the books, but each book is more or less a stand alone story. There is a certain “ramp effect” over time, which led Butcher to engineer a complete overhaul of the character in Changes–the books that followed (Ghost Story, Cold Days, and Skin Game) are essentially a new series.

    I am currently working on a series of novellas about the same character, a cop who investigates magical crimes in a fantasy world. I am using the old pulp mysteries as my model, each novella stands alone and the character is the same in all of them. I do intend for them all to be published as a collection, but each of them could stand alone (the first was published in a collection last year.)

    Series stories work best with a protagonist who has a good reason to be involved in exciting stories–a cop, a paranormal investigator, a treasure hunter. When your protagonist is just an average Joe who stumbles across a murder or a haunting it strains credulity to have it happen again.

    This ties into my recent rants about the conceit that every character has to overcome some fatal flaw in the course of a story–that particular storyline does not allow for sequel in the same vein. That, in my opinion, is what leads to runaway threat inflation–the character overcomes her or his personal trauma in book one, so that book two has to be even more traumatic in order to give the character something new to overcome.

    1. In a series that has some pre-planning (as a pantser I can only lay claim to some), you can extend the main character’s flaw over the course of several books.

      I’m three books into a new series, with the idea being that each book is like a television episode. There’s a plot that lets the book be a stand-alone, but there’s also an overarching plot happening across all the books. I like that it has let me focus on one character at a time so far, because as a reader, I don’t always enjoy following eight different plot threads and sets of characters in one book. I always want to get back to my favorite story line and feel impatient with the others. It’s only in the third one that I even start to have two main POV characters.

      As to the flaw, I agree that it’s not necessary. I think you can hook readers with a “people issue” just as much. In a romance, the people issue is, of course, falling in love. In adventure, it can be alliances, betrayals, a need to win, or anything else that evokes strong feelings.

      And, absolutely, as a reader I don’t want my series leads turning into different people. I like them as they are.

      I am curious, Misha, as to how you see Harry Dresden changing after Changes so as to create a new series? I hadn’t picked up on that–other than the obvious. I’ve read them all, so there’d be no spoilers for me.

      1. I think that the loss of the basement apartment, the Blue Beetle, and Bob together symbolize that it is a new phase of his life, plus, of course, the new job with Mab. It feels to me like he’s playing in a whole new league, too, on a level with demigods and legends.

        1. I think you might be on to something. My husband referred to it as “leveling up,” but we’ve had these people playing World of Warcraft in our house, so we’ve acquired weird metaphors.

          1. “Leveling up” is exactly what it is, and I think that’s an influence from RPGs that doesn’t work as well in fiction as people try to make it. Harry always leveled up after adventures, and I think that Changes was Butcher’s way of moving the character to a higher level dungeon.

            1. I think that failing to level up can get annoying too, depending. Consider how irritating it was that Riker always found an excuse not to get his own command.

              1. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles. Aristotle.

                A lack of character development, and an attempt to endlessly extend it, are all attempts to ward off the end and so mar the structure.

                Series that shift to other characters, such as children or sidekicks, seem to me to work more happily.

              2. Perhaps.. but consider.. what if Riker was fully aware of the Peter Principle and was avoiding it. He knew where he worked best, and avoided leveling up to avoid dumbing down.

    2. Add in my usual babble about the structural differences between a Japanese light novel series, and the sort of structure we are more used to in western novels. (Or those huge Chinese web novels with the extremely large chapter counts.)

      Three LN examples come to mind. One is Index, which I don’t understand well enough to describe. Another is Sword Art Online, where the published version is constrained by plotting decisions made at an earlier lower level of skill. In SAO, you can clearly see places where he goes “You want more? Hmm, how can I do that?” and contrives another plot.

      Mahouka feels like it has a much more structured metaplot to me. Of course, I don’t know how it ends, and have only been reading summaries of the later volumes. But it starts with terrorists at the school in the first two volumes, moves on to a Chinese invasion of Yokohama for the next major plot, and logically proceeds forward in escalation. Without knowing the end, I am certain the overall plot is about the codependent siblings growing from dysfunctional childhood to fully functional adulthood. The mix of physical enemies makes sense in terms of strains on relationships and growth in those relationships.

      The Chinese xianxia web novels tend to use similar arcs many times in the same overall story. Your character tends to start out in the level one world at the bottom of the pecking order. Gradually they become stronger, until they are the strongest in the level one world. Then they either use a mystical ritual or are mystically drawn to the level two world, where they are again the weakest, and again at the bottom of the pecking order. Execution makes a huge, huge difference.

    3. I don’t think a Character has to have a “fatal flaw” to show character growth. Youth, inexperience, lack of equipment and training and so forth.

      Being a whiny teenager isn’t a big deal–unless they don’t outgrow it. Think about Luke Skywalker, still whining about wanting to go hang with his friends at Toche Station after blowing up the Death Star. (Speaking of “what do we do in the sequels?)

        1. I dunno. I’ve seen it done very well a couple times… but it involved becoming an adult, then the second time was falling in love and getting married, then the third one was the challenge of raising a child… each involved learning and growing into a new role. That said, I will agree it’s very, very rare to see it pulled off well.

    4. Having read your article (good one, by the way. Even where we don’t agree, you make me think !), I have to say that I like character growth arc stories more than you do… but yes, it’s very badly done in a lot of places, and I’m running into books that seem to do it as paint-by-numbers, or a checklist, instead of taking the time to make sure the protagonist is compelling enough readers will put up with them for the story, or that the change rings true.

      1. I’m not sure why it annoys me so much to have a protagonist who has to change and grow as part of the story. It’s kind of like being invited over to someone’s house for dinner to have him say, “Well, I haven’t started making the meal yet–you just have a seat while I sort things out in the kitchen, okay?”

        I don’t want to read a story about someone who is going to become admirable, eventually. I don’t care about their struggles to become a hero–I just want the heroic part.

        1. True! And I don’t disagree with you there – I think authors who start with a non-admirable, non-compelling protagonist are either starting far too early in the story, or with the wrong character. I want my protagonist to already be admirable, as well! If they’re not, why would I be reading them?

          I believe that truly important events tend to change people – if the people are not affected at all by it, can it truly be important enough of an event to hold me to the story, invested in the stakes of the outcome? (Answer: yes, but either that takes a lot of skill, or it takes a format like “solve the mystery / bring justice / restore the wound to the fabric of society.” Outside of mysteries and thrillers, that’s hard to pull off.)

          So you have stories of conflicts, and the people who proactively did things and the people who reacted to things done. In many of these stories, the conflict changes the person – often in a very small way, sometimes big, but they leave their mark on the person and on the relationships they have. Even Leslie Charteris’ The Saint rotated through sidekicks, as character arcs happened to them instead of the protagonist.

          On the other hand, the stories that focus exclusively on the change in character, and not on the events that changed them? They miss a lot, I think, and they often are tone-deaf, contrived, and have to fall back on Because The Plot Says So and tropes to make it work.

          Some genres and their readers, like romantic comedy, are extremely forgiving of this… but then, the character arc is the point of those genres. Their ways are strange, but de gustibus non est disputandem, eh?

  2. Darn it, Dave! Calumny would fit perfectly as a motive in the Shikhari-book-I
    ‘m-not-planning-to-write. Drat it, may Johnson grass infest your pasture and, and, and *shakes paw southward* may you win a case of the good beer at the next charity raffle. With all your mates in the audience.

    1. “…may you win a case of the good beer at the next charity raffle. With all your mates in the audience.

      It’s a Good Thing you are not evil.

  3. Sheesh. Talk about misreading.

    I thought the title said BLADDER villains.

    Here I was wondering if it was going to be an article about Sarah’s Portugal trip on a plane with too many passengers and not enough toilets.

  4. He forgot the obvious point that in modern paint by numbers generic fiction the villain will still be easy to identify because he will be white, male, and often christian and heterosexual (or repressed homosexual and hiding it)

    Especially if said fiction has the title “Law And Order” on it.

    1. Didn’t someone “of color” once answer (1960’s, maybe 1970’s) in reply to a query about when they’d ‘arrive’… with “When we can have a black bad guy.” And it happened not long after said. Evidently, things have regressed. The color of the (metaphorical) hat matters. The color of the skin is… not worth bothering about, at least for the sane. And it seems the world has, indeed, gone mad.

      1. Last night’s insomnia was partly caused by mental raving. The subject of said insane raving? If certain statements are as bad of a problem for modern blacks as people make out, modern blacks have a much lower resistance to mass murder than Segregation era blacks did. Segregation was not in any way good or desireable, but if the status quo really is as claimed, the status quo is not great either. An American population easily murdered on an industrial scale is an attractive nuisance.

        For this reason, I very much hope that certain claims about modern American blacks are false. (I have no real personal first hand knowledge.)

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