Enjoy an exclusive guest post from JM Williams, author of “Time to Set Things Right,” featured in our upcoming anthology ON TIME.
You’ve heard this story before. A young man standing on a subway platform suffers a seizure and falls onto the tracks. The roar of the coming train is deafening, the lights like the glowing eyes of Cerberus. Then suddenly, a bystander jumps down, grabs the man, and pulls them both to safety, just as the train screeches by. This happened famously in 2007, and many times before.
I have an obsession with heroes. Heroes who rush to burning cars to rescue survivors. Heroes who run towards the sound of gunfire rather than away. What makes someone do such a thing?
Fantasy fiction is filled with heroes, which is probably why it’s my genre of choice. There’s something deeply compelling about these stories. Something ancient. Some of the earliest historical records we have are hero myths. Gilgamesh and Achilles and Huangdi. Of course, what the ancients valued in their heroes was different than what we do today. For the Greeks, it was more about how a hero waged war rather than why—Achilles was renowned for his prowess, not his compassion. For the Chinese, heroes were leaders and statesmen who built empires.
My love of heroes is probably why I’ve never taken to apocalyptic fiction. I don’t buy the conceit that when all goes to hell, people will turn on each other rather than band together. History has shown, rather, that people come together in a crisis. We are social, pack animals, not scavengers.
But scavengers surely do exist, which is where a fantasy writer like me gets his villains. Morality and conscience are a spectrum, and there will always be those on the far side of it.
What does this mean for writers? Start with the bad guy. Every story begins with a crisis, and a good fantasy crisis starts with a villain. But don’t let your bad guy be a caricature of evil. A complex villain—one with motivations and plots and emotions—is often more important than your protagonist. Audiences are fascinated by the dark side. It’s no surprise Darth Vader is the most popular Star Wars character. Once you have your villain, your hero will reveal herself. Of course, your hero should be equally complex, and flawed. But at this point, that goes without saying.
Let’s put this all into practice.
Most of my stories begin with a concept rather than a character. Something like “How would you stop a terrorist bomber?” There, we have our villain. But who is our hero? In your classic FBI cop show, the good guys don’t catch the criminal until after the damage is done, after the innocents are slaughtered. But how do you stop a bomb that you don’t even know about?
That’s the premise of my story “Time to Set Things Right.” Our hero reacts the appearance of the villain. A bomb. The modern symbol of senseless destruction. Our hero takes action, without thought or calculation, to end the threat. And with any good story, he is changed along the way. You see, he and his enemy are two sides of the same coin. Our hero cannot help but be affected.
What about you? Do you prefer heroes or villains (or anti-heroes, if your one of those readers)? Do you like the chaos of the post-apocalypse or a more ordered and light-hearted adventure?
JM Williams is the author of In the Valley of Magic, Call of the Guardian, and other works of fantasy and science fiction. He has published around forty-five short fiction pieces in a range of venues including Over My Dead Body! Mystery Magazine, The Arcanist, and The New Accelerator, and has earned five Honorable Mentions in the Writers of the Future Contest, among other awards. He is the head of Fiction Vortex’s high fantasy StoryVerse, Of Metal and Magic, managing an international team of writers. He lives in Korea with his wife and cats. Follow him online at www.jmwilliams.home.blog.
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