Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

13.12: Q&A on Heroes, Villains, and Main Characters

Your Cast: Brandon, Valynne, Dan, Howard

You had questions about heroes, villains, and main characters. We have answers! Here are the questions:

  • How do you make planned power increases not seem like an ass-pull¹?
  • What do you do when your villain is more interesting/engaging than your hero?
  • How do you know when a character is unnecessary and needs to be removed from the story, or killed off in the story?
  • What tricks do you use when you want the reader to mistakenly believe a character is a hero, rather than a villain?
  • Which is more fun for you: creating a villain, or creating a hero?
  • How many side characters can you reasonably juggle in a novel?
  • What are the drawbacks to making your villain a POV character?
  • If your villain doesn’t show up until late in the story, how do you make their eventual appearance seem justified?
  • How do you get readers to like a character who is a jerk?

Liner Footnotes
¹ We hadn’t seen “ass-pull,” the a nouning² of the idiom “pull it out of your ass³” as a noun before.
² Bill Watterson gave us the verb form of the word “noun” indirectly in the final panel of this strip.
³ For those unfamiliar with the extraction-from-orifice idiom, it means “make it up on the spot,” with a negative connotation, suggesting that the reader can TELL that this was invented in a hurry.

Homework: Write about a female gamer who is trying to right social injustices using her gaming skills.

Thing of the week: The Woman Who Smashed Codes, by Jason Fagone, narrated by Cassandra Campbell.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary:

Q: How do you make planned power increases not look like an ass pull?

A: Harbingers, clues, foreshadowing. Natural consequences. Power has a cost that must be paid, either beforehand by earning and foreshadowing, or later on.

Q: What do you do if your side characters or your villains start to outshine your main character? Aka the villain problem.

A: The villain has a plan, and the hero is just reacting. Give the hero something interesting, or let them take the lead and start acting. Focus on the main character and the storyline, and look at why the side character is taking over. Watch to see if you start enjoying writing the villain or side character more than the main character, then look at what’s happening.

Q: How do you know when a character, main or side, is unnecessary and needs to be removed or killed off?

A: Look at the storyline and make sure that every character is contributing something important. Can you take the character out without changing the storyline? Do it.

Q: What are some tricks to disguise a viewpoint character as a hero, when they are really a villain?

A: Think about it this way. Is this person going from hero to villain because it’s a fall, or a deception? Is the mystery part of your story?

Q: What is more fun for you? Creating a hero or a villain, and why?

A: Villains! Making them sympathetic, understanding their motivations. Heroes! Because we get to know them better, we can add so much more texture. Spaceships! 

Q: How many side characters can you reasonably juggle within a single novel?

A: How big is the novel? How talented are you? Can you make the characters memorable? Make sure the story is good, don’t worry about the size of the cast.

Q: What are the potential benefits and drawbacks of making your villain a POV character?

A: If we can see inside the villain’s head, it’s hard to retain mystery. You may be able to make the mystery or tension focus on how the character is going to get out of it, the consequences of the actions.

Q: When your villain/antagonist doesn’t show up until late in the plot, how do you build them up early on despite their non-presence?

A: Put things they have done in early. Signs, clues that create tension, and make us wonder what is happening.

Q: One of my protagonists is, well, a bit of a jerk. She’s arrogant, and insults some of the other characters. I don’t want my readers to hate a protagonist, though. How can I make… create ways for them to like her?

A: Give them other things. Make sure we understand why they are a jerk, and give them other things that we do like.

[Mary] Season 13, Episode 12.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Heroes, Villains, and Side Characters.

[Valynne] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Valynne] I’m Valynne.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’ve got questions.


[Howard] Well, Brandon’s got the questions.

[Brandon] [garbled And hopefully you’ve got some answers.] I’ve got the questions.


[Brandon] Thank you all who sent in questions. I’m just going to start throwing them at people. We’re going to start with Howard’s favorite on the list. How do you make planned power increases not look like an ass pull?

[Howard] [laughing] That’s… I read that one…


[Howard] And have noth… I had never heard that particular phrase nouned before.

[Dan] Nouned. See, the back story that you guys don’t know is that right before recording this, we told Valynne she had to not swear. So…


[Valynne] I’ve been very good.

[Howard] Oh, that’s…

[Brandon] Can you answer the question?

[Howard] The question, then. How do you make… What was the word, powers?

[Brandon] Yeah, how can you…

[Dan] It was planned power increases.

[Howard] Planned power increases. How do you make… How do you make the increase in abilities of your protagonists look like something that is organic to the story rather than looking like something that… Rather than looking like a deus ex machina. Rather than looking like something that knocks the reader out of the story, because they don’t feel like it fits.

[Dan] Just arbitrarily leveled up.

[Howard] Yeah. Honestly, the key to this is whatever power is, whatever that ability is, the fact that it was going to manifest had to have some sort of harbingers. There had to be something connected to that that was already in place. He’s going to develop the power of magical body odor? For the week prior to that, people are asking, “What is that smell? What is that… Have you bathed? What’s going…” And then, all of a sudden, it manifests.


[Howard] And we feel like, “Oh. Yes. This is a thing.” By the way, the body odor superpower is, in point of fact, an ass pull.

[Valynne] Well, I think the point of that is just thinking about what the natural consequences would be for something should it manifest.

[Dan] Yeah. Power has a cost. That cost can come before hand, by earning it, or foreshadowing it, or later on.

[Brandon] Thank you to Rohan, by the way, who sent that question in and gave us a new word to use.


[Brandon] Melina and Tiffany both asked variations on the same question, which is, “What do you do if your side characters or your villains start to outshine your main character?” This is the classic, what we call, the villain problem.

[Dan] Often what is going on when this happens is that your villain has a plan of action, and all your hero is doing is reacting to it. That can make your heroes look very pale and weak in comparison. So give your hero either something interesting to pull them through the first half, or really make a concerted effort in the second half of your story for the hero to take the lead and start acting… And kind of taking the fight to the villain.

[Brandon] Valynne, have you ever had this happen, because they’ve heard from us on this topic. Have you ever had a side character or a villain outshine your main character?

[Valynne] I think that any time I’ve had that, I get more interested… It’s because I’m more interested in what’s going on with the side character. So not only is it pulling my focus from what the storyline should be, I think sometimes it may just be that’s a different story. So I have to refocus, and take a look at my main character and figure out what I am not doing that my side character is doing. Because that’s usually the answer to why the side character is taking over. Sometimes it’s that the side character is just a lot more humorous. That doesn’t necessarily mean I need to add humor to my main character, but figure out why humor is… What is that humor… What is it accomplishing? That my main character, for whatever characteristics… What characteristics in my main character can I amplify to bring that out?

[Howard] For the reader, this sort of problem… We can tell when we like the villains and the side characters more than the protagonists. For the writer, the first symptom, the first twigging you get to this being a problem is when you are enjoying writing the villain and the side character more. If that has happened, pay very, very close attention to what is going on.

[Brandon] So Noah asks a kind of related question. How do you know when a character, main or side, is unnecessary and needs to be removed or killed off?

[Valynne] I really think that you have to look at your storyline and make sure that that character is contributing to something important. Sometimes it’s not always as apparent as we need it… As we expect it to be. Sometimes it is that that character is the breath of relief. Because there’s humor in that character. Sometimes there is some knowledge that that character adds, but we just need to make… If you took that character out, would the storyline be the same? I think, in any event, if you could take that character out, you probably… Without changing the story? You probably should.

[Dan] Yeah. I’m going… Right now, on my Patreon, I’m kind of serializing annotations on one of the early, early books that I did in a writing group with Brandon. There was one character who was pointless. So clearly pointless, in one of these chapters. Then, in the next chapter, got into a huge fight. It was so obvious. Like, it was just glaringly obvious that the writing group had said, “This character’s dumb. Give him a reason to exist.” I’m like, “Well, I’ll make him the fighter.” In hindsight, I wish that I’d just cut him out of the book. Because he didn’t need to be there. The fight was extraneous because… It was a disaster.

[Brandon] All right. Asoff asks, “What are some tricks to disguise a viewpoint character as a hero, when they are really a villain?” Thought that was a very intriguing question.


[Howard] Well, if we tell you the tricks, then…


[Howard] You’ll know when we’re doing it.

[Brandon] That’s the subtitle…


[Brandon] Of Writing Excuses…


[Brandon] The entire podcast.

[Dan] I don’t know if that is the right way to think about this. At least, it’s not the way I think about this. If I have someone who is going to start as a hero and become a villain, then I think to myself, “Is that because they… This is going to be a fall? Or is this a deception?” If it’s a deception… I mean, either way, really, I just write them as if they were a main character. I don’t think that you need to put in any clues, necessarily, that say this person, keep an eye on them, they’re actually bad, unless discovering that mystery is part of your story. You can just go ahead and write them as if they were a main character, and then have them do something awful at some point.

[Howard] This is a good job, also, for alpha readers. If the alpha reader says, “Wow, that came out of left field. I was totally not expecting that.” “Well, how did you feel about not expecting that?” “Oh, it was fun.” Great. You did it just right. “Oh, it was… Knocked me right out of the story.” Okay. Maybe I need to put in some clues.

[Brandon] Here’s a quick and fun one from Veronica. “What is more fun for you? Creating a hero or a villain, and why?”

[Valynne] Villains. Villains are… I love villains. I love them mostly because I like to make them sympathetic. I like people to understand their motivations and think, “In that scenario, I might do the same thing, even though it’s horribly wrong.” Or… I just love… I love villains…


[Valynne] Personally.

[Dan] I actually would say, for me, it’s a hero. I have so much more fun writing them, because we get to know them better. Which means I can add so much more texture to them as characters. If I’m going to spend that much time introducing you to someone, I’m going to consider them a main character, whether that is hero or villain.

[Howard] Spaceships.


[Brandon] Spaceships. Option C.


[Brandon] None of the above.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s stop for our book of the week. Which is The Woman Who Smashed Codes.

[Dan] The Woman Who Smashed Codes is the book I am reading right now. So, full disclosure, I have not finished it. If the second half is terrible, I apologize. But the first half is amazing. It is a nonfiction story, nonfiction history book about the woman who helped create the NSA. She and her husband were kind of like the American version of Alan Turing. In the first and second world wars, they cracked all of the codes, they worked against Enigma, they hunted down Mafia, and all kinds of things. It’s an incredible interesting story, but history has mostly erased her. We all remember… Or I guess those who know, William Friedman, who created the NSA and has a big bust of himself. His wife was, according to most historical documents, as or even more important, but has kind of been forgotten. This story of her and what she did and how she helped turn America into this kind of intelligence gathering nation, which it never had been before, is fascinating. It’s by Jason Fagone, is how I’m assuming that name is pronounced. It’s called The Woman Who Smashed Codes.

[Brandon] Excellent. Next question. Owen asks, “How many side characters can you reasonably juggle within a single novel?”

[Howard] How many pages do you have?


[Howard] How many… What’s your word count?

[Dan] Is that a Dan Wells’ novel or a Brandon Sanderson’s novel?

[Valynne] I think it depends on how talented you are. If you look at Harry Potter, every single one of her side characters, you remember. If I am the one writing it, I probably can’t juggle that many at all.

[Dan] Rowling… Harry Potter’s a great example to pull out, because she’s so good at this. Sometimes those side characters… the only thing interesting about Shamus Flanigan is that his potions always explode in his face. But we remember him, and we remember the potions exploding in his face. Then she finds a way, in book 7, to make that important. So it doesn’t often take much.

[Brandon] I will make the point of… This is something that I got better through my career. The original reason that the Way of Kings which I wrote in 2002 and workshopped in my writing group, the reason it failed is because I tried to put into many characters, and couldn’t juggle them at my skill level at that point. When I pulled back… We’ve made this point before on Writing Excuses. When I pulled back and did a more focused story, the story was way better. It’s not that… You are… Large casts are not inherently better than small casts. We want a good story, no matter what it is. Sometimes, the right thing to do is to force and stretch yourself. Sometimes the right thing to do is say, “Well, what’s the story that I can really tell right now and do a good job with?”

[Howard] Skill set is… It’s the compression skill set. How much… How much work can you make that paragraph do? How much information… How much storytelling… We talk about how a scene has to have more than one job. If you’ve got lots of side characters to introduce, your skill with the prose has to be sufficient to carry all of those people through that scene believably. That… You just… You gotta learn how to make the words. It takes time.

[Brandon] Jake asks, “What are the potential benefits and drawbacks of making your villain a POV character?”

[Dan] In my experience, it is very hard to retain mystery if we can see inside the villain’s head. So if the villain’s plans need to remain mysterious in some way, or if we… Part of the joy of the book is figuring out what’s going on, I… Which is how almost all of my books are structured. Then you can’t get into the villain’s head. So that’s why I rarely ever do it.

[Valynne] I think that if you are going to do that, and if you’re in the villain’s head, I think that the mystery then therefore needs to be how is this character going to get out of it. Because you already know what’s going to happen if they’re the villain, but then you need to be more focused on how are they going to carry this out, and are they going to get away with it or are they not. The consequences of their actions become the mystery.

[Brandon] Excellent. All right. Corey asks, “When your villain/antagonist doesn’t show up until late in the plot, how do you build them up early on despite their non-presence?” I might add to that, if you’re not choosing to do viewpoints from the villain, how do you make sure they have a presence in the plot?

[Howard] The Schlock Mercenary book I am working on right now does exactly that. I accomplished it by putting things that they have done in the opening scenes. We might think that someone else has done them. But when we get our reveals, it becomes apparent that, “Oh. There’s a bad guy here who is not the bad guy we thought was the baddest guy.”

[Valynne] I think that there need to be things that… Just as you said, there need to be some little signs of what is going on that are… Something that is creating tension. So that when we find out the source of that tension, they all lead up to that person.

[Brandon] All right. We’re going to end here. Liliana asks a question that several others have asked under different phrasings. I like hers the best. It says, “One of my protagonists is, well, a bit of a jerk. She’s arrogant, and insults some of the other characters. I don’t want my readers to hate a protagonist, though. How can I make… create ways for them to like her?”

[Dan] One of the books that I wrote last year is a YA horror in which I did that. I wanted the main character to be a jerk. She’s a teenage girl, she just kind of… I do this increasingly as my daughter gets older, but… I made sure to give her other things. I made sure first of all that we understood, and this is something Valynne’s talked about a lot, that we understood why she was a jerk. Why does she chafe so hard against everyone else in the story? Then on top of that, give her other things that we do like about her. So that we can kind of say, “Oh, yes, she’s not nice, but she does this, and I really like that.”

[Brandon] All right. Just a few things to mention. Jeb asks, “Tips for making a good ensemble of characters?” We did an entire month on ensemble stories, two years back. So go look that one up. “How do you decide to play character archetypes?” Victor asks. We will be doing several podcasts this year on archetype and cliche. So watch for that. There are a couple questions about making characters too good at everything or things like this. We have a podcast coming up about what we call iconic heroes. I think that’s a term we got from Zub.

[Howard] Jim Zub.

[Brandon] We’ll do an entire podcast on that. So some of these questions we will answer. Some we have just answered. Those who are asking about anti-heroes, listen to last month’s episode. These were great questions. Thank you, guys, so much.

[Brandon] Valynne, I asked you to prepare a writing prompt for us.

[Valynne] So, my writing prompt is going to be, write about a female gamer who is trying to right social injustices with her gaming skills.

[Brandon] That is awesome. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.