How to Write an Epic Story Without Any Proper Villains

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Written by Charlie Jane Anders

I’m basically a total hypocrite. I go on these fire-breathing rants all the time at about the lack of good villains in pop culture. I’ve typed the phrase “an adventure story is usually only as good as its villain” so many times, my fingers cramp up when I even think about them. But when it came time to write my novel All the Birds in the Sky, I wanted it to feel like a grand epic… but I didn’t want there to be a villain, at all.

I guess part of this was because I wanted All the Birds in the Sky to be a relationship story as well as a wild adventure. When I set out to tell the story of a witch named Patricia and a mad scientist named Laurence, I really the action to be driven by stuff that happened between the two of them. The first few drafts had more “bad guy” action for them to react to, but it kept getting in the way of the emotional realness. And the more the two of them were making choices that pushed the story forward, the more real it felt to me.

I needed this to be a book about the meeting of those two worlds—Patricia’s mysticism and love of nature, and Laurence’s scientific mastery and cool gadgets. All of the energy, all the most interesting stuff, seemed to come from the two of them running up against each other in different ways over the course of the book.

So instead of Patricia having her own personal Voldemort, an evil witch who keeps trying to take over the world—something I really tried to make work in the second or third draft—I kept moving in the direction of Patricia struggling with her own mistakes, and her own personal demons. And likewise, I kept toying with the idea of Laurence having a rival, or a fellow science genius that he was trying to outwit—and for a long time, there were actual aliens who wanted to invade the Earth, as a running subplot for Laurence. But Laurence was most interesting when he was dealing with his own self-imposed pressure, and the demands of his friends.

That still left me with Theodolphus, the evil guidance counselor who torments Laurence and Patricia in middle school. But Theodolphus took on such a life of his own, and evolved into something so much bigger than just a “villain,” that he kind of needed to stay. Plus we all knew at least one authority figure like that in middle school.

Part of revising a book is paring back all the “ooo shiny” ideas so you can get to what the book is actually about, of course. And the more I worked on this, the more it seemed like this would be a book with no villains. There would still be terrible, reprehensible acts—but they would be committed by our heroes, and their friends, with the best intentions. Just like how I started out intending to stick to my principles and include real proper villainy, but wound up becoming a total hypocrite.

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