Tag Archives: villains

Evil vs. Hope

Several years ago, I participated in a book signing at a Hastings bookstore in some far corner of my state, and while I was waiting for the session to start I found myself chatting with a store janitor cleaning the aisles. When this man found out I was there to autograph copies of my latest fantasy novel, he mentioned the Harry Potter series. J. K. Rowling’s stories were then new and wildly popular, and this man was unsure about them. The popularity of the books worried him. He wasn’t sure about their themes of magic and sorcery. He was concerned about children reading the stories and how those stories might influence young minds to turn to the darker side of human nature. Most of all, he feared the villain he’d heard about.

My answer to him was as follows:  If you don’t write about evil in a story, how can you dramatize good overcoming it?

It made him think in a new direction. He went back to sweeping and I resumed signing books. My answer was a valid one because fiction needs a villain to test the hero and force the hero to change and/or grow; however, the janitor’s concerns should be taken seriously and not brushed aside. In the years since, they have stayed with me.

This morning I was reading an article called “Why We Need Utopian Fiction Now More Than Ever” by Eleanor Tremeer. It’s about the growing desirability for utopian themes to return to science fiction. As our real world careens through a climate of uncertainty and anarchy, it needs hope.

The author raises a good point; however, science fiction has a long history of reflecting the current times and whatever fears the population has. For example, the Cold War and its constant threat of nuclear attack generated numerous stories about mutant monsters such as Godzilla rampaging against a helpless population. Our current glut of dystopian settings mirrors concerns about climate change and societal unrest.

Even so, I confess that I’m ready for some optimism in my fiction. I find myself worrying about the present state of so-called children’s fiction where it seems that anything goes. Do middle-grade children need to read dark, edgy stories that feature violence and disturbing anti-social behavior? If I stand on my answer to the janitor, yes. Books need evil in them, providing it’s overcome.

But if it’s allowed to prevail, what are we doing?

As I pick up book after book in the kids section at my local bookstore, I find myself sharing that janitor’s concerns. In children’s fiction, we need to take care. I’m not recommending that we censor books unilaterally, but shouldn’t we be asking ourselves: What does this story have to say? How will this affect a child reader? Will this provoke a child to ask questions? Will this influence a child to be more sensitive to the feelings of others? Will this inspire a child to be braver, more honest, and emotionally receptive? Will this frighten a child? Will this teach a child that lying is okay? Will this desensitize a child? Or will this make a child think, so that in the future the child can make connections and understand bigger, more challenging themes or issues in part because of having read this book?

Such issues used to be called the responsibility of authors toward child readers. Publishers, librarians, and teachers were gate-keepers that steered young readers to stories they might be ready for and away from stories that were perhaps too intense or confusing for them at their particular age. It went hand-in-glove with broadcasting’s prime-time regulations for television content, stipulating that certain programs could not be aired until 9 p.m. when children were in bed. There was a general agreement that children were to be protected–not just by their parents, but by all adults. At the same time, middle-class American society permitted any adult to reprimand a child for improper behavior anywhere at any time.

Having grown up in that era, I enjoyed a childhood with a bubble around it. I was protected yet given considerable freedom to play and roam just about anywhere in my community. My mother knew that the elderly lady down the street would phone her if I was doing something I shouldn’t. And I knew that if I ran into trouble I couldn’t handle, I could seek help from an adult. The single warning criteria repeatedly stressed was never to get into a car with someone I didn’t know.

That is not our world today. It is not the world that children grow up in now. The bubble has been shattered. Chide a misbehaving child in public, and you run the risk of having her parent attack you like a ferocious she-wolf. Helicopter parents guard and hover over their children, who rarely set foot outdoors and seem managed constantly. Stranger Danger is the lesson kids are taught, and they are so shielded from adults that all grownups are perceived to be a) monsters or b) totally without authority or relevance.

I find it odd that despite so much parental protection, no one seems to be watching the content of children’s books. They are troubling due to their tone, the behavior of the characters, the rudeness and profanity that now sprinkle the pages, the inability of a child protagonist to stand alone, thus gaining self-reliance and independence, and–most alarming of all–their lack of conclusive endings where evil is met, confronted, and defeated.

When stories don’t dramatize the termination of villainy, they are themselves, in their cumulative effect, villainous.

Which brings me back to Tremeer’s point about our current need for hope in fiction. When you do not feature a true villain that can be confronted, outwitted, and defeated, you are serving defeatism.

You are writing a pessimistic story that leaves nowhere for readers to go. You are saying, this is a bad situation and it can’t be fixed. It will go on and on without end, without resolution. Just survive it as best you can.

That’s not the approach to fiction that I know or love or believe in. It’s not the approach to life that I want to have. It’s not what I want to see spoon-fed to children as entertainment.

Do you?

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Bubble, Boil & Trouble

Just the other day, I told my class that more amateur fiction fails from insufficient conflict than for any other reason.

Conflict, problems, adversity, bad luck, pressure, stress, worry, anguish–these are all part of a writer’s toolkit and should be at the center of stories.

However, sometimes new writers stumble over these variants of character trouble or dodge them altogether.

Instead, let’s look ’em right in the eye:

TROUBLE

Conflict is the linchpin of scenes. I always define it as two characters in direct, active opposition to each other. They meet in confrontation. They argue, fight, interrogate, bicker, evade, etc. Each one comes into the confrontation with a strategy and maneuvers through various tactics and persuasions in an effort to win the encounter.

So as long as you’re writing scenes, fill them with conflict.

If your characters won’t confront each other, you have a problem, and the scenes will crumble.

Problems that can’t be ignored or evaded give your characters something to do. Problems in the story’s opening situation, in the story’s subplots, in the characters’ backgrounds are all useful devices for filling mushy places in your plotline where the story action might otherwise flag.

Adversity (aka random bad luck) carries a warning label because it’s so often misused whenever inexperienced writers try to substitute it for conflict.

Let me state this clearly:  conflict and adversity are not the same thing. Adversity is conflict’s weaker cousin and it can’t do the job that conflict is responsible for.

Even so, occasional adversity doesn’t hurt. Like problems, adversity in small doses injected strategically brings another level of trouble to a story. If you’re writing plenty of conflict and your scenes are strong, adding an occasional dollop of bad luck will help raise the story stakes and keep your plot less predictable.

However, adversity alone just doesn’t carry a story well. Random bad luck is the volcano spewing molten lava on the spot where the hero just happens to be standing. Had the sidekick been there instead, the lava would have melted him. The lava doesn’t care. It has no intelligence, let alone a reason for doing what it’s doing.

Yet if lava spewing danger to a resort Hawaiian community is a catalyst that kickstarts a story and gets the protagonist moving in an effort to warn the community residents or evacuate them, then the volcanic eruption works very well as a backdrop of added danger. But on its own, it is not an actual antagonist.

Pressure ups the stakes. Pressure comes from deadlines, bad luck, and threats. Just when your protagonist has more than enough to cope with, add more pressure. Maybe Granny decides to have a coronary just as the protagonist is trying to load everyone on her neighborhood block into a van for evacuation ahead of the lava flow. The ambulance is cut off from rendering assistance. Minor characters are panicking. And now the protagonist has to find a way to save Granny.

Stress is a by-product of trouble and pressure. And while I want to experience as little stress in myself as possible, I certainly want my protagonist to suffer through a lot of it. Because stress indicates my protagonist is being tested, which is what fiction is really about.

Worry in a hero when things are going from bad to worse creates a corresponding concern in readers. And that helps keep pages turning.

Anguish stems from scene conflict that’s more challenging than the protagonist expected, ending in setback or disaster. Think about times in your life when you’ve wanted something so very, very much and it did not happen. Look at the faces of Olympic athletes who’ve trained for years for the split-second ending of a race when they reached out with all they had and fell short.

That’s your protagonist, reaching through conflict and opposition so bad he isn’t sure he can survive it, and feeling intense anguish as the story goal looks to be dropping away, lost forever.

BOIL

Conflict, problems, and trouble have to start strong and grow harsher and more formidable as the story progresses. This kind of story pressure will then force your protagonist into taking risks and growing. It will push your protagonist’s emotions into a churning turmoil of conflicting feelings.

If your viewpoint character isn’t “on the boil” inside, then chances are you haven’t pitted him or her against enough opposition.

Raise the stakes and stop protecting your protagonist.

BUBBLE

What’s bubbling beneath the surface? What do you know that your readers don’t? Is your protagonist torn within, at conflict with himself as he struggles to find a way out of his current difficulties?

External plot conflict should exacerbate whatever flaws your hero possesses. Not just little things like failing to pick up her clothes, but areas where your protagonist lacks something necessary to win, to survive the story situation.

The external conflict should force your protagonist to grow. And a character grows whenever he’s pushed from the cocoon of physical, emotional, or psychological safety where he’s taken refuge.

Trouble with consequences that can’t be ignored is the first step toward shoving your protagonist beyond the safety zone. Being pitted against an antagonist that shows no mercy will compel your protagonist to strive to do things never tried before despite that inner flaw or fear. The story’s plot is all about making your protagonist face her fear or overcome her inner weakness despite all the internal doubt and uncertainty holding her back.

Without trouble, boil, and bubble–protagonists are flat and lifeless on the page. They never quite come to life. They fail to be compelling.

Reach past your personal comfort zone and stop protecting your hero. Amp up the challenge, and kick emotions to life.

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Slump Stumped

When you write long fiction, does it sag in the middle? Does it slow down, drag, stall, or hit a dead end? Do you feel lost, unable to figure out what to do next? Are you doubting your story idea, hating your characters, feeling tired, or are you simply bored and frustrated with a story that begin with such promise but has now become as heavy as cement boots pulling you to the bottom of the lake?

Been there, folks. And without trying to sound like a TV commercial for indigestion, there is a solution to the bleak, daunting, soggy, sagging middle. Give your story oomph!

Generally story oomph comes from a strong, focused plot, characters in direct opposition, high stakes, and fast pacing.

But specifically, you can add oomph by utilizing hooks, tossing in unpredictability, and boosting motivations.

Let’s examine these three methods separately:

  1. Hooks:  When scenes are written effectively, each scene conclusion should end with some kind of setback or additional trouble for the protagonist. That means an automatic hook is created to draw readers forward. However, hooks can be set anywhere in your story. In chapter openings, in character introductions, in narrative, in scenes, in viewpoint changes … all sorts of places. If the zombies hadn’t been trying to kill me, I would have enjoyed seeing the Grand Canyon. Or, “Lucy Cuthbert, if you don’t find someone to marry by the end of this afternoon, I will cut you out of my will.” Or, When Bob opened the desk drawer in search of a paperclip, he didn’t expect to find a clear acrylic box filled with writhing, agitated scorpions. Or, Jane had expected her new stepmother to be small, fragile, blonde, and vicious. Instead, she walked outside to see a statuesque, bikini-clad Amazon poised on the pool’s diving board, holding a martini glass aloft and singing an aria from Carmen at the top of her lungs.
  2. Unpredictability: Plot twists and turns add zest to stories. If your protagonist carefully plans what he intends to do next and then executes that intention, your story is focused and easy to follow but predictable. Without the element of the unexpected, stories become dull, and dull stories bore their creator while guaranteeing a rapid loss of reader interest. So if you’re bored by a passage, scene, or chapter, imagine what your readers will feel! Shake your copy out of the doldrums. Add some zing. Set up a scene to go in a certain direction and then knock it sideways by a wily, ruthless villain. Think about a scene you’re about to write. Within the context of the story and the parameters of your protagonist’s objectives, what can you toss in that will be completely unexpected–yet not wholly illogical? When I was writing the manuscript that would become my first published book, I hit a dull spot in the story where my heroine was going on a picnic with the hero. Romantic? Yes. Lively? No. So I thought about it and let the imp of unpredictability loose. As a result, when my heroine opened the wicker food hamper, she discovered a dead rat inside. Needless to say, that livened up the scene considerably as she screamed and tossed the basket away. (The villain had bribed his lordship’s kitchen servants to put the nasty rodent in the basket.) It wasn’t great plotting, but it served its purpose. Of course, you don’t want to throw a carcass (or its equivalent) into every scene. That, in turn, would become predictable. But eschew timidity when you write. Be daring with characters and their actions. And don’t always follow the expected path.
  3. Boosting motivation:  Often books lose steam because the characters involved don’t care enough about what they’re doing. Maybe the characters did care in the book’s opening chapters, but Amy Author has forgotten that she must strongly motivate her protagonist from start to finish. I’m not saying a protagonist who’s battered by a string of setbacks should never feel doubt, but the character must keep finding new, tougher determination to continue forward despite everything. In C.S. Forester’s The African Queen, Rose is motivated to destroy a German warship patrolling an African lake because of the brutal destruction of her brother and his life’s work by the German army. Her brother is an insignificant missionary, trying to bring Christianity to the native population. He is a harmless civilian, but he is so shocked and broken by the soldiers’ cruelty that he dies, and Rose wants revenge. To get it, she is willing to attempt the impossible. Vast distance, dangerous jungle, impassable rivers, rapids, clouds of vicious insects, and grueling physical hardship do not matter to her. She never gives up because her motivation is like a spear in her back, driving her forward. But not only the protagonist should have powerful motivations. Remember to give your villain motivations as well. Consider the complex villain Imhotep in the 1999 film The Mummy. Imhotep is a ruthless killer, but he is also sympathetic. He is driven by his desire to be reunited with the woman he loves. We can understand him, perhaps even feel sorry for him, while we disapprove of his extreme actions. Still, it is clear that he will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, and that powerful drive to succeed forces the good guys to become tougher and more determined to thwart him.

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In Search of the Elusive Antagonist

Are bad guys becoming extinct?

Are villains on the endangered species list?

Have writers forgotten the meaning of “antagonist?”

Why is it so difficult for neophyte writers these days to invent and design a story antagonist? If the hero is the driving force of the story, then the villain will make all the difference in whether the story is compelling or simply meh.

An antagonist is an opponent. A person or entity standing in determined opposition to whatever the protagonist is trying to accomplish.

It’s. That. Simple.

If a writer, on the other hand, doesn’t know what her protagonist wants, then she won’t get far.

Let’s consider a zombie premise:
Harriet Heroine discovers that her roommate Zoe has been infected and is now a zombie trying to eat her. The apartment–formerly a haven–is now a trap. Harriet has to get out of there–to save herself. Zoe wants to keep her there and eat her.

Two goals in direct opposition. The story will be focused, clear, and easy to follow.

Compare it with this version:
Harriet Heroine is afraid of the recent zombie outbreak near her apartment building. She barricades herself inside her home and stocks up on Twinkies, pretzels, and bottled water.

See the difference? Both versions have similar premises, but one is just a situation. The other has the foundation for a plot and can at least be a viable short story.

Here’s a fantasy premise:
Harvey Hero has inherited an old pendant made of Sacred Stone, the last piece of Sacred Stone known to exist in mortal hands. When his dying grandfather gave the pendant to Harvey, he whispered that Harvey must take the pendant back to the Island of Weir, where their family came from, and claim the treasure hidden there. Viktor Villain–aware that the pendant has the magical power to unlock the treasure chamber–pursues Harvey, intending to capture him, steal the pendant, and reach the treasure first.

But compare it with this:
Harvey Hero has inherited an old pendant made of Sacred Stone, the last piece known to exist in mortal hands. Ever since he started wearing the item, he’s been troubled by strange dreams and feels compelled to journey to the Island of Weir. Viktor Villain has taken possession of the island and has enslaved its inhabitants.

Which version has story potential? In the first version, two characters are vying for a fabulous hoard of treasure. In the second version, the protagonist is moving around without any clear purpose and the antagonist is not in direct opposition.

Another problem that often comes with the nebulous villain is when the antagonist isn’t in the same proximity as the protagonist. How can they be in conflict if they’re on opposite sides of the world?

They must intersect, frequently. They must oppose each other, directly. They must be in conflict, all the time.

Now, perhaps you’re thinking of the Harry Potter series, where Voldemort stays hidden for much of the time. Is Harry in conflict with him? Through Voldemort’s representative, yes.

Hidden villains send minions to do their dirty work of opposing the protagonist. That’s fine. It’s exciting, suspenseful, dangerous, and readable.

The problem falls when no rep shows up. Without conflict, the plot sags, stalls, and crumbles.

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The Biscuit Dough of Fiction

Researching for a novel is in some ways akin to making good biscuits. You need practice, common sense, good instincts, and a deft hand.

Mix the biscuit dough too long, and what should be a delectable morsel of hot, flaky goodness will be flat and tough.

Research too long, and you’ll procrastinate getting started or you’ll end up with too much information to cram into the story. Result? A flat, dull, hard-to-read story too heavy with info-dumps.

If you twist the biscuit dough as you cut it, you seal the edges and make it difficult for the biscuits to rise while baking.

If you contort your story to fit in some prize piece of information you’ve discovered, you’re damaging your plot and short-changing the drama.

Handle the dough too much while kneading or rolling it out, and the warmth of your skin will soften the butter too soon, destroying your chances of creating a tender, flaky biscuit.

Focus too hard on your facts and data, and you’ll forget that your responsibility belongs primarily to your plot and characters.

The first novel I sold had a historical setting. This was long before the Internet was a gleam in anyone’s eye. Research was done the old-fashioned way–by visiting a library and poring over musty old tomes and encyclopedias while standing barefoot in the snow.

With that book, set in 1797 London, I knew the limitations of my resources, and I was worried. My writing coach at the time–suspense novelist Robert L. Duncan–gave me invaluable advice.

He said, “Plot the book first. Then you’ll know what you need to research. If you research first, you’ll gather too much of the wrong thing.”

Such simple wisdom steadied me at the time and gave me the confidence to believe in my story, to complete it, and to see it through to publication. Since that early experience, I’ve tried hard to stick with Bob’s recommendation.

Any time I’ve deviated from it, I’ve regretted it big-time. The three over-researched books I’ve written during my professional career haven’t sold.

They were all long, complicated, over-blown efforts involving too much material.

One of these clunkers sent me digging deeper and deeper into the whole controversy over whether people can or cannot suffer from multiple-personalities. I even interviewed a practicing psychiatrist–who provided me with terrific insights and details. But the more I learned, the worse I designed my character until all I had was a highly improbable, contrived, implausible construction instead of a good, scary villain.

Another clunker got me so wrapped up in all that I was learning about my setting that I contrived an entire section of the book in order to use what I’d researched.

Guess what my agent did when he read the manuscript? Yep! He requested that I remove that part of the story–all 20,000 useless words of it.

So time and experience have taught me the merit of Bob’s early piece of advice. My sometimes very limited resources at the start of my career meant that I learned to rely on my intuition and instincts. I had to craft a good story because I couldn’t rely on too much data.

These days, I’m very grateful for the ease and accessibility of material via the Internet. However, I’ll caution you that what’s so readily available comes with an even deeper pit of quicksand.

It’s great that I can now run a computer search to find the information I need. No longer do I have to wait on inter-library loan. But I have to be more vigilant than ever to avoid the information overload that can clog my common sense and smother my story instincts.

You research just enough to get the facts right, just enough to make what your characters are doing plausible. The rest of the story, you write from your heart.

Overdo it, and your story will be as unpalatable as a tough old lump of biscuit.

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Direct Opposition–Part III

Continuing my series on conflict created by various types of villains, here’s the list I’ve been discussing:

Concealed villains
Visible villains
Enemies
Antagonists
Opponents

I’m ready now to look at the category I call enemies.

It’s certainly possible for your story protagonist to have an enemy. This implies a past history between the two individuals, one that fuels their motivations for opposing each other. Or the enemy may be an opponent in warfare, from the other side.

But in this post, I want to discuss enemies in plural form, as in … not personal enemies, not Snoopy versus the Red Baron, but in terms of the protagonist coping with several villains, one after the other.

The hapless–rather hopeless–Wilbur Writer, still enthusiastically blundering along, has formed the less-than-brilliant intention of generating conflict for his novel by pitting Peter Protagonist against an entire series of villains–one after the next.

As soon as Peter escapes his mother (Velma Villain) and heads out to basic training, he’ll butt heads with Sgt. Ernest Enemy I, the loud, foul-mouthed, sadistic drill instructor determined to tear the recruits into little pieces.

“And then,” Wilbur says eagerly before I can call Halt, “there will be a slimy type in Peter’s barracks that steals from everyone, especially Peter. I’ll call him Icky Enemy II. And then, I’ll pit Peter against the big guy that always beats him in the obstacle course. That’s Eddie Enemy III. Then, once Peter’s through basic training, they’ll get to the colony and start hand-to-hand fighting against the Enemy Army. There’ll be so much conflict, my pages will be smokin’!”

(Sigh.)

I think it’s time to flunk Wilbur and send him home, don’t you? Aside from having picked up every stereotype and cliché out there, he’s gone from writing oblique conflict to direct, but now his premise is episodic. He’s moving Peter Puppet Protagonist from one story problem to the next, like beads on a string.

This type of conflict may feature explosions, bombs, combat, arguing, and competition, but it’s just activity without focused story movement. Such disconnected conflict quickly develops all the excitement associated with watching a metronome tick back and forth.

Yes, I’m aware that some of you are sputtering and waving your hands for attention. Aren’t there stories where numerous enemies work as villains?

Of course! Any quest story will feature a series of enemies. The Wizard of Oz comes immediately to mind.

So let’s consider it for a moment. Once she reaches Oz, Dorothy’s goal is to get home. To do that, she must follow the yellow brick road to see the wizard, who will tell her how to return to Kansas.

Dorothy sets off on her journey. But because travel in and of itself is boring in fiction, she encounters a series of apparent enemies. These individuals–the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and later on the nasty trees, flying monkeys, and the guards in the Witch’s castle–prove to be gatekeepers. Each presents Dorothy with a challenge that she must solve in order to keep moving toward her objective. To that end, each enemy is in direct opposition to her objective of reaching the wizard so she can go home. She’s able to convert some of the enemies to allies. But she never stops working toward her goal, and she remains focused throughout the quest portion of the story.

By contrast, Wilbur’s outline reads like a patchwork quilt sewn by a blind monkey. He’s cooked up random events and problems that seem exciting at first glance, but they aren’t opposing Peter to any particular purpose.

Wilbur is writing to formula without understanding the story principle beneath it.

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Direct Opposition–Part II

In this series, I’m discussing the array of possible villains at our disposal. Here’s the list:
Concealed villains
Visible villains
Enemies
Antagonists
Opponents

Previously, I provided an example of how to bungle conflict using a concealed villain.

This time, I want to look at handling visible villains.

Wilbur Writer, fuming over having been chided so publicly in my prior post, has tweaked his story’s scenario as follows:

Peter Protagonist, determined to seek adventure, has enlisted in the Planetary Patrol. As soon as he’s completed basic training, he’ll be shipped off to a rebellious colony world to suppress an uprising.

Velma Visible, Peter’s mother, believes in galactic peace and worries about the safety of her only son. (Motivation) She leads a protest march through town, carrying a placard that reads, Moms Against Enlistment. She argues with his recruitment officer–thereby embarrassing Peter. She throws a hissy fit when Peter leaves for boot camp.

“There!” Wilbur declares with satisfaction. “Velma is right out in the open. She’s causing trouble. I have a good story premise now.”

Not so fast, Wilbur!

Let’s look at this example again. Do we have direct opposition between Peter and Velma?

Not quite. Velma’s certainly making her presence known. She’s raising a ruckus, but what happens to her when Peter ships out?

What carries the conflict through the other 215 pages of Wilbur’s story?

Once again, Wilbur has chosen oblique opposition over direct. The result may be anger, but Wilbur doesn’t even have Peter and Velma arguing face to face. Instead, he’s got Velma leading a march, Velma confronting the recruitment officer, and Velma crying and yelling instead of bidding her son farewell.

Oh, Wilbur, Wilbur, Wilbur, what are we going to do with you?

First, we’ll correct the obvious problems by looking at Peter’s goal, then positioning Velma directly against it.

A.) If Peter is determined to join up, then Velma should be equally determined that he won’t do it.

B.) If Peter has enlisted before his mom finds out and she heads to the recruitment office to rescind Peter’s enlistment, Peter will do his best to stop her from going.

C.) If Peter is in line to board the ship, then Velma should be throwing herself bodily in front of him, physically trying to stop him.

Even so, these corrections will help Wilbur only until Peter Protagonist boards his ship. The rest of the story still lacks a central antagonist.

“Don’t worry,” Wilbur cries with sudden inspiration. “I’ll introduce lots of enemies that will confront Peter. Wait and see!”

I see already the pitfalls that lie ahead of Wilbur. Do you?

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