The background for the story for my pulp novel is coming together. I’ve decided, rather than trying to create something new, to use a contemporary fantasy background based on the real world, because I’m not interested in this project becoming just another background creation effort. I’ve done plenty of those.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot of work to do developing the background. Although this story will be based in a fictional analog of the real world, and although I will be using material I’ve been working on for 20 years off and on, I still need to flesh this background out specifically as it relates to this particular story.
I have a trick question that I ask people when we’re having a conversation about writing and world creation. Who was the single most important character in The Lord of the Rings? The answer, or at least my answer, is Middle-Earth. The background world is as much a character in the story as any of the people, perhaps more so, as it is developed in much more depth and consistency than any of the people. The point is that, in my work, the background, the atmosphere, the texture of the world in which the story takes place is an essential element of the story.
So, based on what I’ve considered so far, I know that I want a contemporary setting with a markedly dark sensibility. It’s also a world that will somehow allow the sort of life-and-death conflict between the protagonists and the antagonists needed in a pulpy adventure novel, although not necessarily literally life-and-death. I want the world to have a sense of menace, of threat. The threat of violence — perhaps literal violence, perhaps only figurative, emotional violence — pervades the fabric of the world. It is a world in which magic, in some form or another, is real, powerful enough to be an essential element of the conflict, but not so powerful as to be able to alter the basic nature of the world, which is an analog to the real world. The magic is hidden away to all except a few.
Within this world exists a family, a large, extended family. The implication is that this family is somehow connected with the hidden magic and thus with the conflict surrounding this hidden world of magic. The main protagonist is a member of this family, and perhaps the main antagonist, as well. The prime antagonist minion is not part of the family — he’s an outsider, which may be a major factor in what happens to him eventually in the story. The love interest who comes between the main protagonist and the prime antagonist minion, likewise, is not part of the family, for obvious reasons, although that doesn’t mean that she can’t be part of the community that surrounds the family. She and the prime antagonist minion, most likely, are of the family without being in it.
The main antagonist is, as well, part of the family. In the beginning, I don’t want it to be obvious who the main antagonist of the story is. Something happens, the various characters work to figure it out in their own ways and the main antagonist may appear to be an ally at first. At some point, however, the friendly, helpful uncle, or whatever he is, is revealed to be the big bad for the story. This will likely be the major event that marks the boundary between the first, introductory act and the second, complicating act.
So, here is the outline of the story, roughly speaking.
- Something happens, something important enough that a number of members of the family and the community around the family begin to look into it, eventually coming together as a common group of protagonists.
- A relationship develops among some of the protagonists, who become very close.
- The protagonists are assisted by a more senior member of the family, who offers advice and support.
- The protagonists investigate the initial event, following it down paths of conflict and mystery, eventually learning that the senior member of the family, rather than being supportive, is in fact the one behind the event in the first place.
- The senior family member, revealed to be the main antagonist, makes a move that threatens the status or the existence of the family and the community surrounding it. Perhaps he has to make his move sooner than he planned because of what the protagonists have learned and done. (“I’d have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids.”) Whatever happens, the family and the particular world they inhabit are thrown into turmoil by what happens.
- The protagonists work together to oppose the main antagonist’s plans and operations.
- The main protagonist and the love interest become closer, as do the love interest and the prime antagonist minion.
- Somehow or another, the prime antagonist minion is wooed by the main antagonist — he has something the main antagonist wants or could use. The main antagonist plays on the prime antagonist minion’s own doubts about his position in the family, knowing that he cannot compete with an actual member of the family, which still has enough prestige to be a factor. No matter what he does, the prime antagonist minion will never be on the same level of the main protagonist, and this gnaws at him, a crack into which the main antagonist can hammer a wedge.
- The protagonists plan a major strike in their conflict against the main antagonist. Unknown to them, the prime antagonist minion is about to turn on them, betray their cause. When the strike comes, at a crucial moment, the prime antagonist minion makes the final decision to turn, causing the entire plan to fail and allowing the main antagonist to strengthen his hand.
- The surviving protagonists retreat and regroup, dealing with the consequences of their defeat and the betrayal of one of their own. Some understand why the prime antagonist minion did what he did, others condemn him for his actions. All fear that their cause is lost.
- The main antagonist revels in his victory and the increase of his power. He moves from being an outlaw and outcast to being the main power in the mainstream community at the heart of the background of the story. Whether anyone else likes it or not, the main antagonist has executed a coup that has placed him on the top of the social and political order. His minions, especially the prime antagonist minion, work to solidify his position and to flush out the remnants of the protagonist opposition.
- The protagonists develop a new plan, one with little chance of working, but which may be their only opportunity to defeat the main antagonist. They fight against not only their enemy, but also against their own despair and sense of defeat. Here, the main protagonist comes into his own, somehow rallying the troops and revitalizing their spirits. In some way or another, he gives the remaining protagonists the equivalent of a St. Crispin’s Day speech.
- The protagonists move to execute their plan. Somewhere along the way, however, the plan falls apart, and chaos ensues.
- The main protagonist, at least, presses on, ultimately coming face to face with the prime antagonist minion. Reluctantly, they both engage in some sort of conflict. It doesn’t have to be a literal fight — none of the violence or conflict of the story has to necessarily be literal — but in the end, the prime antagonist minion is defeated.
- While the main protagonist takes down the prime antagonist minion, the rest of the protagonists, possibly led by the love interest, modify the plan that has fallen apart and ultimately cause the defeat of the main antagonist.
- There is much rejoicing. Yay!
- The old order is not necessarily restored; the main antagonist may have destroyed too much for that to happen. Also, it may be that the old order needed to be destroyed, that the main antagonist rose from the rotten heart of a system that had become moribund. Be that as it may, the protagonists and their supporters, led by the main protagonist and others, begin the process of rebuilding and creating a new society.
- Something happens to intimate that the conflict is not entirely over, setting things up for a potential sequel.