Lies and Powerful Antagonists

I finished The Lies of Locke Lamora last week, but an element in the middle bothered me. Act I of the book (it closely followed a three-act structure) was mostly setup, but Act II introduced a supremely powerful new villain. This villain somehow knew every one of the protagonist’s secrets. He effortlessly out-maneuvered the most clever secondary characters, then the protagonist. The villain’s henchman wielded dominating power that left the protagonist utterly helpless.

Despite this almost comical power imbalance, the seemingly invincible antagonist made Act II a gripping read by wrecking the protagonist’s life. The tension level was off the charts. I kept wondering “how’s the protagonist ever going to defeat this guy.” Then in the climax of Act III, when the stakes were the highest, the protagonist used a simple loophole, a thing that he’d already considered in Act II, to easily neutralize the antagonist’s supreme power and defeat him in less than a page.

So I got to thinking about this paradox. A powerful antagonist will cause lots of conflict, which is good. But the more powerful he is, the harder it will be for the protagonist to defeat him. When the protagonist eventually does triumph, that victory needs to be extremely clever or brave or strong to make it feel justified.

In Locke Lamora, the protagonist’s eventual victory was way too easy, especially given the antagonist’s seemingly limitless power. But by that point in the novel, the gripping read of the middle (largely due to the conflict caused by that antagonist’s power) had already hooked my attention. I still found the climax weak, and partly because of that I’m not planning to read the sequel. But it seems that the dominantly powerful antagonist was a compelling element even though his defeat was unjustified.

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4 Responses to “Lies and Powerful Antagonists”

  1. Maggie Says:

    Oops, looks like you’ll be turning down my offer to send you the ARC.

    I don’t recall it the resolution all that well. I doubt that I analyzed it and just went for the ride. Since I had bought into the book as a whole, I was satisfied with the ending. That doesn’t mean your reservations on it aren’t correct, only that I was in a very accepting reading mode.

    For what it is worth, the second novel goes into depth about how ruined Lamorra’s life continued for quite some time. I’m interested in your reaction because I actually found the first half of the book quite tedious, because of all the angst over the past events.

  2. scott Says:

    Thanks very much for the offer, but I will pass on the sequel. The excerpt was so utterly depressing, with Locke so irredemably passive and slothful, that it really turned me off. It find a bit like the balance problem, mentioned above, that I had with Act II of the first one–the problems facing the protagonist were portrayed so overwhelming that I didn’t see any ray of hope. I’m fine with daunting struggle, but i think there needs to be some tiny positive bit.

  3. Saladin Says:

    Interesting…

    SPOILERS AHEAD!!

    I found the henchman, when first introduced, to be terrifying b/c of his omnipotence/omniscience. But I agree that he was dealt with way too easily. If the whole continent fears these guys, wouldn’t smeone else have thought up the very simple solution Locke and Co. come up with? Wouldn’t that solution in fact have become the default manner for dealing with that sort of antagonist? What bugged me even more, though was there was no explanation for how the villain afforded the henchman! The whole time we’re told “there’s no way it’s a bondsmage — no one could afford to hire one for that long” But then, um, it *is* a bondsmage.

    Despite this, I was pretty thorougly charmed by LoLL and will read book II before too long. Keep in mind that LoLL is a first novel, too! From all I’ve heard, his craft has stepped up a bit in book II.

    Great website, BTW! Looking forward to reading the WT story!

  4. scott Says:

    Thanks, man! Thanks for dropping by.

    I probably would have picked up the second book if the excerpt in the first one hadn’t been so thoroughly depressing. I’m fine with characters struggling, but I’m just not interested in characters wallowing.

    Next on my list of “young gun” F novels is A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham. He’s a former Clarion West student of GRRM, and he put that whole novel through Walter’s NM-based writer’s group. He also acquitted himself quite well at Boskone last year, so I’m very curious to see what the novel is like.