The Indisposed Villain)
Who is the one, great source of opposition in The Lord of the Rings? Of course the answer is Sauron. It is his will that compels every other foe that the heroes face up against, he is the one pulling of all the strings, his is the one life force that absolutely must be destroyed.
However…as a literary character Sauron has almost no presence whatsoever! He is more of a disembodied force, an idea, impersonal and vague. Yes, he is evil, but he isn’t a foe that the heroes can actually cross swords with.
And that is why The Lord of the Rings also has characters like Saruman, the Witch King of Angmar, and Gollum. These are villains with bodies and voices, villains who are able to compete over the same physical space as our heroes, villains who have to be dealt with as individuals. Boromir might not be the main villain of the story, but when Sauron bends his mind to try and take the ring from Frodo, that physical attack suddenly makes Sauron seem less like a vague concept and more like an active presence in the world. Thus, to be victorious, our heroes must not only overcome their more base natures, but also slay a few orcs along the way!
This same situation of a disembodied evil can be found in the first half of the Harry Potter franchise. Lord Voldemort is unquestionably the main villain of the series, but until the end of the fourth book he only exists as an intangible soul. Like in The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series remains visceral by then adding more corporeal henchmen to stand in for Lord Voldemort, flesh and blood enemies that the heroes must face up against. Professor Quirrell, Wormtail, Barty Crouch, Fluffy…all of these characters stand in as bodies that the audience can hate and fear until Lord Voldemort finally gets one of his own.
The Theoretical Made Real)
You can see this same notion in the final soliloquy of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. This John Steinbeck novel follows a family during the Great Depression, as they migrate to California in the hope of finding work. Instead they find one disappointment after another, several of their number die along the way, and they are made to witness all manner of extortion and corporate abuse.
Eventually this all leads to Tom Joad killing a man, and he knows he has got to make a run for it, as much for his benefit as for his family’s. His mother wonders how she will know where he has gone and what has become of him, but he replies that it doesn’t matter.
I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where — wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there....I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build — why, I’ll be there.
Tom is talking philosophically. He is seeing himself as being a part of humanity’s all-encompassing soul, which is necessarily a vague and impersonal thing. But then look at how he goes about describing it. He sees it in the corporeal, physical moments of hungry people fighting, a man being oppressed by the police, angry people shouting, and so on. To be sure, an idea is a real thing, but Tom needs to personify it in order to feel and express its realness.
Own Worst Enemy)
This same phenomenon is at play in the noir film Double Indemnity. In this movie Walter Neff is an unassuming insurance salesman, who then begins assuming far too much when Phyllis Dietrichson seduces him and convinces him to murder her husband! The idea is that he will be able to set up a double indemnity clause in Mister Dietrichson’s account, allowing for a large insurance payout when he dies.
But what seems to be a foolproof plan begins to unravel as the murdered man’s “accidental death” falls under suspicion of murder. Further complicating things is the fact that Phyllis is untrustworthy and unpredictable, likely to blow her cover when Neff very much needs her to keep a cool head.
So, what is the villain in this story? Lust and greed, of course. These are the vices that drive every bad thing that happens and leads to the story’s tragic ending. But of course, Walter and Phyllis are the villains as well. They are the ones who hold the vices, and so they stand in proxy of them, directly incurring the ire of the audience. Lust and greed might be their downfall, but also they are their own worst enemies.
My Story’s Villain)
Without characters like Boromir and corrupt cops and Phyllis Dietrickson, these classic tales would have felt philosophical only. They would have been like Plato’s allegory of the cave, which is more of a thought experiment on the nature of good and evil than an actual story. But by having the idea of evil fronted by a person of evil, each of these stories is both philosophical and literal at the same time.
In The Salt Worms I have also had a couple nebulous forces lurking in the background. For starters, giant worms are behind the story’s destruction, but we have not yet directly interacted with any of these, much like with Sauron and Lord Voldemort. My story also features a humanity that is competing with itself to survive, much as in The Grapes of Wrath.
I needed to make these unseen enemies manifest themselves physically, though, so I’ve introduced a physical antagonist in the form of Ranger Everett. This man takes all of the various forces that have tried to prevent Nathan in his quest and distills them into a clear and physical adversary, much like Boromir and the Death Eaters. He isn’t intended to obscure the deeper forces of opposition that Nathan faces, but rather to bring them into sharper focus.
I also made Nathan Prewitt something of an enemy to himself, similar to Walter Neff. Virtually all of the affliction that Nathan faces in this story is a result of his stubborn disregard for the needs of others, and his attempts to override them with his own intentions.
And I will continue to introduce new characters to keep Nathan’s struggle fresh, all the way until he comes face-to-face with the greater evils of giant worms and broken philosophies. Because, after all, that is the entire purpose of the smaller antagonists in these stories. They are there simply to keep driving the hero forward, pushing them on until they can finally face the larger, existential threats waiting at the climax of the story.