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With our recent podcast on Apex Predators, we didn’t get into some of the coolest reasons why these crazy beasts exist in some stories. Often, Apex Predators make heroes look way cooler than they already appear. While your heroes may have all of the gear and all of the intel needed to take a beast down, sometimes the opponent is just better, and that’s pretty darn well exciting. So what is it about these showdowns and rivalries that make them really exciting plot elements?
Let’s break it down into three main points. Today, I’ll be drawing examples from Alien, and my all-time favorite “bad” movie, Pacific Rim.
1: Everyone loves a good underdog.
Just because your hero or your main character is the focus of your story, doesn’t mean they’re automatically top dog. No, sometimes they’re far from it. When you insert Ellen Ripley in Alien versus the Xenomorph, Ellen is not (at first glance) your typical action movie star. No, she appears to be a somewhat soft, normal character who has to ramp up her game dramatically in order to outwit and defeat the Xenomorph and escape the Nostromo.
Everyone loves rooting for the underdog in stories. There’s something exciting about watching someone who should logically and statistically lose turn a situation around and win. If your Apex Predators are stronger than your characters, your audience is likely going to root for the character and like them all the more.
2: Sometimes it’s just not enough.
It’s the gear. It’s smarts. It’s the level 80 loot. It’s the true meaning of friendship. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, it’s not enough to defeat the big bad.
Looking at the arsenal that belongs to humanity in Pacific Rim, you’ll see these awesome battle mechs called Jaegers, usually piloted by 2 or more people just because it takes that much brainpower to do it. Their weapons are fierce. Their skills are unmatched. But is it enough? Somehow, someway, it’s not.
I know we’re a worldbuilding blog and podcast, but one of the interesting parts of the design is sometimes simplicity is what will be best. Sometimes, the apex predator is just better, for whatever reason. You may not need to write out a complex reason to make this apparent; just make it compelling. For a cohesive, sound story, you can keep introducing attributes of your Apex Predators that were previously unknown. For example, the Xenomorph is found to have acidic blood, preventing most tools and weapons from being used on it that would normally cut into the creature. The characters in the story must then adapt to new strategies, which is exciting for your audience.
3: The Metal Chair
In most of these movies and media, there’s usually one thing that allows the main characters or heroes to overcome the predator. Is it an insane ability? Is it a new weapon? Is it that power of friendship finally coming through really clutch??
The modern example is the Sword in Pacific Rim. Do you know what the most effective Kaiju killing weapon is? It’s not naval cannons. It’s not bombs. It’s the Sword.
If you’re not familiar, in the middle of the film after pretty much every single Jaeger pilot is killed, the main character suddenly realizes that there’s this huge red button sitting on his dashboard. It says “SWORD”. On pressing it, a giant folding sword unwraps itself, and it cuts through bulletproof scales and skin like a searing hot katana through soft butter. The moment, if you’re criticizing the movie for realism, is kind of terrible. But if you’re sitting back and enjoying the monster-slaying, then it’s absolutely the best moment in the movie, and the heroes look awesome because of it. While I’ve never watched pro wrestling, it seems like everyone is familiar with some voice in their head saying “Uh oh, he’s got a metal chair!”, with an image of one huge dude grabbing a folding chair and entering the ring. You know it’s over when someone grabs a metal chair. It’s ridiculous, but it’s also fun. The weapon your heroes use can absolutely be more practical, such as a flame thrower, or pulling your revolver and shooting the swordsman. Sometimes, a surprise weapon or a surprise feature is a cool way for your audience to get excited about your characters.
Of course, these are just guidelines, but I’d love to hear more about how you’re making your heroes even more exciting with your audience when they’re clashing with an apex predator!
Stay tuned for more writing from the WorldCraft Club as we explore worldbuilding and the crafting of fictional settings to inspire your creativity.
Jonathan Bell is a hobbiest and aspiring creative. He has taken part in writing several worlds, and running D&D games for friends and organizations for the last 5 years. Currently, aside from editing, writing, and appearing on Worldcraft Club, Jon is co-writing a supplement called Riverwalk based on wilderness adventures.
We’re happy to host guest blogs on here whenever we can, it gives James a break and let’s other people contribute their ideas. Let us know if you have a worldbuilding concept or strategy to get off your chest, we’d love to hear it.