Seven Recipes for Heroes to Win Desperate Fights

The great ocean spirit towers over a building.

Grasping victory from the jaws of defeat makes a delicious ending. But after you establish your heroes can’t survive the millions of zombies swarming their cabin or overpower the villain who explodes cities with their mind, how can you create a satisfying victory? Well, you could say that if the heroes concentrate their attacks on one critical component, everything else will fall apart, like in Lord of the Rings, Star Wars: A New Hope, Edge of Tomorrow, The Strain, Stranger Things 2 … oh dear. Because no one likes to eat the same thing for every meal, I’ve got seven other recipes that’ll cook up a dramatic victory.

1. Villain Infighting Soufflé

You’re probably familiar with this dish from its appearance in Return of the Jedi. This soufflé combines two antagonists that, when working together, will easily overpower the protagonist’s flavor. However, with the addition of a compassionate or crafty hero, those antagonists end up at odds. Just think of the end of Return of the Jedi, when the Emperor is sautéing Luke with some lightning. Luke begs for Vader’s help, and Vader tosses the Emperor down the drain! Mmmm… delectable.

You Will Need

Two villains – a big boss and a smaller boss work best. The smaller boss might be a sympathetic villain, a lieutenant to the big boss, or a wild card. The two villains continually coordinate their efforts, with devastating results. Your hero has no chance of beating both of them.

Sprinkle With Foreshadowing

Your audience should see that the villains are not always on the same page. The sympathetic villain might swear loyalty to the big boss, yet have pangs of conscience. Or the two villains have the same goals but disagree about the details, such as whether it’s okay to microwave the heroes or if they must be baked for optimum crispiness. These differences don’t feel significant, but they are noticeable.

Bring to a Boil

Your hero either appeals to the sympathetic villain’s conscience or creates a situation where the bosses’ differences come into the spotlight. Whatever the hero does, it must be responsible for one villain turning on the other.

Garnish and Serve

The smaller boss sides with the heroes, or at least works against the big boss. This tips the balance and gives the heroes a chance. Serve with a light topping of redemption for the lesser villain.

2. Radical Tactic Change Cocktail

Commander Riker and Dr. Crusher oberve Captain Picard, now a borg

Watch out for this strong drink – it put a whole Borg cube to sleep in “The Best of Both Worlds” from Star Trek: The Next Generation. This cocktail begins with a mixer that has a powerful kick. The mixer is a well-known tactic, like some desperate space combat. The heroes are dismayed as the antagonist consumes glass after glass of this tactic and still stays on their feet. Finally, the hero realizes that to defeat the villain, they must do something different. They finally put some alcohol in that cocktail, and it’s nighty-night for the villain.

You Will Need

A struggle against an adversary that comes with an obvious tactical response. For instance, if the good guys are cornered and the antagonist attacks, the obvious response is to fight back. If the adversary is a gigantic predator, the obvious response is to run.

Sprinkle With Foreshadowing

Demonstrate or explain at least one unusual characteristic of the antagonist. Maybe the monster is chewing on a sweater or the assassins all have the same tattoo with a Latin saying. This characteristic should set up an unusual tactic that will work instead of the obvious one. Your hero notices the strange characteristic but isn’t sure what it means.

Bring to a Boil

When all seems lost, your hero thinks really hard about the strange characteristic and comes up with an explanation. For instance, the monsters just want to eat our clothes – get nude everyone! Or the assassins will back up if we say the magic Latin pass phrase! The hero may have to convince their fellows to trust them and stop fighting.

Add Garnish and Serve

The new tactic works! If you haven’t already mixed it in, make sure to garnish with an explanation of how the hero figured it out.

3. Powerful Ally Elixir

Everyone’s heard of strange elixirs claiming to cure all ills, but no one believes they’ll do anything. That’s why Aang’s friends in Avatar: The Last Airbender were so surprised when his new elixir of Giant Ocean Spirit actually destroyed the Fire Nation invaders for him. You too can use this recipe to cure your story’s ills.

You Will Need

A world with a powerful force that does not get involved in the fights of petty mortals. It might be a god, an unknowable alien race, or a legendary giant troll that’s been in stone for the last hundred years.

Sprinkle With Foreshadowing

Create hints that make it conceivable for the powerful force to participate in the hero’s struggle. If the neutral force takes action in response to anything, like guarding a McGuffin, that can be used to motivate it. There might be legends of the force being more active, or the hero might feel a strange connection with the stone statue.

Bring to a Boil

When the situation looks desperate, your hero thinks critically about the nature of the neutral force and works to recruit its help. Perhaps the hero makes a convincing argument that the villain will endanger the McGuffin or recreates the conditions of the legend where the force actually did something.

Add Garnish and Serve

It looks too late for the nuetral force to intervene; your hero is about to be pulverized. That’s when the new ally finally steps in and prevents catastrophe. Garnish with a sweet moment of bonding between the hero and the new ally. Caution: powerful allies must be consumed quickly or frozen for much later. If you try to keep them for the next story, they’ll spoil everything.

4. Sacrifice à la Mode

A great city being enveloped in flames

I have a sweet tooth myself, but we all know that Thor: Ragnarok wouldn’t be satisfying without the bitter tang of Asgard’s destruction. Sure, watching the hero succeed without a cost is fun at first, but by the end your guests will be sick of all the empty calories. Add a sacrifice, and now you can serve it with ice cream.

You Will Need

Something precious the hero can lose besides all the innocent lives at stake. It might be their beautiful home city, a power source that supports their way of life, everyone’s freedom, or the hero’s own life. Whatever it is, it should be something that your audience will assume must be preserved.

Sprinkle in Foreshadowing

When discussing the hero’s strategy for success, work in extra things the hero has to do to preserve that precious something. Alternately, earlier in the story you can give the hero a chance to win by giving up that something, and the hero can turn it down. The hero’s choices should feel natural and obvious.

Bring to a Boil

When your hero is finally ready to admit defeat, they should be reminded of what really matters. Generally, this will be the lives of those around them. They will realize the precious something is nothing compared with that. Besides, if the antagonist wins, the precious thing will probably be lost anyway. However, the hero may have to convince others that giving it up is the right thing to do.

Add Garish and Serve

The precious thing is destroyed or taken by the villain, but almost all the innocent people survive. Garnish with scenes of them starting anew.

5. Emerging Superpower Casserole

Harry Potter creates a glowing white shield to fend off shadowy figures

This classic recipe will fill your guests with nostalgia. As soon as they see the melted top layer – a protagonist with hidden potential – they’ll know some new superpowers are on their way. But just because we all knew Harry Potter would become powerful enough to save the day didn’t make it less scrumptious when he drove back a cloud of dementors.

You Will Need

A world where individuals have magic powers, and a relatively untested hero with unrealized potential. If you’re on a magic-free diet, you can do this with technology by giving the hero a mysterious artifact that no one can get to work. Perhaps the hero doesn’t know their locket is anything more than it seems.

Sprinkle With Foreshadowing

Sneak in clues that the hero can use later to unlock their powers. Show the hidden power being used in tiny amounts, discuss how the hero’s long-lost parents had the power, or tell tales of a powerful device that couldn’t possibly be that locket.

Bring to a Boil

Start your climax with the antagonist giving the hero a terrible beat down. Just before the hero is gone for good, they rise back up again, powers in hand. In many stories, the new powers are unlocked by desperate circumstances. This is easy to cook up but less satisfying than alternatives. For a better climax, make your hero solve a puzzle or overcome a flaw to get their new powers.

Add Garnish and Serve

Finish off your casserole by letting your hero use their powers to save the day. Be careful though, because antagonists are an important ingredient in this recipe. If you ever want to serve this meal again, the hero shouldn’t be so powerful that no antagonist could counter them. Give the hero only enough power to win the struggle at hand.

6. Villain Appeasement Stew

Steven Universe sits next to Lapis Lazuli as she describes her longing for home

If you want a dish that will warm your insides, this simmering meal is the one for you. And as Steven Universe shows, it can be fun for the whole family. Unlike other recipes, the antagonist in this one has a soft center – like a soup-filled dumpling. When the hero gets past the antagonist’s hard exterior and makes a connection with the person underneath, the stew is ready to serve.

You Will Need

A somewhat sympathetic villain who has understandable grievances, a continuing cause of pain, and an emotional motivation for doing damage.

Sprinkle With Foreshadowing

Let the villain voice some of their grievances to the hero. They could explain their motivation after the hero reaches out to them, or they could do it without prompting because explaining will make their revenge more satisfying. You can keep their continuing cause of pain hidden for a while. It can be discovered by your hero shortly before or during the climax.

Bring to a Boil

Even though the villain will cause unthinkable damage, the hero can’t hate them. Instead, they feel sympathy. That causes the hero to reach out to the villain, discover their ongoing pain if they don’t already know it, and offer a balm for that pain. It could be an important token from a lost loved one or a cure for their illness. This balm must be given unconditionally. The kindness of the hero’s unconditional offer makes the villain rethink what they were about to do.

Add Garnish and Serve

The villain thanks the hero and leaves in peace. Garnish with additional recognition of the tragedy that the villain suffered, and efforts to ensure it never happens again.

7. Hostage Taking Fillet

Katniss and Peta contemplate share poisonous berries

If you need something bloody to appease the carnivores in your household, this fillet is for you. It’ll also make for a more peaceful meal – just ask Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. While she didn’t have the power to win the way she wanted to, she did have the power to make her opponent lose. With the big prize held hostage, everyone at your table will realize they have to share that last cut of mouth-watering goodness.

You Will Need

A villain with something important to gain by defeating the hero. They might be destroying the magical city to take its power source, or they might need to defeat the hero to receive recognition they’re desperate for.

Sprinkle With Foreshadowing

Show how important this thing is by making the villain go to extra lengths to preserve it. Perhaps they only shoot cannons at portions of the city that they’re sure doesn’t hold their prize, or they’re luring out the hero so they can battle them one on one.

Bring to a Boil

When the hero is about to lose everything, they will figure out what the villain wants so desperately. Then the hero should threaten to destroy it. It’s critical for the hero’s threat to feel believable, even if it means the hero will take their own life.

Add Garnish and Serve

To prevent the loss of their goal, the villain will accept a smaller victory in place of the big one they’d planned on. However, the hero may need to compromise as well. If you’d like, you can garnish with the hero becoming the villain’s hostage. That will make your guest look forward to the next time you serve this meal.

All of these recipes share a critical ingredient: foreshadowing. Plan ahead if you want your hero to overcome long odds, or your dish will be ruined.

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  1. American Charioteer

    The “Powerful Ally Elixir” is best when it involves a character’s change of heart (Han Solo flying in to aid Luke) rather than unexpected serendipity (like the Eagles in LotR). The example from The Last Air Bender is especially good, because it was set up by the villain’s mistake, and was used to contrast the greed and unrestrained aggression of the Fire Nation with Aang’s pacifism, patience, and moderation; which is the theme of the entire series.

    Even when it is well done, there is still a danger of overdose on this elixir. Almost EVERY SINGLE BATTLE in fantasy is won with unexpected reinforcements, especially the most important ones. For starters:
    •The Battle of Helms Deep (LotR)
    •The Battle of the Pelennor fields (LotR)
    •The Battle of the Five Armies (The Hobbit)
    •The Battle of Blackwater Bay (GoT)
    •The Battle of Castle Black (GoT)
    •The Battle of the Bastards (GoT)
    •The First Battle of Beruna (Narnia)
    •The Second Battle of Beruna (Narnia)
    •The Department of Mysteries Battle (Harry Potter)

    These battles are each, on their own, well written examples of “The Powerful Ally Elixir” because the unexpected reinforcements are in every case a result of character choice or development. The problem is that the unexpected reinforcement has become so common that it is surprising when a battle is won any other way.

    • Dave P

      The thing is that typically in real life sieges end in only a few ways, the forces besieging the place run out of supplies and leave, the forces inside the place run out of supplies and surrender, and external forces show up. The reason why the trope exists is because it reflects reality

      • Cay Reet

        Those are essentially the only three ways a siege normally goes, yes.

        The forces besieging a place have a slightly higher chance not to run out of supplies first, because they can establish supply lines, whereas the point of a siege is to make sure the forces you’re besieging can’t bring in new supplies.

        But the people who are besieged might hold on, because they happen to know that help is already on the way.

      • Artistic Druid

        Uh, I don’t know if any of those battles they mentioned are sieges. A siege is waiting for the enemy’s supplies to run out. To me, those all looked like real battles, with fighting and maneuvering but depressingly few tactics other than head on attack.

        • American Charioteer

          Even if we were to look just at sieges, premodern generals have shown a lot more creativity than fantasy characters typically do. Sieges have ended through:
          •Holding a fake funeral and then jumping out of the casket (Luna, Italy)
          •A snowball fight (Pamplona, Spain)
          •Climbing out of the toilets (most famously at Chateau Galliard, France and King David’s assault on Jerusalem; this one’s surprisingly common and actually is used in GoT)
          •Paying someone to let you in, then killing them and taking the money back (Constantinople)
          •Throwing open the gates and acting like you had absolutely no idea a battle was going on (unnamed fort in Chengshi County, China)
          •Saying “Your boss wants you to surrender” (Krak des Chevalier, Syria)

      • American Charioteer

        Artistic Druid is correct and brings up an excellent point: frontal attack is just about the only tactic ever used in spec fic, especially in cinema. This is a shame; I think readers/viewers are smarter than writers give us credit for. It is also a shame whenever story is watered down for the sake of spectacle. The tactics of The Battle of the Five Armies, for example, were wonderfully detailed in the book but absurd in the movie.

        An additional problem is “serendipitous timing.” In every one of the cases I cited, the reinforcements were unexpected and came at the absolute last second. Serendipitous timing underlies the majority of drama in spec fiction, including Frodo destroying the ring moments before Aragorn’s army is destroyed, Luke escaping the Second Death Star moments before it is destroyed, and every battle I cited where the reinforcements arrive (usually after a long march) precisely within the thirty minute window where the good guys have been clearly beaten, but not yet killed.

      • American Charioteer

        The serendipitous timing trope is a very easy way to build and resolve tension, but the timing is a result of pure chance and thus deprives characters of agency. For example, if Aragorn’s army in Return of the King had been just a few hours late, Frodo probably would have been seen by Sauron. If it had been a few hours early, they would all have died and then Sauron would have gone back to looking for Frodo in time to catch him. It is difficult to believe that an army would show up in a narrow window after marching for weeks.

        We’d hate it if a tornado dropped out of the sky and destroyed the orc army; but the kind of luck required for the perfect timing we see constantly is no different.

  2. Kroz1776

    First of all, the Battle of Helms Deep was won before the reinforcements showed up. The Orcs were running and the men of Dunland had surrendered by the time Gandalf and Erkenbrand show up with 1,000 infantry. They hardly fight as the orcs are already running. All they do is force the routing orcs to run through the Huorns who kill them all.

    The battle of Pelenor Fields was interesting because it also subverts the reinforcement trope while actually using it. Rohan arrives and they are able to drive through the enemy and you think, Hurrah, they’ve saved the day. Then Theoden dies and Rohan is in real danger of losing the battle. Oh no. But reinforcements always save the day. Then Aragorn comes and saves the day with even more reinforcements that were freed up because the dead killed all the Corsairs freeing up the larger part of Gondor’s army. Triple reinforcements for the win. Considering there are only two “big” battles in Lord of the Rings I can forgive Tolkien for making them such a large affair.

    Considering all the context of the story as well, it was the only realistic way that the assault was going to be halted.

    As for the battle of the Black gate and Frodo, Aragorn took his time and made sure to be slow and announce that he had returned to claim his land. This was to allow Sauron to gather his armies to crush him. It was important that Aragorn looked arrogant to make it seem like he had the ring. While getting there early would have caused his army to be destroyed, neither showing up early nor late would have caused Frodo to be caught. It was about drawing his armies out which he accomplished whether or not he arrived at the black gate at that exact moment (unlike what the movie portrayed). So Frodo saved him and his army because of timing, but his timing wouldn’t have had much effect unless it was a month late/early.

    As to the Eagles, I won’t even get into that discussion. It will take WAY too long.

    There are creative ways to win a siege but these are acts of desperation. Castles were time saving structures to either beat the besiegers because they have so much food and supplies or to buy time for reinforcements. Of course, if the enemy is assaulting your walls and you’re doomed, reinforcements are one of the few ways to get out it.

    • American Charioteer

      You are right that Helm’s Deep is a little different from the other examples; the defenders timed their sortie to coincide with reinforcements they knew would arrive on the dawn of the fifth day. As for the Black Gate, Aragorn had no idea how close Frodo was to Mt Doom when he let his army become surrounded by a massively superior force (in the book Sauron “trapped the proffered bait in jaws of steel”).
      I have enough military experience to be irked when fictional military units allow themselves to be surrounded or launch frontal attacks instead of maneuvering. Below, Richard has some excellent examples of how a smaller force can realistically and dramatically win. I would add that every fantasy author tries to make every assault look like the Battle of the Granicus River, where courage alone leads to quick victory.

      • Kroz1776

        I agree wholeheartedly with you and perhaps Aragorn would have too. To me the battle of the black gate is the result of someone thinking, “What would Sauron think I would do if I had the Ring?” He didn’t know how close Frodo was but the point was to empty out Mordor for a few days so that Frodo could get across. Considering he knew Frodo had passed through Illien, I’m sure he could have made a good educated guess.

        It does bother me though when I read battles where it’s just a clearly inferior force that wins due to sheer will and, “we’re the good guys” attitude. I do feel like Lord of the Rings get unfair treatment due to it being the progenitor. There are flaws to be sure, for instance, his limits on the Eagles are too hidden for the casual reader and in prior books.

        • American Charioteer

          The eagles are a good point of a deus ex machina that was okay in LotR because Tolkien set out to write a mythology and myths are full of deus ex machinas. And as you said there were mythology-related limits on the eagles.
          Problems come when authors introduce ex machinas without any explanation, and assume readers won’t notice or care.

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, the battle of the black gate wasn’t even that much about winning … it was merely to pull Sauron’s army somewhere so Frodo could pass by without being caught. It also was meant to catch Sauron’s eye, so he, too, wouldn’t be checking too much for Hobbits. I guess Aragorn considered it more of a suicide mission, some sort of ‘at least I’ll take as many with me as I can’ solution.

          The eagles, on the other hand, are not introduced well enough (even though I still think Gandalf’s ‘fly, you fools!’ in Moria meant ‘I’ve spoken to some huge eagles who will take you along’ and not ‘run away’).

  3. Richard

    8. The Not What It Seems Subtlety

    Sure, the numerical odds favor the bad guys, but the tactical situation actually favors the good guys.

    At the Battle of Marathon, the Persians outnumbered the Greeks. But the Persian army was composed mostly of conscripts, while the Greeks were mostly professionals. Experienced and well-trained, at the least. The Persians had just unloaded their landing craft, and were setting up their camps and literally had their backs to the sea; the Greeks were fully prepared for battle and had a place to retreat to.

    The French outnumbered the English at Agincourt. But the lay of the land favored the English. The French heavy cavalry had to charge up a muddy and narrowing slope to get to the English forces. Add in that the French had stupid commanders (who would have been much better off just continuing to harass the English instead of meeting them in full battle) who shoved their own artillery to the side and could not think of a better tactic than a massed frontal assault on the well-defended position of the English….

    Foreshadowing? Drop hints that the enemy commander is a bit of a buffoon, with a poor won-lost record. Scouts can report on sloppiness in the enemy encampment. Captured or abandoned weaponry from an earlier skirmish suggests the sorry state of the enemy rank and file.

  4. Kenneth Mackay

    To be fair to the French commanders, there is evidence that they did have a plan to deal with the English archers (by a sweeping flank attack), but they were unable to implement it because many of the French nobility saw Agincourt as their last chance to gain glory (and hostages to ransom) and therefore led their troops charging forward straight at the enemy, expecting a battle of knight against knight, with the lesser ranks left on the sidelines.

  5. Juliette

    I definitely needed this article! Every story I write, I run into the problem of my antagonists being far too powerful and my protagonists not having a realistic way to defeat them. This has given me good ideas

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