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Antagonists and the Pivotal Choice

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I’ve been thinking again on the dilemma of villains.

Common wisdom has it that every story needs a central conflict. Conflicts come in many varieties, and certainly are not restricted to individual antagonists. All the same, most of the stories we see in mass media are structured around the opposition of a protagonist and an antagonist, although not all antagonists can be termed villains. A villain can easily be considered as a special category of antagonist.

So, if your hero is not struggling against the impersonal forces of fate, technology, or the universe, sooner or later you will find yourself writing a villain, and villains require motivations. Finding the right motivation for your hero can be tricky, but finding one for your villain can be downright grueling. There are so many angles to consider! Does your mythology rely on black-and-white morality? How cynical or idealistic is your story meant to be? Should the villain be sympathetic at all, whether to the heroes or to the reader? The theme of the story should also be considered. Sometimes, the right motivation for the villain is one which complements the hero’s journey.

As much as the classic supervillainish antagonists have their own unique flair, modern storytelling leans strongly in favor of an antagonist who is at least potentially sympathetic, from a certain point of view. A story with gray morality can’t flourish unless the reader can consider that they, under certain circumstances, might have acted as the antagonists did, made the same choices they made. This is the pitfall that trips up most self-styled gray morality stories. In many of these stories, heroes are overtaken by anti-heroes, but the villains, if anything, become even more abhorrent.

Conversely, some stories spend so much time building up the humanity of their antagonists, that either the writer or the readers can’t bear to leave them as villains. The villain then becomes a hero, and a new villain is required to replace them, this one often falling into the same trap or the one mentioned above. In longer, ongoing works there then forms a kind of villainy treadmill that the writer has to race on, or in shared universes, the reviled revolving door of morality.

How, then, to balance the need to keep villains human and relatable, while still keeping them locked into an antagonistic narrative role? In order to maintain narrative conflict there is required at least a single point of friction, a major philosophical, moral or personal difference that sets the heroes and villains apart. Ostensibly, the most common variation on this point is the idea of ends justifying the means, where an antagonist will be working to the same ends as the hero, but much more inclined to slip into morally-dubious tactics. It’s a hit-and-miss writing trick that can come off as authentic or stale, depending on the writer’s talent and the story’s circumstances.

Writing relatable villains always runs the risk of readers relating to them more than they do to the heroes. This is especially true in cases as above, where any given reader may regard the heroes as naïve or even cowardly, all from accepting more readily the premise of the villain’s viewpoint. ‘How far are you willing to go?‘ is one of the questions most difficult to answer on behalf of your readers – and in general.

Sometimes writers will use a fork in the road plot to show the reader a glimpse of who the hero might have been, if their circumstances were less heroic. Forming the villain into the hero’s shadow archetype not only makes both characters more human and relatable, it also draws a crisp outline of villainous intent. A narratively simple way of following through on this would be to differentiate the characters by the circumstances of their upbringing. A popular approach, especially as it reflects on the writer’s own society, and creative point of origin.

Origins can provide a powerful, socially originated foil that blocks the villain from reforming, or joining the side of the heroes. For a more introspective story, a psychological motivation can serve as a similar obstacle that checks the villain and returns them to their rightful narrative position. An impulse, a moment’s carelessness, a snap decision gone wrong, any of these can set a character on the path to darkness. One decision leads to another and so an antagonist of circumstance becomes a villain of choice. The critical juncture in this anatomy is the single bad decision that sets the course of events.

A writer’s job is to force their characters into difficult decisions. With the pivotal choice, a character is forced into making a momentous decision under adverse conditions ranging from ignorance to a poor temper. With perfect control over the circumstances, a writer can position their characters in a vantage that exploits their fatal flaws and natural myopia. A character’s actions in the aftermath of their pivotal choice can determine their course as a hero or a villain.

Ideally, a pivotal choice flies under the radar and can only be readily identified in retrospect. The trick, then, is to circumvent a thoughtful, considered, deliberate course of action. Instead of thinking through one’s options and selecting the best available solutions, one’s actions are informed by the deepest biases, most unexamined heuristics. If the source of all plot comes from putting characters in situations they don’t know how to deal with, it’s the conflicts they don’t even realize they’re in which reveal their weakest aspects.

The aftermath of the pivotal choice determines what sort of villain you’re working with. If the consequences are dire enough, from a moral point of view, you can find your character snared into a loop of escalating violence, whether by social disapproval or by their own guilty conscience. If the pivotal choice is buried deep enough in the past, drowned in years of resentment and vengefulness, it no longer matters how innocuous or comprehensible the original inciting act really was. The weight of years of hostility and brutality rests on every action, and redemption or forgiveness become an unreasonable expectation.

A particularly clear variation on this formula is common in murder mysteries. A character witnesses a crime, or causes a deadly accident, or for some other reason believes themselves to be prime suspects of a murder that has no yet been discovered. In their effort to protect themselves from the veil of suspicion – real or imagined, probable or far-fetched – they end up committing crimes far worse than the initial decision that set the snowball rolling. However innocent they might have been at first, they are still rightfully culpable for the murder of the witness or the detective who was about to reveal their crime.

The pivotal choice is a character device with infinite possible permutations. It can be as clear or as subtle as the story requires, it can leave an opening for redemption or more completely damn the character in question. The biggest trick of it, I think, is discovering the foil that could lead to such an ill-fated decision, without making the character appear foolish to the reader.

After all, there’s nothing worse than a stupid villain.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth.

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“My Life for a Thousand” – Bounty Hunters in Space

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I binge-watched the first season of Killjoys concurrently with reading Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. The latter sat at the top of my metaphorical TBR pile for years, after having received multiple enthusiastic recommendations. I started reading it and was quickly sucked in, although at intervals there were lulls in my reading. Not surprising, given the pervasive violence of the narrative, that now and then I needed a short breather.

Killjoys suffered somewhat in comparison… at first. At one point early in the first episode, I was very close to dropping the show and going back to my book. I figured if I wanted a story about a badass, no-holds-barred, mercenary-minded bounty hunter in space, I had one on hand that had already proven its merit. As others have said, Killjoys gets off to a shaky start, and I wouldn’t say that I was hooked until episode four (“Vessel”, not coincidentally the first appearance of Delle Seyah Kendry).

These two stories contrast well. On one level, there are superficial similarities in subject matter, both dealing with a formal bounty-hunting organization with institutional reach of authority. Both the killjoys and the bel dames set themselves up as keepers of peace and social order, to some extent or another, and both are pervaded with manipulation and power-play, often at the expense of the individual agent. Their machinations, in both cases, exist on a genocidal, planet-level scale. Of course, with similarities like these, there’s an immediate need to scrutinize the differences that distinguish them.

God’s War is a darker work, psychologically speaking. Dark in a deeper sense than the type of “grimdark” fiction I’m used to seeing in both novels and television, tangling its narrative hopelessly in fatal flaws and moral dilemmas that are not readily unknotted. Nyx, the protagonist, stretches what it means to be an anti-hero, especially for a female character. More on that later. The casual brutality of Nyx’s existence is handled so precisely as to be almost unnoticeable.

Killjoys is less subtle. A television series by necessity has different rules of pacing to a novel, and this series like many others before it makes the most of that. As such, the early episodes feel more like a pulp adventure or a space procedural, while in the background each episode sets aside the building blocks of the meta-narrative. For the diligent viewer, pushing through the less interesting early episodes pays off with a juicy conspiracy plot that culminates in a painful cliffhanger.

Beneath the superficial similarity, and the more analytical distinction, there is a contrast of theme that runs more interesting than discussion of plot. After all, the attraction of the badass anti-heroine can be traced back to a single trait, the same trait that has made similarly structured male characters staples of the action genre. The characters in these stories are survivors. This is especially true of Nyx and Dutch, but here also the distinctions are just as important as the similarities.

Nyx, an unemployable ex-soldier who’s had her entire physiology reconstructed so often she has none of her original organs left. Dutch, a woman from nowhere with no family and no people, a child raised for murder by a paternal shadow assassin. Patriotism and family loyalty, an impetus or an imperative to kill. Nyx’s nightmares drive her back to her military days and fuel her continuing attachment to the bel dame motto: “my life for a thousand”. Whereas Dutch does everything in her power to leave her past behind, but adopts another absolute motto: “the warrant is all”.

Arguably, the two mottoes are more similar than they initially appear. Arguably, the bel dame council works harder to present itself as a patriotic institution working to protect their nation. Meanwhile, the killjoys live in a planetary system dominated by the plutocratic, encroaching and ominously nameless “Company”. Maybe this is what makes them more inclined to broadcast their tolerance for ends justifying means. Which organization is more cynical in its presentation?

Planetary peace-keeping militias aside, there is another important difference between the two protagonists. Rather, between the two teams. Nyx builds around herself a team of competent expatriates and assorted other losers. Contrary to genre convention, they can’t really be described as a rag-tag bunch of misfits. The team members’ ambivalence is a thread constantly visible in the book, circumstantial loyalty always promising to give way to betrayal. Or rather, the each-for-themselves attitude that found family narratives exist to unwrite.

The process of leaving behind adverse circumstances and overcoming trauma is central to Dutch’s story, as well as her co-protagonists. Forming that very same found family is a critical aspect of this process. Dutch, Johnny and D’avin are all, for lack of a better term, fucked up. They make poor decisions, hurt each other, and spend a lot of time dangling psychologically by a thread — but climbing ever upward.

Two stories of survival from two complement perspectives. The story of Dutch and her compatriots, about the adversity of climbing your way out of trauma in a hostile world, identifying your people and building support structure. By contrast, Nyx’s story is fundamentally about a downwards spiral, the story of a woman who has driven away every friend and ally and support system she ever had. What makes Nyx so dreadful is her dedication to self-destruction, not by means of drinking or gambling or a thousand other vices, but by the process of willful estrangement.

As much as Nyx’s downwards spiral is the story of an inveterate survival refusing to give up, the central Killjoys character arc is an upwards spiral, centered around people building up their lives. The characters or Killjoys are notable not only for their pervasive mental trauma, but for their variety of coping mechanisms, positive and negative.

On a personal note: after ten-plus years of major depression, it’s gratifying to be able to tell the difference.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth.

On “The 100” and the Characterization of Cold Women

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I have been thinking lately on why I have such a great fondness for cold women. When I say cold women, I mean of course fictional characters. Like most people, I’m fascinated by a great many types of characters whom I would never tolerate in reality. By cold women, I mean both women who are socially chilly and reserved, as well as women who operate based on cold numbers logic, and consequently make a lot of ethically questionable choices.

The initial impetus for this was The 100. Part of the reason I love the show so dearly is exactly this. It is a show that deals with characters trapped in impossible situations and constrained by violent power dynamics, repeatedly pushing them into morally untenable situations. Unlike a lot of other “morally grey” narratives, it allows women to, on multiple occasions, occupy the role of the decision-maker. The leader, the one who makes the call that no one else could make. The one that historians will debate about for years to come.

Traditionally, women are seen as warm. In Western mass-media, and in a lot of other contexts as well. In another show with a similar premise, a bright-eyed girl would occupy a help-meet role as a moral foil to the male leader. A personal moral anchor, or a political rival who fervently — emotionally — argues for a position of interpersonal ethics, as opposed to global ethics. Because women are emotional and men are logical. That one, that’s also a repeating canard.

You get a little bit of that in The 100, too. Arguably, though, Abby serves more as a Bones to Kane’s Spock, with Chancellor Jaha caught in the middle. But the dynamics between Clarke and Bellamy are quite different. Early on there’s a contrast between them, but the main axis of disagreement centers around adherence to the old social order. Questions of cruelty and compassion, when they surface, are argued based on the merits of the way things are done versus the possibility of building a new society from the ground up.

Clarke isn’t a typical cold, calculating, tough-decision-making character. Part of the impetus behind her character growth is the struggle of being thrust into a reality where the rules she learned to follow — the rules that protected her — no longer apply. In contrast, Bellamy is habitually lawless because the rules never protected him or his family, and the society he lived in taught him that it was built for people like Clarke.

Lexa, I suppose, is a more traditional cold character. She is a leader born and bred, after all. She has the kind of skills and, more importantly, charisma that allow her to give orders to warriors twice her age and have them followed, and she was raised in the same harsh environment that Clarke and the Arc people are struggling to adapt to. Her position as a warrior gives her practice in making killing choices, even when she is face to face with her enemy. As a leader, she has also developed the kind of social aloofness and emotional containment that Clarke lacks.

I often find myself trying to write the kind of cold women characters I so enjoy in the media that I consume. It’s a constant balancing game, trying to keep them on-point while at the same time giving the reader an opening to sympathize with them, or at least comprehend their motives. Writing a character like Clarke, who takes on the role though she lacks the corresponding temperament, is a challenge that I believe is still beyond me. Still, I keep looking to media to see what new and fantastic ways I can discover to expand this particular archetype.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

Go Along to Get Along on LLTQ

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If you’ve been reading for a while, you probably know by now that by far my favorite game in the world is the strategic raising sim Long Live the Queen from Hanako Games. This is a fiendishly difficult game which combines a gentle parody of princess tropes, a thoughtful exploration of the skills necessary for leadership, and an unironic enthusiasm for sparkliness. Protagonist Elodie is the recently-orphaned teenage heir to the throne, trying to survive the weeks until her coming of age and coronation.

Keeping Elodie alive until the end of the game is notoriously difficult. She faces so many assassination attempts that at times it seems like everyone is out to get her. Betrayal lurks behind every corner. The game has achievements that are unlocked by discovering all the different (and gruesome) ways in which Elodie can die. This is probably how the game earned the dubious nickname ‘Sansa Stark simulator‘.

On my first playthrough, I made it through 90% of the game before getting my princess blasted to pieces. One of the first things the King-Regent says is that she may not be safe outside the castle, and so I undertook what I thought was a very sensible strategy of avoiding danger (and conflict) whenever possible. It took a number of (unsuccessful) playthroughs before I was willing to start taking a few more chances.

Success in the game is achieved by skills. Learning skills is governed by mood. Moods are determined by plot events. Depressed Elodie does not want to study court manners, afraid Elodie doesn’t do very well with intrigue, and everyone can agree that angry Elodie has no business being around the palace animals. Some skills are more difficult to learn than others, primarily because they’re more strongly affected by moods. This is true of one of my favorite skill-groups, Royal Demeanor, which allows your princess to stare down her adversaries by sheer force of will. Invaluable for a future queen dependent upon the goodwill of the nobility.

The mood governing the skills of royal demeanor is called ‘Yielding‘ (not ‘yielded’ as I’ve seen in some posts, an important distinction). That… doesn’t sound very queenly, does it? On the face of things, at least. Surely a queen can’t just yield in the face of any obstacle. But, well, that’s not really what ‘yielding’ means. It allows you to keep composure in conflict, not rise to the bait when provoked, and generally react with apparent equanimity. Without these skills your princess is prone to react before thinking, causing one character to (rightly) call her ‘violent and impulsive’.

True, there is something very egotistically satisfying about challenging your adversary to a duel to the death. It’s a heroic reaction, the reaction we would generally expect from a protagonist. Certainly from a game protagonist. ‘Fortune favors the bold‘ is a maxim that’s generally profitable in video games. LLTQ is unusual in that it rewards prudence, restraint and discretion.

Well, but the presence that convinces the nobility at the royal ball that you are not a child but a queen, surely that cannot be called yielding? The yielding mood, in addition to regal demeanor, also boosts the study of history and faith skills. Raising these skills not only allows you to pass complicated skill checks and unlock entire story-lines, it also reveals some of the back-story and sheds a lot of light on the nature of magic. Read closely, the flavor text for these lessons (see, for example, Novan History 80, World History 50, Lore 30 and 70) reveals a fraught magical history fueled by pride and recklessness.

What do these three skills have in common? What ties together history and magical lore? What does it mean to be a ruling queen? The lesson texts teach Elodie that she is merely the last in a long unbroken chain of kings and queens, of magic users, and of catastrophically fatal magical mishaps. In history, as in faith, you can choose to see yourself as a small part of something much larger. By this view the queenship and the Lumen magic are seen as an act of custodianship, rather than a source of control.

Play the game long enough in different iterations and with different choices, and you end up discovering several exciting ways in which giving the wrong orders can get your princess killed. Experimenting with the more reckless magical choices shows some of the drastic consequences of the unchecked use of power.

Elodie’s magic tutor, Julianna, is a character who knows her place in the chain of things. Not very glamorous, but it serves her well. Where the King-Regent withholds information because he wants to protect his daughter from the negative consequences of magic, Julianna is more interested in protecting Nova from its Queen. At first pass she’s an irritating killjoy who’s at least as annoying as some of the classic fantasy magical mentors. To convince her to trust your princess, you have to first unlock some of the aforementioned foreboding historical lessons, which might make the pill a little easier to swallow.

In case it wasn’t obvious, I’m a big far of the yielding mood and all the skills it governs. It provides an interesting perspective and an unusual contrast to the more usual sources of heroism in fantasy. And it brings to mind the banner words of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series: that which yields is not always weak.

I had some things to say regarding the approval of the nobles and why it’s so important to maintain it, but this blog post is already far too long as it is. I think for the moment I’ll leave things at that, and perhaps return to the subject at a later date.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth