Tags: stories

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The importance of villainy

I have been playing, of all things, Final Fantasy XII on an ancient PS2 that is slowly falling apart and one thing that struck me about the main plotline is how emotionally un-invested the main character is in the villain or the results of the villain’s actions.  Vaan, the main character, has no real place in the storyline and even when he sort of shoe-horns a place, he has no investment in the outcome.  The villain is too distant from him for there to be any connection.  As a result, the story is entertaining but it feels stale.  “Why is this guy even here?” I ask.

On the other hand, Final Fantasy VII still lingers because the Sephiroth-Cloud conflict is so personal that even after the game is done the feeling of “oooh, SEPHIROTH” clings.  The plotline makes the villain personal.  It’s relentlessly personal — Sephiroth does all but dance naked in front of you during the main plotline.  If there is something of yours he can take away, he goes after it with a passion.  Near the end, the player is going, “Damn you SEPHIROTH.”  And if you are me, promptly sets your computer background to be Sephiroth wallpaper.

This brought about a sort of rambling discussion about the importance of villains and villainy in a story to make a story emotionally grabbing or “hooky.”  Every story has some kind of challenge to be overcome — be it environmental or time constraints or other human beings.  Otherwise, there’s no actual story.  It’s just a set piece full of people talking Tarantino-like.

If the challenge is another character, the trick is to make the challenge have emotional currency and staying power that builds.  It cannot be simply one knife in the back — it has to be a series of escalating knives in the backs until nothing is left except stabbing time in a big emotional payoff climax.   The villain’s core job is to foster emotional investment in the narrative.   Otherwise, we are stuck with a glorified travel memoir, ala Kerouac’s “On the Road,” which has plenty of great set pieces but never has much emotional staying power.

This lead to wondering “what makes a great villain?”

* Motivation.

* Ambition and drive to achieve goals at any cost.

* Ruthlessness.

The story needs a good antagonist, the antagonist needs a motive and drive, and then the protagonist needs emotional connection to the antagonist on a deep, primal level.  But the protagonist is not the only one on a journey through the story.  The villain needs his own arc, his own story, that is just as compelling as the protagonist’s so that they work as a weight-counterweight.  The villain cannot be a cackling insane bad guy sitting in a tower being evil just to be evil.  He needs to be doing something, and the protagonist has to run to keep up.

This doesn’t just hold for classic good guy – bad guy interactions.  Bad guys can be groups (Nazis), creatures (the whale in Moby Dick; Jaws), and environment (several Jack London novels).  It’s easier to conceive in a common good guy – bad guy interaction.

FF12 is a fantastic example of a villain who simply falls down from the outset.  10 hours into the game and there’s not a shred of emotional connection between Vaan, who is theoretically the main character, and Vayne, the Big Evil Bad Dude.  The story has no sense of cohesion outside of a travelogue.   Things happen around Vaan.  He experiences hardship and victories and boss fights.  Very little happens to Vaan.  Even at one point in dialogue Penolo, who has even less emotional stake in the story, tells one of the lesser bad guys: “I don’t even know why I am here.”  Neither do we.

I am okay with travelogues.  There is nothing wrong with a good road trip.  One of my favorite books of all time is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  But other than some excellent twists of words, it is a story in something happens, but not a story as in a great narrative.  It has to rely on language to be hooky which is a difficult trick to pull off.

I’m thinking about video games because I’m playing video games and it is a ready example, but it holds true for, for example, the two Lock Lamora novels by Scott Lynch where one has a hooky villain (who violates literary convention but that IN ITSELF is another story) and the second does not.  Hell, one can say it works for Shakespeare’s Richard III or Othello but falls down with the lesser and considerably more awful plays because the protagonist-antagonist structure falls apart.

All just fodder for vague thought as I get out of my Epic Dry Spell and back into writing.

Interesting academic exercise: Read some trashy fiction.  Pick out the antagonist/protagonist.  Write down the antagonist’s story.  Does it intersect with the protagonist’s?  How?  Where?  What is the antagonist’s journey?  Does the antagonist’s story have any staying power for you?

Originally published at /project/multiplexer. You can comment here or there.

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FIC: A Fairy Battle

I have had an extremely bad case of total creative block for several months now. I can’t write stories, I can’t write music, I can’t do anything. It’s pretty much blown. I can’t seem to shake it, either. I know the root cause but there’s not much I can do other than become a total hermit.

I am trying to bring down my horizons a little to get back in the swing of things. I’m focusing on 500-750 word bits, just a few paragraphs, to get me from being totally blocked to being mostly blocked. If you’re interested, here’s the first little bit. I’ll post them but I’ll keep them under cuts (LJ-only) so they can be easily skipped.

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Originally published at /project/multiplexer. You can comment here or there.

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Bloody Revolution in Pixie Hollow

For Katie’s birthday, I bought her the first set of four collected junior novels, each one depicting some adventure of one of the fairies of Pixie Hollow, the imaginary Disney universe for Tinkerbell.  The general plan was to get her into the whole concept of reading books with chapters and stories too long to be resolved in a single evening yet be interesting enough to hold a four year old’s interest for multiple nights.  This turned out to be highly succesful if Katie was allowed to pick the fairy — which she is.

Since I am now reading about this universe every night, a bit at a time, I have plenty of time to ponder Pixie Hollow.  I realized, with the stories of baking fairies and serving fairies and laundry fairies and even entryway cleaning fairies, that Pixie Hollow is a very Victorian England Upstairs/Downstairs culture with rigidly set out life paths depending on where one is born with no hope for advancement.  Only the true Upper Classes may go to the Mainland and interact with humans.  The rest of the fairies must stay behind and serve.

The Tinkerbell movie revolves entirely around this theme: poor Tinkerbell discovers to her utter horror that she is forced forever to be working class as a pots and pans fairy, and no matter how hard she tries she cannot flee her caste.  Sure, she is promoted to Upper Class when she makes for herself a role as a master engineer over a mere tinkering fairy, but it is not without great effort and recognition from the Queen.

This is utterly unlike the plight of two other fairies of the Pixie Hollow cosmos: the fairy Prilla and the fairy Vidia.  Vidia is set up to be the “evil” fairy of the world, but Vidia is not actually evil.  She rejects the rigid despotic monarchy of Queen “Ree” Clarion of Pixie Hollow and shows her disdain for the caste system that holds them all enslaved.  And Prilla, well, Prilla has a unique talent which draws her automatically to the human world to keep children believing in fairies.  Her friends keep giving her mundane fairy-like tasks to do but her heart is not in it.

While I sat on the bed reading Katie her stories, I began to put together the bloody and horrible revolution, hatched by Vidia and Prilla in Vidia’s sour plum tree where no one ever goes.  From there, they explode with Prilla as the Charismatic face of the Revolution, explaining on the stumps and toadstools around Pixie Hollow how no fairy is lesser than any other and how they can all be free of their castes if they clap their hands and believe.  Meanwhile, Vidia plans, and executes a horrible Night of the Long Knives where she does away with the Ministers of the Four Seasons in a bloody coup and unleashes the anger of the animal talent fairies and their beast army upon the unsuspecting High Nobility light fairies.

Then, as the war reaches its zenith and Pixie Hollow is torn by war and death, a proud Vidia and a woebegone Prilla watch as Queen Clarion, broken and dashed against the revolution, is forced to sign the peace treaty with harsh terms in her own blood.  Then the monarchy is done away with, crowns are forgotten, Clarion drifts off to spend her days tending to Mother Dove, fairies are freed from their bonds of talents by birth! (to appear and become a laundry fairy — the horrors!) and Prilla takes the reins of government…

We are undecided if Over the Edge or FATE would make a better system for playing out the Bloody Fairy Revolution in Pixie Hollow.

Originally published at /project/multiplexer. You can comment here or there.