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?”
* Ambition and drive to achieve goals at any cost.
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?
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.
A Fairy Battle
I walked along the ancient wall built by forgotten hands. The wall was grey and stone and obscured by carnivorous vines that digested the wall bit by bit. It sagged as much as a grey stone wall can sag against the grass and trees. Wooden props helped it stand with slightly more dignity and grace as befitting the aged who had done their duties against wind and weather well.
The wall bends where the old cobblestone road turns away from the town and toward the farms. A hole opens where stones, not meant to turn but to stack upright, have fallen in a heap. Flowers grow in wild profusion in protected boxes made by the fallen stones and weather and happenstance. Beyond the hole in the wall lays a field where more flowers grow: golden yarrow and tall stalks of sage, aster and larkspur.
I heard a noise and set down my basket. Through the hole was a sight: feet of hooves and boots mashed the flowers flat into the grass and clover and dirt.
Two great armies stood on that field of wildflowers. One was in red with cloaks fluttering and swords shining. The troops stood side by side in proper regiments with perfect clean red uniforms and shining silver buckles and red hats. They held red muskets with bayonets like rows of toothpicks. The other army wore bedraggled green, a dirty rag-tag assortment of wild creatures of differing sizes and heights and builds. Their eyes held madness and their weapons more: serrated swords and broken knives, guns and crossbows and teeth and claws and horns.
A horn blew. On a grand stallion among the red army sat the Queen. Her shining blond hair blew back from her shoulders in the soft gusts of evening wind. Her uniform shone with shiny spangles and glittering buttons. Wind rippled the cockade of her great plumed hat. She drew her sword and paused. Then she ordered her men to charge.
With rank upon rank they did, the first ranks bending on knee to fire as the second rank loaded and the third waited their turn.
The early ranks of the mad and the green were felled by the Queen’s bullets. The insane green horde pushed forward over the fallen bodies of comrades and foes. War was met and the sounds of horrible battle echoed over the field. Those perfect ranks were nothing more than fodder for the chaotic and maddening ranks of the green fairies who hopped and played and danced among bullets. The front ranks of the red army fell to be replaced by more ranks and more; perfect harmony in combat with horrible chaos. Clubs swung and teeth gnashed. Bones shattered with balls of bullets and crossbow bolts sung in the air. The fairies fought, the red and the green, until blood soaked the wildflowers and the sounds of screams filled the air.
I staggered forward through the hole between the stones. My basket lay forgotten on the cobblestones. At my feet was a man dressed in red, lovelier than any man can be, dying, his lifeblood pouring out on to the grass. I put my fingers to his wound as blood poured over my hands. He died and I cried: “STOP!”
The Queen of the Faeries gazed at me with her purple shining eyes. For a moment, silence. No sounds of combat, no attacks, no muskets fired at close range with ear-splitting cracks in the air. I knew only the Faerie Queen and her terrible wrath.
Then they were gone, every one of them. The fairy battle disappeared. They left only crumpled flowers and the occasional strange discoloration in the grass. The sounds of battle hung in the air for only a moment and then they, too, where whisked off to the land of Faerie.
There was nothing, then. Nothing but my basket and a hole in a wall. And the knowledge of faerie, warring, somewhere beyond a veil.
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.