What is a Wordsmith, Anyway?

Rii the Wordsmith. I always thought it had a nice ring to it. But what is a wordsmith, anyway?

A smith, dictionary defined, is one who works with metals. A blacksmith would be the guy who makes stuff out of iron and steel and whatnot. And then there’s the goldsmith, who works in gold, usually artful sorts of things. There’s not really such a thing as a leathersmith, or a silksmith, or a plasticsmith. I suppose, if you play Kingdom of Loathing, there’s meatsmithing, but otherwise that’s nonsense. Smithing seems limited to metal.

So why wordsmith?

Words aren’t so different from ore and metal bars. Language can be raw, or it can be refined. One could argue that language is more useful when it’s refined, since it can better express what is desired. Certainly, language is far prettier when refined. And words are weapons, or tools, or protection, or glamor. Words cut as well as any sword. Words can defend against such attacks as plate mail defends against the sword. Words build up others, build up nations, inspire others to action, and destroy.

Language is malleable. The meanings of words are, too, as words are bent into puns and double entendres.

And language is a craft.

Picking just the right word to complete a sentence is like picking just the right jewel to affix into the gold piece, the necklace or crown or earring. Such skill takes knowledge and an eye for beauty…or maybe an ear, in the case of words.

Why wordsmith? Because when I write, I pound out words into sentences. When I polish up, I grind off unneeded words that fly away like little metal shavings. When I put in the finishing touches, I take care with my word choice.  And when I’m done, I’m exhausted.

My first draft, and even my second draft, may not be perfect in prose. But then, if a smith were to provide his own ore, the first step would be to procure said ore, unrefined and ugly. That’s the first draft. The second step would be to refine the ore – but a gold bar is not a beautiful work of art; it’s still, in effect, a raw resource. That’s the second draft. Subsequent drafts, those are the art: pulling the gold into wire, shaping the wire, melding the wire into something of beauty, setting in gems…wordsmithing is an editing skill, primarily.

So what is a Wordsmith? Perhaps not one from whom words flow perfectly on the first try…but by the finished copy, there are no words out of place.

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“No…Because I’m EVIL.”

In Justice League Unlimited, there’s an episode where due to shenanigans, The Flash and Lex Luthor’s minds get switched. Lex, at this time, is in the depths of a secret society of supervillains (who aren’t hugely fond of him right now) and Flash is on edge.

Flash doesn’t realize he’s Lex until he walks into a bathroom and sees his own reflection. He stumbles into a stall to try and think things through and try to call the Watchtower, which he fails to do. On exiting the stall, one of the supervillains demands that he get on with an evil scheme he’d been plotting so he, Flash!Lex, goes to leave the bathroom. The following exchange occurs:

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Ah, Flash. You’re adorable. If The Question wasn’t my favorite, you might have a chance.

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Who knew? I hate conspiracy theorists but…somehow his charisma and hilarity got past that. “Orange socks?” haha.

No, Flash honey, that’s not how evil works. And I’m glad I know that you didn’t have a reason to wash your hands because otherwise I would have been a little freaked out.

That said, I’ve uttered, “Because I’m evil,” before, too, when I did some teasing impolite thing to my husband. “Why would you do that?” “Becasue I’m evil!” It kind of goes with the whole scene in the first Pirates movie where Turner says “You cheated!” and Sparrow says, “Pirate.” The real problem with “becasue I’m evil” is how easily it lends to getting mixed up with motivations. Evil is not a motivation. What I really mean is, “you’re operating under the assumptions that I’m going to act in accordance with basic morals and societal niceties all decent people hold to, when I don’t, because I’m not a decent person, aka evil.” A more solid example could be, “Why did you steal that?” “Because I’m evil” meaning, “A normal person might see something they covet, but they won’t take it, because they are hindered by the wrong moral nature of stealing. I am not so hindered.” In which case the actual motivation was, “I wanted it,” but the answer of, “I’m evil,” was answering the real question, which wasn’t just, “What was your motivation?” but also, “what allowed you to do something that isn’t allowed?” in which case the, “I wanted it,” is implied in the, “because I’m evil.”

Parsing out this whole train of thought might seem pendantic, but I find it necessary, since you get Flashes otherwise. If you don’t separate motivation from morality, then you get a blob of gelatinous evil goo that will just do whatever can even remotely be constituted as “bad” even if it’s not evil so much as rude or unsanitary or just a bad decision and that’s not a real person. I don’t consider someone who doesn’t wash their hands to be more evil than me. They’re just more gross. I also don’t consider someone who eats a healthier diet and exercises to be morally superior. They’re just in better shape. Uncouth is not evil, else all small children are evil as they haven’t learned societal niceties yet.

When I encounter nice people who have a hard time with villains, it’s usually this core Flash problem. It’s the inability to tell the difference between evil switching up a worldview to different moral inhibitions (or not), and no inhibitions on anything, even if that doesn’t make any sense. I mean, you can’t rule the world if you get sick and die since you didn’t wash your hands, right?

Also important to note is that a willingness to do something (like steal) is not the same as a motivation to do it. Just because a character does not feel guilt over stealing doesn’t necessarily mean that they always want to steal. They still will have to be motivated to do it. I could joke here that the exception is me playing a video game, but that’s still not totally true.As I try out the Octopath Traveler demo and, of course, pick Therion the thief, and strip every NPC of everything they own, it’s in part becasue I can, but also becasue then I don’t have to buy supplis, and might find something cool (there were some interesting key items held by NPCS), and I can save my money for something cool that I have to buy.

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Stoked for this game, guys.

It’s the same in Skyrim; houses aren’t cheap, and leveling skills often isn’t, either. Working honestly takes so long to earn enough. I can say that I ride on the giddyness of just taking ALL THE THINGS but there is actually a motivation in there beyond “I am doing it because I can.” And sometimes “because I can” is a motivation, but it’s still probably different than just a willingness to; Therion has a bit of that attitude but he’s also enjoying his reputation as Best Thief, so there’s more to it than that.

So especially if you struggle, get pendantic with yourself about what your villain is willing to do, and what they’re actually motivated to do, and always remember that you can’t lump in all poor behavior into one great “evil” because that makes no sense.

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The Evil Race/Class

You know one of my favorite things? How many instances there are of scary-looking bikers being totally awesome people who aren’t actually terrifying thugs. I mean, some biker “gangs” are groups of people who do awesome charity work, like helping kids feel brave enough to confront adults who have abused them in court.

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They’re called “BACA”.

I think at this point, there are probably more people who are aware of the fact that a leather-clad handlebar mustache’d tattooed big guy with a bike is probably a Nice Dude who is not going to run you down with his loud bike, but there are definitely still people who aren’t sure if all bikers aren’t Hell’s Angels who want to kill and/or traffic them. And frankly, even BACA is working on the “bikers are scary” stereotype. So even if we think bikers might actually be nice, we apparently still think they are scary (perhaps because we still think they can break our face and/or kill us with their biker gang, who knows).

In a fantasy genre, this honestly makes me think of Orcs. Orcs are a “bad” race. But of course, if you talk to enough DnD players, you find several who wanted to play an orc or at least a half orc and turn that trope on its head. Even I have one that I want to do one day. Along with Orcs, it’s always bugged a friend that the Uruk’hai’s language was considered objectively worse and more evil than other languages like, that’s not actually how languages work, thanks. And along those lines, that’s not actually how races should work, either.

I’d like to advise that you scrutinize carefully any bad races in your story, especially if they’re the good old stereotypical Orcs. And I’d likewise suggest you think carefully about class/occupations that are stereotyped as evil. Bikers or necromancers, you shoudn’t just box order a cardboard printout of a sterotype. I mean, sure, stereotypes are useful, but flat characters are bad.

And hey, maybe you can present The Evil Race and it turns out your MCs are just racist.

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Look at thos Isvhalans, with their scary red eyes and their psychotic murderer- oh actually most of them are perfectly nice people and are gonna be essential in our Save The World plan nm my bad.

As always, it’s important to remember little involving sapient life is black and white and you should always take a close look at anything you’re framing as objectively good or objectively evil. You could come up with a race or class that’s definitely totally evil 100% of the time, or define it as such in your story – I mean in the defense of the Uruk’hai, they are literally made from bad crap to be evil people. Their reproduction is popping out of a tar pit thing. They’re arugably not real people. But before you go making your villain a member of a Bad Race or leader of a Bad Race, you’ve gotta remember people are dynamic and race might sometimes be more than just skin-deep but it’s not that powerful.

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A Cat’s Quest

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NO. DEVELOP YOUR CURSING VILLAINS PROPERLY.

Actually this is pretty unfair to Drakoth (that villain cat there). I liked the main story of A Cat’s Quest, and Drakoth was developed decently and not horrendously generic, even if he put up a farce of it to meet his ends. The game itself was pretty fun, the battle system was simplistic without being stupid, and the amount of cat puns was about a B- Could Stand to be More Unbearable.

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“Even pretend to become a crappy generic villain.”

 

But seriously, to talk about what Drakoth said – If I say, “I hate generic villains,” what I mean is, “I find generic villains to be uncompelling and boring and it ruins my experience of trying to enjoy the story because the hero is less appealing to me because s/he looks lame in comparison wasting their time with some dumb loser who calls himself a villain and I hate that.” This is as opposed to if we’re talking about a villain I hate, because what I mean there is, “I hate that guy.” That’s a huge difference.

There aren’t shortcuts. There’s just laziness in setting up a cardboard cutout for your hero to knock down, and the actual work of making a dynamic villain who is more than just a conflict generator.

Btw if you have a Switch consider Cat’s Quest. It’s cute, silly, and like I said, I enjoyed it.

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A+ silliness.

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Dynamic Villains

I was working on a post about writing dynamic villains, but I’m pretty unhappy with it right now – then a friend tagged me on facebook with the following meme:

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Thank you Facebook Gods and Doug

I think this is a fantastic prompt. I mean, it automatically invokes the question of whether or not the villain is really even a villain – of course he or she could be, wanting a real challenge, morality built as such that children should not be part of the conflict of adults, etc…and maybe, maybe your villain isn’t actually a villain here. Maybe they’re just someone who defied the gods. There’s a lot of material here.

Whatever way you take it, the idea that a villain is upset because of this destiny nonsense that pits overwhelmed foes against him is a good start for making a dynamic person, who has good and bad traits, even if the character is, ultimately, evil, and that’s what matters most about making a villain.

Happy writing!

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Implementing Mental Disorder

After about three years of peace, my depression has come back in full-blown Crazy!Yuri mode.

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If you haven’t heard of Doki Doki Literature club and you love anime dating sims but hate psychological horror…yooou should stay away.

While I am fairly easily able to say, NO YURI, FRIGGUN STOP SUGGESTING THAT, it’s a never-ending thought now that my depression is back. And it’s awkward because on the one hand, I kinda want to ask for more attention from the people around me – I mean, an uncontrollable part of my subconsious is trying to convince me that suicide is a good idea – but on the other hand, I’d be asking for attention and I kind of hate doing that because then I feel needy and/or like an attention whore.

It made me think of how it can also be awkward writing about a person with a mental disorder – like any character with a “glaring” personality trait, it can be hard to have them be fully fleshed characters instead of just embodiments of their unique “thing”. Kind of how if you’re trying to diversify your cast and you include a POC or someone who’s gay, making it so that everything they do is a highlight of that trait is a particularly unuseful way of diversifying your cast. It’s better to write the person as a normal individual and what makes them unique just changes some of their behavior rather than overtly reminding the audience repeatedly that they have this unique trait.

Which, surprisingly, brings me to the Octonauts.

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Yep, another children’s show.

The Octonauts are undersea explorers/marine bioligists/police maybe. It’s a show I don’t mind watching with my daughter, since they explore sea creatures even I’ve never heard of before and teach new things about the ones I have, and that’s always good for writer brain. Siphonophore, for example. I mean, look’em up, they’re pretty cool.

One thing I really appreciate about the Octonauts is that they often have some kind of environmentalist agenda, but they’re pretty subtle about it – and not just for a kids’ show, they’re actually subtle. For their full-length Earth-day special, they addressed global warming without ever actually even saying the words global warming. All they did is that the polar bear captain went home to his sister to help her cubs go to the arctic circle and they couldn’t find any ice floes to rest on until they were crazy exhausted and then the one they did find already had polar bears complaining that they couldn’t find any others, either, and that the one they were on was already suspiciously smaller/thinner than it should have been. Then the Octonauts did their thing and got all the polar bears to their hunting grounds on their ship. The end.

I mean they introduced a problem that I, as an adult who is aware of hot button topics, knew to be more than just an “oh no” problem that shows up in a kids’ show. But for a kid who doesn’t know about global warming, it is just an “oh no” made-up problem no different than the episode where a fish gets stuck under something or whatever. It was just showing the consequences for the characters of a problem (whether or not global warming is real isn’t the point here). Just like the trash episode where the Octonauts are cleaning up ocean trash, and some fish show up in a feeding frenzy, and they have to get help from pelicans to get the trash away from the fish. No belaboring where the trash came from, or what a huge problem it is that people litter, could have just as easily been about kelp and fish that can’t eat kelp or something.

When they bring up issues like litter or global warming, instead of educating my child, it gives me, the parent, the opportunity to talk to my kid about this. If a parent didn’t believe in global warming, the show just presents that it’s an issue for polar bears if there isn’t ice between the continent the bear lives on and the arctic circle. That’s it.

If you were to write about what I look like when dealing with depression, it wouldn’t look so much like a neon “depression” sign hanging over me; there’s a reason why mental disorders are an “invisible” illness. It’s instead just going to look like the consequences – being subdued, sad, empty for no real reason, avoiding activities I love for no reason, being tired for no reason. You can specifically highlight that I’m walking around a restaurant looking at tables with my head cocked at a weird angle because I have OCD, or you can just write about my bizarre walk around the restaurant. You can try to imitate my self-interrupting dialog that is always spoken just a little too fast without saying it’s becasue of my ADD.

And honestly writing the consequences of mental disorders without the neon sign label might be beneficial anyway, because I’m still a normal person and I’m more than my illness. The only reason I find knowing my issues spring from depression useful is so that the people who get it can know “get more sun” is not going to cut it as a fix. It might be worthwhile to specifically say “this character has X disorder” and it might not – and either way it’s probably a bad idea to belabor the point.

So when implementing a mental disorder, consider just writing out the behaviors without needing to carefully dissect each one. And seriously, look up Siphonophores.

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It’s a Midnight Zone creature, so you know it’s cool.

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To Empathize with Nazis

A friend sent me an article about mindflayers in D&D and an analysis on what the lead designer Mike Mearls said about the tremendously evil creatures ability to garner empathy, or at least sympathy. The short of it was that the mindflayers were once an empire that fell and are now the last of their kind, viewing themselves as refugees, struggling desperately to regain the glory and purpose they once had, and while Mearls suggests that this is where sympathy comes in, author Cameron Kunzelman suggests that it’s trying to borrow from a basic fantasy trope set up exemplified in Aragorn, of the lost ruler fighting against bad odds to reclaim what is his, and how it’s not a fair comparison because the mindflayers are unequivocably evil and it’s dangerous and ugly to validate their struggle that way and that the idea that the villain is the hero of his own story is trash.

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A mindflayer, aka illithid – sheesh, I hate these guys about as much as I hate the undead, though for different reasons. (It’s mind control.)

There’s a lot to dissect here, but I’ll start off with that I generally agree with Kunzelman. There are, as the title of his article suggests, villains who just do not deserve sympathy. Mindflayers are one of them, because they’re a type of people who believe in metaphorically and literally eating the minds of others, enslaving them with mind control, and abusing the crap out of their slaves. They’re not good people (if, frankly, you wanna call them people at all). They are, as I said, unequivocably evil. You can paint anything you’d like to as sympathetic – even murder and rape and torture can all be painted that way – though, to use D&D terms, they’d still have to beat the will save of anyone looking at them ‘cuz some of us will refuse to see it that way regardless of how it’s presented; we will not devour garbage, not if you arrange it in a smiley face, put a garnish on top, or add a side of fries…erm, you can paint anything you like as sympathetic but that does not mean it deserves sympathy. Some things are just wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, the end. Trying to look at it differently is not an interesting moral quandry.

And that’s why if ever presented with this bs about, “Oh, but the mindflayers are saaad refugees who are the last of their kind struggling to recover from a mortal blow! Would you really snuff out a species?” I have no problem whatsoever saying “yes” – after I’ve already stabbed the mindflayer, of course, as per Overlord List #7. I mean, if I got a chance to destroy all of any given gross parasite after ascertaining that it wouldn’t be a dramatic detriment to the ecosystem, I totally would. Heck, if I got the chance to obliterate any particularly unpleasant aspect of mortal existence, I absolutely would. In D&D, that’s gonna include mindflayers.

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This is what makes Elder Scroll’s St. Jiub so awesome. You know why he’s a saint? ‘Cuz he went and murdered every last one of the Cliff Racers, an obnoxious flying creature prone to attacking the player frequently. He deserves that sainthood.

Honestly I find the idea of sympathizing with a fallen overlord race super bizarre. Like, the fantasy plot we follow is sympathizing with the Gith – the primary race the Illithids enslaved – as they overthrow their cruel (and abusive!) masters. Why on earth would we want to follow the reverse story? You could find entertainment in reading a story about the rise and fall of an overlord, but…if you don’t have that end part, your story is a tragedy.

But here’s where I disagree with Kunzelman. He suggests that the idea that the villain is the hero of his own story is a bad device since it does the whole garner sympathy for the devil thing. And you can use it that way, I guess. But that’s not the point of the device. The point is that when you’re writing a villain, that villain is probably a person, even if just barely a person like a mindflayer. And that person is going to have motivations and how they view those motivations changes if nothing else the flavor of the villain dramatically. It’s the difference between arguing with an internet troll and someone who absolutely believes their position is correct. It’s the difference between someone who acts out of hatred and someone who acts out of vengeance and someone who acts out of perceived righteousness. People don’t usually purposefully pick something wrong because it’s wrong and it doesn’t necessarily make your villain any more horrible or terrifying if they do. Honestly, usually someone who thinks they are right, that they are the hero, when they are demonstrably demonic, is more terrifying than someone who just admits they’re awful because of how hard the former will fight – and that’s the difference between someone fighting for something they want, even if they know they have no claim to it, and someone fighting for something they firmly believe is absolutely theirs and they deserve it and it is morally wrong for any other outcome. The point isn’t to make sympathy for your villain – it’s to flesh them out and understand – but disagree – with them.

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I like to learn about Hitler, the same way I like hearing about serial type criminals – I like to learn how a person goes rotten. But I never sympathize.

Kunzelman brings in modern day white supremacists (who are often (always?) also Neo Nazis) as why granting the objectively evil figure sympathy just for existing is a dangerous idea. Let me propose that if you’re writing a Nazi, you can write them as just an evil person who wants to kill “inferior” races and control others, but you won’t be writing a person, you’ll be writing an idea with a body. A person justifies themselves, and they probably do it by thinking they’re right. Nazis are still people, even if they suck, and if you want to write them well, you’ll remember that – because part of what makes them suck is that they are people and people should behave better than that.

You don’t have to sympathize with evil to understand it, and understanding doesn’t have to shift to sympathy. It shouldn’t. In the case of mindflayers, I’m happy to take the time to better understand them. Unlike goblins, they’re not just some monster with a rudimentary culture that maaaybe I shouldn’t kill? No – I understand that they think they are right, that they believe they are the rightful rulers of the universe, that it is their destiny, their birthright, and they’ll do anything to fulfill it. They are the heroes of their own story, the forsaken leaders – I understand their perspective, and that way, I understand why I have to kill them.

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Foiled (achoo!) Again!

“I didn’t write a blog post today,” I sigh to my husband yesterday, not complaining about anything so much as that the day was continuing in its not-so-great course. Not only did it start when the baby woke me with loud, baleful snuffling indicating he was sick, stuffed up, and having a hard time breathing, but when I went to check on my daughter (who I was sure I’d heard stirring but she hadn’t left her room yet, which was odd) I encountered a horror sick scene which I can sum up with that I had a moment of panic that she might have asphixiated. After a bath, she was much better, but still caused enough subsequent messes I couldn’t handle it and had to call in reinforcements. I’m lucky I’m in a position where Tyler could take a half day and come help me. Luckily, it looks like it was just food poisoning.

Tyler considered what I’d said for a moment, and then with a grin said that you never really see villains who are foiled by stuff like getting really sick.  I laughed – of course not. That would be pretty lame, building up this big conflict, and then on the day when the villain is going to execute his plans…he stays home with pneumonia instead and everything’s fine. Something like that could totally work in a comedy, but not your average story.

That said, sickness rarely shows up in stories in any sort of realistic manner at all anyway. You only really see some kind of exotic illness that can only be cured by a crazy McGuffin.

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Like in Final Fantasy IV when you cure Rosa’s desert sickness with a sand ruby (???)

And of course, I don’t believe in “you can’t” nearly so much as I believe in “you shouldn’t” and maybe writing your villain through a sick day could, at the very least, be a fun writing exercise.

Just something to think about.

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Personality vs Competence

So your villain is scheming and he comes up with some sort of awesome plan, but the plan has a pretty big hole in it, and you run it by your sounding board people and they point out the hole and how easy it would be to fix and you think about the fix and there’s a problem:

The fix is totally out of character for your villain.

What do you do? Your villain shouldn’t go ahead with a bad plan, right? I mean, your whole story suffers if the heroes defeat him because he’s a moron. Do you have to completely revamp your villain?

When I watch the movies, I hate Voldemort as a villain because of what I perceive as major incompetence. But when I read the books, even on the same issues, I don’t despise him. The main example is in his choice of horcruxes.

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There’s a common complaint concerning them. Namely, why the flip would you pick highly iconic treasures to be your horcruxes! Why would you then hide them in personally significant places? You want them not to be found? Pick seven indistinguishable pebbles and drop them each in a different ocean or rockbed or somesuch! Making your lifelines possible to trace is a question of competency.

But reading the books, I’m not sure I’d actually advocate so strongly for some competency changes because personality wise, of course Voldemort isn’t going to consign something so precious as his own soul into a stupid, disingenuous pebble. I get the need to have trophies and shinies and feel important – and Voldemort is way more prideful than me. We get a good look at who Voldemort is as a person by what he sticks his soul in and it’s actually pretty reasonable for the protags to get to know Voldemort as a person and what was important to him to figure out what were probably his horcruxes. This is a situation where pride could be argued to have led to his downfall, but it’s not like he had all his horcruxes gathered in a trophy cabinet for the heroes to find. They still had to do their research and figure out what his brand of pride meant and then hunt the dang things down and figure out how to destroy them – and the difficulty in destroying them gives Voldemort plausible reason to be prideful enough to think that they wouldn’t be destroyed in the first place.

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I also could take issue with his excessive use of Avada Kedavera. You know, if you could just chill on that spell, Harry might’ve been dead by now. But another essential piece of Voldemort’s character is that he thinks muggles are total losers who deserve to be ruled by the powerful wizards. So yeah, of course he’s going to use the one specific to wizards way to kill people – precious, beloved magic that makes him so much better than muggles.

I will still call out his insistence on using a spell that backfired horrendously on him to kill the same target years later, though.

Consider in contrast the My Little Pony movie’s Storm King.

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I’ve griped about him before, but just a quick reminder: he reneges on a promise to a minion and perishes for it. The movie presents it as “just his personality”, but I call it total incompetence. We haven’t seen enough of the Storm King for it to be a personality congruence thing, there were other options with the same end result that would have added real personality depth, and ultimately it’s just normal pushing of the friendship and magic aspects of the show in a sloppy fashion. In this case, the personality choice has no depth whatsoever and either needed to be edited or written out altogether. The personality move was more a convenience of plot than actual personality.

There’s also Nettlebrand, from Cornelia Funke’s Dragon Rider.

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This book is like a still-delicious nostaligic meal for me, to be consumed with relish.

I don’t find Nettlebrand to be a particularly effectual villain; he’s just an angry golden dragon who wants to eat other dragons who is so busy with his rage and desire to hunt, he’s not necessarily enjoyable at all. That said, the heroes still defeat him far more than he defeats himself, and none of his abrasive personality directly causes his death, even if it plays a role here and there.

The important thing to remember here is that villains are people and people make mistakes, but it all goes back to whether or not the villain defeats themselves. Sometimes a story calls for an airtight mastermine of villainy; most stories won’t necessarily, so if your protags defeat the villain with their own cleverness and strength, perhaps using tools of the villain’s flaws, then you’re fine ditching the obvious fix. Just make sure that your villain was developed well enough that the audience can feel comfortable with his poor decisions and flaws, and consider tasteful lampshading if necessary.

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re: Fear, and the Meaning of Courage

Just a little thought on fear, a follow-up after talking about failing your courage check (to use D&D terms):

Courage is, in my opinion, not about the absence of fear; courage is being afraid and doing it anyway. And I know I’m not the only one who holds this opinion because I’ve heard that moral in shows and other places.

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If you can accurately peg your characters’ fears, and you want your characters to face their fears and/or the villain to try to use those fears against them, it’s totally noteworthy to remember that if you also decide the hero never conquers that fear as outlined in Failing Your Fears, you can still give your characters the attribute of great courage.

I honestly find the idea that you can do scary things, even if they’re still scary, and they’re scary the entire time, and you’re afraid the entire time while doing it, to be a little more uplifting a message than the one where you can conquer the scary. This is because I also find it to often be more realistic. Sometimes conquering a fear isn’t even possible until after you completed the horrible task and were afraid the entire time until it was totally over, anyway.

So when you’re trying to write about a courageous hero, think about your definition of courage a bit, first.

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Jumanji’s Van Pelt

This is a guest post from Tyler, Rii’s husband, who has strong feelings about Van Pelt:

Rii and I recently watched Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. It was a lot better than I ever expected a sequel made 23 years after the original to be. While the original will probably always be my favorite of the two, I enjoyed the sequel and feel totally comfortable with it being a Jumanji movie.

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Unlike certain other franchises I could mention…

My one major complaint is how terribly this movie handled Van Pelt. You see, in the original, Van Pelt was a lot of things. He was enigmatic. He was cool. He even got some good comedic beats. But more than anything, two particular qualities of Van Pelt stand out. Van Pelt was terrifying. And more importantly, Van Pelt was symbolically resonant.
What do I mean by that? Well, if you’ll remember, one of the first things that happens in the movie is Alan having a fight with his father about what it means to be a man. Then at the end, you see Alan’s growth by showing him facing his father “as a man” (honestly, there are a lot of things I would like to say about the accuracy of how this movie portrays what it means to be a man, but I digress). What makes Van Pelt so great as a villain is that he embodies this conflict that Alan must overcome. Frequently as Alan runs away from him, Van Pelt calls after him to “face me like a man”, and the climax of the movie occurs when Alan stops running and faces him. The real kicker here, though, is that the same actor who portrays Alan’s father plays Van Pelt, underscoring his relevance to the underlying conflict.
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In storytelling there is an idea of the distinction between a plot conflict and a thematic conflict. For example, in Return of the Jedi the final showdown in the Emperor’s throne room consists of a plot conflict of Luke fighting Vader and then Palpatine and (more importantly) a thematic conflict of Luke trying to redeem his father. Both kinds of conflicts are important, and crucially it is extremely satisfying to an audience when both conflicts resolve at nearly the same time. Contrast Return of the Jedi where the two conflicts end at the same time as Vader chooses the light and kills Palpatine with the ending to The Return of the King where the plot conflict of destroying Sauron is resolved quite a long time before the thematic conflict of Frodo’s struggle against the allure of the ring, which he doesn’t resolve until he finally steps on the boat to head into the west.
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There’s a reason a lot of people complain that The Return of the King had too many endings.

In the original Jumanji Van Pelt represents both the thematic and the plot conflict, so defeating him resolves both at once and feels incredibly satisfying. The new Van Pelt is just generic evil guy #3, creepy/gross variant. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a film about choosing how you are going to live your life rather than letting the circumstances of life choose for you (look no further than the Principal’s speech before they go to detention, and Spencer’s arc of not needing his video game character’s bravery boost to do brave things). How does Van Pelt, ostensibly the main antagonist and villain of this film tie into that thematic conflict?
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If you said, “He doesn’t,” then congratulations! You get nothing, just like his relevance to the character arcs in the movie.

Maybe part of it is that I’m much older when seeing this for the first time, but this Van Pelt has none of the terrifying presence of the original, and the fact that he is so disconnected from the thematic conflict of the movie means that I don’t really care when they defeat him. Honestly, it would have been an almost trivial exercise to remove him from the movie entirely. And that is not a great thing to have be true about your villain.
Now not every villain has to be tied to the thematic conflict of the story per se, but I cannot think of a single great villain off the top of my head who hasn’t been. So when examining your villain, try to see how they tie in not just to what is going on in the story, but also how they tie into the underlying conflict behind that. And if the answer is “they don’t,” try to see if you can change that. Because it will make their defeat all that more effective.
Posted in General Writing, Making Villains (Making Villains la-la-la!) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment