Whenever I’m in a place that’s dark and I’m by myself, I of course know that monsters aren’t real; there is no Slender Man, there are no hideous monstrosities with razor claws a foot long and a maw full of teeth and a body that’s Lovecraftian, there are no Uncanny Valley horrors. Of course I know those things don’t exist, which is why I bolt from any room that has the light off and slap desperately at any lightswitch of a room I’m entering and run entirely on adrenaline navigating the dark area so these things, which definitely, absolutely don’t exist, don’t kill me.
I can’t help it. I’m too imaginative, and too genre savvy. See I’m all charisma; I’ve got pathetic T-rex arms, I’ve got enough endurance to run all of ten seconds, I’ve got all the speed of a three-legged corgi, and while on a human assailant, I know many, many places that are good to hit, most assailants that definitely don’t exist who are going to kill me are humanoid at best. That means that I may not be blonde, but I am so, so, so dead in any sort of horror setting.
It’s not just the dark that brings out my involuntary genre savviness. I straddle the line between reality and fantasy constantly and while I always keep careful track of where that line is, I like to pretend it doesn’t exist, and I am actually knee-deep in Narnia (or wherever) so sometimes I do expect a cat-sized dragon to show up after I hear an off-screen crash. Except not really because only lizard-sized dragons who aren’t really dragons actually exist. If there’s any actual dragons crashing off-screen, it’s one of my dragon figurines the friggun cats friggun knocked off a-friggun-gain. Or my kid got it. Tiny mammals are really bad at not knocking things off stuff.
But I like to run through totally pretend and impossible scenarios that would never ever happen because they’re totally pretend just so I’m prepared. I have a reply to the Doctor (it involves re-directing him to any of my Whoovian friends because I have a family here and his Timey-Wimey stuff isn’t really for me) and a plan for if I discover Narnia in any of my closets, cabinets, paintings…shoes…and ditto for falling down any rabbit holes or looking glasses. Getting stuck in a virtual reality video game? Yep, have a plan for that.
Of course, these things will never happen. I know that. But it pays to be prepared. In fact, I’ve had a password with myself (and now my husband) just in case anyone from the future or an alternate version of myself ever approaches and I don’t believe it’s me. I mean, if they have an important message for me and I’m like, dude come on, whatever, time travel isn’t real, they probably have very limited time and I need to make sure they can make me believe them super fast so they can do whatever they needed to do! So if they can give me the password, then I know it’s me. Problem solved. And that’s why I don’t like other people knowing my middle name.
(Actually, I have no idea why I don’t like people knowing my middle name. My password is no longer and hasn’t been for a while my middle name.)
So here’s the thing: I’m not breaking the fourth wall with all my genresavvy because no matter how gentresavvy I am, I am not aware of a fourth wall. I am legit convinced this is the most real of any reality (and while the possibility of being a brain in a jar is, I suppose, A Thing, I find it to be a moot point but that’s another discussion entirely) and there isn’t an audience and no one is watching me (besides God who does not count) and therefore there aren’t ANY walls.
Oftimes, when a character is genresavvy, he’s also breaking the fourth wall. That’s totally fine. And there are plenty of examples of characters saying “in the movies” and “in the books”. Sometimes, it’s a matter of saying “not like in the movies/books”. I don’t feel like that counts; it’s giving a reference point and then saying “You don’t know what this is” and chucking savviness out the window. But…whenever a character is savvy, it’s often the hero. I want to see more properly savvy villains.
Not the fourth wall breaking savviness. The kind who just know what’s going on.
While there are plenty of reasons a villain will not recognize himself as a villain, that doesn’t mean that he has to fall into the same pitfalls as every other villain. Sometimes it’s a matter of plain intelligence; there are pitfalls that are stupid. No one should fall for those. But there are many that are matters of cliche and trope, of history repeating itself.
Your villain doesn’t have to know he’s a villain to learn from the mistakes of others and make wise decisions. If he’s a fantasy villain, he can still be aware of all the tropes and step around them. There are ways to be a dictator without being a ruthless dictator that is Obviously Bad – although, even a ruthless dictator isn’t necessarily Obviously Bad. You just have to have something worse. If he’s a super villain, he probably knows he’s a villain, and he should probably avoid over-elaborate death traps that don’t just, y’know, kill the hero, or fighting Batman. And if they’re on Earth, they ought to have plenty of history to study – which means you’ll have to study it, sorry – to know how best to manipulate people and countries and not invade Russia.
Being genre savvy isn’t the same thing as playing dirty, either. Knowing full on that going into a sword fight with someone who will beat you unless you throw sand in his eyes or kick him in the groin means that you can get in the sword fight and play dirty, or you can not get in the sword fight. Pick a champion to face off for you. Use tropes heroes always fall for of goading or whatever to do something else. Being savvy doesn’t even have to mean knowing the Villain Tropes that happen all the time, but can refer to the things I mentioned above, being horror story savvy, genie savvy, things that aren’t heroic or villainous but you can certainly look at past mistakes and not make those same mistakes.
Basically, I guess I’m saying that if I was a hero and I came across a stream in a mystical wood and I was very thirsty, I’d stick a stick in there first to make sure it didn’t kill me.
And if I was the villain…I’d do the same thing.