Friday, February 6, 2009

A Hero to Save Us

On you can now buy a pdf of Graceful Wicked Masks, a guide to playing and portraying the fair folk in White Wolf's Exalted. For the uninitiated, the fair folk - also known as the raksha - are one of Exalted's primary foes. White Wolf took the concept of faeries as beautiful and terrible creatures who take you under the hill and return you different, changed, lesser, and ran with it. The fey of Exalted aren't benevolent sprites, they are terrible creatures of chaos who want to dissolve Creation back into the chaos from whence it sprang.

I didn't buy the book back in First Edition Exalted, when it was released as Exalted: the Fair Folk. I may buy it now, but only because I hope to find it useful for using the raksha as enemies. You see, my problem with the fair folk was and remains that I find them utterly unconvincing and uninteresting as any kind of hero. I just can't sympathize with heartless soul eating monstrosities, and while I like dark and conflicted heroes as much as the next guy, and sometimes even delve into downright antiheroics, there is a line I just can't cross. I'm not interested in playing bad guys.

What I find interesting is, where exactly is that line, and why is it there?

For example, I'm a big fan of Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melinbone (thank you Wikipedia), who is about as dark as they get. The man wields a cursed sword in the name of a god of chaos, eats souls, sacrifices friends, family and loved ones to get his way, and is basically a jerk to everyone he meets. In the end, he's basically complicit in the end of the world. And yet, I find Elric of Melinbone a compelling character.

On the other hand, a fair one from Exalted who fought on the side of the angels (so to speak) - which does happen - would still fail to compel me. The raksha of Exalted occasionally toss on a whole set of identities, the graceful and wicked masks the book is named after, but even a heroic raksha will still be, to me, at best, something for the real main characters to react to. Maybe I'd use such a being to challenge their assumptions about the raksha and themselves or something like that.

What has Elric of Melinbone have that faeries don't?

First of all, Elric is having a genuine emotional experience. This problem rarely happens outside of fantastic fiction - maybe a writer who misunderstood a sociopath's inner life might write someone that way. In fantasy, you occasionally come across villains and antiheroes who don't have normal emotions for some reason. The details are many and varied: demonic posession? alien mind control? cursed sword? The end result, however, is a flat character.

Even in conventional fiction, you can get a similar effect from poor writing. Even if the character is probably having a genuine emotional experience, if the writer fails to give the reader access to that experience, the villain or antihero becomes flat and boring.

A second, related element - absolutely essential for an antihero, less important for a villain - is a sense of struggle. Raksha don't do it for me because they simply are what they are, and what they are is soul-eating monsters. If someone tried to write a heroic story where the main characters were all angels with no capacity to do wrong I'd be about as bored. More to the point, what makes an antihero interesting is his inner struggle. He fights against whatever darkness he carries around with him, he grapples with it, and ultimately, he either wins, loses, or the battle either ends forever, or continues.

Incidentally, I should concede that there is one situation in which flat villains do not fail to entertain, and that is this: sometimes, the true enemy is not outside the main characters, but within. Sometimes, what a story needs is an external pressure that really and truly scares the everloving shit out of the main characters. The point, you see, is not to present a villain who is compelling, interesting, and even sympathetic - a fitting counterpart to the similarly compelling, interesting, and sympathetic heroes - but to see to what depths the main characters will sink when they are frightened, harried, and faced with a foe they believe to be beyond redemption. Will they kill? Will they torture? What will they do when someone they trust seems to have sided with them?

In any case, allow me to direct your attention to my fellow fantasy blog, Paper and Dice. Currently, the author is telling a story of epic fantasy from "the other side." I'm up to date and eagerly awaiting the next chapter.

What Montgomery Mullen is getting right in this story is struggle and ambiguity. Twisted, deranged, and destructive as his characters all are, they are one and all dealing with their own inner conflicts. Being a fan of the world in general, I'm not rooting for them, but I am captivated by their story.

In any case, here's a link to Part One if this story. Enjoy.

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  • Where have you encountered a particularly good example of villains and antiheroes done right?
  • Where have you encountered a particularly egregious example of villains and antiheroes done wrong?
  • When have you attempted to write a compelling villain or antihero, what were your challenges and what is your assesment of your efforts in the final arithmetic.


Scattercat said...

Doctor Impossible from "Soon I Will Be Invincible." He is, literally, a supervillain out to enslave the world. The book is told half from his point of view (it was originally meant to be all him, but one of the side characters grew too interesting, and in all honesty she's pretty awesome, too.)

Dude is made of win. Book has a few rough edges, but is generally a gem.

"When life gives you lemons, you squeeze them, hard. Make invisible ink. Make an acid poison. Fling it in their eyes."

Montgomery Mullen said...

I've been a fan of the well-written villain for ages, and I was bound and determined that if I ever wrote a villain, then they'd be people. Even if they looked like caricatures, they'd be people. It's great to be recognized for that... though with a lot of modern fantasy, I suppose it isn't hard to stick out.

Unfortunately, my heroes are a little lacking.

More alchemical zombies later, too. I'm leapfrogging material.

Anonymous said...

@ Scattercat

The Abigail read that book and liked it. It's on my list.

@ Montgomery Mullen

I approve of your goals. I think a well-written villain can absolutely put a story ahead of the herd.

I think you definitely write well. I've been impressed with everything I've seen on your blog. I can only assume that you'll get your heroes right to your satisfaction sooner later. You just need to hit your stride, find your angle.