Playing with Tropes: Pragmatic Villainy

So as part of my effort to blog more often, I’ve decided to bring back the trope posts. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, perhaps you remember the Trope Tuesday series that I used to do. Those were mostly just a rehashing of each trope’s tvtropes page, with a bit of commentary at the end. For this new series, though, I’m going to assume you’ve already read the page and are familiar with the trope, and focus on the commentary. I’m calling this series Playing with Tropes, and I’ll do a new post on the first and third Monday of each month.

To start off this new series, I’d like to take a look at Pragmatic Villainy. There’s something especially chilling about a villain who not only possesses power, but knows how to wield it too. In fact, one of the scariest villains is the guy who rises up the ranks through sheer ruthlessness and ambition, starting as an underling and rising to the top. These villains know how to inspire and manipulate their followers, how to use their limited resources efficiently, how to form secret alliances and backstab their enemies, and how to keep a strategic perspective while making brilliant tactical plays. It doesn’t matter whether they command an empire or whether all they’ve got is a cargo-cult following on some far-off backwater. No matter where you put them, these are the guys who are truly dangerous.

It’s worth pointing out that there are a lot of figures from history who fit this trope. A badass colonel when the French Revolution began, he took advantage of the chaos to rise to power, declaring himself emperor and restoring order to his broken country. He then took his armies and conquered nearly the whole of Europe and the Mediterranean, destroying the Holy Roman Empire, invading as far as Egypt and the Nile, and leading his troops through the gates of Moscow before suffering defeat before the Russian Winter. Ever the pragmatist, he developed the modern canning process in order to supply his troops with food. And even after the European powers crushed his armies and exiled him to the island of Elba, he still found a way to escape and very nearly did it all again.

And Napoleon is by no means the most prominent historical example. Hitler was extremely pragmatic, and probably would have won the war if he’d actually listened to his generals and not interfered with their ability to do their jobs. Stalin was also quite pragmatic, identifying and removing his rivals and ruling with an iron fist. Today, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are some of the best examples of this trope.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell whether a pragmatic villain is really a villain at all. This is because pragmatic villains often see evil as a means, not an end. You won’t see a lot of gratuitous puppy-kicking with these guys—in fact, you may even see them pet the puppy for the cameras… before quietly taking it out back to skin it.

That’s not to say that pragmatic villains are more redeemable than your average big bad. Far from it, in fact. As Darth Vader put it, “if only you knew the power of the dark side!” In the clash between good and evil, evil often has the upper hand right until the middle of the third act. Even when evil doesn’t have the upper hand, the old poem often applies:

Might and Right are always fighting
In our youth it seems exciting.
Right is always nearly winning.
Might can hardly keep from grinning.

—Clarence Day, “Might and Right”

To really pull off a pragmatic villain, it’s important to make sure that your villain is truly evil. Grand Admiral Thrawn from the old Star Wars Expanded Universe was a great example of this, as was Admiral Ysanne Isard. Even with limited resources, they pulled off some brilliant moves: Thrawn by placing a cloaked warship beneath a planetary shield, to make it appear that he had shield-busting weapons, and Isard by spreading a lethal pandemic that, while curable, was extremely expensive to treat, thus spreading panic and instability as everyone fought over the cure. Yet in spite of their pragmatism, it was clear that neither of them would stop at nothing in their rise to power.

What’s really awesome is when a pragmatic villain manages to pull off a Xanatos Gambit. In fact, pragmatic villains are the only kinds of villains who can pull that kind of gambit, simply because of all the planning and foresight that must necessarily go into it. For the same reason, there tends to be a lot of overlap between this trope and the Chessmaster.

When a villain falls short, it’s often because they were lacking in this trope. A huge example of this for me was The Hunger Games. When the villains in that book backpedaled after Peta and Katniss threatened to kill each other, I pretty much threw the book at the wall. The kind of people who can be manipulated by angsty lovestruck teenagers are not the kind of people who rise to power in a totalitarian dictatorship. And while there’s certainly a place for B movie villains, the Evil Overlord List exists for a reason.

 

Trope Tuesday: Eagle Squadron

pdrm8846cYou’ve got your standard mercenaries: hired guns who fight for money.  Then you’ve got your fighting for a homeland types: mercenaries (usually) who used to have a cause to fight for, but now all they’ve got is each other, and maybe the hope that someday they’ll find a new homeland to replace the one they’ve lost.  Invert that, and you’ve got an eagle squadron: a ragtag bunch of volunteers who leave their homeland to fight for someone else’s cause, usually a sympathetic rebel faction or band of underdog freedom fighters.

It isn’t really fair to group these guys with mercenaries, since they aren’t fighting for money or fortune.  Far from it.  They believe so totally in the cause they’re fighting for that they’re willing to give up their lives for it, even though they could easily go home and live out their lives peaceably.  At least, that’s how it is on the idealist side of the sliding scale.  On the more cynical side, eagle squadron is really just a Legion of Lost Souls full of thugs and criminals who are hoping to clear their names.  Or, even further down the scale, perhaps they just love killing.

Even on the idealist side, there’s always the possibility that your terrorists are our freedom fighters.  After all, where did Al Qaeda come from?  The Mujahideen, volunteers from all over the Muslim world who joined with the Afghan freedom fighters against the Soviet invasion of the 80s.  When they won, it galvanized their Islamist cause and inspired them to take the fight to their homelands, many of which were ruled by dictators.  Since the United States props up many of these dictatorships, it was only a matter of time before they turned on us as well.

The name from this trope comes from three volunteer squadrons of US fighter pilots in World War II, who joined the RAF in the fight against the Nazis back when the United States was still neutral.  Since the Nazis have pretty much become the standard of all that is evil in the eyes of our modern society, the eagle squadrons are now heroes by default.  War is of course more complicated than that, though there is still room for heroism even in a world of moral ambiguity.

When the eagle squadron makes the ultimate sacrifice, you can count on them being remembered as heroes for all time.  That’s basically what happened with the Alamo: a bunch of frontier Americans sympathetic to the cause of Texan Independence went to join the fight against Santa Anna and made a bloody last stand when the war went out of their favor.  Of course, since history tends to be written by the victors, it’s arguable that this only happens if the survivors go on to win the war.  After all, plenty of expatriates volunteered to fight for the Nazis, but we don’t remember them in quite the same way.

Wow, this post turned out to be way more cynical than I’d intended.  The basic drive behind this trope is the yearning for an ideal, a cause to fight for.  We root for the eagle squadron because we want to believe that all it takes to defeat evil is for good men from across the world to take up arms against it.  If Eagle Squadron is led by the Incorruptible, then that might actually be the case, though it’s difficult to make that kind of a story anything other than black and white, one-dimensional, and utterly inauthentic.

I haven’t played with this trope too much yet, though I’ve been meaning to write a prequel book in the Gaia Nova series that tells the origin story for Danica and her band of Tajji mercenaries.  Her father was an admiral in the Tajji rebellion, and when the star system fell to the Imperials, they killed her entire family.  She escaped, though, and was taken in by an eagle squadron commander that fought alongside her father against the Imperial oppression.  After getting back on her feet, she leaves the Eagle Squadron to start her own military band, intent on getting revenge for the loss of her homeworld.  I’m not sure yet how the eagle squadron will play into that, but I see the commander as trying to dissuade her from this path.

In any case, it’s definitely a trope I want to play with.  I had a lot of fun with fighting for a homeland in Stars of Blood and Glory, so this would be a way to revisit some of the dynamics that made that story interesting.  You can definitely expect to see more of this from me in the future.

Why I don’t like George R.R. Martin

Meh.

I was thinking today about George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and the fact that I’ve more or less given up on the series after reading the first book.  A lot of my friends are rabid-at-the-mouth crazy about it, both the books and the TV miniseries, but I’m just not all that into it.

Don’t get me wrong–I can see why other people like it so much.  The story is engaging, the political intrigue is deliciously complex, the world building is wonderful and immersive, and the fantasy tropes are played quite well.  I enjoyed a lot of things about the first book, and intended to read the rest of the series after finishing it.  After all, it’s one of the most important works of epic fantasy to come out in the last few decades, with people calling George R.R. Martin an American Tolkien.

But the truth is, I just wasn’t all that into it.  And the more I think about it now, the more I’ve realized that this isn’t the kind of series I would enjoy at all.

The strange thing is, I’m a HUGE fan of David Gemmell, who writes almost the exact same sort of thing.  Immersive fantasy worlds, dark and gritty characters, shades of gray, lots of fighting, lots of sex, lots of brutality, the realization that anyone can die off at any time … the list goes on and on.  And yet, there’s something about David Gemmell’s books that turns me rabid-at-the-mouth and has me squeeing like an otaku fangirl, whereas with George R.R. Martin, all I can manage is “meh.”

I think the reason for this is that Martin’s characters basically fall into one or both of two camps: victim or victimizer.  There isn’t any middle ground–at least, none that anyone can stand on for long without dying in some horrific and brutal way.  The story requires the characters to all become monsters, and anyone who isn’t willing to do that meets a horrible, tragic end.

There were only two characters in A Game of Thrones that I really cared about: Arya and Ned Stark.  Ned was the only character who really tried to stand for something, and Arya was just a spunky little girl who resisted all the stupid girly stuff in favor of more practical stuff like street smarts.

The trouble was that Ned was a complete idiot, trusting in the honor of a guy who explicitly said “do not trust me” and making stupid decisions that ended up getting half of House Stark killed or captured.  It’s almost as if Martin purposefully set him up to be a straw man character–that he wanted this one character to represent all the goody-goodies of the world, and knocked him off in the most brutal way possible.  It’s like Martin killed him off to make a point, and had the story drive the character rather than the character drive his own story.

And Arya … I forget exactly what happened to her, but she basically became a victim in such a horrible, twisted way that I could tell she’d be scarred for the rest of the series.  If she didn’t die off herself, she’d probably become a dirty street rat–the slit-your-throat-for-a-copper kind, not the Disney version.  So yeah, I pretty much gave up on her.

Jon Snow was okay, but he was so far removed from everything else in the story that I just got bored with him.  Tyrion was funny, but he was also a pervert, and all the reasons to sympathize with him basically revolved around “I’m a dwarf, everyone mistreats me”–again, the victim vs. victimizer thing.  Lady Catelyn was pretty cool, but I always saw her as more of a supporting character, and while I found myself rooting for Daenerys at the end, it was only out of frustration with all of the other douchebags in Westeros–I just wanted her to come over the sea and claim the throne so that everyone else would die.

It was a pretty good book, I’ll admit–other than the fact that I didn’t really like any of the characters, everything else was quite enjoyable.  It certainly held my attention long enough to finish the thing.  But I didn’t really feel compelled to read the next one because I frankly didn’t care what happened to any of the characters.  You could give me a list of all of the ones who die off, and I would just shrug and say “oh well.”

In contrast, with every David Gemmell book I’ve read, I fall in love with the characters after reading just a paragraph or two in their viewpoint.  Drenai or Nadir, civilized or barbarian, I not only like the characters, I fall deeply in love with them.  I care about them right from the outset, even the ones with a dark past, like Skilgannon or Waylander.  In fact, Waylander is probably my favorite of them all.

The fact that I know that some of these guys are going to die only makes me more invested, because even though Gemmell kills of most of his characters in any given book, the main characters’ deaths almost always mean something.  Maybe they have some awful secret that they finally are able to give up, or maybe they’ve been running from a fate that they finally gather the courage to face.  Or maybe they just happen to be in a circumstance that requires them to give up their lives, and they rise to meet the occasion.  Not every death is cathartic, but Gemmell never kills off a character merely for the sake of killing off a character, whereas with Martin, I get the sense that that’s sometimes the only reason.

But the biggest difference between the two is that with Gemmell, the victim vs. victimizer paradigm just doesn’t exist.  Gemmell’s books are all about unlikely heroism–characters in situations that require them to be something more, or do something beyond looking out for just themselves.  Anyone can be a hero, because a hero is nothing more than someone who does something heroic.  No matter your past, no matter your fears, no matter your weaknesses, when the chips are down, we’re not all that different.

The counter argument I’ve heard is that all of this heroism stuff is superfluous, and Martin is trying to get beyond it, kind of like the 19th and 20th century philosophers who were trying to get beyond morality.  The thing is, if that’s the case, then Martin has to have the darkest and most depressing view of human nature of almost any fantasy writer alive.  If his point is that there’s nothing intrinsically heroic about anyone, that being a hero is just a matter of rising to a role and becoming a figure in one of the stories that people tell to make sense of the world–if his point is to show that every hero is really just a douchebag, there’s something about the world that he’s really missing.

In Gemmell’s books, there are douchebags who rise to the heroic roles required of them–but in the act of filling that role, something about them changes, and you see that they’re really not as evil as you thought they were.  Because in Gemmell’s view, people are essentially good and everyone is redeemable, even the rapists and murderers.  One of his darkest characters, Skilgannon the Damned, learns at the end of his story that the difference between salvation and damnation is allowing yourself to receive the light–that the only thing damning you is yourself.  Whether or not you agree with that, you have to admit that’s a pretty optimistic way of seeing the world.

In the end, that’s why I love David Gemmell’s books so much–not just because anyone can die, but because anyone can be redeemed too, sometimes at the very same time.  From what I’ve read of George R.R. Martin, it seems that he redeems no one–that to the extent I’m rooting for any one character, it’s only because I can’t wait for them to kill or brutalize all the other horrible monsters in the book.  And frankly, I find that pointless and tiresome.

There are moments in almost every David Gemmell book I’ve read that stand out to me with great clarity, so that sometimes while I’m standing in line at the grocery store, or walking down the street to the library, they pop into my head completely unbidden.  With George R.R. Martin, that has never happened to me, even for the books of his that I’ve enjoyed.

I dunno.  Everyone is different.  Maybe George R.R. Martin really strikes a chord in you, so that you feel for him like I do for David Gemmell.  Maybe you actually like some of the characters whom I’ve dismissed as douchebags.  Or maybe you don’t read fantasy for the same things I do.  This post isn’t to knock you for that, it’s just to point out and analyze why I don’t like George R.R. Martin’s stuff as much as most other fantasy fans seem to.  And if you do feel about this the same way that I do, then my point is to declare that that’s all right.  You can still be a fantasy geek and not like A Sword of Ice and Fire or anything else by George R.R. Martin, no matter how much it’s hyped.  That’s perfectly okay.

I’m writing an epic fantasy right now, and it’s not going to be anything like A Sword of Ice and Fire.  It’s probably not going to be much like any of David Gemmell’s books either, but Gemmell is certainly a bigger influence on me than Martin.  We’ll have to see how it turns out.

Trope Tuesday: Knight Templar

For this one, I’m going to pull the description straight from tvtropes itself, since the whole page is pretty good:

Sometimes, the Forces of Light and Goodness get too hardcore. In a deadly combination of Well-Intentioned Extremist, The Fundamentalist and, generally speaking, not so different, they get blinded by themselves and their ideals, and this extreme becomes tyrannical sociopathy.

Usually, the Knight Templar’s primary step (or objective) to his perceived “utopia” is to get rid of that pesky “free will” thing that is the cause of crime and evil. Many Knight Templar types are utterly merciless in dealing with those whom they consider evil, and are prone to consider all crimes to be equal. The lightest offenses are met with Draconian punishments such as full imprisonment, death, brainwashing, or eternal torture.

It’s important to note that despite being villains/villainous within the context of the story, Knights Templar believe fully that they are on the side of righteousness and draw strength from that, and that their opponents are not. Trying to reason with one isn’t much good either, because many Knight Templar types believe that if you’re not with them, you’re against them. Invoking actual goodness and decency will have no effect, save for making Knights Templar demonize your cause as the work of the Devil. After all, they are certain that their own cause is just and noble, and anyone who stands in the way is a deluded fool at best.

Basically, this is what happens when the villain not only believes that he is the hero of the story, but a heroic hero.  It’s not himself he’s fighting for, but his cause–and because the righteousness of his cause is unassailable, anything that stands in the way of achieving it must be destroyed.

The name of the trope comes from the Knights Templar, the medieval military order established during the Crusades to maintain European dominance in the Middle East.  They were an elite fighting force that became associated with many of the atrocities of the Crusades.  When Saladin conquered the Kingdom of Jerusalem, he was careful to avoid civilian casualties but took no prisoners among the Templars and Hospitaliers.

Of all the story tropes I’ve studied, this one reflects reality more accurately than most.  When people believe unquestioningly that they’re right, they tend to stop listening to anyone who disagrees with them.  They turn the space around them into an echo chamber, like a one-sided Facebook feed or a narrow message board community.  When their beliefs reach a certain degree of fervency, they start to become angry not only with those who disagree, but with those who fail to agree with or support them.  Once their cause compels them to action, it doesn’t take long for the ends to justify the means.  Give them a little power, and you’ve got yourself a real life Knight Templar.

It’s precisely because this trope so closely reflects reality that it’s one of the better ways to create motivations for the villain.  It’s not enough to want to take over the world, you’ve got to have some reason to take it over–and what better reason than a cause you firmly believe in?  Assuming, of course, that the cause is believable–it’s still quite easy to botch things in the execution.

This is precisely the sort of thing Gandalf was trying to avoid when he refused to take the ring:

Understand. I would use this ring out of a desire to do good. But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine!

Galadriel and Faramir refused the ring for similar reasons.  Boromir succumbed to the temptation, but repented for it by giving his life to defend the hobbits against the attack of Saruman’s Uruk-Hai.

In Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, this is also a recurring trope.  It’s the main motivation behind Razalgul in Batman Begins, and describes Harvey Dent’s face-heel turn as he transforms from Gotham’s white knight into Two Face.  Come to think of it, it seems that the superhero genre in general is teeming with this trope.

There aren’t very many true Knights Templar in my own books, but I’m writing a fantasy series that should feature a few of them.  In The Sword Keeper, a brotherhood of sentient swords has passed on the fighting skills of generations of warriors, enabling their bearers to unite the world into a peaceful empire.  Then, one by one, the swords go insane, driving their bearers insane with them.  It all starts when one of them goes Templar, and ends when all the swords are lost or destroyed … all, that is, except the one whom the hero of prophecy will take up to save the world.  And that hero happens to be a backwoods tavern wench who isn’t even strong enough to lift it, much less wield it in battle.

So yeah, even though this isn’t a trope that I’ve played with much, it’s one that really irks me in real life, so that probably means you’ll be seeing it soon my own fiction.  If you have any other thoughts or examples to share, please be sure to drop a comment.  I’d be very much interested to hear your thoughts on this one.

Image source: Templar Knight in Battle Dress

Trope Tuesday: Gone Horribly Wrong

For this week’s Trope Tuesday post, I’ve invited a guest blogger to come on and discuss one of the tropes in his most recent book.  Andrew Saxsma is the author of Lonely Moon, a space opera / horror novel.  I haven’t read it yet so I can’t say much about it, but it looks interesting, and I’m a sucker for space opera.  So without further ado, here we go!

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saxsmaandrewThis trope is all about Science gone horribly, sometimes violently wrong.  Morality’s been thrown out of the window, compromised in favor of delicious success. Maybe the Mad Scientist played God; maybe mankind has accidentally awakened a Sleeping Giant.

This trope has many faces and masks and plays out in many different ways. In all cases, ethics are thrown to the wolves, and the big payoff is not as much a payoff as it is a new impeding doom the hero must now overcome.

Classically, this trope is mostly derived, if not invented, by Mary Shelley in her novel Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein’s obsession leads him to create what would eventually become the bane of his very existence. He unwittingly unleashes the mad dog from its dormant cage and makes it his mission to put it down. You might also recognize this trope from Deep Blue Sea, where scientists genetically enhance sharks for cancer research, but the predators get loose and begin eating their masters.

The key element is the backfire, the unforeseen consequence. It’s born of an innate character flaw, the inability to see beyond one’s good intentions. The character has a vision of a greater good in sight–to cheat death, to cure cancer. They’re so focused they never stop to think: was it worth it? Is this a line we should cross?

To make matters worse, this trope can become complicated when one’s intentions are infused with emotions. A dead loved one, revenge, a preemptive strike. Sometimes the choice is long decided before it is made.

In my book, Lonely Moon, the hero, Captain Hane, has a crisis of the monster. He faces a morally weighted fork in the road. Does he open a forbidden gate, opening our galaxy to a potentially devastating entity in an attempt to save us from an equally evil threat, or does he choose the path of uncertainty in hopes of finding a safer, less dangerous option?

Gone Horribly Wrong is a particularly fun trope to play with from a writer’s aspect, and I’m not sure if it’s a one and done. I plan on playing with this one again in the future.

lonely_moon

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Thanks, Andrew.  I think the Rule of Drama is one of the keys to doing this trope well.  Never pass up an opportunity to make things go wrong for your characters.  And if the problems are of their own making, that makes it all the juicier, especially when it adds the internal conflict of knowing that they’re the ones to blame.  We all love to watch a train wreck, especially in the world of fiction.

What do you guys think of bringing on more guest bloggers for the Trope Tuesday posts?  It’s something I’ve done occasionally in the past, but I’m thinking of doing it much more in the future.  I think it could be interesting to get some different points of view besides my own, and maybe introduce you guys to some new authors you might like.  Maybe it’s something I could rotate every other week.