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: Colony Ship

It’s been a while since I did the weekly Trope Tuesday posts, but those were a lot of fun and they still get a lot of traffic, so I’m going to bring them back with a couple of changes. Instead of focusing on the trope itself, essentially rewriting the description on the tvtropes page, I’m going to pick apart what I like about it and focus instead on the trope’s appeal. I’m also going to pick tropes that are in my own books, so that I can talk about how I’m using them.To kick things off, this week’s trope is the Colony Ship. A staple of space opera, this trope is exactly what it says on the tin: a giant starship, often a worldship or a starship luxurious, taking a band of colonists to settle the final frontier. Essentially, this trope takes the wagon train to the stars concept to its logical conclusion, since what is a wagon train but a band of hopeful colonists? And since this is space, there’s no limit to where you can take it!

I love this trope because it’s so hopeful. Even in dark post-apocalyptic stories like A Canticle for Leibowitz, the possibility of taking humanity to the stars shines like a beacon of hope, an interstellar ark that can fling a light into the future. No matter how badly we screw up Earth, we can still atone for our sins by starting over with a clean slate out among the stars.

One of the other things that makes this trope appealing is that it’s not that far removed from reality. On that other wiki, there’s an article on Generation Ships with a link to this very interesting academic paper on the feasibility of building giant worldships. Just as Science Fiction conceptualized satellites, robots, and cloning before they were actually built, this may very well be the case with interstellar colony ships as well. I doubt that NASA or SpaceX are currently working on any prototypes, but we’re definitely on a path that will lead us there, if we have the courage and tenacity to follow it through.

If faster-than-light travel is in play, then the people who set off on the colony ship are usually the same people who build the colony. If FTL is not in play, though, things get really interesting. Sanderson’s second law of magic states that the limitations of a magic system are inherently more interesting than the powers, and since sufficiently advanced space travel is itself a kind of magic (see Clarke’s third law), then it makes sense that sublight colony ships are more interesting than FTL ones.

Sublight colony ships come in two basic types: generation ships and sleeper starships. In a generation ship, the colony ship itself becomes something of a miniature world, often like a city in a bottle (with all of the juicy story implications that come with it). In a sleeper starship, the colonists freeze themselves in stasis, opening the possibility for stuff like lightspeed leapfrog.

In my current WIP, Heart of the Nebula, I’ve combined both of these subtropes to create a hybrid generation sleeper ship. The ships are designed for sublight travel through a region of space where FTL is impossible, but there are too many colonists to fit in all the cryotanks. Subsequently, those who don’t go to sleep have to turn their tiny little ship into a self-enclosed home. When the sleepers wake up, they find that they’ve become living relics to the great-great grandchildren of their friends and relatives.

The main character in Heart of the Nebula is James McCoy, who you might remember from Bringing Stella Home. Just before he goes into cryo, he rescues his people from a terrible enemy, so that when he wakes up he’s a living legend. People have been watching movies about his exploits and doing grade school reports on him for generations. But the thing that made him a legend also put a lot of lives at risk, so that he’s also an extremely divisive figure. To make things worse, most of his friends didn’t go into cryo, so they’re all gone by now. But their great-great grandkids are still around …

As you can see, Colony Ships can be a lot of fun to play with. I’m definitely having fun with it now, and I plan to return to this trope often in the future!

Trope Tuesday: Made a Slave

Citizen of the GalaxyJust because something is heinous doesn’t mean that it won’t make a good story.  In fact, the Rule of Drama practically guarantees that it will make a good story.  For some weird reason, we humans are fascinated by things in fiction that would horrify us in real life, and love it when our favorite characters are put into situations where we would never want to find our loved ones.  Perhaps there are many reasons for this, some of them better than others.

One of the worst situations in which anyone can find themselves is slavery, in which they basically become the property of someone else.  Slavery takes many different forms (and has many different tropes), but the thing they all have in common is the denial of freedom, dignity, and the basic human rights that most of us take for granted.  So when a character who’s free gets made a slave, you can usually expect to see some pretty high drama as a result.

As the tvtropes page for this trope explains it:

There is often a scene in which the character is being sold on the slave market, showcasing all the evils of slavery; the protagonist will witness how families are torn apart, will have to undress and be examined like an animal, and will perhaps be beaten … If he looks strong, he will be told that he will go to the galleys or the mines — a Fate Worse Than Death — or perhaps to the Gladiator Games. If she (or occasionally he) is attractive, she will be told that she will make a buyer very happy indeed.

If the main character is a slave, this is usually a part of his (or her) backstory; it’s fairly rare for a character to be born into slavery these days, probably because slavery is no longer considered an acceptable social institution in our modern Western society.  In older stories, the slave character may be of noble birth, setting up a sort of Cinderella story where they realize who they are and eventually come into their own.  That still happens, though usually it’s more about them taking power into their own hands to rise above their awful circumstances.

Surprisingly, this is a trope you’ll see with some frequency in science fiction.  Heinlein wrote a novel about it, pictured to the left (one of his better ones, in my opinion).  It happens quite a bit in the Sword and Planet subgenre, as well as any gladiator-type tale.  You’d think at some point our technology would become sufficiently advanced that we wouldn’t need to enslave each other, but apparently we will use manual labor in the future. Besides, at it’s core, slavery isn’t about acquiring cheap labor–it’s about owning someone, taking away their freedom and control.  Until human nature itself changes, we’re probably going to have to deal with slavery in one form or another for the forseeable future.

In any case, there’s something rousing–perhaps even inspiring–about the story of a character who rises above such an awful situation to win back, against all odds, their rights and freedoms.  That’s probably why we still enjoy retelling this trope.  A character can’t truly rise until they’ve bottomed out somewhere, and as far as hitting rock bottom goes, getting made a slave is pretty dang low.

I’ve played with this trope in a couple of my books.  In Sholpan and Bringing Stella Home, Stella goes through pretty much everything on the tvtropes page, which sets things up pretty well for … well, I won’t spoil it. 😉 In Stars of Blood and Glory, Abaqa tries to make the Princess Hikaru his slave, but since they’re both teenagers and he’s younger than her, it ends up being rather hilarious (she gets rescued soon afterward too, so it doesn’t stick long enough for the really bad stuff to happen.  And then the rescuers … well, I won’t spoil that either).

Right now, I’m playing with it a bit in Sons of the Starfarers, though I’m not sure where it’ll end up exactly.  Probably not so far as this trope, but I never really know what my characters will do–or what will happen to them.

Trope Tuesday: Foolish sibling, responsible sibling

Whenever you’ve got two characters who interact with each other a lot, chances are that one is a foil of the other.  There are a lot of reasons for this, but the big reason is that it helps to highlight certain character traits by providing contrast.  Because the contrast is the important thing, the relationship between the characters can take a variety of possible forms.  It may be that one is the hero and the other the sidekick, or (if they’re villains) perhaps one is the Big Bad and the other is the Dragon.  If enemy mine or one of the other frenemy tropes is in play, they might be on opposing sides.

Foolish sibling, responsible sibling is what happens when the character foils are siblings.  It’s a subtrope of sibling yin-yang that contrasts the character traits of responsibility and recklessness, duty and prodigality, and how the two opposites somehow manage (or not) to live together and stand up for each other in spite of their differences.

It may be used to set up an aesop, usually along the lines of “be like the responsible sibling, not the foolish one,” but that’s not always the case.  It might be that the younger sibling is closer to earth and the uptight responsible one needs to learn how to loosen up.  Simon from Firefly kind of fits that mold, though he learns to loosen up not from his sister River so much as from the rest of Mal’s crew.

In a lot of stories, it’s not necessarily meant to send a message so much as set up an interesting dynamic between two equally sympathetic characters.  In the movie Gettysburg, for example, Lawrence Chamberlain is the commanding officer of the regiment, and thus has to lead the men, follow military protocol, etc, while his annoying younger brother Tom calls him by name and forgets to salute him, runs around chatting it up with union soldiers and rebel prisoners alike, and generally seems a lot more loose and carefree.

Usually, the responsible character is the older sibling, for reasons that should be fairly obvious to anyone who grew up with siblings.  As the oldest child in my own family, I can readily sympathize with the dutiful son, since I more or less was one.  That’s not always the case, though.  In sitcoms where the middle child is the main character, usually it falls on them to thanklessly pick up the slack (yeah, being the middle child pretty much sucks).  Bart and Lisa from The Simpsons are a good example of this.

I played with this a little in Desert Stars with some of the minor characters: as the second oldest, Surayya generally tries to do things by the book, whereas Amina tends to be more mischievous and conniving.  Michelle and Lars also fall into this trope, with Lars a carefree academy dropout and Michelle a hardworking (though also fun-loving) mechanic on her father’s ship.  Between Desert Stars and Bringing Stella Home, though, Lars completely turns around, so that by Heart of the Nebula (not yet published) he’s quite possibly one of the most responsible characters in the book (and I still have yet to give him a viewpoint … hmmm).

In Sons of the Starfarers, I’m playing with this character dynamic a lot.  Isaac is the oldest son, who always knew he would leave on his father’s starship to fulfill the Outworld traditions and seek his fortune as a star wanderer.  Aaron, on the other hand, kind of got roped into the whole thing unexpectedly (see Star Wanderers: Benefactor) and hasn’t yet matured.  The events of the story will no doubt give him a growth arc, but in the meantime, the dynamic between the two of them is a lot of fun to write.

There are a lot of other issues in that relationship to play with too, such as promotion to parent and always someone better, but I’ll save those for another Tuesday.

Trope Tuesday: Forbidden Zone

For the next few Trope Tuesday posts, I’m going to pick apart some of the tropes I’m playing with in my latest WIP, Sons of the Starfarers.  One of the things I love to do when brainstorming a new story is to use tvtropes like a menu, finding the tropes that best fit my story ideas and combining them with other tropes to get even more ideas.

It’s not often hard to spot the forbidden zone in a fantastical world.  Perhaps it has an ominous name (bonus points if it has the word “doom” in it), or perhaps there’s some sort of sign saying “do not enter.” Either way, this is definitely a place where no one goes, and no one is supposed to go.

Of course, you can pretty much guarantee that the main characters are going to go there.  It’s like the forbidden fruit: the very fact that it’s off limits makes it more alluring.  If genre blindness is in effect, someone will probably make the mistake of saying “what could possibly go wrong?

There are many reasons why the zone may be forbidden.  Perhaps it’s a death world, where the characters will soon find themselves running for their lives.  Perhaps it’s not quite so dangerous, but once you go, you can never come back.  Or perhaps all the warnings were lies, and the so-called forbidden zone is actually the place that the characters needed to get to all along.  If that’s the case, then the mentor was probably a broken pedestal or the Svengali.

In any case, the forbidden zone definitely lies in the realm of adventure.  Depending on how soon or how late in the story the characters go there, it may lie just on the other side of the threshold, at the bottom of the belly of the whale, or at the very heart of the character’s nadir.

The Mines of Moria, the Toxic Jungle, Area 51, the Elephant Graveyard, and the Fire Swamp are all classic examples.  In C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, Earth itself is a forbidden zone to all the other inhabitants of the solar system, which is why it’s called the silent planet.

In real life, there are plenty of these as well.  Just look at the DMZ on the Korean Peninsula, or the fallout zone around Chernobyl.  When I was living in Georgia, Abkhazia was off limits to the TLG volunteers, meaning that if you went there (and the Ministry of Education found out about it) it was grounds for immediate firing.  Of course, that only encouraged some of my TLG friends to go there even more–remember the forbidden fruit?  Others waited until their contracts were over and practically made a tour of the many forbidden zones of the Caucasus, including Nagorny Karabakh, which one friend described as safer than Philadelphia.

I’ve toyed with this trope in my own work, but never too explicitly.  The best example is probably the alien ghost ship from Genesis Earth.  It’s not exactly forbidden, since there’s no one around to tell Mike not to go there, but Terra definitely doesn’t want him to go.  Earlier in the same book, she forbids him from entering her workspace in the observatory, which leads to some complications and a major reveal when he inevitably does.  In the Gaia Nova series, the Outer Reaches qualify as a forbidden zone, since the only people who live out there are murderous barbarians like the Hameji.

In my new series, Sons of the Starfarers, the first book starts out with a forbidden zone–a derelict space colony, where everyone has died of an unknown cause.  Since the nearest settlement is light-years away (and because Aaron is perhaps too curious for his own good), that’s where Isaac and Aaron go.  What they find there propels the rest of the book–and quite possibly the rest of the series.

Check back next week for more!