Story Crafting: The World-Hero Affair

Does the world shape the hero, or the hero shape the world?

This dance between hero and world, between inner and outer change, between being shaped by the world and shaping the world, makes for the richest heroes when the two “flows” are balanced. The world challenges the hero to grow and change, and the hero in turn shapes the world. It’s a symbiotic relationship. It’s a love affair.

To be a hero, the protagonist must shape the world according to their vision. If they don’t, then they’re not heroes! (If they DO impact the world, they also might not be heroes; they could be villains… or a more nuanced shade of gray in between).

“The world” here can take several different meanings. If we’re talking a personal, inter-character drama, the world might simply mean another character, or small set of characters. Maybe the hero is a mentor who helps someone else resolve an issue or have a moment of growth. In epic fantasy, the world usually has a much larger “circle of concern”, determining the fate of continents, lands, or even truly the world.

The point being: the hero must have an external impact on the world. Even in the case of a stylized psychological story, with a character cast of one, where the person might be overcoming a psychological issue, “the world environment” in this case would be the character’s own mind.

A hero must be an agent of change.

But in my view, the richest stories are where the world is a coequal partner in the romance of change. The world impacts the hero, and the hero undergoes change. Maybe the protagonist doesn’t start as a hero. Maybe the hero is shattered by the change he or she must enact on the world. Maybe the hero starts out as a straight forward champion, and become an anti-hero to save the world. There are many possibilities.

Aradma (When Dragons Die)

In my trilogy When Dragons Die, one of the main protagonists is a seelie (elven) druid named Aradma. Through the first two books, she’s largely a character who observes and reacts to the world. There are several spurts of action in Lightfall (when she frees the Troll society from religious fundamentalism), and in Covenant when she finally takes action against the vampire incursion. Her great flaw, however, is that after the effect she has on the Trolls, and after she has a child, she withdraws from the world. She is too hesitant and fearful that she might be overstepping her bounds. She has great power, but she doesn’t want to impose her will on others.

But, she’s a hero. (Ok, a heroine). The old adage holds true, “with great power comes great responsibility”, and her sin is not living up to herself and what she’s capable of. Every time she delays too long, the price paid when she finally acts is greater yet. In the third book, The Tides of Artalon (to be released December 2013), she finally comes into her own in full, and steps up to the plate. Until then, the world has shaped her more than she’s shaped the world, but at the end she is instrumental in transforming Ahmbren into something completely new, though some won’t agree with her vision.

Kal El (Superman, Man of Steel)

Superman also has a two-way dynamic. In the movie Man of Steel, it’s easy to see the impact he has on the world. His immutable nature is reflected in his incorruptible character. It’s easy to make the mistake and think he’s a one-way hero, who acts on the world while the world doesn’t act on him. He’s going to do what he’s going to do, and there’s nothing the humans of the world can do to change that.

But that would be wrong. His character is shaped by the world, specifically through the Kents, by growing up here. He may be Kryptonian, but he has a distinctly human personality and set of morals. He may be alien, but he’s the embodiment of the human ideal, the product of our planet. So, we still see the two-way dynamic here.

The problem, of course, with Kal El is that much of his character change happens off screen, in between scenes. His presentation is rather static, and the audience doesn’t get to experience his character growth.  In presentation, he’s definitely weighted towards the “external change” end of the spectrum.

Frodo (The Lord of the Rings)

Frodo is another predominantly “external hero” character. He rises to the challenge, but he doesn’t really change much as a character. He’s slowly corrupted, but that’s an external battle with the Ring, not a true inner struggle against his own self. He does what must be done from the beginning, and is, in my view, a rather one-dimensional hero. What makes him interesting is his external struggle—he’s not Aragorn or Boromir, or Gandalf. He’s a salt-of-the-earth person, a simple man of the garden and pastoral countryside, who does what must be done. What he does is truly heroic because he wins through sheer determination, courage, and moral fiber. He doesn’t have a magic sword, or secret magic powers to draw upon. It’s through courage, resilience and compassion that he succeeds (and really, that Sam succeeds) rather than strength and power.

Harry Potter (Harry Potter)

The Harry Potter series does a fantastic job of balancing world-influences-hero and hero-influences-world. He starts as a young boy with a sense of wonder about the world he’s going into. His view of the world is fairly simplistic: most people are basically good, except his foster family. Adults wizards and witches are good, as are most wizards and witches, except Draco and company. As the series progresses, he grows up and his view on the world becomes more nuanced as he peels back the onion.

What I especially liked about Harry Potter, in addition to the content of the books raising in maturity level to meet the age of the characters, is his own inner struggle with ego and desire. He feels entitled to know more from the beginning, and really starts to second-guess Dumbledore in the middle books. I find this an accurate view of adolescence, the idea that once you pierce a few illusions of childhood, your new perspective must be accurate… so accurate in fact it’s even more accurate than your elders’ views… because they’re the ones who supported the earlier world view that you just shattered. Right? Well… we all know life’s a bit more complicated than that, and most of us come around to realizing how wise our parents are, after we have to test everything for ourselves. Harry Potter makes this journey, and saves the world to boot. Good job, Harry.

Rand al’Thor (The Wheel of Time)

The protagonist in Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time also is an excellent case of balance between world-shapes-hero and hero-shapes-world. Despite the overly long series (14 books to tell the story), this is still, perhaps, my favorite fantasy series. Of course, Rand broke the world (in a prior life) and now will save the world in the Last Battle against the Dark One, but the real story is the journey in between those two points. Rand must struggle with the personality and memories of who he was in the prior incarnation, keep his sanity against the taint of the male-half of the One Power, and come up with a plan to unite the world in preparation for the last battle.

But, the interesting part is his relationship with the female Aes Sedai who would mentor him. When we start the series, we very much feel they should shut up and listen to Rand, because he’s the chosen one and is the incarnation of “the Dragon”. The Aes Sedai seem like nothing more than stuck-up political meddlers, who are too used to being the greatest power in the world. We think they need the perspective he’ll bring because their power levels aren’t the same.

But then, their relationships becomes more complex, and some of the Aes Sedai do have a wisdom beyond what Rand sees. Rand hardens himself in order to survive his task even as he rises in power, but unchecked his ego will break and he will fail. He’ll become too hard, and would fall to darkness if he can’t swallow his pride and listen to the perspective of some of the ‘younger souls’. As annoying as the Aes Sedai can be at times, their guidance is necessary, and he only starts to become who he must in order to succeed without destroying the world in the Last Battle when he starts to actually listen to people and take advice… and admit when he’s wrong.

In summary: Heroes and the World are Lovers in an Affair

To summarize, the relationship between the hero and the world is something like a love-affair. It’s a two way street, rocky at times, wonderful at times, and the best relationships change both lovers for the better, bringing strength, insight, and growth to both parties.

So that’s all for this week. Hope you all have a great weekend, and see you next week!

World Crafting: The Anatomy of a Dark Lord (and other Archvillains)

What goes into making a Dark Lord?  What separates a Dark Lord from a mere Archvillain?  Ooh ooh, this should be fun.  We get to talk about characters, and morality, and my favoritest of uber-geek topics: alignment.  What amounts of good and evil do we put into our characters, and how they come out on the moral compass?

Dark Lord.  What makes a villain a Dark Lord?  No, not just being evil, and wanting to take over the world.  Not just being powerful, and being a lord who is dark.  I’m talking about THE Dark Lord (or Lady) of the world.  The head honcho of evil in the world, who out-evils every other character no matter how bad.  Through the course of this essay, I hope to come up with a sort of descriptive analysis criteria of different Dark Lord and non-Dark-Lord-Archvillains, and see if any underlying theories fall out.

First, let me also get out of the way: this, in the end, will be somewhat subjective.  I’m going to first rate the villain as to whether he or she “worked” for me or fell flat.  Then I’ll look at the analysis and see if there’s any correlation.  Not every one I look at will be a Dark Lord.  They will all be from classics in the genre, except I’ll add in a villain or two from Lightfall because, well, I’m the blog author and dammit so I can.  The other thing I promise:  no concept-villains.  Every villain will be a tangible character in their stories and not some overall theme (for example, “bigotry”).  Finally, after analyzing and theorizing, I’ll revisit the list and see if they get into the Dark Lord club, the Archvillain Club, or are they merely villainous.  I also won’t consider people from history (like Hitler), or characters that some people believe to be real (like Satan).

Ok… the lineup:

  1. Sauron, the Lord of the Rings, from Tolkien’s, well, Lord of the Rings.  I won’t consider Morgoth, the true Dark Lord of Middle Earth, because he’s out of the picture and pretty much irrelevant by the time the Lord of the Rings story takes place.  He seeks to enslave all the free peoples of the world and cover Middle-Earth in a second darkness.  (For “first darkness”, which is decidedly different from “first breakfast”, see the Silmarillion, and Morgoth).  Sauron is second darkness… is there halfsies and afternoon darkness as well?  Hmm… maybe it was all a big misunderstanding.
  2. Shaitan, The Great Lord of the Dark, from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.  WoT is probably the longest-running, most anticipated ending (14 volumes) epic fantasy ever written, with the final 3 books finished posthumously.  (I’m still reading the last one).  The Great Lord seeks to unravel the world itself… to undo reality.  One bad motherfucker.
  3. Takhisis, the Queen of Darkness, from Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance.  Dragonlance is probably the classic Dungeons and Dragons franchise book.  Every fantasy ran should read it, just like Tolkien.  She is the head of the pantheon of evil gods of Krynn.  Perhaps too hot to be a Dark Lady (in the Dark Lord sense).  That’s the Y chromosome talking.  I mean, if you’re going to have to die, being seduced by the Queen of Darkness, well, there are worse ways to go, right?
  4. Raistlin, from Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance.   A human wizard who picks the path of evil magic and challenges the gods… successfully, becoming a god himself.
  5. Voldemort, from Rowling’s Harry Potter.  A human wizard who carves off pieces of his soul and stores them in phylacteries (oops, I mean “horcruxes”), becoming a lich (oops, I mean “dark lord”), in an effort to have pureblood wizards rule the world with him at its pinnacle.  “I’m the only one who can live forever.”  I wonder if he should have gotten a clue when he lost his nose.
  6. Darth Vader, from Lucas’ Star Wars.  Jedi who is corrupted and turns to the Dark Side of the Force to become a sith.  Oh Anakin… you could have been an awesome Dark Lord were you not a boy band wannabe when you started…
  7. The Emperor, from Luca’s Star Wars.   Palpa-palpa-palpaTINE! The head honcho sith from Star Wars, who obviously has a crush on Anakin, since he doesn’t kill him when he loses the Death Star to an Aluminum Falcon.
  8. The Joker, from Nolan’s Batman, the Dark Knight.  Um… I won’t try to pin him down in a description in case he’s waiting to ask me how he got his scars.  On the other hand, maybe I shouldn’t take this analysis so seriously.
  9. Magneto, from Ashley Miller’s X-Men, First Class.  Surviving Jew from the holocaust with mutant powers; makes a compelling case how humans suck and he should rule them.  Somehow, I find myself rooting for him at points in the movie, over Xavier’s  whining platitudes of “Coexist.”  Plus he probably gets to sleep with Mystique, so props to him.  Wait, he’s a villain, right?
  10. The Matriarch, from Lightfall.  The feminist environmentalist goddess-worshipping version of the Taliban.  Yeah.  I went there.
  11. Skole, from Lightfall.  The godfather of a drug ring, using potent opiates to trap women in the human trafficking sex trade… later guilty of elven trafficking.  At least he has an equal-opportunity streak, right?
  12. Klrain, the Black Dragon, from Lightfall.  The Evil One.  Dies before the story starts, so maybe he’s not so great after all, I mean what can he do now?  He’s dead.

The Criteria:

  • Seen?  Do we, as readers, see them in the story?  To they have active roles in any scenes?
  • Unseen?  Do we never see them?  Are they always merely a looming threat?
  • Perspective?  Do we get a feel for their perspective or viewpoint?  Is this the kind of villain that, even if we don’t agree, does things that are understandable, or we could relate to if we had a similar situation or background.  In other words, is the villain’s motivation understandable?
  • Pure Evil?  Is this villain just True Evil(tm), choosing evil for its own sake?  This is usually mutually exclusive with “Perspective?”.
  • Twisted?  Well, one might say that all villains are twisted, but I’m going for something specific here.  Is the villain operating under a twisted or skewed world-view?  Does the villain misunderstand reality?  If a villain is twisted, they might think they are doing good from their own point of view.  This refers to the adage, The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Ok, I’m sure we could come up with more, but for the sake of a blog article written the night before the deadline, I think this should do…

On these criteria, even though some on the surface might seem mutually exclusive, I don’t like “either/or” functions, so each of these will be yes/now to allow the possibility of “and” functions.

Unseen vs. Seen:  As a general rule, the more someone sees the big bad, the less mystery there is.  The devil you don’t know is usually worse than the devil you know.  This is why Sauron will always eat Voldemort’s lunch (not just because he’s a Maiar spirit, and Voldemort’s just a wimpy man next to him, but from a story perspective as well).  There are exceptions to this rule.  The more I see Joker in The Dark Knight, OMG, the devil I know gets worse.

Perspective vs. Pure Evil.  There are two camps on this.  There is a certain sophistication that comes to the story when the villain is relatable.  If you can get into the enemy’s head and empathize (if not sympathize) with their actions, that can make for an engaging story and a particularly interesting and sophisticated antagonist.  Unless you’re Anakin Skywalker.  There is something to be said for the Pure Elemental Force of Sauron’s evil.  I think this is amplified by Sauron being an Unseen Enemy.  The more screen time an enemy has with the reader or viewer, the more pressure there is to have perspective.  Being Unseen helps amplify the effect Pure Evil.  It takes a good storyteller to pull off the opposite mix.

First, a graph.  I’m a professional Powerpoint/Keynote ranger, we need a chart… (click on it for higher-res):

dark lords.001

Now, before we get into the thought process behind this, what makes a Dark Lord?  Each person will have a definition, but I’m going to define it as this:  the Dark Lord/Lady is THE Prime Evil in the world that drives the story.  As such, the head of an evil pantheon (Takhisis in Dragonlance) aspires to fill the role of Dark Lord.  A Dark Lord should be awe-inspiring.

… and then an EXSUM for the rationale of each character.

  1. Sauron–we never see him, and it works.  When I read LotR for the first time, I wanted to get to the end when we finally saw the Lord of the Rings.  I was surprised when we didn’t, and I realized that worked better.  Peter Jackson did a good job with him in the prologue scenes of the Fellowship, but I think more impact would have been made if P.J. did two things: no Sauron in the beginning.  No physical red eye at the top of Bara-Dur.  Lame, and even comically funny at the end when it widens in surprise.  He should have kept it to the psychic arena… when Frodo had the ring, or Gandalf almost touched it, or the palantir.  But I digress.  Sauron is the prototypical Dark Lord for modern fantasy.  He knows he’s evil, and hold no goal other than evil.  Verdict:  Dark Lord, and awesome at it.
  2. Shaitan, The Great Lord of the Dark, I have never read a version of evil so compelling and terrifying as the Great Lord of the Dark in the Wheel of Time.  He is the opposite of God in every way.  He does not snivel, he does not tempt.  He commands, and reality warps around him.  He is everything Sauron hopes to become.  He is the source of evil, so there’s nothing relatable or twisted (misguided) about him.  I classify him as both unseen and seen, for while he is bound away and the reader hasn’t seen him individually act, the reader has seen him manifest and speak to his servants.  Dark Lord:  Yes.
  3. Takhisis,  For some reason, I never got a sense of dread or terror from her.  She is the prime evil in Dragonlance, but she’s a temptress as much as she is a 5-headed dragon of wrath.  In the end, she tries to fill the role of Dark Lord, but I find her uncompelling in that role.  She also acts in the world in several scenes.
  4. Raistlin.  Certainly an interesting character.  We follow his perspective and motivations for power, and can admire his drive and perseverance to overcome adversity.  He choses evil as a means to an end, so in the end, I would say he grows into a dark lord.  He’s never as terrifying as the Great Lord or Sauron, even though he consumes the world in a possible future.  He’s been too relatable along the way.  A Dark Lord, but not awe-inspiring.
  5. Voldemort – Voldemort is a very well done Archvillain.  He thinks too small to be a true Dark Lord, and in the end, while fearsome, isn’t awe-inspiring.
  6. Darth Vader –  He’s twisted.  He participated in his own self deception, but he continues to choose evil because he feels trapped by it.  He fell because of angsty pride, and lied to himself about falling because he wanted to save his loved ones.  But really, that was a lie.  He wanted power.  If it weren’t for the prequels, he could have been great.  Now, he doesn’t quite inspire the awe.  A Dark Lord, but of the weaker variety.
  7. Emperor Palpatine – The Emperor is purely evil, not twisted.  He knows what evil is and embraces it freely.  He qualifies as a Dark Lord in the Star Wars context.
  8. The Joker –  Pure evil, chooses it, and is awe-inspiringly terrifying every time on screen.  Maybe not the prime-evil in the larger DC Universe, but from the perspective of Batman’s storylines, this Joker qualifies as a Dark Lord.
  9. Magneto – Too relatable to be a Dark Lord.  He’s not evil for evil’s sake.  He’s twisted, and empathetic.  Great Archvillain.
  10. The Matriarch – Thinks she’s doing good from her own point of view, as any religious zealot does.  This leads her to want to kill all men and wipe out civilization, which has evil effect… but she’s not a prime evil.  Not a dark lord.
  11. Skole – He has no illusions about what he’s doing.  He doesn’t think he’s doing good–he just doesn’t care.  Not a dark lord–no where near important enough to be considered a prime evil.  Just a villain of the vilest sort: a rapist, drug-dealer, and pimp.
  12. Klrain – The Black Dragon who dies at the beginning of the book, but was the Dark Lord for thousands of years.  He’s embraced the malice of evil, and is unseen.  However, despite being pure and unseen like Sauron and the Great Lord, he does have (did have) an understandable motive, which comes out in the third book of When Dragons Die, after Lightfall.  No spoilers, though.

Another thought that occurred to me when building charts.  Some characters understand the world, and choose either good or evil.  Other characters misunderstand the world (are twisted by false beliefs), and can choose good or evil according to their beliefs.  But, whether they end up doing harm or good depends on the nature of their beliefs.

dark lords.002 Now, exactly what good and evil means in a world… that’s up to the author to define.  Dungeons and Dragons defines good as simply meaning valuing live vs. a willingness to kill.  That’s, by in large, good enough for most stories.  I define good–for my stories–as valuing truth, compassion, integrity, and joy in oneself and others.

dark lords.003And that about wraps it up for today, folks.  I didn’t really learn much other than that there’s different ways to look at villains, and it’s fun to make slides of such things.  In subjective conclusion, however, I think characteristics of a good Dark Lord are this:

  • A Dark Lord is not misunderstood, and doesn’t misperceive the world.  He or she chooses evil for its own sake, makes the free choice, and understands it.
  • A Dark Lord gets a minimal amount of “screen time”. There is power in mystery.
  • A Dark Lord has tangible impact on the world, even when unseen.  He haunts the character’s minds, strikes dread at the mere threat of his action.
  • A Dark Lord’s appearance is always imminent, even if remaining largely unseen in the story.  Unseen doesn’t mean distant.  He should feel near… threateningly near.
  • Dark Lords inspire awe and terror.
  • Exceptions are possible, but rare (The Joker).

Archvillains may have different traits that a Dark Lord, but can be equally compelling villains.

Oh, and the grand prize winner, the Darkest Lord of Darkest Lords:  The Great Lord, from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.