Rise of a Villain – Cipher Pol 9

Last year I wrote a series on building good villains. You can read the parts in order using the links at the end of this post but it’s not necessary to read all that to appreciate what I’ve got to share over the next two weeks. It may make some of the terminology easier to understand as I fully explain the concepts I’m talking about there.

So, since I did a lot of talk about villains and the purposes they serve previously I thought it might be fun to go through the rise and fall of a story’s villains and see how all the aspects were employed. After some debate back and forth I settled on the villainous organization Cipher Pol 9, from the Water Seven arc of One Piece.

Some background. One Piece is a manga – or Japanese comic – written and illustrated by Echiro Oda. It is the best selling manga in Japan and has been for years. The premise is simple: Ever since legendary pirate Gold Rogers announced his treasure was out there for the taking if only anyone could find it to the crowd at his execution thousands have set sail to seek the One Piece and claim Rogers’ legacy. Captain Luffy D. Monkey is one such pirate, seeking the ultimate prize and the title King of Pirates that goes with it.

Luffy and his Straw Hat Pirates have faced many dastardly villains in their journey around the world. Many of them have been other pirates but every once and a while they cross paths with representatives of the World Government. One such group of government enforcers is Cipher Pol 9, the off-the-books, ultra secret arm of the World Government’s intelligence agency. Whenever the Government needs something done, no matter who must die or what cost be payed, CP 9 is sent. The Water Seven saga is my personal favorite One Piece saga, although there are many strong arcs in the story, and the strength of CP 9 as villains is a big part of why I liked it.

Before we dig too deep into the arc of CP 9 here’s a quick look at the six most important characters we’ll be discussing. These aren’t the only people in the story but they’re the most important for our purposes – other names will be brought up but aren’t people you’ll have to remember.

From the Straw Hat Pirates: 

Luffy D. Monkey, Captain of the Straw Hat Pirates – Luffy is a ball of energy and optimism, the crew’s strongest fighter and a total idiot. The crew sticks with him because he is endlessly loyal to them and anyone else he extends friendship to. He’s also very stubborn which, when combined with a lack of common sense and poor general knowledge of the world, can easily get him stuck in bad situations. Thanks to eating a magic fruit when he was young his body can stretch like rubber. He’s worth 100,000,000, dead or alive.

Usopp, the Sniper King – Usopp is one of the crew’s founding members. Remarkable for his long nose, incredible accuracy with any kind of ranged weapon and unbelievable cowardice, Usopp is Luffy’s opposite in many ways. He’s pretty smart and calls himself a Captain but almost always hides behind others when he thinks he can get away with it. He’s still loyal to the crew and a skilled inventor and he has risked his life for his friends. He’s just not very good at the whole adventuring thing.

Robin Nico – Robin is a woman of mystery. She joined the Straw Hats after Luffy defeated her last employer and has always been viewed with some degree of suspicion by the crew. Except for Luffy, who lacks any sense of danger. By profession she’s an archaeologist and speaks a number of languages, including a dead language. At the start of the Water Seven arc the crew doesn’t know much beyond the fact that she used to work for a very dangerous pirate and her head is worth 79,000,000, dead or alive.

From CP 9: 

Rob Lucchi – Rob Lucchi is the top operative in CP 9. In many ways he’s Luffy’s opposite; quiet, restrained and unambitious. But when there’s a job to be done he does it with a single minded focus and grim brutality that has made him a legend in the World Government. The kind of legend spoke of in hushed voices and careful whispers. But he is like Luffy in one way – his unshakable faith in his own power and that of his comrades.

Commissioner Spandam – The leash for CP 9, Spandam is the man who points Rob Lucchi and company in a direction and lets them go. He’s vain, self centered and ambitious. He’s more interested in what he gets out of catching the Straw Hat Pirates than in how it will make the world a better place.

From Water Seven: 

Franky the Shipbreaker – A professional scrapper and part time bounty hunter, Franky lives on the outskirts of Water Seven, occasionally capturing pirates with the help of a gang of small time muscle. He’s also a cyborg that runs on cola. Best not to ask, the technology level of the One Piece world is pretty inconsistent.

Our story dawns with the Straw Hat pirates headed to the great city of Water Seven, a place roughly analogous to Venice, down to the city’s having canals for streets and slowly sinking down under the water. Water Seven is best known for it’s shipyards and Luffy hopes to have the crew’s ship, the Merry Go, repaired by a reliable group and possibly hire a carpenter to keep the ship afloat. While the Straw Hats have made a name for themselves in many perilous battles, coming through each encounter stronger, their ship has grown leakier and less reliable with each encounter.

On making anchor at Water Seven the Straw Hats split up and head in different directions, Luffy and Usopp heading off with the ship’s navigator, Nami, to turn some gold into cash so they can pay for repairs then heading off to the shipyards to hire some contractors.

Meanwhile, Robin takes Tony Tony Chopper, ship’s doctor, to buy some medical reference books. Along the way they pass people in masks, another call back to Venice’s culture and an important plot device. Chopper gets ahead of Robin when she’s stopped by one of these masked people. This masked figure is a member of CP 9 and our first glimpse of them establishes a few things in a single image. It tells us they’re vaguely sinister, cut an imposing figure and have some kind of leverage over Robin, as the masked figure manages to lure her away from Chopper of her own volition. This is the beginning of the group’s ascendance.

Our next glimpse of CP 9 comes very quickly, although we don’t know it yet. When Luffy and his group arrives at the docks they head to the offices of the Galley-la company, a united shipwrights guild forged by the best shipwright on the island, Iceberg. We’re introduced to Galley-la as they kick a bunch of rowdy pirates off their drydocks for refusal to pay. At first this just serves to prove that the shipwrights are a tough bunch but one foreman in particular makes a good showing of himself. It’s Rob Lucci, part of a deep cover mission by CP 9.

In fact, along with Rob two other Cipher Pol agents are hidden in Galley-la, another foreman named Kaku and Iceburg’s secretary Kalifa. Both Rob and Kaku make a good showing against the pirates, impressing Luffy and the audience with skills that will soon be turned against our heroes. But for the moment the wily agents stay under cover and Kaku goes to inspect the Straw Hats’ ship to see what can be done about it.

What happens next is very important, yet very few authors think of doing it when writing a villain. The CP 9 agents in Water Seven get lucky. The Merry Go has suffered so much punishment it’s no longer seaworthy and no ammount of work will make it sail again. The Straw Hats will need a new ship. Luffy resists the notion at first but eventually gives in.

A number of smaller misadventurs take place, introducing the audience to Franky, then Usopp, who missed the pronouncment of Merry’s fate due to Franky’s goons, learns of the ship’s fate. Merry Go was a gift to the Straw Hats from a wealthy girl on Usopp’s home island and he’s been in charge of keeping it afloat since they set out. All of the Straw Hats have an attachment to the ship but Usopp’s is particularly strong. He can’t bring himself to let go.

Worse, he got beaten to a pulp by the Franky family earlier that afternoon and he’s a low point, emotionally speaking. He doesn’t feel like he can measure up to the level of the other Straw Hat pirates and so, when Luffy gets heated and says Usopp can accept his decision to get a new ship or leave, Usopp takes the route that makes the most sense. He quits the crew.

As soon as he does so he challenges Luffy to a single combat, stating if he wins he’ll take the Merry Go with him. The two fight and Luffy wins, but not before Usopp’s cunning lets him run circles around Luffy for a few minutes. Unlike many fights in One Piece the fight isn’t an exhilirating battle of grit and strategy, although those things are there, it’s more of a painful rending of the fabric of the story. The heroes of One Piece are all unique and lovable, but their ability to look after and care for one another makes them particularly lovable. Luffy vs. Usopp strains that relationship past the breaking point, going to a place where the story never has before (or since).

This split in the crew leaves the Straw Hats even weaker than they were before. Usopp and Robin were the closest things the crew had to strategists. Usopp is excellent at finding and exploiting weaknesses, Robin excells at reading between the lines. Both abilities are now gone from the Straw Hat crew, leaving them particularly crippled against an enemy like CP 9 that excells in cunning.

Most authors would have tried to make this another cunning play on the part of the Cipher Pol agents, like the one they used against Robin (more on that next week).  But by making this weakness of the Straw Hats come from the incredible punishment the ship took – and that the audience has seen build up for years – Oda manages to cripple the Straw Hats in the face of their villains without said villains having to run gambits that require comical omniscience (as many spy type villains wind up with) or otherwise overextend themselves. Or worse, making the Straw Hats behave out of character for the express purpose of putting them in a worse situation.

The next morning, still reeling from the fight with Usopp, the Straw Hats wake up to learn that Mayor Iceberg was shot the night before. As they hurry to the Galley-la docks to learn more they learn that a seasonal high tide called Aqua Laguna is coming that evening and will flood most of the lower city, making travel almost impossible. Once they reach Galley-la they’re forced to run when it turns out Iceberg told the locals he was attacked by Robin and a man in a mask. The pirates go to ground to dodge patrols and vow to figure out who’s framing them and why.

After an afternoon of shenanigans the assassins finally come for Iceberg again that night. Not only do the Galley-la crew try to foil the assassins the Straw Hats take advantage of the confusion to see what’s really going on.

Matters come to a head when CP 9’s deep cover agents reveal themselves to their old employers and demand Iceberg turn the blueprints of a superweapon from a bygon era over to them. They were tasked to steal it but haven’t been able to locate it. With this revelation clearing his crew Luffy could leave at this point except Robin is with the Cipher Pol agents and Luffy isn’t ready to walk away from a second crewman in as many days.

For his part Iceberg refuses to tell CP 9 anything. The blueprints in his hands came from his teacher who warned him that the superweapon was too powerful to be trusted to anyone except as a deterent against a similar weapon. Other such weapons existed but only in a long forgotten language only one living person can understand. With Robin Nico apparently on their side CP 9 already held the key to one allpowerful superweapon. Iceberg won’t give them a second.

Unfortunately Cipher Pol already has a clue where he might have left the blueprints so they tie up Iceberg and his employees who know their true identities, fight the Straw Hats until they’re thrown out or flee, and set fire to Galley-la headquarters. There’s a striking image of Rob Lucci and his agents watching the building burn that pretty definitively marks the moment CP 9 reaches apotheosis. The Straw Hats are defeated or captured, nothing stands between CP 9 and what they want and the lives of dozens of innocents lie in shambles as the agents of Cipher Pol fade into the shadows without a care for those they’ve hurt.

It’s time for CP 9 to find Franky and secure the blueprints that will give them a monopoly on world ending superweapons once and for all. They need to move fast. Aqua Laguna is coming and once they’re away and the tides come in there will be nothing left to stop them.

The ascendancy of Cipher Pol 9 is excellent for a number of reasons. First, as mentioned earlier, it manages to put the Straw Hats in a terrible position without requiring the villains to do all the work. Overworking your characters, villain or not, can tire your audience so avoiding it in this way is a good move and one more authors should look in to. Second, it drives a knife in the wound by revealing Robin’s betrayal not long after Usopp and Luffy tore the crew apart. Third, it establishes CP 9 as both masterful actors and horrific traitors by showing them working well with Galley-la then remorselessly turning on them when the time came. Finally, it leaves the Straw Hats exactly where heroes should be when the villains are at their peak: Scattered, lonely, hurting inside and out, but not quite beaten yet.

Come back next week and we’ll break down the apotheosis and eventual downfall of Cipher Pol 9 and the fate of the Straw Hat pirates and their brave little ship.

Further reading on the art of the villain:


Numerology and the Author

Numbers, numbers, everywhere. Many authors I know complain about math and how unforgiving numbers are. But numbers play a very important role in fiction as well. So what are the numerals of power in fiction? Let’s count them off!

One – The loneliest number. This is the number of narrators in most stories, chosen for simplicity. It’s also the number of major changes any given character should have in a single story, so as to keep them recognizable to the audience. It’s not particularly significant to story structure or characterization but rather a guard against doing too much in a given story. Pretty much any time you have to ask yourself “how much should this happen?” The answer is “One time.” Two characters with similar traits? There can be only one. One is the number that maximizes clarity and impact so don’t be afraid to use it when needed.

Two – There’s an intimacy to this number that’s important to preserve. Two is about as many threads of conversation a person can follow. Whenever you have a string of dialog that’s meant to be particularly strong, whether impactful, dramatic, or funny it’s important that you have no more than two speakers in the scene. Lots of speakers may be important at times, due to the nature of what’s being discussed or the situation of the characters, but the height of that conversation should always boil down to just two speakers and the rest should either be tied up in side conversations or just waiting for the climax of the dialog to play out.

Three – This one goes a lot of different places. First off, three characters serve as the foundation of any group in your narrative. That’s because three is the smallest group that allows for both intimacy and exclusion. That is to say, two them can turn against the third. And there’s always the possibility that the two can split up, leaving one betrayed as the other two form a new alliance. Or, if a pair needs someone to step in and arbitrate some disagreement the third is there to fill in. These kinds of character “trinities” are common in fiction. Star Trek, the original series, had Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Star Wars, the classic trilogy, had Han, Luke and Leia. DC Comics has Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Each of these triads features three distinct personalities and specialties that make the characters distinct and memorable and allows them to complement each other.

Three is also a good number for plot elements. For example, a set of three important items that must be collected or protected from those seeking to steal them. Three quests to carry out. Three different places to explore. Even if the items, activities or places themselves are different, as in the case of the Japanese sacred treasures (a sword, mirror and jewel) they will all serve the same purpose. In the case of the Japanese treasures, showing that the emperor was divine. A perfect example of this is in Avatar: The Last Airbender, in which the main character is seeking to understand three fundamentally different forces of nature in order to unite them and balance them. Mastering each is a unique task in a unique place but leads to a single end.

Three also serves as a good number for tasks because it lets you have a variety of outcomes for those tasks to build suspense without stretching things out enough that wondering about outcomes becomes boring. Whether things go lose, lose, win or win, win, lose, or some combination of those it can switch things up and be interesting but happens fast enough that the audience isn’t waiting for it to end.

Why three is a number humans place such significance on is hard to pin down. It’s a fairly constant theme in human culture but it’s not clear what abandoning three for some other number would do to storytelling. My personal theory is that three is just an easy number to grasp and by sticking to it you can keep your audience from feeling overburdened by the complexities of your story.

Five – This is another number important to interpersonal dynamics. The ideal group size in fiction seems to be five. Yes, the three are the foundation but five is the perfect number. There are five Power Rangers – to start with – in most seasons of that show for a reason.

A group of five easily breaks down into the two smaller groups of characters. Two can go off on their own for an intimate moment while the other three form the backbone of a situation evolving on the outside of the group. While single stories might not ever build a solid five, instead keeping pairs of other people orbiting around a central three, any franchise that strives for narrative cohesion will build a central five or, at the very least, keep five characters at the center of any given story. TV shows like Firefly, Cheers and Friends all serve as excellent examples of this. No more than five of the central cast are in play in the majority of episodes and often a pair of side characters take center stage with a trio from the main cast.

Five is also the number of a good family set-up, with a mother, father, and children that are younger, older and in the middle. Frequently characters will not have this relation by blood but still relate this way in terms of character dynamics. This means everyone in the audience can recognize their place in the dynamic.

Seven – Seven is considered a “lucky” number in the West (the Easter equivalent is the number eight). It represents completion or divine appointment, so when you group things in batches of seven keep those concepts in mind. It’s a good way to show purity or morality behind concepts as well, as seen in the seven deadly sins and seven noble virtues (the Eight Trigrams in Taoist thought are a sort-of equivalent but probably not something to worry about unless China or Korea is your story’s setting). Seven often works in concert with the number thirteen, which is seven (the number of divine completion) plus six (the number of human frailty). Thirteen is just as unlucky as seven is lucky, possibly more so.

In some traditions ten, twelve and forty are considered numbers of completion as well. They don’t have quite the same cultural cachet as seven and definitely should be used sparingly. They should always be groups of similar things, like forty days or a dozen men, rather than rather disparate things like virtues.

And that’s pretty much all the numbers a writer needs. Single digits is best. But that doesn’t mean that deciding on the numbers isn’t a thing you really need to think about when writing. So don’t eschew math – just modify it to suit being an author.

The Ampersand

We’re going to talk about China Meiville’s Railsea and it’s going to include spoilers. You’ve been warned.

That said, we’re not actually going to talk about the plot of Railsea but the worldbuilding. Knowing this doesn’t change the story itself in any way. But, in many respects, the best part of Railsea is… well, the railsea. Everything in this strange, topsy-turvy world runs on rails and the book is full of strange little touches that help you remember that this is not the world you know.

What’s nice is that the story never goes out of its way to shove those moments into your face. They’re subtle and pointed, always clearly intended to illustrate some aspect of Meiville’s world that is different from ours. Well, most of the worldbuilding is that way. There was one aspect of it that shows up on the first page, digs its claws into you and won’t stop annoying you for at least fifty more pages. The phenomenon is thus: the prose never uses a comma in lists but rather stringing them together with a series of ands. Except the letters “a”, “n” and “d” are never written in that order anywhere in the text of the book. Every instance of the word “and” is replaced with The Ampersand. You can even begin sentences with &, removing the need for capital letters.

To make a confession: I hated this tendency at first. The prose was cluttered with unnecessary conjunctions and the ampersand jumped out at me whenever it was used, never quite enough to break the flow of the story but enough to grab at the back of the mind. It was wrong but I was enjoying the rest of the book enough to struggle through. Eventually, the ampersands faded into the background. Then I reached Railsea chapter 33 and read these words:

“The lines of the railsea go everywhere but from one place straight to another. It is always switchback, junction, coils around & over our own train-trails.

What word better could there be to symbolize the railsea that connects and separates all lands, than ‘&’ itself? Where else does the railsea take us but to this place & that one & that one & that one, & so on? & what better embodies, in the sweep of the pen, the recurved motion of trains, than ‘&’?”

Mind. Blown.

Most of us think of worldbuilding in terms of what happened in the history of the world, or what they eat, or how they dress, or what kind of governments there are, what kind of buildings they build, what kind of rituals they have for births, marriages and deaths. That kind of stuff is well and good. It’s an important part of cultures and traditions to understand these things. The same is true for ecology, environment and larger scale parts of the picture. But what Meiville did with The Ampersand was go a level deeper.

He asked the very simple question, “If the world is fundamentally like this, what kind of changes might happen to the very ways people think? The way they talk? The way they write?”

Then, instead of a long Martin-esque exposition about traditions and rituals, he just shows us the people of that world acting like they would and lets us get used to it, no matter how odd it first strikes us. In time the curtain is pulled back for us but when it is we’ve already grown so used to the strangeness that the explanation is just icing on the cake.

This kind of worldbuilding is great but have care. Without the other worldbuilding, the careful assembly of ideas into a coherent culture and environment, you can’t come up with something like The Ampersand. What makes The Ampersand so striking is that Meiville did all that work and then went a level further. He came up with an idea that fit his world so perfectly then went back and hid all his tracks, weaving it into the fabric of his tale page by page until he found the right time to share it. This is not a technique to try and use at the start of worldbuilding but at the end. But if you do use it that way and you’re very patient it can make for a great culmination to the work.


Kado, The Right Answer

Science fiction is about the politics and societies of the future. There’s no better example of that than one of it’s landmark works, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which focuses on those topics exclusively. But in its focus on these two subjects the genre very often gets distracted from the thing that makes questions of society and politics important: the individual. After all, it is the individual impact of these questions that drives people to consider them at all. While many people will set aside their own concerns of health and happiness if they think it’s for a greater good; without a clear statement of how deprivation might serve the greater good it’s unlikely any will make such sacrifices. Conversely, if you want to prevent people from giving of themselves the simplest way to do it is to convince them there is nothing greater than themselves worth looking for.

But beyond all that, there is another question science fiction is often interested in. Namely, what is the nature of individual?

Kado, The Right Answer is interested in all three of these questions. Sadly, it’s not always adept at answering them.

The basic premise of Kado is scifi gold, beginning with a bizarre extradimensional object intruding into our world over an airport in Japan, absorbing an airplane and making itself at home. Most of the first episode is devoted to the Japanese government trying to figure out what they’re dealing with and ends with a passenger from the plane appearing on top of the object as an ambassador for the entity within. The second episode gives us events from the passenger’s perspective. The rest of the show is about what the entity wants and how humanity will react to it.

Kado plays with many of the wonderful hypotheticals futurists like to dream about, like limitless energy and the impact such technology might have. But it doesn’t explore any of them with a great deal of depth, as the story plays out over a matter of a few months, not nearly enough time to examine the deep changes that might result from a power source that theoretically anyone can create. By the same token even more fantastic technology is introduced in the second half of the show and given freely to humanity by the entity from beyond but what that might mean for humanity in the long run is never really unpacked.

The political ramifications are explored to an extent, with the UN becoming involved and Japan facing everything from threats of sanctions to prying business executives. While the Japanese government plays around these things in gutsy and amusing ways the real depths of these political machinations aren’t deeply explored either.

Finally, two thirds of the way through the season, the question of human nature and what it might mean in the face of life altering technology and beings from other dimensions is introduced. Unfortunately, Kado has been more interested in it’s clever technologies and shallow machinations than in developing its characters. There were hints of who the people dealing directly with Kado and it’s enigmatic passenger were but not quite enough to move them beyond fairly one dimensional characters. While Kado never disrespects it’s characters or treats them as props to a poorly conceived plot it never quite manages to let us get to know them enough to be invested in the existential crisis that Kado’s appearance ultimately provokes.

With twelve full twenty minute episodes plus a prequel it might seem like Kado wasn’t pressed for time to unpack it’s ideas but the show felt overstuffed, like it might have been able to make more of its high concepts if only there had been time to play around with them. Many interesting side characters never developed beyond a single note and the main trio are sketched well but without nuance. And, as I already said, none of the futurist ideas that the story introduces are explored with any depth. I wanted to like Kado, the Right Answer more than I did, and if you’re a sucker for scifi in general or first contact stories specifically you’ll probably still like this show. But casual scifi fans or the general public should give it a pass.

Physician Heal Thyself – Dr. Who On the Brink

Two topical posts only one month apart? What could spur this on?

Well, mostly the brain melting stupidity of people who have to partake in Pharisee level moral grandstanding at every opportunity. But more importantly, the incredibly toxic environment these people create around beloved stories and characters and why creators need to be very careful not to feed this particular brand of troll. You shouldn’t feed the trolls at all, but in this case it’s doubly important.  Before we get into that I want to address something important.

I do not like Dr. Who. I tried to watch one episode of it once and my eyes pretty much rolled out of my head. It’s campy and cheesy and basically like an episode of the classic Star Trek but without forty years of aging poorly as an excuse. This was an episode from the first or second season of the modern run, I can’t tell you much more than that because I didn’t watch it for very long and I don’t really care to go back and try it again. There are just better uses for my time. I don’t know who any of the Doctors are, this new female one included, and I don’t really care. Anything I know about the franchise I’ve absorbed through general geek osmosis.

I don’t care that the new Doctor is a woman. The character is basically reincarnated ever couple of seasons and is an alien with nonhuman biology and chromosomes so why not? More than that, I don’t care much about who the Doctor is at all because I’m not invested in his story. (Or her story, as the case may be.)

What bothers me is the determined efforts to convince people that some large, amorphous, hard to find portion of the Jews fanbase consists of toxic scum. When the female Doctor was announced there was an almost immediate push on social media to condemn sexists in the Dr. Who fanbase who didn’t want a female doctor. The only problem was, I haven’t seen any of these elusive sexists. There may be a few here or there, especially on Twitter, that bane of all online discussions. There were likely a few people who called this pandering as something of a knee jerk reaction, since the press made a point to constantly point out that the Doctor was female in all their headlines in a pretty pandering way and act like it was some kind of victory. There are even some woman complaining about the choice for reasons I’m not quite clear on. Possibly because it makes organizing the Whovian Shipping Fleet that much more complicated. Doesn’t that happen with every new Doctor though?

But by and large the two primary reactions have been, “Eh, okay.” And, “Excommunicate the sexists!”

Something very disturbing is happening here. It goes beyond “representation in media” if that’s even a meaningful thing. (Research is still out.) It even goes beyond setting up a fall guy in case the project doesn’t turn out as hoped. This is starting to look like a determined attempt to purge wrongthinkers.

When someone tries to institute a new thing and tells you that if you oppose it, or even question it, you must be some kind of Jew sexist that’s a very dangerous line of reasoning. It’s less about the thing at hand and more about training a knee jerk reaction against people who are branded with a specific label. It either results in mindless destruction of the targeted people or a swift collapse of whatever platform this demagoguery is launched from. In the case of media that means either you start cranking out The Birth of a Nation over and over again or your audience just walks away in contempt.

We’ve seen this twice in the last year. First the 2016 Ghostbusters remake promotional efforts dissolved into mindless accusations of sexism and the target audience ignored the film. It may also have been a bad film, I didn’t watch it to find out and I wasn’t the only one. The film did very little at the box office.

Then Marvel Comics announced that it’s sales were in the tank because no one liked the books they were publishing. Marvel Comics, who publish the source material for some of the most successful movies of the last decade. Was it because audiences wanted to see more of the characters they’d seen on screens or been reading stories about for most of their lives and Marvel had stopped writing those characters? No, it was because they were bigots. Don’t watch the Diversity and Comics videos and find out that comic readers never objected to “diverse” characters before all the mainstays they loved got canned. Just believe they were Jews bigots. Makes everything so much simpler. Unfortunately Marvel fans have abandoned them, with sales dropping to 20,000-30,000 per book, a record low for the company.

The reality is that both these moves were very costly for the people who made them. I’ve said it before but audiences are very rare, precious things. Calling them names or trying to use them in some kind of Pavlovian conditioning experiment to establish yourself as a moral arbiter is not, I repeat, not going to get you anywhere. It will cost you money, it will cost you social capital, it will push people away from the very ideas you hope to promote. The creators of Dr. Who haven’t joined in on this doubling down – yet. Hopefully they won’t.

And this is the real key for us if we’re going to be creators. Audiences can handle a message but if that message looks like it’s about how the messenger is a better life form and they need to fall in line it is going to cost you. The BBC can make a course correction here and put Dr. Who back on track to telling… well, whatever kind of stories attracted people to Dr. Who in the first place. They can say they’re going to run with a woman Doctor but focus on telling the same stories people love and they hope the audience will want to come with. Or they can double down, “call out” their audience for sexism in an attempt to look good and progressive then start down the same path as Ghostbusters and Marvel Comics.

You audience is a treasure. It’s never going to be perfect, it’s never going to be everything you want it to be. Some days you’ll wish it would just go away. But without an audience an artist is just a self indulgent narcissist. And it turns out that a self indulgent narcissist posing as an artist will quickly wind up without and audience.

Poe, Satire and Worldbuilding

Once upon a time I set out to write about the future of humanity. I called it The Divided Futures, a title born mostly from my disdain for the notion that humanity will ever unite under a single government (or if it does, stay that way for long) in it’s pursuit of the stars. The entire storyline was a mix of speculative fiction, political theory and sci-fi nonsense. The entire experiment was born out of a desire to mess around with ideas born of the political situation at the time I wrote it and I wanted to satirize some of the responses I saw being proposed to some issues by pushing them to ludicrous degrees.

All this was born out in the rather convoluted future timeline I put together to explain, step by step, how humanity would go from the early 2000s to 2082, the time of Emergency Surface, the first story I would write for The Divided Futures on this blog. (Some aspects of the setting got worked into earlier stories I wrote elsewhere that were unofficially canonized as I was doing the worldbuilding.)  Eventually I lost interest in the series as other ideas took the forefront but it was a thing I wanted to return to at some point. For a while.

But I had a really hard time working up the enthusiasm for it when I finally got around to it thanks to Bill Nye.

Satire was a big part of what I was shooting for when I put together my speculative future of the next fifty or sixty years. But satire presents a problem, typically codified as Poe’s Law. This law states that, no matter how extreme, satire of extreme movements will be impossible to differentiate from reality. One aspect of the political culture of the last decade or so that I hope to satire was the dangers inherent in extreme environmentalism, particularly the fanaticism around “man made climate change.” I don’t intend to delve too deeply into that particular issue here, the main point I wanted to make was that the climate change cult (as opposed to the environmentally minded) sees any disagreement with their point of view as inherently malicious.

I wanted to show the potentially damaging overreaches that could come from that mentality so I jokingly created a penal colony where all the people who objected to future climate change laws would wind up. I put it on the bottom of the ocean because that’s an idea that’s always appealed to me and it seemed like a good, non traditional place to set a near-future scifi story. What I certainly never expected was for Bill Nye to suggest imprisoning political dissidents as a good idea.

Now I get the logic – if you really think the world is going to collapse tomorrow because of a little carbon I can see why you might go to extreme lengths to solve the problem. But you’d have to think that in spite of all the predictions made about disappearing islands and coastlines in the last thirty years that haven’t come true so I just couldn’t see it happening.

Poe trumps Nye, it seems.

By the same token, an important event to the future of the underwater colony was fact that the existing United States of America no longer exists, having split in a second civil war in the late 2030s. What caused it? The Supreme Court legalizing the euthanization of children with disabilities resulting in a paramilitary group forcibly removing an eight year old with Down Syndrome from Federal custody. Sound far fetched? Because the Netherlands is considering making assisted suicide for totally healthy people legal and that’s probably a more extreme step.

One problem of trying to predict the near future is that it’s always becoming the here and now – and it does that pretty fast. And in the case of satire it seems that means that, no matter how over the top you were aiming to go, you probably won’t go far enough. If you want to do satire you better do it fast.

Does that mean I’m never going back to my goofy little near future setting? I may poke over there someday. I still think it’s full of fun story ideas.  I really want to write some about colonizing the solar system and ridiculously large mass drivers on Mars. But I think I’m going to phase directly satirical elements out of future worldbuilding efforts. It’s depressing…

Whose Struggle?

In fiction a fight is boring if it’s easy. This may surprise people who have been in fights for real, because no matter how easy the fight is your brain will still dump the adrenaline and kick that cardio into overdrive so you’re ready to fight. It’s exciting even if you win or loose in a single hit. But no matter how invested you are in a story being outside of a fight is not the same as being inside one and some part of your brain never forgets you’re not in any real danger.

All in all, this is a positive thing. The excitement of fighting is hard on the body and mind. But it does make the job of a person (or persons) putting a fight in fiction that much harder.

In essence, in order to make a gripping story you need to create an artificial tension in your audience and, just as importantly, you need to do it without getting caught. The simplest way to do this is through pacing, where a fight consists of a series of ups and downs that switch often enough that tracking them simulates the frantic nature of a fight and keeps the audience invested with seeing how each twist will play out until they reach the end.

A good fight usually starts with the viewpoint character at a slight disadvantage, such as being caught by surprise or facing a much larger opponent, introduces three to five twists that the fighter overcomes through creativity, technique or guts, before reaching a climax where the viewpoint character faces their biggest hurdle yet, digs deep down to make one final push and either comes out on top or winds up losing in spite of it. When done properly the audience is left with a satisfying feeling of vicarious accomplishment regardless of the outcome. Done badly it leaves them scoffing at poorly executed narrative devices.

Great examples of what overcoming obstacles during action sequences looks like are found in the action stars of the 1980s. Jackie Chan is one of the most creative action stars in cinema history, fumbling his way through chases and fights with enough physical humor that it feels improvised and delivering a wonderful ride all the way. Bruce Willis makes his way by grits, digging a little bit more effort out of the depths of himself every time the stakes are raised. His face is practically designed to show grim determination in hard places. Bruce Lee brings us pure technique in every perfectly executed combo move, every moment of brilliant footwork and each brutally hard punch and kick.

But what’s important in each of these things is that we see these action stars bringing their powers to bear during the fight.

I ran into this problem when writing The Face of the Clockworker earlier this year. The Clockworker’s schtick was that he could cheat during every fight because his ability to know future events let him walk into every situation forearmed with knowledge of what the news would say about his battles the next day. The problem was, while magic was a force not even a century’s worth of prediction could fully understand, enemies like Thunderclap were something the Clockworker could come fully equipped for.

When I wrote the fight scenes between the Clockworker and Thunderclap from Sam’s point of view they were very boring. He was fully forewarned and forearmed against what Teddy could do, Sam wasn’t struggling in those moments. He already had his answers in place.

But I didn’t want to write about Sam getting ready for a fight. That wouldn’t be interesting at all and, once Sam pulled a future news report to find he successfully arrested Thunderclap, all tension would go out of the actual fight sequence. I did consider having Sam lose because he got overconfident, in fact that was originally what set up his trip Beyond to meet the Gatekeepers, but ultimately I found the easiest thing to do was just to tell the fight from Teddy’s point of view.

Teddy Clapper was a rookie to his superpower and not a particularly smart criminal to boot. Throw him against a guy with power armor, the ability to predict the future and a better working knowledge of what Teddy was capable of than the man himself and you have a fighter who is at a profound starting disadvantage. It made his struggle against the hero of the story more real, more exciting and ultimately, I felt, more sincere than watching Sam run through a series of carefully planned contingencies to corner a person he already knew he would successfully catch.

There are all kinds of places writing an action sequence can go wrong. They can be hard to follow, too long or too short on top of lacking tension. And good tension will not save an action scene that lacks the other factors. But if tension is what you think you’re lacking, consider changing whose point of view you see the sequence from. Even first person narratives can find a way to put themselves in the shoes of someone else for a little while and letting the audience experience what it’s like to struggle against people they’re used to seeing struggle for a goal can give them a new appreciation for those characters. It won’t work all the time, but sometimes a simple change of perspective is just what the doctor ordered.

Try rewriting your favorite action scenes from the point of view of the other side and see what it feels like. How would the walker assault on Hoth change from the Imperial perspective? Or the lobby shootout from the Matrix if we experienced it as a guard? These kinds of experiments help writers grow, evolve and develop new techniques to make better, more exciting stories.