Postmodernism, Metanarratives and The Simpsons

A while back, when I wrote about creativity, I made a passing mention to postmodernism, a philosophy that had, and still has, a huge impact on the cultural landscape of the last fifty years or so. I thought it might be a good idea, at some point, to put out a few words on what postmodernism is, how it’s shaped culture and what seems to be happening to it today. Since it is such a big part of our media today understanding exactly what it is and what it’s doing, and how we can take advantage of it to make our own stories better.

Let’s start with the basics. Postmodernism is a philosophy that specializes in breaking down and analyzing metanarratives. What is a metanarrative? In short, Joseph Campbell.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces is the magnum opus of a writer and mythologist named Joseph Campbell and in it he describes the narrative arc of the typical mythological hero and what that narrative arc means symbolically. This foundational narrative arc, the hero myth, is a basic metanarrative. I’m not planning on running through how the hero myth works in general, that’s outside the scope of our discussion (but more on it in a few weeks). What’s important is that this metanarrative embodies a certain idea, namely that going out of what’s familiar, struggling and overcoming, then returning to make your home a better place is an admirable way of life, something that people – and in it’s original codification, men in particular – should aspire to do.

The catch to postmodernism is that it doesn’t stop with breaking down metanarratives. Another component of postmodernism is that it interprets them as deliberately benefiting those that tell them at the expense of others and then tries to dismiss them using irony, satire or other methods that trivialize them. In the case of the hero myth postmodernism would likely characterize it as an attempt to prop up some kind of masculine hegemony by idealizing the man who goes out and overcomes obstacles as the heroes of society.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s it was common for heavily plot driven TV shows to introduce some kind of conspiracy theory that sought to spin cover stories for events and hide their true meaning from the public. The X-Files and Heroes both did this, for example, as did The Golden Compass in YA literature. These are classic postmodern devices. The people who set up these conspiracies hide the truth from the rest of the world so they can manipulate the public to their advantage.

While this idea that everyone is using you is one of the biggest appeals of postmodernism; stories where that’s the basic premise quickly boil down to a trite “be yourself” and end with the protagonist leaving whatever group he conformed with before and quickly conforming to whatever group he joins up with. Hardly the stuff of greatness. Instead, we must look someplace surprising for the greatest triumph of postmodern media.

We need to take a few minutes to discuss The Simpsons.

I’m not an expert on this show. I’ve watched maybe two full episodes and caught parts of others. Much of what I’m going to say is lacking in nuance. But I think I’ve got the core of the idea and it does seem to carry a lot of postmodernism in it.

The late 1980s and 1990s featured a lot of really wholesome sitcoms with a narrow focus on single families and the things that happened to them. The Cosby Show, Family Matters, Full House and Home Improvement were all examples of this basic mold: Reasonably well off family, educated and caring father present in the home, loving mother struggling to find a balance among all the things pulling her home in different directions, kids about average in school and dipping in and out of trouble as the plot demands. The metanarrative says that these families were the kinds of people you might know or even want to be like and ultimately, while it might not always be pleasant, it was more good than bad and you could make it work if you tried. The Simpsons… didn’t try.

Homer is stupid and uninvested in his family… until it looks like they might fall apart, then he puts in just enough effort to maintain the status quo. Marge keeps the family above water by being the voice of morality but said morality is never based on anything stronger than Marge herself. When she has breakdowns or is otherwise absent her regulating effect on the family vanishes. Bart rebels against authority but never learns or accomplishes anything by it. Lisa overachives but never finds satisfaction through it. The Simpsons family is the perfect rejection of the family sitcom metanarrative – watching The Simpsons is funny (arguably, I don’t find it laugh out loud funny and for me that’s the litmus test) but it’s not anything people really want to emulate. Or even have around them in real life. Rather than pushing postimodernism The Simpsons just is postmodern.

A lot of people loved The Simpsons in the early days of the show. Unfortunately almost everyone agrees that it has now “jumped the shark” or lost the spark that made it what it was. How this happened is interesting, as it’s a case study in why postmodernism doesn’t work as a way of life or creativity, even if what it does can be useful.

The Simpsons was a classic case of postmodernism. It deconstructed the prevailing metanarrative of happy, functional families in funny situations and gave us a new, fresh take on a dysfunctional but (debateably) funny family that was funny partly because of how it contradicted the prevailing metanarrative. After five or six years the entertainment landscape shifted and The Simpsons began to loose relevance. More shows were mimicking the way The Simpsons lampooned the old media landscape and the founding writers were beginning to run out of ideas to satirize the old sitcom formula with. Ultimately Family Guy would come along in 1999 and satirize The Simpsons by taking their format and stuffing it full off pop culture references and painfully drawn out gags that went nowhere to poke fun at the overly complicated and often absurdist gags The Simpsons relied on. The Simpsons had gone from deconstructing the metanarrative to being the metanarrative and new shows were deconstructing it in turn.

The Simpsons was breaking down before the first epsidoe of Family Guy. The inherent weaknesses of postmodernism came to full force in an episode of the eigth season called “The Principal and the Pauper”, in which the principle of the local elementary school, a well established character, had all his backstory thrown out the window when it was revealed the real principal had died in the Vietnam war and his identity was stolen by an army buddy. This is classic postmodernism – what you think is true is a façade manipulated by someone else for their own convenience and must be broken down so you can put your own façade in place. This not only happened with the Principal’s character but the show itself – by this point the original writing team was gone and new writers were asserting their own vision for the show with no regard to what others had done before.

Eventually Family Guy would eat The Simpsons alive, overtaking that show in the ratings and building a new formula that The Simpsons would mimick until the two shows inevitably crossed over because they had become indistinguishable from one another.

Postmodernism does something very useful for a writer. It teaches you how to break down the elements of a story and really understand what they are doing. But it also teaches you to view these story elements and their thematic import as inherently suspicious. Once idetified and broken down metanarratives must be replaced because they can only come to exist because those that created them were seeking to bend them to their own advantage. But a study of postmodern storytelling shows the fallacy in that thought – postmodernists build metanarratives of their own, as often as not without meaning to do so. This leads to a wild orgy of deconstruction and reconstruction that often winds up chasing its own tail until the stories become indistinguishable from one antoher and, very frequently, lacking nuance, depth or anything interesting at all, really.

We see this in the lifecycle of The Simpsons and how it intersected with other shows like Family Guy. We see it in the incredible slump of Marvel Comics as its books have leaned more and more on postmodern, deconstructionist characters and storytelling. We see it to a lesser extent in modern art and music, where rules of pleasing visuals and sounds are largely rebuilt over and over again instead of carefully passed on to the next generation.

The sitcoms of the 80s, while capable of great entertainment, were stuck in a rut and The Simpsons attempting to break out of that mold was a worthy goal. By the same token deconstructing metanarratives has a lot of value for the author and it can help you make stories fresh and relevant again. But when you do, consider that, once you know how that metanarrative works, it might be worth keeping in place so you can make it work like a well oiled machine rather than replacing it.

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Voltron: The Legendary Five Man Band

A month or so ago I wrote about how five man groups are pretty much the gold standard for good storytelling, presenting good options for different character dynamics without bringing too many characters for the audience to track to the table.

There’s a great example of this character dynamic in the Netflix series Voltron: Legendary Defender. The basic premise of this shown is that five ancient and powerful alien war robots fall into the hands of human pilots, who must then wield them as separate entities and in the combined super robot known as Voltron. These five pilots are, of course, the core five man band of the show. The cast starts out by with a central cast that fits basic archetypes – Shiro, the soldier, Keith, the loner, Lance, the goofball, Hunk, the anxious, and Pidge, the nerd. These archetypes quickly flesh out as the character’s various motivations keep them moving at odds with one another.

The clearest example of this is Pidge, a girl who is passing herself as a boy in an effort to track down her father and brother, who went missing on a deep space mission. She’s hiding her identity because she’s already drawn too much bad attention from the authorities prying into classified files but, when she meets Shiro, who disappeared on the same mission and reappears under equally mysterious circumstances, she has to decide how much she trusts him and the three others whisked away on the wild ride they’re undertaking. It’s a particularly cryptic balancing act to watch as we’re not aware Pidge is a girl at first.

Character dynamics are at the heart of Voltron, from the clashing personalities of Keith and Lance to the uncertain relationship between Allura, the alien princess who’s father built Voltron, and her human paladins. But these aren’t the only important character dynamics. In fact, arguably the most important character dynamic exists between Shiro, the tyrannical Emperor Zarkon, and the Black Lion, the war machine both men wielded in battle at one time. Zarkon seeks to reclaim the lion with single-minded zeal while Shiro is driven by conscience and a clear desire not to let down his current team like he fears he did his last. (Shiro has a touch of the amnesia.)

It’s not just the heroes who have good character dynamics. There are interesting faces and motives among the villains as well, including factions and traitors, double agents who give the two sides multiple points of contact and an interesting glimpse into how the two sides are similar and different. It’s this kind of character writing that makes the show so very compelling and, with the third season introducing a five man band on the villain’s side, we can only expect these dynamics to go deeper.

Last week I went on about how I’ve found Marvel’s Netflix lineup to be incredibly lackluster. Serviceable but not compelling. Oddly enough, Voltron, with a total running time comparable to the length of Daredevil alone, has managed to build more compelling villains and, as a direct result, more compelling heroes than the entire Marvel Netflix line.

Voltron doesn’t just have strong heroes with deep flaws, who bond with each other in interesting and meaningful ways. It has surprisingly deep villains in a struggle that makes it clear one side has a moral edge over the other without letting the villains become caricatures or jokes. While Zarkon can come off as a bit of a tantrum thrower his deep connection to the Black Lion and a fuller understanding of his history, as revealed in season three, actually makes his single mindedness a little clearer. If I have one worry about the future of the show it’s how the story seems to be casting Zarkon as a victim of crystallized evil, rather than a man who turned to evil of his own volition, seeking goals he thought were good. There’s elements of both in his story right now.

C.S. Lewis’ most lasting works of fiction were the Chronicles of Narnia, a series of books that meant for children that people of all ages love reading over and over. Sometimes stories meant for children make the strongest impressions and one thing is sure – Voltron: Legendary Defender may be aimed at children but it’s making a really strong impression right now. Worth checking out if you have the time.

Marvel’s Defenders and Making Peace

So I watched Marvel’s The Defenders a few weeks back. Based on what I saw I’ve had to make peace with a simple fact. Marvel’s Netflix TV shows are not really intended for me.

There’s far too much politics, too much dickering over who will take what piece of what pie, too much general pettiness among most of those involved. I realize that grounding your characters in real life is part of what makes them relateable and enjoyable for a lot of people. But the fact is that, of the three Marvel Netflix shows I’ve watch parts of, Iron Fist, Luke Cage and Daredevil, there’s a common thread. None of them live “normal” lives I can really understand. Daredevil is the closest but even there the only remotely human relationships he seems to have are between himself and his partners at the law firm. And possibly with his priest, although I’m not a Catholic so I can’t comment there.

Worse, none of the shows have compelling villains to drive the heroes into a corner. Madame Gao in Iron Fist comes closest, and I understand she’s a player in later Daredevil episodes, but I just can’t get past the petty, self absorbed, two bit scheming of Kingpin, Diamondback and the Meechums. They all just whine and throw tantrums like children.

The Defenders didn’t do much to change that impression. Alexandra is afraid of death. That’s an understandable but very basic motivation. Unfortunately they never did anything much to expand on her or the rest of the Hand. We know they claim to serve life itself but, beyond collecting “the substance” to prolong their own lives, we don’t get any sense of what that means. They want to go back to Kun Lund. Sure, no one likes getting kicked out of the cool kids club. It’s still a terribly adolescent drive and not one I can see carrying a person through the entire course of human history.

One thing the show does well, possibly the only thing, is show how each character is at a different phase of growing into their role as street level hero. Daredevil is dealing with the personal cost, Luke Cage the economic cost. Danny Rand is still in the first flush of optimism, Jessica Jones isn’t sure she’ll ever have any. The four tempering each other over the eight episode run is a major part of their character arcs.

That said, it’s pretty much all the arc there is. The plot is simplistic and – dare I say – comic book thin. There’s an attempt at a twist in the last few episodes that was about as lacking in clear motivation and impact as the rest of the villain’s shenanigans. I’m not going to go over why I think villains are important or what their shortcomings do to potentially good stories. Suffice it to say that I’ve found all of the Marvel villains outside of Loki and Kaecilius to be very flat and uninteresting foils for the Marvel heroes.

That’s not always a bad thing. Some stories are more about a person looking in, they may only call for an antagonist and not a true villain. But sooner or later superheroes call for true supervillains to square off against them and let us really see what they’re made of.

I’ve made peace with the fact that most Marvel vehicles are not interested in these kinds of struggles and more interested in exploring interpersonal dynamics between their core characters and throwing action scenes in at the end. That’s fine and good, there’s definitely a place for those kinds of stories. I really dig them when they’re a part of a larger franchise with other themes to explore. But that’s pretty much all Marvel’s done with it’s franchise. I can dig it… it’s just getting stale.

It might be time to move on to something else, Marvel. For the time being, I know I will be.

Fall of a Villain – Cipher Pol 9

This is a continuation of last week’s discussion of villainy as seen through the lens of One Piece’s Water Seven arc. For the first half, introducing the story and characters and examining the ascendancy of Cipher Pol 9, the saga’s villains, click here. Further links, if you wish to go back and reread the Art of Evil series where we discussed villains in depth, are available at the end of this post.

Knowing what to do with your villain after they reach apotheosis can be difficult. Many stories have the villains ascending for the vast majority of the story, reach apotheosis for the climax, and then rapidly fall into defeat. Some have the villain reach apotheosis then disappear to the top of a gigantic tower for half the story and never influence the plot again *coughKefkacough*. Not so CP 9.

The Cipher Pol agents hit apotheosis at the end of the Water Seven saga’s first act and remain at their most powerful and threatening throughout the second act. This helps ratchet up and the tension through parts of the story that would otherwise slow things down.

The second act kicks off with Dr. Chopper rescuing Iceberg and the other Galley-la people left to die in the fire CP 9 set to cover their tracks. Iceberg then tells the Straw Hat pirates that, while CP 9 was searching the other room for the blueprints they wanted he interrogated Robin about her motives for helping the world government. It turns out that CP 9 had access to a Buster Call code, a terrifying military clearance that would let the leader of CP 9 summon a fleet capable of wiping most national fleets off the map from a nearby World Government garrison. They threatened to deploy the Buster Call against the Straw Hat pirates unless Robin acquiesced to their demands and, out of loyalty and love for the people that gave her a home for the first time in twenty years, Robin agreed.

Resolve hardened, the Straw Hat pirates gather themselves together and try to catch the last sea train before it leaves the city and Aqua Laguna seals them in.

Usopp winds up with Franky in a hidden warehouse in the city. Franky’s brought Usopp and the Merry Go there as bait to lure Luffy out so he can continue a fight they started earlier but, being quite the emotional kind of guy, after hearing how Luffy and Usopp came to blows over the fate of the ship he’s been moved and has a friendlier disposition. Some interesting character building happens but the most important part is that we learn Usopp has seen a Klaubatermann, a kind of sprite that appears on well loved ships. Franky tells Usopp he’s heard of them but never met anyone who’s seen one before, and that they’re basically a sign that the ship has become a touch self aware and cares for its crew. This will be important down the line.

CP 9 has been searching the city for Franky, convinced he has the blueprints they want, and at this point they find him, defeat both Franky and Usopp, and take them prisoner. We learn that CP 9 also had an agent keeping tabs on Franky all this time, along with the three watching Iceberg. Out of respect for their old profession, before leaving the warehouse one of the Cipher Pol agents drains the drydock and lets Merry Go out for the tide to take her. Then there is a flashback.

Much of this flashback isn’t relevant to our discussion but it gives us a few useful facts: It confirms that Franky has the blueprints for the superweapon CP 9 is hunting. It introduces Spandam, the commander of CP 9, and establishes his history with Franky. And it sets up the sea train’s connection between Water Seven and Enis Lobby, an island where the World Government holds prisoners until they can be transferred through the Gates of Justice and put beyond the reach of the rest of the world.

Back in the present, the Cipher Pol agents take Franky and Usopp to the sea train and join Robin there to set out for Enis Lobby and put the whole lot of them beyond the reach of the Straw Hats. Luffy doesn’t catch the train before it sets out but it turns out there’s a prototype of the sea train stowed away in an old Galley-la warehouse they can use to chase CP 9. The prototype is just like the normal sea train with two exceptions. It has fewer cars and no brakes. The Straw Hats are on a one way trip.

Once they hit the rails Luffy and crew have several close calls, nearly getting swamped by Aqua Laguna as the tide comes in and having other close shaves with CP 9’s backup. Unfortunately Cipher Pol gets to Enis Lobby ahead of the Straw Hats and digs in to wait until the Gates of Justice open and they can transfer their prisoners. CP 9’s other field team is introduced and Spandam reappears, followed shortly by the Straw Hats making landfall. Luffy bounces his rubber self over the walls of the island fortress on Enis Lobby, rushing ahead to engage the troops there as the Straw Hats trail behind at a more normal pace.

Luffy gets far enough ahead to fight and defeat the first member of CP 9, a moment that might signal the beginning of the end for the agents if not for the fact that their goals don’t require they defeat the Straw Hats, just move Robin and Franky through the Gates of Justice before Luffy and Co. can rescue them. Instead the fall of CP 9 begins a few moments later.

It takes some time for the Straw Hats to navigate the layers of internal defenses that make up Enis Lobby. As they wait for their allies to lower a drawbridge across a moat the Straw Hats reassemble on top of the gatehouse where the bridge will lower from. The full roster of Cipher Pol 9 assembles on the far side, waiting for the pirates’ move, and Spandam takes the moment to mock them. He tells the Straw Hats how Robin’s home city was leveled by a Buster Call, killing her mother and all her friends, which explains how a normally coolheaded woman could be bullied with one so easily. Then he directs their attention to the World Government flag that flies overhead and warns Luffy that if they cross the bridge and try to take Robin back they’ll not be fighting CP 9 but rather the entire world.

Without hesitation Luffy orders Usopp to shoot the flag down. Without hesitation the crew’s biggest coward puts a hole through the center of the World Government’s symbol of authority and declares war on the world.

CP 9’s apotheosis is an interesting one and reflects their goals quite well. Their ability to hunt down Franky quickly once it’s clear he’s the missing piece is noteworthy and, on top of the way all four undercover agents were introduced long before their reveal, establishes that Cipher Pol is indeed the world’s foremost experts in intelligence and infiltration. Their willingness to turn on old friends and a well crafted plan to escape the city is testament to their cold and professional conduct. But all this will not be enough to save them.

Villains are destroyed by their contradictions. Cipher Pol 9 was an organization built on secrecy and information gathering. But they failed to gather who had the plans they needed and what he had done with them. They failed to understand Luffy’s temperament, that he would ignore what his crew said under duress and refuse to give up on them. And they missed numerous other small things, like Sanji stowing away on their train as they escaped, that would add up to just enough of a delay to keep them in the Straw Hats’ reach. Additionally, in chasing superweapons, making threats with massive fleets and finally invoking the public face of the World Government they ceased to be anything like a secret organization. Spandam’s ambition and tactics ignored the nature of his role in the government and doomed him to failure.

The long apotheosis of CP 9 gave us time to not only see them at their best, dancing away from the Straw Hats time and again, but it showed us all the cracks in the armor that would ensure the pirates would catch them in the end and win out.

Once the Straw Hats confront Cipher Pol at Enis Lobby the collapse of the World Government’s top spies is only a matter of time and the defeat of the individual members of the group aren’t really important from the perspective of building villains. But the finishing touches on their defeat that wrap up the story’s plot threads and seal CP 9’s fate are instructive.

First off, One Piece is a “shonen battle manga”, meaning the emphasis of the story is on action, typically in the form of one on one duels. Usopp doesn’t have a duel with a CP 9 member per se, somewhat fitting since he’s not officially a member of the crew at the time. But he knows that the fact he hadn’t parted ways with Luffy when Robin left means she’d taken a fall for him as much as the others and so, when Spandam is dragging her towards the Gates of Justice and none of the other Straw Hats are in any position to help her, Usopp takes to the top of the gatehouse once more and snipes Spandam and his men, guaranteeing that the World Government will always consider him part of the Straw Hats. CP 9 didn’t take a direct hand in dividing him from his friends but they were the driving force that would bring the Straw Hats back together. Usopp ultimately stays with the crew after they leave Water Seven.

Second, as his minions are defeated one by one Spandam begins the Buster Call protocol and brings the Navy down on the Straw Hats like a hammer. With the sea train far behind them on the other side of the island the Straw Hats have no way off the island and find themselves surrounded by more and more powerful Navy combatants. As the situation begins to look hopeless Usopp hears the voice of the Klaubatermann and the Merry Go arrives, now aware enough to sail itself to its crew, to take the Straw Hats to sea one last time.

From the moment Kaku of CP 9 declared the ship useless the ship has served as a symbol for the health of the crew. Every setback the crew suffers in the Water Seven saga sees the ship become more and more tattered. Multiple people declare Merry Go will never sail again, including Iceberg and Franky. The infiltrators from CP 9 tell the Straw Hats over and over again the ship is dead. They might as well be saying that they’ll never have Robin back, that they’ll never be a family again. But when Merry comes for its crew we realize that all that disdain was meaningless. The Straw Hats hung together in the end and so did Merry. The crew was broken and struggled through to a new unity and Merry answered that. Sadly, the stalwart ship was still well and truly done for with this final task complete. But that… is not a part of the story of CP 9. For now, just know that the ship’s final act, not Usopp sniping Spandam, Luffy punching out Rob Lucci or Franky freeing Robin from her chains, marks the final defeat of Cipher Pol 9. When Merry sails into view every last aspersion cast on the crew’s honor is blown away and the crew is whole again, if only for a brief time.

Your villain is not defeated when he lies on the ground. He is defeated when the shadows he cast are gone.

As the villains of the Water Seven arc, CP 9 stands out as one of the best parts of one of the best arcs in One Piece. Built less as an extension of the One Piece world and more to oppose the Straw Hats at this particular juncture Cipher Pol 9 is, in many ways, an inversion of the Straw Hat Pirates. Their personalities match in many ways but the group dynamics are completely opposite. CP 9 has none of the Straw Hats’ camaraderie or cohesion. Spandam is a small and petty man who engenders no loyalty, Luffy a generous man who’s comrades trust and love him. With over a year and a half to tell the story of Water Seven, Oda clearly layed out these contrasts and made it very easy to see why pirates like the Straw Hats are better than self proclaimed emissaries of justice like CP 9 and his excellent command of the first two thirds of villainous storytelling made the third act less a flurry of realizations and desperate gambits and more the visitation of a well deserved reckoning on misguided villains. It’s worth the reading if you have the time and opportunity.

Further reading on the art of the villain:

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.