The Burden of Being Normal

Let me wax philosophical about one of the greatest heroes I’ve seen recently. His name is Reigen Arataka and he is a master of the salt.

No, he’s not the main character of Mob Psycho 100. But he is it’s heart. The titular character, Mob, is a taciturn, antisocial kind of person who is hard to relate to. That’s kind of his schtick. But Reigen is his mentor, his source of morals, his emotional core. He frames Mob’s understanding of normal people and, as such, tends to serve as the audience’s point of view into Mob’s mind as much as he’s Mob’s view into other people.

Which is initially terrifying, since Reigen is an atrocious con man. Mob is a legitimate psychic with telekinetic powers, the ability to see spirits and who knows what other kinds of absurd abilities and, as an elementary student, he comes to Reigen’s entirely fraudulent psychic medium business in the hopes of finding some help in understanding his powers and abilities. What he gets instead is a very simple principle to live by – psychic abilities are talents just like athletic ability and academic skill. It’s an interesting point of view, especially given who it comes from.

Reigen fits an anime mold I like to call “The Omnicompetent”, a person who has literally every skill a given situation calls for other than the skills the rest of the cast bring to the table. He gives perfect massages, photoshops brilliantly and out cons conmen in between helping Mob keep his powers under control by diffusing the emotional time bombs that cause them to run rampant. There’s very little that can keep Reigen from getting what he wants besides his own rotten personality.

Reigen is not a great role model for Mob. He is a con man, after all, and no amount of good life advice changes the fact that he’s using Mob as ludicrously underpaid exorcist for the occasional client with a real supernatural problem. Reigen lacks honesty and purpose, beyond being life coach for a middle schooler of apocalyptic power, and that’s why he hasn’t moved beyond being a simple con man and actually made something of himself.

Reigen is normal. In spite of all his unbelievable number of professional level skills, he is normal. Changing, becoming someone truly exceptional, would require hard work, sacrifice and other hardships that he can’t bring himself to make. At least, not on behalf of himself. Mob is a very different story.

When the two first meet Reigen tells his newly minted pupil that his powers are just like the ability to study, to sing or to run fast. They are a talent, and they can be nice to have, but they don’t make him special. Psychic powers will let him do some things, but they aren’t a panacea.

Mob takes this lesson to heart and sets out to achieve his goals by developing whatever set of skills will take him that way, rather than bulling his way through with psychic powers. He wants to be charismatic and get a girl to like him so he joins a bodybuilding club and starts trying to understand how people work in spite of his own insular nature.

This dynamic is written large when, at the show’s climax, Reigen winds up as Mob’s surrogate against a group of super powerful espers who seek to rule the world (of course!) and be worshipped for how special their powers make them.

“Normal” versus “special” might very well be the central conflict in Mob Psycho 100. It might strike you as odd, then, that the protagonists, who are one in a million deviations from the norm, are making the case for normal. But as Reigen weilds Mob’s powers, strolling effortlessly through dozens of building wrecking attacks, and lecturing us on how anyone who is so arrogant as to think they’re special and entitled to anything hasn’t lived in the real world we can’t help but find his argument compelling. After all, he’s many times more powerful than they are and still a commoner.

Reigen has a very simple message, and in our day and age it’s a useful one, too. If you think you’re special you haven’t lived yet. If you fail it falls to you to improve. That’s the burden of being normal. And it’s what makes the dedicated commoners who work to change, little by little, truly special.

For a story with a nuanced message – but absurd action – Mob Psycho is worth a look.

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My Hero Academia and the Art of Subtly

 

At it’s most fundamental level, My Hero Academia is a manga about a young man, known as Deku to his friends, who sets out to become a hero in a world where a whopping eighty percent of all people have superhuman abilities and costumed superheroes are a fact of life.

Deku, of course, has no powers of his own.

The role model Deku fixates on is the nation’s top hero, All Might, who is renowned for daring rescues, his care for the common people and his unflinching stance against evil. Deku’s story is not how a person with “nothing special” becomes a hero, however. Instead, it’s a tale of legacy. It turns out that All Might carries the one superpower – or “quirk” in the story’s parlance – that can be passed from one person to another. And after a devastating battle left All Might with chronic wounds that made it impossible for him to use his powers for more than a few hours a day he set out to find a successor. Naturally, that successor turns out to be Deku.

That probably doesn’t sound like a very unusual story, and really, it’s not. My Hero Academia is a very good, well written coming of age story about a young man who has to live up to a heavy burden and who struggles with what that means and how much it will cost him. It’s fun and has heart. But nothing would be particularly unusual about it, other than how well it executes it’s story, except for one little fact.

All Might is from the United States of America.

American characters aren’t exactly uncommon in manga, but the medium is fundamentally Japanese so they aren’t usually that central to the plot. There’s a long standing trope of a Japanese person who’s live overseas a great deal and behaves very differently because of it and there’s also plenty of characters who have a Japanese parent and a parent from elsewhere. But for the main character’s mentor to not Japanese is so rare as to be outrageous.

Yet All Might, in spite of having a Japanese name for his civilian identity, is undoubtedly American. He’s identified as a foreigner by several characters at various times. He calls his plan to prepare Deku for hero life “the American Dream plan.” His special attacks are named after cities and states in the U.S. His personality is brash and grandiose, traits the Japanese (and many others) associate with Americans. So why?

The author of the work has never shown any particular Anglophilia. It’s true that superheroes, the concept at the heart of the work, are an American invention but there’s no need to import a mentor character for the series. Personally, I believe there’s something more going on here.

For decades Japan’s relationship with the U.S. has been defined by the Second World War. After a crushing defeat the popular understanding of America has been that, as a nation, it’s defined by it’s military might. Perhaps that’s an understandable impression, all things considered. But there’s always been a political undercurrent of desire for that kind of strength in Japan. With the constant bickering with China that’s come to characterize the eastern Pacific in the past decade that desire has been gaining cultural and political steam.

In that light the thought of an American hero passing his power down to a Japanese person is pretty interesting. Consider the timing of All Might’s decline, which is pegged at about five years before the start of the manga. The timing lines up curiously well with the rise of the Islamic State and growing American uninvolvement on the world stage. So is this apparently simple tale of a young man aspiring to greatness actually a suggestion that Japan needs to step up on the world stage, set aside it’s own insular tendencies and try to become a force for good in the world? Would that be a bad thing?

If this notion is true, one thing that’s clear is that it’s not a polemic against the U.S. Deku’s rival, Bakugo, is another loud, brash character like All Might, with a dose of supreme confidence and ego thrown in. He could very well be the avatar for American Exceptionalism. While Deku and Bakugo don’t see eye to eye, probably don’t even like each other very much, they also don’t see each other as working at cross purposes. Bakugo doesn’t seem to think Deku’s cut out for the superhero life at first but they manage to find a grudging, working relationship. Even if USA World Police are gone, the manga suggests, there’s still great advantages in working with the U.S.

But is it even okay to wrap such an idea up in a bright, shiny package and run it in a publication aimed primarily at young, impressionable boys?

That’s a thornier issue. My Hero Academia treats the dangers, responsibilities and moral aspects of being a superhero very seriously, surprisingly so for a story aimed at adolescents. Deku’s life is not simple or easy, he faces hurdles that require more than a carefree grin and superhuman power to overcome. The mere fact that these questions are raised points to a deeper, more nuanced view of issues than simply smashing in the door and rounding up the bad guys – although that does need to happen sometimes and the story readily acknowledges that, too. Point is, getting people to ask these questions is an improvement all on it’s own. If Japan ever does have a debate about their place on the world stage an understanding of subtle questions will be as important as a firm grounding in larger issues. While My Hero Academia might be seen as pushing for one side of the issue it never goes out of its way to demonize those who might go the other way, and that is commendable.

Ultimately, the whole line of inquiry is speculative. And that may be the biggest lesson of My Hero Academia. It has a very simple, well explored premise. But, by writing with subtly as well as passion it brings a layer of depth and nuance that is not easily explored and will probably keep those on either side debating it for a time to come. What more could a good story hope for?

The Art of Evil Never Dies

It’s been a long journey to get here but we’ve finally finished a quick tour through the art of building an effective villain. I hope this exploration of villainy will be useful to you as you seek to build a compelling villain your audience will relate to. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about that in this series, rather than talking about how to design their looks and backstories. Classic sources of villainous gambits like Machiavelli’s The Prince or Robert Green’s The 48 Laws of Power have been pretty much absent (though do read them) in favor of getting at your villain’s motivation and persona.

The reason for this is simple. Villains are a part of us in a way we rarely like to acknowledge. People do love villains, they like the feeling of someone who will do whatever it takes to get what they want, but they don’t like the contradictions that destroy villains nor are they entirely comfortable with the depths of depravity that villains can sink to. Heroes are the uncomfortable, challenging but ultimately more edifying alternative to villainy. In many ways the hero vs. villain narrative we love so much is a study in two sides of ourselves, highlighting the conflict between things like selflessness and depravity that every person faces.

Unfortunately for fiction today villains are cranked out as totally bland, featureless, cackling mischief makers. They don’t represent parts of ourselves that must be challenged by our better selves, they’re just obstacles for protagonists to overcome. As villains have lost those shreds of humanity that made us fear them less as an existential threat and more as a glimpse of our inner demons heroes have lost something as well, becoming meaner, more vindictive and thuggish, until sometimes it feels like the hero’s victory boils down to a crowd cheering as one bully beats another bully into the pavement.

For a long time I didn’t understand the people who liked villains more than heroes. It wasn’t until I’d done a lot of introspection that I realized how much of what I hated about myself I saw in villains and  how profoundly the ways heroes responded to them had influenced me. It didn’t just change the way I thought about villains, it gave me much greater compassion for those people from my life that I could have easily considered villains.

The failure of villains in modern fiction goes far beyond it’s literary implications. Fiction is an opportunity to face our darkest depths and see the ways they can be overcome in ways that are healthy and safe. Without fictional villains to let us face our worst parts of ourselves we start to see our worst traits everywhere, even places where they might not really exist. Without relateable villains to let us build empathy we start to think anyone who shows us even the slightest specter of evil deserves to be shunned, loathed and possibly even hunted and destroyed. When our cultural landscape is empty of truly great villains we must face our worst natures in the here and now with no preparation in the safety of our imagination, with none of the edge blunted by the lessons great art can teach.

A villainous generation of flat caricatures, one dimensional monsters that bear no resemblance to anyone who has ever lived, has deprived us of the nobility and compassion that should define our greatest heroes. We’re the poorer for it.

Mankind is dark. Our capacity for evil is staggering in scale and history has confirmed it time and again. No matter what hero rises up to face it, the problem will never be defeated. Each person must come to grips with the problem, as each person embodies it. So today, I make the case for the villain. Each person deserves to face their worst and try to overcome it and the fictional villain is a time tested way to start. Weigh the villains you encounter, take their measure and seriously consider what makes them human and how they come undone and you’ll eventually find the way to write your own. Yes, it will probably mean facing your own dark side. Consider it a side benefit.

We’ve spent a lot of time on villains. Two months, to be exact. Next week let’s flip the paradigm, look at the other side of the equation for a bit. Until then, go forth and think evil. For greater good.

The Art of Evil – Double X

Your villain is probably male.

That top ten list? (Parts one and two.) Seventy percent male. Most villains in modern fiction are male. I’m not saying yours shouldn’t be female, but girl villains come with hurdles to overcome that boy villains don’t, and that makes writing them well and getting your point across more difficult, so many authors just don’t bother. The obstacles aren’t insurmountable but some stories just don’t have the space to devote to it or the villain may not be important enough to the overall story to justify the extra work – and writers do have to ration out their work or they will burn out, which helps no one.

So what are the pitfalls of a female villain? In short they fall into three broad categories, two of which are rooted in human nature and one of which is more of a modern societal construct.

The first quirk of human nature to address is the simple fact that no person, man or woman, likes to see a woman in danger. Consider this social experiment, conducted by two actors in a public park in London:

Notice how people broke up the argument where the man was threatening, sometimes before he did more than raise his voice, while the man being threatened was basically ignored the whole time and sometimes people even celebrated. People don’t like seeing women in danger, and danger is where most villains have to go in order to get what they want. You might think that people are willing to look past this in the interest of good storytelling but the fact is they aren’t.

Two recent examples of this protective instinct manifesting on behalf of fictional female characters include the protests over the treatment of Daisy Domergue in The Hateful Eight and the complaints surrounding the billboards and posters showing a confrontation between Apocalypse and Mystique in X-Men: Age of Apocalypse. Both times there was protest for women being placed in scenarios that wouldn’t draw a second glance if faced by man.

Some people would assert that this is a result of culture and conditioning but the fact is, keeping women away from violence is a common thread in world cultures so it makes more sense to me to consider it universal. We can’t really expect it to go away any time soon, especially since the people who claim to most oppose these kinds of “gender roles” – namely, feminists – are exactly the people who protested in these two examples.

Point is, there’s little to nothing an author can do about this directly. You could strive to keep your villain out of physical struggles entirely, or keep such things brief or even have them happen off screen, but that limits what you can do with your villain. The alternative is to put your female villain through the wringer and take the inevitable scolding, a la Tarantino. Or, you could just avoid the quandary and make your villain a dude. On the whole, as statistics suggest, authors chose the latter.

The second reason villains tend not to be female in modern fiction is because women, on aggregate, are risk averse. Again, with villainy being a role that brings a certain degree of risk with it, it becomes a thing that we expect more of men than women. Risk taking is something most ladies choose only when circumstances drive them to it. There’s certainly a place for villains who find their calling when pushed to the wall but, again, it’s a limiting factor in how you can use your villain in your story.

Yes, your villain could be a very atypical woman, but that undercuts her utility as a good connection point for your audience. That doesn’t mean you can’t break this stereotype, or even write a story where the restrictions of demographic averages are in full effect, but in either case you’re left with another set of restrictions on what you can do, restrictions that may not serve your story. In many cases it will be simpler to make your villain a man.

These first two hurdles to a female villain are simple facts of life, easily observable in day to day life. They are neither good or bad, they simply are, and anyone trying to tell a story needs to begin with a solid grasp on the way things are before they set pen to page or they risk running afoul of verisimilitude. Sure, fiction lets you depart from reality to an extent but if you’re not brutally honest about how far from convention you’ve gone you risk overstepping what your audience will expect.

It’s also never wise to try and force characters to be something other than what their nature calls for. Breaking convention for the sake of breaking convention may seem innovative but it frequently comes off as a lazy attempt to seem creative. but it If your character isn’t fitting well as a woman then write them as a man. This goes double for villains, who demand to be taken on their own terms.

But what about the societal reason?

This is a much touchier subject. (And it’s not like the previous two were contentious.) The third reason I think female villains are uncommon in modern fiction is because society puts women in a position of moral authority.

This may come as a bit of a surprise to you, most people are taught that we live in a society where men run everything but even a cursory examination suggests something much different. Most teachers for children under ten are women, most major colleges have women’s studies departments and just a quick Google search shows a number of articles explaining why the treatment of women is the gold standard for morality (examples one and two). This attitude is seen in action when a mere accusation of violence got Auburn University student Jovon Robinson expelled simply by accusing him of a single act of violence, with no evidence or police inquiry.

There is an extent to which women get to measure who is good and bad in modern society. If a villain has the power to define whether what they do is good or bad then, by definition, they cannot be a villain.

Writing a female villain within the confines of the moral authority society gives them, usually the authority to brand the men in their lives (fathers, brothers, bosses and boyfriends for the most part) as violent or degenerate, pretty much impossible. You can write a gripping thriller about a villainous man who murders, or tries to murder, his spouse but make him a woman and anything but a sympathetic portrayal becomes almost impossible today.

Once again, this imposes a limit on what can be done with the female villain, and, notably, not one that existed in the past. In days of yore it was considered equally feasible for a woman to be an aggressor and a bully towards the men in her life as the reverse. Lady Macbeth, anyone? Today those kinds of villains are much less common.

One thing you shouldn’t do is hear me saying don’t write female villains. You should, when the time is right. But there are factors that make female villains more difficult to take on and you need to know them, weigh them and decide whether you’re up for them and whether your story wants to deal with them. Writing a story, getting all the pieces in position and understanding all the characters is a major undertaking. Sometimes you just don’t want to toss all those extra variables into the mix. If you don’t you’re in good hands. Many great villains came about without needing to tangle with them. Plenty exist in spite of them, too. Honestly, this shouldn’t be the biggest factor in your thinking by a long shot. But it’s not something you see discussed much, so hopefully this has been a help to you. See you next week when we wrap up this series with a few final thoughts about villains, why modern villains fail so badly and what comes next.