The Emotional and Physical Cores

The quest for believable characters is a long and arduous one, full of false leads, difficult lessons and special cases. One such case is the so-called “strong female character.” While what that phrase implies specifically varies from person to person in general it refers to a character who shows the fortitude and strength of character frequently portrayed in cinema by the likes of John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart or Jimmy Stewart. Except these characters should be female.

It’s a lofty goal to show as many different characters as possible living life with strong convictions and personal integrity and I wholeheartedly agree that women should portray this as well as men. However, many stories that set out to create a strong female character overlook a concept we’re going to call the physical and emotional cores of the story and that hamstrings their attempt to tell a good story with a strong character at the center. Let’s start by talking about what I mean by physical and emotional cores.

Each story tends to have a a physical and emotional embodiment. Another way to think of the physical embodiment is as the part of the story where action takes place and the emotional embodiment is where the story tries to make you feel something. Most good stories tend to have characters act more in one or the other of these areas to make those characters clearly defined. Yes, this is unrealistic but it tends to lead to better storytelling overall.

The two characters who best embodies the themes of the story carry the emotional and physical cores of the story.

For example, in the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty the emotional core rests with Princess Aurora, who’s feelings of isolation and desires to see the wider world define the emotional tenor of most of the film. The physical core rests with Prince Phillip, who finds Aurora in the forest and takes her to experience new things. He also takes center stage in the battle against Maleficent in the third act, another moment of peak physical storytelling.

It’s important to have the two cores in proximity to each other at moments of importance as they tend to draw one another out into sharp relief and lead to some of the best moments in a story. It’s Phillip and Aurora’s meeting that sparks their resolution to resist their arranged marriages (even though said betrothals are to each other, which they don’t know at the time). It’s also the catharsis of their reunion that makes the climax of the movie hit us square in the feels.

The problem is, if both the physical and the emotional cores are in a single character it can be hard to see how they’re impacting each other. Look at any shoddy piece of fiction and you’ll see unclear motives and hard to understand actions. That can happen for a lot of reasons but sometimes it’s just because one character is carrying too much of the story. Like any real person your characters sometimes need to step back and take a break, breath and let ideas settle. A character can’t do that if they have to carry both halves of a story.

At the same time, it’s the way the two cores impact each other, the emotional and physical character influencing each other with their different goals and needs, that makes the important moments impactful. If both cores are in one character that tension is missing.

How does that relate back to writing “strong female characters”?

Well, in the typical story women carry the emotional core and most people who set out to write strong female characters just take the physical core and hand it to their female character as well resulting in exactly the problem we just discussed. If we want a female character who carries the physical core – and this is typically what people mean by “strong female characters”, many characters have carried the emotional cores of their stories and been plenty strong but that’s not the point – if we want a female character who carries the physical core then we have to put the emotional core somewhere else.

A great example of this is the much more recent Disney film Frozen, where Anna embodies the physical core, climbing the mountain to find her sister and struggling with a slowly debilitating curse, while Elsa embodies the emotional core, struggling with self doubt and self loathing while struggling to maintain emotional distance from those around her.

Another is the animated 1990’s film Ghost in the Shell, where the Major embodies the physical aspect, taking most of the highly kinetic action scenes for herself while her partner, Batou, while still having action beats, mostly serves as a sounding board for her philosophical musings and an emotional tether to the humanity she fears she’s left behind. Where Motoko is mostly an emotional cypher Batou takes it upon himself to feel embarrassed by her lack of modesty and grieve when she is wounded.

Whether or not you’re interested in the mythical “strong female character” understanding where the physical and emotional components of your story lies is important. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your story is missing one or the other of the sides, either. The best action heroes tend to be grounded by family and friends and Harrison Ford still punched someone out in Sabrina. No matter what your story is, knowing who goes where in these equations is going to help you construct a better narrative.

The Broken Character Cycle

I’m not a huge fan of mainstream American storytelling, especially in longform mediums like TV or serialized novels. This may come as a surprise to longtime readers who have seen me comment on a number of such works in the past, many of which I said I liked. Well, odds are I still like them but as I’ve consumed more and more of them I’ve noticed one plot in particular occurring over and over again, a plot that has grown quite old and worn. I refer to this plot as the Broken Characters Cycle and this week I want to take a quick look at what it is, why I think it’s grown so popular and why, ultimately, I think it needs to go.

First things first. What is the cycle? In broad strokes it looks something like this:

  • There is a character who has made Bad Choices
  • That character seeks a New Start or undertakes a Great Work of Atonement
  • The New Start or Great Work requires the character to form new Relationships
  • The character is improved and edified through the Relationships and values them highly
  • At some point the Great Work forces the character to betray the Relationship or the other(s) in the relationship learns of the Bad Choices the character has made causing them to question the Work
  • The character sacrifices the Relationships for the Great Work (or visa versa)
  • Completing the Work or saving the Relationship leaves the character unfulfilled and full of guilt
  • The character seeks a New Start or undertakes another Great Work
  • Repeat ad nauseum

So why is this so popular? Two reasons.

First, it is a really good structure for a story. It has conflict built into it already, the structure is very flexible and can apply to anything from a courtroom drama to a hospital procedural and still function as is. Pretty much any kind of character can fit into the story structure, from cheerful slackers to driven geniuses. Second, the end of the cycle seamlessly blends into the beginning, allowing movies in a franchise or seasons of a TV show to return their characters to their neutral starting position and facilitating an easy set up for the next installment.

Both of these storytelling considerations are very important for the writers of long, ongoing media properties. Each movie, book or season needs to start at a place where new audience members can easily join and that makes the second point very important. The first point makes keeping up with the grueling timetable of a modern media franchise much easier as the basic framework of story and narrative beats never changes, just the details plugged in to them.

But these are only benefits for the production crews working on these media properties. The broken characters cycle doesn’t really provide a whole lot of benefits for the audience beyond a steady stream of story. And even that steady story can become a drawback.

The thing about the cycle is that it isn’t particularly complex and is very predictable, with story beats that come in very specific times and from very specific directions for maximum impact. You don’t have to be a media glutton or a trained story analyst to start seeing through the cycle, it just starts happening after a little while. And, worst of all, it doesn’t let the character at the center of the cycle grow from their experiences at all. There’s no character growth or substantial change to the status quo that isn’t quickly made irrelevant or undone entirely.

That gets frustrating very quickly. Media franchises need some kind of escalation over time, especially when they run for more than three installments. When the plot deliberately cuts that out of the equation through every iteration then it gets harder and harder to get invested.

Worse, while the cycle does provide great potential for conflict, both internal and external, for all those involved it’s very easy to see it coming, to the point where who falls in which roles can be determined as soon as a character starts down the cycle. With a story so easily predicted it can be easy to lose your audience. Think of it this way. I loves me a good pot of chili, but if I had to eat it every day for a month I’d get tired of it no matter how good the ingredients were or how skillful the chef that prepared it. The cycle is the same way – it’s not flawed inherently but today pretty much any story seeking to be dramatic executes the cycle at some point, if not as it’s primary story arc then as the arc for a supporting character. An most of them will run through the cycle repeatedly.

Now it’s true that there aren’t really any original stories, just new takes on character arcs like the broken characters cycle. And the lack of novelty is one of the reasons why anything attempting something fresh, from presentation to technique, tends to attract the attention of media critics. But with pretty much every major dramatic media franchise leaning on this cycle to some extent broken characters wear out their welcome very quickly.

I don’t really know what to do about the broken characters cycle. As I said before, it’s grown so popular for good reason. With the endless churn of Netflix, Hollywood and TV constantly demanding new content it’s entirely possible we won’t see a change of direction simply because relying on crutches like the cycle are the only way to keep up. But with the rise of the Internet independent media has begun to challenge old production cycles and changed the playing field. I hope to contribute to that change myself. But even if you don’t be on the lookout for this kind of ingrained wisdom. Stepping outside of it is sometimes all it takes to be a breakout in the media world.

See you next week when we talk about not talking.

Iron Fist’s Identity Crisis is NOT What You Think

For those who are new to this blog, the basic pattern I have is to alternate between writing fiction and general commentary on writing and stories. Now that The Face of the Clockworker is complete we’re switching gears into something a little different. Hope you enjoy!

Netflix original shows are stirring a lot of hype these days, none more so than those connected to Marvel. I recently picked up Netflix and decided to give the latest series, Iron Fist, a watch to see what all the noise was about.

That was a mistake.

Iron Fist is not particularly good TV, an opinion most people who have watched the show seem to agree with. The reasons for that are pretty straightforward, yet it’s a trap a lot of writers, myself included, tend to fall into and that makes it worth looking at.

Let me start by mentioning two things people are blaming that are not the reason Iron Fist is lackluster. First and foremost, the problem is not Finn Jones, be it as an actor, a martial artist or a white dude. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t find his performance in Iron Fist particularly memorable. But he does give the role a bit of nuance, handling nostalgia, discontent, joy and anger pretty well. He’s not going to win awards for his performance and that won’t be an oversight – he didn’t do anything that would stand out. But his performance is worthy of any number of CSI/Law and Order franchise shows and plenty of people like them.

It is true that Finn Jones was basically an amateur martial artist but, through intense training and what was most likely good use of stunt doubles they were able to make him pass as a competent fighter. Maybe not a great one, which he is admittedly supposed to be, but it’s really hard to tell. Danny Rand does so little fighting in the series, especially in the first half, it’s hard to get a grasp on how good or bad he is at it. Iron Fist has some really great fight scenes in it, especially in the later episodes. Not all of them are works of beauty and they lean a little too much towards being over choreographed ballet than the frantic, semirealistic action of a John Wick. But it’s supposed to be a martial arts series, not a typical run-and-gun action series so I can forgive that. The genre tends much more towards that kind of hyper stylized action and I generally like it. I generally liked the action in Iron Fist, too. In short, I don’t think Jones’ experience – or lack thereof – in the wushu department was the problem – or even a problem.

Finally, I don’t think the fact that Finn Jones was white was a problem. I could go on and on about the European martial arts traditions and how they developed differently from the Asian martial arts, and why, but that would waste space. Firstly because the point of it all would be to say that the basics of unarmed combat exist in every culture, the cultures just put their own spin on them. The only thing particularly unique about the Asian traditions is the strong emphasis on spiritual awareness they tend to include in their teachings. Second because that’s not the real problem people have when they make the point.

For some reason a small cadre of people hate the notion of an outsider coming in, learning a skill from a given culture and mastering it better than his teachers. The fact that a white person does it somehow makes this the same as colonization, apparently. The whole notion is ridiculous. Ignoring the fact that outsiders as protagonists makes exposition much easier for the author, the point is it happens all the time. In fact, it can lead to radically advancing the art form. Consider the Suzuki school of music. Shinichi Suzuki, a Japanese man, created one of the most widespread and successful methods of early music education even though all the instruments taught with that method are European.

Besides, Iron Fist isn’t even a story about a man learning and mastering a skill from a foreign culture. It’s about a man who has already done that and comes home to use the new wisdom and power he gained from the lessons of others to help those he left behind. Danny Rand frequently seems to miss the world he left behind far more than he values the one he returned to. What’s really being praised in that case, American culture or Eastern culture? And why should it make a difference either way?

The second thing that is not the problem is the show’s production schedule. I hear it was somewhat rushed, in particular leading to Jones not getting as much training in stunts and martial arts as the stunt directors might have wished. Maybe this all is true, but I couldn’t see many signs of it in the way the show was shot or the way the action scenes unfolded.

In truth, this show could have had any lead actor and all the filming time in the world and, if the script and structure of the story wasn’t touched, I would still find it mediocre.

The real problem with Iron Fist is that, while it features a protagonist who’s supposed to be a master of martial arts and uses that mastery to defend the little guy there isn’t a whole lot of martial arts or defending of little guys going on at first. And even when the series picks up in the second half, Iron Fist remains weirdly obsessed with corporate intrigues, boardroom politics and the owners of the Rand Corporation, the business Danny’s parents owned before they all flew off and died in a plane crash along with Danny. Compared to the kung fu action we are promissed by the show’s premise it’s all pretty boring.

Worse, the show treats this corporate conflict as the core conflict rather than the sideshow. The mastermind of the process is the villain taken down in the final episode even though he hasn’t really been an obstacle to Danny for the rest of the series. The Hand, the villainous Triad-ninja hybrid crime gang that Danny spends most of the series fighting gets plenty of screen time but doesn’t really seem to do much for the story. In fact, except for a tacked on and nonsensical attempt to have the climactic episode of the show tie in to Danny fighting a dragon and gaining his powers during his training, the whole corporate intrigue side of the show doesn’t tie into Danny’s character arc at all.

While the Meechums and other corporate characters are kind of interesting, and might have made for a good story on their own, when tied to the story of Iron Fist they just take up running time that could have been spent developing characters like Colleen Wing or Claire Temple more, characters who brought much more to the central thrust of Danny’s story than the Meechums. Not to mention we might have gotten to see Danny doing more cool martial arts stuff like, I don’t know, fighting a dragon?

This is a common problem for a lot of writers and Iron Fist is a great example of why cramming too many conflicts, characters and themes into a single story hurts. The people who wrote Iron Fist tried to chase two rabbits and caught neither, leaving the audience hungry and feeling like their time was wasted. The show is a mess because no one knew what kind of story was being told. Sad, but not entirely unexpected. Better luck with The Defenders Marvel.

Creativity is a Response

Postmodernism came about fifty to sixty years ago to insist that the only way that artists could be truly free to create was to tear down every obstacle, tradition, convention or interpretation. Prevailing wisdom had to go, centuries of understanding about art, founded by brilliant men like da Vinci or Rembrandt, was junked because there was no way those guys could have had anything relevant to say to people as advanced as ourselves. The artist was finally free to create whatever they wanted. The direct result is that modern art is terrible.

What happened?

Mark Rosewater, head designer for Magic: The Gathering, the world’s most popular card game, has a little saying he frequently shares with the people who ask him for advice. That saying goes, “Restrictions breed creativity.”

This saying suggests that having limits placed on what you can do leads to more creativity, not less, and if it’s true then the very notion that someone seeking to be creative must have no limits is not only wrong – it’s counter productive. And if all that’s true then the postmodern conception of art and creativity is directly responsible for the decline of the quality in creative endeavors postmodernists undertake.

All this is not to say it’s bad to toss all restrictions to the side and think about ideas in the abstract. It’s part of how we drive human thought forward. But art is meant to be shared with other people, that’s why there are museums, galleries and showings, to say nothing of the lessons, classes and even schools dedicated to the arts. There are a lot of very good, useful human processes that aren’t meant to be shared with others and personal naval gazing is one of them. The personal background that underpins such introspection makes it difficult to relate to in any format short of a dissertation when it is entirely based on personal epiphanies, which seems to be all that postmodernism leaves the artist to work with.

In short, it may not be a coincidence that postmodern art has such a bizarre fascination with human excrement. One of the boundaries it’s lost seems to be what should be public and what should be private.

Moving on.

Let’s talk about how restrictions help us be creative. Human beings are fundamentally lazy creatures, if we can make a straight line from Point A to Point B we will. But put a wall in the way and all of the sudden what a person does to get from Point A to Point B can be any number of things. Go around the wall, climb over it, cut through it or dig under it. This creativity is engendered by the limitation put in their way. It’s not even possible to climb or cut without a wall in place to act on. Yes, a person could still wander around or dig without a wall, but they’re not likely to go to all the work if they don’t have to.

And as I said before, having restrictions placed on you can give you new ways to look at the problem. Instead of going about things the way you always have, restrictions can force you to look at an issue in a new way and create whole new ways to problem solve – or to express yourself.

And a person could say to themselves, “Well, I’ll get where I want to go without using any straight lines.” But guess what? As soon as they’ve done that they’ve set a rule they have to follow in order to help them be creative. The restriction breeds creativity.

You see, rules don’t have to be limitations set on us by society, or physics, or human nature. They can just be guidelines we create for ourselves. When confronted with the seemingly limitless possibilities of a blank piece of paper it helps to have guidelines to help determine where you’re going to go with it. Are you writing a story? A poem? Painting a landscape? Or drawing a cartoon? All of those things are limits on what you are creating. Without them the possibilities would be paralyzing.

Beyond that, many rules exist to tell us what has been tried and found wanting. Yes, we could try and reinvent the wheel. But doing so is neither groundbreaking nor helpful. To go back to the original analogy, by throwing out all the rules in art postmodernists not only threw out years of conventions, that admittedly may have hindered artistic expression to an extent, they threw out all the rules built on an understanding of what makes a thing beautiful to see and easy to understand. While the occasional modern artist will stumble across something that makes their ideas accessible to others they won’t bother to share it for fear of limiting their peers. And so they keep badly reinventing the wheel when artists like Michelangelo were the artistic equivalent of interstellar flight centuries ago. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

Too often people who want to be creative look at a restriction on what can be done as a block to creativity. But the truth is, creativity expresses itself however it can, overcoming obstacles and reveling in the things that should undo it. It responds to the idea that a thing should be difficult by showing how it’s a delight. Without structures, creativity is dead.

Christmas is coming up, and this is my last post for the year. So I’d like to leave you with a little gift. Here is a list of ten creative endeavors, complete with things restrictions, that you can try out. Hopefully they’ll give you a new appreciation for how your creativity comes out in response to them.

  1. Write a haiku, a traditional form of Japanese poetry with three lines where the first and last lines have five syllables and the middle line has seven.
  2. Write a short story in one hundred words or less.
  3. Write a review of the last movie you saw without adjectives or adverbs.
  4. Build a LEGO house using no pieces smaller than 2 x 8.
  5. Describe your day without using colors or numbers.
  6. Prepare a hot meal without using a knife.
  7. Draw a self portrait without using a pen, pencil, brush or crayons.
  8. Write your next five Facebook posts or texts without using the letter ‘u’.
  9. Film and edit a music video using nothing but your phone.
  10. Draw a portrait of a friend but lay out every line using a ruler.

Hope you’ll chose to share a few of your endeavors with me. See you next year!

Frequency – A Show Don’t Tell Masterclass

Make no mistake – Frequency is not a perfect show. It’s not the best show airing right now. But it might be the best new show of the season. The actors are not going to win awards, although they’re solid enough, and for the most part I think the writers take the show more seriously than anyone else ever will.

But it does one thing right, and that’s – you guessed it – show don’t tell.

The basic premise of Frequency is that detective Julie Sullivan, a modern day NYPD detective, lost her father Frank Sullivan, also an NYPD detective, at an early age. Then an old HAM radio is struck by lightning, allowing it to communicate with itself 20 years in the past. More to the point, allowing Julie to speak with her father shortly before he dies. The two quickly set out to use cross-time communication to save Frank’s life and fight for justice!

The wonkiness of the plot was enough to intrigue me into watching the pilot. The ability of the pilot to pack information into a single episode convinced me to stay, at least for this season. Frequency manages incredible information density through show don’t tell in three specific areas. First, in establishing the show’s split time periods. Second, in establishing that the linked timeframes are synchronous (and I’ll explain what I mean by that in a second). Third, in showing causality and chaos there. And it does all of this without an exposition dump or unwieldy “sciency” character. Not that such characters are always bad, but putting one in this story probably wouldn’t have served the plot very well.

Let’s start with the way the show frames itself. The story has two timeframes, 2016 and 1996, both of which are established before they cross paths. The modern era is established by just showing us things that we take for granted – modern cars, smartphones and current music. The past is a little trickier, but still pretty easy to do. We see Frank watching the 1996 World Series as he’s first introduced and, a little while later, we see former President Clinton on TV at some kind of official function where the announcer introduces him as the leader of the free world – implying that he is, in fact, the president at the time. Add in little things like CRT TVs and out of date cars and it’s pretty easy to make a rough estimate of the time period. Of course, there’s also Julie herself, who we see as a young girl in this era, and who’s birthdays – eighth and twenty-eighth – are mentioned as touchstones to hammer down the exact timing shortly before the first father and daughter cross-time talk.

The second thing established is how events in 1996 and 2016 are synchronous, and until Frank does something new in his era Julie won’t see the results of it in hers. We see this in two separate incidents. The first is probably the most ingenious. When Julie and Frank first speak Frank is so weirded out he sets his cigar down and misses the ashtray. It burns a hole through the wooden top of the HAM radio – a hole Julie sees appearing in her time in real time. The hole has not always been there, as it would be in some time travel stories, it appears before Julie’s eyes as she’s watching and she asks about it, prompting Frank to pick the cigar up and put it back in the ashtray then brush the coals off the top of the radio. The hole stops growing in Julie’s time period. In much the same way, Julie labors under the impression her father is dead until the moment that history changes and her father’s life is saved.

Finally, the show demonstrates causality and the “butterfly effect” not by having someone explain it to Julie but by having her live it. After saving her father’s life she hurries to keep a date with her fiance and his parents only to find that he doesn’t have any idea who she is. Then she discovers that her mother is dead – the result of her going to the hospital to visit Frank there after he survives the shooting that should have killed him. In the process she becomes the target of a serial killer rather than the victim he had originally selected. Again, this is a sequence we see happen and it drives home that this is the consequence of what Julie and Frank did far more than just hearing about it.

With all this basic, world building exposition happening along side of the character building dialog the first episode of Frequency does an amazing job of establishing the world, it’s rules and the people who we’re going to watch play by them in the confines of the forty three minutes most network TV shows have to work with. It’s worth watching for the pure craftsmanship even if you don’t like time travel or police procedurals. What’s more, most of what the show does would only work on the screen, meaning the writers were giving careful consideration to how best they could use their medium, which many writers neglect. All together this makes the pilot alone worth watching, even if you choose to pass on the rest of the series. Don’t deprive yourself.

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.