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.

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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.

 

Kado, The Right Answer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Physician Heal Thyself – Dr. Who On the Brink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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