Accidentally on purpose

Back in April, a friend and I gave a presentation about the latest installment of the Devil May Cry series. We noted that the themes of the game and the language of the ads for it were all about confronting power structures and challenging societal norms, but the main characters were pretty stereotypical: a rough-and-ready male hero and a helpless, innocent damsel-in-distress. We presented this as something of a failure on the part of the creators, but one of the audience members said he was quite sure this had been done intentionally as part of the social commentary.

I had not considered this. I started to feel insecure about my own interpretation. Was I just too dumb to get the joke? However, the more I thought about it, the less sure I was that he was right. It seems a little silly to be talking about definitive rights and wrongs when it comes to individual interpretations, but I felt that my friend and I had some pretty logical reasons for thinking DMC’s characters were the products of laziness rather than cleverness. There was no cage match to decide who was right, but it still got me thinking about how to judge the flaws of various media. At what point can you look at such flaws and say, “Well, they’ve done it on purpose to be clever”? That’s not something I feel comfortable assuming.

Of course, there are times it’s obvious. I read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes over the semester, and even I could see that Anita Loos was using misspellings and a rather atypical form of stream of consciousness to create a gently mocking tone. But what about when it’s not obvious? I suppose I could just say we can all have our own ideas so hooray, let’s move on, but that’s not satisfying. Frankly, it doesn’t even come down to whether I like or dislike the book, game, or movie in question; I loved the DMC reboot and Dante as a character, but I still thought the game failed to depart from the norms it was railing against.

I’m not looking for a magic formula, here. Critiquing media should always be nearly as difficult and unique as creating media, I think, so I’m really just interested in reading other people’s experiences with this. What things have you read, watched, or played that used its own flaws as part of its narrative? What about that particular thing (or things) made you think the mistakes were an intentional part of the commentary rather than being just, well, mistakes?

It’s so good to be bad

What do all these people have in common?

They all range from mildly attractive to drop-dead gorgeous, depending on your tastes.

And they’re all villains. I love villains. Well-developed, interesting, complex villains, that is.

I know. I’m super original.

Everyone loves well-developed, interesting, complex characters regardless of their status as a hero, villain, or anti-hero. If we learned anything from Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, it’s that villains are just as important (if not more important) to stories as heroes. In many cases, the villain could have been the hero at one point in his or her life; they had the same talent or power, but they were just a little more flawed. They’re just a little more human and a little less super. To me, a good villain is more real and/or relatable than a hero. I think we should give more villains their own stories.

I know of a few such stories. The first one that comes to mind is the manga and anime Death Note. If you don’t know anything about it, I’ll just repeat what everyone said to me before I watched it and tell you it’s a total mindfuck. I’ve only seen one episode of the immensely popular Breaking Bad, but everything I’ve seen, heard, and read tells me Walter White is a villain protagonist. I can’t exactly call Anna Karenina a villainess, but I certainly wouldn’t say she’s a heroine. I’m currently reading (or trying to read) Paradise Lost, and even though epic poetry isn’t my favorite thing ever, Milton’s Satan is incredibly likeable.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but look at the story potential even in that little selection of villains. Chris Hemsworth may be a gorgeous hunk of man, but I’d be way more interested in a movie strictly about Loki than I am in the Thor sequel. Queen Ravenna was a far more compelling character than Snow White in Snow White and the Huntsman, and yes, Charlize Theron is 10 times the actress Kristen Stewart is, but I think the difference was built into the characters. And I would pay SO MUCH THEORETICAL MONEY to see more of Hatsumomo’s story even if I loved Memoirs of a Geisha just the way it was.

Here is where I’d love to get some good, honest-to-God conversation going. Do you like stories whose main characters are a darker shade of gray? If so, how is it done successfully? Do all the characters have to be bad (a hero-less story) and the main character just has to be the most likeable, relatable baddie?

On that note, what do you think makes a villain likeable or relatable enough that readers or viewers can enjoy them or want to spend time with them despite their actions? Which character traits are inexcusable? What was the difference between villains you may have been rooting for just a teensy bit and villains you couldn’t wait to see go down in flames?

I’ve just now realized what’s wrong with Untitled P.O.S. Damn it.

Anyway, I’d like to hear from my readers! I know how I feel about villains, but whether you’re a writer, reader, runner, baker, or candlestick maker, I’d like to hear your opinion on the subject. Even if you don’t have a theory on the subject as a whole, I’m really interested to know who your favorite villain is and what makes them great.

The goddess needs a slang term for heroin

“When you create stories, you become gods of tiny, intricate dimensions.”             –Metatron, Supernatural

Will somebody please tell my characters I’m the god—er, goddess, whatever—of their tiny, intricate dimension? I don’t think they got the memo.

All joking aside, I do understand that when push comes to shove, I’m in control of the world I create. It may require me to step away from the project for a while, reaffirm my goal for the story, rediscover my characters, but I’m ultimately in charge. I can make characters whatever I want. They can be male, female, sane, crazy, soldiers, attorneys, candlestick makers, anything. Well, maybe in theory.

The problem is, I don’t know the first thing about being a soldier, an attorney, or a candlestick maker. In fact, I don’t know the first thing about most things in the world. My knowledge base of first-hand experience is limited. The only thing I know that most people probably don’t is how it feels to get kicked in the face by a horse. Therefore, writing characters who have done and seen things I haven’t done or seen can be problematic. Exhibit A: drugs.

Embarrassing story time! In the first draft of a short story I wrote for class, I wrote something about a character “snorting crack.” Yeah.

That wasn’t the first time Carly’s lack of drug knowledge was an issue. In my failed NaNo project, one of the first people to die was a drug dealer. My friends and I joked about Googling “street names for heroin” and how I was probably put on a federal watch list (something something NSA something something irony), but even though I got my answers, it didn’t make the scene any more convincing.

There are some things you just can’t Google, but there are some things you may not be able to experience first-hand either. For instance, how do fabulously wealthy people live? Unfortunately, I can’t answer that, and I can’t very well contact someone who lives in the Hamptons and say, “Hey, mind if I hang out with your family for a bit? Just, you know, observe how you interact with each other, what your children are like, maybe take that Aston Martin out for a spin? It’s research for my book.”

Now, if you’ve never done drugs and you’re not fabulously wealthy, my best guesstimate of how drug dealers and rich people act may not seem noticeably out of place to you. However, the guesses will be brutally obvious to someone out there. It could be the deciding factor in whether someone finishes the book or tosses it aside, whether they recommend it to a friend or give it a two-star review. Exhibit B: horses.

I’ve been riding horses since I was four years old. I’ve had just about every kind of trainer out there. I’ve ridden a wide variety of horses. I can clean a stall more efficiently and automatically than I can vacuum a room. Absolutely nothing can pull me out of a story faster than an inaccurate portrayal of horses, and oh boy, are they everywhere. Do not ask me to watch a “horse movie” because, from The Horse Whisperer to Hidalgo, Hollywood does it all wrong. Horses may not be central to video games, but nothing reminds me the game is all fake better than seeing reins connected to browbands. Thankfully, most people who write horse books actually know what they’re talking about, but once in a while you get someone who just wants to throw a riding scene in there and positively butchers it. The point is, the little details you don’t think are important could leave a mighty big impression.

So, if you’re writing something with horses in it, feel free to ask me questions! Since most of you probably aren’t, that’s a useless offer but it stands nonetheless. However, what to do about those things you can’t Google? What if you can’t take lessons? I think the answer is to get interviews.

So here are my questions for all of you writing gods and goddesses. Have you done interviews as research? How do you get them? How do you get attorneys and doctors to take time out of their day to talk to you? How do you ask addicts or victims of crimes questions that could be painful to them? I have yet to do any interviews as part of my research, so I’m curious as to how more experienced people manage it and how well it works.

One more question. Have you used TV shows or movies as “research” and gotten away with it? Obviously I’m not talking about borrowing the physics (or lack thereof) in the The Fast and the Furious, but what about Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of a person with autism in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Charlize Theron as a serial killer in Monster? Does Hollywood do anything right?