An Update on My Progress

This is an update for those wondering why it’s taking so long for me to churn out the next post. For the record, I’ve been using what free time I have to work on the Things that Rocked, Things that Sucked of the next Naruto arc on my list, and boy is it taking me a while to write despite the arc being shorter than the multiple arcs that were focused mostly on Sasuke. It’s going to be a real doozy too given that after writing quite a bit, I’m still not even done with the first draft. Only now do I realize just how much there is to talk about there.

Here’s a bit of something to chew on while I try to finally finish the review: my suggestions for minor changes to The Force Awakens that would have made it so Rey’s growth felt less controversial. First of all, make her less invincible. In other words, don’t be afraid to have her fail and land herself in serious peril despite her best efforts. For example, while she did escape from her shackles near the end, she manages to avoid getting captured just fine without the aid of her friends. Maybe make it so that despite doing fine for a while, she eventually finds herself cornered, only to be saved by her friends. This would better highlight the importance of teamwork among the good guys (to contrast with how individual villains don’t seem to like each other all that much), as well as to emphasize that her friends were willing to come all that way to save her (in contrast to the family that abandoned her), in turn shifting her further away from her loner tendencies.

Second, instead of letting Rey develop the ability to apply the Force in different ways over the course of the movie, instead, as with the original Star Wars, focus instead on one skill that is mastered by the climax. In the original, it’s Luke applying what Obi-Wan taught him when he was practicing with the lightsaber in order to pinpoint the thermal exhaust port and guide the proton torpedoes to it. Instead of a mind trick then, perhaps have Rey escape her bonds using telekinesis. It could even be hinted at by having her unconsciously moving objects when under high levels of stress, which could in turn be used to indicate both her potential as well as emphasizing whatever emotional issues she has that could lead to the Dark Side (and in turn working well to foreshadow the risks of her hostile state of mind during the final parts of the confrontation at the end of the movie). Going back to telekinesis, this skill would become more prominent each time she used it during the movie. This would then come to a head when she overpowered Kylo’s own telekinesis to nab the lightsaber.

And that’s not even getting into making it so that her fighting style is far dirtier and more pragmatic than what we got in the movie. You’d think someone who had to fend for herself against a hostile planet would understand the value of not fighting fair. That would have been a cool way to differentiate her from Luke and Anakin while also showing similarities over which she could bond with Han “Shot First” Solo. It certainly would have been one way to show her gaining an advantage over Kylo Ren during their duel, if she just kept fighting dirty to make up for her lack of experience with a lightsaber.

How the hell does my mind expend so much brainpower on this crap?

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Video Games, the Escapist Character, and a Bunch of Thoughts

I’ve previously explored the concept of the escapist character and how they relate to the audience. Characters like James Bond and Indiana Jones are less about character arcs and relationships than they are about thrills and adventure—that is to say, escapism. Such characters are broadly defined in a manner in which their simplicity ensures memorability. They are not so much surrogates for the audience, as they are what members of the audience wish they could be. These characters benefited in the later stages of the twentieth century from the popularization of a medium that could effectively take advantage of them, as the escapist character’s relationship with the audience was perfected through letting said audiences become the character. The medium I speak of, as should be obvious in the title, is the video game.

In a video game, players can take control of a character, and through them thus do things that they could only otherwise dream of. Even the average geek gorging out on nachos and soda can pretend for a time to be Batman or whatever larger than life character they wish to be.*

I’ve also previously written on the perils of adapting a video game for the big screen. The ingredients that make a great game do not translate into a great movie. A game is an interactive experience while a movie is a presentation. That is why great care must be taken even as one transplants what should be a cinema-friendly element—the escapist character—from a video game. One risk lies in the importing of certain characters that might not be able to succeed within the same niche upon transplantation into a new medium.

Given my previous digressions on Star Wars, I suppose it oddly fitting to bring that franchise to the fore once again because the damn theme is still stuck in my head. Prior to the changes made to the canon by Disney, two notably escapist characters were introduced into the fictional galaxy far, far away via video games. Revan and Galen Marek served their roles as escapist characters well within the concepts of the games they were introduced in (Revan in particular even had an appearance that was decided upon by the player), however, upon closer inspection, one can see various ways in which they were a poor fit for the old canon unless certain changes were made.

Revan’s shortcomings as a character lie in the fact that in many respects, he (according to the wiki, Revan is, or rather was, canonically a he) does in fact embody the Marty Stu. While the traits that do define him as such work for an escapist character, they fail to make him properly fit into the larger framework of the franchise, which eschews such characters in favor of broad archetypes that have the potential for developmental arcs. He is described by others as having mastered both the light (ergh) and dark (ugh) sides of the Force without succumbing (argh) to the temptations of the latter. In addition, he is also highly skilled in a variety of disciplines, talked up by others, and even gets the girl at the end. Now granted, this works well for an escapist character. However, this doesn’t quite work all that well within the wider mythos. Looking at it from a more distant vantage point, Revan’s existence undermines the later existence of Anakin Skywalker, the so-called Chosen One of unprecedented potential who, despite all his natural talent and wide variety of skills, was also a highly flawed person who ultimately failed to achieve any of his goals, but at least came to be redeemed and fulfill his destiny in the final moments of his life. It’s why it is so satisfying to see Revan lose badly in his confrontation with the Sith Emperor**, and then suffer further humiliations later on. But as bad as Revan was, there was arguably an even worse example of an escapist character who was more of a Marty Stu when considering the broader context: Galen Marek.

As the protagonist of a game that promised players a chance to live out their fantasies of kicking ass with the Force, Galen excelled in that capacity, pulling off great feats of ability with the Force and shifting the course of the galaxy’s history—an exemplar of power fantasy within the realm of video games. If Revan was but a point in which the audience could insert themselves into the SW saga, then Galen was just a good old fashioned Marty Stu. To bring you an idea of the insanity, let’s bring up how he’s portrayed as possessing such a huge amount of potential in the Force that he tops Yoda by telekinetically moving an entire Star Destroyer (!!!).

I know that size matters not, but holy shit. Galen is in fact, so skilled and so powerful to he manages to take on Darth Vader and win before proceeding toward a confrontation with Palpatine himself (!!!). Oh, and while he does die in the process, Galen does manage to successfully wound the Dark Lord of the Sith while also leaving behind a legacy of inspiring the founders of the then fledgling Rebel Alliance, the symbol of which is based on the Marek family crest (!!!). Are you laughing yet? I know I was.

Anyway, if Revan serves to undermine Anakin, Galen undermines Luke. He pulls off moves that make Luke’s development in the original trilogy look like a joke, and then proceeds to influence history to a degree that rivals that of the heroes in the actual films. It’s hard to see Luke as special and the last hope of the Jedi when others make him look like a noob.

While escapist characters in video games do have the potential to succeed when adapted to new mediums or within the context of a larger story, one should not immediately assume success without first ensuring that they are a proper fit.

 

 

 

 

 

* Afterword I: A Very Brief Digression into How the Video Game Narrative Can Be Manipulated By the Game Itself
Given its prominence, the concept of the escapist character and their role within the context of a video game has undergone some analysis within the context of video games themselves. Something other narrative mediums cannot do quite as well is outright mock the player for attempting to escape into a game.

For example, games like Spec Ops: The Line outright mock the players’ attempts to live out their fantasies of being a badass heroic soldier, taking apart the nature of such simplistic narratives in the face of the fog and fury of war.

** Afterword II: Author Inserts in Expanded Universe Works
Something that’s always irked me is how people writing material for expanded universes in established franchises often seem to feel the need to leave their mark by writing in blatant additions that either come into conflict with established canon or go too far in making their particular contributions bigger and better than what already is part of the franchise they are contributing to.

Look at the old SW EU and check out just how many authors felt the urge to write in characters, abilities, and devices that completely eclipsed what was presented in the films in terms of scale. In addition to the ridiculousness of Revan and Galen, we also had villains who rivalled Palpatine in terms of just what they could do despite Lucas outright calling Sheev the very worst and most powerful of the Sith Lords. We also had other superweapons that foreshadowed Starkiller Base and its ability to rehash, with visibly diminishing returns, the dramatic potential of the original Death Star.

It even expands to the serial escalation of The Force Awakens. It’s not enough that we have a new bigger and badder Death Star, no. It’s not enough that once again (remember what happened in the Star Trek movies?) J.J. Abrams has to arrange convenient methods of travel that cut down travel time for characters down to almost nothing (did anyone else think that Han’s new trick of going into hyperspace from or to enclosed locations was kind of ridiculous?). No, now, based on suggestions from materials beyond the movie, it’s suggested that Snoke has to be some sort of big bad villain whose scope makes Palpatine’s look minor in comparison. Palpatine, the closest thing to the Devil himself in the series. They knew they couldn’t top Vader, but they just couldn’t help themselves with trying to take on the other iconic villain in the franchise.

Ways the Next Star Wars Movie Can Improve Upon The Force Awakens or How I Learned to Write a Clickbait-Style Post to Compensate for My Inability to Finish the Posts I Want to Write

Welp, now that the hype has died down for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I can at last move on and hope to the Force that I don’t have to see yet another bit of merchandising associated with the franchise for a while. Personally, having watched the movie, I thought it an adequate entry in the franchise. I didn’t love it, but I thought it was a decent enough stepping stone for future episodes to work with that certainly indicated some improvement from the previous trilogy. Still, there were some noticeable issues I had with the movie, issues that hopefully will be rectified in future installments.

Here are some basic ways that the next movie can improve upon what we got from the previous episode.

Warning: there are some spoilerish details in this post so if you don’t care for that sort of thing, watch the movie wherever before reading the following.

1. Improve the Writing for Rey
I’m kind of on the fence on whether or not Rey falls into the Sue category. On the one hand, she is perhaps a tad too competent to ever come off as an underdog, is quickly loved and trusted by others, has no notable (and persistent) flaws, makes no real mistakes that harm her and the people close to her, and never seems to be in any real peril. On the other, perhaps her character and any shortcomings could be explored in future films (although this would then raise the question of just why the writers didn’t bother giving her some sort of prominent flaw to work past over the series given that she pretty much accepts that she has nothing to look forward to going back to Jakku). If she’s not a Sue, she does come dangerously, dangerously close, and she also doesn’t have the excuse of being an escapist character a la James Bond due to such characters not really working in a series like Star Wars.

The writing for Rey seemed to be an issue that plagues a lot of male writers whenever they try to write a strong female character. Maybe they just don’t know how to write women. Maybe they are afraid of being seen as sexist. But what often happens is that they wind up creating a character devoid of actual flaws (ex. A female lead who is clumsy, but clumsiness isn’t really much of a flaw to work with compared to say, an actual shortcoming as a person such as greed, racism, vindictiveness, possessiveness, and so on) who can’t be challenged on any meaningful level whether physical (notice that a lot of female action leads don’t really get hit all that much or show any signs of damage when they do, in contrast to say, John McClane in the first Die Hard, who is brave and resourceful, yet a clearly flawed person that steadily takes on more and more damage and stress over the course of the story) or otherwise.

A rather well written action heroine was Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. Where modern films might portray her as a standard badass with survival skills, T2 instead was willing to portray her as a flawed human being who had suffered a lot of emotional and mental damage as a result of her experiences. She was paranoid, prone to acts of extremism, was unwilling to develop relationships with either her son or other people (note that in contrast to the rapid bond she builds up with Kyle in the first movie, she’s mentioned as having shacked up with guys simply as a means of helping John learn the skills he needs to fulfill his destiny). In fact, it’s young John, who we first believe to be a mere delinquent, that possesses traits more associated with femininity in that he is the one who provides a moral compass for both his mother and the machine assigned with protecting him. This is how you write nuanced characters without allowing their sex or gender to limit what they can become.

Here’s just one possible thing they might do with Rey. Play on the fact that she’s a prodigy when it comes to a great many things. Maybe, just like the man who crafted the lightsaber she brought to Luke, she grows cocky as a result of her successes. Maybe this combines with the habits she developed growing up alone and seemingly friendless on Jakku to make her think that she doesn’t need to rely on anyone and can handle things herself once she’s been properly trained and has attained the necessary experience. Maybe seeing Finn in such bad shape as a result of trying to protect her makes her all the more afraid of connecting with others too closely and obsessing over becoming strong enough that she not only doesn’t need saving, but also in ensuring that she can protect those who mean so much to her. Think Anakin, except with much better writing. It’d also serve as a nice contrast with Luke’s own character arc in the original trilogy, which suffered from the fact that he faced far less temptation than Anakin had. It’d also be a great way to play on the concept of an action heroine and that of the damsel in distress, in that Rey’s distress would be not the result of her being a helpless weakling, but because of the character flaws stemming from her own strengths. Take what’s there and expand on it to create a character with various nuances to her, including her own vices and virtues.

2. Make Snoke an Actual Character or at Least Give Him a Presence
It’s not going to be easy replacing Emperor Sheev Palpatine alias Darth Sidious. Whether you loved his low key ham in Return of the Jedi or his over the top scenery chewing in Revenge of the Sith, the guy was just a fun villain to root against. In the former, he managed to exude menace as the personification of all that was evil in the series, while in the latter, he was a breath of fresh air and emotion in a sea of vapid dullness. Hell, his first name managed to make him an even more memetic character once it came out.

Snoke clearly is meant to be the overarching villain of this new trilogy just as Palpatine was for the previous two. Just like Sheev, he’s the brains behind the bad guys, and appears before his subordinates utilizing hologram technology that makes him look huge and imposing. So far though, I’m not sure what we have to work with. He’s clearly the bad guy, but there’s been little revealed about him as a character. In contrast to Palpatine, he wasn’t left completely to the imagination in the first film of the new trilogy (compare that to the original trilogy, where the emperor is only mentioned in A New Hope, appears through a hologram for one scene in The Empire Strikes Back, and then finally makes his proper debut in ROTJ, thus serving as a shadowy reflection of Yoda).

Hopefully this time we actually get something to characterize Snoke because so far he feels like Palpatine 2.0, except with nowhere near as much charisma.

3. Don’t Make Another Into Darkness
I can understand why TFA was basically a Greatest Hits Collection of classic SW. As with Abrams’ Star Trek, the studio needed to revive a cash cow franchise while also making it accessible to mainstream audiences. Like that movie, they basically made a sequel that was actually a soft reboot of everything, hence all the familiar tropes and other story elements, while also hitting the reset button to make the good guys the underdogs all over again (boy, does the happy ending in ROTJ look like the Rebels jumped the gun a bit in hindsight), and bringing in their very own versions of Vader, the Emperor, and the Empire (making everything the good guys worked for three movies ago kind of pointless).

But now that the hard part’s done, they can surely go off in their own direction, right?

Unfortunately, this is the cash cow franchise. As seen with the Marvel movies, Disney probably doesn’t want to take too many risks given how much money there is to be made with an IP they bought for over four billion dollars. It’s why they’re planning on running the franchise into the ground by releasing an episode every two years instead of three like the previous two trilogies, and why they’re also release spinoff anthology movies in between. It’s why Disney is making such a big deal out of how “inclusive” the franchise now is whenever they get the chance (and why “progressive” media outlets are so keen to swoop in on such developments). SW is a product, it always has been, and Disney intends to outdo even George Lucas when it comes to making money off of it, and that means creating a product that will appeal to as many people as possible. It’s not about politics or art or what have you. It’s about getting to what’s in your wallet by any means.

It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if the suits altered whatever script Rian Johnson turned in so that it would be more marketable. Yeah, maybe they might true to make their very own version of Empire, but honestly, given Disney’s desire to create a multi-movie universe in the vein of Marvel, they’ll probably stuff it to the brim with allusions to other SW movies and maybe even lift certain parts verbatim from other movies, just like Star Trek Into Darkness did.

Maybe I’m wrong and Disney is confident enough in the IP and people involved to handle the next episode with a light touch, but given stories about the behind-the-scenes antics at Marvel, don’t be surprised if the movie only appears adventurous only to turn out to be just adventurous enough to make the average schlep think it so, when it reality it’s a fairly safe picture that markets itself as adventurous (you know, like a lot of the Marvel movies).

Bonus: If There’s Actually a Space Battle or Dogfighting, Do a Better Job With It
As with The Phantom Menace, part of the climax of TFA involved dogfighting and blowing up a command center. And just like TPM, I honestly could have cared less about what was going on there. This was because of much more than the whole blowing up the Death Star bit being highly overplayed by that point. It’s also because I had no reason to feel invested in what was going on.

In contrast to ANH, where the movie’s focus was on the battle at the Death Star, and where the stakes felt huge because the Empire getting off a shot would destroy everything the Rebels had worked for, in TFA the focus was on what was happening on the ground. Aside from maybe Poe Dameron, all the characters the audience was supposed to care about were directly on the planet. Furthermore, there was nothing particularly exciting choreography-wise or even new with the dogfighting. ANH was something different yet so familiar, making it stand out from everything else that came out during that era. ROTJ, while rehashing the Death Star plotline, at least had the advantage of this being a vital part of the climax of the original trilogy in addition to showcasing just how far special effects had come since the original Star Wars.

If anything, the filmmakers should take a page out of the playbook from, of all people, George Lucas. Go nuts with depicting the sheer scale of battles, but avoid making the mistake of not focusing on crafting characters that the audience cares about. People are way more willing to accept over the top sequences so long as they are not only done well, but also when much of the tension surrounds the question of just what these characters the viewer is invested in must do to get out of the sticky situation they find themselves in.

Bonus: Fewer Cameos
One thing about TFA that should cause it to age less gracefully than the movies it tries to be a pastiche of is its inclusion of celebrity cameos. Cameos are by their very nature distracting, because they take the audience out of the story so that they can make remarks about Celebrity X suddenly appearing in a movie. Cameos also tend to date movies. When any flick features a celebrity cameo, it immediately dates itself due to the fact that big names of any moment will eventually fade into obscurity at some point or another. TFA managed to avoid most of the usual issues with cameos by only including celebrities as voices, although hopefully future films will just focus on telling a story.

Of Mary Sues, Marty Stus, Escapist Characters, and Similar Players

Something that caught my attention recently was the recent debate over whether a character in the new Star Wars movie happened to be a Mary Sue (of the Canon Sue variant, to be precise). Now, I’m not here to discuss that, because that’s not quite the topic of interest that sparked the train of thought that eventually led to this post. Rather, I’m here to discuss something that was brought up during debates over the issue, namely the idea that certain characters are themselves Mary Sues/Marty Stus, and how I not only disagree with that argument, but also argue in turn that it is possible to write Sue/Stu characters well.

First off is the very argument that sparked this post: the argument that James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Superman are all Marty Stus. I argue that such a descriptor is an inaccurate one for the first two, and that the label has probably failed to properly fit the last of the three in more recent decades, at least in the hands of competent writers. I offer instead an alternate title which is far more fitting: escapist character. The premises of James Bond and Indiana Jones stories is less about the hero’s journey and the development of the characters than it is an opportunity to see badass characters go on adventures, have good times with sexy ladies, and save the day by the end without looking anything less than the epitome of cool. These aren’t the characters you identify with, but rather the ones you want to see do their thing because of how damn cool they are and how much their tales differ from the comparative dullness of your own life. Such is the very premise of the stories they are a part of, and because of that, they fail to come off as overly perfect characters. Instead, they are ideal for the kinds of stories they are a part of.

As for Superman, he is an interesting case. In his earliest iterations, he was rather Stuish, but could have also been argued as an attempt at an escapist character. To be quite honest, I’m not nearly a big enough fan of the character to go into detail on the character’s development over time, although like many others I was initially put off by such an overpowered being. However, based on some of the relatively few stories I’ve come across since then (and I’ve been fortunate to come across some rather good ones), I know well enough that the charm of Superman lies not only in his external conflicts, but also his internal ones. Even the somewhat maligned Superman Returns had what I thought was a nice moment when Superman discloses to Lois just what it feels like to be the guy who can hear every bad thing going on while knowing full well that even he’s not “super” enough to fix all the world’s problems. In the end, even Superman is but one person. I’ve also learned to appreciate over the years the idea that Superman keeps trying to be a humble hero despite being almost a physical god in comparison to the humans around him. He tries to set an example and be the paragon that inspires and uplifts rather than a mere emergency rescue system. To him, every life is important and he thinks nothing of stopping along his route to offer help to those who need it. He’s a “super” man not just because of his power, but also because of what he represents. He could easily be a Marty Stu, but because of these issues, because of the inner conflicts he is given, he instead comes off as a much richer character than some would realize if they’d simply take a closer look at him and what he represents.

It’s also possible to take a step back from the likes of Superman and other larger than life characters to travel back in time to the grand adventures of old. In fact, one such tale, The Epic of Gilgamesh, takes what could have easily been just another escapist character/Marty Stu and takes the entire thing apart. What makes this all the more notable is that said epic is one of the earliest known stories, and yet here it is taking apart those tropes so familiar to us all these millennia later. Gilgamesh, who is two-thirds god, in many respects shows what happens when the special hero of the story knows they’re special. He’s not the greatest ruler and even goes as far as to demand the right to sleep with young brides on their wedding nights. Rather than starting at the bottom physically, Gilgamesh starts at the bottom morally. What follows are a series of adventures and important lessons that eventually result in him learning to appreciate the finite nature of mortal life and perhaps even become a better, wiser king to his people. In cases like that of Gilgamesh, it is possible to create an overpowered character by creating shortcomings in other areas so that they may grow in ways other than the physical.

Now, can a character that does actually fit the mold of a Sue/Stu without being the escapist character whom the audience follows work? Yes. In fact, there’s a rather famous example of such a character that is even described by the very story as being “practically perfect in every way.” I refer of course to that nanny among nannies, Mary Poppins.

The character works for a variety of reasons. First of all, she is not the viewpoint character to her escapades; we leave that to other characters. Second of all, the setting into which she enters is somewhat mundane, and rather than sticking out like a sore thumb and ruining the story as it is told, her sticking out instead is part of the very premise of the series. Furthermore, because she is such an inexplicably fantastic being within a world that had until that point been something approaching normal, or at least not completely ridiculous, and because the nature of the character is never actually explained, she maintains a certain mystique and charm that makes her a memorable character in her own right rather than a mere plot device. She’s not an escapist character due to part of the audience’s interest being less about her than in how what she gets mixed up in effects everyone and everything around her. Mary Poppins is instead what could otherwise be a Mary Sue done right.

As with any other thing, a Mary Sue/Marty Stu is rightfully derided when improperly placed into a story, but even so, is easily confused with the escapist character as well as those characters that at first glance seem to be too powerful to be held back by any sort of external conflict. Furthermore, even this sort of character, when done right, can be rather memorable in its own right. Having said all that then, perhaps when discussing the nature of a character, we all might have a better idea of just what they are so long as we know the context of their being, and thus know whether or not said character is a Sue or a Stu, and whether that is necessarily a bad thing.

On Giving Villains a Backstory

A back story, when well done, can add depth to a character. If the author so wishes, a well written back story can even create sympathy for an antagonist by humanizing them. Warning: spoilers ahead.

By fleshing these characters out, the reader is forced to see them as more than antagonists, just like how in real life you’re more likely to sympathize with someone you know well than with a total stranger. You see the latter, despite all your best attempts, as less than a person, as more of an idea of a person. You still think of the people you know well as a collection of ideas, somewhat, but even then, because you know them well, you are able to see them as more than something to categorize (e.g. asshole clerk, anal retarded supervisor, maniacal driver who cut me off).

Even if a character is not made sympathetic, a back story can add to that character by emphasizing something important within the context of the story. The character of Voldemort in Harry Potter is revealed to be the result of a magical date rape drug. It is also implied that the lack of love that went into his creation, along with some bad genetics, gave rise to a child that never was capable of love, empathy, or trust. It works to further J.K. Rowling’s emphasis on the importance of those things, as the villain’s inability to experience them positions him in direct opposition to the values being espoused by the work.

All this is of course assuming that said back stories are written well.

A poorly written back story can detract from an antagonist, as it not only reflects poorly on the rest of the plot, but also makes the character less interesting.

This is especially true when giving back stories to antagonistic figures whose mystique lies in their enigmatic nature. Two particularly infamous cases are Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader.

The former was fucking terrifying in Silence of the Lambs because he managed to get into peoples’ heads, and yet we barely knew anything about him. The following books and films ruined this by giving him a back story in an attempt to give him an excuse for why he is what he is. However, this was so poorly done that fans try to pretend they never happened.

In the case of Darth Vader, we actually had an idea of Anakin Skywalker’s downfall, but simply having a general idea and watching Darth Vader redeem himself at the end was enough. The prequels tried to show his tragic downfall, but the clumsy execution only made me wish I’d never seen them (although I do like Revenge of the Sith, for all its flaws).

Other villains who benefit from a lack of back story include Anton Chigurh and Heath Ledger’s Joker, as the lack of detail given to their histories makes them appear less as people and more as malevolent entities who may be better described as terrifying forces of nature.

In such cases, less really is more.

Freudian excuses can sometimes be one of the laziest ways an author can characterize a villain. Oftentimes, a single childhood trauma is supposed to be enough to justify why a character grew up to be a mass murderer.

Alan Moore, genius that he is, mocked the idea in his seminal Batman story The Killing Joke as well as within this rather sarcastic passage:

“I was just standing there, looking at my stamp album and the priceless collection that it had taken me years to build, when all of a sudden I realized that since I had foolishly pasted all of them directly into the album using an industrial-strength adhesive, they were completely worthless. I understood then that the universe was just a cruel joke upon mankind, and that life was pointless. I became completely cynical about human existence and saw the essential stupidity of all effort and human striving. At this point I decided to join the police force.”

The point is that a character should not be defined by a single issue, but should instead be a rich tapestry consisting of how innate characteristics interacted with their environment. A back story that relies on a single trauma to justify a character becoming evil is often a waste of ink and time.

The case of Johan Liebert from Monster is a spectacular subversion. While the series does explore what goes into the creation of a “monster”, as well as the true face of human nature, in the end it is clear that while Johan went through some serious trauma, other factors suggest that perhaps there was already something rotten within him from the beginning.

The point I’m making is this: back stories can add depth to a character when done right. However, they are not always necessary when attempting to craft a great antagonist. A back story is in the end a trope, and as a certain website puts it: tropes are tools. Tools that can be used wisely or poorly whether in their usage or absence.