Tag Archives: character development

The villain’s villain: Big bads, small fry, and the dynamics of power (Or, A review of SVTFOE: The Battle for Mewni)

Last week, Disney XD released the long-awaited, three-episode Season Three opener of “Star vs. The Forces of Evil,” titled “The Battle for Mewni.”

For those of you unfamiliar with this show, it essentially follows magical girl/rebel princess Star Butterfly of the Mewni dimension after she is sent to Earth to learn how to employ her magical princess powers. She befriends human boy/karate kid Marco Diaz, and together they hop through dimensions and battle the monsters (literally) who would strip Star of her magical wand.

Star GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

From the get-go, there are two main villains in this story. The first is Ludo, a tiny owl-like creature who is intent on getting Star’s wand and has somehow corralled a group of hapless but far more intimidating monsters to do his bidding. The second is Toffee. We’ll get to him in a minute.

Ludo is what I like to call the “Emperor Pilaf” of SVTFOE: determinedly evil but hopelessly (and hilariously) inept. He has moments where he poses a true threat to the life and safety of our heroes, but mostly he’s just there to kickstart the series with some kind of conflict. Like Emperor Pilaf in “Dragon Ball” (and if you have not watched “Dragon Ball,” drop whatever you’re doing and go watch ALL 200 episodes IMMEDIATELY. I’ll wait.), Ludo is there to provide structure and purpose to a set of episodes as a season, as opposed to it simply being our two protagonists (Star/Marco; Goku/Bulma) overcoming a series of minor hurdles.

Excuse me while I quake in fear. Via Tumblr

Ludo in particular provides some much-needed worldbuilding to the SVTFOE universe: he gives us a sense of what monsters’ lives are like and why they would want control over the wand so badly. His misadventures humanizes monsters, which gains increasing importance as the series goes on. More importantly, he is there as a contrast to what true evil really looks like.

And now let’s talk about Toffee.

Toffee starts out as Ludo’s right hand man (*ahem*). He’s clearly the brains of the operation, inasmuch as there is one, and he eventually leads an ouster of Ludo after several episodes of hilarious incompetence.

Unfortunately, the ouster of Ludo is not hilarious, because Toffee is not here to screw around. No, Toffee knows exactly what he’s doing, and he has a plan, a long-term, insidious plan. And thus you have the Big Bad facing off with the Small Fry.

Without giving too much away, Toffee possesses Ludo and uses him as a hapless, harmless-looking vessel from which to achieve his goals. Once he’s done with him, he spits him out – literally.

Yeah, good luck sleeping tonight

“The Battle for Mewni” is the climax of the Toffee/Ludo storyline, in the sense that you see the true extent of Toffee’s powers and his abuse of Ludo. The interaction between Toffee and Ludo in this finale is what really captured my attention.

From the start, it was obvious that Toffee was using Ludo for his own goals. In many ways, Ludo was the perfect tool, since he’d been trying to capture Star’s wand for ages without even the hope of success. Star had no reason, at that point, to see him as a legitimate threat – the most he was was an inconvenience. Who better to hide behind than the one nobody takes seriously?

But here’s the thing: once Ludo outlives his usefulness, he’s tossed out as the viewing audience would expect. But Ludo comes back with renewed vigor and this time, he’s actually successful even without the help of his monster crew. BUT – and I know this is a lot of buts – he’s always clearly inferior to Toffee. At no point does he pose a serious threat to Toffee’s goals.

So why does Toffee use him again?

Why Ludo?

Villain vs. Villain is a lot more interesting than Villain vs. Hero

From where I’m sitting, there doesn’t seem to be anything that Toffee can do via Ludo that he couldn’t do without him. Ludo’s ineptitude makes him a comical figure as the usurping kind of Mewni, but what purpose does that serve? Ludo effectively forces the Mewmans into servitude, but surely Toffee would have been even better at that. And in the end, it doesn’t even seem that Toffee is particularly interested in ruling Mewni – having (supposedly) defeated Star and her allies, he simply turns to leave, walking away from the ruins of Mewni.

Let’s compare this to Dragon Ball one more time. In the second to last arc of the series, Emperor Pilaf and his gang revive the Demon King Piccolo after numerous failed attempts to capture the dragon balls for themselves. Their plan is to use his superior powers to gather the dragon balls and then steal them for themselves.

Image result for king piccolo with the pilaf gang

You can tell already this was a bad idea. Source

This, obviously, is not going to work.

Once again, there is no doubt at any point that the Pilafites are in over their heads. They can never be a threat to King Piccolo because he is simply operating at a level beyond their capacity – they cannot even begin to contemplate the evil that he has planned. And, much as you would expect, he only keeps them around while they are useful to him. Once they’ve outlived that usefulness, he dumps them.

So why does Toffee go back to Ludo when he no longer needs him?

In her blog post, writer Katie Cooney identifies nine elements that make for exciting, threatening villains, and a few of these points are very relevant to a discussion of Toffee. The first is his surface motivation. When we first meet Toffee, it seems pretty obvious that what he wants is power. He pretends to believe in Ludo as a leader, but really he wants to wear that hat himself. He pretends to want the monsters as a group to be successful, and that serves as excellent cover for his ouster of Ludo. And truly, power suits him. (See image above. Not the throwing up one, before that).

But what power really is, is control. Toffee wants control – over the monsters, over the Butterflies, over Mewni. When we see him in flashback, we see that had once had control, over a literal army of monsters who believed in him, and who would have followed him into the depths of Hell (or Heaven, depending on your perspective) because of his ability to project dominance.

And then teeny-bopper Queen Moon cuts of his finger.

This flashback scene, I think, is crucial, because it encapsulates the moment when Toffee’s end goal changed. Now he wants that finger, not in his hand but on it, because it represents everything that he lost in that moment – not just control, but the prestige, the respect, the dominance that gave him that control in the first place.

Without the finger, Toffee is emasculated (and yes, I mean that with all the connotations it implies). As long as he doesn’t have the finger, his need for control is overwhelming. He takes a perverse pleasure in forcing Star to be the architect of her wand’s destruction. And he keeps going back to Ludo.

Ludo is easy to control. He’s small and pathetic and in over his head. Even at the height of his power, he is easy prey. Toffee has influence over the other monsters, but without his finger, he needs something more. He needs that tangible control over Ludo’s mind and body to exert dominance. The stronger his hold over Ludo becomes, the more forward he is about decimating Mewni’s magical population. A fingerless Toffee would never have attacked the magical high commission, but in the body of Ludo, he takes them on with a smile on his face.

Once he has the finger, he can walk away. His prestige has been returned to him. He’s proven that can still exert dominance, can still run the show, without it. With it, he is invincible.

Well, not really, because Star kills him. But you get the idea.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this kind of Big Bad-Small Fry interaction before, and I thought it was fascinating – you can tell because I’m still thinking about it a week later. Now, with Toffee seemingly vanquished and Ludo safely on his way to a redemption arc, I’m excited to see what the show does with new villains. Toffee’s demise left a lot of questions unanswered, and I don’t know how they’re going to top his ‘rise to power’ arc.

Season three of “Star vs. the Forces of Evil” resumes in November on Disney XD.

What do you think? Is Toffee coming back in season three? And will any villain ever be able to make us feel the way he did? Let me know!

If you write fiction, you’re probably self-inserting

If you’ve ever had the (mis)fortune of delving into the murky waters of fanfiction, you’ve likely come across a Mary Sue character: a young and beautiful women who is as close to perfect as possible and universally adored.

(Fun Fact: According to TV Tropes, the “Mary Sue” character first became a Thing in a Star Trek parody fanfic.)

The thing about Mary Sue (and her brother, Gary Stu) is that she is almost always an author self-insert. We wish we were perfect (and in a smolderingly romantic relationship with our favorite show/book’s main character), so we create this version of ourselves: beautiful, strong, kind, honest, talented – just all around amazing.

Your self insertion is like your better twin. Which one is “better” is something I’ll let you decide.

Which is fine. If you’ve ever written any kind of fiction at all, you’ve probably done the Mary Sue thing. Writing is, at it’s heart, an exercise in self-reflection, an attempt to understand oneself and one’s place in the world through the power of imagination. This, I believe, is a basic human instinct. When you dressed up as your mother in your long-gone (I assume, since you’re on the internet) preschool days, putting yourself in her shoes (literally), it was a kind of self-reflection. By pretending to be your mother, you entertain the idea that you will one day become your mother, a notion you will undoubtedly recoil from a mere 10 years later. But I digress. The point is, the urge to write a self-insert character is present in every writer.

It’s worth noting that not every self-insert character is automatically a Mary Sue. You might find yourself going in the opposite direction, highlighting and exaggerating the flaws you see in yourself as a form of self-flagellation, or perhaps as an attempt to reconcile yourself to those flaws. Perhaps you tend to insert yourself as a side character, someone in the background who’s main role lies in observation – kinda like you are in real life (which is not a bad thing, btw. More people should observe).

Or maybe you’re the narrator. Technically, all writers are the narrator of everything they write. Here, I mean this more literally. Your narrator is of  the all-seeing, all-knowing variety who does not merely recount the facts of the story but influences it’s path. Lemony Snicket, for example, laments the sad story of the Baudelaire siblings even as he commits to telling the reader every last harrowing detail. A form of grappling with control, or lack thereof, in Daniel Handler’s own life? I have no idea, but if I had to guess, that would be it.

Geez, what a downer.

Tom Holt’s “Alexander at the World’s End” has this kind of narrator.  Euxenus son of Eutychides is telling the story of his life in the court of Alexander the Great, after having lived a long life. He is now dying in a small outpost at the end of world and is telling this story to some unnamed young man, who stands in place of the reader. By reflecting on his life, Euxenus considers the myriad coincidences and random events that guided his life and led him to this, his final resting place, thousands of miles from his homeland. And perhaps, in a way, Holt is also considering the twists and turns his own life has taken. Or not. I don’t know, but speculating is fun.

How does one get their own talk show? Asking for a friend.

(Also, I highly, highly recommend “Alexander at the World’s End.” It is one of my favorite books of all time.)

One of my favorite authors in the world, Terry Pratchett, does this too, I think. If you look at some of his main characters – Sam Vimes, William de Worde, Moist Von Lipwig – they’re all provocateurs. They’re different people, of course, in different times and with different priorities, roles, and concerns, but they all have the same characteristic in common: they don’t accept the status quo, and it is ultimately that characteristic which drives their stories. Did Pratchett see himself this way? His books are very political in nature, especially for the fantasy genre, and draw deliberate parallels between Discworld and our world. If the pen is mightier than the sword, I would say that Pratchett wielded his pen in much the same way Vimes wields his badge or de Worde wields his printing press.

I want to end on this note: if you want to read a hilarious parody of a Mary Sue character, read George Macdonald Fraser’s “The Pyrates.” I read it a hundred years ago but I still remember it, and let me tell you, the only book I have ever laughed so hard at is “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Captain Ben Avery is literally the most perfect human man to every exist in the universe: women fall over themselves trying to get his attention, while he remains utterly indifferent. It’s not just Avery – every character is an exaggerated stereotype, all of which serves to take the story in the weirdest and wildest directions. (It also makes the plot a little hard to follow, but let’s face it, this isn’t the kind of thing you read for the plot). If you like insanity, you’ll like this.

Writing heroes we love to hate and hate to love

Whether you’re writing for the screen or the page, having an anti-hero character is becoming increasingly common. The reason is simple: anti-heroes, being much less determinedly honorable, are often easier to relate to. We see ourselves more easily in the anti-hero, someone who is far from perfect in a world that seems determined to make them miserable.

It’s here where a lot of confusion can start to crop up, because from where I’m sitting there’s a lot of overlap between the Reluctant Hero type and the Anti-Hero type. If you think about it, the anti-hero has plenty of reasons to be reluctant. Maybe they’ve done this before and don’t want to do it again. Maybe they know their abilities aren’t up to snuff. Maybe they just don’t want to have to sit through another one of the hero’s “Love, Honor, Friendship” speeches for the 40th time. And it is within these insecurities and annoyances that we find a kind of camaraderie, a parallel in our day-to-day lives.

Do we have to save the world?

So you’ve got your anti-hero. She doesn’t want to save the world, and she’s being kind of a jerk about it already. But of course she has to go, otherwise you have no story and that simply won’t do. How do we motivate her? Let’s use that friend of all Tumblr geeks aficionados, the Alignment Chart:

Man I miss this show. Via tall-T on DeviantArt, see it here.

Your traditional hero would be in the Lawful Good or Neutral Good categories – both want to achieve a goal they see as being moral. The former’s focus on is on achieving that goal while following the rules, while the latter is more flexible on following the rules to achieve said goal. Your anti-hero, on the other hand, is probably going to fall either into one of the neutral categories, where their motivation has nothing to do with the morality of the goal in question, or they’ll be in the chaotic good category, where they do what needs to be done to achieve the moral good.

One of my favorite examples of a neutral anti-hero is Rincewind the Wizard from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, who is described as being such a coward he’s gone all the way around to being a hero again. Rincewind isn’t a reluctant hero, he is adamant that he will not go on this quest, spending all his time and energy trying and failing to avoid confrontations that will require him to do anything remotely heroic. When he’s first introduced to us in The Color of Magic, he offers to help out a tourist visiting the city of Ankh-Morpork, only to find himself smack in the middle of an interstate diplomatic spat. It’s hilariously funny, but it’s also induces our sympathy. Rincewind didn’t ask for this. He was just trying to do a nice thing (and yeah, okay, make some good money, fine. But that’s not a crime!) and now he’s on the hit list of a minister in a country he’s never even seen before.

(Or something along those lines. I’ll admit now that it’s been a while since I’ve read The Color of Magic.)

An anti-hero that’s a better fit under Chaotic Good is Jessica Jones of MarvelxNetflix’s (Marvflix?) Jessica Jones. Jessica, like Rincewind, is our protagonist, and she’s absolutely the hero in the sense that she has actual superhero powers. But again, she doesn’t want to be the hero. Given the choice, she would trade her powers and her trauma for a quiet life private detectiv-ing. But once she sees what must be done, she throws herself fully into stopping the psychotic and powerul killer on the loose. Once she’s made her decision, she does whatever it takes to achieve that goal.

Putting the parts together

So what does this tell us about effective anti-heros? They need to have a couple basic characteristics:

  • Personal reasons to root for them: In any story, we don’t just root for the good guy because they’re not the bad guy. This is not an election. We root for them because of some inherent characteristic within them that makes them “worthy” of the win. With Jessica, we want her to defeat Killgrave not only because he’s a terrible person and a murderer, but because we want Jessica to overcome her trauma. Jessica deserves to defeat him because of everything he did to her, and we sympathize with that. Yes, it is a revenge, but revenge is arguably the oldest and most relatable motive in history.
  • Ultimately be good people, for a given amount of goodness: Kris Noel writes that even the hero has to have a balance of negative and positive characteristics to make them real. This is of course true for the anti-hero as well. They can’t just be surly, unlovabale jerks who happen to be in the right place at the right time for our story. Take Rincewind: he’s a coward, and given a choice he would go home and let the world around him explode. But he’s also a humble, kindhearted, and helpful person, and definitely much less of selfish, short-sighted jerk than many of the other wizards we encounter over the course of Discworld. 
  • They have relationships that create human stakes: Someone needs to care if these people die. After all, if no one in the actual story cares about them, why should you? Jessica Jones has an adoptive sister who loves her and a kinda-sorta love interest. Rincewind has his friend the Librarian and the Luggage (which technically isn’t a person, but can still feel so it counts). Throughout his many adventures, he’s also able to make enough of a pathetic positive impression on people that someone somewhere will care enough to try to help him escape whoever’s chasing him this time. This is actually a crucial part of all Rincewind’s stories. Someone has to help hide him, because you can only run for so long.

Within these basic structures, there’s plenty of room to develop a character that drives your story. Maybe she’s more reluctant than anti, or more anti than reluctant. Maybe she’s the anti-hero of the bad guys, or the anti-hero of law enforcement. Go wild.

Who are some of your favorite anti-heroes in books, television, or movies? Comment below!

Creative inspiration from the Internet

You open the Word document, or the Illustrator page, or whatever it may be. It is oppressively white, it’s blankness at once demanding and withholding.

Or, even worse, it’s filled with what you know are wonderful, groundbreaking ideas that are just missing one thing, one little point that would pull them all together and make the work whole, complete, if only you could figure out what that one thing was…Meanwhile, the weight of the content and all its potential, its expectations, weigh on your heart, crushing your defenseless soul…

Wipe the tears from your eyes, for there is hope. Fear not, dear reader! I have scoured the Internet, searching for relief and hope for those of us who struggle and strive, and I have found the LIGHT!

Or, in the language of one less melodramatic…

Basically I compiled a list of websites that I like to use when I’m feeling uninspired and burned out. Hopefully you’ll find them to be helpful as well!

This one is probably obvious, by WordPress.com has a daily prompts blog. These one word prompts are particularly good for when you find yourself reusing the same words over and over again, your vocabulary stilted and stunted. The blog also includes blogging tips and encourages readers to share links to their works.

Another good prompts blog is First 50 Words – these prompts come from author Virginia DeBolt and are really good because she includes her own interpretation, for those of us who need a little more detail, a little more description. Let’s Write puts up quote prompts, which can be particularly helpful when you’re struggling with a character or a scene.

Speaking of uncooperative characters, if you’re having trouble developing the details of a scene or characterization, drop by F*** Yeah Character Development. It’s an ask-answer blog about writing characters, and it also regularly posts information and insight related to world-building and other aspects of the writing process. I’ve never asked a question, and given how many they receive I’m not sure this would be the best idea. Instead, I find that just reading the questions and answers can stimulate my mind and open me up to new possibilities. Some of their latest questions include: “In a zombie apocalypse what threats would there be to humans other than the rabid monsters?” “How do you succeed in making readers like a character who’s actually a total, unapologetic asshole/villain?” and (this is a good question for all of us to consider) “How many main characters do you think is too many?”

Monkey see, monkey do (hopefully)

Sometimes when we’re writing, it can be easy to forego the visual aspect in favor of a focus on the written word. But, not to discriminate against the other senses, but sight is one of the most important ones, and visual stimulation can be really helpful as a source of inspiration, pushing you to step away from the often abstract world of language and really think about how your work, well, works in the real world.

Of course, if you’re an actual artist or graphic designer, visual work is probably crucial for you to get those creative juices flowing, as unfortunate a mental image as that may be.

Photography can be a major source of inspiration, and one really great blog that I found through WordPress Discover is Picturize by Yuki Iwaoka:

“Suck Me In” by Yuki Iwaoka.

Visual Graphc is a design blog that I love for the diversity of what it features. It’s mostly graphic design, but there is a huge diversity in the fonts, the styles, the color schemes – every single entry is different. If you’re creating a poster or a brochure or really anything, Visual Graphc can give you ideas for how put different colors, fonts, and design elements together to create something engaging and unique.

 

Eat Sleep Draw and F*** Yeah Illustrative Art are illustration curation sites that post submitted artwork in a wide spectrum of styles. Renee B. is the brains behind F*** Yeah Illustrative Art, using her own artistic background to create an impressive collection, adding new pieces every day. Eat Sleep Draw describes itself as an online gallery, showing everything from classical portraits to more fantastical pieces.

Where do you go for inspiration? Leave your resources in the comments!