Star Wars did a pretty good job at this too...
July 4, 2008 10:30 PM   Subscribe

A question about creating literary mythologies and the antagonistic forces within them.

I'm working on a couple of different stories at the moment, which are both ostensibly set in the "real world," but which both also peel back a layer to an either mystical/invented theological level (for one of them) or a cabal-type political level (for the other one) pulling the strings behind them. In both cases, for obvious reasons, the mythology behind these worlds is part and parcel with the origins and motivations behind the antagonists.

I know the tenets of story design quite well, and am a super-nerd for structure and all of the things that can be done with it, but I just can't quite find the rhyme or reason (if there is any) to how one properly sets up a comprehensive, yet finite, world which also defines the villain within it, and yet doesn't fall into over-exposition about the elements of that world (particularly once the pieces should all be in place and things should keep moving along without bringing in extra elements.)

Some examples of what works for me and doesn't:

Lord of the Rings: There are peaceful parts of Middle Earth, and evil parts, and the only place for the One Ring, the most evil of artifacts, to be destroyed, is in the most evil and dangerous part of Middle Earth where it was created. Thus the story takes the Hero deeper and deeper into danger as he moves along: Brilliant

Harry Potter: At once a world of magic, but more importantly a political world, where pure-blood supremacists fight against the egalitarians, all portrayed well within the microcosm of Hogwarts, with boundaries slowly ever-expanding to the greater, and similar, world outside its walls: also brilliant

Battlestar Galactica: Small group of survivors from different planets with different religious readings and different philosophies having to try to work together against a common outside force, which they don't understand: Very nice. The readings of the scriptures of the Lords of Kobol, and the Cylon monotheism, however, have never had a clear backbone and may be used to fit whatever is necessary, so not as nice.

His Dark Materials: Works like gangbusters at first, when it sets up the Daemons and the politics at Oxford and with the church essentially trying to destroy puberty, and then runs off the rails as it continues to introduce new elements (like the land of the dead and all that entails) in the final installment.

What I'm asking for is not how to create something unique - if I can't do that then I have no business writing to begin with - but rather what common elements and Meta-ideas I need to be looking into in order to create a functional world.
posted by Navelgazer to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
While I can't give you any direct advice in this particular area, I definitely recommend checking out The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (which I've only skimmed). Joseph Campbell is one wise dude, and that book had a huge influence on Lucas.
posted by symbollocks at 10:42 PM on July 4, 2008

I'm not a writer or anything, but I'll mention that I like how a story like BSG will use small intimate episodes that provide a skeleton upon which you, the viewer, infer the rest of the universe. Like, they'll linger an extra moment in pilot quarters, and from that you get an idea of how they live; or they show you a single meeting with the president and the council, and you fill in the rest of what would consist of their political system; or they'll give you little glimpses of the mythology without attempting to explain it completely, and allow you to imagine what's in the gaps.

I don't know, this might be a basic concept in what writers do. There's something about keeping part of the picture mysterious and in the shadows that inspires the reader to share in creating that world.
posted by troybob at 10:49 PM on July 4, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for your responses, symbolocks and troybob.

I'm well-versed in Campbell, which helps me with the protagonists' journey, and also well-versed in FIeld, McKee, and many others, and I know how to use small details to show a larger world, but I'm having trouble creating the larger, antagonistic world with , I guess I should call it "elegant simplicity." This might well be an impossible question, but I'm looking for common elements of the over-reaching antagonistic forces, I guess.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:00 PM on July 4, 2008

Grrr, after thinking about this for a while I don't think it is possible to answer this question without being so vague that the answer is useless.

Part of me says that if the antagonistic forces don't just click in with the rest of the story, then some other part of the story must be altered so it does.

I'm probably just swimming around in my own head too much though. Maybe this Philip K. Dick essay would provide some insight? Good night.
posted by symbollocks at 11:34 PM on July 4, 2008

I had a long-winded non-answer musing typed out, but at the end of writing it I think I actually did hit on something concrete that might help you. I don't know much about some of your examples (LOTR, Star Wars, BSG), but I have great love for a lot of fantasy-world fiction, so I'll use my own.

I think what's absolutely necessary to successfully define a fantasy world without the Bludgeon of Exposition and the Running Off the Rails are two things: a hero who is himself new to that world and a defined goal for the hero that relates to that world. That way, we can discover unfamiliar things with the hero, we can be in the dark about other things with the hero, and the hero has a reason for forward motion in the face of this unfamiliarity.

And it doesn't have to be as sharply defined as Harry's introduction to the wizarding world, either. In Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Mrs. Frisby--although an anthropomorphized mouse herself--has motivations very recognizable to a human audience: the safety of her children and her home. The escaped lab rats of supernormal intelligence and their political battles is the new world we're asked to believe in. Frisby's shock is our shock, as she learns, so do we.

And as for the little I do know about Star Wars and LOTR, don't those two have heroes who are thrust into worlds they know little about in Frodo and Luke? People who are all, "whoa, the what in the what now? How does this work? You all are crazy!"

His Dark Materials fails on this level because I think Pullman got too enamored with his world. He stopped telling Lyra's story in favor of the battle between doctrine and free thought. In the first book, Lyra was an acceptable reader surrogate--a little unsympathetic, but that could have changed through the books. But so many new elements got introduced and Lyra became a smaller and smaller part of the narrative--and all the new characters were part and parcel of Pullman's world, not objective (or befuddled) observers.
posted by tyrantkitty at 11:50 PM on July 4, 2008

I have my own opinion of what makes a good villain. You need five things:

Hubris: He thinks he's strong and dangerous because he is strong and dangerous. But he isn't quite as strong as he thinks he is, which is why...

Nemesis: he eventually gets what's coming to him. Maybe it's incremental punishment, or maybe it's a grand reckoning, but in the end he suffers and probably dies. And before it happens, he knows what will happen to him and why. When it happens, in the eyes of the audience there should be a feeling of justice being done, and feeling of triumph.

Comprehensibility: We understand his motivation, even though we may not agree with it. What he does makes sense.

Menace: Serious villains should genuinely scare us.

Attraction: But villains should also be a bit seductive. There should be just a little bit of a temptation to root for the bad guy over the good guys. We should admire the bad guy, just a little, maybe. And feel just a bit sorry for him in the end.

Darth Vader was a superb villain because he scores high in all five of these. But he would have failed as a villain if he hadn't died just after killing the Emperor. Despite the fact that he changed sides, he still bore a tremendous burden of sin and had to pay for it. Otherwise there would have been no feeling of justice. He needed to die, yet there was also a poignant regret that he did die. It was perfect!

By contrast, I thought that Sauron in "Lord of the Rings" was a terrible villain. We never saw him. We never really learned about him. He was just a dark aura hovering in the distance, more like a primal force than a person. And though he lost when the One Ring was destroyed, we didn't get to see his reaction. We never learned of his fate at all.

We only have the word of Gandalf and two or three of Gandalf's friends that Sauron even exists. As villains go, an utter waste of time.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:51 PM on July 4, 2008 [5 favorites]

I'm most familiar with Star Wars and LOTR, and their villains seem to have a few things in common:

1) They're dualistic, with strong dark/light symbolism.

2) They're intimately connected with the way that magic/the Force works in the world.

3) This connection has heavy symbolic import which ties in with the deep themes of the story--i.e., negative emotions give you easy power through the Dark Side, but inevitably corrupt you. Which is actually similar to the "power corrupts" theme of the Ring in LOTR.

4) The villains have some personal tie to the heroes. Obvious, in the Star Wars case. Trickier in LOTR, as it's not so much Sauron who is connected to Frodo, but the Ring is. I only read the first Harry Potter book, but I know his connection to Voldemort is very much a focus of the series.

5) This tie-in to the heroes is part of the backstory or history of the world.

6) Some of the symbolism/structure draws from real world mythologies and religious traditions.
posted by overglow at 12:14 AM on July 5, 2008

Best answer: how one properly sets up a comprehensive, yet finite, world which also defines the villain within it, and yet doesn't fall into over-exposition about the elements of that world.

All the examples you raised, and all the ones I can think of too, are about power dynamics - politics in its broad sense - from the inter(even intra)personal through the social spectrum to the galactic. Generally speaking politics defines a culture/society.

You may find Robert Greene's 48 Laws of Power useful. This fascinating book defines and describes types of power and gives historical examples of their usage with lots of little side-note snippet and facts.

Our (the reader's) ability to comprehend fictional worlds comes from their familiarity - we recognise, instinctually at least, the power dynamics being played out (motives, responses, means etc) even when the characters themselves are nowhere near human.

As to the 'how to'... Tyrantkitty is on to something with the questing newcomer providing the access. This could provide your structure, if that's what you need. As for over-exposition, Troybob's response regarding glimpses only into the other world/reality/society remind me of the adage: show, don't tell.
posted by Kerasia at 2:37 AM on July 5, 2008

Best answer: You might want to check out Northrop Frye's notion of the Green World in Shakespearean literature, which is equally applicable to other myths/fictions.
posted by suedehead at 6:26 AM on July 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I don't know if I can address you question directly, but here's a link to Limyaael's Fantasy Rants. Yes, it's just some chick on LiveJournal, but she's a pretty insightful chick on LiveJournal. I've found some of her ideas useful in my writing; you might as well.
posted by Caduceus at 11:03 AM on July 5, 2008

I thought that Sauron in "Lord of the Rings" was a terrible villain

I disagree. Although Sauron is offstage throughout the story, his presence is everywhere. His will, his spite, his ambition is the engine that drives the entire story.

Sauron is a terrific villain precisely because he is as terrible and malicious as the reader's imagination.
posted by SPrintF at 11:15 AM on July 5, 2008

By contrast, I thought that Sauron in "Lord of the Rings" was a terrible villain. We never saw him. We never really learned about him. He was just a dark aura hovering in the distance, more like a primal force than a person.

That last part is correct, I think. Sauron is not an antagonist, he's a force that drives the milieu. (He *is* something of a personal antagonist in earlier parts of the myth, but in the context of LOTR, it's not true.)

What's further interesting is that the Ring is actually a fuller "character" than Sauron is, *almost* to the stage it could be considered an antagonist. And I think this is one way I think Tolkein makes the story interesting and compelling. The ring (and Sauron as background force) represents force and the corruption of force, and Tolkein is interested in telling a story about how various protagonists and would-be protagonists respond to that.

So he doesn't write many fleshed-out antagonists into his story at all. I can only think of three, really: Wormtongue and Saruman and Gollum. And Saruman you might even be able to classify as a would-be protagonist, just one who folded early and utterly against the corrupting force that the ring and Sauron present. And Gollum is complex, perhap more of a Campbellian shadow rather than an antagonist.

Then you get this range of protagonists and their responses, from the strong yet highly vulnerable men as represented in Denethor and Boromir, to the strong but wiser as represented in Aragorn and Faramir, to the highly wise and plane-above Gandalf and Galadriel and Elrond, to the soft yet surprisingly strong hobbits. And this is the interesting part. Sauron's uninteresting because he's already black as the blackest blackness, his corruption is complete, and the only fascination he can really hold is the same horror that gravity does when you're exposed to gruesome heights. This is no small thing -- it adds tension and urgency to the story. But what everyone else does and what they become and what they accomplish in response to this is one of the things that's most compelling.

I think in general, this is an excellent model for telling stories. If you look at Harry Potter and Star Wars, I think you'll see that this is one aspect that makes them both compelling. Personally, I think Rowling and Lucas were a bit clumsier on this narrative front than Tolkein was, but I still think part of the reason their stories were as succesful as they were is that they did a good enough job at this.

(If you want an example of where I think, say, Rowling is less compelling, I find Voldemort less interesting than Sauron. He's the rough same force, no less thoroughly corrupted and black, but he's less of a pervasive force, and he makes a lot of convenient mistakes to the point where sometimes it seems like he's almost a puppet pulled about on plot necessities. Sauron makes almost exactly one real mistake (assuming that the ring will go to the most powerful and will be used to confront him directly) and if he's distant, he seems much more competent, commanding, and overwhelmingly menacing. And then you have his embodied surrogate for corruption, the ring...)

So anyway, I don't know if I'd start with fleshing out your villain. I'd think about the corrupting forces that turn characters into antagonists and whether you're going to embody them in some way or not (and how and where and to what degree, if so). And then think about what you think might be interesting about how characters you've conceived respond to that. One of those characters may well become a fleshed-out antagonist, and if so, I think Steven C. Den Beste's comment is a pretty good list to consider. But I think it's probably less productive to start with a villain.
posted by weston at 12:15 PM on July 5, 2008

Oh, one more thing: if you haven't read Richard Adams' Watership Down yet, I might recommend you do so as you're going on with this project. One of the layers of the book that I find fascinating is that the characters themselves tell both the literal and subtle stories about themselves (who they are, why they do things, what their forerunners accomplished, their place in the world) to each other, and as the book goes on, it becomes more obvious how these stories interplay with the overarching story the author tells, and shape the decisions of the characters themselves. I suspect the semi-explicit nature of the mechanism in this book might be helpful to an author looking to explore meta-issues about compelling charaters.
posted by weston at 12:25 PM on July 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

how one properly sets up a comprehensive, yet finite, world which also defines the villain within it, and yet doesn't fall into over-exposition about the elements of that world (particularly once the pieces should all be in place and things should keep moving along without bringing in extra elements.)

Well I don't know if I'm understanding the question correctly, but as a reader my favorite plots are when things *aren't* defined or spelled out for me. I *love* it when hints are dropped, characters speak off-handedly about political events that aren't really delved into, wars, rules of magic, history, political figures etc. are referenced but not fully explained. (Lyra's daemon, for example, is just an "accepted fact" from the get-go, even though I didn't understand what they were). I read and absorb these references and am a bit confused, but if the story is good enough then I trust the author and tuck them away in my memory and keep going.

The true alchemy of the story is when those details gradually begin to make sense amongst themselves as the story goes on, letting *me* construct "aha!" moments where ambiguous pieces of the world's system click together (say, two separate problems with magic correlate and confirm a suspicion that I had about the way the author's entire magic system works). Then, of course, if I go back and reread the whole book I "get" all the little dropped hints.

It's always struck me that these authors had probably completely fleshed out their world and the culminating events in all possible detail before they ever started writing the story, and then just released information as slowly and naturally as you would find it if you were visiting, say, a foreign country.

Hope I didn't completely misinterpret what you were asking. And great post - you've got me itching to write again. :)
posted by GardenGal at 5:14 PM on July 5, 2008

a comprehensive, yet finite, world which also defines the villain within it

How about the villain facing the same realities as your protagonists, however having a different perspective? For example, if you had a story focused on two major trade families, the success of one could be detrimental to another. If the hero needed the money from the trade to bring a world-class doctor to look after his little sister and the story was from his POV, the other family would be working against his sister! Unacceptable!
But what if the other family's head had promised to his dying mother that he'd become the best martial artist in the world the biggest trader in the area to revive his grandfather's dream and build a sanctuary for kicked puppies?

If you want him to be "bad" have him react differently. Your protagonists might give a poor lady something to eat, the villain may decide everyone responsible for her condition has to pay (with blood, for instance). Or in LOTR terms, the possibility of corruption by power is available to all, according to their stature (a garden for Sam, a deadly vamp on a throne for Galadriel, a shiny armor for the orcs). Their choices differ.
posted by ersatz at 5:33 PM on July 5, 2008

Wow, what a great thread! I am a writer and I've worked this theme. nthing Campbell, of course (though he has his critics) and nthing Sauron as the prime motivating factor of LOTR. Without him, what? Nothing. Buncha kids with hairy feet running around.

Also, Tyrantkitty has it right. Reader learns as the n00b protagonist does. Excellent way to work in your "galactic history."

I myself find that getting the hero to be interesting is often more of a problem than getting the villian to be. Really, is Luke more compelling as a character than Darth Vader? And Frodo isn't really all that interesting but Tolkein blinds us with science, so to speak, because his world is so rich that we don't notice things like lack of religion or (near) lack of interesting females. Don't those hobbits ever get laid? I like powerful but flawed heroes, sych as the current film James Bond (Quantum of Solace looks to be good, and I loved Casino Royale) and Skink, the whacked-out survivalist former governor of Florida who is a recurring character in some of Carl Hiaasen's books.

You really have no story aside from good vs. evil. That's all mythology is: the story of how a culture understands that polarity. Sometimes the evil force involved is all but impersonal, as in David Gerrold's Chtorr books (alien ecosystem taking over earth for reasons unknown). Sometimes it's more focused, as in C.S. Lewis's "Silent Planet" trilogy, where humans play out Satan's commands on three planets. So your task is to distill that struggle down into the pieces on the board. Anything other than good vs. evil, no matter how far down you have to parse it, isn't worth discussing.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 7:01 AM on July 7, 2008

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