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“Is Your Villain Appropriate?”—Examining Character Construction in Different Media

"Phyrexian Ironfoot" (2006). Artwork by Stephan Martiniere. Copyright Wizards of the Coast.

Every Monday, I read Mark Rosewater’s weekly column “Making Magic,” partly because I have a casual interest in the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering (I once played it, and some of my friends still play it), but mainly because Rosewater routinely offers great insights into aesthetics and game design. (He’s also a strong writer who regularly experiments with his column’s form.)

In an article published a few weeks back, Rosewater outlines why he thinks one of Magic’s villains, the Phyrexians, are that game’s best. As is typical with Rosewater, it boils down to a design principle—in this case, how the game operates narratively:

As a story-telling venue, Magic is best when it is telling what I call environmental stories. That is, the best thing Magic can show off creatively is an environment. The genre of a trading card game requires that you show lots of creatures and places and objects. This does a good job of showing off a diverse environment.

The Weatherlight Saga [a series of much older sets] was an attempt for us to tell a plot driven story through card sets. What we learned from that is that it’s very hard when we can’t control the order that players see the cards to convey traditional plotting. […] What Magic is good at is telling stories about changes that happen on an environmental level. This way the changes aren’t seen on a single card but a wide swath of cards. When we tell a story in another medium, we will tell a story that plays to that medium’s strength. Card sets, though, have to tell stories that can be told through card sets.

One of the reasons that I believe the Phyrexians make a perfect villain is that they attack on an environmental level. Take Scars of Mirrodin [one of the game’s most recent sets] as an example. The attack of the Phyrexians isn’t something seen on a single card but on many, many cards […]. My contention is that Magic’s best villain is one that works in the kind of stories that Magic (the card sets) can tell.

In a basic sense, Rosewater is advocating that an author tell a story appropriate to his or her medium—age-old advice. But let’s look beyond that simple rule of thumb: What does it mean for a story to be appropriate? And what are the consequences for characters?

First, some needed Magic background: the Phyrexians are a swarm of makeshift cyborgs, reminiscent of zombies, the Aliens, or Star Trek’s Borg, monsters who win by poisoning landscapes and gradually assimilating their foes. As Rosewater notes, Magic players encounter this villainous force primarily through the game’s cards:

"Phyrexian Revoker" (2011). Artwork by Kev Walker. Copyright Wizards of the Coast.

Most of the text on these cards is devoted to rules issues (what the card does once it’s in play). Cards also sometimes include “flavor text” (“Basic senses like sight and taste are reserved for those in power”)—but not always, and that text is rarely more than one or two sentences long. So  Magic’s authors don’t have much space, textually, to describe and define the Phyrexians. And although there’s artwork on each card, no single card represents the entire horde:

"Phyrexian Rebirth" (2011). Art by Scott Chou. Copyright Wizards of the Coast.

…so no single image can define them. (It’s very clever, then, that the Phyrexians construct themselves from whatever happens to be at hand: this allows Magic’s creative team to accommodate different artists’ styles.) All in all, the typical Magic player is left primarily with an impression of the invading Phyrexian force.

This state of narrative affairs is very different than the one we find in novels and in short stories. These fictions are (generally) more coherent and linear than card games, and composed almost always exclusively from words. The author of a novel about a Phyrexian invasion would need to write more than scattered sentences about that enemy, and compensate for the absence of paintings with textual descriptions—and so our impression of the Phyrexians would become less fragmentary, and more integrated into a more coherent plot. Furthermore, the writing would probably include scenes, action pieces in which we’d expect our Phyrexian Revoker (were he to put in an appearance) to do some actual revoking—and for the author to describe it:

The foul four-legged creature scuttled greasily down the chimney, its mechanical limbs clacking horribly, its long white fangs dripping oil…

And then what? What else does a revoker from Phyrexia do? Can it talk? Growl? Snort? It can’t just stand there, clacking horribly, menacing, as it does so excellently on the card, baring its bright polished teeth at the player:

“Hiss,” it said.

“Come again?” I asked the critter.

“Hiss,” it said.

I doubt it would make that compelling a character, honestly.

Books are made out of words. Some of those words describe characters. Others belong to them in a different way, comprising their dialogues. (There is also narrative monologue.) I recently pointed out to some students how Salman Ruhdie employs two different registers in his short story “Chekov and Zulu” (1994), which opens:

On 4th November, 1984, Zulu disappeared in Birmingham, and India House sent his old schoolfriend Chekov to Wembley to see the wife. (169)

The following scene, in which Mrs. Zulu chastises her servant Jaisingh, ensues:

‘Arré, Jaisingh! Where have you been sleeping? Acting Dipty Sahib is thirsting for his tea. And biscuits and jalebis, can you not keep two things in your head? Jump, now, guest is waiting.’

‘Truly, Mrs. Zulu, please go to no trouble.’

‘No trouble is there, Diptyji, only this chap has become lazy since coming from home. Days off, TV in room, even pay in pounds sterling, he expects all. So far we brought him but no gratitude, what to tell you, noth-thing.’

‘Ah, Jaisingh; why not? Excellent jalebi, Mrs. Z. Thanking you.’

Assembled on top of the television and on shelf units around it was the missing man’s collection of Star Trek memorabilia: Captain Kirk and Spock dolls, spaceship models—a Klingon Bird of Prey, a Romulan vessel, a space station, and of course the Starship enterprise. In pride of place were two large figurines of the series’s supporting cast.

‘Those old Doon School nicknames,’ Chekov exclaimed heartily. They stay put like stuck records. […]’ (170)

Rushdie masterfully contrasts the British English of the narration with the Indian-English dialects of his characters; this provides his non-Indian readers with a means of navigating an unfamiliar patois even as it politicizes both languages (very fitting in this post-colonialist tale of conflicting loyalties). It also distinguishes his characters. The same narrative voice describes every agent in the pages of a given work—but dialogue, that belongs to each respective speaker. Beloved characters often converse uniquely. Four hundred years after his appearance, Sancho Panza is still remembered fondly for his endless strings of proverbs:

‘No, Sancho my friend, that isn’t the way,’ Don Quixote replied. ‘To give you a chance to recover your strength we shall wait until we are back in the village, where we shall arrive, at the latest, the day after tomorrow.’

Sancho replied that Don Quixote could do whatever he liked, but he himself would like to finish that job off while his blood was up and the millstones were grinding well, because the danger lies in the delay, and God helps those who help themselves, and he gives twice who gives quickly, and a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

‘No more proverbs, Sancho, for God’s sake,’ said Don Quixote.

So there’s a logical pressure on authors to make their characters speak memorably. The same is no less true of those characters who serve as their story’s narrators. Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert is a monster, but because he is also a great storyteller, he is an unforgettable and seductive monster, and we gladly follow his perverse tale about Lolita:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue making a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Even the narrator of Beckett’s Unnamable—pretty much the most reduced literary character imaginable—still has his voice. (Indeed, that’s all he is!) And it’s a great one, capable of carrying readers for hundreds of pages:

Hours have passed, it must be day again, nothing has happened, I hear nothing. I placed them before their responsibilities, perhaps they have let me go. For this feeling of being entirely enclosed, and yet nothing touching me, is new. The sawdust no longer presses against my stumps, I don’t know where I end. I left it yesterday, Manhood’s world, the street, the chophouse, the slaughter, the statue and, through the railings, the sky like a slate-pencil. I shall never hear again the lowing of the cattle, nor the clinking of the forks and glasses, nor the angry voices of the butchers, nor the litany of the dishes and the prices. There will never be another woman wanting me in vain to live, my shadow at evening will not darken the ground. The stories of Manhood are ended. He has realized they could not be about me, he has abandoned, it is I who win, who tried so hard to lose, in order to please him, and be left in peace. Having won, shall I be left in peace? It doesn’t look like it. I seem to be going on talking. (478–9)

Obviously not all literary characters need speak quite so well. But any author who renders a character mute, or who crafts mediocre monologues for a narrator, must understand that he or she is forgoing one of fiction’s primary resources, and compensate elsewhere.

What about characters in other media? Theater’s a literary medium, too; playwrights primarily pen dialogues and monologues. But this medium is also a dramatic one, constructed from performances as well as scripts—from oratorical skills, then, in addition to written ones. Thousands of actors have portrayed Hamlet, and declaimed the same great soliloquies, but we rank them according to who spoke Shakespeare’s words the most movingly, the most intriguingly, the most convincingly:

Direction of physical action has its large place, too. The rehearsal-style costumes and decor of Gielgud and Burton’s Hamlet caused something of a stir at the time. Burton also played mischievously with audience expectations: the marvelous book John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet (1967) describes how he varied his performance based on what he had done on previous nights, keeping viewers guessing as to whether he might, for instance, in the middle of a soliloquy, leap up onto a chair, or sit down upon it, or walk stage elsewhere.

By way of contrast, cinema’s a much more visual medium. Like theater, it prizes performance, although of a different kind, since the end result can be edited together from different takes, as well as be processed to create unique effects. Here, we might expect characters who are distinctly visual to prove the most memorable and effective. Darth Vader, surely one of the medium’s most iconic characters, is first and foremost dramatic looking. And note that, unlike a literary character, and arguably even a theatrical character, he’s vocally distinctive, not verbally distinctive. His actual lines of dialogue aren’t particularly interesting when viewed upon the page:

Darth Vader: Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.

Luke Skywalker: He told me enough! He told me you killed him!

Darth Vader: No. I am your father.

Harrison Ford famously told George Lucas: “George, you can write this shit, but you can’t say it.” Well, you can say it, and the way that James Earl Jones says it—and how his voice is processed, and where the actor playing Darth Vader stands while he’s saying it, and how he looks, and how the music swells—all of that viewed as a whole proves pretty compelling:

Contrast that with:

Indeed, many famous movie characters never uttered a word. Consider Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp (for the most part):

…and Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot:

…to name but two of many. Indeed, there’s so much precedent for visually distinct but silent cinematic characters, that I’m often surprised when today’s filmmakers bungle it. Even as a teenager, I knew that it was a mistake for the makers of Star Trek: First Contact (1996) to give the ominously silent Borg a talkative Queen, i.e. an actor who could engage in witty banter with Captain Picard and his right-hand android Data:

To the film’s casting directors’ credit, they hired the wonderful Alice Krige to portray the character…but even still, the Queen’s inclusion drained the Borg of much of their distinctiveness. They already worked perfectly fine as extremely taciturn enemies who spoke in a chilling group monotone only when it was absolutely necessary:

(See in particular 17:00–26:00.)

But Star Trek movies—especially the Next Generation ones—tend to play like longer episodes of the show…and TV is very dialogue-based…. Note how much of even this Borg-heavy episode consists of characters standing around and talking, describing what’s happening, as well as explaining one another’s dialogue:

Worf: Captain, the Borg have locked onto us with some kind of tractor beam.

Picard: Report, Lieutenant.

Worf: That beam is draining our shields.

Riker: If they pull down our shields, we’re helpless.

Picard: Warp 8, any heading. Engage.

Crusher: Captain, the beam is holding us here!

Riker: Increase the power.

Worf: Shields weakening.

Data: Shields will be down in eighteen seconds.

Picard: Locate the exact source of that tractor beam. Lock on phasers.

Worf: Phasers locked on target.

Picard: Fire.

Worf: They still have us.

Data: Shields are down, sir.

Worf: A type of laser beam is slicing into the saucer section.

Riker: They’re carving us up like a roast. (24:36–25:37)

No wonder the show’s producers, given time, wanted a Borg who could join in the conversation! Still, what a waste.

When cinema is viewed from this perspective, it helps explain why films that consist of actors mostly standing around and talking are usually so boring. (Well, they’re boring to cinephiles. Audiences raised on a steady TV diet might not notice any difference.) Making movies that way wastes an essential part of the medium’s narrative potential. (It’s analogous to an author who fails to craft a distinctive voice for a narrator, or a Magic designer who doesn’t take advantage of the game’s environmental aspect.)

Film’s visual potential is, historically, well understood. Recall that the art form spent roughly its first forty years practically silent:

And, back then, even when movie characters did talk, that dialogue had a very visual component:

Television, by way of contrast, is more reliant on nonstop dialogue to deliver information to its viewers. This is due not only to the historically small size of television screens, but also the rapid way in which most television is shot. And it’s possible that this is changing, as TV sets grow massively larger, and some shows receive larger and longer production budgets…but none of the little recent television that I’ve seen has convinced me that this is the case. If anything, television’s preferred way of working (edited together shots of characters talking) seems more entrenched now than ever.

It’s only that the dialogue’s gotten better.

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

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