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

This post came up today in conversation, and I thought, why not reblog it. Enjoy!

BIG OTHER

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…

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

  1. Nice article, A.D. I think Rosewater is dead-on when he says that games are best suited to environmental stories. I don’t play many card games, but I play some video games (mostly JRPGs, all told, but others too) and I like how they can convey story and background in indirect ways (i.e. some of the out-of-place/contradictory entries in the Pokedex; the books lying around in Neverwinter Nights; the inexplicable alternative reality you can go to after beating the secret levels in Super Mario World; all of which are completely skippable and irrelevant to the games’ main quests). It’s such a fascinating medium, but I think very few people have figured out how to work it the right way. (Also, in gaming narrative is kind of a secondary concern, so many people just don’t care about it, which is okay I guess).

    Also, I’m kind of new to this site and I noticed that you never posted your 50 literary pillars back in 2012 when this site was doing their Gass-stravaganza (sorry for the stupid pun, but I kind of think Gass himself would go for it, so I left it in). Or did I just miss it somewhere? Any chance you can re-post it? I’d be interested to see which books you use to hold up your house.

    Okay, be well. Peace,
    -Joey

    • Hi Joey, thanks for the comment! No, I never did get around to posting my pillars. Perhaps I am pillar-less? (That would explain a lot.) Here are a few, though, that would be on my list:

      1. Mark Rosewater’s Making Magic columns.
      2. Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose
      3. Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood”
      4. Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation
      5. Davd Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film Art

      Is theory supposed to be on those lists? Can’t remember.

      6. William H. Gass’s “The Concept of Character in Fiction”
      7. Nicholas Brown’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Real Subsumption Under Capital”
      8. Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels’s “Against Theory”
      9. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles
      10. Frank Miller et al’s The Dark Knight Returns
      11. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
      12. The Epic of Gilgamesh
      13. Katharine Briggs’s folktale collections
      14. Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote
      15. Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations
      16. Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies
      17. everything by Patricia Highsmith, especially The Price of Salt, The Cry of the Owl, and the Ripliad
      18. everything by Philip K. Dick, especially The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, A Scanner Darkly, Flow My Tears, and VALIS
      19. Nintendo Power, Howard and Nester comics, and various Nintendo user booklets from the 80s, like the one for Legend of Zelda and Mega Man 2
      20. Chris Claremont’s run on Uncanny X-Men

      … but it’s really impossible to list everything, or to limit it all to 50. I should also mention The Pokey Little Puppy. And Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe comics, and his (brilliant) Nth Man: Ultimate Ninja. And everything by Elfriede Jelinek (especially Women as Lovers). Oh, and Pierre Louys, and Pierre Klossowski. And Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras, Alan Robbe-Grillet. Plus the Oulipo, Christ.

      Oh, Wallace Shawn, especially Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Fever, and his essays on art. And does film writing count? Orson Welles, for sure. His interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, if nothing else. And Kurosawa’s Autobiography. And I haven’t even gotten to poetry! It’s more an exercise in frustration than anything else, like making lists of the best movies ever made. There’s a reason why people fall back to stereotypical answers like “Citizen Kane.” I’ve always found it difficult to make lists like this. I guess I prefer to try and write about particular things, regardless of whether I like them, rather than make lists of things I like / that are important to me. I can make lists when the stakes are low, or the field is smaller (“favorite films in a given year,” where I’m usually dealing with only 30 or so entries). “The Two Times in My Life I Enjoyed Eating Watermelon” (I don’t care much for watermelon).

      … Lately I’ve been rereading Gerber’s Howard the Duck, as well as Robert Pippin’s After the Beautiful. And I just finished Dickens’s Bleak House, which is amazing. They could all go on that list, though being new reads I doubt they’re “pillars.”

      … What are your pillars? Or what are you reading these days?

      • Well, A.D., even by not posting a proper list of fifty pillars, you’ve given me a lot of great recommendations, so for that I thank you. Somehow I missed most of the books that you mentioned. I’ve been meaning to get to the nouveau roman and Oulipo stuff for a while now, but still haven’t done it. That needs to happen soon, I think.

        I agree with you that lists like these are always sort of silly, but for some reason I love them anyway. That said, I’ll also have to balk here, just because I’m still pretty young (25) and I read almost nothing before my second year of college, so I don’t really feel qualified.

        So, maybe instead, I’ll just toss out a bunch of my favorite reads from the past 4-5 years, in roughly chronological order (ones I read earlier first). Also, I’ll leave out super-obvious choices (Shakespeare, Joyce, Proust, Homer, Rimbaud, Lao Tzu, Dickinson etc) because, even though they’re great, they’re not very interesting on lists like these.

        1. Cold Mountain Poems by Han Shan (tr. Burton Watson)
        2. Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges (tr. Andrew Hurley, I think)
        3. Collected Poems by Wallace Stevens
        4. Ethics by Spinoza
        5. Monadology by Leibnitz
        6. A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge by George Berkley
        7. Orthodoxy by G.K Chesterton
        8. Miss Lonelyheart by Nathaniel West
        9. Selected Poems by John Ashbery
        10. poems (especially “Having a coke with you” as read by the poet himself) by Frank O’Hara
        11. Ron Silliman’s blog
        12. Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (but only the ones that are free online, because I never bought the actual book)
        13. actionbutton.net’s manifesto (+ the individual articles on their favorite games)
        14. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
        15. Kokoro by Natsume Soseki
        16. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
        17. Tragic Sense of Life by Miguel de Unamuno
        18. Tractatus + Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein
        19. Spring and All by Williams Carlos Williams
        20. Monkey by Wu Ch’eng-En (tr. and selected by Arthur Waley)
        21.The Recognitions by William Gaddis
        22.The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector
        23.Transfer Fat by Aase Berg
        24.Building Stories (especially the little golden book) by Chris Ware
        25. “Against Interpretation” by Susan Sontag
        26. Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag
        27.The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
        28.Humument by Tom Phillips
        29.ARK by Ronald Johnson
        ’30.A’ by Louis Zukofsky
        31.Poems of the Masters (tr. Red Pine)
        32.Veil by Rae Armantrout
        33. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
        34. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
        35. Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Kraznahorkai
        36. Airships by Barry Hannah
        37. On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche

        …and I’ll stop there, because as you said, it gets to be too much after a while. Also, I’ve reread very few of these pieces and none of them have been under my belt for very long, so I’m not sure how worthy I am to call these my pillars.

        Currently reading Blinding (v.1) by Mircea Cărtărescu. It’s shaping up to be a pretty astounding book. I’m loving his prose.

        I should also mention a few books that I’ve read recently that I really wanted to like, but for some reason they just missed me. I’m definitely willing to read these again, but they didn’t quite hit me the way I wanted them too. In some ways, the disappointments are important, too.

        -Hopscotch by Julio Cortazr
        -Sentences by Robert Grenier
        -Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
        -At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien
        -Jakob von Gunten (+ other stories) by Robert Walser
        -Urn Burial by Thomas Browne

        Be well,
        -Joey

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