“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?

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The Special Relationship #3 (a guest post by Jarred McGinnis)

(Read about Episode 1 & Episode 2, + check out the show’s Facebook invite)

…The reason the show is called The Special Relationship is because two of its organizers are American, while two are English. And other Trans-Atlanticness has been occurring: by posting these episode reports on Big Other, the UK-based writers that we’ve invited to perform have gotten some attention from folks back in the States.

All this time, I’ve been trying to figure out how the reverse can work with a live event. How can I expose our London-based audiences to writers and writing from the States? The US authors I like are unlikely to be touring the UK any time soon: Bill Cotter (Fever Chart), Kim Parko (Cure All) or any writer in the Two Dollar Radio stable such as Joshua Mohr (Termite Parade). I had a conversation with Aaron Burch (How to Predict the Weather), and we planned to show a YouTube video of him performing:

…but the quality, when projected, didn’t hold up.

That said, if any of you on the US end of this post have any ideas about how we can involve more US-based writers in the show, I’d love to hear them.

But, for now, onto:

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Poetry and the Nation

Linh Dinh reports, over at Harriet: The Blog, that:

Seldomly do we see this kind of gravity in American poetry. Clear, direct and free of personal references, it’s also aimed at the widest public, at the nation. Americans, those few tolerating poetry, tend to cringe at poets assuming such a grand posture. Our first, Walt Whitman, remains our best. Ginsberg was but a shadow, at times parody. Half prophet, half clown, he was in any case our last public bard.

This is an important subject: gravity in American poetry, as relative to American poets’ and the American public’s interest(s) in the nation. I felt the immediate urge to scroll down the archives of POEMS FOR THE FIRST 100 DAYS, but the first on the site seems only to prove Dinh’s point.

I want to offer a response, a fist raised in defense of American poets, but I think, instead and immediately, of non-poets, and of writers from other nations: I think of Salman Rushdie’s Step Across this Line and Imaginary Homelands; I think of Said and Naipaul, Sebald and Coetzee. I think of Anderson’s Imagined Communities, of Anzaldua’s Borderlands, Bhabha’s The Location of Culture, Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Hareven’s Thirst, Suleri’s Meatless Days, and, of course, Soja’s Thirdspace.

And then, too, I think of Anthony Doerr, who in my humble opinion wins the prize for gravity in American fiction. “The Caretaker,” anyone? For although its politics begin in Liberia, the story’s end comments on America’s, for what happens to Joseph Saleeby could happen to anyone whose exile/escape from his homeland doesn’t quite end up/live up to the hype of America’s promised land of the free . . .

So Doerr’s got something to add to the discussion of literature and the nation. But my questions now are: Who else? And which American poets do (or did)? And do you?