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January Talking Meme, Day 3

From ljs: What are your favorite narrative tropes?

(Before I begin, my apologies -- I am still getting over that cold, and my brain's not cooperating.)

Ooooh, let's see! The things that I always seem to end up writing about are:

1. The conflict between personal fulfillment and duty, and characters' attempts to balance the two.
2. Redemption narratives. When you've screwed up big time, how do you make amends? Can you make amends?
3. How do the young rebels deal with growing up and becoming the authority figures?
4. Difficult moral decisions.

#1 is a major factor in Buffyverse canon. Buffy wants a normal life, but she's been chosen as the Slayer. In canon, Buffy's duty virtually always trumps her personal desires, and when she gives her personal desires precedence, it's virtually always shown as a bad – even disastrous – thing. When she has sex with Angel, he goes evil and she ends up having to kill him to save the world. When she has a night on the town with Faith, they end up accidentally killing someone. When she has sex with Spike... well, we know where that ended up. At the same time, consistently putting duty ahead of personal fulfillment is laudable, but it eventually destroys you emotionally. (Sometimes literally – see "The Gift.") That's the price of being a hero in the Jossverse. We see Buffy become more and more brittle and emotionally isolated over the course of the series.

So canon seems to postulate that heroes inevitably self-destruct, and in the words of Rupert Giles, I want to test that theory. Can I write a convincing story where Buffy learns to make active choices about her life, and avoid both self-destruction and self-absorption? And that inevitably leads into #3, because doing that means having Buffy become an adult. (I really feel that 75% of the problems canon has are due to a reluctance to let Buffy do just that.)

#2 is where Spike comes in. And where I kind of go sideways, because what I'm writing with him is in some ways an anti-redemption narrative. The standard Buffyverse redemption narrative is to give a vampire a soul, and I knew from the outset that I didn't want to do that. What I want to do instead is use soulless Spike as a mirror to examine the other characters' morals and ethics, and question the standard redemption story tropes. I don't know if I always succeed, but it's been a heck of a journey.

Compare and contrast my Elfquest character, Rahirah. She'd sworn her loyalty to a lord who went bad, and when her father started talking rebellion, she had to choose between her lord and her father. She chose her lord, her father committed suicide before he could be executed for treason, etc. Rahirah was then faced with the gradual discovery that her lord was a bad guy after all, and she'd made the wrong decision. She eventually decided to work against the Evil Overlord, forswearing herself in the process.

There were all sorts of complications along the way, such as her falling in love with the Evil Overlord's nephew, but it was a pretty standard redemption story. Where it got interesting was later on, after the Evil Overlord was overthrown and Rahirah became one of the authority figures in the utopian happily-ever-after government... and then went vigilante for Reasons, and got put up on trial and stripped of her position. This was a really interesting story to write, because this was an interactive writing group, and I sent everyone an outline of what my character did, and asked them what their characters' reactions would be, and basically put her fate up to a vote. It engendered some really fascinating debate, and very strong feelings – some people cheered her on, while others felt I'd destroyed the character.

I feel like the vital thing in all these stories is to make the conflict real. When your characters have a decision to make, one side can't be a straw man. There's got to be really good, compelling arguments for both sides, or the whole thing falls flat. So if Buffy is agonizing over whether or not to have a relationship with a soulless vampire, I can't gloss over the very real problems that would entail. If Rahirah is trying to decide whether she should protect her pacifist tribe by killing someone, the consequences of her decision have to have teeth. One of the biggest problems I see in redemption stories is that a lot of times the author obviously doesn't think the character being redeemed did anything wrong, and so the 'redemption' consists of awful things happening to the character to make the audience feel sorry for them. Which... doesn't work. Rahirah's redemption story worked because she actually did bad things. In a very real sense Barbverse Spike can't be redeemed because he can't feel remorse. But he has made a conscious decision not to do bad things, even if his execution is sometimes lacking, so... what is that?

I dunno, but it's a lot of fun trying to find out.

(This post is part of the January Talking Meme – if you want to give me a topic, go here and pick a date!)

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( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 4th, 2014 04:00 am (UTC)
#1 was the legendary choice of Hercules: duty over pleasure.
Jan. 5th, 2014 03:49 am (UTC)
Yeah, it's the traditional hero thing...
Jan. 4th, 2014 04:06 am (UTC)
That's interesting - that you'd already done a redemption story before. Clearly these are themes that you've been attracted to for a long time. I think, BTW, that you are succeeding very well in providing these conflicts in the Barbverse. Your Spike and Buffy are very real, flawed, but essentially heroes on a daily basis. All while raising a rather large and unusual family. :) Talk about having youthful protagonists grow up.....
Jan. 5th, 2014 03:50 am (UTC)
Yeah, and Rahirah's wasn't even the first - I did another one with another EQ character even earlier, but that was back when I was...Jesus, nineteen, and it was pretty bad, *g*
Jan. 4th, 2014 04:14 am (UTC)
Now I want to read the elfquest story. LOL! And I've never read Elfquest.

One of the biggest problems I see in redemption stories is that a lot of times the author obviously doesn't think the character being redeemed did anything wrong, and so the 'redemption' consists of awful things happening to the character to make the audience feel sorry for them. Which... doesn't work.

Agreed. Comic book and genre television writers pull that one a lot.
A psuedo protagonist privilege deal - they are the hero, and you know, ends justify the means, besides we tortured them. So there.

Sometimes they'll even go so far as to excuse the character's actions as well, you know, they were "possessed" at the time, so not really their fault. Which doesn't quite work either. The story falls emotionally flat, when you do that.

In a very real sense Barbverse Spike can't be redeemed because he can't feel remorse. But he has made a conscious decision not to do bad things, even if his execution is sometimes lacking, so... what is that?

Now, I found this moral conundrum interesting in both the television series (prior to the whole soul arc), and in your story. Does it matter if you feel remorse? And if you don't feel remorse or are incapable of it - what would motivate you not to do bad things?
Also, did Spike not feel remorse? Do you require a soul to feel it?
It's ambiguous in the television series, and I found it at times ambiguous in your story as well.

Also what exactly qualifies as remorse? Moping around and brooding as Angel does? Or making a conscious decision not to do it again - to not go there a second time? Is guilt a useful emotion - if you don't change your actions? (I've known quite a few people who whined about their guilt, but did nothing about it, and continued to make the same mistakes over and over again. So seriously, their guilt seemed a bit useless or like window-dressing. Actions do speak louder than words.)

[ETA: Apparently I can't spell guilt, kept spelling it like quilt.]

Edited at 2014-01-04 04:15 am (UTC)
Jan. 5th, 2014 04:13 am (UTC)
I have all my old Tower Mountain EQ stories up on an obscure web page, but in re-reading them, I find that they're a bit impenetrable to the causal reader. You don't just have to know Elfquest canon, you need to be familiar with all the other Tower stories written by other people (most of which are lost in the moldering pages of old fanzines) in order to have any idea what's going on. Sometimes I consider going over them and revising them to make them more stand-alone and putting them up on AO3, but that's a LOT of revising.

In retrospect Rahirah's a huge Mary Sue, but then, so were 75% of the other characters she interacted with. :D Those were more innocent days.

My personal definition of remorse is feeling bad because you did something wrong, and I think that in the Buffyverse, you do need a soul to feel it. As opposed to regret, which is feeling bad because you did something that didn't turn out well. Barbverse Spike is definitely capable of feeling regret, and in some cases, that can sub in for remorse, but the two aren't quite congruent. I've never been of the school which maintains that a soul makes no difference,- what I want to explore is, if X is bad, why is it bad? It's always seemed to me that canon takes good and bad for granted, and is a little too apt to depend on protagonist privilege to determine the rightness or wrongness of things. But yeah, I agree that remorse or guilt isn't in and of itself sufficient.
Jan. 4th, 2014 04:19 am (UTC)
It's truly interesting to read about the themes you find most compelling and what they mean to you.

Jan. 5th, 2014 04:14 am (UTC)
I just wish I was doing it when my head isn't full of crud. This is pretty disjointed. *g*
Jan. 4th, 2014 07:59 am (UTC)
You have an interesting take theme of redemption. I have always found that to be fascinating.
Jan. 5th, 2014 04:16 am (UTC)
Mainly, I just wanted to do something different. The vampire with a soul story had been done already. *g*
Jan. 4th, 2014 02:31 pm (UTC)
I love redemption stories myself, and the question of remorse is so fascinating. I mean, it's one thing if a being isn't capable of feeling remorse - but what if they are, and still don't? What if they've changed anyway, and you know they wouldn't do X again? Can you forgive them then? Should you? (It's one of the things I'm trying to explore in one of my original 'verses. Not sure how well I'm doing with it, but it's a theme that won't let me go.
Jan. 5th, 2014 04:22 am (UTC)
Uh huh. And it's really instructive to tackle it from various character viewpoints. One of the reasons I went the way I did with some of my Elfquest stories was that there had been a ton of stories written about an evil character getting healed and basically becoming a different person who was then forgiven. (It was very much an Angel/Angelus situation, when I think about it.) These stories were almost always written from the POV of the formerly-evil character. I got to thinking, these were characters who did terrible, awful things, and their victims are still around, still remember those things, still suffer from them. If those victims can't or won't forgive and forget, does that make them awful people?
Jan. 4th, 2014 04:22 pm (UTC)
I always enjoy reading your thinky thoughts. I've definitely seen themes 1,2, and 4 in your work time and time again. Number 3 maybe not so much, but it probably just hasn't been hitting me over the head with a hammer like those other do. But I think that number 3 is actually really intriguing. Do you have a particular fic (or chapter) of yours that particularly highlights that theme? I'd love to go re-read it with a closer eye.
Jan. 5th, 2014 04:24 am (UTC)
I think #3 is much more evident in my Elfquest stuff, but I think probably "Little Sister" is probably a decent example of it in my Buffy stuff. (Which reminds me, I need to start working on it again. It's SO close to being finished...)
Jan. 4th, 2014 06:43 pm (UTC)
Agreed about redemption stories. They're pointless if they're written from the outset as if the person being redeemed had never really done anything bad to start with.
Jan. 5th, 2014 04:27 am (UTC)
Uh huh. I've noticed in my own work, it's MUCH easier for a writer to accept that their character's done wrong if you set it up as part of the character's backstory. If I'm writing in the 'present,' so to speak, I'm much more likely to be defensive about my characters' actions, and I need to make an effort to retain objectivity.
Jan. 4th, 2014 10:02 pm (UTC)
So interesting! You've articulated some of this before, but it's cool to see it encapsulated here.

Jan. 5th, 2014 04:27 am (UTC)
You're welcome! I'll have to try this agin when I'm less bluggy in the head; I feel I'm missing a lot of important things.
Jan. 7th, 2014 10:32 pm (UTC)
And this is a big factor why your stories are so good. Complex questions, complex answers and a great story and great writing to boot.
Apr. 28th, 2014 02:14 pm (UTC)
I am so, so late to the party, but.... this....

And that inevitably leads into #3, because doing that means having Buffy become an adult. (I really feel that 75% of the problems canon has are due to a reluctance to let Buffy do just that.)

YES! The comics have this problem X20, as well. It's like the writers could imagine a girl hero, but a fully grown woman was taking things a bit too far into some culturally uncomfortable zone, for some reason. (I suspect this same sort of discomfort is what's continuing to block the production of a Wonder Woman movie.)

Really enjoyed reading this breakdown of your story process. It does a lot to explain to me why your universe continues to be fascinating, no matter what happens to the characters -- all the key questions are still in play.
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )

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