About that Iron Fist thing

I hesitated to write this post. As my hand hovers over publish, still I hesitate. Because I’m not sure the world really needs an attempt at a think piece on cultural appropriation from a white writer. To some extent I fear that this article might be seen as apologia, and it’s really not intended in that vein. But ultimately, I have some thoughts on some things I’ve seen, culminating with the Iron Fist casting thing and I don’t think I can express them in the brief space allowed on Facebook or Twitter.

So here goes.

I write martial arts stories. In general I’m a fantasist in my writing and I’m one who has a lot of the same influences as other fantasy writers: Dumas, Scott, Tolkien, LeGuin, Zelazny. But being a martial arts author specifically I’m also influenced by a few authors that might not be so well known: Luo Guanzhong, Shi Nai’anWu Cheng’en, Jin Yong. And what’s more, I wear the influence of their books on my sleeve just as openly as the influence of LeGuin’s A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, Scott’s IVANHOE or Dumas’ COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO. (Jin Yong is himself a fan of Dumas and so that influence ends up impacting me twice.)

Now that means that my stories play with Chinese tropes as often as they do British and French ones. But I’m also somebody who recognizes the problems posed by cultural appropriation and colonialism. I’m well versed in the damage of yellow peril narratives and orientalism in genre fiction. A bit of cognitive dissonance there. I’m aware of that.

The thing that makes appropriation and influence extra complex is that, unlike the orientalist view of monolithic cultures, people within a culture may have vastly different opinions on things surrounding their culture. When you add diasporas and cultural interaction within migrant populations into the mix that becomes even less clear which is how you get situations of kimono manufacturers in Japan targeting external markets at the same time that people of Japanese descent in the USA ask people to please stop using their ancestral dress as a costume. Because, you know, people are people shaped by personal experience everywhere, and how much comfort you have in living aspects of your inherited culture without fear of censure probably impact your desire to export elements of culture.

I suspect Canadians are more sensitive to the idea of cultural export than average, living as we do next to the biggest cultural exporter in the world. But the United States is far from the only cultural exporter. Britain, France and the other old colonial powers play that game, of course. Meanwhile the film industries in India and China and the music industry in South Korea have all begun targeting export markets aggressively.

A lot of this can be viewed through a Conflict Theory lens as a consequence of relative power; a film studio executive in Mumbai has a lot of it while the child of Indian immigrants getting bullied because her lunch smells different from bologna on white bread does not. It’s likely within that lens that they’ll develop differing views on how outsiders interact with their shared material culture.

Tropes are part of material culture. In fact they’re a huge part of material culture. Tropes present a shared vocabulary for understanding how to decode literature. Literature often becomes how cultures come to understand themselves. So in a way tropes are the basic building blocks of shared cultural understanding.

So using tropes from another culture is a big fucking deal, and can be a minefield. Some things to consider:

  • When you use the trope do you understand what it stands in for and how it connects to other tropes?
  • Are you perpetuating a harmful stereotype with your deployment of those tropes?
  • Are you showing respect to the culture that owns those tropes?
  • Is there a vast power differential between your culture and the parent culture for the tropes you intend to use? (EX: It’s not ever going to be appropriate for white people to mine First Nations tropes you know, since we were actively engaging in genocide against First Nations people within living memory and since they still represent the most repressed population in North America.)
  • Have you done your research? Seriously, do your bloody research.
  • Do you understand why you want to use these tropes? Is it a good reason?

So let’s look at Iron Fist.

Bill Everett got in on the martial arts movie craze in the US early – he says before Bruce Lee put out his first film (and he probably means before the theatrical release of the Big Boss in 1971 which means he was probably watching one of the late 1960s era Shaw Brothers / King Hu films, which included some true masterpieces like COME DRINK WITH ME, so right on for him being a fan.

In the 1971, Nixon and Mao hadn’t yet normalized relations between the USA and China, so what media there was came out of Hong Kong or Taiwan. But by the time Iron Fist hit comic stands in 1974 that had changed, and China was huge in American consciousness. Writing accessible stories that deployed tropes from China could be seen as reasonable. But it’s unfortunate that, along with those Chinese tropes, the author inserted the Orientalist trope of the white guy who goes to an exotic locale and becomes better at exotic stuff than the locals.

Marvel did some interesting stuff previously with Shang-Chi, who could be seen as a critique of Yellow Peril narratives, if somewhat accidentally, so Iron Fist was a bit of a step backward.

But the Iron Fist / Power Man team-up was kind of ground breaking in its own way and I’ve generally been content to see the Iron Fist comics as effectively benign. The aren’t an ideal way for white audiences to interact with Chinese tropes (I’d rather we got more works in translation instead) but they’re not that harmful either.

So we’re getting an Iron Fist show in the MCU and there’s been something of a three way debate over the casting of Iron Fist. This debate breaks down approximately like this:

  • Iron Fist should be played by an Asian actor because the MCU has been unwilling to give major roles to Asian characters. Considering the background of this character and the extent to which he’s built from Kung Fu movie tropes it’d be fitting to race-bend him.
  • Iron Fist should be played by a white actor because the character is white in the comics.
  • Iron Fist should not be played by an Asian actor because he’d be yet another Asian ninja character in a shared universe of film and TV that includes Asian characters, and actors of Asian descent portraying aliens only either as hand-to-hand combat specialists or doctors. Casting Iron Fist would act as a release valve for the MCU to improve the diversity of its lead casting.

I tend to support the first of these three positions. Arguably the biggest role in the MCU played by actors of Asian descent is in Agents of Shield in which Melinda May is a breakout character and in which we have Chloe Bennett (previously when discussing this issue on Facebook I forgot to mention her and felt a need to highlight her now) playing Daisy Johnson, a multi-talented hacker / spy / inhuman super-power. Still, arguably Phil Coulson is the actual lead on Agents of Shield. After Season One, Daisy was largely relegated to supporting lead status, a position that Melinda May has always been in. (Seriously can we just add May to the Agengers? Please?)

The same situation arises in Guardians of the Galaxy, where Dave Bautista (who is half-Filipino) plays a supporting lead as Drax the Destroyer. OTOH almost every MCU product includes a white lead. Certainly that’s the case for Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Avengers, Ant Man, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Guardians of the Galaxy and Agent Carter. I’ll give you that you could look at Agents of Shield as an ensemble cast in which Daisy and May play very large roles.

About the only thing to say positively regarding the second position is that white / black partnerships were rare at the time that Iron Fist teamed up with Power Man. Other than that, no, I don’t care. Race-bending is a thing that happens these days and just because the character was created as a blond guy doesn’t mean he has to stay blond. It’s not integral to the character of Danny Rand aside from as it relates to his relationship with Luke Cage.

The third position I have some sympathy for. The only thing I’d argue is that while it’s true that Daisy is basically the only named character played by an actor of Asian descent in the entirety of the MCU who is neither a martial artist first and foremost, nor a doctor, the population of the MCU is largely composed OF doctors and martial artists of one stripe or another, race notwithstanding. I’d say that it’s kind of sad that, for all its flaws, the MCU has done a better job of diverse casting than average for Hollywood. After all, we live in a world where this movie and this movie were both greenlit in close proximity to one another.

I certainly agree that the MCU could do a MUCH better job. And I’d much rather see either an Amadeus Cho fronted project or a Shang-Chi project come into the MCU than Iron Fist. That said, I understand why we’re getting Iron Fist instead.

I think casting Iron Fist as white is a missed opportunity. Iron Fist – the comic – is a harmless enough bit of trope stealing, especially considering both when it was inspired (at a time where the only contact the USA had with China was largely kung fu movies coming out of Hong Kong) and the context of the creator writing the comic as a reaction to how much he loved Hong Kong film. But this isn’t 1974 and it certainly isn’t 1971 anymore and standards have changed. The MCU has overwhelmingly allowed their properties to be fronted by white actors – and will continue to do so until Black Panther comes out.

Iron Fist, drawing, as it does, from the vast well of wuxia tropes, a well which is much more accessible if you do your research today than it was in 1974 would have been an ideal place to put an actor of Asian descent front and center.

You know, like they did in Into the Badlands.

The best show on TV.

Go watch Into the Badlands right now.

Um… what was I talking about? Oh yeah, Iron Fist. I hope that Marvel uses the show to highlight race relations through the Rand / Cage connection. Frankly BLM has brought a lot of stuff to the forefront of public consciousness that it would be good to give space to in pop culture. Establishing a friendship between Luke Cage and Danny Rand, in 2016, in the city of Eric Garner, and doing it in a way that demonstrates just how vast the gulf is between the privilege Rand enjoys and what Cage must endure could make for interesting television. But that’s the only even half-way compelling reason I can see to release an Iron Fist show and to cast Danny Rand with the same guy who played Ser Loras.

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Refusing to let our enemies define us: the lesson Hong Qigong can teach us in the 21st century

ouyang feng fights hong qigongThere’s a section of Legend of the Condor Heroes / Eagle Shooting Heroes where most of the major characters are travelling across the East China Sea and in the process destroy several boats, lifeboats and rafts.
This section operates largely in broad-stroke morality, juxtaposing the murderous Ouyang Feng and his obsessively rapey nephewson Ouyang Ke against the stolid but dutiful Guo Jing, Huang Rong, who mostly just wants to be left alone to grieve and who wants to not have to avoid Ouyang Ke’s increasingly horrific advances on her, and their highly principled mentor Hong Qigong.

How many ships does it take to cross one sea?

The sequence begins when, following his engagement to Huang Rong, Guo Jing prepares to depart for the mainland from Peach Blossom Island, along with Hong Qigong and Zhou Botong.

Zhou Botong, who likes Guo Jing a lot but who likes causing trouble more, stirs up trouble between Guo Jing and his future father in law, Huang Yaoshi: a polymath who suffers from a host of psychological issues including an inability to handle anger in the slightest, and suicidal ideation.

As a result of this they aren’t sufficiently warned that the boat they’re on is an intricate death trap, designed by Huang Yaoshi as the instrument of his eventual suicide. It gets out to open sea and then begins collapsing.

Ship 1 down.

Ship 2

Ouyang Feng and Ouyang Ke had also come to Peach Blossom Island. Ouyang Ke wanted to take Huang Rong as his wife – this is creepy as all hell since he’s literally twice her age (he’s about 30 while she’s maybe 16) and since he’s previously made several aggressive advances toward her, all of which were quite thoroughly rebuffed. Seriously man, NO MEANS NO.

Anyway, having failed to convince Huang Rong’s father to give him her, the Ouyang family have decided to slink back off to their homes in some snake infested corner of the western hinterland.

However they see Guo Jing, Zhou Botong and Hong Qigong struggling against a sharknado (seriously) on the ruins of their sunken ship, and Zhou Botong and Guo Jing have something Ouyang Feng wants – so he rescues them.

It becomes clear that Zhou Botong won’t give Ouyang Feng what he wants so he manipulates the pranksterish old man into jumping back into the ocean, expecting him to be claimed by the waves. He then concentrates on extorting Guo Jing into giving him what he wants.

Guo Jing resists attempted poisonings, nighttime assaults, and a mass of snakes that would make Indiana Jones very unsettled.

And eventually it seems like Guo Jing is going to relent. So, of course Ouyang Feng immediately plots to murder everybody not named Ouyang basically immediately. And he does so by burning down the ship…

That he’s on…

Deliberately.

This ends up with Hong Qigong fighting him on the burning deck of his ship, while Guo Jing and Huang Rong (who arrives during the chaos and whose own ship becomes unavailable because her crew are shits) manage to secure the lifeboat.

A burning sail drops on Ouyang Feng and Hong Qigong does something inexplicable.

He saves the bastard.

Of course Ouyang Feng immediately stabs him in the back.

One boat, one island shipwreck and one raft later…

Everybody ends up shipwrecked on the same island. Hong Qigong is seriously injured from his fight with Ouyang Feng and Guo Jing and Ouyang Feng are nowhere to be found – believed at the time to be drowned.

Ouyang Ke begins trying to rape Huang Rong immediately. And she does a GOOD job of fighting him off. His first attempt, she stabs him in the leg, giving him a huge gushing gash.

The second time, she manages to use a set of armour that’s like mithril covered in needles to rebuff him.

The third time (you think he’d have got the message by now) she almost drowns him.

The fourth time (seriously, I said this guy was a creep) she drops a ten-ton boulder on his legs, pinning him where the inevitable tide WILL drown him, but only after half a day of excruciating agony.

So of course that’s when his dad turns up.

The long and short of it is that the good guys manage to survive Ouyang Feng’s visit to the island, and Guo Jing and Huang Rong are reunited, but the Ouyangs steal their raft off and disappear into the sea.

Of course not before Huang Rong sabotages the raft so that it’ll collapse the same way as ship #1.

They build a second raft and leave the island, heading back toward the mainland, when they hear the sounds of people screaming for help. It’s the Ouyangs, of course.

Huang Rong wants to leave the two villains to drown. Hong Qigong says no. They have to rescue the Ouyangs. Even though they’re both psychotics. Even though they almost certainly (and in fact do) try to murder everybody as soon as they’re on the new raft. And although I disagree with him on the action he chose, I think Huang Rong  was totally right here, I actually feel there’s something very important in the reasoning he uses as to why.

Because, of course, Huang Rong challenges him.

And he says it’s not about the quality of the Ouyangs. The Beggar’s Sect (the organization that Hong Qigong and Huang Rong are members of, the organization, in fact that he’s grooming her to become the new leader of) doesn’t leave people to drown or die.

Of course, Ouyang Feng immediately attacks (Huang Rong has efectively eliminated the threat that Ouyang Ke poses to anybody pretty much ever again, he’s just along for the ride at this point) and, just as with every other boat-oriented fight up to this point he ends up destroying the raft and dropping everybody back into the sea.

Now for all its absurdity (and it’s an incredibly absurd piece of fantasy, which will eventually end with Zhou Botong riding a shark like a horse) there are two things I love about this. And those things are in conflict.

First, I love that Huang Rong neutralizes Ouyang Ke all on her own. It’s a handling of rape that a lot of western books haven’t managed, even though this novel is over half a century old.

Ouyang Ke is a monster. And he gets his comeuppance repeatedly. Everytime he tries to abuse Huang Rong, he fails. And every time he fails he’s punished, by her, worse than the time before. By the time she’s done with him, he’s literally half the man he once was, his legs pulverized by ten tonnes of rock.

But I also love Hong Qigong’s unwillingness to let his enemies define him. He knows, by the time he rescues Ouyang Feng a second time, that his enemy won’t relent, won’t behave humanely. But for all of Ouyang’s monstrosity, he’s a person drowning on a ruined boat. And Hong Qigong follows a set of cultural norms that say “you don’t let people drown on ruined boats. Ever.” And he sticks to that.

Justice sometimes means being true to your ideals even when it might be a bad idea

But I said that there was a lesson here for the 21st century. And it’s not Huang Rong’s lesson – that it’s good to allow your fictional heroines to rescue themselves – though that’s a darn good lesson that a lot of authors should take to heart.

In fact it’s not a lesson for writers at all.

It’s a lesson for leaders and politicians.

In the early days of the 21st century we entered into a war in Afghanistan. The people our armies attacked there certainly acted inhumanely. They bullied civilians. They treated women as property to be used as they saw fit. They attacked indiscriminately at times, even when doing so might be as harmful to them as it was to their targets. The Taliban are, and were then, bad people.

But that doesn’t justify what we did.

Canadian culture in the second half of the 21st century is predicated on certain ideals: that war is cruel and that when our soldiers go abroad it should be as peacekeepers, not war makers; that torture is wrong; that child soldiers are victims; that people deserve due process under the law, that they are innocent until proven guilty.

In the first two decades of this century we’ve violated every one of those principles. Canadians have waged aggressive war. Canadians have sent child soldiers, knowingly to be tortured. Several people have been detained without due process. Declared guilty on a name and a skin colour.

Maher Arar – an innocent man, denied due process, detained and tortured.
Omar Khadr – a child soldier, a victim of the very same people who we called “enemy,” denied due process, detained and tortured.

And many others. They have been wronged. And we have wronged ourselves by allowing it. In the aftermath of something horrible, we decided we cared more about our loyalty to our neighbors to the south, to their anger and grief, than we did to the principles that define us.

In so doing we acted against a pretty awful group of people. But those actions caused us to betray our principles. We violated many of the better ideals that define us. And in so doing we acted with the same casual cruelty that we claimed to be fighting, harming victims and innocent people in our haste for imagined justice.

I’m all for villains getting their just desserts. When Huang Rong crushed Ouyang Ke under that boulder I cheered.

But I also see Hong Qigong’s point, not even so much in the particular, but in the abstract. If we want to be good people, if we want to be upright, it is important that we adhere to what is right.

And doing the right thing, being just, sometimes means the bad guys get away. And sometimes it means more trouble for us down the road when those same bad guys come around again and stir up more trouble.

That can happen. And that sucks.

But when the alternative is becoming the villains of our own story?

You know what? I can’t even really make a pretense of tying this back to the story from here on out. The torture report in the US is being back-paged by bullshit about Sony playing marketing games with a turkey of a movie because the opportunity to do so was handed to them by North Korea.

It’s cyinicism on all sides. The media reporting on the hacks: cynically driving clicks. Sony: cynically playing up patriotism and fear of the other to sell tickets. North Korea: cynically playing up the role of the crazy person to keep their enemies cautious and to feed their own propaganda machine. And the power brokers who own the media over here, cynically back-paging the relevant story, the one about the bad stuff happening in the States, bad stuff that we Canadans were fully complicit in, because they don’t necessarily hold the ideals of justice or uprightness in high regard. Not when there’s profit to be made.

Fuck Sony.

Fuck North Korea.

Here’s the torture report. Spread the word.

CIA Torture Report: "Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogat…

https://www.scribd.com/embeds/249656256/content?start_page=1&view_mode=scroll&show_recommendations=true

Abercrombie, Martin and Magic-Light Fantasy

I’m going to put this up here now, I might include spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire in this post. Stop reading now if that bothers you. There will be spoilers in the very next paragraph.

The last book came out two years ago and so I’m not going to care if you are still watching season three and don’t want to know, for instance, that Jon Snow was stabbed in the back by his brothers and might be dead. After all, come on, if you haven’t read A Song of Ice and Fire yet why are you reading the blog of some minor fantasy author?

There might be spoilers for other books, also published more than a year ago, but you probably won’t care, because there’s no HBO tv show about them yet.

I’m going to also say, straight up, that there should be more TV shows based on magic-light fantasy series. After all, they do them in China all the freaking time and although sometimes terrible there’s also some really entertaining television that comes out of the genre.

The blog Wuxia Edge is a great resource for those television series and you should totally read them.

What is Wuxia

I’m going to be jumping back and forth a bit between authors like George RR Martin and Joe Abercrombie on one side and authors like Jin Yong and Liang Yusheng on the other. That’s because there is a large precedent for fantasy with a lot of the characteristics that Martin really pioneered in English in the 1990s going back to the early 1900s in China. This is a genre I’m particularly fond of and it is just as influential to my writing as the other newer fantasy authors I’ll be mentioning.

In fact, the Black Trillium is effectively a wuxia story so, yeah, influence.

But outside of a small fandom the word hasn’t spread into North American consciousness beyond the possibility of a suspicion that it involves kung fu in some way. (BTW: don’t get me started that they changed the name of the film linked above to “Dragon” for the NA release. So damn lazy.

In shortest form, Wuxia is a modern genre of Chinese historical fantasy. Specifically it is a genre which grew out of the tradition of stories of youxia, knights-errant, who collectively formed an underworld of bandits and heroes whose conflicts frequently reflected the political struggles of dynastic China.

Wuxia is fantastical within very limited constraints. There is a template of abilities that youxia could access that could easily be seen as supernatural. These included:

  1. Qinggong – “Lightness Skill” was a subset of abilities that allowed the characters in wuxia to make incredible leaps, to move with exceptional speed and to fly.
  2. Neigong – “Internal energy” was a process through which characters could heal themselves or others through the manipulation of energy. They could also enhance their own strength, resilience and the potency of their other abilities by practicing neigong techniques.
  3. Extreme martial skill – This included strength and finesse that crosses the line into supernatural levels, the use of patently bizarre fighting techniques and the ability to wield cumbersome, unlikely or improvised weapons.
  4. Magical weapons – These generally had three characteristics: increased resistance to damage, unnatural sharpness and the ability to enhance the strength of the wielder. They are often coveted.

And that was it. With a few notable exceptions there weren’t other magical elements to the stories, nor were these elements presented as being unnatural. The characters were exceptional but any individual could achieve at least  some measure of their ability through diligence, hard work and sufficient luck.

These magical elements and the societal fantasy elements of the underworld of heroes and villains is what separates Wuxia from straight-up historical fiction. It’s not much. The world of Wuxia is nearly our own. However creating a fantastical element gave Wuxia authors the license to interrogate their own history, their myths and their ideals in a way that would strain the bounds of suspension of disbelief in a less fantastical historical thriller.

By introducing a fantasy element, the authors of Wuxia stories gave themselves freedom to push their social and moral implications of their stories into uncomfortable territory.

This included:

  • Frequently questioning the parental analogy for teachers and leaders which was a hallmark of Confucianism.
  • Questioning the virtue of political and religious leaders.
  • Questioning the nature of patriotism vis a vis the state.
  • Challenging the divide between law and justice.

This is not an exhaustive list.

And this brings us to the magic-light fantasy novels of the post-GRRM English scene.

Before Game of Thrones

Prior to Game of Thrones the majority of commercially available fantasy was a tired retread of Lord of the Rings. (Ok, I’m going to stop right there and make sure to point at the words commercially available I know just as well as you that there were plenty of people like Barry Hughart, Christopher Priest and Ursula K. Le Guin writing innovative and unusual fantasy that was nothing at all like Tolkien between the end of the 1960s and the mid 1990s – but  most of them weren’t widely read and certainly weren’t widely read outside of fandom; that was still the domain of Eddings, Brooks, Anthony, etc.).

There was also a moderately broad view, stoked in part by Tolkien’s loud protestations against allegory in fantasy that fantasy fiction should be escapist adventure fiction rather than trying to comment on deeper matters.

And the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire changed that with the swing of a headsman’s blade. It was evident this wasn’t escapism. What’s more, it really seemed that Martin was trying to tell us something.

This idea – that fantasy didn’t have to equal simple escapism – took off and now we have a much richer genre as the deeper fantasy reaches broader audiences.

Enter Joe Abercrombie.

Questioning the Nature of Heroism

The Heroes is Abercrombie’s second most recent book and it blew my mind. The six-hundred page tradeback abandons any hint of magic (the “wizard” in the book uses politics, threats and three cannons), it abandons an epic scale, confining action to a single valley and it uses a medieval battle as an opportunity to interrogate the idea of heroism.

In the story it presents us with:

  • A boy headed to war for the first time with dreams of being a hero
  • An ancient corporal who survived many previous engagements and who has a terrible reputation
  • An old war leader, weary of the fighting and aching from age and misuse
  • A young princeling with a reputation for loose talk and cowardice
  • A disgraced sword master who wants to die
  • The politically ambitious daughter of the commander of the army
  • A collection of vain and useless generals and lords

And the story invites us to look at the unvarnished actions of these various protagonists as they fight and die over the course of three days and ask whether any of them are heroic.

Is the death-obsessed master a hero for being undefeated in the field of battle when, inside, he’s a bitter and miserable shell of a man?

Is the boy who hides in a closet and kills another boy on his own side one day a hero for saving the man standing next to him on the next?

Is the woman who recovers sixty prisoners and carries a plea for peace a hero when her own friend is dragged off by a brute to a life of slavery and abuse and she does nothing to stop it?

And beyond inviting us to ask what constitutes a hero the story is willing to ask whether heroism is something to aspire to in the first place. Why, in fact, would anybody want to be a hero?

Don’t get in your own way

Magic is fun. I wouldn’t be a fantasy author if I didn’t like putting some in my stories. But here’s where I’m going to make the pitch for toned-back magic. For reasons that should be obvious, Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing have been circulating a lot this week. The best takeaway from them is, in my view, that a writer should not “distract the reader from the story.”

Fantasy frees us to talk about big concepts. It gives license to our audience to suspend disbelief about the little things enough for us to test concepts that might not fit otherwise. It does this, in part, by requiring us to suspend our disbelief about big things like how physics works.

That’s a pretty big risk. Good fantasy is always a gamble.

Antagonists and Villains

Ouyang Feng from the Legend of the Condor Heroes is a pretty obvious villain – his nickname is the Western Poison – but even so it’s his believable motivations and fundamental humanity that make him more than a caricature.

When I was writing The Black Trillium one of the things that I had the most fun with was turning my primary antagonist into a perspective character. It also really shows as I edit the book and look at him compared to the other two key antagonists, who didn’t have the same level of agency and find their motivations are more opaque. (Don’t worry, I’m fixing that.)

Then I started reading The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie and realized it’d be difficult to decide who the antagonists of the story were since he puts protagonists into positions where you just know they’ll end up on opposite sides of the central conflict. There is a certain inflexibility to a heroic story. Even if you try to avoid the more cliche’d elements of the heroic journey, a hero is still a character who the audience must be invited to root for.

Even if the character is Jeff Lindsay’s delightful Dexter Morgan, a psycopathic murderer, he’s still given qualities (charm, humour, and a code that injects a hint of the righteous) that give the audience license to hope he wins.

This is not true of our antagonists and it affords us much greater freedom.

Bad as I want to be

More often than not an antagonist is a bad guy. This isn’t always the case. Sgt. Doakes is very much an antagonist in both the second season of the Dexter TV series and the second Dexter novel. Even so, he’s probably, actually, the good guy – a cop who has a legitimate suspicion that he acts upon justifiably.

And yet his narrative purpose is to present a challenge to the protagonist: in this case a threat who he isn’t supposed to kill. Because Dexter is successfully established as the hero of his deranged stories Doakes becomes an antagonist.

On the other hand, in Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong (incomplete fan translation at the link goes by the alternate title of Legend of the Eagle Shooting Hero) , the Ouyang family, Ouyang Feng and Ouyang Ke are every inch the duplicitous, vile counterpoints to the hero’s blundering virtuousness. Ke, the younger Ouyang, is a rival for the affections of Huang Rong and a notorious womanizer to boot. Feng meanwhile mentors Ke in viciousness. The master poisoner is one of the most feared killers around and his motivations revolve around mentoring Ke and enhancing his power relative to his own rivals.

These people are bad people. But notice, both Ouyang Feng and Ouyang Ke want things, they have motivations beyond just being challenges for Guo Jing and Huang Rong to overcome. Likewise Sgt. Doakes wants things too. Successful antagonists are, first and foremost, characters and must be treated as such.

Nobody is the villain in his own story

This is the one thing that bothers me about Voldemort, Sauron, (eurgh) Darken Rahl and their “dark-lord” ilk. Nobody sets out to be the villain. It should always be possible to rewrite the story from the perspective of the antagonist and have it remain logically consistent.

In the case of Doakes you could create a crime drama about how he comes to suspect that a forensics expert in the force is harboring a terrible secret. You could describe his growing unease when the arrival of Doctor Danko forces him to work together with a man he rightly suspects of being a deranged menace.

If you were writing a story with Ouang Ke as the hero it’d probably read a lot like a book about martial arts written by the Situation. (Note: I do not endorse reading books written by the Situation.) That might not be a morally welcoming story – the younger Ouyang is a first-class creep and a would-be rapist. But it would still be logically consistent. He wants something: Huang Rong who is a worthy catch as a wife, intelligent, skillful and beautiful, and the heir to a wealthy and powerful man. He has an obstacle to overcome: Huang Rong’s idiot boyfriend and his beggar buddy.

To this extent antagonist and protagonist become mirrors of each other. There must be balance between them developmentally and thematically for the story to work.

This is what I like about Abercrombie – he’s internalized this idea to the point where it’s hard to tell just who the protagonists and antagonists are in a shifting tapestry of morally ambiguous conflict and widely distributed protagonists.

When antagonists are reduced to opaque sources of evil they lose that agency. Sauron is nothing but a shadow looming over the world and, as a result, the real antagonistic clout of the Lord of the Rings comes from Gollum, Saruman, Wormtongue and Denethor. If you remove those four characters from The Lord of the Rings the entire story falls flat and, I’d propose, that the notoriously slow start of the trilogy has more to do with the absence of a clear motivated antagonist than it does with Tolkien’s predisposition to counting every leaf on every tree.

Writing fights

I unabashedly write kung fu stories. It has to do with the fact that one of my biggest influences is Jin Yong. I’m a huge fan of Wuxia and, in fact, have written articles on the topic of the genre previously.

In short Wuxia is a genre of historical fantasy from China. It draws its roots from Chinese folk tales and opera, historical classics like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Water Margin, and from 19th century romances, especially those of Alexandre Dumas père.

Jin Yong generally built his stories along the lines of a bildungsroman, as the development of the protagonist is traced from late childhood to adulthood. Other authors used the template of detective stories.

But what gets remembered most about Wuxia stories is that they are kung fu stories. The depiction of superhuman martial skill is the short-hand by which a diverse and complex genre is differentiated from other branches of romance.

And let me tell you, writing fights is hard. A key difficulty is keeping the action moving properly in your head. To write a fight you have to choreograph every player in the combat. You have to be able to keep track of where each person is standing, what they’re doing.

And then you have to be able to lay it out in an orderly fashion. You have to do it in a way that makes it clear what’s going on. You have to do so while respecting the pace of the story, and the pace of the fight. After all, fights happen FAST and if you linger too long describing perfectly what happened you’ll pull your reader out of the story.

At the end of the day there’s no one right way to write fights. There’s a million wrong ways.

I’m interested in your opinion. Please let me know a story you thought had excellent fight sequences, or horribly written fights in the comments.