Of Cars and Contrivance
So last week I talked about how a strong villain can add to a story. This week, I have to go the other way and talk about a weak villain and some other flaws. The twelfth volume of the webcomic Misfile is generally considered one of the worst by the fans in the forums. There are others with weaker writing, more enraging moments and poorer art, but as a whole book, it’s easy to see what issues people can have.
Let’s start with a recap for the folks who don’t read Misfile. The comic is a low-fantasy transgender story about a teenage boy who becomes a girl, with the difference being that while it is sometimes played for comedy, the gender swap is usually deconstructed, showing the harsh reality that would occur. Also, it features car racing as Ash, our protagonist, is an amateur race car driver with two personally modified cars. He and many other kids from the nearby schools race each other on the weekends at a place called the Old Road, an abandoned strip on a mountain side. This means no cops to keep them from doing something illegal and dangerous. In the first volume, Ash won the title of ‘King of the Mountain’ given to the best driver in the school district.
In volume twelve, the boys who race on the Old Road are being challenged by a new driver with a bet that if they lose, they can no longer drive on the road again. Many boys lose and eventually this driver decides to stop them from racing all together. Ash is called in because as King, he has a duty to defend the track, even though he never agreed to such and the other boys admit they hate him. Ash beats the racer, only to discover the racer has a superior named Sheldon, who challenges Ash by proxy. Sheldon turns out to be wormy and bribes Ash to throw the race, but our hero doesn’t and learns about responsibility when he trounces Sheldon.
Now a few of you may be asking what is so bad about that. Well, note that I didn’t explain why Sheldon wants the track for himself. And that’s because no reason is given. We do get told that he’s recruiting but that doesn’t explain why he wants to take over the Old Road
And that’s the biggest problem with this arc. Nearly every storytelling issue in it can be boiled down to one simple word: “Why?”
Why does Sheldon want the road? Why aren’t twenty or so teenage boys able to fight off one driver? Why are they playing fair when Sheldon’s lackey refuses to? Why isn’t the lackey also preventing anyone from racing on Friday? Why don’t the boys just race then? Why did that one kid admit he doesn’t care for Ash while they were begging for help? Why does Ash bother when he is clearly not affected? If Sheldon is supposed to be so super awesome at racing, why did he feel the need to bribe a teenage girl based on what he was told by a lackey who didn’t bother to finish the first race? Why is the message about responsibility when Ash accepted none in the first place and was pressured into this whole mess? Why would Ash honour the agreement to stay away if he knows he can just race on Fridays? Why does no one noticed that dents caused by a rock would be inconsistent compared to those made by a car? Why hasn’t Rumisiel used that recorder thing before now?
But the biggest question of all? Why should we care?
Once of my main gripes with Misfile is that it’s too centred on Ash. A story should focus on the protagonist, but if it completely pushes the rest of the cast aside, it heavily limits the storytelling possibilities. The wedding story was fine, but it would have had more impact if we could have seen the couple together. Missi, a side character, has moments of depth but they are quickly thrown out the window when something as simple as an internal monologue could do wonders for her.
In this case, the drivers on the Old Road have been established as bratty teens who don’t really care for Ash, but we are never shown why we should care that they may lose their favourite pass time. We are never given any reason that Ash should help them aside from being told he’s responsible and so the whole moral comes off as supporting peer pressure than anything else. And a handy hint to writers out there: Never have your characters point out the flaws in your story if you aren’t going to address them.
But it is especially Sheldon who suffered the worst. Because we were too focussed on Ash, we never saw any skill from these enemy drivers that may cause them to be threatening. Even something small, like the end of Sheldon conquering some other road or even having one of the lackeys beat up a kid, would have helped. But the only time we see Sheldon, he’s weaselly but not intimidating. That doesn’t really scream threat, it screams joke villain.
I’ll compare him to Peter Baelish from A Song of Fire and Ice/Game of Thrones. In the first book, Baelish is presented much like Sheldon, but this is used to make his betrayal of Ned Stark all the more shocking when it happens. His cunning and evil are made much clearer in later books, also at moments timed for shock in order to surprise the reader. This also worked because the books are told from the viewpoints of the characters and they had no reason to suspect Baelish was anything more than what he seemed. The show chose to add more scenes to emphasise his role as an antagonist to great effect.
The reason this works and Sheldon doesn’t is that there is no reveal for depth in Sheldon. In fact, the closest he gets to pulling off Baelish-like manipulation is almost immediately deflated by a nearly literal Deus Ex Machina.
When the villain’s motivations have no logic to them, it doesn’t really work. Even the Joker has a reason for all his crimes, it’s because he finds them amusing. Sheldon could easily have just walked up to the folks at the Old Road and offered the same deal he offered Ash if anyone could beat him, while saying the deal would only be available as long as the kids let him and his lackeys use the road as they wished. But he didn’t because… he’s an arsehole?
People are willing to accept a lot of weird plots, but only if they make sense on some level. A lot of people railed against The Dark Knight Rises because they couldn’t understand Bane’s reasoning, even though it was explained. It just wasn’t explained in a way they saw as logical. Tyler Durden just wanted to create chaos, but since it was presented as bringing about an anarchist society, people accepted it and Fight Club has many fans.
So when you come up with your villain’s big plan, just make sure you give a satisfying explanation to it all.