Thursday, August 28, 2014

How to Write: Character Study - Villainous Femmes Fatale (Kreia from KOTOR 2 and Princess Azula from A:TLA)

Listening to: Daft Punk: Lose Yourself to Dance
Word Count of An Autumn Veil: 215,000
Word Count of book two: 16,000
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vil•lain (ˈvɪl ən)

n.

1. a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel.
2. a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot.

[1275–1325; < Middle French < Late Latin villānus a farm servant]

Great stories stick with us because of their unforgettable characters and earth-shattering events. Few things highlight great heroes and great events like great villains. Villains bring conflict. They force the heroes to fight, challenge their beliefs, and leave them with physical and emotional scars. Some villains were once heroes, and tragically fell when they could no longer bear the weight of living and dying. Others, so it seems, were born evil the same as you were born with brown or blue eyes. These villains in particular take on universal characteristics, giving them a larger than life stature in the stories they haunt with their dog-kicking and fridge-stuffing.

Here are two villainous ladies who make make their respective stories really shine.

KREIA/DARTH TRAYA - STAR WARS, KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC 2: THE SITH LORDS

Concept art for Kreia. Source.

"Know that there was once a Darth Traya. And that she cast aside that role, was exiled, and found a new purpose. But there must always be a Darth Traya, one that holds the knowledge of betrayal. Who has been betrayed in their heart, and will betray in turn." -Kreia

You find Kreia asleep in the medical bay on an asteroid whilst running around in your undies. She's just a harmless old blind lady and a gray Jedi. She's got some force powers and will be a great help on your journey in a galaxy far, far away. Right?

...Right?

Kreia is one of the best-written video game villains of all time. If you, for example, decide to offer alms to a poor man on Nar Shaada, Kreia will challenge the decision on the grounds that by giving alms to the poor man, you have actually created a situation in which the poor man will be beaten up and have the money stolen from him. In so doing, you have now made life worse for the poor man, not better. You should have never helped him in the first place. He must learn to stand on his own two feet, and you denied him this.

"If you seek to aid everyone that suffers in the galaxy, you will only weaken yourself...and weaken them. It is the internal struggles, when fought and won on their own, that yield the strongest rewards. You stole that struggle from them, cheapened it. If you care for others, then dispense with pity and sacrifice and recognize the value in letting them fight their own battles. And when they triumph, they will be even stronger for the victory." -Kreia

Kreia was not so blunt as to say, like Darth Vader, "Join me. Embrace the power of the Dark Side of the Force. Then lets go conquer stuff!" Kreia was far more deceptive. She used logic and the promise of "really" or "ultimately" helping people as a mask for her evil intentions. This is brilliant characterization, and Kreia's final betrayal of the player and her allies only compounds that betrayal. She worked to incrementally turn you to the Dark Side. Not just the main character, but  you. She made you believe it's wrong to help the poor because you're denying them the right to stand on their own two feet if you do. The darkest parts of Ayn Rand's libertine objectivism (IE, Atlas Shrugged, the Bioshock games) are not the veneration of individual liberty and responsibility, but the denial of mercy to the downtrodden because of dogmatic devotion to personal responsibility to the detriment of altruism. To Kreia, kindness was weakness, not strength. And she tried at every turn to trick you into seeing things from that perspective.

All throughout Star Wars we hear about the "seductive" nature of the Dark Side. But rarely do we receive such visceral spoonfuls of how and why the Dark Side is seductive. Anakin Skywalker's ultimate face-heel turn to Darth Vader is clearly a selfish grasp at the chance of saving Padme from death at the cost of billions of lives. Sidious didn't have to work hard to bring Anakin over to his side, because Anakin was too young and too immature and too arrogant to outwit Palpatine. Kreia is so much more than a lightsaber-wielding, lightning-throwing raisin. Her weapon is her vicious, subtle intellect, and the writers of KOTOR 2 didn't treat the player like an idiot. Kreia is not crazy. She believes in darkness and betrayal, and she is ultimately so wounded by the very traits she's adopted that she will not let herself die until the Force itself is destroyed for leading her down such a sordid path. Despite being taken for a heck of a ride by Kreia, the player, ultimately, cannot help but feel pity at the crossing of the moral event horizon that turned the Kreia the Jedi into Darth Traya.

The Bad (in a good way): Brilliant voice acting by Sara Kestelman really gives the character oompf. Kreia had a prominent role as an advisor and playable character in KOTOR 2, and Kestelman bore the weight of the character gracefully.

The Actual Bad: KOTOR 2's plot was a mess and the game was unfinished when it was released. Despite this, Kreia carried the narrative. I would've liked to have see a more neatly-wrapped ending.

PRINCESS AZULA - AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER

Azula seeing an imaginary vision of her mother in one of the series's closing chapters. Source.

Every time the teen-aged Princess Azula of the Fire Nation makes her debut in Book 2: Earth of Avatar: The Last Airbender, I can't help muttering: "Ugh. She's the worst." Princess Azula, voiced by the talented Gray Delisle, is the daughter of Firelord Ozai and Princess Ursa and the younger sister of Prince Zuko, the story's antihero. After Prince Zuko fails all throughout the show's first season to capture the twelve-year-old Avatar, Aang, Firelord Ozai dispatches Azula to hunt him and his friends down once and for all.

Azula presents threats to the heroes of ATLA on several fronts. As a prodigious firebender with the full financial and military backing of the Fire Nation, she is a constant physical threat. At the battle outside the walls of Ba Sing Se, Azula manages to get her claws on Avatar Aang. While many stories use such scenarios to give the villain a monologue or have them throw the hero into some pit they'll inevitably bust out of, Azula does nothing more than don a little smirk as she goes straight for the kill. Aang is luckily saved by some falling rocks, not by Azula's ineptitude.

Azula is a genius sociopath who firmly believes in the Avatar versions of Divine Right and Manifest Destiny. While Zuko took an entire season trying and failing to track down Aang, Azula accomplished the same in only a few episodes. Using her cunning intellect, she easily outwitted the puppet master of the Earth Kingdom, Long Feng (a seemingly unbeatable opponent throughout the second half of Book 2) and seized control of his Dai Li agents. It is at this key juncture ("The Crossroads of Destiny") that Azula, having kidnapped Katarra of the Southern Water Tribe, manages to convince Prince Zuko to abandon what should have been his heel-face turn and to betray Aang and Katarra in a climactic duel beneath the streets of Ba Sing Se that nearly left Aang dead.

Despite her prominence in the second season, Azula's most significant antagonism is not with Avatar Aang or his friends, but with her brother, Prince Zuko. Azula's calculative genius reaches full potential in the first half of Book 3: Fire, where she takes what should have been Zuko's greatest victory (the alleged defeat of the Avatar) in the eyes of their father and turns it into a weapon against him. Over and above besting the Avatar in combat twice, Princess Azula's most significant confrontation is against Zuko himself, and though their final battle is a spectacular feat of animation, it is also a heart-wrenching, emotional picture of a family torn apart by Firelord Ozai's lust for world domination.

There is no final redemption for Azula, only an unraveling. Her last moments on camera are a tear-ridden, psychotic breakdown that are uncomfortable to watch both for Katarra and Zuko, as well as for the audience. The tragedy of Princess Azula is that though she would have likely always been psychologically imbalanced, her father ruined her. Power and honor brought neither Zuko nor Azula the love and approval of their father. It only left Azula weeping in chains.

The writers did a stellar job giving all the characters (and by extension, the audience) reasons to despise Azula. Aside from being perfectly voiced by Grey Delisle, Azula nearly kills the beloved Uncle Iroh, an ally both to Zuko and Toph Beifong. She all but kills Aang, making her the mortal enemy of Katarra. She captures Suki and nearly kills Sokka with a knife on the Day of Black Sun. She betrays Zuko and in so doing betrays her friends Mai and Ty Lee. She betrayed the Dai Li, sworn to serve her, and Lo and Li, sworn as well. Most significantly, Azula betrays the legacy of her long-lost mother - perhaps her only true chance at redemption.

Because the working definitions of sociopath and pscyhopath overlap, it's difficult to say for sure which one Azula is, and though it is never succinctly stated that she is a socio/psychopath, there is no doubt to any fan of the show that she is. (Based on my understanding of these diagnoses, sociopath seems to be a better classification.) While Azula may have been more naturally inclined toward mental instability, the not-so kosher examples set by her tyrannical father paired with the absence of her gentle mother are what drove her down the path to insanity. Her episodes of psychosis in the series's final chapters confirm that her inability to grasp reality are rooted in trauma. Psychopaths, psychiatrists tell us, are innately amoral and less prone to delusional or frenetic episodes. When Azula starts to unwind, we feel sorry for her. She may have struggled with psychological issues even in a better world, but it was the Firelord who made her a monster. She feels remorse at the loss of her mother. Buried beneath mountains of anger and darkness, Azula does care. That's why it's so sad to see where the show leaves her: in a prison of her own mind, locked there by her father after a lifetime of hearing that she wasn't worthy of his love.

The Bad (in a good way): A brilliantly written and acted, complex, anger-inducing character. You love to hate her, and in the final analysis, you can't help pitying the tragedy that is Princess Azula: a fifteen-year-old-girl ruined by her megalomaniacal father.

The Actual Bad: We could have seen more of her, couldn't we? Her mouth seemed to be drawn much larger in the closing episodes? I'm grasping at straws; she's a great villain.



Agree? Disagree? Have something nice to save? Leave it in the comments.



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