Tuesday, April 26, 2011
V is for Verisimilitude
Verisimilitude -or "truthiness" to the unwashed layperson- refers to a sense of realism or believability.
So why would someone working in a high-fantasy motif be concerned with believability? I personally think that achieving verisimilitude is as important (if not moreso) in fantasy as it is in otherwise more "realistic" settings. Making sure the fantastic elements or even the mundane aspects of a fantasy world interact in a believable way helps add a sense of reality to an otherwise unreal environment.
I really started thinking about the verisimilitude of my game world while reading some of my favorite blogs, which deal with the ways that access to fantastic things like magic would affect a universe. If you haven't seen them already, I highly recommend Martin Ralya's post on world-changing spells over at Gnome Stew. I also feel obliged to plug one of my absolute favorite blog series, the Architect DM over at Critical Hits. Both blogs have excellent ideas for game-masters and fantasy writers alike.
Today, I would like to focus on one particular aspect of verisimilitude -building believable conflict and believable villains. To be more specific, I would like to focus on conflict that involves people vs. people as opposed to a person vs. nature or the guy who wants to build and eat the world's biggest ham sandwich.
I find that coming up with believable interpersonal conflict is incredibly challenging even though I think I logically know what makes for exciting and believable conflict. For me, believable conflict occurs when both sides genuinely believe they are doing the right thing. This is why Eric Lensherr a.k.a. Magneto from the X-Men is a far more compelling villain to me than someone like the Joker from Batman. As a child, Lensherr survived the Holocaust only to later find that he had mutant powers. When he saw non-mutant society beginning to single out other mutants as dangerous and undesirable, he took actions, seen by others as evil, to prevent another Holocaust, this time inflicted on mutants. This is a far more compelling backstory than that of the Joker... who went crazy after falling in toxic waste.
Actors who have portrayed villains often mention the necessity for finding something to love about their character. Believable villains do not perpetrate evil acts because they want to do evil, they perpetrate evil acts because they believe those things are actually good!
Unfortunately, many high fantasy worlds suffer from moustache twirler's syndrome. Their villains know they are evil and embrace that fact. In Harry Potter, Voldemort's followers happily fall in line behind someone they call "The Dark Lord"... no matter how much you agree that wizards are superior to muggles, I find it hard to believe that anyone would label the being they revere as "the Dark Lord" especially when it is clear that the term holds the same connotation of evil as it does in real-world "Western" society. Even Tolkien suffers from this evil for evil's sake mentality with Sauron and the orcs. Why are they waging war against the people of Middle Earth? Their evil...that's what they do. Granted, in both of the above examples, access to power is said to be the driving force behind characters' decisions to side with evil. The trouble is, they recognize that what they are doing is evil rather than seeing their pursuit of power as fighting the good fight.
As a side note, if you are interested in this sort of thing, I highly recommend you check out Kiril Eskov's The Last Ringbearer. This retelling of the Lord of the Rings shows events from Mordor's perspective and recasts Sauron's actions as a struggle for technological progress against the technophobic elves and men who want things to remain the same.
Of course, there is a flip-side to the always wanting to do the right thing, which is that the right thing is not always clear, or even existent. To start, people in conflict are emotional beings who often do not want to acknowledge that their truth might not be the whole truth. They find a viewpoint that subjectively makes sense to them and run with it. They refuse or can't acknowledge other points of view believing their own to be correct. Humans, and particularly Americans seem to recoil from moral ambiguity. It scares us. We feel compelled to split things into right and wrong without acknowledging that both sides might be partially right and partially wrong, or that there might not be any right answer. Though our minds can technically grasp such a situation, our hearts and guts revolt against it.
When I am writing, I often have a hard time factoring in these complimentary aspects (desire to do right and resistance to moral ambiguity) that sit at the heart of interpersonal conflict. As the creator of the situation, I can see all sides, by definition. This makes it very difficult to work my way down to the emotionally driven, subjective viewpoint of the characters on either side. And try as I might, someone often comes out of it twirling a mustache.
Anyway, all this brings me to my main point -coming up with a reference that will guide me into the emotional mindset of characters in conflict in an effort to make both sides believable. I find that drawing elements from the news, or from real-world history can help fuel conflict scenarios that feel much truer, and to me, more engrossing. To that end, I have set up a page on this blog, which I have titled "The Plot Garden" which I hope to populate with "The seeds of conflict" (I know, it's cheesy!)... In plain terms, if I get an idea for something that might make for a rich or believable cause for conflict, I will add it to the little list growing on the page. Hopefully, this will prove useful for me and anyone else who stops by looking for inspiration for their next diabolical villain.