Friday, February 26, 2016

Gul'dan the Secret King, and Other Notes on the Cult Leader Archetype

Curious things happen in the minds of a writer. Questions arising from matters of craftsmanship lead to all sorts of places, and in this case it's the question of how to create a convincing antagonist.

Part of the re-write for The Burning of Hugo involves the mastermind of the cult that this story is about. So it came to mind that it would help to dig into what would get someone to become a cult leader. That turned into quite the reading odyssey, as I began mixing psychology and mythology together to find useful parallels and correlations.

Then, being an active World of Warcraft player, it hit me while logged in and working on one of my characters doing (what is, as of this post, currently endgame) raid-prep in Draenor. This involves following a long quest chain where you're helping Archmage Khadgar thwart the master of the Shadow Council, the orc Warlock known as "Gul'dan". Gul'dan's Shadow Council is a classic Conspiratorial Demon Cult, and he's the leader, so of course using him as one of the models to compare and contrast with would be worth while.

In short, the cult leader is what Vox Day calls a "Gamma", but here I'm focusing on the aspect called "The Secret King":
There’s a male totem-pole for almost every activity – sports, politics, money, sex. Men naturally sort themselves into hierarchies, usually based on each member’s usefulness to the group project. If you’re good at what the group is trying to accomplish you get promoted and lavished with respect. If you’re a dead weight, you’re the goalkeeper. These hierarchies are based on performance, and they require other people to comply with you. You can’t simply declare yourself high-born and slot in at the top. The other men won’t tolerate it.

Gamma males are much too precious to accept their lowly position on the totem pole. They seethe with resentment over it and look for any way at all to climb up the pole – any way except through improved performance in the group’s task, that is. This makes Gamma males a source of instability. The Alpha/Beta/Omega hierarchy is stable because all know their place and accept how ranking battles take place: Alphas make power plays, Betas ace performance tests, and Omegas show willingness to carry out the drudge work without bitching. Gammas cheat and scheme.

This is why so many movies use the gamma archetype as the sneaky back-stabbing social climber figure (think the treacherous vizier in the king’s court, or the jealous weasel among the group of survivors in the zombie movie). Stories require drama and gamma males are the rogue internal element that upsets a previously stable social arrangement. If the beseiging horde overruns your castle or the zombies stream through a breach in the boarded-up windows, you can bet it was the gamma who let them in because he’s jealous of the team’s alpha.

Vox has made a number of predictions about how Gammas will interact, though unfortunately he hasn’t collected them all in one place so I can’t simply link to a page. As I remember it, they include:
  • Gammas will actively pick fights they can’t win against higher-ranking men. This is because the Secret King can’t accept that nobody appreciates his value but being feminised they don’t really understand how men handle conflict. Their risk assessment is faulty, like a belligerent woman screaming “you can’t hit me I’m a girl” before she’s decked on WorldStarHipHop.

  • Gammas can’t back down from these fights because that means admitting defeat, which goes against the Secret King belief. Also, everything is too personal, being feminised. So rather than slink away from a beating they have to keep running their mouth and keep getting beaten up. Gammas will lie, spin, and employ sophistry to maintain the illusion of winning when obviously losing. The evidence doesn’t actually support the winning, so it’s avoided, but they don’t realise how transparent their defeat is.

  • Gammas use the feminised debating tactic of tackle the man not the ball. They will directly insult in order to create badfeelz, because they project their own fear of badfeelz and assume their opponent is similarly wounded by it.
You better believe Gul'dan fits that archetype, both the new version currently in the game and the original version seen in the RTS games (and in the upcoming movie). His move to get Grommash to drink the blood of the demon Mannoroth (and thus become yoked spiritually to the demon horde known as "The Burning Legion", as Gul'dan is) is just such a coup attempt against the Alpha Male in this situation. The Shadow Council as a whole is an institution expressing this pathology against The (Iron) Horde that it entered into, turning each succeeding dominant in turn into its pawn.

Therefore, the classic Cult Leader antagonist is a Gamma Male fantasy, but classically it's considered a villainous archetype because (until the current era) the aberrant psychology of such men was seen for the dyscivic, dysgenic, and barbarous thing that it is and regarded appropriately with contempt and disgust. If you want a pair of glaring examples in popular culture, look no further than Starscream and Cobra Commander (both voiced by the same actor, mostly in the same tone) from the 1980s cartoon versions of Transformers and G.I. Joes(and COBRA is certainly a cult; Starscream is a Cult Leader without a cult).

The core of the fantasy is that the Secret King's delusions somehow turn out to be correct. With Gul'dan, it's that he really is smarter and more clever than everyone else and thus thwarts the heroes and his rivals (until he doesn't) and thus acquires and uses power better than everyone else. His cult is one part fellow-pathologies (and thus has to be managed, which he isn't that good at) and one part useful idiots (which he sees as disposable tools, demon and not alike, and regards with contempt). In real world terms, you're going to have to look at the LaRouchies, the Scientologists, and similar cults whose durability usually exhibits such a mix to it.

And so, with this in mind, back to my own work I go.

The cult leader is very much the Secret King sort, who has surrounded himself with others he feels he can keep on the leash, some of whom have vital resources he seeks to exploit (such as access to deniable minions such as street gangs and outlaw biker clubs). He's a Villain with Good Publicity, and he falls because Ken just Doesn't Give a Shit About Publicity. (If you're all about making Gordian Knots, don't fight Alexander.)

More on this some post down the road, when I have something to share.

Friday, February 19, 2016

There Are No Shortcuts to Good Writing

I despise stories that rely on characters doing stupid things to move the plot. Idiot Balls are fucking cancer, and I will have none of it, as I find it a reliable indicator of lazy writing.

As it is with Mary Sues, Idiot Balls are lazy because the trope goes "Because Fuck You, that's why." to any discerning viewer or reader questioning the verisimilitude of the character doing the Dumbass Dance.

The details matter. Show me, dammit.

You want to make me believe that your character would do the dumb thing? Put in the work showing me the flaws that make such a thing believable. You want me to believe that your character is a crack shot? Show me the practice, the prior performance, and other necessary qualities upon which such ability emerges from. Whatever it is, it doesn't come from nothing; show me where it comes from, and I will believe whatever your character says or does.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Remember Your Fundamental Duty is to Entertain

I hate "literary" fiction.

There is a reason. It commits the cardinal sin of fiction: in its pride, it bores me with its pretentious twattle.

Boredom is the worst thing you can do as a writer.

The first duty of fiction is to entertain. Everything else is secondary. If you bore the reader, then nothing else matters because no one will read your stuff.

This is the problem with message fiction. Its first objective is to propagandize the reader, to turn him and radicalize him. The ideologue writing message fiction is intending to convince and convert, as a missionary would, and does not comprehend that entertainment does not work that way.

An entertained reader is a receptive reader.

This is what far better propagandists than most message-fic pushers fail to comprehend, especially as those outlets consumed by these frauds shift further and further down the slope towards irrelevance and obsolescence.

Entertain first and foremost. Forget the rest.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Reflections on the Iconic Hero Story

Following on a previous post, it's time to expand on Robin Laws' Iconic Hero a bit.

Iconic Heroes not only have a Core Ethos, but that Ethos is also the fundamental story structure one can expect when you read one of those stories. When you got a ticket for SPECTRE, you knew damn well that you weren't going to watch Bond do a manners comedy routine. You were there to see the hottest girls, one of the hottest men, serious spy drama and action, and world-spanning adventures in exotic locations. Just as you're a fucking retard to ignore the Iconic Hero as a reliable way to get paid, you're also a retard if you poo-poo the Iconic Story that routinely goes along with them. Let's bring this back to my Iconic Hero, Ken, and his Core Ethos: Ken kills monsters preying upon Mankind to purify a corrupt world.

This, played straight and literal, makes his core story that of a monster hunter. Yet there is a flexibility here that I'm using to inform Ken's overall development in his iconic stature. As I noted previously, the big break is the Cataclysm; beforehand, Ken's an increasingly disaffected vigilante sort whose story would remind you of the Deathwish series and afterwards it becomes a monster-on-monster story that blends my love of Howard's barbarian heroes with Vampire Hunter D. There are influences from the Westerns in Ken's iconic story structure, as one would expect from a man like me, but in essence it is this simple- and simple is flexible:
  • Ken encounters a monster attack.
  • Ken attempts to tell the local authorities so they can do their jobs.
  • Ken finds that the authorities are unwilling or unable to do their jobs.
  • Ken finds out why the authorities are useless, or worse.
  • Ken can't walk away from the situation, so he does the job himself.
  • Ken leaves having killed the monster, but also unable to stay.
  • Ken moves on.
This is the value of the iconic story; once you have the Ethos, you have the plot and you can then build out your story beats and other narrative structure elements from there. It takes a hell of a lot of worry off your shoulders, and you can then turn that energy towards improving your skill at executing the writing of the story. Just like how the music world as their standards, so does the fiction world have its iconics; appreciate them, especially if you're like me and just getting started, for the benefits that they bring and use them to allow you to focus on honing those basics of the craft.