The villain is the hero of their own story

It’s often been said that what people look for in entertainment is a response to the reality of their lives. When times are good, there’s a greater thirst for stories that provoke thought and challenge. When times are rough, people look to entertainment as an escape.

There seems to be a lot of confusion in the world at the moment. There’s political divides (Trump’s presidency, Brexit), religious conflict, and social unrest. As the world grows smaller with technology, it seems to splinter into an increasing number of factions as people search for belonging.

Maybe this is why superhero films are so popular at the moment. Maybe this is one of those moments when many people want to watch films and read books in order to forget the problems in their daily lives.

But we still desire well-told stories. As much as we want to see things in black-and-white, and dive into stories of good-vs-evil (where we know, from the outset, that good will triumph), we still require some kind of realism‌—‌and this is especially true of our villains. The moustache-twirling baddie, the pure-evil adversary, the antagonist who simply wants to take over or blow up the world‌—‌these seem passe, or one-dimensional. They might be watchable for a while, but they have no real substance. In a shallow comedy a villain like this could work, but not in anything more serious.

Think of some of the great villains in stories, and there will be something that draws us to them, something that holds our interest, something we can relate to. They’re not cardboard-cutouts, but real, rounded characters. Yes, they want to harm others, or take what isn’t theirs, or stand in the way of progress‌—‌but they have their reasons. They are driven by understandable motivations, even though we can see that their reasoning is flawed.

There’s a phrase that springs to mind here‌—‌everyone is the hero of their own story.

MichaelDouglas_FallingDownI can recall watching the Michael Douglas film Falling Down when it first came out on video (yes, I’m old enough to remember video tapes). There’s a brilliant moment at the end, when Douglas’ character, D-Fens, is facing the police officer, a gun trained on him. His brow furrows, and he says, disbelievingly, “I’m the bad guy?”

It’s a fantastic moment, because we’ve been following D-Fens throughout the film. We’ve seen and understood his frustrations, and even as his actions have become worse his justifications still make some kind of sense. We’ve travelled with him, and even though he’s not an easy character to warm to, we’re still on his side. We believe that things will turn out for the best, that he’ll somehow redeem himself‌—‌until this confrontation. This is when it all comes home. D-Fens is the villain, even though he couldn’t see it for himself.

The best villains are driven by deep, relatable motivations, even when their actions are unacceptable. Think of Hans Gruber in Die Hard. When John McLane’s wife calls him ‘nothing but a common thief’, his controlled expression slips for a moment. He rounds on her, stating that he is ‘an exceptional thief’.

In this, his actions become more understandable. He’s not driven simply to steal, but to steal in style. Criminality (or robbery) might be his career of choice, but he wants to be the best at it. He’s like Rocky, pushing to become the best he can be. He’s like so many artists, fighting to produce their best possible work. He’s like doctors who strive to learn more, or lawyers who want to be well-respected for their work. His drive could be something to admire, had his sphere of work not been so anti-social.

Seeing what drives a character, be they ‘good’ or ‘bad’, instantly makes that character more interesting‌—‌and also helps propel the story on. At the moment, I’m slowly working my way through the Dune books, and I’m finding it fascinating how Herbert lets the reader in on so much of what his characters are thinking. We know the plots everyone is forming, and we know many of their secrets‌—‌and there is justification for all of them. At times, Herbert is able to blur the line between ‘goodie’ and ‘baddie’‌—‌the characters are all simply trying to make their way through tricky situations, with an aim to survive at the end.

George RR Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire books do this, too. His narrative follows so many characters, and there is a constantly shifting tableau of conflicts and alignments. An ally can become an enemy, and an enemy can become an ally. Some characters might be ‘purer of heart’ than others, but all are real, dealing with internal conflicts, and simply doing whatever they feel they must do.

So we have stories with clear villains whose motivations we can understand, and stories where a cast of characters have shifting alliances. But there are also stories where the ‘villain’ is the protagonist. Think of Tony Soprano, or Michael Corleone. We find many of their actions despicable, but because we get to know their inner turmoils, and because we get to understand why they do what they do, we become invested in their struggles. These are both men doing what they feel is necessary to protect and provide for their families, and that in itself is an honourable thing, even if we recoil at their methods. And there is a depth to both characters that makes us believe they could change. Tony Soprano has his doubts, and there’s that glimmer of hope that he might somehow redeem himself. Michael Corleone’s arc is a downward slope, but because we saw his good side at the start of the story, we have to believe that it is possible for him to rise up again.

There is a flip-side of this, too‌—‌heroes don’t always do good things. In Die Hard, Sgt Powell tells John McClane that he shot a child some years ago. In The Lord Of The Rings, Boromir can’t resist the urge to own the ring‌—‌and at the end Frodo is unable to relinquish the ring. But this is good storytelling, because perfect heroes are boring to watch. We’re drawn to a character like House not only because of his brilliant mind, but also because he’s such a flawed character.

I could give more examples, but this should be enough. Heroes don’t always do the right thing, and villains have strong motivations behind their actions. Hero and villain are labels we apply to characters to help us understand the story‌—‌but the roles can change, depending on our own perception of the actions. Ultimately, everyone is the hero of their own story.

And that’s as true in real life as it is in fiction.

How Disney use story, even in their park entrances

Stories are everywhere. In fiction, obviously, but non-fiction uses story forms too. Stories are used in marketing and politics. If you keep your eyes open, you can see stories everywhere. Even in design.

We had a family holiday to Disneyland Paris recently, and the amount of story on display was immense. This isn’t too surprising‌—‌Disney made their name with films and animations‌—‌but look a little deeper, and there is more to their use of story than this. They understand that stories are journeys, and if you want a potential customer and fan to follow that journey to the end, you need to engage their emotions.

The place is split into different areas, each with their own theme (Fantasyland, Discoveryland and so on), with distinctive buildings and music. The queues are their own ministories, with twists and turns that reveal props connected to the rides, or animated characters, or screens giving instructions in a manner suited to each ride.

And the staff are a part of the stories, too. It’s no accident that Disney refer to them as ‘cast’ or ‘crew’. They wear costumes appropriate to each area of the park or specific ride, and many perform roles in the manner they interact with the visitors. Even those cleaning the streets are in costume, and wouldn’t look out of place dancing with the chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins.

So objects and personnel are part of the story, but the physical design of the place plays a big role, too. Nowhere is this most obvious than in the entrance to the main park.

Once through the security checks, visitors walk toward a large, impressive-looking building that houses the entrance to the park itself. But there is no straightforward route. Paths twist and turn around flower beds and water features, yet the journey eventually brings the visitor to the entrance.

disney1-e1561187814653.jpgThis is beneath the building, and on a bright day it is dark under there. It’s classic storytelling‌—‌the hero must first pass from the everyday world into the new, and that often means travelling somewhere uncomfortable, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. In classic hero’s journey tales, there’s a threshold guardian to thwart the hero’s attempt to progress, and in Disnelyand that role is played by the greeters and ticket-checkers.

But we pass these guardians, and emerge from the dimness into the new world of the park itself. But the journey is still not complete. In story, the hero must work through many trials, and the goal is never discovered round the first corner.

Disney2Ahead, blocking the path, is another building, this one a train station. The track runs overhead, and to progress the brave adventurer must step though the dark arches underneath. Emerging from these, the space opens up, and the adventurer is met by buildings from some idealised perfect past‌—‌clearly fake, but this is a magical story, so we can expect nothing else.

Yet this isn’t the promised end of the journey. We’ve all seen the Disney castle (at the start of every one of their films and on so many logos), and we know this lies at the centre of the kingdom. As in so many fairy tales, the castle is the ultimate goal. And now, on the far side of the train station, we can see fleeting glimpses‌—‌a pink turret, a flag‌—‌but not the whole thing. A bandstand blocks out view.

So, one more obstacle. We walk around this, and only then does the view open up‌—‌Main Street, with music and sounds and lights and life, and just beyond the wide space at the end, framed perfectly by the buildings of the street, is the castle, just as it appears in all the pictures. Now that we have seen the castle, we know we’ve arrived in Disneyland.

It’s easy to be cynical about this. Disney understand how stories can be used to persuade, and how a captive audience can be parted from their money. By that shouldn’t detract from the attention to detail here, and to the way that story is used so effectively. It’s also worth remembering that one of the primary functions of story is to entertain. In a place like Disneyland, the rides and attractions are the main focus, but by adding entertainment to the walks and queues Disney aim to turn a day out into a journey of adventure. Love it or loathe it, they know how to use story effectively.

There’s a thin line between hero and villain

The trailer for the upcoming (at the time of writing) Batwoman series came out recently (click here to watch it yourself), and I’ve found myself watching a lot of reaction videos. Most of the reactions are pretty negative (don’t think I’ve come across any that are positive), but there’s one (on the ‘Heel vs Baby Face’ channel) that goes deeper into the trailer’s problems This video argues that, rather than portraying Batwoman as a hero, the trailer actually shows her as a villain. It’s wonderfully argued, by someone who clearly understands character arcs in stories, and I recommend you take a few minutes out to watch it. In fact, stop reading this and watch it right now.

The video makes a great deal of sense (and I love his reimagined version, where Batwoman has to be encouraged to take up the mantle of the Bat). But what struck me is how the difference between hero and villain can be so small.

Both strive to get what they want, often against huge odds (even the ‘cartoon villains’ of Bond films have spent years building up their money and power, often weaving complex deceptions to get their own way). However, we want the villain to fail, and we want the hero to win‌—‌and the reason for this comes down to sympathy.

We also feel sympathy for a hero because of their flaws. A character who is strong in every way is hard to relate to‌—‌flaws make a character more human, more like us, especially when their imperfections threaten to impinge on what they are trying to achieve. This is why we love the ‘everyman’ hero, the average person who is thrust into unimaginable dangers‌‌—‌because we can relate to these characters, we can imagine ourselves in their shoes.

This is why Harry Potter works as the hero‌‌—‌he might have innate magical ability, but the whole wizarding world is new to him, and he struggles with so much of it. Then there’s Ripley, just another worker who finds herself battling an alien as it kills off the rest of the Nostromo’s crew. There’s Katniss, taking her sister’s place in the Hunger Games and being thrust into a whole situation she is totally unprepared for.

The list goes on and on.

Motivation comes into play here. The hero’s struggles are often down to the battle between what they want and what they know is the right thing to do. Where the villain is consumed by entitlement and superiority, the hero constantly battles with doubts, and has to push hard to do what they feel they must. They put their lives on the line, or their reputation, or their own happiness, because they know, deep down, that there are higher stakes.

And this is why we root for a hero. They might have similar doubts and imperfections as us, but they don’t give in. They fight for what is right, just as we want to imagine we’d do in the same situation. They don’t have everything handed to them, or take whatever they want.

In the trailer, it does appear that Batwoman simply takes everything Batman has built up, and demands credit for it‌—‌and so it’s hard to sympathise with her. But it’s worth pointing out that this is only the trailer, and might not be a fair representation of the series itself. It’s always possible to pull scenes and lines of dialogue out of context, and to create the illusion of an alternative story (as the Scary Mary video demonstrates so well, trailering Mary Poppins as a horror film, or the ‘happy’ trailer for The Shining).

Or maybe this trailer shows highlights of the first act of a redemption story, where Batwoman initially allows her internal villain to take over, but as the series develops we’ll see her forced to confront this. Maybe she’ll fight through as she learns what made Batman who he was, and in the final act we’ll see Batwoman helping others for their sakes rather than her own ego, finally becoming the superhero Gotham needs.

There’s a thin line between hero and villain.

Why the hero must save the day

It’s always disappointing when a story that begins with so much promise falls in the final pages.

This happened recently in a trilogy I was reading. The first book was great‌—‌it worked well as a complete story, but with enough unanswered questions to encourage me to keep reading. The second book meandered a little, but I was able to let that pass‌—‌it was setting things up for what promised to be gut-wrenching finale. The hero had gone through so much inner turmoil, but now he was in an impossible situation‌—‌the only way to save the world would, without question, result in his own death. Could someone who had been acting from selfish motives for so much of the previous two books make the ultimate sacrifice?

The third book in the trilogy started strongly as the hero battled the fears in his mind as well as the physical dangers all around. Then, in the final few chapters, everything changed. One of the ‘bad’ characters was going through his own struggle of conscience, and when it came to the end moments, he stepped in. This reformed character took the place of the hero and died to save the world.

At first glance, this might seem to be a good ending‌—‌the world is saved, and the hero lives. It’s win-win, surely. But as I read those final chapters, I felt cheated. To be honest, it ruined my whole experience of these books.

handshake-4040911_1280One reason I felt cheated was down to a broken promise. In any book, the writer gives certain promises to the reader. These might not be made explicit, but most readers will pick up on them subconsciously. If a group of characters have been preparing for a big battle, then there is an inherent promise that there will be a battle. When the two main characters meet in a romance, even if they can’t stand each other initially, there is a promise hard-wired into the genre that they will end up in a happily-ever-after.

And in the trilogy I read, with so many words given over to the hero’s struggle with his situation, there was a clear promise‌—‌the hero would sacrifice himself to save the day.

But he didn’t. The promise was broken.

And, to add to my dissatisfaction, he ultimately did very little to help save anyone. It felt as if the preceding three books’ worth of internal and external trials were all for nothing. So much work, and at the defining moment the hero stepped aside and let another take his place.

That’s like an athlete training hard, spending hours running in the cold, struggling through injury and personal doubt, slowly realising that they can win the big race‌—‌then having someone else run in their place. Or a musician practising every hour of the day on a complicated piece of music, fighting to prepare in time for the deadline of a major concert‌—‌and then sitting in the audience as someone else plays the piece for them.

As readers, we expect the hero to be the one to save the day. We want that stand-up-and-cheer moment when they overcome the odds. So if we’re given a different ending, we don’t get the closure we want.

Imagine how watching Star Wars would’ve felt if, instead of Luke destroying the Death Star, one of the other pilots had done so. Or if Harry Potter, in his final battle, stood aside as one of the Hogwarts teachers defeated Voldemort. Or if the crew of the Nostromo in Alien had been saved by a passing military vessel.

In all these cases, good would have triumphed over evil, and the heroes would be alive to tell their tale. But the endings wouldn’t have satisfied. We would’ve felt cheated. Why follow these characters through all their highs and lows when none of that matters at the end?

Heroes might not save the day on their own (and if part of their character growth is in trusting others, it might be important for them to receive help), but they definitely should have that moment of glory. This is what Luke did when he trusted the force and destroyed the Death Star, what Harry Potter did in defeating Voldemortm what Ripley did when she overcame her terror and sent the alien out into space.

If the hero doesn’t save the day, then they are only a side-character in someone else’s story.

 

Is science fiction a genre?

I read genre books. Yes, I read literary fiction too (whatever that actually means), but because I enjoy science fiction, fantasy, horror, the occasional thriller and so on, I’m predominantly a genre reader.

As I both read and write more, I’m becoming increasingly conscious of tropes in different genres. These are those scenes or events that are expected, those parts of the story that almost define it as a certain genre. Thrillers have the ‘hero at the mercy of the villain’ scene, the ‘speech in praise of the villain’. There’s often a false ending, too‌—‌and this crops up in horror as well. In romance there’s the first kiss, the misunderstanding that appears to ruin everything, but there’s always a happily-ever-after (miss this and endure the wrath of countless romance fans). Then there are all the internal genres, those that follow a characters development (either positive or negative)‌—‌the moment when they have to make a choice from which there is no going back. In a maturation story, there is that moment when it becomes clear to the main character that the world they believed to be true is based on a lie of some kind.

So different genres have different tropes. But what about science-fiction stories? What defines a sci-fi story?

fantasy-2861815_1280

It has to be set in the future‌—‌unless it’s set in the past (like Star Wars), or an alternative present.

There has to be some kind of cool technology‌—‌unless there isn’t (think Planet Of The Apes.) And the technology doesn’t have to play a major role in the story either‌—‌it can be simply setting.

What about action? Well, there’s action in a lot of sci-fi‌—‌but not all. There might be battles in space, or there might be duelling in dialogue between two characters. Some sci-fi is fast-paced, but other stories in this area are slower and more reflective.

And are there any set scenes in sci-fi? Erm‌…no.

The more I think about this, the more I realise that science fiction is not a genre, at least in the same way that horror or thriller or crime or romance are genres. Science fiction refers more to the setting than the type of story being told.

Maybe a few examples will help:

TheMartian_AndyWeirThe Martian is definitely sci-fi, but it is also a survival story; one man against the elements. It’s just like Robinson Crusoe, or any other survival story. It just happens to be set on Mars.

DoAndroidsDreamOfElectricSheep - PhilipKDickBladeRunner (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep) is a philosophical detective story, with musings on what it means to be human, and also has many noir tropes‌—‌downtrodden detective, questions over who are in fact the good guys. Oh, and there’s a love story underneath all this. But it has replicants, and it’s set on an Earth that many people have abandoned to travel to the stars.

EndersGame_OrsonScottCarfEnder’s Game is almost a sports story, with Ender starting off in the little leagues and working his way up to the big time. Ender takes his team and uses their weaknesses as strengths, overcoming all the obstacles in his path. It could almost be viewed as a coming-of-age story, too. The fact that the games involve space battles is secondary.

HitchHikersSeries_DouglasAdamsHitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is comedy, full of bizarre happenings and loads of satire. The plot is secondary to the humour, and the science fiction setting simply gives Adams more scope for letting his ideas run riot, and allows him to satirise many things in our current world/time.

Foundation_IsaacAsimovAsimov’s Foundation books (at least in the original trilogy) tell the story of a civilization over time, with much of the action involving political shenanigans and business dealings. The technology is used in trade, rather than in space battles, and the most important science is social science. And then, in the third book, there is the Mule, the lone individual who throws a spanner in the works, and proves that even the greatest minds are not infallible. Science-fiction is simply the setting in which Asimov tells his generation-spanning saga.

Dune_FrankHerbertDune is another saga, with all the political and familial intrigue of a historical novel. Like the best sagas, it draws the reader into a rich world populated by diverse characters, each with their own motives and desires. It just happens to be set on a desert planet.

Six science-fiction books, and all so different. Many sci-fi readers will enjoy them all, but there will be those who love getting embedded in the world of Dune but can’t stand the apparent frivolity of Hitch-Hikers. Those who become engrossed in Watney’s constant struggles in The Martian might be turned off by the socio-political dialogue in the Foundation books. These books area all undoubtedly science fiction, but they are very different story-types.

Have a look at the science-fiction sub-genres on Amazon‌—‌alternative history, first contact, metaphysical & visionary, military, time travel, space exploration to name a few. There is a science-fiction subgenre in romance, another in action & adventure. There’s science-fiction erotica, and there are technothrillers (where science-fiction and thriller meet). And that’s just the official categories. The film Alien uses the sci-fi setting to tell a classic horror story. Another film, Gattaca, is basically a society story (different classes of citizens and so on), but told in a future world.

I think this is a great strength of science-fiction, and it is something that sci-fi writers have utilised for years. In the late 1930s, L Ron Hubbard, already a successful writer of adventure stories, was approached by Astounding Science Fiction magazine to write for them. He was initially reluctant, saying that he didn’t write about ‘machines and machinery’, but about people. The publishers of the magazine told him that this was precisely what they wanted. His first story for the magazine was a success, and led to more and more people-based sci-fi stories, by writers such as Isaac Asimov.

There are some sci-fi stories that are primarily concerned with the science aspects (hard sci-fi, such as Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves or Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama), but the majority use the setting to tell other stories, and may use this further to reflect on our present-day world. Science-fiction gives a writer great scope for asking ‘what if…?’ and then crafting a suitable story around wherever that question takes them. Or it gives them a vast canvas on which to tell a myriad of stories, drawing on whatever influences and preferences they have.

And this is one of the reasons I love reading science-fiction‌—‌the whole ‘genre’ gives me such a huge array of different stories. When I read sci-fi, I can explore types of stories I wouldn’t normally consider, but without stepping too far out of my comfort zone. I can escape to new worlds while still, for example, being presented with an intricate puzzle in the form of a crime/detective story. I can be entertained while being challenged, made both fearful and hopeful.

Much of this relates to fantasy, too‌—‌unsurprising, as the two ‘genres’ share many similarities. There are fantasy action stories, fantasy romances, fantasy thrillers, fantasy sagas‌—‌the list goes on.

Of course, in the end, the setting is only secondary to the story. A cool world is fun to visit, but without interesting characters being thrust into intriguing situations there’s little to hold us beyond a brief visit.

This is why, as a writer, it’s important that I understand tropes, and that I understand different kinds of stories. My own stuff fits in science-fiction, but to make the stories work, I first need to know what kinds of stories I’m telling.

Story is character

 

Douglas Adams has many great characters in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, but one of my favourites only exists for about a page‌—‌the sperm whale that is suddenly called into existence a few miles above the planet of Magrathea. Of course, the ending is fairly predictable.

“Hey! What’s this thing suddenly coming towards me very fast? Very very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like‌…‌ow‌…‌ound‌…‌round‌…‌ground! That’s it! That’s a good name‌—‌ground! I wonder if it will be friends with me?”

I remember reading interviews with Adams where he explained how this whale came about. In cop shows on TV at that time there would often be chase scenes with both heroes and villains firing guns. Naturally, the villains were never the best of shots, and innocent bystanders would end up dying. What annoyed Adams about this was how nobody on-screen appeared to care‌—‌there was nobody to cry over this loss of life, or even say ‘Hey! I was going to play tennis with that guy this afternoon!’ (apologies if I’ve got the quote wrong‌—‌I’m going from memory here). In short, these characters were only there for one purpose‌—‌to be killed.

So Adams decided to write a character whose only role was to die, and make sure the reader cared about them.

I think it’s safe to say he achieved this.

But this points to the importance of characters in stories. Often, stories are viewed as primarily plots (the stuff that happens), with characters simply being the ones this stuff happens to. But in a good story, the plot is driven by the characters‌—‌initially through their reactions to events (like the thoughts going through Adams’ whale’s head), and then through their actions (although the whale’s meeting with the ground prevents anything in this example). Story is not so much the events as the characters’ reactions and actions. In fact, I believe we can go a stage further‌—‌characters are story.

play-stone-1744790_1280To illustrate this, I want to compare a couple of books‌—‌Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama and Andy Weir’s The Martian. Both are hard sci-fi, and as such both dive into scientific details. Both give the reader a sense of place through their scientific world-building.

Rendezvous… is about a team of astronauts investigating a huge alien artifact that has entered the solar system. We follow this team as they uncover various mysteries, learning more and more. Occasionally, things go wrong, but the team are professionally competent, and they soon solve any issues.

This is one problem I had with the book‌—‌there’s very little tension. Yes, there are the constant questions about Rama, but the whole ‘story’ is more like a narrative documentary than an adventure into the unknown. The characters (and I can’t remember their names, nor anything distinguishing about any of them) are simply tools through which Clarke can describe this fantastic world he has created.

Now compare this with The Martian. Mark Watney is stranded on Mars, and right from the start we’re with him as he struggles to survive. We ride with his ups and downs, feeling the tension of his struggles and the release as he solves problems. Yes, there’s science and maths in his solutions, and he’s competent and professional, but we relate to him as a person. What might have been a guide to survival on Mars becomes, through the character of Watney, a story of survival in a hostile environment.

Story comes to us through character, not through situations or environments.

Think of any successful book, and chances are you think of the characters driving the story.

The battle for Middle Earth is huge, too big for the average person to hold, and so Tolkien tells his story through the struggles of a few characters, primarily the hobbits. The fight between good and evil is made personal in Frodo’s struggle with the power of the Ring. Sam, his stout friend, gives us hope because he’s someone we can relate to‌—‌not particularly skilled, terrified much of the time, but with a firm belief in what is right, and a drive to do what he can to help Frodo. The story exists not in the vast sweeping history but in the struggles of these characters.

There are many other examples, of course. The conflict in JK Rowling’s wizarding world is brought to us initially through a young boy’s introduction to his own abilities as a wizard, and continues through his struggles both with his power and his develop into a young man, culminating in his confrontation with Voldemort. In the Hunger Games books, a whole world’s struggles are made real through the constant battling of Katniss Evergreen. Dune’s political intrigues are grounded in Paul Artreides, and his understanding of exactly who (what) he is. The battle against the Empire is shown through Luke Skywalker. The wonders of Douglas Adams’ bizarre universe are shown through the hapless character of Arthur Dent, confused and often wanting to simply have a lie down and a nice cup of tea. The fight against thieves in an office block is made personal through the character of John Mclane (and, to a certain extend, through Alan Rickman’s character‌—‌not a common thief but an exceptional one).

Without these characters, would these stories be the same? Would the stories really exist? Maybe they could be told in other ways, but they’d still need engaging characters. Maybe without Harry Potter, we’d have Neville Longbottom’s fight with Voldemort. Without Arthur Dent, maybe Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy would be Trillian’s story. We can’t know for sure. But we can say that, without characters, these stories would simply be stuff that happens.

Because characters don’t inhabit stories, they are stories.

Fairytale of New York – a wonderful story in song

I’m not a fan of Christmas music. I started hearing them on the radio at the end of November this year (far too early), and I’m now sick of them. A bit of variety would be good‌—‌but no, it’s the same handful of songs, over twenty years old, and I know every word and musical note of them.

But there’s one that always stands out to me, one Christmas song that I actually like‌—‌Fairytale Of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. It works so well musically, especially how their voices work together (and Shane MacGowan is excellent proof that you don’t have to be a good singer to be a great vocalist), but it’s the lyrics that really make this song. There’s poetry in the words, but there’s also a wonderfully told story. As it came on the radio again a few weeks ago, I found myself analysing this story in detail.

prison-553836_640It begins with a flash-forward‌—‌the main character spending Christmas Eve in the drunk-tank. This instantly sets us up for a sad tale, and when another drunk says he won’t see another Christmas, the mood is well and truly set. This character sings (The Rare Old Mountain Dew), and our protagonist is reminded of a girl.

But although he loves her, the melancholy feel tells us all is not well. The man’s a gambler (‘Got on a lucky one, came in eighteen to one’), drinking his winnings. And when he sees ‘a better time when all our dreams come true’, we’re not sure if that’s just the drink talking. He’s down on his luck, despite his win on the horses, and we wonder how he’s ended up in this situation. It’s a great opening, because it makes us care about him, and it makes us want to find out more.

nyc-1556338_640The music changes, and this signals a change in time for the next scene. Now, we’re in New York, again at Christmas, but the main character and the girl (we assume it’s the one on his thoughts earlier) have just arrived in the city. They seem as much in love with their new home (with it’s ‘rivers of gold’ and ‘cars big as bars’) as they are with each other. There’s wonderful promise in the air (‘When you first took my hand on that cold Christmas Eve, you promised me Broadway was waiting for me’), and the guy is enraptured with his ‘queen of New York City’.

But there are subtle nods to the approaching darkness. The line ‘But the wind goes right through you, it’s no place for the old’ hints that this youthful love might not last. And ‘the drunks they were singing’‌—‌happy in their alcoholic haze at the moment, but we know from the opening scene that the murky side of drink will raise its head before too long.

arguing-1296392_640The next scene jumps forward. The relationship’s fallen into bitterness and anger. He might drink, but she’s ‘an old slut on junk, lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed’, so it appears that they both have their battles with substances. She’s far from enraptured with him now‌—‌he’s a ‘scumbag’ and ‘maggot’, and a ‘cheap lousy faggot’, and she wants rid of him (‘Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last’).

As a brief aside, there have been various censored versions of this song over the years (on one live TV broadcast, the band changed ‘You cheap lousy faggot’ to ‘You’re cheap and you’re haggard’), and the language used in this scene is pretty nasty. But it’s all in character, and the vitriol highlights just how far these two have fallen. These words are the right ones to use, however offensive they may be to some.

I also like the line ‘Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed’. Read straight, it feels poorly constructed‌—‌wouldn’t something like ‘lying there almost dead, in that bed, on that drip’ feel better grammatically? And while some of the structure might be down to the need to rhyme ‘dead’ with ‘bed’, it also gives us more insight into the character‌—‌he’s so consumed by anger and hatred that he’s stumbling over his words.

The next scene happens later in time, when the anger has dissipated (at least, enough for the couple to view things with more detachment). There’s an emotional exchange, and now we see possible reasons (behind the obvious drink and drugs) for the breakdown of the relationship.

girl-2067378_640She came to America seeking a new future, yearning to realise her dreams (of Broadway?), but they never materialised. She believes he’s held her back and kept her from fulfilling her potential (‘You took my dreams from me when I first found you’). We can’t know if this is true, but initially he appears to agree with her‌—‌he did take her dreams, but ‘I kept them with me babe, I put them with my own’. Their bright future in this land of opportunity was, in his eyes, as a couple‌—‌‘Can’t make it all alone, I’ve built my dreams around you.’

Their relationship is doomed. She wants nothing to do with him, but he still dreams of ‘a better time’, desperately trying to believe that ‘this year’s for me and you’. But we know that’s not going to happen. She’s chasing her own dream, and he’s destined to drink his life away like the old man from the drunk-tank scene. Maybe this will be the last Christmas he sees too.

It’s a very sad song, and the setting only highlights this. Christmas is a time for family and friends, and we’re constantly reminded of the bells ‘ringing out for New Year’s Day’ as others look to a bright future. Then we have ‘the boys of the NYPD choir still singing Galway Bay’, a song that talks of a yearning for Ireland‌—‌and a reminder that, maybe, this doomed couple might have been better off remaining at home. Sometimes, dreams cannot become reality, and fairytales don’t come true.

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