Character Development vs Character Assassination, a Failure Mode Analysis

09 Apr

Well, hello there. This is Mitchell, the person you’ve probably forgotten exists because I’ve barely written anything substantial for the better part of two years (fuck depression and fuck the ability of politics to exacerbate depression), but technically this is my blog too. I’m back to talk about a story about wizards and how it disappointed me. No, not that one, sorry. The other one.

Over two years ago, I wrote this post, and, more significantly, the Magic: the Gathering fanfic I link to in it. That context may be helpful to understand the rest of this post, but I’ll try to write this in a way that is comprehensible without it. I mainly want to use this opportunity to talk about character development, what makes it work and ways it can go wrong, but in order to do that I’ll need to go into detail about this particular example.

Honestly, writing about this at all is a bit self-indulgent, but please bear with me, I think there are some useful lessons to take from it.

That post and fic were a response to a development in the ongoing storyline of Magic: the Gathering which I found deeply unsatisfying. I’ve continued to keep up with the story since then, which has been something of a rollercoaster, as it tends to aggravate me as often as not. Most of the updates fail to live up to the standard they’ve set with the better episodes (for instance, I unequivocally recommend this one, and it has the added benefit of working perfectly as a standalone), but still has its share of interesting concepts and moments which make it worth following. This week aggravated me more so than most, because they seem intent on picking at sore spots with me, and continuing down what I thought was already a slippery slope to nowhere the last time I discussed it.

To wit, last Wednesday, the Wizards site posted this card preview article, followed shorly after by Act 2, Scene 3 in the card storyboard (link goes to the storyboard main page because it’s set up in a way I can’t directly link to a subsection).

Or, to make a long story short, Sorin Markov and Nahiri (both of whom once at least gave the appearance of complexity and a compelling story, and were favourite characters of mine) have now been reduced to one-dimensional caricatures of themselves, and the conflict between them to effectively a sideshow gimmick or a punchline. Judging by this reaction highlighted on Mark Rosewater’s blog (and several subsequent comments), some people enjoy this? I will admit I can find it vaguely amusing in an absurdist way, but I don’t think that’s what’s being meant or intended here. Rosewater also says here that, essentially, these characters are present at all because they wanted to include as many popular character cameos in this arc as possible; in theory, I can’t fault him this, but I have to say that, personally, I would prefer a character I like not appear at all than appear only to suffer further character assassination and be turned into a joke.

(Incidentally, I don’t think I’m the only person annoyed by this. While in terms of absolute numbers it’s still true barely anyone has read it, I’ve noticed an uptick in hits on my fic over the past week, which suggests to me there’s some appetite for an alternate take on these characters. That said, judging by the comments here, there’s a pretty wide divide in terms of what people want and I shouldn’t read into it too much.)

But I think I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

Mark Rosewater (the head designer for Magic) has on several occasions presented a theory of character development that I think is interesting and well worth discussing, even if I personally don’t think it quite works. (For the record, I did a bit of googling looking for the quote on his blog and column and couldn’t find it, so I suspect I’m remembering it from his podcast; I don’t have the time to go looking for it there, so for better or worse you’ll have to take my word for it.) Essentially, he argues that to write a compelling character arc, figure out what you want your character to be like at the end, and have them start out as the polar opposite (so if you want an altruistic character, have them start off utterly selfish, and so on). The example I remember him using is Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, which in fairness is a solid example and absolutely does fit the pattern he describes. I’m certainly not going to say that it never works. I do, however, think there are complications that keep it from working as a general rule, and that when it does work it’s for other reasons:

1. It’s all well and good to have a character transition between extrema, but the change has to be plausible and make sense, and the audience needs to see it happening (even if it’s gradualistic and they don’t realise at the time, the signs should be obvious in retrospect). You need to show your work. The endpoints of this process may well look absurd if you juxtapose them in a vacuum, but with the pathway between them in mind they shouldn’t. The key, more or less, is local consistency – the character’s actions and motivations in any scenario always need to make sense in the context of their past experiences and their current situation. Dramatic change isn’t a bad thing, but it has to be earned in order to work.

2. First impressions are often more memorable. What is the public conception of Scrooge, after all? When people hear his name, they certainly don’t picture him as he is at the end of the story. This is especially true if the audience have spent more time with the pre-development version of the character than afterwards, or if a character’s introduction is particularly iconic and memorable. If a character is going to take a long-term ongoing role in a story, having a disconnect between the audience’s conception of them and their actual portrayal is… less than ideal. If you’re going to use this method with a character who will have an ongoing presence, I think it is better to start off showing them as you mean them to be most of the time and then flash back to an origin story, rather than presenting it chronologically, but even that has the potential to go wrong.

3. This method assumes characters get one major arc and that’s it, after which they have no further development. This can be OK for certain kinds of characters, and certain kinds of stories, but it’s certainly far from universally true, and is especially false when the character in question is going to have a recurring or ongoing presence in the story. Character development can vary a lot in terms of how dramatic the change is and what kind of change happens, but in general, people don’t reach an end state after which they stop being affected by their life experiences. Trivially, having more experiences changes a person because they now have the memory of those experiences.

4. Even if the intent is for one big arc after which the character becomes more static in their recurring form (think of, for instance, superhero origin stories), the recurring version of the character needs to be at least as interesting to spend time with (and preferably more so) as their pre-arc version. Otherwise, you tend to get audience frustration asking what the point of all the setup was. If the payoff is insufficient, people feel like the setup was a waste of their time. (In a similar sense, the pre-arc version of the character also needs to be enjoyable to spend time with, or the audience isn’t likely to have the patience to see the arc through. It doesn’t matter how good the end state is if the character is so insufferable nobody gets there.)

5. I tend to think the best character development is gradualistic; the change should sneak up on you somewhat, to the point that looking back at how the character started out can be shocking. People rarely change overnight, despite the popularity of epiphanic narratives (e.g. Paul on the road to Damascus); to the extent that those work, I suspect it’s either because the epiphany is only a crystallisation (the point at which the character themself realises they’ve changed and accepts it, or the straw that breaks the camel’s back), or precisely because sudden changes like this are rare in our lived experience and therefore seem more remarkable (if not explicitly supernatural; again, Paul).

In the end, what is the difference between the good kind of character development, and the bad kind, which I variously term character derailment or character assassination? (To the extent those are different, I’d say derailment is accidental while assassination is purposeful.) The evaluation must inevitably be somewhat qualitative, but in the end it mainly comes down to point 1. Has the change been earned? Is there a plausible pathway from start point to end point? Taken as a whole, does the character still make sense?

(Obviously, I don’t think either Sorin or Nahiri as currently written meet these criteria, or I wouldn’t be writing this article. I do, however, think it was worth trying to work out *why* it didn’t work, before diving too deep into specifics.)

What am I even talking about, anyway? If you’ve been following Magic Story diligently for a while you might well already know, but for everyone else here’s my attempt at a timeline and summary. The relevant storylines go back to around 2010 or so.

Zendikar block (2009-2010) introduced both Sorin Markov and the Eldrazi. Innistrad block (2011-2012) was rather story-light but revealed more details about Sorin’s backstory and homeworld.

We knew several things about Sorin then: he’s a black-aligned planeswalker (black-white on all but his first card), an ancient vampire characterised by long-term vision and planning. While his motives are often inscrutable and can be self-serving, and he’s indifferent to human lives on an individual level, he tends to act in ways that promote long-term stability. The two major accomplishments we knew of were being one of the three planeswalkers who together sealed the Eldrazi (incomprehensible Lovecraftian beings that consume planes), and creating Avacyn, the guardian angel of Innistrad (whose purpose was to check vampiric overfeeding and other monsters so that they wouldn’t wipe out humanity and then starve themselves). Flavour text on several later cards portray Sorin as vindictive and inclined to seek vengeance on those who interfere with his plans, though notably he never went after Nissa Revane for interrupting his attempt to prevent the Eldrazi’s release. He can also be imperious and domineering to those he considers beneath his notice (as in, for instance, his meeting with Dack Fayden in the IDW comic). This is all a fairly consistent picture, taken as a whole, and makes sense as a character.

Sorin MarkovSorin, Lord of Innistrad

Commander 2014 marked Nahiri’s first appearance in the story, at least by name; before this she was merely the nameless lithomancer who had been the third party to the Eldrazi’s imprisonment (and about whom nothing else was known).

“The Lithomancer”: We learned a great deal about Nahiri in just this one story episode (set roughly six millennia in the past relative to current story events). She is a Kor from Zendikar; her card is white-aligned and focuses on her ability to make equipment from stone. She’s much younger than Sorin, and he was her mentor when she first became a planeswalker, though we don’t know why he chose to do this. She, unlike Sorin, is something of an idealist, and cares a great deal about individual lives, making every attempt to help even when she knows it’s futile (which makes her a really good foil to someone like Sorin). Nahiri reluctantly allows Sorin and Ugin to convince her to use her home plane of Zendikar as the prison for the Eldrazi, and puts in decades of work building the stone hedrons that are her part of the prison. She is seriously dedicated to seeing this project through. (It is noteworthy that there are some elements of paternalism and manipulation in how Sorin and Ugin treat her in this story, most notably that they don’t give good reasons for why they won’t consider using their own home planes. That’s the sort of thing she could have come to resent, and would have been a better seed of conflict than what ended up being used.)

Nahiri, the Lithomancer

Tarkir block (2014-2015) revealed more information about Ugin, and had Sorin encounter him again; Sorin’s reaction to a mention of Nahiri hinted that they hadn’t seen each other in a long time and may not have parted on good terms (and that Sorin might have something to regret about the way that ended).

Sorin, Solemn VisitorUgin, the Spirit Dragon

Battle for Zendikar (2015) and Oath of the Gatewatch (2016) were a return to Zendikar and its struggle against the Eldrazi. The actual storylines don’t involve Sorin or Nahiri except inasmuch as Emrakul is missing, foreshadowing what will later be revealed as Nahiri’s actions.

“Stirring from Slumber”: Nahiri’s next appearance (roughly 1000 years prior to current story events). We learn she spent many lifetimes living with the Kor before growing world-weary from constantly outliving all her friends and lovers, and deciding to encase herself in stone and sleep. She wakes much later when the Eldrazi’s prison is disturbed, and sends a signal to Sorin and Ugin; neither comes (Ugin doesn’t come because he’s in stasis recovering from near death, but she doesn’t know this). She fixes the problem herself, but wonders why they didn’t come, and leaves to go in search of Sorin, wondering why he didn’t come and if that means he might be in trouble. The Nahiri in this story makes perfect sense as an older version of who she was when we last saw her.

Shadows over Innistrad (2016) and Eldritch Moon (2016) have as central actors Nahiri, Sorin, and Emrakul (the last and strongest of the three Eldrazi), and several episodes purported to explain what had happened in the past between Sorin and Nahiri to lead to this moment. This is where I previously reacted that both characters had been thoroughly derailed, and that the conflict between them was almost entirely unearned. Following this, neither character appeared until now.

“Promises Old and New”: This is the one where their brains both fall out (still roughly 1000 years prior to current story events). Nahiri comes to Innistrad and finds Sorin, asking why he didn’t come. He says he never got the signal, and realises it may be because of other workings he’s done to protect Innistrad, though he didn’t intend that to happen. Nahiri loses her temper at this, and accuses him of being irresponsible and broaching their agreement; he brushes her off (quite insultingly), the conversation escalates downhill rapidly and she attacks him. They fight. The fight eventually ends with him imprisoning her in the Helvault. I find pretty much every action both of them take during this exchange utterly incomprehensible in the context of their prior characterisation, and this was the episode that infuriated me to the point I started writing the fanfic.

“Stone and Blood”: This begins with the same scene from Nahiri’s point of view, but that doesn’t help make any more sense of it. I’m struck once again, revisiting these, by how utterly forced this conflict is. At every moment in this conversation, each of them says the worst possible thing to escalate it further. And while this version goes out of its way to portray Sorin as uncaring and indifferent (and some of the things he says are legitimately appalling), it fundamentally does not make sense for him to be, nor to say those things at all, given what we thought we knew of him. (If nothing else, his behaviour here is short-sighted and rash, and indifferent to large-scale threats.) I also don’t think it’s in character for Nahiri to be as short-tempered as she is here; she has reason to be angry, in response to many of the things Sorin says, but she barely listens to him and seems determined to interpret everything in the worst way possible. The scene is written almost as if she was looking for conflict and nothing Sorin could have said would have made a difference, which makes no sense given we’ve seen her thinking about why she wanted the meeting in the first place.

I don’t think characters as stupid as they both act in this scene would be capable of working together long enough to accomplish anything, let alone the massive undertakings they canonically did previously.

“Stone and Blood” continues, portraying Nahiri’s experience of being trapped in the Helvault. A thousand years later, it is destroyed (during the events of Dark Ascension and Avacyn Restored) and she escapes, only to return to Zendikar and see it being ravaged by the released Eldrazi. She blames Sorin for this, and resolves to punish him by destroying Innistrad (by, as surrounding story elements had already been hinting at and showing the consequences of, summoning Emrakul there).

Nahiri, the HarbingerEmrakul, the Promised End

“Campaign of Vengeance” is the last we see either of them in the story, prior to their recent reappearance. They fight and attempt to kill each other. The fight ends with Nahiri imprisoning Sorin in stone, and leaving him alive to watch Emrakul destroy everything while he is unable to act. (Thanks to events unknown to these two, Innistrad is not in fact destroyed, and Emrakul ends up imprisoning herself in its moon for unknown reasons. Likewise, the other two Eldrazi did not in fact finish destroying Zendikar, and as far as we know were killed during the events of Oath of the Gatewatch.)

Scroll up and read how I described Nahiri after her initial introduction. Does this seem like the kind of person who would destroy a world and slaughter all of its inhabitants to get revenge on a single person? Do the events described here (regardless of how forced) seem like the sort of thing that would turn a good person genocidal? (I considered having an aside to discuss what we know about people’s susceptibility to genocidal rhetoric in today’s political climate, but it isn’t actually relevant to this scenario at all. Different kind of genocide.)

Which brings us to the present; the next set to be released, War of the Spark (which comes out later this month), has them returning to view, acting (to my mind) even more OOC than they did during the Emrakul arc. I’ve already linked to the relevant content above, but in brief: War of the Spark is the culmination of a 3+ year arc revolving around the machinations of the dragon planeswalker Nicol Bolas, as he attempts to regain the power he (and all planeswalkers) once held before the Mending. One of the final steps in his plan appears to be luring as many planeswalkers as possible to Ravnica and making it impossible for them to leave, then invading with his zombie army and harvesting their sparks (ability to planeswalk). Sorin and Nahiri are among those who show up, and (unlike everyone else, who seem to be banding together to fight Bolas; it’s hard to tell for sure since a lot of the story hasn’t been released yet or will be in an upcoming novel, but that’s how it looks) ignore everything going on around them and focussing only on trying to kill each other. Again, these two have previously been characterised as taking the long view and being concerned about world-ending interplanar threats, among other things (and, ironically, Nicol Bolas is at least partially responsible for the Eldrazi having been released in the first place, though it’s unclear whether Sorin or Nahiri could know that). The only trait left to them, it appears, is mortal hatred of each other. They neither know nor care about anything else.

This seems worse to me. Even if I were willing to concede the previous arcs were believable and worked, this would represent an absolute refusal by both characters to grow from that experience and develop further, which is deeply unsatisfying. Yes, their being here at all is more of a cameo than actual continuation of their story, but it’s still a cameo that essentially says “they’re in stasis, their story will not continue”.

For contrast, let’s talk about a time when Magic Story did character development well. Let’s talk about Liliana Vess.

Liliana Vess

She is introduced as an archetypal black-aligned planeswalker (her name is literally an anagram of “a villainess”, though all sources claim this is a coincidence) and necromancer, and the first concrete information I remember learning about her is that, after the Mending rendered her mortal, she made pacts with four demons to restore her youth, immortality, and power, then decided to hunt down and destroy each of them rather than be beholden to her end of the bargain. Her quest to kill these four demons has been her primary motivation through much of the plot in which she’s been involved. She is self-serving, manipulative, and ruthless. (It also doesn’t hurt that she’s clever and snarky and gets most of the best lines, which make her a lot more likeable than she might otherwise be.)

In her chapter of Magic Origins, we learn she was originally a healer from Dominaria, and in desperation attempted to use necromantic powers to save her brother’s life (encouraged by an entity called the Raven Man, who may or may not be a figment of her imagination), which went horribly wrong and bound him to a tortured existence as a lich. This is used to explain the reason she fears death, and contextualise the later scenes in which she makes the demonic pacts (brokered by Nicol Bolas).

Over the course of various events, we see her attempt to rationalise her actions to herself and others in selfish terms, though it’s clear from the text these are rationalisations. In the end of Eldritch Moon she helps fight Emrakul and eventually joins the Gatewatch, and while she claims this is so she can manipulate them to help her with the remaining demons, it’s clear there’s more to it. She is very often emotionally driven and in denial about it, which becomes clearer and clearer the more we see of her.

Amonkhet block and then Dominaria include the confrontations with the final two demons. Perhaps more notably, on Dominaria, she encounters her undead brother again and learns what became of her family, and puts him to rest at some cost to herself. Once the final demon has been killed, she tries to leave the plane and is stopped by Nicol Bolas, who reveals that rather than freeing her from the contracts, killing the demons merely transferred the obligation to him, and she’s bound to obey him or die. (I will admit that, at the time, I didn’t think much of this development and thought it constituted an Idiot Ball moment for her in retrospect not to have “read the fine print”, but I’ve come to appreciate it in later context.)

In Bolas' Clutches

The trailer for War of the Spark (seriously, watch this if you haven’t, it’s very well done) depicts Liliana leading Bolas’ zombie army in the invasion of Ravnica, and what they’ve managed to do with her as a character here is seriously impressive, especially considering there’s no dialogue. After everything we’ve seen Liliana go through, and all the manipulation she herself has been subjected to between the Raven Man, the demons, the Onakke, and Bolas himself (I don’t have it in me to try to summarise all of it; suffice it to say that much of what we learn about her suggests she wasn’t nearly as much in control of her life as she seemed), it’s clear that she’s had enough and no longer thinks any of it was worth it (and the specific trigger moment in the trailer is her seeing two siblings die who resemble her brother and her younger self). The implication of the trailer seems to be that she’s decided to turn on Bolas and use his zombies against him, knowing it will mean her death when he invokes the pact. (This is perhaps weakened a bit by the fact there seems to be evidence she’ll survive this, as she’s been mentioned to be a main character of an upcoming novel set after this, but I think the arc still works despite that: she’s still making the choice to value something more than her own survival, and with the belief that she’ll die.)

Why does this arc work, when the Nahiri and Sorin ones don’t? It’s just as dramatic a reversal – it even fits the “start out as the opposite” structure Rosewater suggested, though obviously I don’t think that’s the reason. There are several answers, I think, but on the most fundamental level it’s that we’ve spent enough time with her to actually see the changes taking place, and that it’s a gradual process where the steps make sense. I’m aware that I’m contrasting a redemption arc with a “fall from grace”/”start of darkness”, which may seem a bit apples and oranges; that may change a bit of how it comes across, but fundamentally I still think it makes sense to look at them in terms of psychological and emotional verisimilitude, and that that perspective is key to explaining why one of these arcs is compelling and the other fails to be.

Regardless, the example of Liliana proves that Wizards’ story team does know how to write complex and dynamic characters, and how to make an arc compelling. This only makes their failure to have done so in the case of Nahiri and Sorin more frustrating.

I am now forced to accept, therefore, that the current portrayal of Sorin and Nahiri is what was intended all along, and that the nuanced versions of them I liked so much were either figments of my imagination, or a temporary state meant only to serve as contrast to what they now are; contrary to how I interpreted it, their early appearances were not meant to be representative of their core characterisation. That’s the implication of Rosewater’s method of arc planning. I dislike what that arc has turned out to be intensely, but I think it may be more accurate to say the writing mistake was in the 2014 story that introduced Nahiri and caused me to become attached to these characters in the first place, and not, as I previously argued, in their subsequent development for other plots. In the context of Rosewater’s view on character arcs, those later plots, loath as I am to admit it, are likely the reason these characters existed in the first place.

The story Wizards intended to write, I think, is a tragedy: the story of two erstwhile friends and comrades whose negligence, insensitivity, and lack of empathy destroy their relationship irreparably, leaving behind an all-consuming hatred neither of them can get past. While it’s not the story I wanted, that’s a compelling idea and has a great deal of potential, and I certainly don’t object to it in the abstract. But the execution thereof, and the Idiot Ball moments it took to get it there (not to mention the sudden appearance of those traits when they weren’t in evidence previously), have made the end result a farce instead (I don’t intend to cast aspersions on the makers of that video, merely to point out that they correctly identified the genre as farce and acted it as such. So too does this fanart). This is not, inherently, a horrible thing – farce does, after all, have its place – but oh, what a waste of compelling backstory.

Still, Wizards have gotten me: I’m seriously tempted now to try to build a deck that will force these two to get along. In terms of marketing, maybe they’ve succeeded. Bleargh.

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Posted by on April 9, 2019 in mitchell


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