You know what? I was gonna actually have my next post be about why I love romance in storytelling so much, but something jacked-up happened, and basically a ton of edits and things I’d added had been undone for SOME reason. It just…reverted back to an older version of the post and now I can’t recover all the changes I made.
And I’d made a LOT of changes. Like, 90% of the article was those changes.
If there is one thing that pisses me off to the point of wanting scream (apart from idiots who somehow end up in charge), it’s when something like this happens and I have to rewrite from scratch. Mostly because usually what I’ve already written felt pretty magical, and now I have to try and recapture that magic with the understanding that I probably won’t get everything back to how I had it before. That said, there is comfort in the idea that I can write it even better on the rewrite. But still, all that work, plus uploading the images, the formatting, the tags (yeah, I’d put in a bunch of tags and now they’re all gone). It’s just a pain.
Though I’ve also tried to take heart after hearing about another author’s story of how he lost an entire novel when his hard drive went kaput, and how he learned not to feel bad about it. Something about what we write as being impermanent, I think…. Point is, he learned how not to let it eat him up inside (even if that novel was meant to be his livelihood).
Regardless, my own feelings of frustration needed to be cooled off by some other means. So, I decided to put that post on the back burner and work on this one instead as my next post. What better way to purge angry thoughts than to write about that thing that makes angry people feel better (sometimes)?
Yes. It’s time for some sweet, sweet revenge. Tee, hee, hee.
More specifically, examining why it’s a trope that comes up ALL THE TIME, and whether or not it’s a trope we’ll ever really get tired of.
And I suppose, if there’s going to be a discussion of revenge, the best place to start would be the “original revenge” story, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.
I remember reading it the summer in between my sophomore and junior years at college. Think it was like, a thousand chapters long with like a million pages…well not really, but yeah, it’s a REALLY thick book. The only other book I’ve read that was that long was Les Miserables, which took me a month (and a half actually, maybe) to read back when I was in high school. And that was by managing to squeeze in the max amount of chapters that I could per day around everything else. You know, like homework and junk.
Obviously, I don’t remember every teen-weeny detail, or at least…I thought I didn’t. Couldn’t possibly. But I was surprised at how much much of that story had actually stuck with me when I watched the anime adaptation of it.
Yes, such a thing exists. There is an anime adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, or, Gankutsuou, if you prefer, (he, he). There’s also an anime adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but that’s for another post. Maybe.
And even though the anime takes a few liberties and plucks the story out of the nineteenth century and sticks it in this cyberpunk, sci-fi alternate futuristic timeline, it’s actual a more faithful adaptation than the Hollywood film–probably because in spite of those changes, being a twenty-five episode series, there was more time to flesh out and explore the billions of plot points and intricate specifics to protagonist Edmond Dantes’s revenge scheme from the book that a two-hour movie just couldn’t, in which case I’m willing to somewhat forgive the film’s very Hollywood ending–plus in that scenario, things turned out better for poor Mercedes. (Except then I remember that the character of Haydee was cut out entirely too, and then I’m back to square one in hating on the thing. I mean come on, the Wishbone (remember that show? I sure do) adaptation managed to get the story across faithfully in a half-hour episode on PBS! (Though Haydee was still quite out of the picture, at least from what I remember.))
Seeing the anime adaptation though, I remember watching it and (along with feasting my eyes on the very unique and bizarre, almost wallpaper-esque art style) going, “Oh yeah, that did happen in the novel, I totally remember reading that!” And I’m being completely serious here. I totally remember the kerfuffle with Danglars and his daughter, and the romantic subplot of Maximilen and Valentine. Now they did make some changes, like they took out the lesbian runaway part of Danglars’ daughter’s character and made her actually share a mutual affection with Albert Morcerf, and not sure if Franz in the book actually had an alluded-to thing for Albert in the book, but he definitely has one for him in the anime. And well, it couldn’t escape some other anime tropes besides, like putting a lot more emphasis on Albert’s relationship with the Count (like almost in bad-touch territory, but not quite so it still kinda works). And yeah…they even managed to squeeze mechs in there. Sort of.
Even so, it was pretty damn faithful to the source material in terms of the overall narrative, except for the ending. In the anime, the Count dies (which is a shame) but in the novel he lives and realizes that he can have a future and learn to love again with Haydee (so sweet, I love it). Honestly though, either of these work. Both serve to illustrate what a demon a thirst for revenge can be, but before our revenge-seeker can come to that conclusion, we do enjoy that surge of adrenaline that comes with racing toward’s vengeance’s finish line.
In fact, we all hope that most protagonists who seek revenge decide not to go through with it in some way, or at least get away with it with their moral compass unscathed. Why? Because the best revenge-seeking protagonists are the ones who started out as innocents. This is even in the case of when we don’t learn that the revenge-seeker in question was an innocent until later on in the story. (Except for Inigo Montoya, cuz he’s just ten flavors of awesome.)
At the same time though, we like how revenge drives a character. Because we know that if we were in their shoes, we’d see the allure of taking revenge ourselves. It’s that eye-for-an-eye philosophy, its’ that, “You hurt me, so I’m gonna hurt you just as bad or more so you know that what you did to me was wrong.” Like it’s the only way that the person the revenge-seeker seeks revenge against will understand the revenge-seeker’s pain (speakin’ a which, the angst that seeking revenge is in and of itself an allure, especially for the fangirls, lol). In short, we seem to feel it will equalize the scales. An idea of achieving balance comes into play in this instance, like, “You kill my kid, then I get to kill yours. Now we’re even.”
Really though, it all comes down to what the consequences are if the revenge-seeker is successful in taking their revenge. Does it turn them into a monster as bad or worse than the monster who wronged them? If so, then yeah, the whole, “You should learn to forgive instead,” plot point works. But, if they’re the kind of character who can take their revenge and still retain their integrity as a character, then revenge doesn’t need to be painted in so dark a light. Referring back to Inigo Montoya one more time, we see that he did not lose sight of who he was deep down as a character, he got his revenge, and then moved on. (That, and he got one of the best revenge lines EVAR.)
“I want my father back, you son-of-a-bitch.”
Oh, and let’s not forget the preceding:
“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
Which gave John Wick (a pretty good revenge story too, actually) something of its own to meme itself with.
Bottom line, if your revenge-seeker turns into a villain, revenge wasn’t the best medicine. If he/she stays a good guy despite getting their vengeance, then break out the party favors (and figure out what the heck you’re gonna do with your life now).
Unless of course you’ve got a Titus and Andronicus situation, in which case, HIDE EVERYONE YOU CARE ABOUT!!! Otherwise they’ll get cooked into a pie (you think I’m kidding, but I’m serious).
Now while the ideal outcome is that the revenge-seeker finds a way to be the “better person” and doesn’t let their thirst for vengeance consume him or her, it’s admittedly pretty badass in its own way to see the revenge-seeker just hang over the precipice into the abyss of turning full-on wicked. This character development journey is a treat in and of itself, like we get a taste of what a cool baddie our hero/heroine would be, but still get to see them come out the hero/heroine.
As an aside, I suppose in one way, it’s a good thing I didn’t get to my romance post yet, because that means I can give some background on one of the couples I was going to cover in this post, which might keep the romance post from dragging having to explain so much plot all at once. Because part of that background also ties into the theme of revenge as well as romance.
That said, I turn to Fairy Tail as one such bit of media that uses this to great effect, at least in my opinion (SPOILERS by the way to anyone who only watches the anime, this plot point has only happened in the manga, though considering the sensation of the manga on the Internet, that Pandora’s box has probably already been unleashed anyway).
In a HUGE story jam-packed with characters who all seem destined to get paired with their special someone, there’s one couple that I’ll bring up here, and it happens to be my fave in the franchise. It’s the relationship between Gray Fullbuster, an ice-make wizard, and later on ice demon slayer as well, and Juvia Lockser, a water mage.
Near the climax of the manga, during the final battle to defeat the forces of the dark wizard Zeref, Gray and Juvia end up caught in a fight where Juvia dies saving Gray–or Gray thinks she does anyway (she gets deus-ex-machinaed back to life later).
As luck would have it though, this isn’t the first person to do that kind of thing for Gray, he’s had people close to him die before–his parents, and later the teacher who taught him ice-make magic (and to add salt to the wound, he feels it’s personally his fault his teacher died because she died saving him from a mistake he made). So, losing Juvia like this basically pushes him over the edge.
Killing the villain who drove Juvia to her “death” in the first place is pointless though, as Gray comes to terms with this after he pounds the ever-loving bejeezus out of the guy, when he says:
That’s actually a nice example of a revenge-seeker who realizes on his own the futility of making the rat bastard who killed his waifu pay for what he did. That and really deep down he’s wrestling with his own guilt at not being able to save her. And then there’s the fact that his ice demon slayer magic is starting to nom-nom on his soul from the inside out. He’s not exactly in a rational mindset, which is why it’s easy for him to go after Natsu next when it’s revealed to him that Natsu is the demon E.N.D., whose continued existence is (somehow) the reason for all of the losses Gray has suffered up until this point.
So now we’re back to square one, at least until big sister Erza comes in and cools the two feuding brotherly BFFs off, and then Gray sees that Juvia is alive almost immediately after. Crisis of hero-morphing-into-villain-because-vengeance averted. Phew! Yay love.
Now touching on one of the earliest anime I watched when I started to watch anime seriously was Code Geass, the premise of which involved the main character exiled Prince Lelouch seeking revenge for the murder of his mother, one of the many wives of his father the Emperor of Britannia. Yep, gimme revenge mixed in with an exiled prince and I’m on board to give it a try. Happily, the show had so much more to offer in the way of story and characters, so I actually cared about what was happening when the revenge angst kicked in there as well. Sure the guy had an air inborn aristocratic arrogance about him, but one of the first things that endeared him to me was actually the way he interacted with his little sister, who was crippled and blinded as a result of the traumatic events involved in his mother’s murder.
We definitely see Lelouch cross a LOT of lines (along with some glorious moments of manic laughter) morally speaking, but we kinda manage to forget where he faltered when he basically (SPOILERS) ends up bringing about world peace. So, we get a case of the revenge-seeker intentionally becoming a villain as a means to execute revenge. And it brings about FREAKING WORLD PEACE. (WTF?)
But here’s another thought: can a revenge-seeking character choose not to execute revenge but also not forgive the person who wronged them?
In the case of Avatar: the Last Airbender, the writers of that show did something really unique with the scenario of Katara finally getting the chance to avenge the death of her mother. After confronting the Fire Nation soldier who killed her mother, and seeing what a pathetic wretch he’s become, willing to throw his own mother under the bus to save his own life, Katara comes to the conclusion that killing him would solve nothing. But she also doesn’t forgive him either. And she still remains true to herself as one of the most morally centered characters on that show. Now that’s some strong characterization.
We even see her exploit to taboo of blood-bending for crying out loud, and her character still gets away with it. Badass.
So this plot device–the quest for revenge–is something that can either hook a reader or sink a story. If it hooks you in and it’s written well, then it can be some of the juiciest parts of the story. It sinks the story when it comes off tired and keeps you from being invested.
How does that last part happen?
Well, I’d say it’s when the characters are written so horribly and or flatly that I could care less. Like with any other facet of a story, just hanging the revenge out like a carrot isn’t gonna be enough. I have to give a damn. Sometimes this can work, if you manage to get the generic beginning right: you get the bit with the hero or heroine is with his or her happy family or people he or she is close to, and then you bring the injustice hammer down on them, and then when the ashes clear and the hero or heroine realizes they’ve lost everything, they can vow revenge. Sometimes you’re right there with ’em, and sometimes you’re yawning, “Oh my God, I totally did not see this coming.” So, see every bad movie ever made that tried to fit in a revenge plot. That usually explains a lot.
I know the bad revenge plots when I see them. Give me two seconds of a movie trailer that has a revenge plot, and I’ll tell you whether or not it’s gonna be worth my time.
Like taking John Wick again, on the surface it looks like a pretty standard action-revenge flick, but actually they make it kind of work. John’s wife dies because cancer, not because sniper bullet or some junk, and what triggers him is actually some douche who kills his puppy (a puppy his wife gave him before she died so he wouldn’t be lonely without her). There’s just something so SAD about that that I totes right there with him and pissed off as HELL. Congratulations, you somehow combined two pandering agents–dead wife and cute puppy–and made it rage-worthy. You go kill that douche, John Wick.
Compare to this every other Gerard-Butler-lead-character-action-revenge flick that I’ve seen trailers for and hopefully you get what I mean.
That and there’s the “using revenge to justify being a jerkwad” ploy, because in that case, if a character gets to be so terrible that we can’t stand them, not even using revenge as an excuse can redeem them. That or there’s the “too convoluted revenge execution” (with the exception of Count of Monte Cristo, because all that planning and prep actually leads to some stuff that’s pretty kickass as far as revenge goes), where the way a revenge-seeker gets revenge is so confusing that we’re just like, “Huh?”
Seeking revenge is not boring. It will NEVER be boring. We LOVE it. We love to see wicked people get their just desserts. We love seeing the one seeking revenge triumph over their personal demons on their quest for vengeance (or just triumph in general). But we have to care about what drives that revenge-seeker in the first place. Otherwise then yeah, I guess then questing for revenge would be boring.
We like to see wrongs made right, we love to the line between what is and isn’t justice blurred beyond recognition, we love the redemption that can come as a result of seeking revenge or answering for what someone’s done to deserve having vengeance rained down upon them. But, most importantly, I think, given the examples listed above, we just love seeing how much it can change a person, for good or for ill.
If you’re stuck on making a character a little more interesting, I say try giving them a revenge backstory to stir things up and see where that takes you. I’ve done that with a couple of my characters, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The most important thing though is that vengeance can’t be the ONLY interesting thing about them. Otherwise, they’re still not interesting, and your reader could really care less.