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Monday, February 10, 2014

Writing Lessons from DBZ: Hero and Villain Team-ups, Putting the Audience's Faith in Someone Unstable

Dragon Ball Z takes advantage of villains to a degree I haven't seen before. In most stories, we see a "good guy," his friends, and a "bad guy" and his minions, and they're against one another. Dragon Ball Z, on the other hand, frequently makes heroes team up with villains. So here is plotting technique #1--Hero and Villain Team-ups.

 From the very starting of the series, Goku, the protagonist, has to team up with his enemy Piccolo, to fight someone who is far stronger than either of them. Goku and Piccolo have been enemies for years, and Piccolo has been hatching plans to actually kill Goku. Imagine how interesting the character dynamics are when they have to team up to fight a new bad guy--who, by the way, they learn is Goku's long lost brother, Raditz.

One or two episodes into this show and it's already interesting.

During the fight, they discover the only way to defeat Raditz is if Goku holds onto him while Piccolo does his death shot--killing both of them. And of course, since Piccolo wanted Goku dead all along, he goes right along with it, and Goku dies like in the second or third episode (what an opening, huh?).

Since Goku was the only one strong enough to defeat Piccolo, this leaves the world open to Piccolo's agenda. But don't worry, the characters have the ability to bring Goku back from the dead, once, using what are called Dragon Balls (find all seven and you can have a wish granted.)

Over and over again throughout the series, villains, each with their own agendas, have to team up with each other and with the good guys to defeat someone stronger than them. What's it like working with someone who literally wants to kill you? A lot more intense and interesting than working together with your best friends! As viewers, we're never quite sure what the teamed-up villains will do. Save each other? Save themselves? Do they care if innocent people get in the way? Will they care if the good guys get killed in the process?

So the hero of the story has to deal with all these other conflicts, along with the "super villain" they're all teamed up against. Talk about tension and conflict! Why don't we see more stories taking advantage of these dynamics?

Then, to take this further, once the super villain is defeated, we have to worry about how all these villains and heroes with their own goals are going to duke it out among themselves. At one point in the series, when the heroes have the opportunity to destroy one of the super villains before they gain power, one of the heroes, Krillin, says aside to his friend Bulma--Let's not destroy it. Otherwise all of these bad guys will be fighting over the planet among themselves, and we can't fend them all off at once. If we have this super villain around, they have to work together to defeat it. And we won't have to worry about them trying to defeat us or wreck their own havoc on society.

It's so interesting that they choose to not prevent an antagonist from rising to power because they're more afraid of what will happen if their team-ups are no longer needed.

Think about creating similar team-ups in your own stories. Just switching out a sidekick for a villain immediately increases tension and suspense tenfold.

In DBZ, some villains work with the good guys so much, that as they grow as characters. . .they aren't really good or bad, they're somewhere in between. They're fully gray. One moment they'll be rescuing a comrade and the next punching him in the stomach. We can't entirely trust them, which brings me to the next plotting technique.

Having to Put Your Faith in Someone Unstable

Several times in the series, characters have to put their faith in someone they can't trust or someone who is unstable. In the Frieza saga, our heroes Krillin, Gohan, and Bulma, have to put their trust in villain Vegeta, who, only a few episodes ago, tried to kill them. Another villain, Frieza, is even stronger than Vegeta, and unless Krillin, Gohan, and Bulma help Vegeta, the whole planet and everyone on it will be destroyed. For a while, the story line looks like this:

Good Guys < Bad Guy vs. Badder Bad Guy > All his minions.

So as viewers, we're stuck in this pinch. We don't want Frieza or Vegeta to succeed--they're both evil. So, we hope Gohan and Krillin can undermine them somehow, though it looks unlikely. At the same time, we're worried because although they've teamed up with Vegeta, we can't trust Vegeta; he could turn on them whenever they outlive their use.

Vegeta ends up back-stabbing pretty much every party in that season, including the heroes.

Do you see how being forced to put your faith in someone you disagree with ramps up tension? How being forced to trust someone you can't count on increases suspense? It makes the plot and character relationships so much more complex and engaging.

Then, there are moments in the series where characters have to put their faith in someone who is psychologically unstable. What do you do when the one person who can save the world refuses to at the last moment? It's like that pivotal moment in Lord of the Rings when Frodo finally makes it to the Crack of Doom and refuses to throw the Ring in. This same plotting method happens several times in Dragon Ball Z, with great variations so it doesn't feel formulaic. I need to explain the psychology of some of the characters before I provide examples, however.

The Psychology of a Saiyan

Alright, so, some of the main characters aren't humans, they're Saiyans, a species that biologically thrives off violence and bloodshed.

Some Saiyans, like villain Vegeta, embrace this, others, like our hero Goku feel it's an evil lifestyle to live. Despite the fact Goku chooses the higher road, that Saiyan blood still manifests itself in him, to a small degree. But he choose constructive outlets for it rather than destructive ones. He picks up martial arts rather than murdering and plundering the innocent. (I can hear Dumbledore in my head, "It's our choices, Goku, not our abilities, that show who we truly are." Also, Goku suffered minor brain damage as a child, so that also helped curb his Saiyan tendencies.)

But a few times, Goku finally gets the opportunity to defeat the antagonist and thereby save the world, and he refuses. Driven by his Saiyan blood, he'd rather take his chances and witness firsthand his opponent's fighting capabilities. From Goku's point of view, it would be a shame to come this far and miss out on witnessing the antagonist's full potential, and testing himself against it. In one instance, he even lets a villain go free because he can't imagine destroying someone so talented, powerful, and capable, despite them being evil.

Goku has a bit of an obsession that lurks under his good guy persona. Like Sherlock Holmes is more interested in solving the puzzle than actually saving people, Goku, despite all the lives he strives to save, is sometimes more interested in testing his and others' strengths in combat than the fate of the world. It's that Saiyan blood in him.

So there are those Frodo moments where you want to scream at him and because if he fails, the whole world will be ruined.

As viewers, we want to trust Goku because he's the protagonist, the main hero of the series, but there are instances where our trust and confidence in him weakens. These "Frodo moments" happen with a few other characters as well, and it ramps up the tension in the audience.

In Summary

We've reached the end of this post, but there's more on the way. Now, you have two new plotting tools to try out:

  • Team up villains with one another and with heroes by giving them a common goal. Explore the character, conflict, and plot dynamics there. Can any of them be gray characters?
  • Force your heroes or your audience to put their faith in someone they can't trust or someone who is unstable. The higher the stakes of the situation, the more suspenseful.

Consider trying one of these methods next time you're plotting a story, and see how it amplifies tension and glues your readers to the page.


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