「温もりの場所」 (Nukumori no Basho)
“Place of Warmth”

Let’s talk about balance, tension, stakes, and how to stack the deck against your protagonists.

Balancing the Sides

Last week I compared this series to Robotics;Notes, in that there’s a mismatch between the scale of the threat and the tools at the protagonists’ disposal to deal with it. That’s a macro, story-wide problem, but it extends to individual conflicts as well. Take the mech battle this episode. Let’s list out the two sides. For the antagonists: A couple of battle-hardened veterans plus an idiot hacker, all piloting state-of-the-art mechs. For the protagonists: An animalistic mech with no tactics, a blowhard amateur in a goofy bulbous mech, and a bunch of teenagers running around on foot. It’s funny because, when I list things out like, it seems like the protagonists aren’t at that much of a disadvantage. The way it plays out, though, is that they look like they should be stomped instantly, so when they’re not, it strains credibility.

The problem is the skill gap. We like scrappy underdogs for our protagonists, our John McClanes, but they need to have some foundation in the skills which allow them to ultimately win. With John McClane (Die Hard), he’s a police detective, so his ability to fire a gun and operate under extreme stress seems plausible. Against and Hans Gruber’s mooks, we believe he can win; it’s only because he’s up against so many of them that he’s the underdog. But if he’s smart enough, and lucky enough—and in his case, is willing to suffer enough—we believe he can win.

I don’t believe Sougo and crew should have survived, much less won, almost any of the battles they’ve been involved in. Luck could explain the first one well enough, but if luck is all your protagonists have, they better have a Rincewind (Discworld) level excuse for it, otherwise it’s just crappy writing. Because they don’t even have a foundation of the skills necessary to fight off seasoned soldiers, it takes coincidences like Roman being hurled into hack boy’s mech to get them out of a sticky situation. And even then, Moura should have just ignored Cap’n Gus and flown earlier. Guh. Maybe if they only had a battle every three episodes, it could work, but a battle a week isn’t doing this series any favors.

Stacking the Deck Against Your Protagonists

The balance problem leads to another issue: The antagonists don’t feel beatable. Not without a deus ex machina or a sudden power-up which will piss us off, at any rate. They’re too strong, too skilled, too experienced. Which is a mistake when it could have so easily been otherwise! Moura is supposed to be this crazy unique mech, which can shrug off bullets like it’s no big thing (though still acts like they’re a threat at times, for some reason). That could have easily put Cap’n Gus’ team at a technological disadvantage, forcing them to be clever and skilled while Moura barreled into them with superior power … which usually seems like something the protagonists would do, but Moura could have been the Empire to Cap’n Gus & co’s Rebel Alliance.

All of this reminds me of a writing technique gleaned from Stephen King. To quote fellow author Ferrett Steinmetz:

But then I thought of all the great Stephen King books where the villains are having their stakes raised at the same time as the protagonist is:

In The Stand, the heroes are struggling to survive – but Randall Flagg is going mad because there are things he can’t quite see, and some of his most trusted lieutenants are leaving him, and goddammit why are things crumbling now that he should be ascendant. (The same can be said of IT‘s terror that the children are something new to IT.)

As writers, we’re frequently told “raise the stakes,” which often translates to “make things worse for the hero.” Which leads to a mostly-static antagonist, who exists only to pile hazards upon the heroes.

But King often makes things worse for his villains, which is a beautiful trick now that I recognize it: it allows him to start out with villains who hold all the cards, making them seem unbeatable. And then their power gets chipped away by the actions of the heroes and their own mistakes, slowly raising the pressure on them, until by the end confrontation they’re beaten down and desperate. The reader’s more involved because she knows that not only is this showdown important for the heroes, but knows that the villain’s got it all riding on this as well. This is vitally important for not just one but two people, and as such even though we know good will mostly triumph (this is a Stephen King book, after all), we’re equally invested in seeing how the villain fails.

Sound familiar? Static antagonists who exist only to pile hazards upon the heroes. Antagonists who seem unbeatable … and who, since the protagonists aren’t chipping away at them, continue to seem unbeatable. This is exactly what’s happening with Comet Lucifer. (Oh, maybe the political front will eat them alive, with that other captain from last episode making moves in that direction, but how satisfying would that be?) And here’s where some people are going to get annoyed at me, because I’m going to refer to my book, but CALM DOWN, I’m not trying to promote. It’s relevant because I did exactly this thing, so I can tell you that it works.

When the protagonists are wearing down the antagonists even as the protags are taking more and more damage (see: McClain, John), the villains get desperate, and they start taking actions that lead to the big, climactic battle. After all, would a prudent villain even allow a climactic encounter? No. They would have everything under control, and would wrap things up before the protagonists ever had a chance (see: Doom, Dr.). The protagonists need to throw spanners into their works enough to force them to play all their cards, and Comet Lucifer is doing none of this. The antagonists keep being thwarted by the will of the gods. The protagonists win because they’re lucky. Each battle is of little to no consequence. It’s an excellent example of how not to do it.

Do Mon, Magic Mushrooms, & Halo 5

I still can’t find two fucks to rub together for all the soldier flashbacks. I only this episodes realized that the bearded soldier was Do Mon, that’s how little I pay attention to them. But Do Mon’s interaction with Vee—or should I say, Agent Honeybee (as suspected)—was about the only interesting thing that happened this episode. Mostly because I want to know why she’s doing it, and this leads us closer to finding that out, even if we didn’t get it yet. But did you see the curry pot Do Mon strapped to his back when he set out after Sougo’s crew? Ugh. What is this I don’t even.

Well, I take it back—there were other interesting parts of the episode. Reminder: Interesting ≠ good. Take the magic mushrooms, which they were all apparently willing to eat even though no one checked if they were poison, even though they apparently had the ability to do so easily. Are you kidding me? It got really cartoony all of a sudden there, and not even the slice-of-life was working. At least the backgrounds were nice later on. Wish we were getting more of that, and less of everything else.

Looking Ahead – This Show in a Nutshell

Sougo: “You know, I was pretty worried. I’d had a bunch of harrowing experiences, and nothing made any sense at all. Things might get even worse from now on, too.”

*drops mic* *dusts off hands* *heads to the bar*

tl;dr: @StiltsOutLoud – They wrecked the car, ate shrooms, had a pointless battle, & made a sky donut. No, it doesn’t make sense in context either #cometlucifer 07

Random thoughts:

  • Roman shoved his best friend and fiancée (alleged) out of the way to get to the water. Real nice.
  • Did anyone else think Moura had died for a minute there? Very odd, because it didn’t feel like a death scene, but Moura was completely limp. Fortunately, the preview spoiled that for us. Er, I think that’s fortunate. Magic 8-Ball says: Answer unclear, ask again later.

My first novel, Wage Slave Rebellion, is available now. (More info—now in paperback!) Sign up for my email list for a FREE sequel novella. Over at stephenwgee.com, the last four posts: Stephen, what is best in life?, It depends, Momentum & mental space, and The best content is in email

 

Preview

26 Comments

  1. This is going to end up being one of those “missed opportunity” series. I still like all the characters and see what happens to them, the action is still good, though I can admit that this series is just silly. Not as silly as Heavy Object, but silly all the same. I am interested in where the show is going. And actually I find the background on Don Mon to be the most interesting of any other characters so far.

    1. It was silly from the start. All characters are typical. If you don’t watch anime often, it will be interesting as something new. If you watch it often you could tell what kind of anime this is and don’t watch it from the start.

      Seya-san
  2. you know why moura keeps bumping into gus’ team every week with no real pay off whatsoever? because the writers dont know shit about building tension or progressing their plot naturally. Their at a loss at what to do every week to raise the stakes or put their characters through a sense of desperation and they dont know how to fill each ep with interesting content. The writers are pretty much like…

    Writer B: soooo uhm, what’s the point of everything that has happened so far?

    Writer A: oh i dont know just make another battle sequence between gus’ team and those meddling kids we’ll figure it out later. We have to distract our audience somehow from seeing that our show is kinda void of any substance or integrity when given a closer look

    Writer B: when’s later?

    Writer A: why are you assuming ‘Later’ is actually going to come? I was being fecitious. Now writer C, write me, sorry, i mean shit me out some more plot conveniences, lets get this thing animated and limp our way to the bank with watever we can get out of this show

    Writer C: Should the next episode have another fight sequence between sougo’s crew and gus’ crew?

    Writer A: how else are we gonna fill up an episode? We already did the dancing vegetables.

    Writer C: right..my bad

    sonicsenryaku
  3. I’ll just copy-pasta the Kwik-n-Dirty thoughts I had, in a message I sent to a friend about this:

    I need some stronger painkillers. Just when you think it can’t get worse… it does. Threefold.

    Bad guys turn up out of nowhere. They’re behaving like something out of Adam West’s Batman, without the cartoon humour.
    The mecha fights don’t make ANY sense.

    I really wanted to like it but after 1st episode, it’s just utter bilge.
    How does this keep getting airtime??

    Kailord
  4. This is another Charlotte: promising on paper, a complete wreck of missed opportunity after missed opportunity, insane troll logic narrative and bad characterization.

    Nevertheless, I appreciate the time you are taking to turn these posts into a How Not To Write An Adventure Story 101.

    Today’s lesson about stacking the deck reminded me a lot of the reason I enjoyed the first season og Gundam 00 for the wrong reasons. I supported the Earth powers against the Gundams, frankly, because the “heroes” were these static characters with unrelatable goals who existed only to crush the enemy with unbelievably superior technological advantage. Meanwhile, the “bad guys” were a heterogeneous group of people with very flawed (and very human) goals and motivations fighting a hopeless war and having to resort to numbers and cleverness to beat the odds.

    Yeah, your lesson today at last explains why I was rooting for the other side.

    Mistic
    1. I think Celestial Being being kinda the villains of 00 S1 was intentional, though. They were repeatedly noted to be hypocritical terrorists, and the plan ultimately backfired. You were supposed to like the people fighting them

      Hylarn
      1. Yes, you were supposed to like their enemies. Sympathetic antagonists are always a plus. But when it goes to rooting against the supposed heroes, then you know you’ve gone too far.

        The thing is, Gundam 00 came after the success it was Code Geass. The edgy heroes, the freedom fighters, terrorism, enemies with good points and heroes that could become devils if a bad day happens. The influence is clear. But they went too much to the other side.

        The bad writing is obvious once you check S2: instead of developing the protagonists (god forbid self-criticism!), they chose to make the new enemies more evil and have the sympathetic former enemies support CB so there was no moral grey zone anymore.

        Mistic
    2. I kinda liked Charlotte.

      Right up until the last 3 or 4 episodes. It was like they just gave up, and let some work-experience school kids dothe ending.
      Oh, how I screamed in rage! Albeit that was mostly for his goodbye to Noa. (JUST FRIKKING KISS HER, YOU BAKA!!) [And it was right there, that I vocalised a thought I’d been wondering about for weeks: aside from obvious plot-points like Yamada and the 7 witches, is there some sort of social more in Japan about kissing?]
      That goodbye was SCREAMING (by my western world ideals) for a long kiss, but as-is, it felt more like “I’m just going to the convenience store for some noodles. Do you want anything while I’m there?” instead of a year along trip to save the world, with a very good possibility he’d go insane like her brother (another hole left unfilled!) if not die.

      Being a very new viewer of anime, I’ve not many series under my belt, but I can spot turkies a mile away.
      This show is a train-wreck. I want to stop watching, but it’s mesmerising in its horribleness…

      Kailord
  5. Stilts, I think this is the kind of anime that the bad guys will stay alive in the end of story and they will take 180 degree turn into a good person. This filler battles hinting that actually none of them are in any actual danger of dying (aside from nameless characters).

    Probably at the first creation of the story they want to make heartwarming slice if life anime for children with a tiny bit of mecha adventure, but it goes horribly wrong and out of track since they can’t decide sticking to which one. It’s forcibly mixing two distinct genre as is without proper balancing between the two.

    If this is not an anime made for children, they will be captured on the first episode or on the second episode when they casually went home. Protagonists from other mecha anime will shout in frustation and envy “Woah they got difficulty level: toddler! If it’s in my universe, a bunch of kids running around without proper plan will be killed dozen of times already (lol).”

    cryarc
    1. I dunno. You might be right [about Team Gus going good at the end], but they’re not telling the story like that, if so. Cap’n Gus is the only one that seems like he somewhat could, since his two subordinates are both sadistic sociopaths (one a murderer, the other an attempted kidnapper and, let’s just admit it, probably an attempted rapist too). And Cap’n Gus doesn’t seem to have much redeeming about him either.

      Either way, it’s a mess.

  6. I feel the writers know only two ways of moving the “plot” forward: random battles and random vehicle accidents. Sougo’s characterisation right now is a mix of “I must protect Felia!” (why? how?) and “I can fall down into any hole and survive.” Who knew the first episode plothole would end up as such an useful skill?

    Roman is such a douche. I understand what type of character he’s probably meant to be (a spoiled rich part-comic-relief jerk with a hidden heart of gold, we all know the tropes), but the writers are seriously overdoing it with the jerk part. And the comic relief part relies on the jerk part too much… Unfortunately there’s high chance of him ending up with Kaon, and I know I’ll hate that outcome.

    Reite
      1. Well, yeah, she is. Everyone is, that’s the tragedy of Comet Lucifer.
        But Kaon is at least likeable. Meanwhile Roman… I get the feeling we’re supposed to like him, but it isn’t really working. He’s too close to a caricature right now.

        Reite
      2. They are screwing up Roman something vicious. A jerk with a heart of gold works better if they realize they’re being a jerk, but can’t stop for some reason (ex: social anxiety). An oblivious jerk is just a jerk.

      3. @Stilts: That’s right. I’d probably like Roman more if he at least acknowledged that he almost killed our party three times by now. Maybe the writers forgot, too… Oh, right, in addition to being a jerk, he’s also a constant danger to everyone. If it was a better anime, I would wait for Otto or Kaon to snap.

        Reite
    1. She is likeable because it is anime for boy’s auditory. She should be cute, or tourching, or cool, or… any word for future waifu. And beautiful of cause. That is why she can be flat but still likeble. Such anime needed in girls and one main male character. Others male charactres should be enemies, onee-sans or baka-friends.

      Seya-san
  7. Awwhoho good lord! Dayyum! Mah Gahd! Look, I’m just lurking around these Comet Lucifer posts just to see what can the writers do more to make this the definitive train-wreck of the season. Yeah, by this point, I’m just laughing my ass off with each post Stilts makes for this series. Heck, this is coming to be pretty fun! YIPPEEE!

    Nishizawa Mihashi
    1. Er—sorry about that, but there’s got to be a statute of limitations on spoilers. Besides, that’s not a book that depends upon surprise so much as the feelings evoked. Randall Flagg has as hard of a time of it as the protagonists do, yes.

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