Worldbuilding: For the Love of Murphy

I admit to having an inordinate fondness for Spanner in the Works characters. For two main reasons. First, there’s nothing more heartwarming than seeing an evil Take Over the World type totally derailed by the person they completely overlooked. Second….

Well. Let’s just say, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard some variant of “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” I’d probably be able to buy my whole Amazon Wishlist.

(It’s a really long list.)

Whether it’s bureaucracy, malice, or the simple laws of entropy, things go wrong. In any world, real or otherwise. So I try to write that into my stories. More, I try to write characters dealing with “what if things go wrong”. There’s a particular point in Seeds of Blood where our heroes have realized Plan A is out the window, and they have to go to Plan B. And hope they don’t need Plan C. They’ve spent days setting up a Plan C in case they need it, but they really hope not, because it’s kind of… extreme.

(Of course they need Plan C. Because Murphy; in this case in the form of annoying reporter and a grieving relative colliding with a Big Bad at the same time.)

The flip side of liking Spanners is that epic stories can annoy the heck out of me. Too often they seem to rely on everything going just right for the main bad guy, until the last moment when everything goes right for the heroes. That… just seems unbalanced. And, oddly enough, diminishes the bad guy.

Think about it. Who’s a more impressive, more interesting enemy? The unstoppable Big Bad whose every move crushes the hero’s hope farther? Or the Bad who has to take his lumps from the universe like everyone else, stop, and think his way through this latest setback – only to grow even stronger?

I grant you I’m not fond of villains, but if you’re going to have the heroes beat them in the end, the villains ought to get to show off why they’re worth beating. Not just because they’re evil, but because they have Villainous Virtues: they’re smart, determined, hard-working, and willing to put it all on the line for what they believe in.

A hero who beats all of that, has earned his hero status.

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53 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: For the Love of Murphy

  1. Honestly, stories like you described – unstoppable villains who beat the heroes at every turn until the end – I loathe that progression so much I can’t even finish those stories usually. I just get tired of watching the heroes who I’m supposed to like an empathize with continue to get beaten into the ground harder and harder and harder. It’s exhausting in the exactly worst way and not something I want in my media.

    Spanners are fun though, I enjoy them for not just bringing villains low unexpectedly, but because so much of what they do is them both trying their hardest and getting lucky. They make me really feel that ‘one person in the right place at the right time can make all the difference’ idea, and that’s an idea I’m fond of.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I dunno, it can be fun but when the Palpatine-esque baddies’ eyes bug out suddenly they feel more like caricatures. My favorite reaction to the Spanner is when the Xanatos-ian Villains just stop. In the middle of whatever they’re doing. Their Villain rant halts. They’re just silent as you can hear the gears in their head turning, and you know that only their sense of personal dignity is holding them back from going: “Well… Shit.”
        Those moments… In those moments I truly understand deep in my soul the meaning of ‘schadenfruede’, and the feeling warms my heart.

        Liked by 4 people

      1. Of all the shows I’ve watched that started good and then spiraled downwards, Bleach was one of the worst disappointments. Partially because it was the show that got me into anime in the first place and partially because it really felt like it didn’t have to get so out of control if only the author had planned things out a little bit better before he started writing. He has even said that when he is stuck in his writing his solution is to dump a ton of extra characters into the story. Something that happens multiple times in Bleach and lands him with God Mode Stu as an antagonist meaning the protagonist also needs to be bumped up to God Mode Stu in order to have a chance of defeating the main villain, oh wait, this isn’t actually the main villain the last several hundred chapters were actually a bit of a side plot that got away from him and now let’s introduce the main villain for years more of convoluted character dumps. โ˜น๏ธ

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Yeeeesssss.

        I like to consider myself a patient person, but by the time of the ‘Save Karakura arc’ – after running into Hueco Mundo to save Orihime and stop Aizen – having to watch Ichigo run back out to fight Aizen… I was done. I gave. Up. I still have a fondness for Bleach but I was just done with canon at that point.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Bleach. Bleagh.

        It started with Aizen and did the. Same. Thing. with the Vandenreich arc. Some of the Underdog moments (Ichigo vs. Byakuya comes to mind) were fun, but overall… Nah.

        I play Magic The Gathering, and I liked the Battle for Zendikar block, especially Oath of the Gatewatch (crispy-fried Eldrazi Titans, hehe).
        Shadows over Innistrad killed off Avacyn and all but one major Guardian Angel of that plane, but the cake took Emrakul imprisoning herself… What the heck?

        … and then comes Amonkhet, Hour of Devastation, and F***ing NICOL BOLAS.
        In short: there were eight (local, plane-specific) gods; after Bolas rolled through the first time, three were enslaved and entombed, the other five mindwiped.
        By the time I quit on that block, four are dead, one barely surviving, and the three others are on a killing spree.
        Judging by the cards, the Gatewatch gets the bug/windshield treatment. From the bug side.
        I get that the old dragon is obsessed with power, and that he’s only interested in getting his pre-mending power back. But as of right now, he’s so ridiculously overpowered that no one in-universe has more than a snowball’s chance in hell to nail the oversized spark-spitter.
        The only possible contestant right now is Ugin, who’s only interested in the multiverse and doesn’t give a damn about ordinary people.

        Way to go, WOTC.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Sorry about the rant, I thought of Nicol Bolas reading the comments and – well…

        My favorite Bad Guy Goes OhCrap moments are Sauron, when Frodo puts on the Ring on Mount Doom (book and movieverse), and Jadis as played by Tilda Swinton. “Impossible!” *chomp*

        Both have their plans A and need to change to plan B or further, due to the heroes Messing things up. But they’re winning now, homerun’s all lined up…

        Wait, what’s that? Where is – WHERE is my RING – eeep!

        One down, three to go, let’s play with this one before I – *ROAR* Erk!

        Unrealistically strong villains beating the heroes nonstop and only getting beaten because of some lucky circumstances… Nope, not buying it.

        The same goes for sudden Deus ex Machina powers of the heroes.

        Liked by 3 people

    1. One other wonderful thing about Spanners is they can introduce a element of humor into the story. A lot of the stuff I’ve read lately has been just so relentlessly *grim* except for the obligatory snark and gratuitous sex. I like a little real laughter with my angst thank you. Even on the worst of days, life has its moments of beauty and fun.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. *Nod* One reason I go into bookstores and often walk out with nothing but manga. Sorry, guys, people tumbling into bed together with no real love involved leaves me not just cold, but squicked. What’s wrong with these people?

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I hear you. So very much…

        Sad to say, many fanfics involving relationships also fall into this.

        Not all, mind you, and I really like that in your fics, relationships are both well developed and tastefully discrete.
        Well done!

        Liked by 3 people

      3. Anybody who’s dealt with real angst knows there’s laughter. That’s just human.

        …it will often be rather dark, or even psychotic, but just as often it’s freaking rediculous. (ie, the “knock knock, Banana times 20, then “orange, orange who, ORANGE you glad I didn’t say banana?” one)

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Nah, I hardly watch anything. I just grew up on a ranch, and later went to a ship full of Marines who’d spent months in Iraq.

        Look, the freaking XO was a sadist, and the closest he came to beign chucked off the ship is when he tried to do a week of war movies on the ship’s TV system.
        They got removed for Disney movies, and a Potter marathon, until we hit port.

        On the insistence of the guys who’d been dealing with stuff, both Sailor and Marine.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. This is something I’ve argued before. People are defending a story by pointing out the logic about how “X is perfectly explainable”… ignoring the fact that it’s not just X, but instead a whole chain of X’s, each having to go just perfectly for the next one to have any chance of working at all. If anything is even slightly less than perfect on any of them, then all the ones after it fail. And they don’t seem to be able to understand how that is unrealistic and SoD breaking even if each individual X along the way can be justified.

    A quote I borrowed for dealing with ends-vs-means arguments also applies here (at least with slight modification):
    “Anyway, all that aside, it’s important to remember that you only ever need to justify the means if the means themselves are wrong, and even if you can justify them, that doesn’t make them any less wrong. So if you ever find yourself justifying everything you do? It’s probably time to reexamine your situation.”

    As I argue, it’s a like the question of the forest vs the trees. Losing sight of either one because you’re focusing on the other is still a mistake. It’s acceptable (and expected) that there will be the occasional case where a less-likely thing happens, or where stuff needs to go perfectly for it to succeed. It’s acceptable for there to be a chain of things that key off of eachother. But when the plan/story/etc requires a perfect storm of each step succeeding perfectly despite million-to-one odds, and any one step being even slightly less than perfect makes the entire thing impossible, then it ceases to be believable even if each step along the way can be argued to be believable individually.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. And they donโ€™t seem to be able to understand how that is unrealistic and SoD breaking even if each individual X along the way can be justified.

      One of the things that blocked me from even considering Game of Thrones is that…. well, a lot of the stuff is based on real history.

      However.

      1) Reality doesn’t have to be realistic,
      2) even ignoring how much of the stuff it’s based on is “highly disputed” (ie, the black supper probably didn’t really happen), it’s got ALL OF IT HAPPENING right on top of each other.

      It takes all the 9 and up on a scale of ten for nasty, for the whole world, for centuries…and puts them in one place.

      Even if I could accept the dark, I couldn’t accept that for SoD. And I’m OK with blue, flying cats who show up in painting/pictures as dragons…..

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Game of Thrones is less based on history than Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.

        The Wars of the Roses were a minor annoyance to the common people and merchants. If you were not a noble, life pretty much went on. The carnage only happened when Henry Tudor took over at the end of the wars; and then it was all high taxes, judicial murders, removal of rights from all sorts of people, and Star Chamber.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You should’ve seen the sudden rush of folks we had on The American Catholic when I pointed out that while a lot of the stuff was vaguely based on history, the setting was just WRONG.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I think Spanner in the Works situations too.

    What you and sightlessraiton described is why I usually like the premise and the beginning of a lot of shounen series . . . but often don’t finish them.

    Because I get bored with them. Everyone talks about how the heroes of shounen series have Plot Armor and yes, often they do, but their Plot Armor is nothing compared to ones sported by Big Bad or Semi-Big Bads of those series, especially since apparently they get regular copies of the script with their Plot Armor until the end of the series or that particular bad guy’s run. Because that is often the only actually logical way they know all everything that they do. Some series tried to pretend they can explain it but even a few moments of thought will make you cry B.S. (Like Bleach for example – given what Aizen did to them, you would think people like the Vizard and Urahara would be very paranoid about being spied on by him – and would have figured out a way to handle it in a 100 years?)

    And you know, since the bad guys don’t have actually use their brain past their initial introduction, the means the heroes don’t really have to either. They just have to spend their time grinding until the author hands them their deus ex machina to defeat the OP bad guy who, while they managed to think everything gosh darn else (including stuff that shouldn’t be predictable), apparently didn’t think too much about what they needed to defeat the hero who has been steadying growing pain in their side.

    Happenstance, crud happens events should happen to the villains beyond the last minute too. As I have ranted before in the comment section of this blog: Villains are supposed to have more of the cards, not the entire darn deck.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I am suddenly having Leverage vibes.

    Hardison: Goin’ to Plan B?
    Nate: Technically that would be Plan G.
    Hardison: How many plans do we have? Is there, like, a Plan M.
    Nate: Yeah. Hardison dies in Plan M.
    Eliot: I like Plan M.

    Sophie: So the salt was Plan B?
    Nate: Plan M actually.
    Hardison: Don’t I die in Plan M?
    Nate: Yeah, usually. Yeah.
    Hardison: What do you mean “usually?” How many plans do I die in?
    Nate: C, F, and M through Q.

    Nate: You never count on the perfect plan. The perfect plan, it has too many moving parts, and it’s… you got to expect the perfect plan to fail. I mean, that’s what I do.
    Hardison: Then what do you count on?
    Nate: I count on the simplest and ugliest plan. Not Plan A, no, but like, Plan G, for example. I start with Plan G. You know, the quick, simple, ugly plan that I know is going to work if everything goes bad. I just pretty it up a bit, add this and that. I gave you a backup plan. That’s all.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Never really had an opinion one way or the other on the Spanner in the Works trope, but I agree that villains need to be handled carefully as, from the writers’ standpoint anyways, the hero is only as strong as the villain. If you have a well written hero but the big bad is a joke, then the hero is also a joke. Vice versa too. And not just physical strength, obviously, though you don’t want a weak villain either. I think recently the trend has been to make the villain relatable in an effort to flesh out their character. Which works for a while and then you just completely burn out on it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think the problem stems from the fact that a lot of writers get “make a villain relatable” mixed up with “give a villain excuses”. The two are not the same and it is possible to make a villain relatable/sympathetic without giving them an excuse for what they’ve done, but the writer needs to be really good at writing character motivations to pull it off.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Yup. Envy from FMA Brotherhood and Loki, or rather the rabid fangirls’ opinions of Loki, are good representations of the good way of doing a villain and the bad way of doing a villain respectively.
        (Although, Odin Allfather, do you even parent?)

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Truth.

        Look, Loki is broken. That’s part of why I like him.
        Tony is broken, that’s part of why I like him.
        Theologically speaking, all but like one or two people is freaking broken, out of all of humanity.

        It’s what they DO with it that matters, even if I still want to try to fix the broken.

        Liked by 3 people

      3. Hm… Just got to thinking about how often the actors who specialize in being really, REALLY bad guys are actually utter sweethearts, and that subconsciously melts through so we’re “reading” someone that on screen is “doing” bad stuff, but we can SEE that they’re really not bad, not a threat.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. I think some psychologists refer to that as the “white shadow”. It’s why many people who dress Goth are also nice people. They get a lot of the dark stuff out of their psyche in a harmless way, so it’s not weighing them down all the time.

        Like

  6. I especially like it if they’re from Barcelona. Because then they’re… (an Incredibly Lazy Pun).

    But yeah, Spanners happen. (I say this especially from my experience running RPs – Plan F comes up way more often than it should. ‘F’, short for… well, what do you expect?)

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Totally understandable. Spanners in the Works are going to happen, and no one is immune. You can bet the Villains have to deal with them just as much, if not more so than the heroes. ๐Ÿ™‚ I was actually playing around with a story idea centered on a ‘villainous’ character and how he goes about dealing with not all of his plans working like they should. Not sure I’ll be able to pull it off though…*Eyes drawing board critically* Best of luck on your writing!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Ennh…

    I dunno. I’m a big fan of – not actually Neil Gaiman, he was borrowing from G.K. Chesterton, but he put it better so I’ll use his version:

    “Stories do not exist to tell us dragons exist. We knew that monsters existed before we could walk, before we could talk. Stories exist to tell us that even dragons can be defeated.”

    … heh. Ya hear that, Kirito? The best dragonslaying sword in the world is a story.

    — But yeah. See, the thing is, in the real world, usually what happens is that the dragons are big, big things. “Oppression.” “Poverty.” “Death.” — Or even smaller things, relatively speaking, but still huge relative to single humans – “The Middle East Conflict.” “Walmart.” “The US Government.”

    They’re big. They’ve got so many people behind it, and so many moving parts, and so much inertia. If a epic Big Bad is someone who avoids every spanner, and a dramatic Big Bad is one that gets smacked around just as much as the heroes but keeps getting back up, then the real Big Bads are ones that don’t even notice. Spanners hit them as much as they do everyone else, but they’re big and we’re tiny, so we notice things that they just keep walking through.

    — Or in other words, our swords break. The things that our stories tell us should work – and I won’t list them all, it’ll depress us both and make me look like a horrible cynic and I promise you I’m not – but all those classic story tropes… some of them don’t work, and most of the rest just flat don’t apply – you can’t be a guile hero if you’re not lucky enough to be clever, you can’t win by teamwork and love if you never actually manage to meet any friends in the first place without a friendly author playing matchmaker.

    Which is why the….well, the best stories, to be blunt – the shining, wondrous ones, the ones I’ll put on a pedestals and sing eternal paeans to – and they’ll be different for everyone – are the ones that for whatever reason don’t break. The Excaliburs of stories, the stars that shine through the wildest storms, the brilliant stars that grant hope in the darkest nights… are the ones that do apply, and don’t fail, and actually can make a difference – even if it’s the smallest scratch of a chip off the toe of the great obsidian giants, a motion in the world.

    — And those will vary for everyone, because everyone has different resources available to them, different advantages, different skills, different fortunes. So I try not to be too judgemental when I read a story I can’t use, because maybe someone else can, one day.

    … But lucky heroes?

    You can’t really choose to be lucky. You can choose to be unpredictable, but to be honest that mostly just makes you hard for your friends to plan around – and that slows everyone down.

    My problem with Spanner heroes is this: I can’t imagine someone it would be useful for.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I mean, granted, you can’t choose to be clever either, beyond a certain point. But at least that’s more of a choice – and more importantly, “cleverness” is a thing real people have. “Luck”, on the other hand…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Making your own luck is a thing. People like fighter pilots and business entrepreneurs often study up on it, and work on dropping bait for luck. Stuff like making contacts and doing favors is all about creating opportunities for “lucky breaks.” So is continual nosing around for advantages and interesting events or people. So is keeping your ear to the ground.

        The “lucky” person is often the shrewd and far-seeing person.If you are trying more things, you can win more times. You will also lose more times, but persistence gives a volume discount on luck.

        Liked by 2 people

  9. Late response….

    Spanner characters are more satisfying for stuff where you’re in the character’s head.

    The “Epic” stuff is more satisfying if your biggest insight to him is “Calf Wrangler Miles felt terror dig into his gut. Each wolf was bigger than a bull– and there were a dozen of them, not like the one or two coyote sized feral dogs he’d fought before.”

    If done right, I think they hit the same spot– just when you’re inside of someone’s story, you have to tell it differently.

    Liked by 2 people

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