Taking apart the tick
Possible insight into my writing process, if you like that kind of thing.
There’s a thing I like to do with my media entertainment, and that is: take characters that interest me, deconstruct them and pull them apart to see how they work, and then put them together again for use in my own work.
Take Loki, from Thor and The Avengers. (This is a non-spoiler post, unless learning that Loki has motivations beyond ‘I want power because I am a bad guy and that’s what bad guys want’ is a spoiler.)
So, Loki. What makes Loki tick?
First of all. Loki wants what he sees as his due. He wants what he believes he has earned, and he’s not above trying to reshape a situation so other people agree with him. He’s very much an ends justifies the means kind of guy. He’ll even reframe a situation in his own head to justify actions that he knows on some level aren’t okay without that justification.
But wait! There’s more! What Loki /dreads/ is being pitied. He’ll go to ridiculous lengths to drive away pity, by the most expedient method of giving those who might pity him something else to worry about, like pain or chaos. It’s more than just a dislike of pity– he sincerely dreads it because it supports something he doesn’t want to be true: that he’s actually weak and undeserving.
In addition, he does honestly enjoy making people scurry around in response to his management of the forces around him, especially when they don’t know he’s the one managing the forces. That’s just fun.
All right! We have some pieces laid out on the velvet cloth. Time to start testing bits. I do this by coming up with emotional states highly opposed to a character’s general state and activities and then testing the model I’ve constructed in various situations until I can see a path to achieving that state.
With the Loki modeled above, I start with a goal of ‘get Loki to engage in a positive, constructive activity’. In this simple, idle exercise, the ‘situation’ will be encapsulated by a single force (although in my actual work I tend toward more complicated scenarios because, well, people are complicated).
Some proposed ways to get Loki to act in a constructive manner:
- Convince him it would be fun.
Would work easily. The problem is that as soon as he decided it would be more fun to be destructive (or convince somebody else to be destructive), the whole thing goes kablooie. Not sticky enough; fun is shallow and easy come, easy go.
- Convince him it’s part of his province as ‘awesome dude’– that behaving constructively is, in some fashion, giving him his due. You know, ‘awesome dudes do this, and you’re an awesome dude…’ or ‘only an awesome dude could do this and you’re an awesome dude…’
Middling. Might work, might not. If it did work, Loki would always be on the lookout for a trick. If it is a trick, there’d be backlash. If it’s actually something only Loki could do, it’d be vulnerable to his own damaged sense of self-worth– if only Loki could do it then it isn’t something Awesome Dudes do, and thus isn’t worth it. In fact, it might be better to destroy it. Instead of being hit by Loki’s sense of fun, it would be vulnerable to Loki having temper tantrums and outbreaks of moody and self-sabotage. Not a good long-term strategy. It mightwork, in very specific situations, though.
Wait, hear me out! His own issues are always going to undercut any attempt to convince him he’s actually awesome. Somebody tells him he’s awesome, he’s going to assume they’re lying, or afraid of him, or whatever, and he’s going to treat them and their ideas accordingly.
This does get a bit complicated, mind. Pitying him is going to lead to him trying very, very hard to frighten and hurt. He’s going to do his best to make whoever feel as weak and helpless as he has felt. If they’re invulnerable to physical harm, he’ll go for the psychological. It’s going to be his natural, instinctive reaction.
The trick would be getting him to think and/or listen enough to pick up the idea that the best way to avoid pity from X source is to not be pitiful. To do something awesome and impressive– and X is only impressed by constructive efforts. You’d probably have to be pretty much invulnerable to any kind of harm (or at least have the pity appear to be stronger than any sense of fear or pain), and facing that invulnerability with no way to run away and rationalize his failure would probably break the character down– but after that, he’d latch onto the idea with a very high degree of engagement and attachment.
And once he’d invested that much of himself into whatever project, it would of course become part of his identity as much as the above traits, and he’d fight to protect it.
Whee! Problem solved, if in a very implausible way. I can now reassemble the parts and put the Loki model away into my portfolio of possible characters to draw upon. The trappings that make the model ‘Marvel Movie Universe Loki’ probably won’t appear in my fiction, but at some point I’ll come up with a character driven by some of the same motivations, and I’ll know how to bend them to my wicked will.
(This is just idle speculation– when I’m actually constructing a story, I tend to use specific situations, which can influence reaction models quite a bit. I suspect they’re all building on the base models that come from this kind of daydreaming, though.)