Understanding Storytelling: An Influx of Influences

I don’t know if this is just me but it seems like I keep running into a particular trope.  I don’t run into all the time, but often enough that it has totally lost any of the novelty that probably made it seem awesome once upon a time.  This trope, which I’ll call the Ultimate Influence for the sake of convenience, is essentially when the villain is, somehow, behind everything, or at least way more than is reasonably possible. This is of course not a new trope by any means, but as I keep coming across it in a variety anime, films and books, I think it’s finally time to examine all the ways the Ultimate Influence is a fucking mess most of the time, and how it can be used to glorious effect when someone really puts in the time and effort to make it work.

One of the more infamous instances of the Ultimate Influence was Aizen Sosuke from Bleach, where near the end of the show he claimed he had manipulated Ichigo’s growth as shinigami since birth, sending all of his opponents to him in the exact order he fought them to bring Ichigo to the point he’s currently at.  Now that might conceivably have been a cool twist if it had been even remotely possible.  Sadly in order for that plan to work Aizen would have to be omniscient, able to see the future and perfectly infallible, of which he is none.  More recently, I talked about how fucking idiotic it was that Madara was able to manipulate the ninja to an insane degree while essentially chained to the husk of Ten Tails in this post about villains.  Both of what these Ultimate Influences have in common is that they break the story on some level, there is no way either character has the ability to achieve the level of influence they claim, but somehow they are granted it anyway, no matter how harshly that strains the audience’s suspension of disbelief or shatters the world and narrative of the show.  It’s cringe-worthy, a cheap act that tries to play up the badassness of one character without regard to the damage that does to the rest of the story.  It’s fucking childish really, like I remember when I was a kid and this was how me or my friends would try and make a fictional person or monster seem awesome, because we were kids and you could get away with that.  But for someone who’s telling stories for a living I have a hard time wrapping my head around the mind that makes interesting settings, powers and so on before shattering all of those by introducing childish ideas.  Granted the Ultimate Influence is not always as exceptionally shitty as these examples, but I find almost universally off-putting nonetheless.

For a less extreme example let’s look a book series I love called the Dresden Files, written by Jim Butcher.  They are really good, they have great characters, interesting plots and monsters from almost every mythology, magic that generally makes sense and so on.  But in last few books they introduced the idea of something called Nemesis.  Now it hasn’t been detailed exactly what Nemesis is but it is implied that everything, or at least almost every event in the story thus far can be linked to Nemesis.  This works in part because it’s established that many of the events that occurred in the previous books are freak occurrences, where powerful beings act totally out of character or otherwise betray their nature.  The other reason this sort of works is because it’s not just empowering a single character.  This setup suggests that no matter how dangerous the events of a single book and foe are, there is a larger game afoot, perhaps one so large people have no idea they are playing it.  That idea is actually a good one, the idea that one villain is a pawn in another villain’s game works because at least thus far no character has proven their elaborate plots to be narratively broken.  Also because for all the flaws of the Ultimate Influence I will at least give it credit for trying to be a big deal from a dramatic standpoint.  Drama is an important part of storytelling and building up to crescendo before turning the story on it’s head with a major twist is a classic tactic to reel the audience in.  But the Ultimate Influence is generally shit and even when it’s not outright terrible, it doesn’t make the big dramatic impact it was going for, at least not to me.  To explain what I mean let’s look at Inuyasha.

I’m not going to explain the plot of Inuyasha, I assume you know by now or you don’t care.  The point I’m going to make assumes you at least get the gist of the story so maybe skim a wiki entry before you read more if you’ve never seen or read Inuyasha.  In Inuyasha the main villain is Naraku and he is a master manipulator.  He’s is total scum, his plans are ruthless, often cruel and mercilessly underhanded.  And because he has so many puppets he has more information than the heroes most of the time, allowing him to make almost anyone a pawn in his game.  At this point you may imagine that he is an Ultimate Influence and is simply better made than the ones mentioned above.  Well yes and no.  He seems like an Ultimate Influence because that is how the show portrays him, he is able to manipulate many other powerful forces and always seems like he’s several steps ahead of the heroes.  However Naraku is not the only influence even if he’s biggest one.  I mentioned this in my long-ass post about strong women but Kikyou in particular is a major influence on the story.  She can drastically change the flow of the struggle between the heroes and Naraku in a single episode, or she can cause major character developments among the heroes and change their group chemistry.  Likewise Sesshoumaru sweeps into the story like a storm, causing both Inuyasha and Naraku plenty of trouble over the course of the show.  And then there’s Toutousai, who brings the heroes the tools and knowledge they need to triumph when they run into a figurative wall from time to time.  The point I’m getting at here is that while Naraku follows the same puppet master archetype and  has the same vibe that the Ultimate Influence does, he is not the only major force in the story, there are a myriad of sources which can alter the story in ways large or small.  There so many other influences of note in fact, I’d be hard pressed to call the struggle Naraku’s game at all because he’s often thrown for a loop when Kikyou or Sesshoumaru appears even as  tries to manipulate them.  Also while Naraku is the villain, he is not the cause for the struggle.  Naraku doesn’t become an issue until after Kagome randomly and accidentally enters the world of the story and even then he doesn’t appear until after the Jewel has already been broken by accident.  He is not the mastermind of the whole conflict, like Aizen claims to be or how Madara is behind basically everything that got the Fourth Ninja War going, he is simply a very dangerous player in a game that started by pure chance, and at odds with the heroes.

So if the good way to use the Ultimate Influence is more smoke and mirrors than actually making the character an Ultimate Influence, how do you strike the proper balance between the illusion and the reality to make the character and story interesting?  The answer lies in RWBY.  Season one of RWBY was fun but a bit wonky and childish.  The episodes were inconsistent in their length, the stories ranged from sort of interesting to incredibly ham-handed and cliche, and it seemed like people making didn’t know how to make certain scenes work in the 3D animation (mostly the comedy stuff) and the acting was a little rough around the edges.  Season one was a kind of first draft, proof-of-concept show.  Season two was a huge improvement, more consistent episode lengths, better acting, amazing use of the 3D for comedic effect (seriously look up RWBY food fight on Youtube, I dare you to find me a better food fight), and a story that was more coherent and interesting.  Season three started off a bit slower, gradually built upon the foundations of the world with regards to lore and then ended with a fucking phenomenal finish which not only took me totally by surprise but impressed me enough to really start comparing to other anime I liked in terms of storytelling quality.  Don’t get me wrong I always liked RWBY but I always thought of it as a cut below most anime I enjoy and now it’s really come into its own and shaken that perception up.  Go watch RWBY.  Anyway at the end of the season is a big battle which brings an arc that was started as early as episode one of season one to a close, but it’s the scene that comes after the credits that really is relevant.

At the very end there’s this creepy monologue which is come from this woman, who is clearly one of the Grim, the monsters of the show’s world.  In this monologue she mentions this was only the beginning, the first stage and implying bigger and scarier things were on the horizon.  Technically this could end up flopping into a boring Ultimate Influence like Madara but that wasn’t the sense I got from the ending.  My impression was that Cinder, who totally played the role of puppet master herself over the course of all three seasons, was likely not even aware of the humanoid Grim or that if she was they weren’t working together.  Instead the impression I got is that the scary Grim lady may not even have had a hand in manipulating Cinder, though it does make sense that she would do something subtle like leak info about the Fall Maiden, which would then cause Cinder to act.  However there is no doubt that the Grim lady was using Cinder no matter how indirectly, that Cinder’s plan to spark a revolution was nothing more than the Grim lady stacking the deck in her favor before the game entered it’s next phase.  This is how manipulation is done right.  For starters the Grim lady is not clearly the only influence of note, even if you write off Cinder as her pawn, and I don’t, she mentions Headmaster Ozpin by name, indicating that he is a force to be reckoned with even by this eerie yet clearly powerful Grim.  Moreover as I described, Cinder is not the Grim lady’s pawn the way Obito was for Madara.  Obito was basically Madara’s lapdog and spent a lifetime acting out schemes for Madara’s benefit.  By contrast Cinder appears to have her own motivations, her actions suggest she want’s to shake up the established order of the human world and reshape  it for her own ends, while the Grim lady hints at an impending apocalypse brought on by the Grim, which while not in direct opposition to Cinder’s plans does not play into Cinder’s best interests at all.

The point I’m trying to make here is what I described in the Inuyasha paragraph, that the best way to use an Ultimate Influence is not actually have one, whilst appearing to have one.  The illusion of an Ultimate Influence can have all the dramatic tension the real thing is supposed to inspire, with the added bonus of not totally fucking up the story.  In RWBY’s case the Grim lady’s introduction suggests she is a powerful manipulator with a mind for long term, broad scale type plans.  This in turns allows her to make Cinder, who thinks in shorter terms and narrower scales, do her dirty work for her without Cinder even realizing it.  This is not to be taken as proven fact, it is sadly only speculation at this point, but at the very least I hope I’m illustrating the concept properly by extrapolating the information we do have to the conclusion I find most compelling.  A true, honest to God Ultimate Influence is only really possible if the entire story were something a godlike  being setup to entertain itself, but in most stories that doesn’t work and even in that kind of setup, unless the godlike being directed every single move of the characters in the story, there would be variables which the characters could influence and write part of the story themselves.  I get the appeal of the big, bad puppet master, and used right the character can work very well.  But the key is that they can’t actually be an Ultimate Influence, no matter how many steps ahead of the other characters they seem to be, there need to be other factors in play, other characters who can throw their carefully laid plans into chaos in some way.  They can maintain the illusion of being an Ultimate Influence all they like, it can add to their character or to the drama of the show when the rug is pulled out from under by one of the chaos factors.  But it has to be an illusion and ideally it’s one that gets dispelled before the character’s puppet master routine feels stale or strains suspension of disbelief.  What many good stories have are lots of characters with agency, people who can take actions that shake up the story to some extent.  And sadly the appearance of an Ultimate Influence shits all over the agency of most of a show’s cast.  Anyway I think I covered all the major points and examples I wanted to, so thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it, and I’ll see you in the next one.

 

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