Sunday, December 28, 2008

CHANGE OF HEART: the quandary of the comeuppance

Today’s blog picks up from last week’s blog, which was based on the movie, Serenity. (A great flick and one I heartily recommend if you’ve not seen it…and if you’ve not seen it you might not want to read further as again, this will contain spoilers.)

Last week I whined about the (what I felt) untimely death of the character, Wash. While I could see where it had emotional impact, it failed, for me, to engender character growth. So it left me feeling…confused. More than usual, that is.

Here I’m going to whine about the second part of my thoughts on Serenity—the apparent capitulation, the change of heart of “The Operative” who was the foremost antagonist in the movie. This was a man who rather gleefully admitted he killed children. This was a man who clearly had no problem killing anyone. He showed no remorse; if anything I had the feeling he saw himself as some kind of avenging angel of death. He advised those he was in the process of killing that they were dying bravely and for good reason. But he wasn’t apologetic. No, not that. He was a man doing a job he loved.

So when, at the end, Mal lets him live (bit of a surprise, that, but not fully unexpected), he evidently (off-camera) returns the favor and gets the baddies off Mal’s tail. There’s a scene where he comes to tell Mal good-bye and even though Mal threatens to kill him at that point (tagged with the ubiquitous “if I ever see you again”), clearly, this man is not the man who was the antagonist for most of the film.

What happened?

I haven’t a clue in a bucket ::ka-ching to Paula L.::

Most likely—as has been posited—there was supposed to be another film or movie for TV and he’d have a recurring role. That’s what the ending felt like but since that hasn’t happened (though I live in hope), the movie’s end left me feeling…strange (more strange than usual).

The character went out of character. He went from a heartless and somewhat haughty killing machine to—okay, not Mister Nice Guy. But he’d obviously found a stash of happy meds somewhere. He was removed as a threat, even to the point of turning on his former employer.

All because of Mal and the Reavers. I just didn’t quite buy it.

I’m not saying baddies can’t become goodies. They can. Susan Grant did that marvelously in her How To Lose An Extraterrestrial in 10 days in which Reef, the assassin from her Your Planet or Mine? is recast as a hero. She does this through one of the finest and most gripping first chapters. It worked, beautifully and flawlessly, for me.

I took a less bad baddie in the form of Admiral Philip Guthrie who straddled the fence between friend and foe in my Gabriel’s Ghost, fully came into friend category (though not without a touch of tension) in Shades of Dark and finally into his hero duds in my upcoming Hope’s Folly.

So understand I have no particular issue with an antagonist having a change of heart.

As long as you show me how and why that happens, and Whedon in Serenity didn’t do that.

I would have been far more satisfied with the movie if Wash had lived and The Operative had died. That, from a plot and characterization point of view, would have made more sense. As it was, it was the second WTF? moment for me in the movie.

Again, maybe scenes were cut. Last I knew, Mal left the guy secured to a railing in Mr. Universe’s lower chamber, with the tape of the “truth” about the world, Miranda, running on the big screen (without commercials, too!). Okay, gripping stuff. But based on the character to that point, it didn’t seem sufficient motivation for the guy to turn on his employers. He was no newbie. He was a seasoned assassin and had seen—and done—worse than that before. That much was shown in the flick.

Now, maybe what we didn’t see was The Operative’s teammates coming to rescue him and mocking him for his predicament. Maybe this threw him over the edge. Maybe the Alliance shunned him. And so he reacted. But we didn’t see that. We don’t know that. We don’t even get a hint of that.

It certainly does make the movie end “happier” though and maybe that’s my problem with it. I have this thing against forced happiness in endings. Yes, I write to an HEA (though some readers of Shades of Dark may quibble with that). But an HEA doesn’t mean Everything Is Now Perfect. Therein I think is the problem with some readers who want Perfect at book’s end, rather than logical to plot and character.

At Shade’s end (S P O I L E R), Sully is wounded, pretty seriously (so is Philip). The final scene is in ship’s sick bay and Sully is still wounded…but Chaz loves him anyway. Now, a few readers have asked me, “Couldn’t you have just fully cured him then and there and then had Chaz say she loved him?” The fact that Sully was still injured at book’s end took Perfect away from them. (It’s almost as if the fact—the main issue of the love between Sully and Chaz is ignored. Which confuzzles me. Loving someone who’s in perfect form is easy. Loving someone who’s injured takes a special, deeper kind of love. Doesn’t it?)

Anyway, the answer to “couldn’t I just cure him” right there is no. And the answer is no because it would have felt as wrong to me as Serenity’s ending.

Sully made some huge mistakes in Shades. The Operative did some really nasty shit in Serenity. Characters’ actions must engender reactions. That’s a basic law of the craft of fiction. It’s often illustrated by the old “if you show a gun in scene one, you damned well better fire it in scene two…” analogy. A character’s action in chapter one directly impact the actions in chapter two. You can’t have a character doing all sorts of nasty shit for six chapters and then in chapter seven—for no salient reason—suddenly he’s a veritable good neighbor. Everyone’s friend. All forgotten. There are consequences in fiction. In real life we’re not always aware of the consequences but in fiction—if the piece is to work—they are unavoidable.

Or else you risk writing Mary Sues or Marty Sams or whatever you want to call them.

“The reader needs someone to pass judgment on.” Writing guru Jack Bickham said that and that’s another reason why the laws of karma apply in fiction, right up front. And why things getting too pretty, too fast, violates credibility. Readers might not like the fact that Sully was so seriously injured at book’s end. But if I’d lightened up on him in the final chapters of the book, I would have been Mary Sue-ing out on the basic principles. And the reader would be denied the right to see the passing of judgment.

There’s nothing to pass judgment on if all is prettied up and forgiven. The punishment must match the crime. Sully had become a tad too big for his intergalactic britches. He needed to be taken down several notches. He needed to realize he’d likely lost Chaz. And Chaz needed to be there for him at book’s end because her story, also, had to make logical fictional sense.

Her journey is different from his.

The Operative definitely had a comeuppance coming.

He didn’t get it.

And I’ve not a clue in a bucket as to why. Do you?


SHADES OF DARK, the sequel to Gabriel’s Ghost, July 2008 from RITA award-winning author, Linnea Sinclair, and Bantam Books:

Something cascaded lightly through me—a gentling, a suffused glow. If love could be morphed into a physical element, this would be it. It was strength and yet it was vulnerability. It was all-encompassing and yet it was freedom. It was a wall of protection. It was wings of trust and faith.

It was Gabriel Ross Sullivan, answering the questions I couldn’t ask. Not that everything would be okay, but that everything in his power would be done, and we’d face whatever outcomes there were together.


  1. "The Operative definitely had a comeuppance coming. He didn’t get it."

    I think he did. Keep in mind it's been ages since I saw the movie [although I did see it 3 times :) ] so I'm going on my remembered impressions.

    The Operative was a Believer, and his belief was betrayed. He did his job with an almost religious fervor because he believed in the Alliance's altruistic propaganda and believed that the end justifies the means. The worst punishment for him was the destruction of the belief that had been his life. It wasn't Miranda or the Reavers that destroyed him - it was the duplicity of the Alliance and his realization that not only didn't they care about the means, they didn't really care about the end either.

    I don't think he's redeemed at the end of the movie. I think he'll spend the rest of his life working on redemption but will never be redeemed to his own satisfaction. IMO, he's a type of St. Paul. A fervent believer and persecutor until he realizes that he's got it all wrong and then a selfless fighter against the old system. The Operative is kind of naive, too though. I imagine him as the product of some Alliance brainwashing program.

    I wasn't entirely satisfied with the end of the movie. The setup at the end made me want the Operative and Mal to join forces when that's clearly not something Mal could do.

    "I would have been far more satisfied with the movie if Wash had lived and The Operative had died. That, from a plot and characterization point of view, would have made more sense."

    Good guys dying and bad guys winning is certainly the story of Mal's life. I think the movie worked so well for me because of its convolutions; I tend to have a strong ironic streak.

  2. In Shakespeare's AS YOU LIKE IT, both villains repent and find happiness, one in marriage and the other in retiring to a life of religion. These easy conversions come along as almost an afterthought, one of them happening completely offstage (IIRC). Changes of heart like that would never be accepted in a modern novel. I think Shakespeare gets away with it because the whole play has a rather fairy tale atmosphere.

    It's often hard for me to resist making everything perfect for my characters. I hate hurting them. But of course that's the author's job! I've never been quite sure whether to accept the miraculous healing of Rochester's blindness in JANE EYRE (although I have no trouble with the paranormal touch of that moment of telepathic communion between them over a great distance).