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When the Good Brother is Not

VampireDiaries_Bookmark_Stefan

VampireDiaries_Bookmark_Stefan (Photo credit: i heart him)

Earlier this week, I had a Twitter debate about the merits of Stefan Salvatore with my friend, her agent, and another friend who chimed in later. It took me a while to put my finger on what exactly my beef is with Stefan, because I’ve never liked his character much, and I certainly don’t like him with Elena.

Along the way, he’s been called the good brother.

And after a lot of pondering, I realized that my beef with Stefan is that he’s not that at all.

Here’s why I think that. This is of course, my subjective opinion.

He Betrayed His Brother

Before Damon got all murdery and rar, Stefan set a high standard of ugh. When the Mystic Falls council was closing in on the vampires in their midst back in 1864, Damon asked Stefan not to tell his father about Katherine. Stefan promised he wouldn’t.

Then he did. Not in as many words, but he gave it away, setting into motion his own transition and the events that would entomb twenty-seven vampires under the church for a century and a half.

Beyond that, the moment Stefan turns, the first thing he does is kill his own father. And that gets moving before he feeds. His next move is to force his brother to become a vampire against his will. I’ve always thought of that as a form of violation. Damon made a choice. Stefan violated that choice. That’s not to say that everything Damon did afterward was Stefan’s fault, but in a mythology where transitioning into a vampire magnifies whatever emotions you had pre-turn, Stefan magnified Damon’s hatred, his betrayal, and his loyalty to a vampire who had played them both.

Stefan’s Default Setting is Monstrous

When Stefan got turned into a vampire, he went all-binge, all the time. It took the Civil War and Lexi to drag his ass out of it. Every time he’s left to his own devices, he gets all super-murdery. He is almost incapable of maintaining his control. I don’t buy into the idea that he’s a good guy with a bad side, because I feel that absolves him from anything that happens when that bad side is in control of his actions.

He goes on a massive killing spree with Klaus. He murdered heaps and heaps and heaps of people before that. Ripped them apart. It’s not fine to kill a bunch of people just because he feels bad about it later once Lexi manages to force some feels down his throat again.

My point is that without external impetus (usually Lexi, later Elena), Stefan’s base nature is to be a mass-murdering fuckhead.

Sure, he survives on squirrels and bunnies when he’s in remission, but that never lasts long, and you never know what’s going to make him snap. There is a very big difference between compartmentalizing a bad part of yourself and controlling it. Stefan has never learned real control, and I do not trust people who have such disparate sides. It’s the same reason why I could never be a big fan of Angel — a person who could snap at virtually any moment and become a psycho killer does not make a good boyfriend. Period.

Stefan made a comment to Elena in Thursday’s episode where he said, “You don’t know what I look like when I’m not in love with you.” And he’s right. Here’s the kicker — show viewers don’t really know that either. Even with all the flashbacks to before he met her, we don’t know how he behaves in present-day Mystic Falls when he’s not in love with Elena. Even through all his running amok with Klaus, he was still in love with Elena.

He Makes Supremely Selfish Decisions

Stefan does what he wants when he wants to do it. He does tend to listen more to Elena’s choices (sometimes), but many of the decisions he’s made are only to create an end that he is okay with. Which is to say, he ignores the desires of others to do what he wants, and then he gets mad when they are upset by that.

This season, Stefan decided he needed to get the cure for Elena. First, he didn’t tell Elena about it. He decided what would be best for her without consulting her. Yes, he was acting on the knowledge that she’d never wanted to be a vampire. But that doesn’t make it right. He doesn’t seem to be able to grasp that people change, and once those changes occur, they don’t change back. Even if they do succeed in curing Elena of vampirism, she will be closer to the woman she was as a vampire than the woman who chose Stefan and went sailing into the river off Wickery Bridge last year.

In choosing that path, Stefan put everyone in danger by his reckless decision to force Jeremy to kill vampires. That scene is one of the most despicable things I’ve seen Stefan do. He knows how Elena feels about her brother. And yet he blatantly uses Jeremy to his own ends.

He Cannot Take Responsibility

Feeling guilt and taking responsibility are two completely different things. Stefan feels guilt for the people he killed under Klaus’s influence (and the body count he racked up before that), but he never really takes responsibility for those things. Instead he puts the blame on others by saying he went with Klaus for Damon. Damon never asked him to do that. That was Stefan’s choice. He also puts the breakup blame on Elena when he’s the one who went off on a murder spree, tortured her and her friends (both physically and emotionally), and all but told her to run into his brother’s arms. Then when she develops feelings for Damon, he throws a temper tantrum and displays probably the best example of middle school whinging I’ve seen in a long while.

Damon didn’t do this to him. Elena didn’t do this to him. Stefan might be heartbroken, but he has no one to blame but himself and his failure to reconcile the part of himself that he wants to be (the kind, gentle, not-a-murderer) with the part of himself he keeps giving into (the ripper who tears his victims apart and reconstructs them in fancy poses). Because he has never really learned how to be a whole person, his two halves have torn him apart. And instead of having the self-awareness to realize that, he blames his ex-lover and his brother. Who, by the way, spent a whole season trying to drag his ass back from where it fell over the cliff.

In Conclusion…

You can probably guess that I don’t like Stefan. I don’t think he deserves the title of the good brother. He acts abominably in many cases, and in deeper ways than does his brother quite often. Then instead of fixing it, of learning how to deal with the warring sides of his personality, he broods about it until he snaps again. I think what irritates me is that people label him as the good brother after being only introduced to the “good side” of him, and ignoring the rest of his history and personality does not make those things vanish. He can’t even keep that good side in control without outside intervention. Without Lexi and Elena and Damon, he’d probably be dead.

 

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Monday Man: Xander Harris

The last few days have seen me curled up in bed alone after long days of work with only a book for company. I’ve been sick and sniffly and generally full of snot, so my husband has opted to sleep in the living room, where it’s more quiet and he doesn’t have to wake up with his face in one of my dirty tissues — the living room is also free of the pirouetting raccoons that live in our ceiling.

I’ve taken three books to bed with me this week: Kushiel’s Dart, the Buffy Omnibus, and a deliciously sturdy hardback compilation of Tales of the Slayers and Tales of the Vampires, just called Tales. The latter two are graphic novels, so I’ve had Buffy on the brain.

Which brings me to today’s Monday Man: Xander Harris

There's two of him. But only sometimes. Image via Wikia.com

Xander is the very first of the Scoobies that Buffy encounters at Sunnydale High. He subsequently sticks his foot in his mouth, where it remains on and on for the next seven years. Xander’s character has always fascinated me. Of all the characters on Buffy, he is the one who most noticeably lacks any superpowers. It rankles him that he gets told to stay behind when Buffy and Giles and Angel (and progressively, Willow) go off to fight the baddies, and for much of the first few seasons, you can see him poking around looking for a place to call his own.

Xander is that awkward guy with an uncomfortable home life who the cool kids like to pick on, then pick on more when he stands up for himself. In other words, he’s me at age 13. He’s not super-student, nor is he into sports or anything that might make him stand out. The one thing that does make Xander a cut above the rest of the guys in Sunnydale though, is that he is an intensely loyal friend.

He saves Buffy’s life at the end of season 1, and he defends Willow when he thinks anyone is putting her in danger — even herself. He does discover his strengths later in the series and puts them to use, settling himself nicely with a career and a new home even though he didn’t go to college. He slowly evolves into a patient sort of person you want around after a crazed monster attack.

Xander also has some serious weak spots. He loathes Angel (founded a lot on jealousy), and he has a few big hypocrisies that he somehow manages to keep a blind spot about. (No pun intended.) Though he dates and almost marries Anya, an ex-vengeance demon who murdered hundreds — perhaps thousands — of people for pleasure for a thousand years, he remains staunchly critical of Buffy’s choice of men, to the point of insulting her about it and bringing it up whenever he has a chance. When Anya turns demon again, he berates Buffy for the choices she has to make until she has to remind him of the massive sacrifices she made to protect the world from the people she loves. It’s a fun little irony, his griping about Buffy dating demons — because throughout the seasons, it’s Xander who’s the real demon magnet in Sunnydale (in one episode, literally).

In spite of his prejudices, Xander sticks by Buffy and the Scoobies to the end, risking more than the rest of them because he lacks the power and experience that his friends have. In one of his shining moments in season 7, he tells Dawn that he sees more than everyone else does because no one is watching him. He is the heart of the Scoobies, and that’s why he is today’s Monday Man.

Xander: Yeah, I get that. It’s just — where else am I going to go? You’ve been my best friend my whole life. World gonna end – where else would I want to be?
Willow: Is this the master plan? You’re going to stop me by telling me you love me?
Xander: Well, I was going to walk you off a cliff and hand you an anvil, but it seemed kinda cartoony.

Xander Harris, I salute you.

Writing the Big Bad

There’s always gotta be the bad guy. Whether they’re downright evil or just your run of the mill schoolyard bully, creating a believable antagonist is as essential to a good story as say…the stuf to an Oreo. They’re a source of motivation, angst, plot propellers, and wicked fun. If you can build antagonists that are fully three dimensional, it creates an intensity to the story, a tension that drives your protagonists and curiosity in the readers. They’ll want to make sure the bad guys get theirs, or at the very least see what they do next. Who is the bad guy? What are his or her motivations? Why does he persist in pestering your hero? Why should we care?

Because we should care about the antagonist. It should matter to us what happens to him or her, because ambivalent fuzzy feelings about the driving force against your protagonist will make a reader toss your book aside in search of more interesting foes. Think of Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter world. [SPOILER AHEAD!] She is a phenomenal antagonist. You can see her motivation to please Voldemort, her sheer malice toward Harry. You hate her for what she did to Neville’s parents. And I’m probably not alone when I say that when Mrs. Weasley screamed, “NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!” I let out an unstoppable roar of delight and pure glee, coupled with some rage. [END SPOILER]

J.K. Rowling created many memorable antagonists. I will probably hate Dolores Umbridge until my dying day. It’s why even now, I got chills and — let’s face it — a few welling tears when I wrote the above. They’re important. I write urban fantasy, so the ones that come to mind the most for me are out of that genre. Torak, the evil god in David Eddings’s Belgariad, the Forsaken in the Wheel of Time. One of my favorite antagonists of all time is Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He’s a true gray area baddie. One you love, you hate, and you pity all at once. His transformation as a character is one of the crowning jewels of television in my humble opinion. (Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon, David Fury, Jane Espenson, and the rest of the Buffy writers — I love you. Just sayin’.)

So while I’m not setting out to emulate a particular character in someone else’s work (that would be rude), I am seeking to achieve the same force of attraction to my bad guys. I want readers to hate them with fiery passion most of the time. Pity them on occasion. Ultimately, the Biggest Big Bad in my stories isn’t the most important. He’s behind the scenes, much like Sauron in Lord of the Rings. While he’s the driving force, it’s the ones on the front lines that inspire the most pathos in my readers.

The central villain in my trilogy for the first two books is Damon (name subject to change…damn you, Vampire Diaries), a 300-year-old vampire. He’s capricious, power hungry, and he has spent three centuries biding his time in the shadow of his “boss,” Bern. Bern is more brute than brain, a sadistic psychopath who hurts others just because he can. Damon, on the other hand, takes satisfaction from orchestrating scenarios and taking credit for his “messes.”

Damon’s character is in some ways similar to that of Anakin Skywalker. He lost everything he cared about  at an early age, and he believes those things were stolen from him. He sees the world as owing him, and he takes pleasure in power because he thinks that it will make him invincible. He thinks becoming harder makes him less likely to break, but in reality, it makes him brittle and unpredictable.

Bern’s character is more easy to pinpoint, as historically he prefers a full frontal assault. He comes at you, and you know it’s him. Damon, on the other hand, likes to tease. He likes to line up his opponents and pull their strings. He’s most dangerous when he’s been beaten, because humiliation causes that brittleness to snap into unpredictability. Once his plans are in place and executed, he glories in letting his victims know who was responsible. He believes he gets the full effect that way.

A third bad vamp in the lineup is Chase. Her unpredictability comes from the fact that she is psychotic. And insane. She will tear someone apart just to see how they react, and she flies into a rage if they die too quickly for her tastes. She works with  the others because someone scarier than her tells her to, but her loyalties are about as deep as a sidewalk mud puddle.

Crawling into the minds of the bad guys is never fun. To write the more disturbing scenes, I have to access the darkest parts of the human psyche. I feel like a detective trying to suss out a profile on a serial killer. Unfortunately, I don’t have to look much further than human history to see what people do when they think there are no repercussions. A big part of my current revision is making sure that I understand the motivations and backstory of these characters. I don’t feel like discussing that here yet, because of the spoiler effect, but if I don’t understand it and fully know  it, no reader will be able to figure it out. One scene in particular was very difficult for me to write. It’s in the second book, Elemental, and when I discovered where it was going and what was about to happen to my protagonist, I almost started crying. I did start crying when I wrote it and reread it. Oddly, it’s one of the most effective scenes I’ve written. I think.

I had to go back and rewrite the entire first fifty pages of Primeval, which I think I’ve mentioned before. I knew a certain plot event was less meaningful than it could be, and that I’d written it that way in part to spare myself from having to torture one of my characters. Now that it’s rewritten, I think that character is sufficiently brutalized. It’s a big part of her development, and I realized that readers wouldn’t be as affected as she is if they didn’t go through it with her. Sorry in advance for that. It was going to happen anyway, but now it cuts deeper. Suffice it to say that it’s not gratuitous, that it advances the character development of many players and serves to invest readers more in my protagonist — and my antagonists.

Any book written without the protagonist experiencing conflict, pain, or struggle is poor, lazy writing. Good conflict has gray areas — it’s never black and white. While there may be sides, readers should feel a spectrum of emotion in regards to any type of character just as they would with a person they meet in life. That’s what I’m working on.

100 pages left to go in draft two. Wish me monsters.

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