September 19, 2019

Revenge! For Wanda!!

Finally! At long last the day has come! Don’t act so surprised—you know what you did and you’ve known it would…

…you don’t? Oh. Well, this makes things a little awkward, doesn’t it?

Look, we’ve all been waiting for this for a while. Revenge. The moment Yakko finally gets his comeuppance for what he did to me and my friends. Today’s the day he learns just how big a mistake that was. He crossed the wrong guy that day.

Plus, let’s be honest. Revenge stories can be loads of fun. John Wick. Arya Stark. The Wraith. Okay, probably not the Wraith, for a couple of the reasons I’m going to be talking about here. Thing is, a well done tale of revenge can check off a ton of storytelling boxes and almost everyone is up for it. Seriously. There’s something just so wonderfully cathartic about them.

But… by the same token, a good revenge story is kind of a balancing act. Not too much of that, just enough of those, and that base has to be juuussssstperfect if it’s going to support this whole thing. If one of these things is off, my whole story can stumble pretty easily. More than one and… well, I’m probably going to faceplant. Hard.

It struck me that I’ve seen a lot of stories make that faceplant. Sometimes in books, sometimes on screen. Sometimes, while poking around looking for Saturday geekery movies, I come across some things where it’s clear just from the description that they’ve hit the ground hard. So I figured it might be worth going over a few of those key elements to keep in mind. Y’know, before we go out to seek revenge on those who wronged us…

And, as always, this is just me babbling on. There has been no exhaustive study of the canon and there are always going to be exceptions. But I’ve been mulling on this for a while and I feel like it’s a pretty solid checklist.

First off, right at the start, is this something that actually needs revenging? Yeah, we all understand why John Wick goes after the guys who killed his dog. But what if they’d called his dog ugly or stupid? There’s the bully who puts cigarettes out on Wakko’s arms, but also the one who shoots poorly-aimed spitballs in class. Someone can blow up my car, or they can blow up my car with my partner and cats trapped in it. Some of these acts deserve wild, hard-bitten revenge and others…
Well, I mean they’re still bad, but are they really revenge-worthy? Should I really dedicate my life to balancing the scales just because somebody torched my Yaris? Or stole my lunch from the break room fridge? That would seem a little extreme, yes?

In this sense, a revenge story’s a lot like a redemption arc. I need my reader-empathy set to high so I  have an honest sense of how this first, inciting act (ooooh, inciting act–doesn’t that sound all professional)  is going to be viewed by my readers. Will they agree it’s something that requires vengeance?

Second thing is whether or not my character is the person who should be getting revenge. To use an earlier example, if someone kills John Wick’s dog, we completely understand why he goes on his revenge spree. It’s an intensely personal loss for him… but it isn’t for the nice old woman he runs into on the beach sometimes who liked to pet the dog. She might be upset, even angry to hear the news, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense for her to go get revenge, does it?

Revenge is a very personal thing. So the more removed and unconnected my protagonist gets from that actual act, the less it feels like revenge and the more it feels… well, it could be a bunch of things as we get farther away. Maybe Dot hired a hitman to get revenge, so he might be administering the beatdown or pulling the trigger, but for him it’s really just a job. And that police detective obsessed with the case? Well, for her it’s more about justice than vengeance. So revenge tends to stay tight and intimate. Personally, I think it needs to be a family thing, even if you want to take the broader sense of family (in that I can consider my best friends or my teammates “family”).

My third point is very much my own, but it’s also probably the one I feel strongest about here. I think it’s a key part of a revenge story. The person or persons my protagonist is getting revenge against must know why this is happening. Yeah it’s really cool that my heroine’s picking off the folks who killed her family one by one with a sniper rifle. But if they don’t know why it’s happening, who this ruthless killer is… then isn’t this just a random killing spree?

I feel that a big part of a revenge story is that it’s kind of symbiotic, from a storytelling point of view. It’s a relationship between the revenger and the revengee, so to speak, and one sided relationships are always just… well, weird. They need to go both ways. Yes, we want Phoebe to get her revenge, but we also want Yakko to know why she’s doing this. Why is she coming after him? Why is she doing these things? He needs to acknowledge this, one way or another—even if he just dismisses it (“…but I’d do it all again, lady, whoever you are!”).

And the reason for this is that we understand, on some level, that if Yakko doesn’t know why this is happening, then he’s just a victim. Not an innocent victim, no, but still just a victim. It’s the difference between my character seeing their empire torn apart and them knowing why it’s being torn apart.

Which leads me very nicely to my fourth and final point. Revenge can be a messy business. Very messy. Blood is often spilled, property is usually destroyed. And we’re all cool with that. We like seeing people getting what’s coming to them. Maybe even with a little interest.

That’s where it gets tricky. It’s really easy in a revenge story to go too far with the blood spilling and the property damage. And when I do, that’s when my protagonist stops being the hero and becomes a monster in their own right. Yes, we understand why John Wick wants revenge for his dog being killed. But if his response was to go visit the families of everyone involved and kill theirdogs right in front of their kids…? Well, I don’t think most of us would be rooting for him quite as much. Likewise, if Phoebe gets revenge on the guy who killed her husband by… oh sweet jeebus she dissolved him alive in a lye pit? Seriously? And the crane just lowered him a couple inches a day? It took eight and a half days for him to die? I mean, at this point it’s essentially a torture porn story where we’re being asked to root for the killer.

In a lot of ways, revenge is like something I’ve talked about before—the bully balance. Once those scales tip, our mood is going to shift, too. We stop feeling good about the revenge and we start feeling sympathy for the people they’re exacting revenge on. Again, they become the victim and my protagonist becomes the aggressor. Which alters… everything. The whole tone of my story will change, and a lot of things will be questioned. Not in a good way.
Y’see Timmy, in the end a revenge story is all about the characters. Why are they doing this? How are they doing it? Are they managing to walk that tightrope between being a hero and being a monster?  Or have they fallen off it…?

Next time… I think I want to talk about something we usually don’t talk about.

Until then… go write.

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