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Brooke Shaffer

Author, Ski Patroller, and Pasta-Eater Extraordinaire

Villains and Antagonists: Perspective Antagonist and Hive Mind

Hello again and welcome back to the Villains and Antagonists series, our second-to-last installment. Today we'll be talking about the perspective antagonist and the hive mind.

So then, first we're going to establish what I mean by a perspective antagonist. A perspective antagonist occurs when both sides of a conflict have valid claims, and neither can be considered completely, or even mostly, right or wrong in any context—politically, morally, philosophically, etc. While any good story strives to depict realistic characters with virtues and faults, the perspective antagonist tends to be more gray than most, and you can have good, thorough, logical arguments for and against both parties for a variety of positions. It may even be that both parties do or might normally get along except for this one incident which has sparked disagreement. In the larger scheme of things, these antagonists may even be on the same side.

Nowhere is this more evident than in The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie. Though it's a novel, it's part of his broader First Law world, using many of the same characters from his series of the same name. At over six hundred pages, the whole book covers about a week, maybe less, with the bulk of the story taking place over just three days, covering a single battle for an old hill with forgotten monuments and a crummy little town at its base. The war is waged by the king's men,simply called the Union, a post-medieval society ruled by kings and aristocrats, and there is an element of magic to it as well. They are pushing into the territory of the Northerners, people who are considered to be barbarians. While farmers in peacetime, when threatened, they live and die by the sword, and one's status is not established until he has earned his name in battle.

The overall conflict is pretty cut-and-dry, the Union invading the Northerners. But within the ranks on both sides, there is more conflict as everyone has different ideas on how to go about winning the battle. On the Union side, you've got Colonel van Gorst, a big man with a falsetto, who was present when the current king was installed, and not through entirely noble means. Between his letters and his private thoughts, you get a sense that he doesn't particularly like the king and he doesn't understand the war. Then you have Bayaz, the First of the Magi, a man who has been around a lot longer than he probably ought to have been. No one trusts him but no one dares cross him. You have the various division leaders, all loyal to the cause but hardly each other.

For the Northerners, the most obvious division comes from Dogman, who allied himself and his men with the Union. Then you have Black Dow, who fancies himself the protector of the North. He certainly earned his name, but his throne is situated on a mountain of skulls, and there are plenty of Northerners who question his claim to the throne, but are willing to fight under him in order to kick the Union out. It is because of Black Dow's rise to power that the Union decided to invade, in order to stop him from invading them.

That in itself can be cause for debate whether the Union and Northerners are perspective antagonists of each other. What are the goals of each side, and what are their preferred means to accomplishing these goals? Are either of these goals inherently good or evil? Are the means necessary? Overkill? The thing about war and politics is that it tends to be all about perspective in the heat of the moment as everyone is convinced of his own superiority and moral reasoning.

Dogman is ready to hang up his sword, yet his distaste for Black Dow is so great that he is willing to betray his own people to take him down. But just as the Union doesn't want the Northern barbarians becoming too powerful, Black Dow isn't keen on the Union encroaching on Northern territory either. Both sides have very valid arguments for why they're doing what they are. Both have stupid excuses for some of the atrocities they commit. In the end, when looking at the broad strokes of the picture, no one is right and no one is wrong.

Another example of this dynamic comes between Master Willem and Laurence in the game Bloodborne. These two men were around when the blood of the Old Ones was first discovered. Master Willem was the one in charge when this happened, and Laurence was an acolyte of his. Both desired to commune with the Old Ones and gain their metaphysical power, but they had different ideas of how to go about this.

Master Willem believed that the key to this supernatural understanding was having more eyes, metaphorically and, likely, physically as well. His followers included Micolash and Vacuous Rom. They desired intellectual and spiritual understanding.

Laurence was the one who desired to use the blood, and he brought his idea before Master Willem multiple times, each time being shot down. Finally, Laurence and other like-minded acolytes, such as Vicar Amelia, elected to leave the school at Bergenwyrth. Master Willem was disappointed, but still supported research into communing with the Old Ones. Before Laurence left, Master Willem told him, “Fear the blood, Laurence. By the gods, fear it.”

Laurence promised to be good, but he wasn't. And in the end, both Master Willem and his intellectual followers, and Laurence and his Healing Church, all turned into horrifying monsters. The end result may have been the same, but so was the goal. The idea of how to get there was different, and it ended up causing a split between Master Willem and Laurence.

In the last installment on villain and antagonist progression, I talked about Yhorm the Giant from Dark Souls III and how his status as villain or antagonist changes depending on the intentions of the player. This time I'm going to shift the focus to another unlikely foe—or maybe friend? It's Shadow the Hedgehog.

If you've played the game (way back on the ancient Gamecube), you probably understand where I'm coming from. If not, allow me to explain.

The game centers around Shadow the Hedgehog, Sonic's sort of rival, nemesis, sometimes-ally. In this instance, Shadow has lost his memory and is working to retrieve it. The opening level is always the same and very quickly you are presented with different characters who all know him and all seem to think he's their ally. The problem is, all these allies are fighting against each other. You have the option to support Sonic and friends, or side with Black Doom and his army to take over the world. Eggman also makes an appearance with his army. Or you can ignore them all and simply work to collect the Chaos Emeralds for yourself.

Depending on how you choose to play—and you can switch sides in every level—there are a dozen different endings you can unlock as you snake your way along a pretty fantastic choose-your-own-adventure. Once again, the antagonist is dependent on the perspective and intentions of the player throughout the game.

Shadow can also be considered a perspective antagonist himself throughout the Sonic world as he sometimes shows up as ally, sometimes villain, yet always with a point of conflict that can't always be dismissed as simple, pure villainy.

Having a perspective antagonist doesn't always mean that the protagonist is wrong, or that the antagonist is right. It simply provides an avenue for discussion. Remember that an antagonist can be on the same side as a protagonist, and one of its best side effects is causing character growth. At the minimum, it should cause someone to think of things in a new way.

 

The Hive Mind (Corporations, Groups, etc.)

Sadly, the hive mind villain has been boiled down to a single, tired trope in most media: there's an invading force, and the heroes must kill the queen bee so-to-speak, and in doing so, all the little minions instantly die.

This trope is sorely overused. As soon as it is established, you know exactly how the story is going to turn out. To a T. Same way, every time. The Matrix, Independence Day, everything with a distinctly hive mind setup will always be a fight to get to the big brain where the hero and villain duel, hero wins, kills the brain, all minions die. Even when it's more subtle, such as an evil corporation, killing the evil CEO and maybe his right-hand man has the same effect, and suddenly the rest of the company is pure and ethical again. Or they're dismantled and everyone finds new employment.

Consider the RDA from the movie Avatar. With exception of our small band of heroes, everyone in the RDA is a blood-craving, Na'vi-hating mercenary. And for the longest time, they held the monopoly on military power. The only reason the Na'vi prevailed was because, “Eywa has heard you.” And it's a nice story and all, but consider that the movie wasn't really over until the Colonel was killed. He was the head of the hive mind. You could see the construct from the very beginning, knew right where it would lead.

So how does a creator take a tired trope and make something new from it? Well, when considering the hive mind, be it alien invasion or evil corporation, maybe look to the behavior of the original hive makers: bees.

In a honeybee hive, you have three main bee classes: the queen, who is in charge of laying eggs and, to an extent, directing the rest of the hive in their duties. You have the workers who do everything from attend the queen, rear the brood, build the comb, find the pollen, make the honey, defend the hive, and much more. Then you have the drones, whose only purpose is to consume resources and wait until mating season when they'll try to get lucky with the queen.

A honeybee's life revolves around the queen, for she is the perpetrator of the species, of the hive. It is also possible for a hive to have two queens, if they can get along. If the queen dies, for whatever reason, the rest of the hive does not die instantly. They may stick around for a time; if there is appropriate brood, they can raise their own queen again. If no such brood is available, the hive will eventually die, as workers are sterile females and will not lay viable eggs, or if they are viable, they hatch only drones which are useless to them. Morale in the hive also drops, and they may stop cleaning and defending the hive, leaving it open to disease, pests, and invaders.

But even if the queen is alive, there may come a time when the hive is dissatisfied with her for whatever reason. They will choose one or more eggs and change their brood care in order to raise a new queen, with the intent of the new queen killing the old queen and taking over.

Another possibility is that the hive is healthy and flourishing and their living quarters become just a little too cramped. In this case, workers may brood a new queen with the intent of swarming and splitting the hive. Half the workforce leaves the hive with their new queen and goes to search for a new home, a new place to continue their busy bee work. Even if the new hive is close to the old hive, however, desperate times will turn them against each other, and the new hive may raid their original hive. Just because they're similar does not make them friends. Although if resources are plentiful, there shouldn't be too many issues.

Finally, when the temperature drops, the bees all hunker down in the hive and crowd around the queen to keep her warm, a few at a time breaking off to eat from their honey stores and then returning.

In the context of this discussion, I would say that the hive mind villain is pretty much any large gathering of like-minded opponents with a hierarchy and a common mission, as well as the token evil guy at the top who the protagonist will inevitably spar against. This could be an army, a corporation, a government, a religious cult, or some other organization.

Robin Hobb has a great series that explores this concept. Actually, they are three separate trilogies, but they all feed into each other to create a single narrative. While the main character is FitzChivalry Farseer, the core plotline revolves around Fitz's good friend, known as Fool.

Fool is a dreamer, and the land where he comes from prizes dreamers above all else, believing them to shape the world and the destinies of men. His parents sent him to an institution that cares for and, to an extent, worships such dreamers. They wait on him hand and foot and hang onto his every word. For a long time, he loves it, wholeheartedly believes that they see the world as he does, that they see time and events unfolding as he does.

Then the worship begins to fade and he discovers that the clerics of this institution are less interested in his dreams as a guide for benevolence in the world, and are instead looking for dreamers who will show them the path to the greatest power for themselves. They even begin human breeding programs to try and produce more intense dreamers. Any dreamer who gives them these dreams of power and works to fulfill them continue to be worshiped and bred like cattle. Those, like Fool, who do not have these dreams and refuses to bend the will of these scholars and clerics are killed.

Fool escapes and enlists the help of Fitz to stop the institution, to destroy it entirely. But it's not a matter of raising an army, but foiling their larger plans, a game of politics played out over nine books and a number of decades. The institution has politicians, clerics, scholars, magicians, spies, assassins, all interwoven in casual society so that few can be truly trusted. They have an army of dreamers trying to decipher Fool's next move and planning how to counter it. Fool has only himself and Fitz, whom he calls his Catalyst.

For years, Fitz and the Fool battle against the agents of this institution, sometimes in open combat, sometimes through more subtle assassinations, sometimes through larger politics. In the last trilogy, the institution kidnaps Fitz's daughter, who turns out to be a dreamer, perhaps the most powerful dreamer they've ever seen, trying to lure Fitz and Fool to the institution to kill them. In the final book, they take the fight to the institution itself, raiding the fortress with only a small band of heroes. And a couple dragons for good measure.

Those in charge of the institution are eventually destroyed, but not without their final revenge, having infected Fitz in the heat of battle with some sort of virus or poison that eats away at his flesh, not killing him for many days or even months. After his death, Fool commits suicide.

The hive mind of the institution was very well done, certainly not your typical mothership instant kill, and not your obvious army from a distant land. Each agent had a specific purpose, but they are infused within society, sleeper cells just waiting to influence key events and people, going on the words of the dreamers to gain more power and control, everyone having a task and an overall mission to keep.

I think the most important part of it, though, was how the destruction of the institution was handled. The minions didn't just die once the head baddies were killed, but it was important that all the understudies didn't resurrect the same work. A loyal dreamer who was a friend of Fool's and who was also pursued by the institution's assassins, Prilkop, decides to take over and set things back to rights, make things the way they used to be, when dreamers were revered and encouraged, not harvested and bred for specific dreams and purposes.

It's arguably my favorite example of a hive mind villain done very well and without any cheese. The whole series is well done, I think, in just about every aspect. Definitely recommend you start with the first book of the first series, Assassin's Apprentice, and just keep going. Wonderful read.

And while that wins the award for the most well done hive mind villain, I think the most unique portrayal of this villain is found in, of all places, Dark Souls III. Believe me, I never actually thought I could include a Dark Souls villain here, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it does kind of fit. You can decide for yourself. And while it might be tempting to point to the Abyss Watchers as the example, because they are the Undead Legion, and you only do significant damage to the main opponent, the one I actually have in mind is Soul of Cinder.

The reason for this is because the Soul of Cinder is the culmination of everyone who has ever linked the First Flame, including, mind bender, yourself from the original Dark Souls. Soul of Cinder is Yhorm. Soul of Cinder is Lothric and Lorian. It is Aldrich and Ludleth and the Abyss Watchers. It is every Lord of Cinder through ages not explored in the games. That's what makes it such a tough boss fight because Soul of Cinder can do everything. It's a sorcerer, wielding some heavy hitting spells. It's a melee fighter, using great swords and curved swords and dealing some wicked combos with terrible damage. It's aggressive, coming at you relentlessly to wear down your stamina so you couldn't counterattack if you wanted to. It's passive, dancing just out of reach and punishing greedy players. It boasts no particular weaknesses and is strong in everything. As you do battle with the Soul of Cinder to prove yourself worthy of approaching the First Flame, it constantly changes weapons and tactics, a one-man army with the knowledge, power, and skill of every build and every weapon.

And just when you think you've gotten him beat, he kneels in the clearing littered with the swords of all unworthy challengers and rises again. This time, he has a new moveset, one that some may recognize from the first Dark Souls. Soul of Cinder has become Gwyn, the first lord, the lord of sunlight, the one who discovered the souls within the First Flame and made war with the everlasting dragons, the one who imprisoned the pygmy lords and the dark soul of humanity in the Ringed City, the one who cursed humanity with the Undead curse, forcing their allegiance and the need for the First Flame, the first one to ever link the Flame with his soul.

In that, it's sort of a reverse hive mind trope. Rather than ignore the hive to get to the queen, you must fight through the army to reach the core, the seed that started it all. Only by defeating him do you gain access to the First Flame.

So maybe you'll say that Soul of Cinder can't count as hive mind because it is a single opponent, one on one. But I think that's the beauty and brilliance of this particular villain because the whole idea of the hive mind is many pieces functioning as a single unit with a singular mission. Maybe the individual tasks are different, as in a traditional beehive, but the mission, the desired outcome, is the same. Soul of Cinder simply condenses all those tasks, all those moving pieces, into literally a single body. In the fight itself, it does change. Constantly. It's infuriating and can be difficult to keep up at times. It's one opponent, but your strategy has to be constantly tweaked to deal with the different types of attacks he doles out. It's as though you are fighting someone new every fifteen seconds.

As I said, you can debate amongst yourselves whether Soul of Cinder counts as one or multiple opponents. The Abyss Watchers are a more traditional representation of the hive mind, though with the added twist that they will fight each other, sworn to kill all Abyssal enemies without realizing that they themselves have turned Abyssal.

When considering the Timekeeper Chronicles, I'm actually going to cover the hive mind in more detail in a future series on World Building. The subject comes up and is more relevant in The Hands of Time series and in later Chivalrous Welshman books.

As a quick overview, the Borelian civilization functions as a hive mind. They have to, for their home world of Brelix is too unstable to survive otherwise. They have different governing bodies and a hierarchy of society, but their main goal is survival and glory, victory for Brelix over all else. Isthim was exiled for considering ideas too outlandish for the Borelians. As an exile, she drifted, though her actions are always on the glory of Brelix, the greater good for her people. It's how she got exiled and how she got mixed up in the Cult. It's how she organized the contract between the Cult and the Borelians and got the Borelians their position as the Grandfathers in the Wheel. Consider that she was in exile for over a century, yet her thoughts remained always fixed on how to most benefit Brelix and the Borelian people, even if that involved a lot of waiting, a lot of patience, and putting up with a lot of crap from the bumbling slave species known as humans.

When considering a hive mind situation for your story, at least try to get creative. Draw on greater inspiration than Independence Day.

The next installment will be the last one in this series (yay!) and will cover, I think, two of the most difficult villains to create: The Ideological Villain, and the Unknown Villain.

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