Redeemed to Death: Vader Syndrome in Contemporary Western Fiction

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A note to start off with:  Jim Butcher made an excellent point in a lecture at this year’s WyrdCon that it’s hard to study fairy stories from adults.  Those of us with literature degrees are always digging into Freud or Jung to justify the fact that we’re basically talking about stories.

Well, hat’s off to you, Mr. Butcher.  Jungian archetypes are my normal scholarly go-to, and I’m going to drop the pretenses.

Hey, ya’ll.  Let’s talk about stories this essay!

It turns out that the three Star Wars movies I grew up watching were about Anakin Skywalker’s kids, how they saved their father from darkness, and how Anakin brought balance back to the Force.

Of course, naturally then he had to die.

What would it have been like if Anakin Skywalker had lived?  What if Force healing, or his life-support systems had been enough?  What if his injuries had not been mortal?

A Jedi Master, the most powerful in a thousand years, would suddenly be on the force of light.  He had studied alongside and against the most powerful warriors in a generation.  He had mastered more swordsmanship styles than Luke knew existed.  He understood the inner workings of the Empire that he had forged, and therefore how to take it apart.

Vader Syndrome is the current nerd meme to describe that the greatest hero, our most loved one, is the one who was our feared enemy before.  But Vader Syndrome is a lie.

We don’t, really, love the allies who were enemies before.  We want them dead.  At a fundamental level, we need them to die.  I spelled out the incredible benefits that Jedi Master Anakin Skywalker could bring to the galaxy far away, and with his Jedi twin children at his side the order could spread faster, father and stronger by far.

But can’t we already see the new problems that we wouldsee?

The first, greatest problem that we have is the belief in good-guy bad-guy dichotomies.  There are Good People and Bad People.  Good People should win.  Bad People should die or go away forever.

How long would it be before the Wookies Vader enslaved showed up for his blood?  When would the Alderaanian survivors unite to call for a trial?

The story potential here is enormous.  I mean, think about it!  First of all you have internal conflicts.  Can a person really change?  How much of us is defined by our mistakes or our successes, and how do they interact?  Does a bad guy have to change like a light switch or can their repentance be a journey of struggle and will against ingrained darkness?  How do we tackle the wounds that dark deeds have inflicted on the innocent, and how about on the perpetrator?

I used to be an immense Star Wars fan until the Yuzhan Vong series killed it, deliberately set out to kick every victory of the series and follow-up novels in the nuts and give the audience the finger while doing it.  Well, I’m a confrontational sort of guy, and the best way to deal with that sort of writing is to go pay someone else to tell a better story.

Timothy Zahn’s superlative novelization of the original plots for movies 7-9 was incredible (That’s the Heir to the Empire trilogy for you non-initiated.  Go and read them quickly before Disney or Lucas ruins them as well).  But the universe is a big and bad place.  Luke and Anakin had all the conflict in the world hammering out a new right and wrong for the Jedi order.  Instead, Luke flounders about trying to figure out what it means to be a Jedi Master.  All that scrambling around trying to reinvent the wheel?  There was a Jedi Master right there?!

But something I have learned from criminals over the past years volunteering with prison ministry and the ex-gay movement is that change is hard.  Change is messy.  There are slips, falls, and more often than not when we start to deal with the demons that drove us into darkness in the first place it drives us all the harder for a while, because you thought it hurt to RUN from your wounds, imagine how bad it hurts to face, walk through, and try to conquer them?!

Messy stuff.  Glorious stuff.  It is the sort of thing that turns murdering Saul of Tarsus into preaching Paul the Apostle.  It is the transformation of warlord to monk in Darius of Highlander fame.  I’m trying to write a potential evil overlord struggling with his dark side in the Trials of Adrian Campbell stories.  In the first two books the enemy has been external, but in the face of an unexpected attack Adrian’s real enemy this novel is his own dark side.  It’s a lot of fun.

Abraham Lincoln had a quote that went something like, “The best way to destroy your enemy is to make him your friend.”  Think about that.  Think about your favorite antagonists and how much fun it would be to see them be just as devious, just as clever and bad-ass on the side of the good guys.  So what if there is a subtle undercurrent of fear about what comes after, if this decision or that one is flowing from light or darkness?

Stories are ABOUT conflict.

But, alas, we learn to write what we know.  We do not live in the same society that we did 100 years ago, when if you were not bad enough to hang, you paid your debt and got a fresh start at society.  We live in a world of tracking, labels, lists, registrations for everything from owning a rifle to molesting wildlife.  Society doesn’t really believe that people can change, or that SOME people can change (and as an author isn’t that just the most fun button to press?), and if people can and do change, they learn to keep their mouths shut about their past because they’ll get ripped apart instead of applauded.

Hey, more CONFLICT for your story!!!

Here and there stories break out of the Vader Syndrome.  Scar in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a perpetually enjoyable semi-bad guy who undergoes serious change, to say nothing of the Xing-ese nobles.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer had Angel, Spike, and Anya as villains gone Scooby (why do the pagans get this concept so much better than Christians?  Whedon is a self-described Angry Atheist.)  The Korean drama Warrior Baek Dong Soo incorporates a major subplot about a boy born under an evil sign who struggles every day to discern whether he is a hero or a villain (Woon-a, we love ya) only to discover at the very end… Well, you will have to find out for yourself.  What if, instead of finding that Obi-Wan had been a Jedi General, Luke had found a reformed Sith Lord to teach him?  Teal’c from Stargate SG1 is a prime example of a head bad-guy turned hero, but I was sad to see how social pressure included story line after story line in later seasons to indicate that he wasn’t really bad in the first place, just stuck.

That sucks.  Bring on the character conflict, not misguided-villain-is-corrected but truly-evil-turns-good levels.  Let us crank this up to eleven!

Stories are about conflict, real change is full of conflict and drama.  Let us tap this mine, break the Vader syndrome, and maybe even throw some Gospel Truth up against Ye Old Fictitious Walle.

Truth vs. Lie #1: GOOD GUYS AND BAD GUYS
The first supporting lie to the Vader Syndrome is the dichotomy between Good People and Bad People.  Americana-light sells the false comfort that we are good people and those (drug dealers, gossips, murderers, kidnappers, people who talk in the theater) are EEEVIL.  Hey, there is no argument.  They are evil.  The lie comes when we hold ourselves in a different catgory than that criminal scum.  Even really good writers like Larry Correia buy into this, and it fits so nicely into the sinful human understanding of the world that cults from Mormonism to Buddhism hold up the Good People to emulate, match, and surpass.  The more we believe in Good People, particularly that we are one of them, the easier it is to  do whatever we want to about bad guys.  This, more than anything else, is why I am not a Democrat.  If they applied bipartisanship, equality, equal representation, and their other core principles to Republicans instead of just their own base, they would have enough cred with me to win me over, maybe.  Instead I recall slashing Republican vehicle tires, the most spew-bile rhetoric at college campuses, silencing “free” speech with “hate” labels, and so forth that goes against everything they stand for.  Guess what, Republicans, you’re no better.  Blah blah blah Constitution blah blah justice… except when was the last time a conservative tried to fit a sex offender registry through a constitutional filter, or considered offering the same open-border policies of the late 19th century so that it would take hours instead of years to become a citizen?  No?  Too busy trying to figure out how to put machine guns on the border?  Guilty until proven innocent?  Unless you’re a terrorist.  How about the constitution then?
Even if I only took your own standards to your policies, Jesus seems to indicate that we’ll be judged that way and the results are Not Good for the Home Team.  Romans 3:23 sums it up pretty well.  We all fail.  That’s right, we are all Bad Guys.  The more we get away from our Circle The Wagons, Protect the Women and Children from the pagan savage heathens sort of mentality, the more we will be able to tell stories ABOUT hope, faith, and redemption because they will SHOW faith, hope, and redemption.  For redemption, you first need a bad guy.  Maybe that is why so much of the Sermon on the Mount goes to show just how much we don’t measure up.

Um… way wrong.  Scripture is full of the fact that we’re dead in our sins.  We’re face-down, floating in the water, no pulse.  We cannot make a choice to be good on our own, or grab onto some Gospel life-line.  Love and Grace drag our dead bodies up on deck, pump us dry and fill us with life once again.  Then the choice comes, do we stay and learn how to stand on land or jump back into the ocean?  Something that is great fodder for stories is that things almost never go immediately right when we repent.  They almost always go completely wrong, and get worse.  Why?  We are no good at being good on our own?  It isn’t even our deal that gets us there.  Scripturally, it is the patience and kindness of other people to us that leads to repentance (Romans 2) or the hardships our unlawful deeds bring upon us that drive us to Christ (St. Paul).

Truth vs. Lie #3: CHANGE IS INSTANT
Um… heck now, and as far as storytelling goes this is a huge potential goldmine.  It isn’t a question of whether or not our bad guys in the process of reformation slip up, but how, and in what manner?  Doesn’t that invalidate the idea that they’ve changed?  Not at all!  Read the last bits of Romans 7, when St. Paul, Mr. Zap-Me-On-The-Road-For-Instant-Change talks about how he is always slipping up and failing to do the good he wants.  How about them apples?  So it isn’t a question of IF our reforming bad guy slips up, but how he is going to slip up?  Who will he slip up around?  What triggers it?  How is he going to deal with it?  How is everyone going to react?

Truth vs. Lie #4: GRACE IS EARNED
There is always something that a bad guy has to do in fiction to earn their way back.  Vader must kill the Emperor and bring balance back to the Force.  Teal’c has to break everyone out of prison (more than once) and save the world a couple of times (he’s counting).  Jean Lefitte must fight the British alongside the Americans in the war of 1812.  What’s missing here?  When was the last time that you saw a character shown grace?  When was the last time that someone went after someone completely undeserving, not because they were good, but knowing full well that they were evil and going there anyway?

This is Vader Syndrome, the good and the bad.  I view it as a symptom of our culture.  America was “Christian” for so long (apart from slavery, socialism, abortion, fascism, the occasional genocidal attempt…) that we tend to accept American values as Christian ones without parsing them, so we learn about good guys, bad guys, and redemption from TV and movies much more than we ever take the Word of God, apply it, and then spread it around in our relationships and our fiction.

That’s part of Vader Syndrome, and it’s going to keep going on as long as we let it.

Until we change things.

I am trying.  What do you say?  Who will join me?

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