Most of the gatekeepers into entertainment and publishing can shut down every pitch with a single question: “Why should I care?”
You have a suave superspy who can keep his head in any situation put through the paces and escape death numerous times. That’s nice. Why should we follow him for 300 pages?
If he fails in his mission, capitalism in the West will be destroyed and the landscape of world finance turned on its end (GoldenEye). Or maybe humanity will be wiped off the planet by a sinister bioengineered plague (Moonraker). Or the United States will lose the space race to the Soviet Union (Dr. No).
None of those stakes are memorable, though. If I hadn’t included the name of the movie, would you have been able to figure out which Bond film I was talking about? Probably not. As big a 007 fan as I am, I couldn’t actually explain what was at stake in either The Living Daylights or Octopussy, films I’ve seen a half-dozen or more times each.
So how do we as writers make the stakes truly memorable? I can answer that by looking at two video games in the Final Fantasy series.
Released in 1994, Final Fantasy VI featured a chaotic villain who not only wanted to watch the world burn, he actually got to watch the world burn. That’s right, Kefka Palazzo succeeded in destroying the world.
Released in 1997, Final Fantasy VII is a benchmark title in the series. It is consistently rated as one of the best, and its main villain is (unlike the highly successful Kefka) rated among the Top 10 video game villains of all time.
Both Kefka and Sephiroth follow the rules for good character design. Kefka and his garish wardrobe and callous disregard for life fix him in your memory. Sephiroth and his one wing and ridiculously long katana blade, his long coat and flowing hair fix him in your memory.
Yet Sephiroth is still discussed 20 years later and Kefka is largely forgotten. Kefka, who destroyed the entire world is forgotten in favor of someone who failed to do the same at the zero hour. Why? Is there a lesson here that writers can learn?
The reason why Sephiroth is the greatest villain in Final Fantasy history and I had to look Kefka up to make sure I got his name right is Aerith Gainsborough. Aerith plays the femme fatale role; though Cloud is destined for Tifa he (and the player through him) has a strong attraction to Aerith. Aerith is a mentor of sorts as well, having the secret to stopping Sephiroth’s mad plan.
While Aerith prays for guidance from the Planet, Sephiroth descends from the skies and kills her, running her straight through with his katana. He killed a single person and is debated and discussed 20 years later, Kefka slaughtered millions in a magical maelstrom and no one gives a crap.
The lesson from this is to make the stakes personal. I don’t know all of the millions of people who died in flame and earthquake in Final Fantasy VI. But I know Aerith. No matter how Cloud felt about Tifa, I kinda wanted him to hook up with Aerith. She was alluring and mysterious. But now, we’ll never know what might have been thanks to the exaggerated blade of a one-winged fallen angel.
Aerith’s death surprised people and angered them. Suddenly we care about putting a stop to Sephiroth in a way we didn’t when Kefka did far more damage. Writers everywhere, take note: give your protagonists a personal vendetta against the villain. True, more characters like Aerith will have to die, but more readers will care about your stories.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Aerith Gainsborough, may you rest in peace.