Sometimes a single character just won’t get the job done, and even an adventuring party isn’t enough. That’s when you need a faction. But factions aren’t just collections of individuals. The faction itself has its own goals, strengths, weaknesses, and most important: aesthetics! Yes, there are technically reasons to make a faction other than giving everyone a cool costume. We’ll probably even talk about some of those reasons. Eventually. 

Transcript

Generously transcribed by Space Pineapple. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle

[Intro Music]

Wes: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m your host, Wes. And with me today is…

Oren: Oren

Wes: And…

Chris: Chris.

Wes: Now, Oren, Chris, and I might all be doing this podcast together, but little did you know, that each of us is the secretive head of our own factions within the podcast itself? Yes, it’s true. Chris, our fearless leader, stands firm as the Mythcreant herself, Lord of Podcast, Master of Story, and Ruler of Blog, long may she reign.

Chris: Wow. Oh, man.

Wes: I stand for the right and honorable copyediting factions, splicing no commas and introducing no errors. And, as you all may have long suspected, Oren is a member of the shadow faction, with incredibly subversive goals. All in the name of advancing the cause of the punsters.

Chris: Oren has an agenda.

Oren: Do we get cool uniforms? Can I get a little symbol for my faction?

Wes: Yeah.

Oren: I don’t know what it would be. A pun symbol?

Wes: Yeah, we’ll look into that.

Chris: Clearly, I should get some fancy, swishy robes, and the tallest hat, based on Wes’s description.

Oren: Yeah.

Wes: Yeah. Definitely the tallest hat. But anyway, yes, today we’re talking about factions. And on their own, they’re just kind of window dressing and boring, but I wanted to talk about how, with a little development, they can actually be interesting. Add some realism to your story, and maybe provide some conflict. Expand the world, advance the plot, you know? Treat a faction as a character.

Oren: Or, just leave them boring. No one will expect it. Extremely subversive.

Wes: There you go. But I mean, really, if there’s anything we’ve learned about the real world and Citizens United, it’s that corporations are people, and so, factions can be people, too. Let’s get into it.

(laughter)

Oren: Hang on. I thought we were talking about factions, not dark stories. Oof. Oof!

Wes: (laughs) My bad. Oh no!

Chris: Well, I think we probably would find a fair number of similarities between characters and how you need to represent a faction, just because the big challenge with factions is not adding too much complexity to the story.

Wes: Yes, I agree. And it’s okay to expos (exposition) a little bit on things, but the idea for this podcast came up because I mentioned, in my D&D campaign, the Zhentarim showed up, and for people who like to play D&D and the Forgotten Realms, there’s factions, and there’s the Zhentarim and the Harpers, popular ones. The name alone is enough if you’ve played that game. But if you’re just reading a story, you can’t just name-drop a faction and expect anybody to know anything. And making real-life people representative of those factions is helpful to establish them and their aims.

Oren: Well, you will usually end up doing that. Usually, you will have at least one character who represents a faction. And if you are getting into depth, you might have multiple characters within a faction who each represent sub-factions. You know, if you want to get really, really clever. 

Chris: Yeah. You don’t usually have more than one significant character per faction, just because you don’t need more than one. And again, trying to reduce complexity. And it’s not that it’s never okay to make your story more complex. It’s more like you have a total complexity budget for any story. And so, you have to kinda have to penny pinch, where you can generally—especially if you’re going to any group in depth, right? Like your character is a human visiting the Elves, and is gonna spend lots of time learning about Elven culture. Then you would expect there to be some factions, as part of that in-depth look at Elves, for instance.

Wes: Some of the issues with introducing the factions is to try to get them well-established with what they stand for initially. And if you’re not doing it great, then maybe you just post up some empire that blows up planets, and they’re bad. And there’s no splinter factions in there?

Oren: But my hot take is that the Empire from Star Wars is actually a perfectly good faction for what it is designed to do—

Wes: Ah, excellent.

Oren: —which is to be a morally uncomplicated villain, but also be threatening, that the Rebels can shoot at, and that we can be glad when they win. I would argue that it is perfect, or maybe not perfect, but it is very good for the role in which it is designed. Now, you often get people who try to take an Empire-type faction and put it in a different kind of story, and then it does not fit anymore. And you see people be like, “I’m going to do the Empire from Star Wars, but they’re gonna be politically complicated, and they’re gonna have a point.” And it’s like, the whole point of the Empire is that it doesn’t have a point.

Wes: Although some of the best parts of the Empire are definitely Grand Moff Tarkin and Vader. I mean, that’s as close as we get to complicating matters a little bit.

Chris: I like that, because it suggests that there are some divisions—some cultural divisions there without, again, adding a lot of complexity. But when you have a remark against Vader, at one point in a meeting about his devotion to this old religion, that really suggests that there is a cultural divide there.

Oren: Yeah. And I’m not saying you can’t make the Empire more complicated. There are ways to do it, but you are going to need to consider that you’re doing a different kind of faction when you do that. Fun fact: Did you know that, in Return of the Jedi, originally, that guy, that Imperial officer who meets Vader when he shows up at the second Death Star and complains about Vader’s schedule, that guy was supposed to be Grand Moff Tarkin 2.0, and Vader and him were supposed to have a competition for the Emperor’s favor. And they even shot some scenes about that.

Wes: Really?

Oren: You can watch them on YouTube now, and it’s good that they removed it, ‘cuz that guy’s not Grand Moff Tarkin, and he cannot stand up to Vader. It’s just not believable. That’s a fun little fact for you.

Chris: That’s interesting. I’ll have to look, whether it was just the acting or the lines that he was given, or—

Oren: It’s just that his introduction is of a guy who was clearly cowed by Vader. I mean, he’s not Peter Cushing, because only one person was Peter Cushing. So that’s not helping them, either, but also by this point, Vader has already been in two movies, so introducing some random guy and he’d be like, “I’m going to be a rival with Vader.” And it’s like, are you though?

(laughter)

Wes: And that’s why I think that the end of A New Hope, when Vader survived, is good, because the Grand Moff Tarkin of it all played a really good role. But then for the rest of the original trilogy, Vader is the face of that faction. The Empire is the Dark Side, full stop. That makes it far less complicated and much easier to do what you said, is the good guys could shoot at them, no problem. But that minor bit of complexity pays off because there’s no complexity later, which is good, that they cut out anything else, like you’re pointing to, because that would have just been terrible.

Oren: Or, at least, it would have been made for a very different kind of movie.

Chris: I would also like to point out that, with those types of interactions, where we suggest that there’s some kind of divide among the Empire, but we never get into it. At no point does it ever become necessary to actually name the factions. All we’re seeing is character interactions that would realistically indicate cultural divides that probably indicate factions, but the factions themselves are not present enough in the story that we have to name the Sith followers versus the administrators or whatever, (laughs) the very scary names I’ve come up with for them.

Wes: Yeah. I like that. You don’t need to name them, but the personas can kind of stand for that. We saw that a little bit in A Memory Called Empire, where they tried to have the faction war over succession for the Emperor One Direction, but we never saw the chief contender, One Lightning. He just wasn’t there. He was just rumored, and people talked about how he was the chief military commander.

Oren: Yeah. The problem with the factions in A Memory Called Empire is that they just weren’t very distinct. There was the war faction and the other war faction. They were all kind of war factions. And there was sort of an implication that maybe One Lightning was a worse war guy and that he was gonna do more wars, but they were all clearly gonna do more wars. That was one of the issues, especially by the end, because the end of that book is a huge mess. So by the end, it’s kind of unclear what various people want from this. We know that the Emperor wants his clone to be the next emperor. And at that point I’m honestly kind of unsure why. What is it that you think that this clone is going to do that One Lightning wouldn’t, and I don’t know.

Wes: But I think that is a good example of how, if you’re going to name-drop the head of a rival faction, they should be in the story. Otherwise, I just don’t get it.

Oren: Yeah.

Wes: I don’t think it adds anything otherwise. And like you said, there already were other people contending; One Lightning didn’t need to be in the story.

Oren: I’m gonna say it’s not a hundred percent necessary that the hero ever meet the villain face-to-face. There are reasons to not do that. And in a novel, if you’re doing a limited point of view, which we generally recommend, if they never meet face-to-face, that means the readers will never actually see the villain. And there are occasional reasons to do that. One Lightning’s big problem isn’t so much that we don’t see him, it’s that he just kind of goes away for no reason. He’s like, “I have my army and we’re about to take over”. And then it’s like, “yeah, but the Emperor did a cool cultural ritual on TV and read a really good poem”, and that changed his mind. Oh, okay.

Wes: So you’re saying one way to stop a faction is to remind them of the larger purpose of their main faction. Your splinter group is nothing when we’ve got our poetry.

Oren: Yeah, we have poetry, man. I know you have an army, but check out this verse.

Wes: Well, it’s how Chris keeps us in line with her incredibly tall hats.

(laughter)

Oren: And that was a problem where clearly—’cuz what the specifics of what happened are, that the Emperor sacrifices himself in the ritual sacrifice type thing on live TV, and the idea is supposed to be that ritual sacrifice is a super important part of this culture. So, seeing the Emperor do that is supposed to galvanize everyone against One Lightning? It just doesn’t work. It’s just hard to believe that cultural inertia is enough to overcome the material conditions of the plot at that point, especially since everyone was already willing to rebel against the Emperor, who is also a super important cultural position, right?

It’s like, if a Roman emperor was being overthrown and was about to get murdered, and then, at the last second, he did a really cool sacrifice to Zeus. Or Jupiter, or what have you. And then the others are like, whoa, hang on. He did the Zeus thing. That’s important to us or to God, to Jesus, if it’s later Roman history.

(laughter)

Wes: It must’ve been a super sacrifice. He did all of them.

Oren: It’s like how Constantine had a big cultural symbol on his side. When he had all of his soldiers paint the Chi Rho on their shields ‘cuz he said Jesus told him to in a dream. But he still had to win the battle. The other side didn’t just give up and go home when they saw that.

Chris: What if the emperor sacrifices their political opponents to Jupiter?

Oren: Then their political opponents would be dead, and the material conditions would change.

(laughter)

Chris: Going back to Wes’s point earlier, about the fact that there’s a character leading a faction that is named, but never shows up. I guess the question at that point is, do we even need to name that character, and does there even need to be a specific character? Because the purpose of factions, when you get down to it in the plot, is usually to take actions and behave proactively, and change the outcome of the story, and drive the plot; much like a character, right? They act as a unit that’s like a character, but more powerful than a single person.

Oren: Rather than it being that you need to meet them face-to-face, they need to feel like they have some presence in the story, and meeting them face-to-face is one way to do that. And it’s weird, because in A Memory Called Empire, they had plenty of situations in which Mahit could have met One Lightning, but for some reason, the author chose not to. Instead, that positions One Lightning as this really distant, almost Sauron-like figure. But he’s not Sauron, he’s just a guy, whereas Sauron is an almost Eldritch horror, so it makes more sense for him to not physically be there in person, except for recursive Sauron from the Hobbit movies, which is great, and I won’t hear anything against it.

(laughter)

Wes: I see your point. I would rather have, instead of a person, just have that be the name of an organization, “the Punsters”, because if it’s just a vague name and there’s an organization, and the protagonists are going through the story, and there’s talk of the Punsters at work in the city, you don’t really know who they are and how they’re doing things, but the faction could be working—I don’t wanna say behind the scenes, but something to that effect, where we’re not making you learn a new character or a character’s motivations, but we can keep this, almost like an environmental presence, around.

Oren: If you think about it, the Punsters make a special symbol to be their faction message. And that is also technically making you learn a new “character”.

Wes: (laughs) Oh, no. Foiled again.

Oren: Punsters strike again!

(laughter)

Chris: If there’s something about the plot where it’s important that this faction you haven’t seen is led by a single person, because then you can, for instance, influence a single person, and you’re setting up to meet that person later, then I can imagine—again, this is similar to villains, right? Usually you don’t need to see the villain in person, but you want the villain’s presence to be felt, because they are affecting things that are happening in the story. You don’t actually always have to name the villain. There can just be like, “we don’t know who’s doing this”. But the point is that you feel our presence. So there could be situations where, again, you need a convincible person to lead a faction, but it’s going to take a while for you to meet that person. Especially if you wanna change a faction allegiance, it’s a lot easier to have a character whose mind you can change, than it is to have a nameless group of people.

Oren: And it also just depends on what role the faction plays in the story. If the faction is just there and you’re interacting with them, you don’t need to know their leader unless that’s very relevant. Like the Assassin’s Guild from Discworld; they’re just called the Guild of Assassins, or what have you. We don’t really know who’s in charge of the Guild of Assassins, and that’s okay. We don’t need to. We deal with them occasionally; sometimes they’re antagonists, sometimes they’re actually on the hero’s side. And it’s at a fairly small scale, right?

Chris: Right. But in each book, though, if this is a guild that appears in multiple books, if you’re interacting with them, there’s usually a character that you’re interacting with, right?

Oren: Right. And that’s my point. So in that case, the characters who represent the faction are equivalent to the faction’s role in the story, whereas, if we had a Discworld story about destroying the Assassin’s Guild, even if it might not technically be their leader, we don’t know what their org chart looks like, but there would at least be one, or possibly more characters to represent the leadership of that faction. Otherwise it would be really weird to destroy them without ever knowing anything about their leaders.

Wes: I’m glad you brought up Discworld, because the presence of the guilds and stuff, by not having their leaders there, it creates this kind of permanent presence that lasts throughout the stories. And that also reminds me about how someone on the internet was talking about the reason why the Game of Thrones show got so bad, is because it left the core premise of the books was… the books were about factions and less about characters, which I don’t know if that’s really a great idea, but the families are the factions. As long as the family persists, members can come and go, but it’s more about this drive forward of these warring groups, instead of these individuals. That is an interesting thing you can do with factions in stories is make them kind of be their own forces of nature, but you’re risking extreme detachment.

Chris: Yeah, I think that is often used in situations like video games, where you have different factions that you play, because you don’t really need a specific character to get attached to. You’re just controlling the faction yourself. I think the big problem with that is, it’s not that you can’t get attached to a faction. You can, but it’s going to be more uphill than getting attached to a specific character, so that’s an engagement penalty, that—I’m not going to say that there’s never a situation in which it’s worth it to take that penalty, but I would say that’s pretty unusual.

Oren: I’m not gonna say whether or not Game of Thrones or Song of Ice and Fire, or what have you, is more about the characters or more about the factions. I think that’s a pointless argument, but I will say that in the books, at least, by the final books, one of the big problems with it is that the factions that we all cared about (mostly) are basically gone. The Starks are gone. The Lannisters are basically gone. Like, they technically still exist, but they have almost no one left. The Baratheons are basically gone. I think the Tyrells are gone at that point. Of the factions we have left, who do we got? We got John up on the Wall. And Daenerys over in Meereen, I think is where she is. And then we have two factions that have barely been in the story until that point, the Dorn and the ironborn, and they’re … around. The factions that we were actually invested in are basically all destroyed, and that’s one of the reasons why the later books have so little momentum, where it feels like nothing is happening.

Wes: So really, no matter what you do, having faces or not, you’re just gonna go the way of accidentally killing off characters or intentionally killing off faction-sized characters, right?

Oren: Yeah. I mean, George R. R. Martin made the choice to kill or banish, basically, all of the Starks and destroy the Starks as a political force. And I’m not saying that was inherently a bad idea, but I think doing that to basically all of the factions we started with was probably a mistake, because just like characters, if you kill off all of your factions and then replace them with new ones, I’m gonna be like, I don’t know these guys. Who are these weirdos? I didn’t spend five books getting attached to them.

Chris: But that does bring up a good point about the situation, which you would naturally have more than one character per faction. You’ve got to fight between factions, and the whole thing is at stake. I would still say that you would probably get better engagement if you pick a central character for each faction instead of distributing it, but I suppose if you are dedicated to killing off characters, not having—well, you can still have a major character and then kill off lesser important characters in each faction and keep attachment and not make people rage quit.

Oren: And you might even be able to get away with killing off your main character and then promoting a secondary character to faction representative. Martin does do that. He kills Ned, and then basically promotes Catelyn to be the representative of the Starks. And there are other Stark characters, of course, and Catelyn’s not even actually the leader of House Stark, that’s Robb, but Robb’s not a POV character in the books. So everything that the Starks do we see through Catelyn, and she’s also an important political player, so it can work. You can do it, it’s just not easy.

Chris: So, should we talk about depicting factions as distinct, for one thing? Because we talked about them like, okay, we can have a character to represent them, but probably also need some idea of what the faction is like, and some sense of identity for the faction.

Oren: Cool hats.

Wes: Yeah, cool hats. They all dress in black, and they’re from the south. Everybody in the north hates them, and they’re maybe communists? I’m not too sure what’s going on in the Witcher.

(laughter)

Oren: So, the Witcher outfits are bizarre. The first season’s armor that the bad guys wear? That weird “wrinkle armor” is what I’ve started calling it. Apparently, the reason why they have that is supposed to be because this force was hastily thrown together, and so their equipment is supposed to look ramshackle, that’s not what that looks like.

Wes: No, not at all.

Oren: That looks like that was custom-designed by someone who had a very weird aesthetic. I want all of my guys’ armor to look wrinkly. This is not a thing that happens by accident.

Chris: This is what happens when you’re trying to paint ramshackle armor, but you want somebody’s armor to look really cool. It’s like ramshackle chic.

(laughter)

Oren: Or, what you could do, you could go the Lost Girl route and have two factions: one of which, everyone dresses like normal people, and then in the other one, everyone’s Goth.

(laughter)

Oren: That’s the, uh, I forget, but like the Light Fae and the Dark Fae, I think they’re called. And then the Light Fae, everyone dresses normal, like normal people, and you wouldn’t look twice at them walking down the street, ‘cuz they’re just wearing regular street clothes. And then you go over to the Dark Fae, and they all have a fashion sense, and it is very in tune with itself. They are all very dark, and they wear very dark outfits and dark makeup, and they all look like they came from a nightclub.

Chris: I suppose I could see some level of asymmetricality if one faction was just way more common than the other, so that you have a stronger identity for one group, because there is a smaller number of them, and more faction loyalty, for instance. Then, maybe, you could have some level of—but in this case, you wouldn’t expect that from the Light Fae and the Dark Fae, and you also wouldn’t want to suggest that the Dark Fae are underdogs, usually. Unless the character’s Dark Fae, which, in this situation—

Oren: Well, there’s a whole bunch of problems with the Light and Dark Fae. But sometimes your story doesn’t make sense for the factions to differentiate themselves based on appearance. Sometimes the two factions are different spy organizations, and they’re not going to go around wearing black badges to indicate that they’re from Section 31 (Star Trek). I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’ll stop talking about that now.

(laughter)

Wes: But there is something to differentiation. I mean, clothes, I guess, but pick an urban fantasy that takes place in a high school, and we suddenly have all opportunities for displaying factions through just one hallway walk.

Chris: Yeah. That’s what we need. We need an urban fantasy that does the high school hallway walk, but it’s not actually a high school.

Wes: Yes.

Chris: It’s just like, so those are the cool Elves over there.

Oren: Those are the nerdy werewolves.

Chris: And those are the jock goblins in this car.

Wes: But it is kind of interesting how much, sometimes, a writer or storyteller will rely on trying to convey a lot at a glance. And that hallway walk is definitely like a primo way to do that. We have rapid associations with certain types of outfits and postures, or I don’t know, athlete tools—basketball, something like that. And how much information that can quickly give you and how quickly you can just forget it. But for a moment it’s like, oh, of course. We’re in high school where everybody’s at war with each other all the time.

Oren: Unless you are deliberately making a story about how the two factions share similar beliefs and are only superficially different, it’s usually best to give them very contrasting beliefs and goals, because otherwise they just start to feel kind of the same. And that’s another way you can distinguish them, other than their outfit.

Chris: I will say that, if they’re striving for different things, if they have conflicting goals that can make them stand out, it also allows you, once you get in more depth, to add some variation in there. Because again, the challenge is, how do we represent a complex world in the simplest way possible? So the factions have to be distinct, but at the same time, we also don’t really want to imply that all of the people in them are identical clones, all wearing the same outfits and thinking the same thing. But if you have contrasting motivations and different goals, right, then you could have different reasons that people support those goals, which gives you a little variety.

Wes: Yeah, that’s a really good point. I feel like the best factions, maybe they aren’t defined by “jock goblin” identity, but it’s more like, maybe the jock goblin organization has a particular motivation and includes non-goblins, because they think that that motivation is actually compelling. I feel like that helps transcend just saying, “all the magic users over there are one faction, and all the werewolves over there are another faction”. And there’s no reason why a werewolf couldn’t decide to join the magic faction because they think that, you know, having a werewolf representative could get magic into other places where it could be of good use. I don’t know.

Chris: It would really be interesting to have a character in that situation. Be like, okay, I want to join the jocks, and the jocks are all goblins. So once they start hanging out with the goblins—or jocks—they start taking on other goblin cultural markers because they identify with a group that is dominated by goblins, for instance. You could have other things that, you know, this faction is aiming for this goal, and this group of people are likely to have that goal, and so it’s now taken on some flavor from them.

Oren: Yeah. And again, depending on the role that the faction plays in the story, they don’t always need a specific goal. Sometimes that’s not what they’re doing. If they are trying to do something, just like with a character, you have to think about their motivation, and does it make sense, and are the actions they’re taking actually moving them closer to the thing they want. And if not, is that part of the story? Or did you just goof? The separatists from Star Wars, the prequels, are probably the best example of a faction with no motivation. Why are any of them doing this? Is it still space taxes? Because nobody talks about those anymore after the first movie. And then, by the same token, the Jedi; why are the Jedi involved in this war? Why are they so invested in keeping the Republic as a single polity? That just doesn’t seem like a thing that Jedi would care about. And there are reasons—you could create reasons why the Jedi would care about that; either good reasons or corrupt reasons, but the movie doesn’t do any of that. It just assumes that the Jedi will fight for the Republic and to keep the Republic together, presumably because it assumes you will think the separatists are like the Confederacy, and so there is some kind of overriding moral reason just to fight them, but the movie’s never established one.

Wes: Yeah. That’s a good point. Like you said, motivation is important to keep in mind when you’re adding factions to your stories. I mean, they don’t have to do anything if you don’t really want them to. You can create planets of hats and be happy with that. But if you do want to have them be important, then make sure that the factions matter to the story, and consider having a face for the faction. Everybody loves the charismatic leader. Nothing bad could happen with that, right?

(laughter)

Oren: All right. Well, with that, I’m going to go ahead and call this podcast to a close. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. I’ll talk to you next week.

[Outro Music]

This has been the Mythcreants podcast.

Mythcreants relies on the support of readers like you. Help us create quality content by becoming a patron today.

Jump to Comments