Most stories with more than a handful of characters will include factions. Not only is this a realistic portrayal of human behavior, but it can reduce the audience’s cognitive load by organizing characters into intuitive categories. Factions are also great for generating compelling conflict and a necessity for any author who wants to raise their story’s scope beyond a family argument.*
But factions also come with additional challenges. Once you bring a bunch of people together, you have to consider the implications for your plot and world. Unfortunately, writers aren’t always great at this, which is why we have so many stories where the factions don’t make any sense. Let’s take a look at a few and see what problems a poorly designed faction can cause.
Spoiler Notice: The Bastard Son & the Devil Himself, The Art of Prophecy, Wednesday
1. First Kill
Despite the many reviews comparing First Kill to Buffy or Twilight, this urban-fantasy romance is clearly a riff on Romeo and Juliet, with vampires and hunters filling in for Montagues and Capulets. Our lovebirds are even named Calliope and Juliette, for Shakespeare’s sake! It’s a show I quite enjoy, with great character work and a brisk plot. Unfortunately, our two households are not quite alike in dignity.
For a good Romeo-and-Juliet story, you need two factions who are roughly equivalent in power and morality. The reason is that it creates maximum conflict in the love story. If one side is more powerful, it’ll be the one dictating whether the lovebirds can get together, and you want the couple pulled apart from both sides. Evenly matched factions will also be more destructive if they go to war, which is the big threat hanging over the star-crossed lovers.
As for morality, if one faction is evil and the other good, it’s now a story about one lovebird escaping their evil family. That can also work, but it’s not Romeo and Juliet anymore, and if you try to do both at the same time, everything gets confused.
That confusion is rife in First Kill because the vampires and hunters are mismatched on both fronts. In terms of power, the vampires have a whole host of supernatural abilities, from super strength to mind control, while the hunters have next to nothing. The show tries to counter this by having only the hunters use guns, but that immediately fails. For one thing, it’s obviously contrived: there’s no reason vampires can’t use guns! For another, the vampire’s powers are so strong that it seems like they should win anyway.
On the morality front, every single vampire is a murderer, as they all have to kill someone as part of their coming-of-age ceremony. Juliette is only an exception because she hasn’t had her ceremony yet. From what we see, most vampires go much further, killing humans willy-nilly for blood and profit. The hunters only fight vampires because of all the murder.
Nevertheless, First Kill tries to pitch the conflict as being morally gray and between evenly matched sides. It has to, otherwise Juliette would be obviously evil for not swearing off the ways of her vampiric family. Acknowledging the disparity would also mean zero tension when Calliope’s hunter parents plan a raid on the vampire compound. We even have dialogue about how nice it would be for vampires and hunters to have peace, presumably so the vampires can continue murdering without any additional hassle.
This story would have worked much better if it were between two groups of supernatural creatures, as they wouldn’t have the predator/prey dynamic that’s inherent between vampires and humans. The writers could have given the hunters magic of their own, making them more like a family of Buffys, but we’d still have the problem of vampires either killing people or forcibly taking their blood.
2. Mortal Engines
It’s not difficult to spot changes between the original Mortal Engines novel and the film adaptation. The movie ages our heroes up into their late teens for one thing, whereas the book has a distinct middle-grade feel despite being marketed as YA. In the movie, Valentine is the main antagonist, while in the book he’s largely overshadowed by Crome.
The same in both versions is the disparity between the two main factions: the Traction Cities and the Anti-Traction League. In other words, the people who drive their cities around on giant wheels and the people who don’t do that.
It’s tempting to argue this in terms of practicality. Even if it were somehow possible to load cities like London and Paris onto gargantuan vehicles, it would be a complete waste of resources. There’s no reason to haul your entire civilian population with you into battle, and the Traction Cities would be easily cut to pieces by much more nimble vehicles that don’t have to allocate room for residential districts.
However, Mortal Engines is so dependent on its absurd premise that arguing about practicality is like critiquing The Walking Dead by saying zombies aren’t real. Instead, the main problem is that the Anti-Traction League undercuts all the disbelief we have to suspend. If people in this setting can just live in normal cities, why does anyone drive their city around like the world’s most out of control RV project? If this were The Walking Dead, it would be like declaring that zombies immediately become regular corpses again the moment they enter Canada.
This isn’t an area where Mortal Engines can afford to take any losses, either. Even without the Anti-Traction league, there’s little about the story to reinforce the idea of mobile cities. The book has some exposition about how thousands of years in the past, earthquakes and volcanoes* meant it was useful to move around, but there’s nothing like that in the present. So, the story requires that you accept its really out-there premise. Meanwhile, the Anti-Traction League is constantly pointing out how silly the whole thing is.
The story’s main conflict is over whether traction cities are a good idea, and a better way to illustrate that would be to replace the Anti-Traction League with a group of people who only recently decided to park their city in one place. That way, they would be taking a big risk, and it would be easier to understand why everyone else hasn’t done the same yet. It would also help to still have at least some of the geological instability that necessitated moving cities in the first place, so we could see where the other side is coming from.
3. The Bastard Son and the Devil Himself
The first thing you notice about this show is how the warring witch factions don’t make any sense. Okay, that’s a lie. The first thing you notice is that awful title. It’s so long, and it sounds like the devil will be a major character in a story where being born out of wedlock is a big deal. Maybe some kind of supernatural Western with a lot of Christian imagery? Nope! It’s an urban-fantasy story where the “Devil Himself” isn’t the devil at all and is also barely in the show. Sure.
Anyway, witch factions. We have two of them: Fairborn Witches and Blood Witches. The first problem is they lack any distinction that would see them split into factions in the first place. They have the same powers and live in the same parts of Europe. Maybe it’s the ritual that Bloods do on a witch’s 17th birthday, where they’re given a few drops of blood from a family member to activate their powers? Nope, the Fairborn do that too. Blood Witches apparently die if they don’t get their ritual, so it’s somewhat more important to them, but this is a central feature of both societies. Why is only one of them specifically associated with blood?*
The only tangible difference is that Bloods heal faster than Fairborns and have at least one distinct magical ability. But since these powers are passed through bloodlines, and there’s nothing else keeping the two groups apart, it seems like the Fairborn would also have those powers after a few generations of genetic exchange.
Moving on from why the two factions even exist at all, let’s look at the conflict between them: Fairborns just love oppressing Bloods. They love it so much that they’ve completely driven the Bloods out of Great Britain, hunting them all across continental Europe.* While Bloods also kill Fairborns, it’s usually in self defense or retaliation for past atrocities. The show occasionally has dialogue about ending the “cycle of violence,” but it’s pretty clear that the Fairborns are a group of villains.
That would be fine, except the Fairborns are completely outmatched. Remember how I mentioned that Bloods have a power Fairborns don’t? That power is to steal abilities from other witches. You see, each witch has a unique power, X-Men style, which they use much more than the spells that anyone can cast.
Just one Blood Witch with power stealing is enough to steamroll over the Fairborn in every encounter, which we see several times. Later, the show reveals that nearly every Blood Witch family has one of these power stealers. They take the powers of dying relatives and eventually pass the whole package to the next power stealer in the line. Over generations, these witches can build up hundreds of powers. While most of those powers are fairly useless,* it only takes a handful of the strongest ones to create an unstoppable juggernaut.
The only method the writers use to bolster the Fairborn Witches is to give them better weapons. They use modern machine guns while the Bloods have mostly bows and arrows, plus a few old rifles. But why? The Bloods can use their magic to acquire modern weapons, same as the Fairborns. They just don’t, for reasons.
Fixing the factions in this story would be difficult because the power stealing is deeply integrated with the plot. I suppose the Fairborns could have an ability that’s even more powerful than power stealing, but I’m not sure what that would be without breaking the story. And we’d have to make the factions distinct entirely from scratch, cause the story is giving us nothing to work with.
4. The Art of Prophecy
It’s time for martial-arts high fantasy and also our second story of the evening with giant wheeled cities. Weird. In this 2022 novel, we have two main factions: the Zhuun and the Katuia. These two cultures have been locked in constant warfare for centuries, with ancient prophecies about how a hero will inevitably rise from one to destroy the other. No problems yet.
The Zhuun are a clear parallel for the Han Chinese. They’ve got roughly medieval technology: castles, swords, bows, and horses as the primary means of transportation. A few of their martial artists have blatantly supernatural abilities, but those are rare enough to not make a major impact on the setting. The main anachronism is much more effective medicine than would be available to a society of this tech level, which is actually something I’ve recommended in previous articles. So far, we’re doing just fine.
Meanwhile, the Katuia are a parallel for one of several nomadic peoples famous for raiding China over the centuries. People like the Xiongnu, the Jerchins, and, most famously, the Mongols.* They also have a handful of magical martial artists, and since the Zhuun are limited to historical weapons, you’d probably assume that the Katuia are the same, perhaps with a higher emphasis on cavalry and mounted archery.
What you wouldn’t expect is for the Katuia to have a bunch of wheeled cities powered by advanced steampunk technology, because it’s completely ridiculous. Nevertheless, that’s what they have. It’s not stated exactly how big these cities are, but they have populations in the tens of thousands, so pretty sizable.
In Mortal Engines, the wheeled cities were impractical because the Anti-Traction League had guns and artillery to blow them up. In this book, the Zhuun have nothing on that level. We never actually see a pitched battle between Zhuun and Katuia, but it’s hard to imagine how it would be anything other than the Zhuun soldiers being turned into roadkill. The Katuia wouldn’t even need to get out and fight! If that’s not enough, we’re also told they have advanced artillery, though the specifics are vague. With steampunk tech, it’s probably enough to reduce the Zhuun castles to rubble.
Despite this obvious and crushing advantage, the Katuia have somehow not won their centuries-long war. In fact, they actually lose the war during the book. Offscreen, of course. It’s amazing the things you can get done offscreen!
Just as baffling as the military mismatch is that the Zhuun have lived with a technological superpower on their doorstep for centuries, but they haven’t picked up any of the Katuia’s tech. That’s not how technology works! It doesn’t stay tightly contained within borders even if the people in charge want it to. If there’s contact between two people, like constant raids and warfare, the technology will proliferate eventually.
What I don’t understand about this story is why the Zhuun don’t also have advanced steampunk tech. That would help the story stand out from other high fantasy stories, and the two factions could still be distinct because they have different kinds of tech. The Katuia already focus a lot on mobility, so why not give the Zhuun impregnable industrial fortresses and slow moving steam-tanks?
5. Nine Princes in Amber
I picked up this 1970 novel after reports that Stephen Colbert might be producing a TV adaptation. The book is… an experience. Not an especially pleasant one, but an experience nonetheless.
In theory, we have something like twelve different factions, as each child of the vanished King Oberon is a possible claimant to the throne of Amber. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, Amber is a magical realm at the center of a vast multiverse, and everyone wants to be ruler of it, for reasons.
Fortunately, it quickly becomes clear that most of the various siblings don’t matter, and the only important factions are those of Eric and Bleys. Eric currently rules Amber, and Bleys would like to rule it instead. Protagonist Corwin joins Bleys’s faction and almost immediately takes over on account of being so candied that everyone just kind of does what he says, presumably to avoid authorial wrath. So, it’s Corwin’s faction now.
The first big problem with both Corwin and Eric is that their factions are composed entirely of smoke and mirrors. Corwin says he doesn’t have enough soldiers to defeat Eric, got it. But then he just spends a few paragraphs of summary on an interdimensional jaunt, and he comes back with a much bigger army. What? Can he do that again? It didn’t seem very difficult; he just found some guys who were willing to serve him for vague reasons.
Is this new army powerful enough to defeat Eric? I have no way of judging. If it is, can Eric spend a bit of summary getting a new army of his own? Corwin attacks without answering any of those questions, and, just like his recruitment, the losses suffered by both sides are completely intangible. The book throws a lot of numbers at me, but even if I could remember exactly how many soldiers Corwin had to start, I have no idea how many he actually needs. Likewise, I can’t see why he doesn’t just rustle up some reinforcements, since it’s apparently very easy.
Corwin eventually loses the big battle, which is rare among fantasy protagonists, especially ones with as much candy as Corwin. But instead of a refreshing twist, Corwin’s loss feels as arbitrary as everything else that’s happened until then because nothing in the story has any solidity.
When I was a kid, a friend and I created a war game to play at lunch. But we were kids, and we forgot to put in any limits on the number of soldiers we could add, so both of us just kept adding more guys until one person got tired and quit. That’s what the factions in this book are like.
Beyond troop numbers, the story never gives us any reason to care which sibling wins the day. We don’t know what either of them wants to do with the throne or why one of them would be a better ruler than the other. It’s not even clear why the two of them want to rule or don’t want the other to rule. We just know they hate each other for vague backstory reasons.
I think the author realized this was a problem because at the last second, he tries to give us a reason: Corwin cares more about his soldiers than the other siblings do. That’s something, but also, the only reason his soldiers are dying is because he wants the throne so badly! If he’d just let Eric have it, there’d be no war. So the concern falls a bit flat.
On the bright side, these problems can probably be fixed in Colbert’s adaptation without much trouble. I’m guessing we get more of Corwin’s and Eric’s motivations in later books, so that just needs to be moved earlier. Or if there aren’t any explanations, I’m sure the new writers can think of something. Maybe Eric wants to eat all the multiverse’s puppies and Corwin has to stop him. As for troop numbers, we just need Corwin to expend some actual effort in his recruitment. That will take care of the feeling that he can just get more whenever he needs them.
6. Every Oppressed Mage Story (Featuring Wednesday)
Let’s be honest, I could have populated this entire list with oppressed mage stories. A mismatch between magical and mundane factions is practically a defining feature of that trope. But no one wants to read six identical entries, so I’m limiting myself to just one.* As an exemplar, we shall use the new Wednesday show because, wow, it does demonstrate exactly why this trope doesn’t work.
In Wednesday, our two factions are Outcasts and Normies. Normies are regular humans. At a couple points, the story acts like it’s supposed to mean only white humans, but that’s clearly not true about the show as a whole. Outcasts are every kind of magical creature, with the four big ones being vampires, werewolves, sirens, and gorgons – also humans with special powers, which for some reason includes Gomez Addams, even though he doesn’t have any powers, but not his son Pugsley, based on which school he’s admitted to. Sorry, Pugsley.
The list of special powers among the Outcasts is absurd. Gorgons can turn people to stone with a look.* Sirens have mind-control voices, and they’re great swimmers. Werewolves can hulk out into their unstoppable wolf forms. It’s unclear if they can only do that during the full moon, but they have super strength even in human form. The magical humans have abilities like psychic visions, telekinesis, shapeshifting, and conjuring images into the real world. We never find out what vampires can do, but we can assume it’s equally impressive.
With that kind of power, I don’t think even all of mundane humanity together would stand a chance, especially not against the siren’s mind-control voices. But the Outcasts aren’t facing all of humanity. In the present, their opposition is a small human town near the special Outcast boarding school. Even if you ignore how a bunch of the Outcast students appear to be super rich, no one in that town would be able to sneeze without getting the school’s permission first.
It’s worse in the past, as we see flashbacks of the Outcasts facing off against angry pilgrims, of all things.* The pilgrims don’t even have muskets, just torches and sticks. Could the props department not afford a few matchlocks?
Despite this, the Outcasts are portrayed as very oppressed. The school is always in danger of being shut down, and in the past, a bunch of Outcasts are massacred by the angry pilgrims. If only the Outcasts had someone who could turn the pilgrims to stone or something, that would have helped a lot. This occasionally crosses the line from silly into gross, as we have a couple scenes where white Outcasts lecture Black Normies about oppression. Yikes.
As with most oppressed-mage stories, something eventually has to give. To make the final confrontation exciting, the writers have no choice but to give the Normie villains magic. One of them learns magic from books to conduct a forbidden necromancy ritual. She’s at least as much of an Outcast as Gomez now. The second villain is the angry pilgrim’s leader, resurrected by the first villain. Doesn’t sound like much of a threat, but don’t worry, the angry undead pilgrim is also a wizard, complete with spells and a staff.
Nothing about this is ever explained. Did he gain wizard powers as part of the resurrection process? Was he always a wizard but kept it secret? Why would he do that? No time for that: we need to have a climactic battle between Wednesday and the wizard-pilgrim. Even here, the only way the villain is a threat is that all of the magical students run away instead of using their powers to help. Pro tip: if most of Team Good has to flee the scene for a fight to be a challenge, something has gone wrong.
Like with most oppressed-mage stories, this is difficult to fix because the mismatched factions are the point. Some authors specifically want their heroes to be oppressed for being cool and rad, and there’s not really a way to do that well. However, I think most of the show’s plot could be salvaged with the idea that Chris lays out in her own Wednesday post. Basically, split the magical people between “light” and “dark” sides, with the secret being that light isn’t actually good and dark isn’t actually bad. Those would make much better factions than the current split between regular humans and unstoppable killing machines.
Faction design problems come from a lot of sources, but a big one is authors getting stuck thinking at the level of individuals. If two people meet and one of them has a gun, the other person probably isn’t getting that gun. But if two societies meet and one of them has guns, the other is getting guns too. An individual human might beat an individual mage through cunning and guile, but that won’t scale up to large groups. Writers need to remember that factions of people work on a larger scale, and stories should be planned accordingly.
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