“There’s a lot of jokes, but there’s a lot of heart that didn’t start showing until later. We didn’t know that the show had the capability for that, early on. It’s like a car that flew all of a sudden.”
Every now and then, I love a story.
I like stories all the time. I like most stories! But it’s a rare and wonderful thing when I can say that a story has really taken root in my heart.
There are several parallels between Adventure Zone: Balance and Homestuck, beyond the fact that I love both of them. I think one of these similarities has a lot to do with why these stories were able to really have an effect on me.
Is it the lesbian wedding post-finale grace note? The appearance of pop culture icons and celebrities as elements of the story? The multimedia tapestries of music, art and games?
Those are all great, but something else made the difference: the shift in tone from (mostly) comedy to (mostly) drama, and the unique way this allowed the characters to feel like real people.
People with flaws, like me.
I find it so compelling: These long, serial works that start off informal and goofy and take some time to start exploring their potential for more serious themes. The characters are much more fully realized, complex and fallible than characters in a work that’s conceived from the start as a serious and profound story.
The characters in Homestuck and in TAZ: Balance can be mean, petty, cruel, selfish and vain. They cheat and steal, tell lies, torment their friends, and in the end, they save their universes.
It can be difficult to understand these stories if your basis for analysing characters is “heroes and villains.” A year or so before Homestuck ended, I read an article explaining why Vriska Serket was the best villain of the year. She’s a great character and a shitty person, for sure, but I don’t agree she’s a villain.
I have heard the McElroys express confusion that their listeners have a hard time reconciling some characters’ actions with their status as protagonists, specifically Magnus and Lucretia. Listeners commented that Magnus is a Good character and “wouldn’t do” some of the things he did, or that Lucretia is a villain because she erased the memories of the other crew members of the Starblaster.
But these characters aren’t Good or Bad. In terms of morality, they’re normal, average people. (Well, Vriska is morally average for her society.) At the same time, they’re heroes. Not based on the totality of their actions or on their personalities, but because of a few high-impact actions.
Both Homestuck and TAZ: Balance reveal their ultimate villains to be rotten people who transformed themselves into almost elemental forces of pure destructive nihilism that threaten all of existence. In opposition to such a threat, being a hero isn’t about being pure and righteous, it’s about affirming life and showing up to defend it.
This is a great villain for a serial work with a tone shift from farcical to serious, because it’s plausible for any person in any situation to want to resist the destruction of everything that is. It also allows these characters, who were not necessarily designed to grapple with moral and existential issues, to explore the boundaries of their ethics and beliefs.
“Remember when we saw The Neverending Story? It was a scroll we looked at. It was a moving scroll. It was a great scroll. There was that thing, the Nothing, remember? This is just like that.”
A character who is sometimes rotten and sometimes good because their creator decided only later that their actions would have moral weight has something uniquely valuable to tell us about grappling with past misdeeds and persistent flaws.
I don’t think most formally published and edited stories would be able to portray such complexity. They might edit out the heroes’ bad deeds or, in a serial story, recontextualize or retcon them away.
Or else these works might make it a moral journey: The character changes from being flawed to being heroic and regrets their bad deeds (if those deeds are ever addressed again). But this character type I like does good not to negate what they have done that’s bad, but to affirm goodness, and life, and hope.
TAZ: Balance doesn’t erase the times the Player Characters (PC’s) acted like stupid comedy jerks or like murderhobos. As the podcast goes on, the characters are confronted several times by NPC’s (Non-Player Characters) who directly bring up all their failures and bad deeds.
These NPC’s promoting defeatism, egomania, totalitarianism, and destructive nihilism interpret the PC’s actions through their respective worldviews and judge them as Bad, either to say “We’re not so different after all,” or just to insult them.
The players reject those worldviews, but, crucially, it’s not because they’ve changed and would never do wrong again. They reject the idea that their bad deeds mean they should die or join their enemies because they don’t believe that doing bad things precludes them from doing good things as well.
There are bad deeds and mistakes and evil in TAZ: Balance, but not sin, which damns a person from ever being good without penance.
And as a person who struggles every day to reject paralyzing hopelessness and perfectionism, I find that a profoundly comforting story.
Of course, we see big threats and bad people doing good in all sorts of stories, all the time. The most common way you get this sort of thing in a more traditional story is with a Bigger Jaws plot. Characters who were previously villains are now on the side of good. Sometimes they experience redemption and reject their past deeds, sometimes not.
It doesn’t hit home for me, not in the same way.
Antagonists who were created to later be redeemed are often good all along, they don’t do anything really very bad. They certainly don’t do anything bad after they turn good.
And villains who become so popular and well-liked they’re added to the main roster of heroes in a series have the opposite problem: they’ve done so many horrible, intentionally evil things that it’s hard to comprehend how the other characters tolerate them.
Sometimes villains are redeemed by dying or sacrificing their lives, which also doesn’t teach us anything of value about how to recover from feelings of self-hatred and low worth.
There’s a nobility to these villains and antagonists. They commit evil, but they’re rarely petty, careless, or incompetent. If they are, they’re all the less likely to be redeemed or turn good. Likewise, heroes, even or especially antiheroes or those who are hiding some dark secret, rarely suck in any meaningful way, unless the plot revolves around how they improve.
None of this is inspiring like a character who is simultaneously capable of goodness and heroism and also is kind of a shitty person.
Airplanes are great. They’re engineered to fly, and fly well. But a car that takes flight–that’s something entirely different.
Vriska Serket is probably my favorite character in Homestuck, and, okay, maybe I’ve had a big bi crush on her since forever. I like mean ladies, sue me.
Bias aside, I think it’s fair to say that Vriska is a hero in Homestuck.
She’s also rotten and bad and mean for almost all of it.
When Vriska is introduced, she’s made a habit of using her gifts of wit and luck and psychic powers to dominate and manipulate and murder people, including her friends.
Those are the things that make her seem villainous, but there’s more to her character. Things that make her seem less like a noble villain than like an asshole teen who would spit in your ear and gloat about it. She cheats at games. She mocks her friends’ disabilities, steals credit for things she didn’t do, gets bored and impatient. She doesn’t clean her room and then throws a fit in her opening scene when she steps on a four-sided die.
It’s hard to overstate how scummy she is. It’s comical! At the most basic level, she’s a few spider puns and pop-culture references thrown together.
By the end of the story, she has not really become a Good Person. She doesn’t repent for her past deeds and she’s still pretty much doing all that same stuff, including the petty stuff. Even an alternate version of her is appalled at her callousness and rudeness. But Vriska shows up to affirm life and defend it.
I think most other stories would have had such a character either side with nihilism or stop doing the bad things she does. It’s challenging, the idea of having a heroic character who’s bad in a way that’s not really cool or appealing the way a cooly, edgy anti-hero is.
But I like her. And I could have talked about almost any character in Homestuck this way. They’re funny and gross and weird and bad. And they’re people, who remember the things they’ve experienced over the four years the comic goes on. The things we’ve experienced with them. They’ve lived full, rich lives, made mistakes, changed for the worse and for the better.
I’ve had depression for almost half my life, although I didn’t know it. I just thought I was a shitty person. Greedy, lazy, envious, messy. When you hate yourself, it’s hard to see anything recognizable in a hero or even a villain. There’s nothing noble about shirking your chores because you were already exhausted just from getting out of bed or being on the edge of tears because someone else was praised and you weren’t.
But joke characters are like that. And a villain who is redeemed, an antagonist who joins the Good team, an anti-hero or a hero with one big regret in their past can all be fascinating and appealing, but they simply can’t tell the same type of story as a character who was invented for a gag shouldering the yoke of heroism without changing who they are.
The lesson I draw from these stories is this: To do good, one doesn’t have to be clean of doing bad. Every moment you can choose to do good or bad, and while you can always face consequences for doing bad no matter how long ago that was or how little you thought it mattered (And these characters do, they develop enemies and regrets and damaged reputations), you can still choose to do good the next moment, or the next.
Vriska is a protagonist the whole time, but she becomes a heroic character when her self-assuredness and grandiosity are what’s needed.
The PC’s in TAZ: Balance become heroes by rising to a challenge when no one else can.
They don’t have to go through some penance or punishment before they can do it, they just do it.
I've spent so much time agonizing over my mistakes and slights and failures. How many chances to do something good have I missed in that time? I'll never be a perfect person, but I don't need to be. I can do something good and worthwhile just as I am.