Forum:More writing feedback: How far can I push the world without breaking it?

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So in my superhero fiction, the early villains are Mostly Harmless. Sure, they fight the heroes and commit crimes, but they don't kill anyone, don't even seriously injure anyone, and the villains are all portrayed as sympathetic to at least some degree; some very much so. But I'm coming up on the part where the big villain, the one who's been planning and lurking in the background, is ready to make his move. He's not harmless or sympathetic at all. People are going to die. Lots of them.

I want this villain's attack to be one of those catastrophic events like the Asian tsunamis, but even more so. Where everyone on the planet has a similar experience, not just to 9/11 or even being an American on 9/11, but to living in Manhattan on 9/11. Until the villain is defeated, everyone thinks they might die at any minute. An enormous cost in lives, sanity, confidence, etc. that sets the stage for enormous societal change in the aftermath.

But I don't want to push society so far it basically breaks and you get Mad Max, or the US dissolving, or anything THAT big (I'm saving that for another big story later down the line). Society shaken but not splintered. The entire attack basically takes place in one day.

So I was just wondering if any of you had any advice on how traumatic could I reasonably make this without things becoming TOO different when it's all said and done? Thanos6 (talk) 04:51, 6 December 2014 (UTC)

I think you're trying to write the story backwards. You have a preconceived reaction, and you're looking for an event that would provoke said reaction. It's like deciding from the outset the size and shape of the ripples you want in the pond... and are now trying to figure out what size stone would cause that. --Inquisitor (talk) 05:14, 6 December 2014 (UTC)
It's fiction, he can plan things all out of order if he wants. To the original question, how about a widespread psychic attack or making the Yellowstone super-volcano erupt?--TiaC (talk) 06:02, 6 December 2014 (UTC)
I know they can plan it in any order they want, but I personally like to start with the catalyst and see where the reaction goes. In my experience it's easier to keep the narrative more cohesive and consistent that way. Anyway, as for the original question of how far things can be pushed without irrecoverably breaking society... that would depend largely on how society is portrayed leading up to the Big Event. Most crises would be weathered rather easily by an otherwise happy and stable society. But if tensions were already running high, and there already was a lot of civil unrest... then it wouldn't take much for things to boil over. --Inquisitor (talk) 07:48, 6 December 2014 (UTC).
I usually "write in reverse"; I come up with one scene or often even just one line of dialogue and then wonder "OK, how do I get to there?"
The world will be basically our world but in the Not Too Distant Future, plus some fairly low-level heroes and villains; nothing nearly as powerful as Superman, for example. Compared to our Earth, society is socially more liberal (LGBTs, for example, are completely accepted even in the Bible Belt and polyamorous marriages are the great debate) but economically more conservative (thanks to the villain manipulating things).
I know what the event is--nanobots, the purely comicbook kind that bear little resemblance to actual reality, have been secretly distributed throughout the world and when it's time, they form into human-sized conglomerates that start killing anyone and everyone they can find. (If you're wondering how that could service the villain's goal, that IS the goal; he's an ultra-sadist whose great dream is to inflict pain on every other living thing). My original plans for the idea called for a seven-figure death toll around the globe before the heroes were finally able to stop him, but now I think that might be too high, which is why I'm asking for feedback.Thanos6 (talk) 07:59, 6 December 2014 (UTC)
Out of curiosity, what format would you be writing this for? --Inquisitor (talk) 08:20, 6 December 2014 (UTC)
Prose. Each "issue" is a chapter. I have the first 10 actually written out, with a basic outline planned up through at least 100. Thanos6 (talk) 08:23, 6 December 2014 (UTC)
That seems a little...impractical? I mean, if you have enough to do that, why not distribute them in the water supply and have them morph people who drink it into horrible killing machines all The Thing style? You'd get more killing per mass of magic nanobots that way.
It does bring up the question of how such an unhinged individual would acquire any amount of power to begin with, though. You should probably try to give him a slightly more relatable motive than "I want to hurt people because pain." King Skeleton (talk) 01:11, 8 December 2014 (UTC)
Because he's not obviously unhinged. He tortured animals when he was a child, then his parents caught him. And then he learned his most important lesson: don't get caught. So he's been suppressing his murderous urges for decades, sublimating them into "socially acceptable" forms of sadism like hostile takeovers. But now his grand plan is about to bear fruit, and he can finally be exactly who he is, and make the world tremble. Thanos6 (talk) 11:57, 8 December 2014 (UTC)
I would actually tone it down a little bit, of course it really depends on the sort of feel you're going for but often I find that villains who are excessively evil are less intriguing. When I think of the most iconic superhero/comic book villain I can think of, The Joker, I feel that he doesn't really have such universal destructive power (He's often a problem for Gotham but less so much the world as a whole). In my opinion that's also why Superman and Lex Luther are inherently less interesting than superheros who generally limit themselves to one city, all characters need to feel somewhat vulnerable and flawed, even villains (unless you really want to go for a sense of dread, a sort of horror story approach, but in that case I think it's generally best to not reveal too much about your villain at all).
Of course from an analytical standpoint it is a very interesting problem. I might even try to do a calculation to see what percentage of society could die while still sustaining society as we know it. Personally I imagine that even some of the most destructive events imaginable may leave society relatively in tact.Samstr (talk) 01:02, 8 December 2014 (UTC)
I don't think you really mean Lex Luthor, he's a completely normal human who happens to be smart and have a lot of money. People often say villains like him who don't have superpowers are interesting because it means the author has to make them do things that are actually intelligent to challenge the heroes rather than just pull powers out of their ass as with mega-villains like Apocalypse who sometimes fall prey to "nuh-uh, my power counters your power" silliness.
It's the same reason the T-1000 in Terminator 2 is a more interesting villain than the T-X in Terminator 3; T3 just runs off a list of powers, while T2 tells us everything the T-1000 can't do and then has it work within those limits in clever ways. King Skeleton (talk) 01:17, 8 December 2014 (UTC)
Unfortunately there tends to be a trend in modern American storytelling that equates "epic/large/more" with "good/exciting". If the crisis or villain can be inflated to large enough proportions, then it simply must be a great story, right? A good story can be told about a hero trying to save their dog... it's doesn't have to be the entire planet/universe in peril. --Inquisitor (talk) 01:32, 8 December 2014 (UTC)
Subtle always seems more scary to me. Maybe you could have the nanobots be realistic(ish) as opposed to going grey goo? I think that a massive medical crisis (e.g. the people who this guy doesn't like are going insane or having their arteries slowly eaten away by tiny robots) would scare everyone but not make society collapse. Everyone is at risk, or thinks they are (like in NY on 9/11), but it doesn't seem real enough to make them run around looting everything. (Agrajag (talk) 03:37, 8 December 2014 (UTC))
I know exactly what powers the villain has, or should I say, will have--he has none at the current point in the story. In fact, to start with he basically is the Lex Luthor "evil corporate executive type" who plans and schemes. The Big Event happens when all his schemes pay off and he finally gains the powers he's been craving. Then he uses them to fight the heroes and other villains, keeping them busy so they can't stop his nanobots. Speaking of nanobots, they aren't grey goo; when they're activated, they basically do a Voltron/Megazord and merge into a humanoid figure that starts killing everyone in sight, with the added paranoia that since they're microscopic in their base form, they could appear anywhere at anytime. I want the climax to have two action scenes at once; the heroes and villains fighting the main villain together, while simultaneously the supporting cast I've introduced are fighting against the nanobots and trying to find someway to stop them without needing the heroes. Thanos6 (talk) 11:47, 8 December 2014 (UTC)
Yeah Lex Luther was a bad example, I don't really read any DC comics (or many comics at all for that matter.) Now that you gave a more concrete description of what he does I think that the nanobots could work fairly well in this story. Not to change your story, but I would give him only partial control over the nanobots or limit his control in some other way but that isn't really important. Also @Inquisitor I could not possibly agree more especially in terms of modern cinema. I think its ok to use a save the world plot once in a while, but it tends to make the movie less serious. I think it works for a popcorn flick (although its even possible to do wrong here) but not every movie should be a popcorn flick.Samstr (talk) 22:07, 8 December 2014 (UTC)
Yeah, he doesn't have much direct control over them once they're active. That's one of the things that helps the supporting characters beat them; since their programming is pretty limited they can outsmart them. Thanos6 (talk) 09:12, 9 December 2014 (UTC)