This Picture – Writing the Other Side

They were actually BFFs off-screen.
They were actually BFFs off-screen.

I stumbled across this picture several months ago and loved it. I still think Aliens is toward the top of my favorite movies list. In addition to the slow build that everyone in the audience knew was coming, the movie had a lot to say about who the monsters really were. As Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) says, “You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.

Burke, Carter J. proceeds to run, leaving everyone to die horribly in the face of the Xenomorph onslaught. Of course he gets caught by an alien. There’s a scene in the book that shows (sorry, tells) him glued to the wall, waking up just in time for the egg in front of him to open and you know his death is going to be delightfully uncomfortable.

comeuppance

Comeuppance. Heck yeah.

In fact, you could make the argument that the true villain of the movie was really Burke and the Weyland/Yutani corporation all along. The aliens and Marines were just along for the ride and didn’t find each other’s company agreeable.

Anyway, back to the picture. It’s a still shot, probably from the production that shows our two heroines: the small, squishy one and the gloriously armored one. The alien queen gets a bad rap in the movie, but to be fair, she was as much a tragic hero as Ripley. I say tragic because, in the end, the alien queen fails and her children all die in fiery inferno.

Her tragedy comes down to motivations. It’s motivation that should drive a character. Even the bad guys have motivations for what they do and guess what? No matter how loathsome the bad guys may be, they all think their reasons are very good reasons for doing what they’re doing.

shocked

Don’t gasp. It’s true. We can all justify our actions at any given time. The reason for this is because we, as humans, are exceptionally good at lying to ourselves. Whatever it is we’re doing, we have managed to convince ourselves it is the correct thing to do.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, if you’re going to write the antagonist in the story you have to keep something squarely in mind: whoever the bad guy (or girl) is, they are doing what they’re doing because they think it’s the correct thing to do. Then you get to the really cool part: exploring those reasons. You may come to find that the reasons are noble, after all, just not in the context of the story you’re trying to tell.

Now, take another look at Aliens and examine the main actors in the movie. By my reckoning you’ve got three major players represented in the story.

  • The Marines (and Ripley)
  • The Weyland/Yutani Corporation (and Burke)
  • The aliens (and the Queen)

Every single one of them has a valid motivation for their actions. The Marines (and Ripley) want to do their jobs and go home. Those jobs include saving colonists and eliminating a threat. They’re attempting to realize that goal by killing all the aliens. The Company (Weyland/Yutani and its representative Carter J. Burke) wants to make profits for its employees and shareholders. It attempts to achieve its goal by bringing aliens back home. In their minds the value of the aliens as a study far outweighs both the hive and the lives of the Marines. The aliens simply want to live. They attempt to achieve their goal by capturing colonists and using them as both nurseries and food.

By putting all these groups with differing and mutually exclusive goals in one place you create our good buddy conflict. And you do it in such a way that the conflict becomes much more nuanced; now it becomes less like to say “So-and-so did x because he’s a big dumb jerk-face.” The parties in the conflict now have very valid reasons and, interestingly enough, the varying conflicts have become MECE.

mece

This means the resolutions for each possible outcome aren’t compatible with the other outcomes and at least one of the outcomes must occur. This is the nature of conflict. Let’s face it, it’s just not very fun if the conflict resolution is everyone just walking away.

In Aliens, there was no way that was going to happen, each party had a vested interest in their own goals. Most importantly, each party felt their goals were, in fact, not only attainable, but actually good things to do.

So, when you look at it that way, who’s the real villain? In the context of the movie it’s Burke and the aliens because the movie is ultimately about Ripley and the Marines. Told from another point of view, though, a struggling colony of aliens was wiped out by aggressors from beyond the stars or a potentially huge revenue stream was eliminated by shortsightedness.

Really look at your villains and you might see them in a different perspective. In my mind, the picture of the alien queen and Ripley will always be called “Two Lovely Ladies” because if you look hard enough, it’s pretty difficult to call either one of them a villain. It’s just that their goals contrary to each other.

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4 thoughts on “This Picture – Writing the Other Side

  1. This is a first-class piece of observation Eric. I’ve never seen Aliens – yes, the only man on the planet not to to have seen anything other than the trailers. It’s a good thing, because now that I’ve dabbled in writing sci-fi without any movie prompts, I might actually watch a couple of movies.
    Before I go on, I have to tell you something spooky. As I started to write this comment, of all the 4,000+ tracks on my music, what came on next? ‘War of the Worlds’. 🙂
    Anyway, back to your article. There are several vaiid points in there, but I reckon the one thing that hit me square, was the premise that even the protagonists believe their actions are being played out for good reason. I’ve always tried to portray such an idea, but now you’ve detailed it – I am seriously happy. Great post, and one I may come back to at some stage. 🙂

    1. The idea that even the bad guys are doing what they think is right was the genesis for Henchmen. I had to find something so awful that regular people wouldn’t try to do it, but something that was at least partially digestible. At the time I was writing it the US Congress approval ratings were dismal, so they seemed like a natural target.
      And I can’t believe you’ve never seen Aliens. You should go watch it right now. Please tell me you’ve at least seen Predator. 🙂

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