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The Write Stuff: Plot-convenient Villains and Sidekicks.

By David Flin



We’ve all seen it. The plot requires something to happen, and the villain or a sidekick duly obliges with the necessary actions to bring it about, regardless of whether or not it is in character. The hero needs a widget, and that widget has been introduced, and the author doesn’t want to spend much time on getting the widget, so the owner just hands it over without a word of protest or argument or even haggling.

Sometimes it’s not just characters who behave oddly. Sometimes nations act oddly, because “the plot requires it.”

Exhibit 1. A surviving Confederate States of America. Perhaps one of the most common tropes in AH is a CSA that manages to secede during the ACW. However, the author doesn’t want to have to deal with all that slavery and racism stuff, so as if by magic, before the ink is dry on the treaty with the USA, the President of the CSA announces that the slaves will not be slaves anymore, but respected workers, and everyone is happy with this.

Obviously, the European Powers accept this, and there’s never any problems within the Confederacy. Mere facts like slavery being enshrined in the proposed Constitution just disappear, because it’s inconvenient for the plot.

There are exceptions: CSA All the Way, by Wm Garret Cothran avoids this issue. It would be giving away no secrets to reveal that in this book, the issues of racism in the Confederate States doesn’t simply magically disappear.

That’s the key: maintaining consistency. If Darth Vader were to start cracking jokes and exchanging witty banter with his subordinates, people might question the plausibility.

Exhibit 2: Triumphant Nazi Germany. Despite the gangster-like infighting at the top of the hierarchy, despite the shambolic nature of the economy, it’s a common trope for Hitler to conveniently die, and for someone (usually Rommel) to take over without anyone contesting this, and for the regime to suddenly became hyper-efficient, with all the genocide removed and forgotten about, and they sweep aside all their hapless opponents.

It’s nonsense on stilts, of course, but it appeals to a certain sort of person.

These, however, are generally primary players in a Timeline. It’s worse when it’s the minor players.

Exhibit 3: A Japanese attack on Soviet Russia in late 1941. It’s almost a cliché. If you want Nazi Germany to do better in Operation Barbarossa against Soviet Russia, then having Japan attack Russia in the east is really useful. That’s Good News for Germany, and Bad News for the Soviet Union.

The trouble is, it’s hard to see what Japan gets out of this. Japan’s objective at this time was its war in China. It needed resources, especially oil and rubber. Oil and rubber were available from SE Asia, and not from Far East Russia.

The resource-rich areas of SE Asia were administered by western powers like Britain (battered and stretched and unable to defend their possessions), France (under German direction), and the Netherlands (under German occupation). None of these would be able to put up much resistance.

By contrast, the Soviet Union had significant forces in the region. There had been a clash in the region before, at Khalkhin Gol in 1939. In this, the Japanese forces were annihilated by the Soviet troops.

Furthermore, any attack against Far East Russia would be predominantly with the Japanese Army, which is heavily committed in the war in China. By contrast, an attack against SE Asia would largely involve the Japanese Navy, which was sitting around with not much to do.

It’s all a bit of a no-brainer. All you need to do is look at the decision-making process from the point of view of those making the decisions. It might be convenient for Germany were Japan to attack Russia, but it’s hard to see what Japan gets out of it.

Exhibit 4: Britain recognises the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Um, why? Oh, it would have been convenient for the Confederacy, but it’s hard to see what’s in it for Britain. The Confederacy would have been economically dependent on selling cotton, and the biggest buyer of cotton, by a huge margin, was Britain. Britain could get cotton from India and Egypt; it could strike pretty much what bargain it liked with the Confederacy.

Britain getting involved would put Canada at risk, for no discernible gain. Again, I ask: Why?

It’s sometimes mentioned that Britain, France, and Russia had been talking about coming to an agreement to offer mediation; that’s a long, long way from recognition, and anyone who seriously suggests that Britain was “on the verge of recognising the Confederacy” (and certainly after the Emancipation Proclamation) really doesn’t understand British politics of the period.

Even if we wave a magic wand, and say that the country that had taken steps to abolish the slave trade and slavery, the country of Wilberforce, would happily co-operate with an avowedly slave power that was proposing to re-establish the slave trade, there’s still a problem.

The Confederacy wanted and needed to expand in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, the Caribbean was considered vital to British interests, and it won’t be long before these come into conflict. Authors writing about any country whose existence is dependent on the goodwill of Britain really haven’t be paying attention to British foreign policy during the Imperial period.

What do countries actually do? Lord Palmerston said it best. “Nations have no permanent friends or allies. They only have permanent interests.”

That’s pretty much the summary. Nations, like people, will generally act in what they perceive to be their own interests. They may get it badly wrong; Japan’s decision to attack America during WW2 didn’t turn out as well as they might have thought, but it was in what they considered – at the time – to be their interest.

It’s really quite simple. When determining actions by a player, be it a person, a group, or a country, you need to look at it from their point of view, not from the point of view of someone else. Nations are people too.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow