The Sarah Kerrigan
Who Never Was
Saturday, March 3, 2018
The original StarCraft premiered in 1998. Those of you who knew me back in the day might have expected me to be a big fan. But I never was. That's because I never played it. Our family computer wouldn't have been able to run it, and, either way, prior to college I don't remember if I even knew it existed. I'm virtually certain I would have loved the game as a whole, and, when it comes to gem video games that could well have shaped the course of my life, StarCraft is one of many boats I missed.
Indeed, had I played that game when it came out, or in the year or two afterwards, I think there's a good chance it would have been one of the most formative influences of my life. And, epic story and gameplay and grandiose settings aside, this is almost entirely because of the story and character of Sarah Kerrigan.
Or, rather, it's tempting to say that. The truth is that it's hard to know that for certain.
I knew of Kerrigan all through the 2000s, and I took an interest in her—as I tended to do with any ambitious and powerful female characters I came across. I'd had a Celtic history class in college and thought her name was a riff on the Morrigan, an ancient war goddess whose name means "great queen." I didn't know that Kerrigan was actually named after the figure skater, as a joke, as a rival company had a game with a character named Tanya [sic]. And so, on my false association, I thought the name was richly chosen and apt.
In that first game (and its expansion), Kerrigan starts out as a high-ranking special ops agent and the second-in-command of a power-hungry secessionist named Galav—er, Arcturus Mengsk—who wants to rule all of humanity. (Although unlike our beloved Gally, he's plainly an evil politician.) He betrays her of course, leaving her to be mutilated and transformed into the most powerful servant of humanity's greatest enemy, the Zerg (kekeke!). In this role she is a total badass and imposes herself upon everyone. In her own words she becomes the "Queen Bitch of the Universe," and I love it.
But since I never actually played the game, I missed out on experiencing all of this firsthand back in the late 1990s when it would have mattered most, and also through the 2000s, for in those days one couldn't simply go to YouTube to watch gameplay footage and cutscenes. So, once I did learn of her, all I really had was what I read, which is a bit bland on its own, plus a few still images.
In the sequel, StarCraft II—the first episode of which actually premiered on my birthday in 2010 (after an agonizing twelve-year wait for fans)—Kerrigan is a lot more hit or miss from a tonal perspective (and I think Tricia Helfer as Kerrigan's new voice actor did a poor job of evoking the character's range), but Kerrigan's character arc and power level are still incredible. She overthrows the order of the galaxy, kills Mengsk at last, and ends up putting her first apotheosis to shame by becoming a literal god and defeating the Big Bad and changing the course of the destiny of life in the universe as we know it. That's laying it on pretty thick, and I love it. And my younger self would have really loved it.
I didn't play StarCraft II either—even though I was right next to it, as I was staying at Zephyr's house around this time, and she was a huge fan of the game and got it on release day. But I just didn't tune in. (In my defense I had other things going on at the time, being evicted and preparing to leave Washington and all that. Plus I had a longstanding policy of avoiding potential game addictions, as game addiction was a problem for me when I was younger, mainly because it took time away from my own creative production.)
Instead, it was only a little over a week ago, that my YouTube surfing serendipitously took me to a video of Kerrigan's complete storyline, including all her cutscenes. Only now, therefore, in 2018, do I understand what I missed.
But I will never know what I missed, developmentally—what impact it would have had on me as a blooming teenager coming into his own. In a crude sense Kerrigan is similar to what I have tried to accomplish with my own powerful female character archetype over the years, from After The Hero onward, and it's quite possible that StarCraft, rather than Ocarina of Time, would have become the game that set me on my destiny, had I played it in those days. Kerrigan could have become an extraordinary muse for me. But that Sarah Kerrigan, never came to be.
One of the most obvious themes in my writing is a penchant for the aforementioned powerful, ambitious female characters. Most storytellers (of any sex) don't dwell on this the way I do. But this wasn't always a hallmark of mine. When I was a child, my daydreaming and storytelling vantage point was almost always a male character. Oftentimes it was literally me. There were a few exceptions, like my rich Lisa Simpson headcanon, but they were the exceptions. Then, at the age of seventeen, something inside me changed. Fellow cast members actually got to see this happen with ATH the RPG, which began with Galavar at the center of my attention and ended with Silence at the center. Silence was my first female avatar, and since then there has almost never been another male one. My avatars are basically always female, and (like the male ones before them) they're almost always built around power and ambition—sometimes muted (like with Afiach Bard), and just about always of the introverted variety—that quiet person who can walk into a bar almost unnoticed, and you'd have no idea you were in the presence of a demigod—but power-seeking and ambitious never the less.
I'm still not entirely sure what I find so compelling about characters of this type who are specifically female. The ambition and power stuff, I get. But the sex, not necessarily. I've speculated on this over the years, and my best guess is that it's a projection of my desired mate—that, once I became my own person, I no longer needed to dwell in myself and instead began to dream about my mythic "other half." But I'm far from certain, and there are many other possibilities:
The most obvious alternative is libido. Many male storytellers who have this fixation just really obviously need to get laid. And I note that Kerrigan's physical model and costume in StarCraft II, and the cinematography featuring it, are blatantly a platform for Tits & Ass [TM]. It's the opposite of subtle; the camera angles are thirsty as fuck, and she has one of those costumes that would be physically impossible unless it were body paint. Even to me, as someone who has no taste for moon-sized breasts and outright detests catsuits, Kerrigan, particularly in her human form, is very attractive. She even has red hair and light eyes before her transformation.
But I'd like to think there's more to my fixation than pure sex. I do know that one of the less visible themes in my writing—but one that is very important to me—is the theme of powerful people needing other powerful people around them to "push against"—to provide substance and depth. More poetically, it's the theme that says it's very lonely to be at the top. It has never been enough for me to be great; I need great people in my life. And once you understand that about me, the theme becomes much more apparent in my work. The fact that I create fiction at all, with its imagined greatness, is a testament to this. And, perhaps getting back to my underlying desires for mateship, for me this substance that I so desire in others has a lot more gravity when it comes in the form of a lover. My two former girlfriends are, not coincidentally, the two people I have related to best over the course of my life so far. And that is despite some very stiff competition from close male friends of times past. I think others sometimes have this idea, because it shows up in our storytelling sometimes, like the way Lanfear invites Rand, or Kylo Ren invites Rey, to join them in ruling the world, with mateship being implied in that offer.
Alternatively, maybe the switch to female avatars was a subconscious realization on my part that I am non-gendered, leaving my gynosexual orientation to tilt the balance of my focus in favor of females.
Or, perhaps, my female character fixation is a reflection of my impulse for sexual equality. Without rehashing the history of female empowerment over the course of the Industrial Revolution till the modern day, or dwelling on the variety of individual human behavior in any generation, it can be said as a general matter of fact that scarcely if ever in human history have females been depicted so powerfully, in the manner of male power, as they have been since the 1990s. Characters like Kerrigan were trailblazers almost without historical precedent. Every generation has had its own take on "femininity" and "womanhood," but before our lifetimes humanity as a whole has never been able to conceive of females as possessing male potential—not on any scale that has survived in our art or historical records, with only a few aberrant exceptions over thousands of years. Once upon a time I thought that gods like Athena and, yes, the Morrigan, proved that there were moments in our history where at least a few people understood that female potential equals male potential, but with further study I came to realize that the existence of "battle-goddesses" and the like were not actually intended by their creators and believers as expressions of sexual equality. And this has always driven a stake in my brain: My powers of observation tell me of female equality as plainly as they tell me of daylight, but humanity has behaved as though it weren't true, virtually monolithically, up till only a generation ago. That is a deep paradox indeed, and a maddening one, and fuels considerable artistic energy and expression on my part. Indeed, perhaps this explanation is as compelling as the "projection of my mate" one I mentioned at first.
Or who knows? Maybe it's something else altogether. I have no answers today.
Regardless, Kerrigan falls right on the centerline of my interest in powerful female characters, and back when I was younger—and less nuanced—the sheer conspicuousness and conventionality of her power would have been particularly compelling to me. When the first StarCraft premiered, there had been no female characters up to that point in my life who hit the notes of power and ambition and competence and ruthlessness so purely. Not even close. The female inspirations that fed into the development of Silence Terlais were much less impressive than Kerrigan: Many of them got much less screentime, were way more "womanly," or had to die because powerful female characters aren't allowed to use their power and live. But Kerrigan...time and again in the StarCraft games Kerrigan forges her own destiny in life—and life doesn't make it easy for her. Yet rather than dwelling excessively on her physical, emotional, and psychological suffering (though StarCraft II does indulge in this rather more than appeals to me), and rather than needing a male character to rescue her and lead her (though StarCraft II does a little too much of this as well), the progression of the story sees Kerrigan generally maintaining her steely resolve, giving no quarter to her enemies, and acting on her own imagination and initiative. And her apotheosis at the end of both games subverts the common trope of powerful female characters needing to sacrifice themselves in order to "atone" or "restore balance" some bullshit like that. (Again, StarCraft II almost blunders this—Kerrigan even specifically says that she's got blood on her hands and needs to atone—but in the end her resolution in the story lands just barely on the good side of the equation. And, sure, it means we won't be seeing her again, but then again the rest of the StarCraft storyline is over, too. They did one spinoff after StarCraft II and basically called the series done.) She's an exquisitely pure example of the powerful female character exemplar.
Had I played StarCraft when it was new, Kerrigan would have come into my life either right before, or during, my transition to a female-centric fantasy storytelling vantage point. It would have been explosive.
Well, not for certain, I suppose. After all, it's hard to step back into the mind of the seventeen-year-old Josh. StarCraft might not have hit that magic note. The slimy yucky Zerg stuff might have put me off, as that kind of thing was never really my aesthetic. And I've never been a fan of T&A catsuits, like I said. And there're a million other variables that could have muddied my reception of StarCraft at the time. But I honestly do suspect that she would have blown Teenage Josh's mind and became a major obsession and inspiration. Indeed, even without ever having played the games, I've kept a low-level interest in her all these years, and even today—where I am much more nuanced in my perception of what "power" is, and don't need it presented to me so bluntly—I still find her character really compelling. She gets dealt a shit hand in life, takes on everybody, and wins. She suffers no comeuppance for this. No punishment for flying too close to the sun. She beats the stuffing out of everyone. At one point three whole fleets come at her and her swarm, and you can just feel the Fates trying to impose karma by defeating her, but she devastates them all. Nothing can stop her. She's so strong and strong-willed; she's the most powerful character in the game, and female no less, and gets away with it. This flies in the face of the gravity fields of our customs and tropes, and I love it. And it's a character type very close to my own spark, and I love that too.
I mentioned that StarCraft is, albeit crudely, very similar to my own goal with female avatars in my writing. But what is that goal, exactly, and what is the similarity?
My female avatars—that is to say, the powerful, ambitious female characters who are extremely capable, strong-willed, and sovereign—have similar milestones in their arcs. They're always, without exception, intelligent to the point of brilliance, like I myself am. Unlike me, they're almost always physically strong and at least somewhat competent in self-defense or combat. The strongest, like Silence, are peerless in their martial prowess, but even the weakest, like Afiach, can defend themselves at least basically well against robbers and rapists and so on. They're insatiably curious, like me, whereas, to my envy, they are far more proactive and bold than I.
As a part of their power-centered nature, they inevitably have some kind of vision. Again in superlative instances like Silence's, this vision is as grandiose as the designs of gods. But even in humbler instances, there is a recognition of wanting power and wanting to use power. This is, of course, a common human aspiration, and, as in the real world, my characters don't typically talk about their vision in terms of "wanting power," but instead cultivate power structures for themselves in the world of society—Afiach as a bard; Cherry (from my Star Trek Ripoff) as a starship captain; and so on. Wherever their passions lie—and they are always passionate—they take one or more of these passions and draw forth the potential power within it. They become experts or legends in their field, famous or infamous. (And when they don't, as in Afiach's case, there are specific plot reasons at work.) They tend to have zealous admirers and zealous detractors. They are instigators; they compel change around them, like the powerful beings they are. They bend the world to their will, oftentimes without even intending to do so. Their gravity warps everyone's reality.
In StarCraft, Kerrigan is betrayed early on, and undergoes a hellish and hideous transformation. This isn't as universal in my work, though there are parallels in some cases. However, there is a motivation underlying Kerrigan's transformation that does, indeed, express itself in my avatars: adversity. I've never written a female avatar who didn't have to wade through the seven seas of shit. Silence's backstory is horrific, and events that happen to her later in ATH are even more horrific. Afiach is literally mangled in Mate of Song and spends most of the book fleeing from the paragon of death. Cherry suffers from crippling existential discouragement and depression. And the character in my forthcoming standalone book, who is based on the MTG character Nahiri, struggles with a profound sense of aloneness and loss. Because their powers of perception are so different, so weird, so outside the norm, most of my avatars are written as some flavor of crazy. I openly and favorably describe Silence with words like "predator" and "sociopath," even in the Prelude.
I've always done this in some form, even when I was younger and writing male avatars. I remember making characters go crazy, making them suffer through agonizing fevers, blah, blah, blah. Maybe I'm just deeply sadistic, but what I really think it is is an expression of some of the mental illness I struggled with when I was young. I've spoken a lot about my hardships over the last three years, especially in contrast to the calm and smooth adulthood preceding it, but back when I was a kid I had other issues. None of them were debilitating the way the modern stuff is, but they created perceptual and experiential spaces for me like nothing else in waking existence—comparable only to dreams. Different ways of being, of feeling. I had a strong touch of bipolar when I was a kid, and the acute depressive episodes—which sometimes lasted only a few minutes, and rarely more than a couple hours—were intense and black like nothing else, and in those moments I would want others to hurt me through abandonment and neglect; I would feel good in imagining it, the way certain tooth pain feels good inside its context of also feeling really bad. I think that has expressed itself in torturing my characters in various ways that bring them to a similar point. And to see it reflected in so many female characters (and male ones) who aren't created by me, like Kerrigan, tells me something about the commonality of human experiences
(It also tells me of something that I do not share in common with many others: In many cases where other storytellers specifically target female characters for suffering, I think it says something about the sexual dynamics of our species and the misogynistic subjugation variant that exists in some male psyches. I wonder if Kerrigan may actually be an instance of the latter, in which case it wouldn't be so kindred, but I don't really know, and I suppose there's little point in speculating. At any rate, I am thankful not to suffer that particualr affliction.)
Overwhelming victory is another theme common to both Kerrigan and my own female avatars—not only against internal struggles but external ones too. Despite numerous setbacks and defeats, their overall arc is a victorious one. I never write a female avatar arc as a tragedy unless I have a specific intention to that relates to the purpose of the story. By default, my characters win something significant in the end, with lesser wins along the way, even in full spite of their radical expressions of power. Kerrigan, in her story, earns many enemies for herself—usually a fatal character flaw in storytelling, for when one person explodes too violently, and makes too many enemies and becomes too strong, storytellers cannot resist replying with an alliance: these enemies will all join together in union to retaliate. Kerrigan commits this mistake, yet she is powerful enough to defeat even all of her numerous enemies combined. That's incredibly appealing to me, and in some form or another it almost always marks the arcs of my own avatars. Though, I'm not usually so direct, because I don't typically write storylines as blunt as StarCraft's—and for all the praise I'm giving the StarCraft games today, their writing quality and story premises are actually kind of low. One of the biggest exceptions, After The Hero itself, casts Galavar in this "overwhelming victor" role, and, as it would turn out, Galavar only just barely made it in under the line. A year later and he would have probably been a female character.
There's a special case of victory that tends to mark the culmination of my avatars' story arcs, which also underscores the purpose of these avatars' and arcs' existence, and that is the trope of their ultimate apotheosis. In the Star Trek Ripoff, Cherry becomes a living legend with extensive control over the fleet. Silence creates the Sineish Dsagan almost straight out of the gate, in Book I, and I am not even going to tell you what she does later on. Afiach ends up mastering her power of song and learning its nature. These characters, in some way, shape, or form, come to exist as flesh-and-blood demigods living among mortals. Even if their power is extremely subtle, as Afiach's is, or essentially political rather than based in mystical energy, as in Cherry's case, it is world-transforming nevertheless. And that's what happens to Kerrigan: First as the Queen of Blades, and then at the end as a literal god, she achieves apotheosis.
But why apotheosis? Why do my characters of this archetype always go in that direction? Because that is perhaps my most fundamental compulsion of all: When I conceive of any storyline, and any character running it, the first dramatic culmination I'll drift toward is "one who achieves all that is achievable." This compulsion primely informs my obsession with the theme of power, and it serves as a strange kind of logical placeholder to a question that applies to me and even to all of you in real life: What's the point? Everyone has to come up with their own answer to that question. My answer has always tended to be "Have every experience; achieve every perspective. To do this, develop power beyond my imagining, in the expectation that, therein, lies the possibility for finding a perfect answer." I crave omnipresence and in other words this trope is an admission on my part that, although I don't have a satisfying answer to the impossibility of omnipresence, I am satisfied in saying that power is the road to proving "impossibility" wrong and actually reaching it. I, myself, am content to imagine that, across the threshold of near- or demi- or pseudo- or flat-out-literal divinity, there are answers and explanations that, for now, can only glitter in my mind like the stars—every bit as tantalizing and unreachable.
I'm not gonna get there myself. I'm a schmoe, and storytelling and "logical placeholders" are all I've got. But, in my stories, and in the impenetrable glittering glow of knowledge beyond my imagination, I find satisfaction and, more importantly, drive.
What Will Never Be
It would be interesting if I had a box that let me look into other timelines, so that I might see what became of me and my storytelling had I played StarCraft at the end of the '90s. Alas, I never will. I can't even imagine it—not with any fidelity. But I can think about it.
Sarah Kerrigan is a special one. These days there are others like her; it isn't so unprecedented anymore. There are characters who do it better. And my own characters, especially Silence, do it a lot better. But when I look at Kerrigan now, I have a great fondness anyway. This character could have changed my life, and even simply to be able to perceive this, is itself a gift. She would have made a great Ur-Silence.
And it's good, I think, to get back to the basics sometimes, and look back to an era before my comprehension of power was as subtle and nuanced as it now is, and just simply exult in a raw, vicious character who kicks everyone's ass and gets everything she wants: the Queen Bitch of the Universe. It's not a phrase I would ordinarily use myself; there's a heavy load on the word bitch. But, today, I'll go along with it. =]
Tune in next week when I share some news that's going to affect the production schedule.
Until then, may you too find wistful but gracious satisfaction in glimpsing shadows and sunbeams from the greatness that might have been, somewhere down a road not taken.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!