Homestuck and the Iliad produce the same kind of hero: a character whose existence within a narrative text informs their motives and self-perception. In this chapter, I will examine the structuring effect on the narrative of the hero’s desire for a literary identity. I argue that the personalities of heroes like Vriska and Achilles are narrative mechanisms which propel the forces of desire, conflict, and predetermination. The relationship of Achilles’ ‘heroism’ or ‘fame’ to the fatalism of the Iliad’s plot has troubled scholars who see a contradiction between the ‘greatness’ of his deeds and their apparent inevitability. Is Achilles truly responsible for his own actions and glory? By examining the character of Vriska Serket, I suggest that this is the wrong viewpoint through which to read the Achillean hero. Reading Vriska’s actions as merely predetermined does not account for her active choice in bringing them to pass or for her motivation in doing so. Her will to act is prior to the inevitability that she will do so, because her investment in her own role in the narrative is foundational to her character. I argue that the same can be said of Achilles. We cannot evaluate the autonomy of either character without examining their metatextual investment in the story.
There is a reciprocal relationship between the fatalism of Homestuck and the Iliad’s narratives and Vriska and Achilles’ intentions. Homestuck’s predetermined timeline relies on Vriska’s initiative in fulfilling its inevitabilities. She can view and communicate with the past and future through her computer and chooses to insert herself as the cause of events which, for her, have already occurred. Most notably, she creates Bec Noir, the villain of the comic’s first half by interacting with the past after she has already encountered him.2 Achilles shows a similar awareness of his role in the machinations of causality, even if he cannot bring about known inevitabilities as precisely as Vriska. He claims at 1.340 that the Achaeans will need him later, when he will be absent, but he orchestrates this eventuality actively rather than passively. Achilles does not simply remove himself from battle, but appeals to Zeus (the highest in-text narrative power) to instigate a much more dramatic chain of events. His special access to the all-knowing gods is what gives Achilles the choice to set in stone the nature of the one event he knows is absolutely inevitable: his own death. But just as Homestuck’s non-linear nature makes ‘future’ events the cause of those which preceded them, the existence of the Iliad as a generic text renders any other choice but to die in battle impossible for Achilles. Within the story, he may choose, but within the text he cannot. The poem is constructed around Achilles: it isolates an episode defined by the parameters of his behaviour from the tale of the war. The Iliad itself is the fulfilment of his desire for fame and poetic memorialisation; but memorialisation requires that the action recorded be prior to the record, and we know that Achilles’ choice to be remembered as a hero necessitates his death.3 The inevitability of his death, his desire for heroism, and the existence of the text itself are inextricable. As with Vriska, it is both difficult and reductive to pick apart this non-linear web in which desire and inevitability are one in order to ascribe a conventional definition of autonomy (or the lack of it) to the hero in question.
It is Vriska and Achilles’ desire for an identity defined by storytelling which embeds their wills within the narrative mechanism. Vriska ‘usurps’ Bec Noir’s creation because she “wanted to 8e the one responsi8le for cre8ting him,” in order to reap the glory of destroying him as well.4 She works to construct her persona as a ‘hero’ who saves her friends from evil. The deeds which Achilles enacts in the service of the traditional and unshakable events of the story, such as his killing of Hector, are done in order to construct his own heroic identity. His knowledge of the future is not as detailed as Vriska’s, but he fulfils the inevitability that he will win glory in battle because he desires fame and poetic memorialisation. Despite the inevitability of certain events, they are still caused by the heroes’ conscious intent. “Plots are not simply organising structures,” Brooks argues, “they are also intentional structures, goal-oriented and forward-moving.” Blocked desire stimulates this intention: it requires a deliberate ‘plotting’ of a path towards its fulfilment.5 This may be true of all narrative, but in our texts the heroes’ investment in ‘plotting the plot’ is particularly overt, since both desire an identity which only a particular generic narrative can construct.
This intentional ‘plotting’ also gives both heroes a special alignment with the author or poet of their texts. This is due not only to their shaping of the story, but also to the method by which they shape it. In his commentary on Homestuck, Hussie makes an interesting statement about villainy: “Villains in Homestuck tend to be metavillains. That is, they exist much closer to the surface of the story’s metabubble and often interact with the way it’s told.”6 This theory could well be applied to Vriska, although she is definitely not a villain: her actions are generally selfish, but her aim is not to oppose the other protagonists. Hussie inserts himself as a character in Homestuck who interacts mainly with its antagonists. Vriska views him through a special screen (Fig. 3.) at a point when she is being represented as most ‘villainous’: just before committing a cruel murder.7 Later, she is able to hear the narrative voice and tell where the focus of the story is, and mind-controls the author to bring it back to her.8 At this moment, her ‘heroism’ is being emphasised instead, but her role as a causer of conflict and plot is also prominent. It is likewise reductive and anachronistic to think of Achilles as a villain, but he too exhibits a special closeness to the poet and the author-like gods. His singing of the "κλέα ἀνδρῶν" ("fame of men") at 9.189 makes him the only hero aligned with the poetic voice of the Iliad, which does exactly that. He is also the first character to recite what has already been stated by the narrative voice, as he tells the story of the conflict foundational to the poem.9 This is common in Homestuck,10 usually indicating no particular metatextual awareness, and in the formulaic epic tradition it is a conventional feature. But its positioning so near the beginning of the poem and in the mouth of the character demarcated as most important, whether intentionally or not, encourages the audience to associate Achilles with the voice of the narrator. Scholars have also proposed that Achilles’ comparison of himself to a bird at 9.323 connects his speech to that of the poet’s, the only other voice in the text to use such similes.11 Interestingly, Martin connects his use of language here with that of other characters when they speak about augury.12 The link between Achilles’ voice and the poet’s is conflated with prophetic speech, special knowledge of the events of the story.
Fig. 3. Homestuck, pages 3068-9.
The Achillean hero’s alignment with the authorial voice is linked to their embodiment of the fundamental principle that conflict is necessary for plot. Hussie is not quite correct in naming villainy as the precondition of metatextual awareness: in both cases, the proximity of these characters to the author/poet derives not from their perceived morality, but rather from their objective roles as causers of conflict. Achilles spurs the plot of the Iliad into action by calling down death on the Greeks and victory on the Trojans,13 and Vriska knows well that her supposedly altruistic choice to fight Noir will cause her friends’ deaths.14 In the end, it causes her own, an event absolutely pivotal to Homestuck’s plot. Rather than a mere reflection of personality, inciting conflict is a crucial aspect of their role in the narrative structure. It is an authorial act, since narrative arises out of conflict, out of the gap between desire and fulfilment. This gap is usually shaped by the author into an opposing force which challenges the characters and prolongs the story. By opposing the desires of the protagonists, all villains act as the author does, but so do other characters who generate conflict and action. The fact that Achilles and Vriska do so for the sake of their textual identities means that they are even closer to creative figures behind the text: their wish is to construct and prolong a narrative about themselves. The motion of the plot is beholden to the trouble they cause, and it is thus that they embody the narrative mechanism. Rather than being confined by determinism, Vriska and Achilles’ will to act is a motive force complementary to its own.
The fundamental personality and worldview of the Achillean hero drives their actions as a force separate to narrative fatalism. Achilles and Vriska do not only desire a certain textual identity, but they are constructed as the sort of people who are prepared to do what it takes to get it. This, as we have seen, entails causing problems for themselves and others in order to move the plot in a certain direction. One concept introduced by Homestuck which seems relevant here is a certain kind of ‘luck’ associated with Vriska Serket. Hussie created Vriska as “the biggest troll” and an exploration of what meant: “being the most controversial.”15 Vriska’s role of ultimate conflict causer and the metatextual privileges which accompany this were the foundation of her existence. The concept of ‘heroic personality’ as a force prior to the hero’s actions in the story has been acknowledged by classicists: Schein argues that the gods aid heroes because they are already designated as ‘winners’, conferring glory rather than needed assistance.16 Hussie’s construction of and subsequent favouritism17 towards Vriska displays a similar process. Role-playing games are one of the central motifs of her arc:18 in such games, the statistics with which a character is created determine how well-adapted they are for its challenges. Her ‘luck’ is defined less by positive fortune and ongoing chance but rather by the suitability of her capacities and disposition to her environment: “There's always a 8ig 8ad 8ehind everything. A true gamer sees stuff like this coming a mile away,”19 she says. A character who sees the world as functioning like a game will thrive in a narrative universe which does exactly this, embodying the worldview of the setting. Vriska’s luck lies in being the character best suited to the story. Achilles’ perception of his life as an epic poem helps to define the Iliad as such: his understanding of the genre allows him to embody it in his actions. Both heroes are ‘lucky’ because of their understanding of storytelling and their willingness to accept the fulfilment of their desire for narrative importance on the texts’ generic terms. Vernant proposes that in tragedy, characters often act in accordance with their own desires and with those of the gods simultaneously,20 a theory of ‘autonomy’ which can also be applied to epic. This suggests an awareness in Ancient Greek literature of the idea that characters are fictional beings controlled by authorial forces, whose personalities and desires are ultimately designed to serve the needs of the narrative.
‘Heroic luck’ entails and describes the hero’s intentional plotting of their life as a narrative, which also has a structuring effect on the overall plot. The narrative consequences of Vriska’s self-insertion into Bec Noir’s rise to power are not felt so much in her immediate actions as in the reactions provoked in others. This event leads to Vriska’s death at the hands of Terezi, her dearest friend and greatest rival21 who sees villainy where she sees heroism. It is her subsequent quest for relevancy even in the afterlife that leads to Vriska’s discovery of the mechanism which enables her resurrection through the rewriting of the narrative itself, which saves the lives of the protagonists. Vriska’s desire for narrative importance is a fundamental mechanism of cause and effect embedded into the story in a similar way to Achilles’. Achilles makes sure that Agamemnon's actions have consequences: he could still have won his fame by killing Hector if he had backed down after their argument; but by removing himself from the narrative he shapes the text around his departure and return. His refusal to fight forces the Greeks to recognise his importance by creating a space through which they must struggle in order to meet their own desires.22 The absence of both heroes destabilises the plot. Things become uncertain and untidy until they return with their author-like will to structure, to tie the floundering ends of the story back together into a coherent ending.
Vriska and Achilles shape the plot by placing obstacles between other characters and their desires, but this is matched by the unattainability of the heroic ideal they aspire to themselves. The actions which constitute their ‘heroism’ are produced by their desire and drive to be perceived and recorded as such. According to Brooks, this desire to narrate one’s own life, to be recognised and seen, is “never wholly satisfied or indeed satisfiable,” and “continues to generate the desire to tell, the effort to enunciate a significant version of the life story in order to captivate a possible listener.”23 Desire cannot exist as a motive force unless it remains unfulfilled. This corresponds with the temporality of storytelling and the relation between ‘present’ action and future record. In Iliad one, Nestor introduces the idea of the bygone heroic past of the previous generation. He says he will never see men like them again.24 Vriska also spends much of her story imitating the persona of her dead ancestor, a notorious pirate whose image she finds it impossible to live up to. But the Iliad represents its present as an unattainable heroic past as well: the story of the Achaean wall situates it in history,25 and a repeated formula describes the inadequate strength of “οἷοι νῦν βροτοί εἰσ᾽” 26 ("the mortals who are (alive) now") in comparison to those in the tale. Heroism is intrinsically historical because it is born out of memorialisation, not present action. Even a story which represents (and so memorialises) heroism must portray it as historical and unattainable within its own fictional world. To return to Brooks, the unattainability of a thing is what makes it desirable, and plot requires blocked desire 27 to propel narrative movement.
The idea of memorialisation brings us to the connection between fate, narrative, heroism, and death. One facet of ‘heroic luck’ is that the hero will prioritise the construction of their story-as-identity over their own safety and that of others. This condition is essential for an investment in narrative, due to the fatalism and suffering entailed by the alignment of mortality with narrative dynamics. Brooks proposes that plot “is the internal logic of the discourse of mortality”. It is a drive towards an ending which confers meaning on whatever precedes it;28 just as Achilles’ death in battle marks his life as ‘heroic’ and makes it into a story worthy of record. Narrative is a method of understanding forward motion in time: as a whole, it is a memorial to a real or imagined past, and as a process it is both structured and obliterated by its ending. Desire, too, cannot exist without the possibility of a fulfilment which destroys the process of desiring. Narrative, desire, and mortality are inextricably linked by the same basic structure. If ‘Achillean’ heroism necessitates constructing one’s life as a coherent narrative, it follows that the correlation between plot and mortality should weigh particularly heavily on such characters. ‘Heroic luck’ entails the willingness to “become one’s own obituary:”29 to live life from the perspective of the end which one strives to reach for the sake of its power of structure and memorialisation. For one’s entire self and story to be considered worthy of memorialisation, one’s end must cohere with what precedes it. Mortality is the charge which animates the Iliad, because it highlights the importance of poetry in granting meaning to life. The poet deliberately suppresses the idea of the afterlife as an important state or realm.30 The only remedy for human mortality is the mythic record, the poetic tradition.
In Homestuck and the Iliad, predetermination and metatextuality are central to the discourse of mortality and heroism. In the cosmic video game around which Homestuck revolves, players may be granted ‘conditional immortality,’ by which they cannot die unless their death is deemed either ‘heroic’ or ‘just’ by mysterious forces. Their lives are only given an ending if it is coherent with their actions and bestows meaning on the narrative which precedes it. Achilles comes to Troy in search of κλέος ἄφθιτον31 ("imperishable fame") and thus chooses to die as a hero. If he desires an ending which creates a cohesive story of his life, he too must integrate himself into a wider narrative. It is only within the socio-narrative system of the epic tradition that his actions may retroactively be systematised under the identity of the ‘hero.’ Achilles’ proximity to forces of authorship also affects the fatalism of his story. Twice, the prophetic Thetis mourns for him as if he has already died,32 her performance of the future embedding its inevitability into the text. Achilles’ proximity to the gods means that his fate is determined more specifically than any other hero, since their authority and knowledge allows them to indicate what happens beyond the poem. It both dooms him and makes his story feel more complete, which is exactly what he has chosen. But working towards a ‘complete’ life story does not require a perfect knowledge of one’s own death. Vriska twice attempts to grant herself a glorious ending: the first time she is killed before she can accomplish her aim, and the second she survives. This highlights the fact that the hero’s attitude towards death is part of their own characterisation and is thus a kind of agency, however much it aligns with the narrative’s own design.
The anachronistic modern idea of ‘free will’ clouds our reading of the dynamics of choice and causality within the Iliad. Homestuck has a much clearer exploration of the tensions between autonomy and determinism, one which can be applied to the Iliad to make better sense of its most important character. According to Redfield, “Choice entails the possibility of error; and since man is mortal, his errors are irremediable. Without freedom, however, and thus the possibility of error, there is no heroism,”33 but this interpretation assumes that the greatness by which heroic deeds are judged worthy of record depends on the risk involved and the freedom with which they are accomplished. The hero, however, is known only for deeds which they have already committed: the retelling of their life is structured by the teller’s prior knowledge of it. In any telling of a mythic or traditional story, characters are defined by what we already know them to have done rather than their choice in doing so. It is the self as a completed whole rather than a work in process which defines the hero’s choices in a specific text. Achilles’ known future death is the reason that the story of the Iliad is told as it is: it is not so much he who imitates Vriska’s usurpation of non-linear narrative causality, but the poet.
1 Homestuck, 6053-4.
2 Homestuck, 2978.
3 Iliad, 9.413.
4 Homestuck, 2975. Certain characters in Homestuck have ‘typing quirks,’ an important part of characterisation and tone. Vriska replaces her Bs and homophonic syllables with the digit 8.
5 Brooks, P. (1984). Reading for the Plot. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
6 Hussie, Homestuck Book 2. 131.
7 Homestuck, 3068-9.
8 Homestuck, 6080-2.
9 Iliad, 1.12-6, 1.371-5.
10 E.g. “Addiction is a powerful thing” Cf. Pg. 2195, 3916.
11 Martin, R. P. (1989). The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad . London: Cornell University Press. 91.
12 Martin, 92.
13 Iliad, 1.408-10.
14 Homestuck, 3760, 7786.
15 Hussie, Homestuck Book 4. 178. An internet troll, as conceptualised in 2009.
16 Schein, S.L. (1984). The Mortal Hero. Berkeley: University of California Press. 58.
17 Hussie, Homestuck Book 4. 179.
18 See Pg. 2196.
19 Homestuck, 5388.
20 Vernant, J. & Vidal-Naquet, P. Tr. Lloyd, J. (1990). Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece. New York: Zone Books. 74.
21 And possible romantic interest.
22 That absence creates desire and desire creates conflict which creates narrative is a principle fundamental to the Iliad, embodied in the figure of Helen.
23 Brooks, 54.
24 Iliad, 1.262.
25 Iliad, 12.9-18.
26 Iliad, 12.449, 20.287.
27 Brooks, 12.
28 Brooks, 22.
29 Brooks, 95.
30 Schein, 68.
31 Iliad, 9.413.
32 Iliad, 18.52-62, 24.85-6.
33 Redfield, J. (1975). Nature and Culture in the Iliad. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 126.