Difficult to call Quistis Trepe an underdog. Five minutes into the story you're aware of her incredible feats: a SeeD at fifteen; an instructor at record-shattering seventeen; and a few casual dialogues impart canonical recognition of her beauty. The total package, you might think, as many do - enough that she has her own fan club of Trepies giddily following her exploits. She strides into the infirmary, rolling her eyes at Squall's injury, looking perfect and impervious in spectacles and full SeeD regalia. What could she lack? Even better still for our protagonist, from the get-go she dogs after Squall Leonhart, assuring him of his prowess, teasing him for his ellipses. And yet the apparent object of her affection meets this attention stonily.

I think I understand that reticence better now, and though I'll address it momentarily, I want to stay with a question: if the game takes such great pains to note the successes of Quistis Trepe, how can it be that I find her characterization so very vulnerable? Nobody ever said that being top-of-your-class meant you had nothing wrong with you inside, but still, there's a tension with the superficial descriptors of Quistis (beautiful, brilliant, formidable) and my lasting impression of her as a little.... broken-hearted, perhaps even before she met Squall Leonhart. I suppose there's a deeper assumption in my posing the question, because I like her, apparently enough to build this shrine ... and yet there's a part of me that thinks, "I'd never like someone who just plain old excellent." I don't mean that just as a confession of my mental health, but rather I don't think anybody loves someone who is simply impervious, and simply impervious is the exact sketch of Trepe's character offered at the outset of FFVII. Catherynne Valente sketched the following steps in creating sympathetic characters:

What I think we all do aim for is interesting characters. I want a character to fascinate me, whether I sympathize with them emotionally or not. So here’s my little formula for creating an interesting character - and it happens to be a pretty good emotional cheat for making a sympathetic one as well. It also has five helpful points, and everyone knows bullet points mean it’s the truth.

Take one (1) unformed character, be they protagonist, antagonist, comic relief, or BFF.

• Give them something to want.
• Give them something to hide.
• Give them something to fear.
• Give them something to obsess over.
• Then hurt them.

These are basic things and they’re meant to be. People who want things passionately are more interesting than those who don’t (usually). People who have obsessions, be they sixteenth-century cosmetics or an ex-girlfriend, show who they are by how they deal with their compulsions. People who fear nothing are cartoons and people who hide things instantly set up a mystery that the brain starts to puzzle over. And the easiest way possible to get a reader to care about a character is to hurt that character, especially unfairly, especially when it’s many against one or when they are humiliated and forced to suffer social castigation. Especially us geeks, who have often been the victim of this, we tend to want to protect the hurt unless they are truly vile.


catherynne valente

FFVIII rapidly disabuses the player of any notion that Quistis Trepe is impervious, though I think it also takes pains to show her strength. As said, it flourishes her impressiveness first, the highpoints of her career, while at the same time she flatters and teases Squall by turns during the preamble to the most important test of his career. It is made explicit much later in the narrative that at this point she was in love with him, but it would be difficult to miss it; it is equally obvious that this attention is not met warmly by its recipient. During the SeeD exam, Squall's team is chased by a mechanical spider that refuses to die even as they attempt to obey evacuation orders. If you fail to defeat it, Squall runs towards the waiting submarine, far slower than his teammates; cool as fucking brass, Quistis Trepe fires clip after clip of ammunition into the monstrosity until our hero safely escapes. Between this point and the ball celebrating the acceptance of new SeeDs, Quistis is informed that her instructor license has been revoked after a single year. When she arrives at the ball, decidedly underdressed, she watches the boy she loves dance with another girl.

Issuing her last order - as the loss of her instructor's license is effective at midnight - she asks him to accompany her to the secret room in the training center, where teenagers go to canoodle imagining that room somehow secret from the administration that constructed it. (That this is an order, and not a request, tells us something of her confidence in their relationship.) Looking out at the light of Balamb Garden's center, with meters of physical and emotional distance between them, she attempts to confess her troubles to him, including this recent loss of her license. Two crucial moments occur, at least, from Squall's perspective: here he issues his bluntest statement of his philosophy until that point, stating that he has no desire to bear anyone else's burden, so if she wants somebody to listen she better find a goddamn wall to listen; the second occurs after they rescue someone who recognizes them both, a young woman named Ellone, though they fail to remember her, when they've made their way out of the training center. Before parting ways, Quistis folds her arms over her heart, and tells him that no one can make it through life on their own. He doesn't comment, but thinks: "Says who?" Her order tells us something of her suspicion of the low esteem Squall has for her. This parting confirms it. Says who? You? Hmph.

So we see her fail twice over: she loses the distinction of her instructor's license, the youngest to ever receive it and perhaps the fastest ever to lose it; and even a request to be heard by the object of her affection meets with firm refusal. She wants something. She is hurt. If Valente's right, that's enough for sympathy.

I wonder how much of my adoration for Quistis has its origins in her explanatory voice in the early game, nicely braiding a tutorial with her role as a gifted teacher. In my childhood, Squall’s stony silence made zero sense – why wasn’t he head over heels with the beautiful woman providing us with a clear path through an unfamiliar world? Yes, he’s a gruff guy, but dude, she is helping you. I was so grateful for the foothold she offered me in FFVIII through her instructions – and appreciated that teasing Squall for his monosyllables placed them within perspective. Occasionally the strong, silent type’s inner monologues seem so profoundly self-absorbed to me, particularly if they are meant to demonstrate high-mindedness, thoughts too good to waste on a word to the unworthy. Ruffling him a bit made ellipses part of his humanity, rather than an alleged superiority. Replaying it recently, I realized that there was more interpretative space in their dialogues, and that Squall might quite rationally resist the connections she keeps offering. I can still read it the way I did the first time: Instructor Trepe being friendly, attempting gently-meant but mischievous digs at his personality while flattering his abilities as her student. Best of both worlds, right? Taken seriously but not overtaken.

Yet as I’ve grown, even if my personality defaults more eagerly than Squall Leonhart’s towards connection, I’ve come to recognize the uneasy territory of ambiguous authority. In the end, an authority figure acting like your friend is an actor first and foremost. Beyond the particularities of Leonhart’s jagged emotional landscape, I would tread lightly if someone beautiful and brilliant and ranked above me tried so valiantly to be my friend.

Why try so hard, Quistis?

The details about her life are brief, but there are possible pictures. We know that, unlike Zell, who grows up loud and earnest and impetuous enough to be a seventeen year old with a face tattoo, her adoption does not turn into a loving home, as the player can infer both from her leaving at age ten to become a mercenary and solitary explanation that it didn't work out. We know that, unlike the rest of them, she is a child prodigy, driven towards high achievement. Her in-game dialogue suggests mischievousness, but early on we see that playful part of her missing the mark, a professional review chiding her for trying to make bonds with students. You could read into that a desire for connections so deep, so strong, that it undermines her ability to make them. Alone of the party members, she has no implied romance. Rinoa has her knight, Selphie has her gunslinger. Even Zell can catch the eye of the pig-tailed librarian, but Trepe, despite her damn fanclub, stands alone after the end of the world.

That she is so admired, and yet does not take advantage of it, makes me think those overtures towards Squall are simply misfires rather than bad sport. One reading is, of course, that someone who wants to connect and cannot presses her advantages (e.g. manipulation of exam scores) where she finds them, but the game strongly implies that those who are ranked below her, who openly admire her mentally and physically, have no special contact with her.

Pop-psychology is tempting. She doesn’t favor any of the interested parties; she picks the person least likely to accept her advances, even simply as a friend. You could imagine a girl, perhaps a woman, who got used to never getting any confirmation that she is enough, so that she foils her own attempts to be accepted.

A long time ago, when you were a wee thing, you learned something, some way to cope, something that, if you did it, would help you survive. It wasn’t the healthiest thing, it wasn’t gonna get you free, but it was gonna keep you alive. You learned it, at five or six, and it worked, it did help you survive. You carried it with you all your life, used it whenever you needed it. It got you out — out of your assbackwards town, away from an abuser, out of range of your mother’s un-love. Or whatever. It worked for you. You’re still here now partly because of this thing that you learned. The thing is, though, at some point you stopped needing it. At some point, you got far enough away, surrounded yourself with people who love you. You survived.

And because you survived, you now had a shot at more than just staying alive. You had a shot now at getting free. But that thing that you learned when you were five was not then and is not now designed to help you be free. It is designed only to help you survive. And, in fact, it keeps you from being free. You need to figure out what this thing is and work your ass off to un-learn it. Because the things we learn to do to survive at all costs are not the things that will help us get FREE. Getting free is a whole different journey altogether.

On Getting Free

mia mckenzie

Sometimes you learn how to protect yourself with a shell. Eventually, it becomes a trap. Yes, Squall is our poster boy for abandonment issues, but remember that beyond dear Matron, Squall had people who loved him fiercely. They left him. That’s his problem. Quistis had no one to leave her. That’s her problem.

There’s a few assumptions scattered about in thinking of her situation like this, as a stalled inevitability. One is that our lovely blue mage would simply magnetize towards someone, anyone, if there wasn’t some reverse polarity inside her that prevented the natural good fortune being a blonde bombshell. Likewise, I assume that it is plausible that someone could fear and hope desperately for the same thing, particularly human connection. Last, you’d have to assume that if she’d found someone, the game would have told us; that what we have to go on is really all there is to Quistis Trepe.

I think of the last claim, that we have all the relevant data, as necessary for doing any real interpretative work. How do you rule out that Trepe had a beautiful marriage on Fisherman’s Horizon to Xu, tossed a bouqet of Moomba-lilies to Selphie? (Squall’s maid of honor speech: “ … whatever.”) You have to trust that, given no reason to distrust, what we see is what there is. Another way to put my argument: I couldn’t attempt to interpret her at all if that isn’t true, and I want to do that; so it is is true. Ha!

The prior assumptions are messier to consider. Some of the stigma in being a singleton is that it suggests something must be wrong with you; everyone worth wanting pairs off romantically. It seems patently true to me that one could thrive without a spouse (or even several!). That means that one could be worth wanting yet be without a partner. Even so, Quistis always strikes me as lonely, not merely alone. It’s that she tries – and fails. Tries and fails. Tries and fails. Over and over. I love when fiction does that: shows me someone spectacular who, even so, doesn’t succeed. It’d be boring if that was the only staple of fiction, but it gives me a kind of hope. I know I don’t succeed sometimes. Maybe I’m spectacular, too. The reverse of the usual story, where the shmuck saves the day, making me hope that even a shmuck like me can do the white-hat thing. If she hasn’t succeeded, it’s a failure on her own terms. Not because it's writ into the fabric of the universe that the beautiful and talented pair off, or even that pairing-off is parceled into what success means. Think of her polygon shoulders, slumped in the training center, reciting her badly graded performance review to the wall.

Last, I think the pairing of fear and hope is a central conceit of the story, particularly when what we hope for would involve a fundamental change in ourselves. At least three characters (Squall, Quistis, and Irvine) seem to me to fear and hope for intimacy in equal turns. Seifer’s object of desire and aversion seems to be service simpliciter, his romantic dream. Like the song:

I was raised up believing
I was somehow unique.
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes,
unique in each way you can see.
And now after some thinking,
I'd say I'd rather be
a functioning cog
in some great machinery
serving something beyond me.


fleet foxes

Trepe was never afraid of service - remember, she was a SeeD two years before the rest, and the scenes of their shared childhood show her happily trying to slot herself into the caretaker role that Ellone eventually evacuates, a smaller sense of service. Nor do I think she was ever afraid to die; think of her sitting behind her gatling gun on Dollet's beach while an enormous robotic spider skitters ever closer, refusing to give an inch until the whole team makes it aboard. Yet, despite her parting words to her former pupil about the majority of us needing others to get by, she seems to have no one.

The protagonist spends the game assembling the shards of his emotional life and memories. Where those pieces intersect, we are privy to the interior puzzles of the other party members, but there is more to Quistis Trepe than Squall Leonhart, and so there is much left uncertain about who and what she is. And yet, I think there's enough there to love. Tragic pasts, shmagic pasts. I knew that she left home to pursue excellence. I know she stands her ground. I know that, when her heart was crushed under a black combat boot, she still followed that idiot boy around the world to help him, even told him to get the girl when the moment came. And I know that she saves the world and isn't holding hands with anybody afterwards.

When I think about Quistis, I think about loneliness, and romance as a reward. Part of me is glad that I was prepubescent and saw that sometimes the gorgeous genius doesn't get the guy, and even so, she plays her part in the moral victory. Life isn't being fair to you? He didn't call you back? Tough, go smack a villain anyway. There might be some lingering socially-constructed bullshit that makes me sad for her. Think of it! She has her friends, and surely can snag a cushy post-apocalypse career, she's the best Triple Triad player in all of Balamb - what's missing?

We don't see her side of it. We won't know if she felt complete at the close of FFVIII. Her quote is that not everyone can get by on their own, rather than that everyone needs someone; it leaves room for a select few to be truly self-sufficient, and possibly she's among them. That's why she stays with me, more than a decade later, I reckon. Is her life enough? Is excellence enough? Are a few friends and a hobby and a bit of blue magic in your back pocket enough?

I carry that litany of is-this-enough with me no matter what I accomplish.

Bet she did, too.