Sunday, May 29, 2011

In defence of bad-assery

I think one of my favorite pieces of writing advice was delivered by Steven Brust. He suggested that in order to keep a reader's interest, an author's attitude towards his or her work must always be "And now I'm going to tell you something awesome!". I find from experience, though, that this attitude, while a good one, necessitates that the author walk a very careful line - if your character and the things they do are too amazingly awesome, the reader will often get bored and frustrated. If there's no chance the character can fail, there's no tension, no drama, and no story. In the online role-playing community, we call characters like these Mary-Sues, and frankly, nobody wants to play with them.

Today I want to talk about how this balance between awesomeness and vulnerability can be maintained, mostly via example of the author who I think managed it the best that anyone ever has - Frank Herbert, in Dune.

Paul and Jessica are amazingly bad-ass characters. They're essentially super-heroes, but unlike most modern depictions of super heroes (outside of some of the X-men lines), they've been extensively trained in their powers and know exactly what they can do and how to do it. Paul especially is super-human in about three different ways at once, being a Mentat, having a good proportion of the Bene Gesserit training, and his future-sense. You would wonder, then, how on earth (or Arrakis) anything could threaten them. Boring story, right? And yet it isn't. I know a lot of people who still consider Dune to be one of the most amazing epics they've read this side of Lord of the Rings.

What I find most interesting about the story is that the conflict doesn't necessarily come from another character. Baron Harkonnen got them into the situation they wind up in via his various cats-paw maneuvers, but in a flat fight, he stands no chance against Paul or his family. The story fascinates me, and I consider it particularly well done, because most of the conflict is environmental or internal, not interpersonal. That's tough to pull off, but I think it's one of the best ways to deal with characters that are that strong - the only thing that's strong enough to present a challenge to them is something as massive and impersonal as an ecosystem, or just their own strength. Most of Paul's conflict, both in Dune and throughout the series, comes from fighting against his future-sense, and what he comes increasingly to see as fate. He doesn't want to be the instrument by which the things he sees come to pass, and so he tries harder and harder to escape. Whether he ultimately succeeds, I think, is a decision that's up to the reader. These are ways to deal with a character so bad-ass that they would blow away any human opponent, and yet still make them seem human themselves.

Interestingly, though, before I end I want to point out that even with all of these precautions in place, ways to deliver conflict against a super-human character, to show them as being weak and vulnerable, it still happens sometimes that a number of people will take a dislike to the character because they're perceived as too powerful, too privileged. I've seen this in some of the cultural awareness of Dune - this is terribly unscientific, but in all my years of playing online games, I've seen scores more gamertags that are based on derivations of Feyd-Rautha then Muad'dib. I think the reason behind this is that although Feyd-Rautha honestly doesn't have many redeeming qualities as a character, there's an inclination on the part of certain readers to see him as parallel to Paul, and an underdog. This makes him infinitely more interesting to root for, even though Herbert clearly didn't intend for him to be a sympathetic character in any way. It's a reaction that authors should keep in mind, nonetheless.

So what are the lessons we can learn from Dune? Well, honestly, they're myriad, but the ones I want to take away today are that bad-ass characters are great, and will really pull readers in, but they need to have weaknesses and real human traits in order to remain interesting, and to allow a story to progress. Pitting two bad-asses against each other may seem like fun, but that can develop into an over-the-top Clash of the Titans that will leave readers cold. Environmental and internal conflict are a good way to deal with characters like these. And always remember, no matter how much you like your characters, there will always be somebody who likes the bad guy better.


olsen said...

Great analysis! Dune is one of my favourite classics and partly why sci-fi is so important to me – I just never analysed it like this . . . so long in the past now. You’re right about the environmental and internal challenges, struggles and conflicts being a source of great depth for bringing out the complexity of characters. What struck me about Dune were the long-term strategies and machinations, and actions from a distance that find their way inside the heads of their targets and shape things to come, creating internal conflicts and untold problems down the track internally, environmentally and with future clashes between characters, which is something that has way more to it than the stories that just seem to pit powerful agents against each other and lead to an ultimate showdown etc.

The difference is between heady and physical narratives, I suppose. If you’re inclined to the former, you’ll be particularly unsatisfied with the latter; but even if you think you like the latter, you won’t get very much from it because it’s not possible to. Unfortunately, we’re always going to have superficial characterisations and narratives that completely miss the definitions of nuance and subtlety etc, but this should be expected as psychological depth and complexity isn’t something that comes naturally to the majority . . . It can’t even be taught to most people. Thankfully, there are readers and writers that get it.

Where I think your analysis heads is beyond the simplistic interpretation of the cliché that a character ‘needs flaws.’ A narrative web that’s saturated with strategy and subjectivity like that of Dune has way more to be explored in terms of character complexity than the inclusion of mere character flaws in the form of a vice or an Achilles heal etc., even if they’re attempted to be worked into the story one way or another. Most writers can only aspire.

Christine Van Mater said...

Thanks for the comments! I tend to agree, I really do find books that are more complex more compelling, but it does need to be a certain type of complexity. And like the way you articulated the idea of character complexity that goes beyond mere flaws - that's a problem that I have with a lot of the London-Fog type steampunk I've been reading. A lot of authors seem to feel the need to make one or more characters addicted to opium, partly because sure, it was something that happened a lot back then, but also I think because it's seen as a quick and easy way to add depth to a character. Except that if it is quick and easy, it's not real depth.

I don't know that I honestly ever hope to write something as amazing as Dune, because it's rather like hoping to paint like da Vinci. But I do hope I can learn enough from it to at least be inspired by it.