Blandy McBlandface: Flat Antagonists

After my most recent post, I did some more thinking on flat villains. I wondered, am I being too harsh on Eragon? One of my absolute favorite games is Dragon Age: Origins, which features a storyline that couldn’t get much more generic. Namely, a rag-tag bunch of heroes team up to defeat a giant dragon, who is evil, because the story needs an antagonist. But Origins holds up very well, even if it has a lousy Big Bad.

Several years ago I had a video game blog, wherein I cheerfully dissected some of my favorite games. I wondered: if DA:O has such a generic story, why is it so compelling?

I came to a few different conclusions, the first being the world-building. That is, there’s just so much of it. It’s impossible to go through the game without learning the history and culture of Fereldan, and if you ever want to learn more, there’s always an NPC to ask or a Codex to find. And if you still don’t learn something that you want to know, find a nerd like me to ask.

To its credit, Alagaësia, the world of Eragon, is also well-built. I don’t necessarily like how all the information is presented (read: info dumps), but by God, it’s there. The more you read, the more in-depth it gets, from the basic rules of using magic to Elven and Urgal culture. The questions that don’t get answers immediately are usually either a plot device, or put into a later books.

But the thing that kept me playing DA:O was not how interested I was in learning the Chant of Light or because I really wanted learn what it was like to live in a Circle of Magic. What kept me coming back to it, hour after hour, was the characters. There’s the main party, of course: characters like adorkabale Alistair, the witch Morrigan with her own agenda, the badass old lady mage Wynne…they all have their own personalities, and quirks, and are wonderfully vivid. The NPC cast is equally memorable, even if they’re just minor characters. Branka is terrifying, the Rhyming Oak is delightful, and the Chantry Sister who’s too hungry to get the Chant right still makes me laugh.

And I still fangirl over Alistair. Just a little bit.

So far, the list of characters I like in Eragon is…two? Saphira, and Brom. One of which is dead. I was trying to describe Eragon without mentioning his role in the story (a la RedLetterMedia), but I could come up with exactly one personality trait. He’s rash. He makes dumb decisions. That’s it. What are his likes, his dislikes, his fears? How would he react to winning a million dollars? How would he approach someone he’s attracted to? I know so little about the character that I can’t give good answers to any of these questions, except for broad generalization.

But there is one major difference between DA:O and Eragon that I can’t neglect to talk about. They’re two entirely different media. In Dragon Age (and most Bioware games), it’s easy to immerse yourself in the game and put yourself in the shoes of the protagonist. Even if the story ends the same way with a flight against the (admittedly bland) Archdemon, the decisions you’ve made to get to that point are more personal, and there’s a certain sense of ownership to them. The game is about the journey, not the destination.

Eragon is a book. It was easier for me to relate to a blank-slate fifteen-year-old character when I was fifteen, reading it for the first time. But age can’t be the only reason; certainly, I’ve enjoyed reading through the trials of the Beaudelaire orphans long after I was out of that target audience. But I can acknowledge that Eragon, too, is about the journey. There are some moments really feel magical, and things that I do like in this book. But the Dragon Rider Blandy McBlandface isn’t enough to suck me into the story.

I’m trying to think of other books with flat villains I’ve read that I really enjoy, and the first thing that came to mind was The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The books are well-crafted and beautifully written. If there’s ever been a great series about the journey, it’s that one. I’m sure a Lord of the Rings fan who knows the lore better than I do could probably write a dissertation one why Sauron is such a bad dude, but it’s not readily apparent to me.

Hell, Wormtongue gets more character development that Sauron. And it was way more fun watching Sarumon fuck everything up than seeing a fiery eyeball hanging out at the top of a tower.

And yet, it works remarkably well. Tolkien has made such a comprehensive world that a simple plot–defeat Sauron by destroying the Ring–that knowing just why Sauron is evil doesn’t feel necessary. If Sauron was more detailed as a character, yes, I might like it better. I might find Sauron scarier than I do. But it also runs the risk of bogging up the journey. Which is, after all, the real story.

But now I’m going to commit blasphemy.

I liked the Lord of the Rings movies better than the books.*

Admittedly, part of this is because the books themselves weren’t all that accessible to me. Tolkien’s known for his flowery prose, which was a bit difficult for me to grasp. There’s also so many names, places, and so much history it’s hard to keep track of it all, even with maps and appendices.

The other part is because I feel like it’s easier to get to know the characters in the films. Thinking back on some of my favorite character moments in the books, there’s only one I remember really well: Sam watching Frodo sleep, thinking about how devoted his is to Frodo and how much he loves him. But aside from that…nothing really sticks out to me.

In the movies, I could see–and have a better appreciation–of the relationships between the members of the Fellowship, their allies and their enemies. I usually don’t cry at movies, but I did when I watched Pippin and Merry separate.

I’ve been told that, to a discerning reader, none of Tolkien’s characters are flat. So maybe I’m the problem. I have the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Maybe a well-crafted story doesn’t need a well-crafted antagonist; when I watch Mulan, I’m generally not too badly concerned that Shan-Yu is as flat as cardboard, because I’m too busy cheering on this bad-ass woman. I’m too swept away by Westley and Buttercup’s romance and adventures to really worry about why Prince Humperdink is such a dick.

But what I keep circling back to, time and time again, are the characters. Alistair’s awkwardness, Mulan’s courage, Westley’s wit, the kindness and bravery of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Characters don’t always need to be likable, but they do need to be memorable. You can make an entire universe, but if you fill it with people that don’t stand out in any way, then I’m not going to care about their ultimate triumph or failure against their enemies, no matter how much the antagonist is supposed to scare me.

*We are, of course, going to ignore The Hobbit films. That’s another post entirely.

EMS is All Wrong/Brief Hiatus

July is easily the busiest month of the year for me, and I’m overloaded with work until August. Seriously, my next day off is August 6. To keep myself from burning out, I’m going to be pausing from the blog just for a few weeks. I’ll be back August 8, with more Eragon, and at some point, a review of An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. I’ll leave you with just one more post before I go.

When I was thinking about tropes that bugged me, one that immediately came to mind was “We need to remove the bullet!” Because, as a series of disappointing Google searches told me, no, you almost never need to do that. TVTropes does a pretty good job of covering this, though, and I didn’t want to just rehash what they’ve already said. It did get me thinking, though, about other medical emergencies that fiction has portrayed completely wrong.

I’m trained in emergency response and CPR, but I was curious to see what others with more advanced medical training and knowledge thought of, say, the average cop show. I called on my good friend Sam, who works as an EMT in Central New York. That’s Upstate, by the way. There’s a whole lot more to New York than just the city.

Well, the guy who gets paid to save lives had a thing or two to say.

All quotes are taken from Sam’s email to me when I asked him about this.

EMS is almost always portrayed wrong in every respect. They get the ambulance right and that’s about it.

Stable (aka not currently dying) patients never get transported to the hospital with lights/sirens. We rarely transport anyone with lights/sirens because it’s dangerous to use them, especially when not needed.

EKG rhythms are usually never right.No one says stat.

Good emergency scenes are actually very calm.

We never wait for a police officer to bang on the back of the ambulance to let us know when we can leave. The first cop that does that is going to be asked not to hit the ambulance.

CPR is almost always wrong, because of it were right the actors would all have broken ribs.

No bystanders are ever allowed in the back of the rig during transport unless it’s a very small child or the patient is high as a kite and needs calming down.

When I asked if there was anything that was portrayed incorrectly enough so often that it drove him crazy, here’s what he told me:

Everyone dies too quickly. They get shot and only have about 30-45 seconds to talk about how they were only 2 days from retirement or how the main character was like a father to them. 
If that were true, every single person there bled out in 45 seconds. Not really possible unless they all get shot in the heart or rupture a major vessel. If you get shot in the abdomen, you have about 15-20 minutes to make it to an OR before you die. EMS uses “the platinum 10 minutes” to limit on scene time to only 10 minutes for major trauma. ED use “the Golden hour” to get some into the operating room. 

That makes sense to me. If you read news about shootings, they’ll often say something like, “Victim X was shot and died an hour later; Victim Y was shot and transported to the hospital.”

As I’ve pointed out before, even the most fantastic stories need to have some realism, or you’ll get a scoffing reader. Even if your audience doesn’t have a medical background (which is probably safe to assume), why kill off your character so quickly?

Let’s say you want to show how badass your character is and how much pain he can tolerate. Sure, you could have someone try to remove the bullet, but you’ll have more knowledgeable readers rolling their eyes, and potentially spread misinformation to your audience. If your character’s already been shot, they’re already in pain. And those ten minutes it takes to get to the hospital, the hour it takes to die, whatever–for that character, time is going to stretch out and feel a lot longer than it actually is. So they’re already suffering.

If you want drama, why not try to use “the platinum 10 minutes” or “the golden hour” rule to build tension? You need to get the character to the hospital, but you can’t emergency services. Or the ambulance is stopped at a railroad crossing and there’s no way to get around. Or some jackass is trying to remove the bullet and making everything worse. And just because someone gets help in time doesn’t mean they’re going to live.

Plus, if you can confess one deep, dark secret in the thirty second between getting shot and expiring, imagine all the things that might come pouring out in ten minutes, or an hour.

I know a lot of writers have heard the advice, “Kill your darlings.”
But why kill your darlings when you can torture them instead?


Trope Discussion: The Chosen One

Every so often, I’d like to take a break from revisiting old books and think about fiction itself. Specifically, tropes in fiction. That is, common reoccurring themes you’ll see in fiction. And right now, there’s one in particular that I’d like to discuss.

There was always something about this trope that rubbed me the wrong way. I used to think it was because I would see it so often. The movies above are just a tiny, tiny portion of the stories that use this “Chosen One” as part of their plot.

I used to think that it annoyed me because it’s a cliche prophecies and stories about the “Chosen One” date as far back as ancient Greece. It’s present in religion, and no doubt you’ve read a book or two wherein the main character was somehow prophesied to save everyone. Even some of my favorite series, Harry Potter and His Dark Materials fall into this.

There’s a few different reasons I don’t like this trope. First is the foregone conclusion. If Suzy’s destined to defeat the evil overlord, then it’s going to happen, period. Sure, she’ll go on an adventure getting to the bad guy, but is there any suspense left when she finally faces him? We already know that she’s going to defeat him.

Real heroism is hard, and it’s not accomplished by a single person. Look at any real-life hero. Chances are, there’s a whole mess of people behind him that helped make him a hero.  Since I work in the aviation industry, Sully Sullenberger immediately comes to mind. He was the pilot of “Miracle on the Hudson” fame, and quite rightfully hailed as a hero. But that day could have ended very differently without the plane’s whole crew, the volunteer rescuers, even the commercial ferries that came to help.

The other thing that never sat well with me is the idea of fate. When a character has a pre-determined fate, they’re not given the chance to say no to it. Sure, they can try to run from their destiny, but it always has a way of catching up to them. The prophesied character doesn’t get a chance to refuse to undertake this task.

To quote Dumbledore, “Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.” Taking the”easy” path — whether it be joining the villain, or just going home and waiting for someone else to clean up this mess — should be incredibly tempting to follow. Following the “right” path will be challenging and dangerous, and there will be hardships along the way. When there’s no destiny attached to you, you could back out at any time. A true hero keeps going, no matter the struggle, and that makes us feel their triumphs and tragedies more deeply.

To me, heroes aren’t chosen. They’re the ones that make the choices.