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.

The Supernaturalist, Chap. 8: But Wait, There’s More!

This is the one. The one we’ve been waiting for since Cosmo first escaped the orphanage and joined the Supernaturalists. After all the twists and turns in this adventure so far, it’s all about to come to a head. The gang has located the Parasites’ nest, and it just happens to be in the basement of Clarissa Frayne, the place that Cosmo spent most of his life trying to get away from. He does consider, briefly, not returning with Stefan to plant the EMP, but the thought doesn’t last long. After almost floating off through space for all eternity, he’s unquestionably one of the group now, no longer an outsider.

The two get inside Clarissa Frayne easily enough, and sneak down to the basement with no problem. For once, things are going their way. However, the tracking beads in Cosmo’s skin haven’t entirely shorted out, and his faint pattern alerts our favorite marshal, Redwood, that someone’s sneaking around. Someone who’s supposed to be dead, and who Redwood would love to catch. After the crash in the first chapter, he was demoted to security guard, which sees him watching CCTV for most of the day, alongside his idiot coworker.

We don’t know too much about Redwood, but we know that he’s not dumb, and is pretty sadistic. We also know that he’s probably married, as he mentions someone named “Agnes” a few times. Even though we don’t know anything about her, it’s probably a fair guess to say that he’s not as cruel to his wife as he is to the orphans. Redwood’s not a particularly deep character — really, just a one-shot villain, but I’ve suddenly found myself more intrigued by him than ever before, and it was this line that piqued my curiosity:

He needed to get back on the streets, where he had some real power.

By “the streets”, he means becoming a floor marshal again, and dealing with the orphans directly. It’s already been established that Redwood doesn’t think of the orphans as people, which isn’t all that surprising. My question is just why Redwood is so sadistic. I figure that he’s a monster to the orphans because they can’t fight back, at least, not without serious repercussions. He’s cowardly in that regard, no matter how tough and frightening he thinks he is. I just want to know why he’s wired this way, we he won’t pick on someone his own size. What does he get out of tormenting these orphans?

It’s a pretty pointless question to ask, especially at this point in the book. Like I just said, Redwood is a one-shot villain, whose point in the story is to menace Cosmo. That’s really all we need to know about him.

The mission is going smoothly, unlike every other mission prior, that something has to happen. From the three paragraphs I’ve just dedicated to Redwood, it won’t be any surprise when I tell you that, yep, Redwood shows up right after Cosmo and Stefan plant the EMP. The sleeping Parasites wake up when Redwood attempts to take Cosmo hostage, and ends up painfully smacking the butt of a lightning rod into him.There are thousands of them, and Stefan is left with no choice but to detonate the EMP, knocking out all the Parasites, and Redwood, for that matter. This is such a great scene: a massive amount of Parasites just got wiped out Redwood gets his comeuppance, and the power surge shorted out the tracking beads on the orphans, so they can escape from Clarissa Frayne without being traced. Cosmo and Stefan know that the EMP works, and they can finally do some real damage.

‘Time to go,’ said Cosmo. ‘Now or never.’

‘Now,’ decided the diminutive Fence, leading the no-sponsors into the night, like a modern-day Pied Piper.

Seeing the orphans escape, an effective way to fight the Parasites, and a bully getting what’s coming to him. There’s still some loose ends to tie up, but finally the characters – and the reader – can breathe easy and relax. There’s just one problem: that’s not the end of the book. It’s not even the end of the chapter.

Cosmo and Stefan aren’t able to savor their hard-won victory for long. That’s what kills me about this chapter. Just as soon as something goes right, and they finally getting the break they deserve, they get thrown through another loop, and then another. Three loops, in fact.

With books set in the not-too-distant future, characters usually gizmos which, at the time the book comes out, seem really cool and top of the line. However, after enough time goes by, real life technology is going to surpass whatever neat gadgets those characters have. Mona’s phone is a perfect example of this:

Mona’s phone was a pretty old one, without much in the way of technology. But it did have picture capabilities. Sixty seconds of video or a hundred stills.

The Supernaturalist came out in 2004, when cell phones were becoming more widespread. Reading this when I was fifteen, I would’ve been over the moon to have a Trak Phone, never mind one that can take pictures and video. Now, pictures and video come standard on even the simplest cell phones, and let me tell you — the phone I had in 2007 could take more than 60 seconds of video in one sitting. Saying that Mona’s phone was cheap let Colfer get away with it for a bit longer, but not in 2015. Funny, the small things that wear on my suspense of disbelief.

Mona uses her sub-par phone to capture a video of what appears to be Ditto helping a weakened Parasite, and then all hell breaks loose. Here’s Loop #1: Ditto is in league with the Parasites. Confronting him about this, Stefan suddenly falls through Loop #2: that Parasites take pain only, not life force.

This was another part where fifteen-year-old me wanted to throw the book down, because if it was true, then it was completely mind-blowing. The only reason I didn’t take a couple days off the book then was because I needed to see what happened next, which takes us to Loop #3.

Instead of having the happy ending they deserve, all four of them are captured by Myishi paralegals, and Colfer delivers another throw-away line that I would read an entire book about:

Abracadabra Street was no great challenge for a squadron that had broken into several foreign banks, two crime lords’ strongholds, and a private kindergarten.

Colfer, please make your next book all about high-tech brutes breaking into a kindergarten. Why a kindergarten? These are things I need to know.