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 Magician’s Nephew, Chap. 2: Ethics Review Board

We’ve made it the second chapter, and we’re on the cusp of the true adventure. Digory’s the nephew, and we at last get to meet the Magician. His name is Uncle Andrew, and he’s as close to a mad scientist as the Narnia series gets. He’s got crazy, fly-away gray hair, everyone around him thinks he’s mad, and is, in fact, something of a genius. Before wardrobes and strange cupboards at school, Uncle Andrew figured out a way to send people to someplace…else. He doesn’t quite know what that other place is, but he’s more than willing to use Digory and Polly as his human guinea pigs.

Most of the second chapter is dedicated to Uncle Andrew explaining how he was able to make magic rings that could travel between the worlds. He received an ancient box from his godmother (who was said to actually have fairy blood), containing dust from Atlantis. After many years of study, learning everything he could about magic, he created several yellow and green rings. The yellow would send anyone who touched it to the “Other Place”, and the green ring would, in theory, bring them home again. Before Polly and Digory accidentally found their way into his study, Uncle Andrew had only tested the yellow rings on literal guinea pigs. They all vanished, but none of them returned. Unsuspecting Polly became his first human test subject, when she takes a yellow ring, and disappears from the study, and the universe altogether.

I remember not liking this chapter very much. To me, it cemented Uncle Andrew as a villain in the story (and what nine-year-old likes villains?), and the attention was all on him. When I read it now, I really enjoyed it. In fact, I wanted more.

‘Meanwhile,’ continued Uncle Andrew, ‘I was learning a good deal in other ways (it wouldn’t be proper to explain them to a child) about Magic in general. [. . .] I had to get to know some–well, some devilish queer people, and go through some very disagreeable experiences.’

Okay, so we’re in London, in a world without magic. Uncle Andrew has found a way to use magic to send people to other worlds, and it’s suggested that the way he learned things was not on the up-and-up. Tell me that backstory doesn’t intrigue you. Who are these people, what are these disagreeable experiences? I want to know!  C.S. Lewis should have just skipped writing The Horse and His Boy and given us Uncle Andrew’s story instead.
There’s no room for moral ambiguity in the Narnia series, though, so he wouldn’t be an acceptable Lewis protagonist. And it’s made very clear that even though Uncle Andrew is, in fact, “beastly” for sending Polly to another world without telling her what she’s getting into.

This is exactly the reason why we have ethics review boards. Sure, they might stop you from doing some of the really fun social experiments, but at least you won’t wind up in a different universe when you’re filling out questionnaires with Lickert scales.

Wait, is there actually an experiment out there that can send me to a magical world? SIGN ME UP!

Unless you’re sending me to Westeros.