Tropes: Weak Heroes Wanted

This week, a friend of mine sent me a link to a blog that actually quoted me.

My first thought was a direct quote of a Will Wildman comment posted earlier that day: "Good lord, I've been quoted." Then I took a moment to marinate in the irony of me quoting a shocked-to-be-quoted quote. I confess: I take my ironies wherever I can get them.

Once I clambered down from all this meta-ness, I read the blog post in question. My next thoughts were, roughly: "Wow, this is really good," and "Holy Cheetos, she has a really great point. Whoops."

To summarize: Caleigh Minshall read my Curse of the Smart Girl post and eloquently noted that, in focusing as intently as I did on Faux Action Girls who steadfastly insist on "bring[ing] a knife or a bow to what is clearly a sword fight", I might accidentally give the impression to a reader (a) that female protagonists should be uber-warriors even when it doesn't fit with their characterization and (b) that protagonists who aren't warriors are therefore less useful than those who are.

Caleigh has a great point and all I can offer in explanation for how that particular perspective-slip happened is that this is the sort of mistake I make when I've been reading nothing but Percy Jackson books for days and writing Percy Jackson fanfic in my head for most of my waking moments. (This is the ride through my head, people, I hope you enjoy it.) In all seriousness, I think Caleigh hits firmly on the head of something that needs to be said more: we need weaker protagonists in modern fiction. Weaker men, weaker women, weaker small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.

I recently re-read (via audiobook) "Lies My Teacher Told Me". (If you haven't read it, it's an incredible book on American history and I recommend it highly.) James Loewen lays out history-as-it-happened in several major portions of American history that are usually not taught accurately in United States history classes, and the result is incredibly fascinating and somewhat depressing at the same time -- not so much because the history itself is sad, but because it's depressing to realize that there is this huge institution dedicated to "protecting" children from the truth.

Loewen lays out a very strong case that the warping of history frequently starts with hero worship: We can't teach that "give me liberty or give me death" Patrick Henry owned slaves because it would create a more complex, and less worshipful, picture of Patrick Henry than the textbooks want to convey. We can't teach the My Lai massacres because the students might take away a view that not every U.S. soldier has always acted with honor, compassion, and integrity in wartime. History takes a backseat in the censor's mind to building up the perfection of the hero on display: Patrick Henry, and the United States as a whole must be portrayed as always strong, always right, always improving over time, always becoming more and more perfect.

Reading Caleigh's post made me realize that in many ways modern literature mirrors this concept of hero worship. I mentioned in "The Curse of the Smart Girl" that we never really question why the Hero must always win:
We don't notice as a culture that the Smart Girl never really saves the day, and never really uses her "smarts" in a useful way, because we instinctively understand that the Hero must save the day instead. It's not that the Smart Girl is dumb, the tropers will insist, it's that she's handicapped by the demands of the plot; it's not that she's not a Strong Female Character, it's just that she's not the Hero. It's not the Hero's fault that he always wins, right? And yet we never really question why the male Hero "must" save the day each and every time.
But I think that can be taken a few different ways. One obvious way is that sometimes the Hero can lose: the Villain can win, or neither party can have a clear advantage in the situation. Another way is that the Hero can be upstaged by a support character: the Smart Girl can save his life a time or two, or the Beta Male can swoop in for a few key victories. This situation may generate contempt from the reader, though, if the situation is clearly tailored to highlight the Hero's weaknesses and the Supporting Character's strengths, or if the situation seems artificially created to ensure that each team member is equally useful.

Another way to cut through the hero worship trend is to work towards Caleigh's excellent vision:
Why can’t intelligence, peace-keeping and a supportive or care-taking personality be heroic? Why do we assume strength in battle and a forceful personality(/pluckiness) are the most important qualities in a hero? Can someone be equally heroic without those qualities?

I’d like to read about quiet heroes, lonely heroes, heroes who believe in compromise, non-violent and pacifist heroes, care-taker heroes, physically weak heroes, cautious heroes, female heroes* and male heroes. I do realize that there are already many books that feature unconventional heroes — but in my experience the norm does still lean towards strength, charisma, power, etc. I’m not sure that norm is a good thing. Our world needs all sorts of people, and if all we had were people who liked to lead and fight, we would never get anything done.
I think a very real question here is whether or not we can even have non-violent, physically-weak, or otherwise unusual heroes in fiction. If most fiction is about conflict and if much of that fictional conflict is physical, wouldn't a physically-weak hero be impossible for an author to write? I don't think so.

Back when I was writing Star Wars fanfic in college (and that is officially the geekiest thing I've said this week), I deliberately created a female jedi with bad back problems. She was most certainly an author-insert character given my own struggles with scoliosis, but she was fun to write and I think she was refreshing to read in a world of otherwise extremely powerful warriors and magic users.

I'd like to see Caleigh's vision come to fruition. I'd like more books with fewer "designated heroes" and more groups of interesting, complicated, and not always very strong characters working towards their common goals. I'd like to see more fictional characters who are nurturing, or intelligent, or shy without that one characteristic becoming the sole defining trait for their personality.

In short, let's have weaker protagonists in literature, ones who live with, accept, or embrace their weaknesses and who don't magically overcome it by the end of the novel. It might make for less fantasy fulfillment, but I think it would make for more nuanced novels overall.


Ana Mardoll said...

There was discussion at slacktivist quite some time ago (before
the split) about alternative heroes.  I think that someone brought up
the idea of a heroic bureaucrat who prevented Nicoale Carpathia from
forming his one world government via heroic use of red tape.  Or
something like that.

What, like, "I'm sorry, you haven't filled out the appropriate forms necessary to defile the Jewish temple?" Because that would be AWESOME. Left Behind is so full of missed opportunities. :(

I love Firefly, but now that you mention it, I really can't think of a time where Mal saves the day on his own. He *does* come up with a lot of the plans, and maybe he's the "charisma" of the party in terms of dealing with external, low-life sources? (Inara is too high class for the bandit circles, Zoe is too serious, and Walsh and Jayne have zero filters and would get themselves killed if they were the front man.)

Lila said...

Miles Vorkosigan, anyone? He's usually the smartest guy in the room, but that occasionally backfires. There are a lot of things he wants but can't have, and some very ordinary things he can't do because of physical handicaps (which are ameliorated, but not solved, by extremely advanced technology).

LG said...

There's Terry Pratchett's Rincewind, who would prefer to run away when possible. There's also Christopher Moore's A Dirty Job, in which the main character a nice, normal widower who gains special powers only to discover that it's actually his young daughter who is really the one who's supposed to save everyone - I'm actually not sure if this one counts, since it's been so long since I last read it and I may be remembering things incorrectly.

Akedhi said...

 Only occasionally backfires? My impression of Miles is that being the smartest guy in the room usually backfires until the very end, after he's broken a couple of bones and caused at least three explosions. That's kind of why I love him.

Jenny Islander said...

Miles Vorkosigan also gets a nearly unique character arc: He is the super-brilliant incredibly lucky heroic dashing young hero, and then he hits thirty and has to grow up.  One of my favorite moments in the later books is just him sitting on a bench thinking about a failure that has haunted him for years.  Somebody under his command fell from a great height because he failed to save her.  He suddenly realizes, Oh my God, she outweighed me by forty pounds--if I had been able to grab her hand we'd both be dead and I wouldn't be here possibly averting this [spoiler with interplanetary implications].  It's emblematic of his overall realization that he can't be jumping off the bowsprit with a cutlass in his teeth anymore and assuming that he'll be able to deal with the consequences; he has bigger responsibilities.

Bujold also wrote an interesting wizard character--I forget all the books in the series, but one was called The Ladies of Mandrigyn.  He is a middle-aged mercenary who only discovers his talent for magic after someone very powerful has hunted down and killed all the wizards and destroyed their libraries.  So besides looking at being too old to do his current job for much longer, he also has to try to teach himself magic.  He seriously screws up several times.

Lunch Meat said...

(SPOILERS for the Codex Alera series)
This reminds me of something that annoyed me about the characterization of Tavi, a character who grows up basically without magic in a world where everyone can do magic. During the first book I kept expecting him to suddenly by the power of desperation come up with the ability to do magic, but by the end I accepted that the author was trying to tell a story about not everyone having the same strengths and Different is Okay. In the third book suddenly there was an explanation for his being magic-less, which was annoying because I thought it would be a better message to say that sometimes people are just born different, we don't know why and we can't fix it, but it's okay. And by the beginning of the fourth book suddenly he could do magic and was the STRONGEST ONE OF THEM ALL RAWR. I thought he was a more appealing hero when he had to survive by his wits alone, and could overcome people in ways they didn't expect.

bickazer said...

Since I'm on an Revolutionary Girl Utena high right now every single thought of mine ends up running through the Utena-filter, and I have to connect everything to Utena.  It actually works quite well most of the time since Utena is one of those anime that can be interpreted pretty much however you want it....  But now that I think about it, the story might actually have something to say about 'weak' vs. 'strong' heroes.

I guess at first glance Utena looks like a typical magical warrior character, since she does spend most of the series winning sword fights....but (MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT) at the very end, none of that - all the duels she's been in, her swordfighting skills - matters.  What really matters is her ability to save Anthy - scratch that, not even save Anthy, but inspire Anthy to save herself.   She accomplishes that not through physical prowess or special leadership skills or anything, but through sheer stubbornness and her own emotional insight.   The ending stuck with me for a really long time, maybe because of that.  And I think that's why I've always admired Utena as a character: she tries so hard to be a flawless hero (the prince) but she really is just a flawed, somewhat naive, somewhat selfish, 14-year-old girl who in the end sacrifices everything to do the right thing for a friend (or lover, if you view it that way).

I always felt the series was deliberately saying something about the fact that the sword fights ended up not mattering at all, and in the end Utena didn't even 'win' through a sword fight.  Just through understanding Anthy, and reaching out to her.  Like saying that true heroism (or 'princeliness' in the series' terms) doesn't depend on being a perfect god-like being who wins sword fights, but through helping the people you love.  I don't know about anyone else, but I've always found that a powerful message.

Redwood Rhiadra said...

The Ladies of Mandrigyn is by Barbara Hambly, not Bujold.

Silver Adept said...

I remember seeing that argument in other places and nodding at it, because weak characters are interesting characters and work better in their setting, because if you're the kind of person that can save the world all the time, then the setting quickly becomes boring. Thus, someone who is nigh-invulnerable under a yellow sun needs a green crystal to make him weakened.

Although I think we could do with more strong characters in the female department. Graceling tried, I think, but unintentionally made the not-main female character the best example of a strong and well-developed character - once the major trauma for the main female character was resolved, she became almost superpowered and on at least the same level as the main male lead, who had spent years honing himself to become the great warrior he was.

Cupcakedoll said...

I think Ana should watch Revolutionary Girl Utena.  It would add a new flavor of comparisons to the deconstructions.  Or make her head explode as she tries to figure out what half the series even MEANS, and the descent into madness would be entertaining. 

BrokenBell said...

Videogames are another area where this issue is incredibly contentious. There have been very few games that don't cast the player as the perfect badass hero that everyone adores, and it's completely accepted that this is the way it should be. The prevailing attitude is one of "What's the point of playing a game, if it doesn't make me feel awesome when I play it?" It's one of the problems that really hamstring the medium, and prevent it from achieving the same kind of respect afforded to film and literature. When the very people demanding that videogames are recognised for their real potential are just as likely to scoff at and ignore any games that try to be something other than a fun toy to mess around with... Well, you know how it goes. "With friends like these", and all that.

Nonetheless, as steeped in unexamined privilege, ingrained racism, and casual sexism as the videogame industry is, I'd like to offer one of the few examples of a strong and noncombative heroine the medium has to offer: April Ryan, from The Longest Journey. She's smart, self-aware, quick-witted; she struggles with the enormous responsibility that's put on her shoulders, and gradually grows to support it, becoming strikingly genre-savvy in the process. Through the duration of the first game, she has no combat skills whatsoever, and becomes a skilled (but not invincible) fighter in the sequel, as a necessary consequence of the life she chooses to lead in the world she chooses to live in.

That April Ryan is such an unconventional character probably has a lot to do with the fact that The Longest Journey is a point-and-click adventure game; a genre that, by nature, allows physically weak characters to act on equal footing with physically strong characters. Indeed, many adventure games star characters who are not capable fighters. Even so, I think that April Ryan is a noteworthy character in her own right, especially when interesting protagonists of any sort are such a rare feature in modern games.

(It's also eleven years old, so it can run on basically any computer made in the last few years. If our host ever felt like trying something completely different, I'd be more than happy to donate a copy. Digital distribution makes this very easy. Just sayin'.)

Amaryllis said...

Jenny Islander: Miles Vorkosigan also gets a nearly unique character arc: He is the
super-brilliant incredibly lucky heroic dashing young hero, and then he
hits thirty and has to grow up.

Ah yes, the famous "Miles hits thirty; thirty hits back." I loved those books.

In the YA department, there was Ella Enchanted, Gail Carson Levine's take on Cinderella, where Ella saves herself, her lover and her country by...doing nothing.

Are we just talking about so-called genre fiction here? "Mainstream" literature is full of non-physical confict; I'll have to think more about that after work.

Izzy said...

Robin McKinley's later books are great for this sort of thing. Much as I love the fighty heroes in Sunshine and the Damar books, the heroines in Chalice and Rose Daughter are both caretaker types. As is the heroine in Spindle's End , despite being very *not* conventionally feminine. 

And I think this post applies to plots as well as characters. I like a good war story as much as the next D&D-player, but sometimes it's also nice to read about the people who are building stuff, or taking care of communities, or whatever. I would absolutely read a sequel to LotR that was about post-war Minas Tirith, or a story about an elementary school in Sunnydale, or whatever. 

Will Wildman said...

The degree to which physical power dominates all other traits does depend on genre to a degree, even within video games.  I consider the Phoenix Wright series to be one of gaming's greatest triumphs, evoking reactions and requiring unprecedented shapes of thought, and the most physical power Phoenix displays is that he's sufficiently massive to break down a locked door one time.  Otherwise he is very easily intimidated by physical force.  (On the other hand, I'm not sure what to make of the fact that he is so supermassive, given that he's a defence attorney with no indications of physical training.  He doesn't have clearly defined muscles or anything, he just happens to be disproportionate to his world.  In the myths of future Japanese law schools, he shall be known as Ginormotron, He Who Objects To Falsehood.)

So mystery as a genre is pretty much devoted to stuff other than physical prowess, until/unless there's an eventual combat showdown between investigator and culprit.  It occurs to me that, in a substantial degree, the first several Harry Potter books bear more similarity to 'mystery' than battle fantasy.  Of course, they've also abstracted the idea of power, such that the two mightiest combatants in the world are a frail 150-year-old man and an equally-spindly 60-year-old snakeman.  (Third is a housewife of indeterminate age.  Yes.  My fanon is now that Molly Weasley is the most powerful surviving battle-mage in the world.)

If I were going to hypothesise about why physical power is so popular, I would assume that it's because it's simple and yet rare - everyone has ideas of what fighting looks like, but unless there is something horribly wrong about our living situation, it's not the sort of thing that we apply as a frequent solution to problems.  A doctor and a lawyer and a programmer and a truck driver and a blogger and a cook will presumably have very different ideas about awesome stuff they could do that's relevant to their skill sets, but they're probably all equidistant from 'flying ninja kick on a terrorist helicopter'.  It's straight-up lowest common denominator.

Well, it isn't, because there are plenty of people who don't think that fighting is awesome and wouldn't fantasise about it.  But that's why we're here, innit.

I have More Thoughts, but I must run for now.

Alsafi Khayyam said...

That wizard character (Sun Wolf) is actually a creation of Barbara Hambly--a terribly underrated writer, imho. The Witches of Wenshar was my introduction to him and his partner, who is his equal as a fighter, if not his better, and a woman described by the text as "rangy" and "plain." They're pretty cool--the series plays with a lot of the pulp sword-and-sorcery tropes, mostly in a sly or subversive way.

Hambly's Benjamin January mystery novels are like that, too (starts with A Free Man of Color). January is a mature (I think he's near 40 when the series begins) free black man in 1830s New Orleans. He's smart, and he's a talented surgeon and musician, and he is physically strong, but he's so hemmed about by the laws and conventions of being a black man in a world where chattel slavery is the norm and open racism is not only tolerated but expected and encouraged, that he is fundamentally a hero acting from a position of tremendous weakness.

Sorry--don't mean to shill, but they're amazing books, and like I said, she's an underrated gem.

Ana Mardoll said...

In the YA department, there was Ella Enchanted, Gail Carson Levine's take on Cinderella, where Ella saves herself, her lover and her country by...doing nothing.

I haven't read "Ella Enchanted", but I did see the movie. I'm a little anxious about the book, though -- a few road-trips ago, we took "Fairest" along as an audiobook to listen to in the car. Husband was equal parts amused, amazed, and annoyed that I spent most of the road-trip screeching incoherently at the book -- I wasn't thrilled with Levine's attempts to write an "ugly" fairy tale protagonist. o.O

One video game series I'm especially fond of is the Suikoden games. The heroes are still powerful (they have to be, or they'd lose the duel battles), but they're NOT the most powerful people in the army. The whole games are built around collecting 104 individuals to build a valuable country/army/movement/what-have-you, and a good fair few of these people aren't fighters at all -- they're shopkeepers and scholars and things. I like the dynamics in play there. In both the first and second games, it's outright stated that your main character is more of a figurehead for the army (like a Joan of Arc sort of rallying point) rather than a valuable leader in of himself.

Ana Mardoll said...

I think Ana should watch Revolutionary Girl Utena.  It would add
a new flavor of comparisons to the deconstructions.  Or make her head
explode as she tries to figure out what half the series even MEANS,
and the descent into madness would be entertaining.

I haven't heard of it -- I will definitely put it on my list!

...but how will you guys be able to tell the difference? Will my descent be marked by more and more wild theories about the inner lives of fictional literary characters? Oh wait.... :P

Gelliebean said...

I'm re-reading Chalice right now - I loved it the first time I read it exactly because of this reason.  I might also nominate McKinley's Outlaws of Sherwood as another fitting this concept - in that book, Robin Hood isn't terribly heroic, didn't intend or really want to be a figurehead for revolt, and doesn't even take part in the iconic tournament shoot-out.... and still makes a very believable protagonist.

Another YA fantasy novel that I really love is Howl's Moving Castle - (possible spoilers?) 
The main character is a very 'mousy', shy and withdrawn girl who's changed into an old woman not long after the beginning of the book and discovers a kind of freedom in her new appearance which lets her find the strength within herself.  Admittedly, there's not much in the way of physical combat at all in the book; instead, there are riddles Sophie has to solve while trying to figure out what exactly she's been dropped in the middle of.  I don't know if she would count as a 'weaker' protagonist in the way you define, but I would say that solving her problems is a result of her own efforts, and not of magical intervention or storyline imperative, so it might work.  :-)

Will Wildman said...

HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE.  I have nothing but unmitigated love in my heart for that book.  And yes, I think it's an excellent example of a 'weak' protagonist, in that Sophie is not merely physically fragile, but is surrounded by people who are more strongly-willed, more aware of current events, have personal agendas that they feel free to impose as they wish, and sometimes have spectacular magical powers.  She gets into a mess involving a king pressed by war, rogue magicians, and chessmastery demons, and semi-intentionally becomes a vital player in the whole debacle.  Key skills: hat decorating, mopping, guilt-tripping.

She's also restricted by her own psychology, in that she knows perfectly well she's the oldest of three sisters in a fairytale kingdom and thus is doomed to fail completely if she sets out to make her fortune, thus serving as a warning and contrast to her younger sisters.  So while she can be stubborn about some things, she desperately wants to avoid attracting attention, taking a leadership role in anything, or having ambition, because that would just tempt fate.

I feel like Sophie would fit into the same category as the heroic bureaucrat (noted earlier as a potential foil to the Antichrist).

Jenny Islander said...

Mea culpa re confusing Hambly with Bujold.  Bujold also created a hero who begins the book as a poverty-stricken newly released POW with bad cases of PTSD and survivor's guilt.  The book is The Curse of Chalion and the hero goes by Caz.  I'm pretty sure I got that right!  Anyway, he doesn't go dah-dah-dah-dat-da-DAHHHH! and throw off the cloak of his disability--he's scared to death pretty much throughout the book and spends much of the last half sick due to a great big spoiler.  And yet, with the help of a butt-kicking princess and her tough-minded lady-in-waiting, he saves the day.

I also thoroughly enjoy Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon, in which a cranky little old lady who has been disregarded, disenfranchised, and disrespected throughout her life rebels at being ultimately dispossessed, hiding while her fellow indentured workers are evacuated from a failed colony on a jungle planet.  She spends several happy years as a castaway.  Then she finds herself caught between the interests of an intelligent species nobody knew existed and the highly trained team of specialists who have been sent to make first contact.  They are quite peeved to find her there messing things up, especially because she has a blue-collar background and a junior high education.  She ends up victorious.  I love the last line.

Mime_Paradox said...

Dangit!  I was going to recommend The Longest Journey !*Grumble grumble*  Guess I'll just have to second the recommendation, while also adding that its sequel, Dreamfall is equally good in the "weak hero" respect: while it's a more physical game than TLJ--mostly due to a more direct control system, with occasional bits of combat--its main protagonist, Zöe Castillo, is very much like Firefly's Mal, now that I think about it: she's not the strongest (the other two protagonists are better fighters, and she'll have the deck stacked against her in any physical confrontation) or the smartest (that'd be her best friend, Olivia) or even the one with the most to gain--she's just the one who decides that, when faced with a mystery, she has no choice but to try and solve it.  While opinion is justifiably divided on the game--particularly when it comes to the question of whether or not it's better than the first installment (I think it is, partly because I played Dreamfall first, and partly because I feel it has a more complex plot and characters)--I think it is unquestionably worth your time: it's funny, well written and acted, features one of the most diverse casts in fiction, beautiful, and absolutely heartbreaking.  There are editions of the game which include both Dreamfall and The Longest Journey, so that'd be the best way to try both. 

Cupcakedoll said...

While we're reccomending video games, I loved Syberia.  It has a strong female lead, but may not even count in this instance since it's a combat-free adventure game so Kate has nothing to do but solve puzzles on her quest.  But it's a heartfelt quest in beautifully drawn surroundings.

I reread the opening post in hopes of thinking of something on-topic to say, but came up empty.  *shrug*

Brad said...

I'm reminded of Bernie Cornfeld from the fondly remembered "Mazing Man" series. An old-school comic book editor, Bernie refused to have a secondary character come to the rescue: "The Hero is always the Hero!"

When it comes to heroes with physical weaknesses, unfortunately, the first thing that comes to my mind is a horrible example – the kid from The Goonies who throws away his inhaler at the end. (Maybe he wasn't actually asthmatic, but it still came off as reckless.)

Bificommander said...

I've mused on a twist on a very cliched story: A typical Maverick soldier who doesn't like taking orders, retired from the army, is called back by his equal no-nonsense old general  to infiltrate a third world country he's familiar with. All the while, there's a bureacrat who's compaining that the Maverick isn't taking orders, hasn't been cleared, goes of script etc. At the end it turns out that the Maverick really was working for whatever enemy he's supposed to be fighting all along, and has been using the resources given by his commanders to help them. If only they'd listened to the bureacrat.

Alternatively, a story about Da Chief who works in a police office where all the cops are Dirty-Harry style cowboy cops. While they get cheers from Fox News, the chief has to deal with angry store owners who's shops got trashed in one of the many gunfights, deal with the actually innocent victims of the police brutality. Kind of a dark commedy.

I think there's several Discworld books where the heroes are your typical heroes, but the day is often saved by Vetinari with smart political maneuvering. Plus, The Truth, Going Postal and Making Money had physically weak and unimposing characters. Then there's Rincewind.... Terry Prachet is pretty good at it actually.

Ana Mardoll said...

Bificommander, those would be VERY welcome deconstructions -- and I'll bet we could think of a few more. What about the haggard private detective who plays everything close to the vest and refuses to confide in anyone until the final announcement of who the killer really is... only to drop dead because going in to pick up a killer on your own without any backup is a stupid idea. I'm looking at you, Dresden. :P

swanblood said...

Well, now, to the original post, I just quoted you also ^^

I thought you might like to know it. ^v^

Ana Mardoll said...

Good grief, two quotes?? I'm practically famous now! ;)

And I agree it would be very wonderful to see one's own self in a story, or rather someone with similar weaknesses and handicaps. :)

Silver Adept said...

Bificommander, you need to play the Metal Gear series. Start with Metal Gear Solid, then Solid 2, and Solid 3. Then read the spoilers for Metal Gear to pick up a very important plot point that will make certain things go O.o, and then continue on to Metal Gear Solid 4. While it's worth playing the games, there are movies/discs that have been constructed so as to let you cinematically watch the game and get the plots together.

That's close to the deconstrucion you've mentioned about the Maverick, although there's probably one extra Twist that makes it Just Off of what you were looking for.

Bificommander said...

I don't own a playstation, so I couldn't play it. And because of that, I went ahead and looked up the cutscenes and the story myself. I assume you're talking about Liquid Ocelot's plan in the last game that counted on Solid trying to stop him. I suppose that is a bit like it, hadn't thought of it like that before. Though I personally think they didn't make it very clear why Liquid couldn't do all of it himself. It was a nice twist, sure, but not too well motivated.

I personally thought it would've been easy to change the plot slightly and have it make more sense. Spoiler alert, cause I can't explain this without spoilers: There's a good idea here, storywise. Liquid presents himself as the obvious threat to the Patriots, so they would give support to Solid's efforts to stop Liquid. But Liquid really can't do what he wants without that support from the Patriots, so he arranges that Solid will complete his real plan. The problem is that the Patriots, via Drebin only support Solid in his efforts to break into Outer Heaven. But Liquid owned Outer Heaven, so he didn't need help breaking in. What I think should have been the explanation is that the Patriots either provide Solid's team with a software blueprint of the G.W. AI core (to help him make a virus for the G.W., but it might have been the last ingredient needed to make FOXALIVE able to crack into all the cores), or connected all their AI cores to G.W. at the moment FOXALIVE was uploaded (allegedly neccesary to provide FOXALIVE with the computing power to crack G.W. encryption and/or firewall, but FOXALIVE would've been designed to spread through those connections). Instead, the only input from Solid's team was Sonny being a tiny Deus Ex Machina and rewriting the virus to be nicer. But there's little explanation why Liquid couldn't have uploaded the original version of the virus on their own, it's not like Liquid is very nice himself.

Incidentally, if Solid had been in on this plan from the start, without ever letting the player know this untill the end, it would've been my Maverick idea. As it is now, it's still a decent twist (that could be better), but I think 'protagonist was tricked to do the antagonist's work' is not quite as nice a shock as 'protagonist has been willingly working for the antagonist from the start'. Of course, the latter does take some extra work and effort to pull off. His actions must be consistent with his real goal, without making it obvious to the viewer that he has a hidden goal that's the complete opposite of his alleged goal. I think this could be achieved to have him pair up with a spy in the antagonist's organization (adding another reason for the deception: the antagonist and protagonist need to flush out a spy in their organization), so he needs to keep pretending to work against the antagonist. Said spy could act like the cardboard-cuttout action movie love interest. When the antagonist takes her hostage in act 3, the viewers can facepalm as the protagonist complies with the antagonist to 'save his girlfirend he just met', only to find out he was complying because it was all part of the plan (the protagonist arranged the hostage taking himself).

The main problem with this kind of story is that if you do it right, the people who hate cheesy action stories, and are the intended audience for such a deconstruction, will have tuned out before the twist because it lookds like a cheesy action story. I mean, it's a good thing I usually don't walk out on movies, or I wouldn't have sat through The Sixth Sense all the way to the end when the real brilliance came.

Will Wildman said...

Have I mentioned that it's an entire extra level of odd that every time I come to catch up on comments here, the first thing I see is the reference to myself at the top of the post?  I'm inescapable.
Bificommander, I especially like the idea of the responsible Da Chief dealing with the collateral damage from an entire office of cowboy cops.  The idea of an opening scene in which it's Monday morning and Da Chief has to have an entire parade of one maverick after another coming in to justify how They Get Results, Dammit, is wonderful to me, because each cop could have all the signature quirks necessary to differentiate them from other rebellious heroes, but they would also inevitably blur together into one giant headache.
*Here Will goes off on a long tangent that he eventually decides to cut because he's more interested in the next bit.* 
I've been thinking about a different decon-recon story lately, which is totally appropriate for this thread, because I've been trying to decide how to make one of the main characters weaker.  I was thinking about the ridiculous premise of 'kingdom is toppled, last heir is slipped out of the massacre, twenty years later as a young man he sets out on a lone quest to reclaim his kingdom'.  Because inevitably dude is an incredible warrior capable of carving through whole armies on his own, but somehow this is also going to make him an ideal monarch?  And he has been trained to be an effective soldier, general, politician, judge, and possibly inciter of a peasant rebellion by age 20?  What?

So the two options I am weighing are that 1) he really has been trained as an expert fighter, essentially growing up to become a weapon for overthrowing evil overlords, which would naturally make him rubbish at the political aspects, or 2) he's been trained as a leader, a diplomat, a historian, a person who makes excellent decisions, and he's going to need to find a non-stabby way of reclaiming the kingdom because he's not actually that great with a sword.

Option 1 tends more towards the deconstruction, in that it would emphasise the logical consequences of the traditional premise of the story; option 2 is more the reconstruction, redesigning the premise so that it logically flows toward the traditional goals.

If anyone has Thoughts, I would welcome them.

Gelliebean said...

I like both ideas, for different reasons - the first lends itself nicely to the introduction of a "power behind the throne" - a sidekick or companion who is trusted because of hir involvement with bringing the hero to the throne, and for whom the hero acts as a figurehead (and who, at author's discretion, may or may not have secret nefarious purposes).  :-p

The second seems like more of a subversion, and would also be really interesting to me.  I think Tamora Pierce did this sort of thing pretty well in "Trickster's Choice" and "Trickster's Queen", giving her heir to the crown a solid backing of a wide range of resources and an impending revolution that's been years and years in the making.  (Caveat: although I really enjoyed the stories, Pierce's books have been criticised for racial implications and YMMV.)

I think part of the reason this trope is such a standard is because there's already a basis for it in the assumption of Divine Right.  The only reason for hereditary rulership in the first place is if (a) the kingdom is seen as a possession which can be handed down from father to son; therefore it was stolen by the usurper and is rightfully the heir's property whether or not he's suited to managing it, and/or (b) the rather circular belief that he was firstborn to the king, so he was chosen by the gods to rule, so he must be the best person for it, so he was firstborn to the king to cement his claim.

Ana Mardoll said...

I think part of the reason this trope is such a standard is because
there's already a basis for it in the assumption of Divine Right.

And now I'm going to make a fool of myself by Ranting About Books I Haven't Read...

I can never bring myself to read the Dune series because the whole thing seems specifically formulated to irritate me. IIRC, the protagonist is a special butterfly male child who was born in defiance of a prophecy because his mother loved her husband too much to NOT give him a male heir, because obviously a female heir would just be crap.

And then Special Male Butterfly Prophecy Child embarks on a quest to get back the planet he "rightfully" owns despite not having, you know, been born there or raised there or anything. But it's ok, because the people who DO own it suck, and also he takes a native lover which gives him great insight into her people's suffering, natch. Well, in that case, Great White Male Savior, here are the keys to the kingdom, come on in.

I freely admit that MUCH of my negative opinion is rooted in the fact that my first introduction to Dune was the movie and I came in halfway. I thought for sure the protagonist was the Bad Guy because (a) he's using military means to take over a planet he doesn't come from, (b) his sister was CLEARLY evil and/or possessed, and (c) when the noble princess at the end offers to submit to a loveless marriage in order to end the fighting, the protagonist's camp GLOATS about how miserable she'll be in her new crappy marriage.

I turned to the guy I was watching TV with and said, "My god, what a downer ending. The bad guy won." He, a Dune fan himself, was horrified that apparently I'd misunderstood something. We started the movie over from the beginning, and I STILL thought the Atreides seemed like bad guys. He got upset, and I've yet to touch the book despite it being apparently mandatory for SciFi fans.

Help me out here: did the movie just completely misrepresent the book?

Will Wildman said...

The way I figured the hero would plan it in scenario 1, he would do his job of freeing the kingdom and then install someone else as monarch before setting his sights on another corrupt ruler somewhere who needs toppling.  I'm generally not wild about the idea of setting up a figurehead scenario and casting it as a good thing.

(Although it does remind me of the story I talked about in the portion of that post that got cut out; there the new king is both ruler and figurehead; he's brilliant with logistics and morally centred, which was good enough to let him lead his army to victory over the invaders and be approved as the new ruler, but has no concept of public perception and appeasing lesser nobility (and may have something like Asperger's).  He's so busy figuring out how to bring in food and materials to winter over a devastated nation that he fails to notice that the civilians and the aristocrats are turning on him.  Fortunately his queen considers a public-image campaign to be a great way to relax when she needs a break from running the spy network, and then it starts getting dark and meta because it's about messed-up people being ordered to do flawless impressions of high fantasy archetypes.  "Yes, I know you're conflicted about murdering that guy and finding out that your brother was a horrible criminal, but you need to act the part of the untarnished knight errant right now.  Now, stand over here next to your partner who thinks she's allowing the return of supreme supernatural evil to the world.  No, I don't care if the two of you think your relationship might be a shallow husk born of wartime panic; the romance angle is great.")

(I am terrible at shutting up sometimes.)

chris the cynic said...

2) he's been trained as a leader, a diplomat, a historian, a person who makes excellent decisions, and he's going to need to find a non-stabby way of reclaiming the kingdom because he's not actually that great with a sword.


If anyone has Thoughts, I would welcome them.

Fred has occasionally mentioned the idea of a solution neatly divided into two problems.  We see these things an marvel at the stupidity of our leaders for ignoring the obvious solution.  Even a mediocre leader should be able to see the solution divided into two problems.  Consider someone who has little difficulty seeing a solution divided into twenty six problems.  (And can see more complicated solutions given time.)
If your character were that kind of a person he could use that lead effectively in any number of settings, while being utterly inept in every area other than directing the work of others.  I don't necessarily mean comically inept, but I do think it would be a major barrier to being listened to.

"I think we should [major changes to how the village deals with farming described in detail]."
"Why should we listen to you?  You can't even grow a dandelion."

If his way of reclaiming the kingdom is stabby that's going be very difficult for him because he'll need to assemble a group of warriors who are all significantly more competent than he is and yet somehow convince them that he is the one they should be listening to.

Also if taken to an extreme, it could lead to a couple of interesting dynamics in a fight, one is that he tells everyone what to do and then hides in a corner to stay out of their way (I did say extreme right?) which makes him feel inadequate and makes them think he's a coward.

The other is that he tries to fight along side them and has to be shoved off to the side both for his own safety and to be out of the more competent warriors way.

Neither one would be likely to make his job as leader any easier.

Basically he'd be a character who is designed to be in a position where he can say, "I don't need to X, I have people to X for me," except he doesn't yet have those people, which means that he has to find those people and convince them to follow him even though on his own he's almost entirely useless.  (If his training was with the assumption that he'd have advisers when the time came, he might not even be all that knowledgeable since his job as leader would be to work with the information given to him, not have or get the information himself.)

Anyway, those are my Thoughts.

Ana Mardoll said...

No, I don't care if the two of you think your relationship might be a
shallow husk born of wartime panic; the romance angle is great.

Will, you have a way with words. :D

Ana Mardoll said...

Thank you, Chris. That sounds insanely complicated, so I appreciate you culling all that out of your memory for me. o.O

I had cottoned on that the current planetary owners were real jerks and were NOT doing right by the planet, but that didn't quite put me over on the Atreides side. I kept sort of hoping that the locals would rise up and kill all of them before the day was out, but I guess that wasn't in the cards. I do know that Paul becomes very "native-like" in his customs and even in the later books does the "I'm no use to society, I'll walk out into the desert" custom (which is another rant entirely because I felt like that "custom" made the natives look backward and barbaric, and isn't that just another issue of Great White Paul being so much *better* thn everyone else, ugh, but again maybe my details are wrong.)

Wiki says that the little girl was poisoning and killing people as a kid, though, right? I remember that being in the movie I watched that, was, I think, the one with Sting in it. I just sort of vaguely remember baby girl flying across the room and being stabbity and me being all, OH JEEZ DEMON CHILD. It's been a few years.

I'm so glad to hear that the princess stands up for herself and causes trouble later on. For some reason, I identified strongly with her in her 5 minutes of the movie and the HAHA ENJOY YOUR LOVELESS MARRIAGE thing *really* affected me. Just didn't seem like something the good guys should be saying/doing. Regardless of how evil her dad was/is, she was giving up her future (and for all she knew, submitting to be raped, tortured, etc.) for the cause of peace. The victorious SCREW YOU B*TCH ending made me uncomfortable -- like she was supposed to pay for her father's crimes. Her having SOME agency (as a Good Guy OR a Bad Guy) would be a nice resolution.

I should probably give the book a chance because it's so famous, and I do have it perpetually on my library reading list, but I *think* it will cause me ranting.

chris the cynic said...

Her having SOME agency (as a Good Guy OR a Bad Guy) would be a nice resolution.
I've just spent 20 minutes adding what I thought were minor changes to my previous post (apparently I have no concept of minor as minor shouldn't take 20 minutes.)  One of the things that I expanded on is that in the first book she has basically zero agency.  She's just there.  Well, most of the time she isn't there.  But when she finally shows up she's just ... there.  She gets looked at, she gets talked about, she says she will go along with what someone else told her to do because she was groomed for it.  But she's almost a prop.

I've never really thought of it before, but I feel like if she had been treated better the entire universe would have ended up better because she really does seem to default to good, if given the chance.  She just couldn't stand being treated like crap for as long as she did, and even after that she still ended up being good.

Ana Mardoll said...

Minor changes taking 20 minutes is standard to me, so I think you're good on the conceptual side of things. *grin*

I think, for me, I was coming off of just seeing "Robin Hood, Men in Tights" recently and the Atriedes/Princess marriage just really shocked me. The Marian/Sheriff marriage in the Robin Hood legends has been played with in practically every Robin Hood retelling, and it's genuinely frightening because Marian is facing a life that is worse than death. Even aside from the rape issues, there's just the incredible awful loneliness of being bound in marriage forever to someone who hates you and doesn't value you even a little bit at all. For her to submit to that is (rightfully) treated as a major sacrifice in the Robin Hood mythos -- she's willing to suffer a genuinely awful fate to save the life of a loved one.

If there's one easy way to pick out a classical villain, it's that guy who is forcing the innocent-of-wrongdoing heroine into a loveless marriage with him. And if there's one thing that modern fictional heroes do NOT do, it's allow innocent-of-wrongdoing heroines to sacrifice their lives, their futures, and their lady-parts in a loveless marriage for the sake of peace. For that to suddenly BAM! show up in the ending of Dune cemented my trope-guided belief that Paul -- no matter what other virtues he might have -- simply could NOT be a good guy. A good guy would have at least bee-lined over to the princess and said, "Look, I'm sorry about this, can I get you anything so that you'll be comfortable here?" 

Loquat said...

Chris has already covered what I was going to say about the breeding program requiring an Atreides daughter to marry to a Harkonnen son (speaking of loveless marriages that are likely to suck...) but I also had the impression that there was a minor theme that noblemen had to marry for political advantage and so were much more likely to find romantic love with concubines rather than wives. Paul's mother is a concubine - I've forgotten why his father never promoted her to full-fledged wife status, but probably because it wouldn't bring House Atreides any material benefit - and she's right there at the end telling Chani how being her man's beloved concubine while he completely ignores his legal wife will be great, and history will recognize both of them as their men's true partners. So the gloating's really sort of a consolation prize for the women who have to put up with concubine status - "You have the title that should be mine, but HA HA I still get to keep the benefits that really matter!"

Ana Mardoll said...

I understand it, but I don't like it. I rather imagine it would suck to be a concubine-without-legal-rights almost as much as it would suck to be legal-wife-whilst-utterly-hated. I'm disappointed that Protagonist Paul doesn't do more to diffuse the situation for both his hurt-by-the-patriarchy women.

The gloating also struck me as incredibly poor-timed given that the Princess was the daughter of the defeated foe. There is, I think, a trope that basically revolves around "revenge" sex, and it hinges on having/owning/hurting/sexing the daughter/wife/mistress of the villain as retaliation against the villain. It's problematic because having/owning/hurting/sexing an innocent person to get revenge on a villain makes the good guy a bad person...  I need to dig that trope up because I cannot remember the name.

Bificommander said...

Eh, it still sounds better than Avatar. Dear god, hundreds of millions of dollars and using a script that was written for a budget of 100 dolars plus coffee and donuts halfway through (or if it did cost a lot more, the writers  overcharged). The visual were stunning but the story bugged me so much that I was rooting for the humans half the time. I am all for a pro-enviromental message, but when we get into the territory where we explictily state that a space-age technology has nothing of value to offer to a tribal society, I give up. Either it is complete bullshit, or the tribal society in question has nothing whatsoever to do with humanity, since human tribal societies are generally not capable of creating a utopia. (See also the WALL-E ending where a group of humans who rediscovered walking two days ago are capable of forming a working agricultural society that allegedly doesn't lead to mass extinction through famine. I can only assume the robots were still doing 99% of the work.)

I get the 'rooting for the other side' reaction a lot. On the top of my head, Serenity and Demolition man. I actually began to like the Alliance and the overly pacifistic society more, just because they were supposed to be the big evil for the manly Mavericks.

Redwood Rhiadra said...

So the two options I am weighing are that 1) he really has been trained
as an expert fighter, essentially growing up to become a weapon for
overthrowing evil overlords, which would naturally make him rubbish at
the political aspects,

This is sort of the plot of the classic cheesy B-movie The Sword and the Sorcerer. Royal family massacred, heir to the throne smuggled out, twenty years later there's a peasant rebellion led by someone who claims to be the heir (some sort of distant royal cousin, I think) but is really a pretender to the throne.

In comes Talon, beer-swilling, wench-raping mercenary, and his band of thugs. Talon pretty much single-handedly defeats the usurper and his evil vizier (the aforementioned sorcerer), his payment being a night with the sister of the pretender. Talon is of course, the real heir to the kingdom, as shown by his use of the utterly ridiculous three-bladed royal sword. He's completely unsuited to rule the kingdom, and he knows it. So he puts the pretender on the throne and leaves (without telling anyone his real identity), with the credits telling us to watch for the further adventures of Talon in the sequel. (Which was, of course, never made).

Utter, utter cheese, but the deconstruction of the traditional plot line is fun.

Ana Mardoll said...

I actually liked Avatar, and it didn't set off my Great White Savior alarm bells because I didn't get the impression that What's-His-Face (Jake?) was going to be a big leader after the war was over. An important member of society as a diplomat with the humans, yes, but not He Who Leads All The Tribes Because Of His Awesome White Advancedness. As opposed to Atriedes, who I saw as basically taking over the role of conqueror.

To use an American analogy, to me, it's the difference between if a European guy had 'gone native', organized the tribes, and driven the European colonizers out before settling down with a chieftain's daughter for good lovings (Avatar) and otherwise bowing out of tribal politics versus if, say, Portugal had shown up, drove the other European's out, and then set themselves up to oppress the natives ever-so-slightly less (Dune). Maybe it's subjective.

As for the message, I saw it less as a utopia thing and more of a "if other cultures don't want anything from us, it's their right to say so." A big facet of the Star Trek Prime Directive is, IMHO, that it's arrogant to assume that everyone wants and needs our "advanced" way of life. Yes, the Navi way of life had drawbacks, but so does our advanced way of life and it's extremely crucial to remember that and give other cultures their space. (How would we feel if the Navi's invaded Earth and made us live THEIR way of life? Etc.)

Amaryllis said...

Unless you go by the prequels
I try to stay away from prequels, myself. They never seem to work out well; something about the story being constrained before it ever gets started, or something.

I read Dune too many years ago to remember the details, but decades later I can recall the disgusted feeling I had for that last scene.  "History will call us wives." Well, good for you.

Of course, historically, marriage among the rulers and the aristocracy was not a matter of love. It was lands and alliances and money. The women weren't asked, and a lot of the time the men weren't asked either, at least if they were young. It's possible to write a story set in that kind of culture and have the husband be reasonably sympathetic;  is it so hard to have him treat his wife with respect rather than cruelty, with affection rather than disdain, even if it doesn't turn into a grand love affair.

And the king often did end up marrying the daughter of the defeated foe. Look at Henry V: we have no idea how the real-life Catherine de Valois felt about marrying him (at least I don't), but Shakespeare's play has the two of them flirting happily, apparently quite taken with each other. It's all in how you write it. Revenge sex, ugh; making the best of necessity, can work.

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