20 March 2012

People Will Accept Whatever Stupid Shit You Give Them; Or, Don't Prey on the Shittiness of Others

I’m probably not going to touch on a lot of non-fiction, but this time I am because it serves to teach a lesson. Great Captains Unveiled by B. H. Liddell Hart is ostensibly a work of military science meant to teach lessons through the lens of historical fact. I’m not going to say it doesn’t do that, necessarily, but in doing so it bestows a nearly deific status on the leaders it touches on. It’s simply bad history.

“But Gabriel,” you say, a sense of indignant disinterest rising in your breast, “who gives a fuck?” That’s an excellent question Reader Who Lives in my Head! To my eye, this should stick out as a very, very bad idea that will take your reader out of the work. However, my eye is clearly wrong because some of the most popular works of fiction do precisely this: See Dune, which did this at least once per book, creating the sort of epic power creep normally associated with horribly-run tabletop gaming, or the vast majority of anime (Yes I’ve been known to partake. Don’t judge.). Even something like Bones or Rambo has this same sort of inhumanly capable character that makes any real, plausible character seem quaint and tawdry. Truth be told, a really solid portion of Hollywood films, all the way from The One and The Matrix to A Beautiful Mind and Good Will Hunting employ this exact same trope of the impossibly awesome character. (No, don’t link me to the TVTropes name for that. Don’t do it. TVTropes is made by the devil to undermine all that’s enjoyable in the world.)

What does this demonstrate? It demonstrates that there is a willingness in the reader/viewer to accept characters which verge on deus ex machina personified, provided they can put themselves into the shoes of the character, or at least into the shoes of the character’s love interest or bff. Ask yourself why there is a pseudo-‘normal’ opposite-sex companion to every Dune Ubermensch. It’s not because there needs to be a crowbarred-in romance subplot, though that doesn’t hurt; it’s because people are willing to accept any level of absurdity so long as it’s their absurdity, an absurdity they feel some ownership in.

To be clear, this is not a license to write terrible characters. This is an observation on human nature. Don’t take advantage of this any more than you would take candy from a baby simply because the baby can’t fight back. Write good characters who aren’t irrationally capable, and allow people to experience them at a level deeper than “I wish *I* could kill everyone in the world with a single thought!”