Making a Character Prodigiously Powerful Will Not Make Them Interesting

So, I was watching the trailer for ‘The Last Jedi,’ where Luke is telling Rey that he’s only seen her kind of power once before, that she’s amazingly in tune with the Force and so on and so forth and I thought “Man, I am tired of the heroes in these kinds of stories being amazing prodigies.”

Now, I’d like to unpack that a little. First of all, yes, in an adventure or fantasy story the hero ought to be special or extraordinary in some way. Otherwise there’s no point in talking about them. But something about this particular instance annoyed me, and I tried to compare it to some other instances I know about.

First there’s the preceding films, ‘Phantom Menace’ and its sequels, where, again, Anakin was repeatedly built up as Jedi prodigy without equal, and it struck me as similarly annoying (though there it was so buried in an avalanche of other bad storytelling techniques that it was kind of hard to notice).

So, latter ‘Star Wars’ films all have this plot element, and I find it annoying in each case. The originals, however, didn’t have it. Luke had potential and was attune with the Force, but nothing indicated he was anything unusually powerful: the issue was that he had aptitude, and was apparently the only chance for the Jedi to continue. Likewise, Han was a tough, clever outlaw, but not a master warrior or genius strategist. Yet, as we all know, Luke and Han were much more interesting and engaging characters than either Grey – sorry, Rey – or Anakin.

Are there other cases? Let’s consider the other major pop culture stories. The Harry Potter series actually avoids this as well. Harry was never portrayed as an extreme magical prodigy, on par with the likes of Dumbledore, Tom Riddle, or even Snape. He was pretty consistently played as being talented, but not extraordinary: he had natural talent in flying (which he himself points out isn’t especially useful) and was especially skilled in defensive magic, largely because he’d been through a crucible of extreme circumstances almost from day one. The point of the story was that his friends and his fundamental decency were ultimately more powerful than raw magical might.

Obviously in The Lord of the Rings the whole point was that Frodo and his fellow Hobbits weren’t anything extraordinary. Aragorn was, but it wasn’t really his story. Even when we focus on him, he’s not the ‘audience identification’ figure: we’re more meant to admire him as a paradigm than to identify with him.

Then there’s Avatar the Last Airbender. Now, in that one, Aang is uniquely powerful, which works because that’s the premise of the story, and the progression is watching him undergo training to make the most of his vast potential. On the other hand, all his friends are prodigies as well; Katara and Toph are presented as being among the greatest benders in their field, and Sokka is a brilliant strategist and inventor. Now, I love Avatar, but this, I think, is actually one of the few major flaws with the series: the fact that all the greatest Benders in the world are either under eighteen or over fifty: there are no middle-aged or in-their-prime masters on screen. That kind of hurts the suspension of disbelief.

As for My Little Pony, Twilight is presented as a great magical prodigy, but the story isn’t about her magical prowess: it’s about her learning about friendship, at which she’s explicitly portrayed as being below average to start with. Likewise with her friends, Rainbow Dash and Rarity are both played as being naturally very talented, but still needing a lot of hard work and training to reach their full potential, which is ultimately achieved only through a lot of time, sacrifice, and effort. Starlight is also a natural magical prodigy, but this is actually played as a bit of a liability, since her first instinct is always to use magic to solve her problems. Since, again, the point of the story is virtue and friendship, not magic.

Now, Phineas and Ferb is premised on its titular pair being extreme prodigies. But there are two things about that; first, it’s required by the premise and is obviously exaggerated to the point of being ridiculous. In the second, despite the title the show is really more about their sister, Candace, whose character arc involves her jealousy towards her extraordinary brothers and her own sense of inadequacy. Thus, the entry point of the show is still an identifiable figure.

Less well known, Larry Correia’s Grimnoir trilogy, with its X-Men-meets-Ray Chandler set up (Chandler himself is actually a minor character), also has a preternaturally talented cast. But there, it feels earned. The characters have almost all had intense, harsh lives and extreme training to augment their powers. Like, Jake, the main protagonist, is a WWI veteran who did hard time in a brutal prison, in addition to being naturally intelligent. Another character, Heinrich, grew up in the zombie-infested ruins of Berlin, where he’d have to develop extraordinary abilities to survive. There’s really only one character who is presented as a preternatural prodigy – Faye – and then her extreme talent is a plot point with a large part of the series taken up with trying to find out why she’s so powerful.

That, I think, is the main thing that separates the instances that work and the ones that don’t: if it feels earned. With Rey and Anakin, and some others, it doesn’t feel earned: we’re simply told that they’re uniquely powerful and talented, and that therefore we should be invested in their story. But the trouble is, they’re boring characters: there’s no reason to care about what happens to them. Luke, Han, and Leia were great characters in their own right, and were fun to watch. All the other characters I mentioned were also great, fun, interesting characters in their own right. That, I think, is the other thing that I find annoying about the latter Star Wars films and a lot of other contemporary stories: that it feels like a cheap ploy to try to make boring characters seem interesting.

I remember on one writing advice site I perused a while back, one of the principles offered was ‘Superpowers will not make a boring character interesting.’ If the character’s personality, story, and arc aren’t engaging, then assuring us that they’re a genius or a prodigy or amazingly powerful won’t change that.

As you can tell, I’m not looking forward to Last Jedi: I really just don’t care anymore. I didn’t like Force Awakens very much, and it’s gone down in my estimation upon reflection. I don’t buy that this is really ‘what happened next’ in the story: it just feels like they’re rehashing the same plot, only with duller characters. And the assurance that Kylo and Rey (AKA dull and duller) are the most powerful Force users ever only makes it seem even more boring.

In short, I don’t care what happens to these people.

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Various and Sundry Cartoon Thoughts

Most of my viewing habits lately have been directed towards cartoons. Maybe it’s because I find the rest of the entertainment world increasingly hostile, or just because I enjoy the medium, but in any case I’ve been watching a lot of animated shows lately.

Stories, I find, are like relationships: made up of thousands of individual moments adding up to an overall tone that is either positive or negative. Either you like the person and feel better for having known them, or you dislike them and would prefer to having nothing to do with them. Then again, there are the ones who simply pass you by without leaving much of an impression. So, of the cartoons of recent years that I’ve watched, here are some general thoughts:

Avatar the Last Airbender is pretty much top of the heap: less a great show than a great fantasy-adventure that happens to have an animated show for its medium. Rich, beautiful, mostly positive (some lame feminist agitprop that really doesn’t fit the setting is probably the worst of it), filled with great characters and a wonderful story almost perfectly told.

My Little PonyFriendship is Magic, of course, I love. It’s certainly an acquired taste that not everyone will like, but man it hit a note with me with its timeless setting and storytelling, complex and charming characters, and especially its strong moral emphasis. I love moralism and ethical philosophy, and this show is not only all about that, but actually seems to know what its talking about. Great humor and some beautifully creative animation add to the charm.

Phineas and Ferb is another one that really speaks to me. In a world full of despair, resentment, and pessimism, the cheery good-will and hope that forms the core of this show is a breath of fresh air. It’s all about nice people doing nice things and enjoying life, but manages to do it in a smart, hilarious, and deceptively thoughtful way so that it doesn’t come across as the least sappy or contrived. I think Mr. Disney would have loved it; it’s espouses exactly the kind of hopeful can-do optimism that he did.

Gravity Falls I have mixed feelings about. Its really well written (for the most part), and its high moments are fantastic. I laughed hard and even choked up a few times. There’s a lot of creativity, and I enjoyed the fact that the show was willing to get really dark and scary at times. At the same time, though, there’s a mean-spirited, cynical side to it that I did not like, and when it’s bad, it can be really stupid. Plus it’s kinda ugly and there are some moral issues to it that would definitely prevent my showing this to my kids. I’ll have to delve deeper into it later.

Milo Murphy’s Law is the sequel series to Phineas and Ferb, by the same crew, so you know this is gonna be good. Like its predecessor, it boasts great characters and a refreshingly positive attitude, while being even crazier and more off-the-wall, with things like time-traveling secret agents, pistachio monsters, a teacher who may or may not be a vampire, and so on. It’s more serialized than its predecessor, with more of an overarching storyline, and though so far it’s not as good as Phineas and Ferb, it’s pretty close.

-The Ducktales reboot is too young to really say for sure, but so far the signs are very positive. I didn’t really watch the original, but the rebooted series is a ton of fun, and I love that Scrooge is allowed to be an actually heroic capitalist, and even to espouse solid principles about hard-work and self-reliance. The characters are all a lot of fun, there’s some intriguing story developments in the works, and I’m honestly eager to see where they go with this. Plus it has Kate Micucci as Webby, who also voices Milo’s sister Sara in Milo Murphy’s Law, and I’m kind of in love with her voice, which is the most adorably charming croak since Jean Arthur. It also has Donald Duck as a main character: what more needs to be said? It’s Donald Duck! You’d have to work hard to make him not funny.

Danny Phantom, you know what I think of that. A decent show that could have been fantastic if they had put a little more effort and imagination into it.

Sonic Boom is not very good, but it’s kind of charming for that very reason: less like they were really trying with it than they were just having fun playing with these characters. It’s pretty funny and just kind of relaxing to put on and enjoy. I can’t say it’s a good show, but it’s entertaining and pretty harmless.

Season 7 In Revue

So, Season Seven of My Little Pony is officially over, leaving us to wait until spring for Season Eight…while enjoying a series of Equestria Girls shorts on YouTube! More Equestria Girl stuff the better.

On the whole, it was a good one; the writing’s as strong as ever and the show doesn’t display many signs of slowing down. Several episodes I thought ranked as among the show’s best, including an amazing run of Royal Problem, Discordant Harmony, and The Perfect Pear in the space of four episodes (the fourth, Not Asking for Trouble, was pretty good as well). Perfect Pear in particular is clearly in the top five of all time. Of course, the story wasn’t all rosy: some of the episodes, especially in the first half of the season, were pretty uneven, and one of them, Daring Done was, I thought, one of the weakest of the whole series.

Now, how did my wish list shake out?

7. Villain Team Up

Nope, not this time. I’m hopeful it’ll happen at some point down the road, though.

6. Button Mash

No, but I didn’t really expect it to happen anyway.

5. The Return of Diamond Tiara

Well…she had a prominent cameo in one episode, where she got to show a little personality, but that’s it.

4. Gabby and Gilda Episode

Nope. Neither appeared

3. Spotlight One of Pinkie’s Other Sisters

Like #5, they got a non-speaking cameo, but that’s it.

2. Scootaloo’s Parents

Nothing direct, but we did get a brief allusion to her home life, where she commented that she doesn’t have anyone offering her support or encouragement. The more hints they give about her parents, the more I get the feeling the subject would be too painful for this show to deal with.

Honorable mentions:

-Pet-Centric Episode: Nothing doing

-Ember Comes to Ponyville: Yes! And it was every bit as much fun as you’d think

-Owlowicious and Spike Episode: Nope. I don’t think Owlowicious even appeared, except in photo form.

-Princess Celestia Fighting and Not Losing: Yes! Granted it was in a dream sequence, but even so, her confrontation with her own evil self, Daybreaker, as well as Nightmare Moon in Starlight’s dream was one of the season highlights and let us see just how powerful she really is.

-Rainbow Dash solo: Nope…though she did get a major part in a number in the movie, which was pretty good.

1.Sunset Shimmer Comes to Equestria

Yes! Though it was unfortunately brief, and she only got to hang out with Starlight. Still, we got to see Sunset being a pony again for a while and Starlight visiting the human world, and though we didn’t get to spend as much time on either as I would have liked, they were just as much fun as I expected.

Here’s looking forward to Season Eight!

Really Good Post at First Things

I found this essay at First Things and had to share it. Of the many issues plaguing the contemporary Church, perhaps the strangest is our great fear of rigidity or ‘legalism.’ Really, who looking at Christians in America or Western Europe could honestly think “our biggest problem is that we’re too rigid, too intolerant of sin, and too zealous for the letter of the law.”

The author of this piece explains the mentality behind ‘legalism’ and how helpful it can be in fighting against sin and drawing us to greater heights of holiness.

Who has not reflected on a certain moment of temptation and been impressed by the mastery and expertise with which the trap was laid? A very fine temptation offers not only secrecy, but justification and promises of no harassment from a nagging conscience later on. If Christians would fight temptation, they must have not only the desire to win, but a strategy for obedience that respects the prowess of their enemy.

“I will not gossip at school” is not a rule, I explained to my students, “because it is a Christian obligation.” A monastic rule does not deal in obligations, but in voluntarily laying down your rights. No Christian is allowed to gossip. No Christian is allowed to be slothful. No Christian is allowed to lust. These are not rules a man gives himself, but commands of God, which are not up for debate. But Lucifer is a crafty devil and does not tempt every human in the same way. He tailors temptations. He has learned that men fall prey to certain temptations more readily than women, and vice versa. Healthy men are more tempted by pride, unhealthy more tempted by sloth. Thus, gluttony is prohibited by God, but ice cream and potato chips are not. If a man has no problem eating a modest portion of ice cream and laying the spoon aside, then he needs no rule to aid him in fulfilling God’s command not to be a glutton. If another man cannot eat a bite of ice cream without eating the whole bucket, he needs a rule to help him fight temptation.

Read it all. We need more of this in the Church.

 

One Year On

I don’t talk politics very much because it depresses me. Besides which, my own political ideas are pretty fringe at the moment and I’m not seeing anything good coming in the next few years. I typically vote Republican because the Democratic Party is absurdly evil (they literally have ‘kill babies’ as a major part of their platform), though I don’t like the Republicans that much and think they’re generally a lot of spineless cowards with little to no actual convictions and couldn’t lead a horse to a salt lick. The two political parties are like having a choice between Neville Chamberlain and Mao Zedong.

Nor do I like Trump. I think he’s a repulsive human being and an embarrassing leader. The really sad thing, though, is that I don’t see many politicians on the field I think would be much better (though one of them is actually Mike Pence, so if Trump gets impeached I think it’d be a trade up). Although I will say that I generally find the reactions people have to have to him to be much more alarming than anything he’s actually done, but that’s another story.

All that said, I was pretty sure he was going to win.

A few things made me think that. First of all was when I saw that Michigan was actually in play. The last time Michigan went blue was to vote for the first Bush, so when I realized Trump might actually win Michigan, I knew Hillary was in trouble. That’s actually why I decided at the last minute to cast my vote his way: I had been planning to vote third party, but realizing that it actually might make a difference, I gritted my teeth and signed for Trump.

Second was the mere fact that Hillary was going out of her way to alienate most of the country. Open borders, racist rhetoric about white people, doubling down on hatred of Christians and so on. You can only directly insult people for so long before they turn on you.

Then, of course, there was the whole ‘she broke the law’ thing. The more I heard people talking about it, the more that one song from ‘Hamilton’ was playing in my head: “Never gonna be President now.”

So, yeah, I knew Trump had a good chance of winning, and I was chuckling all the way as he did. Schadenfreude may be a sin, but I’m willing to indulge in it anyway. Again, going back to the ‘you can’t keep insulting people and expect them to be nice to you’ thing.

Various and Sundry

– As mentioned, I suffer from some pretty bad insomnia, to the point where I often can’t sleep even with sleep aids (they just make me more tired). I also have mild to moderate depression. The two do not mix well. Most nights I get to spend hours lying there, exhausted but unable to sleep and with nothing to distract me from the lovely thoughts of failure, incompetence, and regret chasing each other round and round my brain.

My post on beauty rather blew up: four-thousand views and over three thousand shares in twenty-four hours. Yet only twenty likes; I think I touched a nerve or two with that one.

-Some of the responses have, predictably, taken the form of the offense fallacy: if you don’t like what someone says, construe it as an insult, either to yourself or someone else. Most people will rush to assure you they meant no harm and not even notice the fact that not liking the implications of an idea isn’t an argument for its truth or falsehood. And since just about everything can be taken as an insult if you try hard enough, it’s a very handy little trick.

-It occurs to me that the mere fact that disenfranchised populations have been able to win themselves the vote rather tells against the necessity of granting them voting rights. The mere fact that they were able to successfully agitate to have the franchise extended to them shows that they were capable of affecting public policy without the right to vote. True, it was much harder and could only be done with great effort, requiring it to be reserved for matters considered of grave importance…which is another point against extending the franchise (since every change brings unexpected consequences, the harder it is to make serious changes the better). You know, more and more I find I’m theoretically against the idea of universal suffrage.

Catholic Match: On Beauty

My latest post is up on CatholicMatch, in which I get to quote St. Augustine, The Lord of the Rings, and My Little Pony all in the service of beauty.

That is why I hate the phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ and consider it a grotesque blasphemy. To turn that which so completely removes our gaze from ourselves and twists it into a mere statement of our own reactions—in fact to turn our gaze back upon ourselves—is the sensual equivalent of an auto-immune disease, akin to making your charitable works a demonstration of your own piety. Like so much in our modern culture, it invokes compassion to tempt us to self-centeredness.

No, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. It is not something we project upon the world around us, but something that we meet and respond to. It is undeniable reality. As St. Augustine said, if you question the beauty of created things, they themselves will answer you “Here, look; we are beautiful,” and in so doing, point to the glory of their Creator.

The natural response, the one we ought to have, is to admire beauty and to be thankful for it. When we meet beauty in the form of a woman (which is the greatest form of beauty we normally meet in this life), it can inspire the first beginnings of love.

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Read the rest and see what you think.