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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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.

My Imperialism

I like to describe myself as an imperialist, or at least as having imperialist sympathies. That’s admittedly a bit of an exaggeration, but is certainly true relative to most of my contemporaries, if only because I don’t automatically equate ‘colonialism’ and ’empire-building’ with ‘evil.’ My admittedly-limited knowledge of history tells me that the world is at its safest and most prosperous when one or two large ruling powers of high culture exert dominance over most of the world. Nor am I much moved by talk about it not being ‘their land.’ For the vast majority of mankind, who is ruling them matters much less than how they are ruled, and, especially, how much they’re left alone. If an imperial power rules a certain region, and in so doing largely leaves the locals to manage their own affairs while shielding them from invaders, preventing local rivalries from boiling over into violence, and linking them up with a prosperous economic system, I don’t see how that can be considered a worse state of affairs as far as the local populace is concerned than that region being left to govern itself, fight off its own enemies, deal with its own inner rivalries, and sift for itself in the global economy.

(On the subject of this kind of benign neglect, I remember reading about a survey conducted after the British departure from India where some people travelled around to see what the rural villages and farming communities thought of the British departure. The most common response was ‘who are the British?’).

Now, I’m not discounting the great evils done by the various colonial empires, but we should note that in most cases the alternative was not ‘brutal dominance by Western powers’ and ‘free and happy independence.’ The alternative is more ‘brutal dominance by Western powers’ and ‘brutal dominance by the nearest powerful neighbor’ or ‘brutal dominance by local ruler, with accompanying sectarian violence, probably soon to be followed by dominance by nearest powerful neighbor.’ Whatever the flaws of the Western powers, they at least had the temporizing influence of civilized and Christian values that might conceivably restrain them.

I also note that, at least as far as the British Empire is concerned, the two main counter-arguments to British rule – Ireland and America – were instances where they did not practice the kind of benign neglect that they generally employed elsewhere. And there are other issues there (i.e. the religious question in Ireland), but that’s for another time.

In any case, I think there are serious arguments in favor of western imperialism. Actually, I think it would be more justified today than it was in its heyday (since today, unrest in one region can lead to violence and humanitarian crises on the other side of the world), but that hardly matters, since it’s not coming back any time soon. Mostly this was all just a long intro to the following video, which is a summation of the positive effects of the British Empire. It’s a little over-sunny, but since most people today tend towards the opposite extreme I’m not going to knock it for that. Enjoy!

 

Check My Reasoning Here

I was fantasizing about pitting one of my characters against Hannibal Lecter (because I do that sort of thing) when I came out with an argument that rather surprised me. It went something like this:

When a psychologist is studying his patient, his only evidence are what the patient tells him about himself (drawn out by questioning) and the patient’s behavior. His only way to test any ideas he may have about the patient is to ask questions. But by asking questions, he necessarily plants ideas in the other person’s head, thereby changing the state of his mind. If a psychologist suggests a possible explanation, the patient will immediately take that explanation and see if it fits. And, since evidence can be found to fit any theory, he probably will, even if it has nothing to do with the real movements of his mind. The presence of a new idea itself encourages him to view his mind in light of the new idea. Therefore, in psychology the proposal of a theory alters the facts that are supposed to make up the theory.

Thus, psychology inevitably alters the the thing it studies while it’s studying it and can only study by changing it, meaning that, scientifically speaking, almost all psychological conclusions are worthless, because the very act of proposing them alters the facts they are meant to explain.

What do you think? Am I missing something here?

By the way, I don’t think psychology is practically worthless: I’ve benefited from counsellors and the like myself. What I am saying is that, as a theoretical or explanatory science, it has severe flaws. Psychology, as far as I can see, is in much the same state as medicine was in the Medieval period: a lot of the time it works, sometimes it doesn’t, we have no idea why and the explanations we do have are tenuous at best.

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“Oh, that’s…oh dear.”

Writing Only Leads to More Writing

My goal at the moment is to write a sellable essay every day. Initially I was worried about whether I’d have enough material, but then I quickly discovered that essays are like bacteria: they multiply and divide exponentially!

So, I was working on a piece about Jimmy Stewart for CatholicMatch. While making my point, a phrase came to mind: “the gifts of manhood.” That naturally raised the question “well, what are those? Mightn’t people be interested in reading about that?” So, I marked that down as another essay. Before that I did a piece on the need to respect all art forms, which led to an idea about the difference between ‘higher and lower’ and ‘better and worse,’ which then led to an idea about equality and inequality. So, two possible essays right there!

I don’t buy the canard “war only breeds more war” (that would explain the endless Civil Wars that have rocked the US and the repeated wars with Japan and Germany after WWII), but it seems writing only breeds more writing.

Fairy Tales Post at Catholic Match

I like this one. Fairy Tales are near and dear to my heart and it annoys me to no end when people attack them or sneer at them for silly reasons.

It’s an odd thing about fairy tales—they’re always under attack, yet they always survive. Like Snow White, they are constantly being threatened by proud malevolence, yet they’re always finding shelter among the noble and humble, and even when they seem dead, they keep coming back.

The attacks have been much the same since at least the Victorian era (when, as Prof. Tolkien said, they gravitated to the nursery along with the old furniture)—fairy tales are ‘unrealistic,’ childish, silly, ‘escapism,’ and so on. More recently, they’re ‘sexist’ and create unrealistic expectations, especially with regard to romance.

All this, I think, is very silly. True, it’s easy to deconstruct a fairy tale. It’s also easy to deconstruct a Ming vase, but doing so says more about you than about the art of Chinese pottery. Fairy tales simply aren’t built to stand up to that kind of criticism because they’re meant to do other and more important things

Read the whole thing here.

And, if that makes you interested in reading more about the deeper ideas in fairy tales and similar stories, you might like to check out a certain book that just came out:

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