Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Man to Trust When the World Falls Apart

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Here’s what I don’t understand. If someone majorly screws up, why is that same someone trusted to correct the massive error? You may be as well-meaning as a nun, O Clumsy Protagonist, but I instinctively want you far, far away from anything and everything regarding the conflict you just caused.

But of course, the protagonist must prove his worth. And, as the Narrative Fates would often have it, he pretty much ends up being the only one capable of correcting the mistake.

Because contrived plot.

Or not. In justifying this trope, I’ve come up with some possible reasons a bumbling protagonist might be let back into the action.

Nepotism

The protagonist is related to the person in charge, who may or may not be competent. Assuming the relative of higher status is competent, one of the following conditions may apply:

  1. The relative has a soft spot for the bumbling protagonist and feels obligated to let them give the fix an honest try.
  2. The relative shrewdly sees the conflict as an opportunity for the bumbling protagonist to mature and develop their character.
  3. The relative hates the bumbling protagonist and sees this as an opportunity to let them die without having to actively kill them.

Note that in the first two conditions, the conflict can’t be too dire. You don’t send someone you care about into a situation that’s obviously far above their abilities, character-development opportunity or not. Such an act would tip the higher-ranked relative toward the incompetent side of the scale (which I’m not against, mind you) unless the situation is so dire that there’s absolutely no hope to overcome it.

I mean, if everyone’s going to die anyway, why not let the screw-up take a whack at solving things, amirite?

Superstition

The protagonist bears marks that indicate they are the Prophesied Hero. Whoever is in charge recognizes this and defers to that belief.

This one can readily feel like a cheap ploy, unless those prophesies are solid as all get-out. I guess my belief in this would depend heavily on the world-building and character development for the story. If either of these are shoddy, kiss the validity of this excuse goodbye.

Its near cousin, Mistaken for a Prophesied Hero, gets trotted out fairly frequently. The protagonist gets called before higher powers who think he’s a Prophesied Hero, he screws up royally (thus disproving their assumptions), and then works to fix his error. Sometimes he ends up being the true Prophesied Hero after all. Sometimes he proves that we each determine our own fate.

Subterfuge

The protagonist is forbidden from helping to fix the problem, but they defy orders. Some possibilities for this one:

  1. They stow away with the company of heroes, not discovered until it’s too late to return them.
  2. They switch places with the chosen hero, and no one discovers the switch until it’s too late.
  3. They set off on their own, perhaps with a trusted friend or animal sidekick, and no one discovers they’re missing until it’s too late.

You might have noticed a common theme. In cases involving subterfuge, timing is an essential factor. Because no one wants the protagonist anywhere near the conflict, no one can discover what they’re up to until they’re past the point of no return. Otherwise they get sent back to square one.

Long Story Short

I’m sure there are a multitude of situations that might justify a bumbling protagonist getting a second chance. The one that doesn’t fly, for me, is when they receive that second chance simply because they’re the protagonist.

“Why?” is the best question an author can ask when plotting a story. If there’s no sure answer, keep digging until you have one.

The Right Man for the Job

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The perfect pupil for a mentor/pupil relationship, if literary tradition is any indication, fits the following template:

  • Male
  • Well-meaning
  • “Ordinary” looks

And it doesn’t hurt if he’s orphaned and maybe living with a possibly unsympathetic uncle.

Epic heroes like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker come most readily to mind. In that same vein, we never see Frodo Baggins’s parents, while his Uncle Bilbo plays a prominent role. Oliver Twist at least lives in a workhouse instead of with heartless relatives; his literary cousin, Pip Pirrip, lives with a trenchant sister rather than an uncle (although her age does put her in a different generation than him).

And all of these heroes are “ordinary,” except that they’re not.

In many cases, the author goes out of their way to describe an average appearance, perhaps something tipping toward the lower end of the physical appearance spectrum. But not too low. We wouldn’t want our hero to be outright ugly or repulsive. Instead, we find them skinny, a little on the short side, with unruly hair or freckles or some other minor aesthetic flaw. They can grow into their handsome looks along with the plot.

(If they have a quick transformation into handsome looks via magic or some other supernatural means—which, sadly, does happen—the MarySue alarm should be clanging in your ears. Just FYI.)

In essence, the “perfect pupil” is a blank canvas, something that the mentor, narrator, and author all can draw upon to create the hero that we as readers are conditioned to expect.

And while it’s a nice template, and has certainly been put to good use, imagine the possibilities if you switch up the elements. Take a moment to consider the following character templates as the pupil in a mentor-pupil relationship:

  1. Male, well-meaning, eye-candy
  2. Male, malevolent, “ordinary” looks
  3. Male, malevolent, eye-candy
  4. Female, well-meaning, “ordinary” looks
  5. Female, well-meaning, eye-candy
  6. Female, malevolent, “ordinary” looks
  7. Female, malevolent, eye-candy

With only three characteristics, a whole spectrum of scenarios emerge. (And that without even taking the pupil’s family situation into account.)

And now, a linguistic aside. Among its methods of language classifications, the field of typology looks at basic, “unmarked” word order. That is, it asks, “What is the underlying structure for this language?”

With three constituents—Subject (S), Verb (V), Object (O)—there are six possible combinations:

  1. SOV
  2. SVO
  3. VSO
  4. VOS
  5. OVS
  6. OSV

These are listed in order of frequency across the world’s languages. (Old English was SOV, but Middle English switched to SVO. Possibly because it was actually a creole between OE and French and creoles tend to be SVO. But I digress.)

For a decent chunk of time, #6 (OSV) was only theoretical. What language could possibly have a basic word order of Object-Subject-Verb? Even its nearest neighbor OVS amounted to only 1% of samples.

And then linguists went mucking about in the Amazon basin. Surprise! There lurked the underlying OSV structure.

This structure, with the handful of languages that fall into its classification, statistically amounts to 0% of the world’s languages.

But it exists.

(Proud Yoda would be.)

While it’s certainly fun to explore the field of languages that fall under the more common SOV and SVO word orders, the mere existence of OSV is something to celebrate and cherish.

In that same spirit, while it’s certainly fun to explore the ranks of male, well-meaning, ordinary-looking heroes, variations of that template ought to be encouraged. There’s room for a full spectrum of characters in literary canon. Any gaps simply mean we haven’t gone exploring deep enough into our creative jungles.

How to Recruit a Proper Apprentice

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I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any mentor characters who go from place to place looking for a pupil. Most mentors seem to lurk in the background, aware of the epic hero, watching his progress up until the point that he’s ready for instruction…

And it’s not at all creepy. I mean, random old men are keeping tabs on you, right?

*shifty*

Okay, so in some respects, a wandering mentor would be better than the window-stalking variety. And there are certainly the reluctant mentors, those hermits living out in the middle of nowhere who don’t want to pass on their skills to anyone, let alone an upstart brat that appears on their doorstep to demand training.

Mentors, then, can come in several varieties. They have one commonality, though: they need a pupil before they can fulfill their role.

And different character archetypes qualify for that position in different ways. In accordance with today’s strip, let’s have a brief look at three such archetypes.

The Dashing Rogue

The Dashing Rogue excels at flouting authority, not obeying it. If he becomes the pupil in a mentor/pupil relationship, it’s probably after some severely humbling event that forces him to see how inept he really is against the enemies he faces.

The mentor/pupil relationship that involves a Dashing Rogue on the pupil side makes for some wonderful comedy fodder, though. Come to think of it, a Dashing Rogue on the mentor side of the relationship would probably do the same thing. Hmm.

*wanders off to plot characters*

The Sidekick

Let’s be honest here. The Sidekick has dismal chance for a straight-up mentor/pupil relationship. Sure, maybe they’ll get a secondary mentor, but the really cool mentor is always reserved for the hero. Or the hero is the sidekick’s mentor, in a Batman-and-Robin sort of scenario, and whatever moments the sidekick has to shine are quickly overshadowed by the hero’s derring-do.

A mentor/pupil relationship that involves a sidekick, then, tends to be underwhelming and serves to highlight the hero more than to enrich the sidekick. Which is kind of depressing to think about. But that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

The MarySue

When the hero is a MarySue, the mentor-pupil relationship runs into a few snags. MarySue, being perfect, doesn’t have horrendous learning curves to conquer when acquiring a new skill. There might be a token stumble in the process, but chances are she’s a Secret Genius at whatever she’s trying to learn.

(I’m sure we can all think of characters who have that special Knack for the one skill that’s going to save their bacon at the end of the story.)

Thus, mentoring MarySue often tips over into a going-through-the-motions exercise. The mentor, usually an irritable grouch who would trounce any other cocksure know-it-all, probably exhibits a soft spot for MarySue, indulges her whims, and ultimately defers to her exceptional prowess.

This mentor/pupil relationship leads to cheesy lines like “The pupil has surpassed the master.” While matching or surpassing really is the true goal of any mentor/pupil relationship, MarySue practically floats to it. Because she’s special like that.

And her mentor is always awesomesauce-on-a-stick, which just proves how much more awesomesauce-on-a-stick she is to have surpassed him.

The Search Continues

If none of these archetypes fits your mentor/pupil relationship needs, fear not! There are plenty of other archetypes to explore!

Oh, who am I kidding? This trope drifts towards the same outcome 90% of the time.

But that is a post for another day.

 

When Someone Has an Axe to Grind

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We find one of the longest battles in English linguistic history in that simple, problematic word “ask.” You wouldn’t think that three small letters could cause so much trouble, but you would be wrong. Nowadays, someone using the pronunciation of “aks” (or “ax,” as it’s commonly written) gets painted as ignorant or lower class.

When really, it’s been a dialect issue from the beginning.

If you look up “ask” in the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology section will provide you with 40+ different spellings that have been used over the past thousand years. Old English used both acsian and ascian (but note that it’s also generally accepted that “sc” was pronounced like modern “sh” rather than “sk”). Middle English, true to its nature, has a dozen or more variations, depending on which dialect of English the written work comes from, and a good number of them use the letter x.

In other words, over the course of English history, it has not been at all uncommon to axe someone a question. In fact, for a good stretch in the Middle Ages, it appears to have been the standard.

Tell this to a modern Grammar Nazi, though, and you’re taking your life into your hands. (I did once. All I got in return was a hard stare and a single word: “NO.” I still get the giggles thinking about it.)

When two sounds in a word switch places, it’s called metathesis. This is a natural linguistic phenomenon. It’s the reason people sometimes pronounce prescribe as “perscribe” or nuclear as “nu-kyu-lar.” And, oddly enough, it probably has less to do with the speaker’s education and more to do with the ever mysterious brain-to-mouth process.

Nuclear is a fun one to look at. One of my professors back in the day pointed out that there are only, like, three words in the English language that end in that particular sound combination (the two-syllable “KLEE-er” as opposed to a one-syllable “KLEER” or “KLIR”), and that the other two are obscure. (I still don’t know what they are, so I can’t tell if he was being hyperbolic or literal; I can only report the anecdote.)

Meanwhile, you have particular, molecular, ocular, circular, spectacular, and dozens upon dozens of others than end in –cular: a quick Google search yields a list of 105, many of which have the scientific/medical context that someone might associate with nuclear.

In that respect, metathesis to “nu-kyu-lar” doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The sound cluster is a common linguistic pattern. (And this professor was a pioneer for Analogical Modeling, so patterns played a huge part of his research.)

Similarly, pronouncing ask as “ax” isn’t such a stretch either. The consonant cluster “sk” occurs less frequently than “ks”—so much so that we have a single letter in our alphabet that can represent the second cluster (much love to you, letter x), while the first is always two letters or more. Plus, “sk” requires slightly more effort to articulate.

Go on. Say the two sounds against one another.

sk-sk-sk-sk

ks-ks-ks-ks

I’m not going to say that people are linguistically lazy, but we all slur letters and drop syllables. I mean, really. Who’s vocab’s perf? Obvi erryone’s had this awks convo wi’ th’r fams, amirite?

The Path of Least Linguistic Resistance is almost a birthright, and metathesis is one of its many variables. If chronic mispronunciation really is a brain-to-mouth process issue, calling someone out for it would be akin to mocking someone who has a speech impediment.

But whatevs. Do what you want.

(Just remember, though: on the Grand Scale of Time, you might be the one who’s saying things wrong. Language change is funny like that.)

 

When Resistance Really Is Futile

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True story: “its” as a pronoun didn’t come around until Early Modern English. Up until the late sixteenth century, the 3rd-person gender-neutral possessive pronoun was “his.” (“Thereof” served the same function, though it appeared after the genitive object rather than before it: e.g., “the tail thereof.”)

Even better: when “its” finally did enter the language, it was frequently spelled “it’s” (including by Mr. William Shakespeare himself). Chew on that, high school English teachers everywhere.

Every time I see someone correcting someone else’s grammar, I instinctively think back to this and the many other changes our exquisite English language has undergone. And then I wonder how such people would have functioned in previous eras where those changes were more distinct.

But actually, prescriptivism probably didn’t exist in the 1500s—at least, not in the form with which we are most familiar. In the Early Modern English period, anything of value was written in Latin or French; the first English grammar wasn’t even published until 1586 (hat-tip to you, William Bullokar), and for a century afterward, successive English grammars were written in Latin.

Yes, Latin. English was a vulgar language. Only boors used it for scholarly writing.

Starting in the late 17th-century, scholars began to give English a little more credit. At that point, grammarians swept through and codified everything and tried to pattern our rules after Latin instead of Germanic structure. English words derived from Romance languages took on more prestige than those that came from good Old English (a belief preserved to this day in such mundane issues as “writer” vs. “author”: an “author” is so much more important, don’cha know, even though the only real difference between these two words is their etymology).

This is the era that chastised us for for splitting infinitives. (You literally can’t split an infinitive in Latin. It’s a single word instead of two.) It’s the era of inkhorn terms, those delightful absurdities. It is the great-grand-pappy that bred all the millions of self-appointed grammar gurus in the world today.

(The poor souls.)

Language changes. Trying to control that change is like trying to dam the Amazon with a handful of twigs. You can’t.

But that sure as heck doesn’t stop people from trying.

(Which is nice in its own way. I need a good laugh every now and then.)

 

That One Thing a Protagonist Should Never Do

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So. The “Oops! I did exactly what you told me not to do!” plot device. It’s a fairly common catalyst to start a story moving: disobedience tumbles the first plot-domino in the row.

And I hate it. I’ve put down books and walked away from them forever because of this plot device.

I guess that’s pretty extreme on my part. I have wondered if those who use it were trying to invoke the Adam-and-Eve conundrum, where obedience meant stagnation but disobedience opened the path to knowledge and understanding. Maybe I see that story differently than others do, though. To me, Eve’s choice wasn’t a catalyst for the plot. It was the plot. God tells Adam, “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Genesis 2: 16-17)

Essentially, “You get to choose what you’re going to do. (You may eat of every tree.) Don’t choose this, because the consequence is harsh.”

That is not the plot device that I despise. Informed decision-making, even when the decision-maker doesn’t totally understand the full scope of their choices, is something I can respect. Instead of, “Oops! I did exactly what you told me not to do!” it’s, “Hey, I did that thing even though you said not to. When I reasoned it out, I decided that it was an appealing choice to make. And I was wrong, so I’m sorry.”

(Followed by the dire consequences, of course. The consequences are why most readers come to the story in the first place.)

When a mentor gives no information other than “Don’t do the thing” and fails to teach any real consequences of the wrong choice, I sort of feel like he’s failed in his job as a mentor.

Unless, of course, he’s done it on purpose, knowing that his pupil would disobey and start a catastrophic chain reaction.

In that case, he’s a boss manipulator. And possibly the bad guy. But mostly a boss manipulator.

And, again, I loves me some character manipulation. So maybe I shouldn’t abandon those books so quickly. Maybe they all had a plot twist where the mentor was really orchestrating events with his shoddy instructions and convenient absences.

(But oh, the disappointment when no clever orchestration is involved.)

The Three Sworn Duties of an Epic Mentor

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Sometimes the Mentor-Pupil relationship comes across more as trolling than education. Don’t get me wrong: I loves me some character manipulation. There should always be a purpose behind it, though, or it falls into the territory of contrived plot device rather than logical necessity.

As a disclaimer, I love the three mentors I’m about to skewer. They are wonderful characters. However, I sort of feel like they’re a bit sadistically manipulative at the same time. (And maybe that’s why I love them. Who knows.)

Also, a warning: Spoilers ahead, but not of anything recent. Proceed at your own peril.

1. Withholding Important Information

Poster Child: Dallben of Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain.

This guy. Seriously. He’s raised Taran from infancy and has told him basically nothing. In fact, the fourth book in the series, Taran Wanderer, revolves around Taran’s search for himself. He wanders all over Prydain, seeking where he might have come from, what he’s supposed to do with himself, soul-searching, getting conned by people who take advantage of his ignorance, etc. He’s in love with a woman of noble birth, and he wants to discover whether he’s good enough for her. And he learns a ton of stuff and is a better person for it.

But freaking Dallben waits until the very last chapter of the fifth book to admit, “Yeah, I don’t know who your parents are. I found you hidden in a forest next to a battlefield where every other man, woman, and child was killed. You could be anyone’s kid.”

And yes, there’s some excuse about prophecies not turning out the proper way, but I never could see how this information would have derailed Taran’s choices or his life’s path. On the contrary, it could have given him greater confidence from the start, to know that his life was whatever he chose to make of it because he wasn’t beholden to titles or the lack thereof.

But then, half the angst of the series would vanish. Dallben’s strategic withholding of information serves its narrative purpose, but it also makes him look like kind of a jerk.

(But of course he doesn’t care, because he’s Dallben.)

2. Disappearing at Critical Moments

Poster Child: Albus Dumbledore of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

“Look, children! There’s deadly peril at Hogwarts, but I, the all-powerful wizard, am going to vanish so that you twelve-year-olds can deal with it on your own!”

I know there were always reasons for Dumbledore not to be around when the plot took its nosedive into calamity, but I also feel like eliminating a genocidal maniac from the presence of school children kind of takes precedence over any other demands on one’s time. I mean, if Zombie Hitler somehow attached himself to the back of one of my school teachers’ heads, I’d hope my principal would intervene instead of sitting back like, “Yeah, let’s see how this plays out. The kids’ll be fine, I’m sure.”

The point of the novels, though, is Harry’s growth, not Dumbledore’s prowess. Thus Harry must be an agent who acts rather than an object or appendage to the action. From a narrative standpoint, his Wizened Mentor must fade away into the shadows for this to occur.

(But part of me is still like, “Really, Dumbledore? You’re letting kids risk their lives? Really?”)

3. Dying at the Enemy’s Hand

Hmm. So many to choose from here. Gandalf the Gray? Albus Dumbledore (again)? Abbe Faria? But I’m actually going to turn to film instead and go with my ultimate example of this trope.

Poster Child: Obi-Wan Kenobi of George Lucas’s Star Wars.

I was probably five years old the first time I saw these movies. (The originals. We’ll not speak of the prequels.) I still remember watching that scene where Obi-Wan is fighting Darth Vader and Luke runs into view of the pair of them. And Obi-Wan, that manipulative old goat, simply smirks, puts up his light saber, and gets hewn down on the spot.

It’s almost as if he’s been thinking to himself the whole movie, “How can I get this whiny kid to commit to the Good Side?” and in that moment, he’s like, “Bingo!”

And it works up until Luke learns that Obi-Wan withheld some pretty crucial information from him. But that’s a throwback to Item #1.

At least Obi-Wan’s death has an emotional impact, though. I once read a book (that shall not be named) where the mentor died and the main character was blubbering over it, and I was sitting there going, “Why are you even sad? Can we please get on with this story already?”

That was not a good day.

Long story short, if the mentor has to die, make sure that everyone loves him like they love Gandalf, Dumbledore, Abbe Faria, Obi-Wan, etc.

(I’d include Dallben in that list, but he’s a combo-breaker, so cunning that he puts a secondary mentor in place to take that figurative bullet for him. RIP, Coll Son of Collfrewr.)