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.

4 Responses to The Right Man for the Job
  1. Robert says:

    This post I find interesting. Which makes me ask…where would the adjectives and adverbs go in a OSV format?

    • kstradling says:

      It would partly depend on whether the language is head-first or head-final (another typology classification). Adjectives and adverbs modify nouns and verbs respectively, so adjectives would append to the O and S, and adverbs to the V, but where they go depends on the underlying structure of the language’s Verb Phrase (VP) and Noun Phrase (NP).

      To draw an English equivalent, we are SVO and predominantly head-first except in our noun phrases, which are head-final. So, our adverbs tend to come after our verbs (in the underlying structure; they can move around), but our adjectives come before our nouns.

      Also, considering that the OSV languages all come from the Amazon, there’s a decent chance that they’re polysynthetic, which is another can of worms entirely. In that case, the adjectives and adverbs might appear anywhere in the sentence, but with specific affixes to indicate to which verb or noun they belong. And the verb might have half a dozen affixes and stand as a sentence on its own. Polysynthetic languages are pretty awesome like that.

  2. W.R. Gingell says:

    I was just thinking about this last week as I was watching the first two maze runner movies. Ordinary guy who turns out not to be so ordinary. I’m not even one of those people who is always yelling for more female characters, but the female characters that were there (there were only 2 main-ish female characters over two films) seemed to be there only to be in love with the main guy. It thought it was a waste.

    I still really love the first movie, where the one girl seems to have a real impact just by being a single girl among a group of boys, but the second just established MMC’s specialness and interchanged one female character for another without any real difference to the storyline or the MMC’s emotional well-being.

    I actually found that the side characters were more interesting (Minho, anyone?) than the MC. They had their own personalities other than being 1. MC, and 2. Curious. But then, I quite often do find side characters more to my taste than MCs, so maybe that’s just me…

    • kstradling says:

      I’m not necessarily a screaming advocate for more female characters, but I do have to wonder about the obvious lack. The Maze Runner and sequel sound like they adhere to the Smurfette Principle, which is so ingrained into modern storytelling that it’s basically a default. 🙁

      And I probably gravitate toward side characters too. Main characters form my baseline for the rest of the story. They are the “normal,” so in that respect, it’s easy for side characters to shine next to them. But all the characters have to be well developed for this to happen. Can’t put too much into the sides and neglect the main or vice versa, and if I don’t already love the MC, I probably won’t care about the sides at all.

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