Monthly Archives: February 2017

Dangerous Artifacts and the Characters Who Love Them

Average has a gift for neutralizing dangerous artifacts.
When it comes to dangerous artifacts in a fictional setting, every writer faces at least two dilemmas:

  1. Why does everyone want this thing?
  2. Why is the main character the most appropriate to deal with it?

(I mean, you can ignore those two issues, but then you end up with a confirmed MacGuffin and a contrived plot. If that’s your cup o’ tea, more power to you.)

Issue #1: The Cause for Desire

The obsession with dangerous artifacts usually boils down to one word: power. “Dangerous artifacts” are dangerous because they grant or disrupt power and thereby throw off the balance of the universe. Consider:

  • The One Ring (LOTR)
  • The Elder Wand (HP)
  • The Amulet of Samarkand (Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy)
  • The Orb of Aldur (Eddings’s Belgariad)
  • The Godstone (Carson’s Fire and Thorns)
  • Every dragon egg and enchanted sword across the fantasy spectrum

Each is a singular item that amplifies its user into a new class of abilities. Hence, the bad guys want the power, and the good guys (generally) want to keep it hidden. Or, either side might want to destroy it, depending on how its powers affect them.

And then there’s that one poor sap who stumbles across it unwittingly.

Issue #2: “Why Me?”

When a dangerous artifact lies at the center of a crisis, the story inevitably needs someone to deal with it.

Enter the Chosen One.

I’ve encountered a lot of critique lately about how books—and fantasy epics in particular—keep focusing on this motif of a Chosen One. The snarkier critics point to it almost with a sneer.

“Oh, look! Another story about a Chosen One! How original!”

While I agree that the motif can be too heavy-handed, stories by their very nature must center on unique individuals. Protagonists have to measure up to their conflicts, or else they’d get eliminated in the first three chapters. And then what was the point?

(Or you can take away the conflict, but then we’re left wandering the hills with Wordsworth. Again, what’s the point?)

In a sense, every protagonist is a Chosen One, because the author chooses to tell their story.

So, answer #1 to the question of “Why this protagonist?” is simply “Because it had to be someone.”

A pretty crummy answer by itself. Which is why there must be something more.

That Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi

Some characters merit their Chosen One status because they are literally chosen by God, prophecy, or the villain himself to rise up against the conflict:

  • Princess Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza (chosen by God)
  • Taran of Caer Dallben (chosen by prophecy)
  • Harry Potter (chosen by prophecy and/or Voldemort)

Others merit it because of their heritage, lineage, or inborn talent:

  • Frodo Baggins (mild-mannered hobbit = less susceptible to the Ring)
  • Arthur Pendragon (son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine, daughter of a Welsh king)
  • Nathanial/John Mandrake (natural-born magician with all the advantages therein)

In some rare cases, the protagonist appears to assume their role by happenstance, but beware that condition. “Chance” almost always ties into fate.

Accept it. Embrace it. Enjoy it.

A Final Observation on Dangerous Artifacts

While jewelry and weapons receive favored status, the truly innovative artifacts fall outside these categories. For example, Lloyd Alexander’s black cauldron grants its owner the means to an immortal army and his oracular pig allows glimpses into the future. They’re both brilliant artifacts, because no one expects anything so grand from cookware and livestock.

(And yes, h/t to the Mabinogion for that innovation. Source material matters, my friends.)

Verisimilitude: A Most Essential Plot Element

Average and Nerdly discuss the newest plot element
NOTE: In case anyone’s forgotten my generic characters’ names, “Totally” refers to “Totally Everyguy,” Average’s male counterpart. (I add this note because my own mother said, “Wait, who?” Hahaha. I’m sure he would do wonders with this latest plot element.)

The Science of a Good Plot Element

So, it’s been at least 15 years since I studied any of the natural sciences. I had CP Chem in high school and a semester of Physical Science in college that included a chemistry unit. I don’t remember a ton about them (because that was half a lifetime ago, y’know), but one thing that did impress me was the solid truth of the periodic table.

Like, “These are the elements, and because of how atoms work, these elements are set in stone.”

(We’re not getting into isotopes or any of that complicated stuff, m’kay?)

The result is that any time I come across a fictional work where characters utter something akin to “This is a non-earth element,” my BS detector pings off the chart.

Because, as far as I understand, the periodic table has defined every possible element in existence, with the exception of a handful of man-made elements appended at the end. And all of those are extremely unstable and thus unlikely to exist anywhere outside the laboratory in which they are (briefly) created.

Am I wrong? Maybe I’m wrong. If so, my apologies. (And please leave an explanation for why I’m wrong in the comments. References much appreciated.)

It’s Not “Just a Story”

The realms of fiction exist to take us beyond the natural world. Even so, they have to follow natural laws or else they destroy verisimilitude.

Verisimilitude: The semblance of truth. The term indicates the degree to which a work creates the appearance of the truth. (Harmon & Holman, A Handbook to Literature, p. 538)

This oh-so-useful term doesn’t apply only to realistic fiction. For me, it’s a defining feature that separates good writing from bad across the spectrum of literature. This “semblance of truth” allows us to slip into the story, to feel alongside the characters, to agonize over plot twists and rejoice at happily ever afters.

When it breaks, we jolt out of that fictional world, and we’re generally none too happy about it. (This ties back to the unspoken Author-Audience Contract. We want a story to fool us, but without verisimilitude, it can’t.)

Verisimilitude is a tricky beast. It allows the same person to accept Tolkien’s mithril wholesale while they give the squinty side-eye to Doc Brown’s flux capacitor. In the Star Wars franchise, it simultaneously invokes the adoration of millions and the scorn of physics teachers everywhere.

(Or maybe it was only my physics teacher. My class once got a lecture on the properties of outer space thanks to someone mentioning Star Wars.)

It is, in short, subjective according to an individual’s understanding of Truth.

Fantasy at an Advantage

When it comes to verisimilitude, the fantasy genre holds a distinct advantage: the reader comes to the story with their sense of realism already disengaged.

No one fact-checks J.K. Rowling on the existence of magic. Nor do they chide C. S. Lewis on the implausibility of an inter-dimentional portal at the back of a wardrobe. A plot element need not be anchored in reality to resonate truth. It need only resonate truth within its fictional domain.

Because fantasy storylines exist outside of the normal, explainable world, many patterns of truth fall instead to characters, relationships, and personal growth.

But this doesn’t let a fantasy writer off the hook when it comes to rules. If Harry Potter suddenly created a portal to another dimension by playing a song on a flute, for example, the reader would likely object. (The HP universe requires wands for working magic, and Harry’s more of a jock than a musician. Not that he couldn’t be both, but he isn’t.)

Those who write fantasy engage in a boatload of world-building for this very reason. If they skip this step and change rules to accommodate their plot, they’ll undermine the story’s verisimilitude.

And this goes double for the author who writes in a “real world” setting. If that’s your bread and butter, beware the errant plot element.

Ultimately, you see, all fiction is fantasy. Some is simply more upfront about it.

***

Citation: Harmon, William and Holman, C. Hugh. A Handbook to Literature, 8th Ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Plot Devices and Other Narrative Thickeners

Average Everygirl #94

We’ve all been there. One minute you’re minding your own business, and the next, a dangerous and coveted plot device tumbles into your hands. And then it’s off to Mt. Doom or Alderaan or the Marshes of Morva to figure out just what to do with the blasted thing.

Much to your chagrin.

The Inherent Joys of Plot Devices

But everyone loves plot devices, and for good reason. Without them, literature would consist entirely of people remarking on their surroundings while they aimlessly wander the countryside.

Also known as the Collected Works of William Wordsworth.

(Sorry, not sorry.)

Plot devices come in many shapes and sizes. They trigger the story arc and drive it forward. The best of them hold the key to solving everything. They are the bread and butter of every writer worth his snuff.

(Yes, I’m giving you the side-eye, Wordsworth. You know what you did.)

But, of course, not all plot devices are created equal.

The Dreaded MacGuffin

Although Alfred Hitchcock gets credit for the term (spelled “MacGuffin” or “McGuffin,” depending on your preference), the concept of the MacGuffin existed before he put that term to use. It refers to an object that everybody in the story wants but that has no special attribute beyond that.

Classic examples abound.

  • The Golden Fleece? MacGuffin
  • Helen of Troy? MacGuffin
  • The Holy Grail? MacGuffin

All of these items have the same draw for those who seek them: “There’s this thing, see? And everyone’s after it, but we’re going to get it.”

*cue prematurely triumphant laughter*

MacGuffins typically cause more trouble than they’re worth, and they have no real benefits beyond some vague blessing or prestige that comes with ownership. Thus their narrative value lies only in how well they can drive an interesting plot.

(I’d give first place in this category to Helen of Troy, but the Apple of Discord is the instigating MacGuffin there. I mean, really? “Look, I need that piece of gold produce. Everyone knows that imitation-fruit trophies are the highest authority in determining one’s worth and value.”)

As with any trope, the application governs its merit. “MacGuffin” is more of a fun term than a derogatory one. Some MacGuffins are superfluous, but others are downright essential.

The Cellini Venus in How to Steal a Million (1966), for example, does nothing and is literally worth nothing, but it makes for a superbly entertaining plot.

Heist and mystery story lines frequently rely on MacGuffins to spur their heroes. You don’t expect a box of jewels or a priceless Van Gogh to have properties beyond “expensive” and “coveted.”

Quests and epics, on the other hand, can wade into forbidden territory. Long story short, if you introduce an artifact into your fantasy adventure, it better do something more than look pretty.

Further MacGuffin Reading

For more examples of MacGuffins, TvTropes.org provides an extensive list, including dozens of trope variations. Do you have a favorite? Leave it in the comments!