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The Misdirection of Agatha Christie | Liar, Liar

The mystery genre requires careful threading of information from character to character, between narrator and reader, and from author to audience. And Agatha Christie, as the queen of mystery, has mastered the subtle art of misdirection.

Hence, she’s the perfect author to study for breaks in the Cooperative Principle on multiple levels of dialogue.

SPOILER ALERT: This post includes some serious spoilers. On the one hand, Christie’s work has been out for decades, and this is a discussion on craft. On the other, spoiling a Christie novel is almost a capital offense. If you’ve not yet read the following titles and you want to read them without external cues, kindly skip this post and come back when you’re ready.

Title Plate: The Misdirection of Agatha Christie

Misdirection #1: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is an icon of the whodunit genre. Our 1st Person narrator, Dr. Sheppard, records events surrounding the death of the eponymous Ackroyd, along with the exploits of the famous Hercule Poirot in uncovering the murderer.

And oh, is the misdirection strong.

Early in the narrative we have the following exchange, in which Ackroyd and Sheppard discuss a letter just received by the soon-to-be-murdered man. The letter contains the name of a blackmailer, and its writer, a friend of Ackroyd’s, has already killed herself because of the wicked soul.

Ackroyd, his finger on the sheet to turn it over, paused. “Sheppard, forgive me, but I must read this alone,” he said unsteadily. “It was meant for my eyes, and my eyes only.” He put the letter in the envelope and laid it on the table. “Later, when I am alone.”

“No,” I cried impulsively, “read it now.”

Ackroyd stared at me in some surprise.

“I beg your pardon,” I said, reddening. “I do not mean read it aloud to me. But read it through whilst I am still here.”

Ackroyd shook his head. “No, I’d rather wait.”

But for some reason, obscure to myself, I continued to urge him. “At least, read the name of the man,” I said.

Now Ackroyd is essentially pigheaded. The more you urge him to do a thing, the more determined he is not to do it. All my arguments were in vain.

The letter had been brought in at twenty minutes to nine. It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread. I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone. I could think of nothing. With a shake of the head I passed out and closed the door behind me.

Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Chapter 4

Analysis

So here we have the murder of Roger Ackroyd. Not just the book, but this particular passage. The narrator is the murderer, and he kills Ackroyd in that ten minute interval between when the letter arrives and when he leaves. (I told you there were spoilers.)

But he’s masterfully breaking the Cooperative Principle on both the character-to-character and the narrator-to-reader layers of dialogue.

Maxim of Quantity

Sheppard withholds information by being vague (“if there was anything I had left undone”). He also gives too much information about Ackroyd’s stubborn character and his own concern for the man.

Maxim of Quality

Sheppard lies: “But for some reason, obscure to myself, I continued to urge him.” He knows Ackroyd is pigheaded. He doesn’t want him to read the letter because it has his own name in it, so he urges him to read it, knowing that will make him refuse.

Manipulation at its finest, in other words.

Maxim of Manner

His false sincerity toward Ackroyd (making excuses for Ackroyd’s behavior) belies his true intents; his insistence for Ackroyd to reveal the blackmailer’s name implies his own innocence to the reader, too. Why would a guilty man urge his own unmasking?

Maxim of Relevance

By focusing so keenly on the letter (“It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread.”), Sheppard indicates that it’s the most important element of this scene. This misdirection is especially brass because Ackroyd is already dead.

But sure, tell us about the letter. That seems relevant.

This is the scene that first-time readers inevitably flip back to when they reach the grand reveal. Sheppard, the unreliable narrator, presents a picture of honesty and forthrightness, but his perfidy was between the lines all along.

Misdirection #2: The Secret of Chimneys

One of Christie’s lesser-known tales, The Secret of Chimneys is actually my favorite of her novels. Some of its characters reappear in her other work, but the book itself is a stand-alone rather than part of any of her serials. It has a light-heartedness despite being a murder mystery, and some fairytale elements render it a delightful read.

Best of all, it begins with a deceptive wink toward the reader.

Chapter 1: Anthony Cade Signs On

“Gentleman Joe!”

“Why, if it isn’t old Jimmy McGrath.”

Castle’s Select Tour, represented by seven depressed-looking females and three perspiring males, looked on with considerable interest. Evidently their Mr. Cade had met an old friend.

This is misdirection from line 1. We know from the chapter title that our hero’s name is Anthony Cade. We know from the third paragraph on that he is the person referred to as “Gentleman Joe.” After his conversation with McGrath ends, the nickname leads to the following exchange between him and one of his Castle’s Select tourists.

“Is your name Joe?”

“I thought you knew it was Anthony, Miss Taylor.”

“Why does he call you Joe, then?”

“Oh, just because it isn’t my name.”

“And why Gentleman Joe?”

“The same kind of reason.”

“Oh, Mr. Cade,” protested Miss Taylor, much distressed, “I’m sure you shouldn’t say that. Papa was saying only last night what gentlemanly manners you had.”

Agatha Christie, The Secret of Chimneys, Chapter 1

Analysis

Within the opening scene of this novel, Ms. Christie calls into question her hero’s identity and then immediately reestablishes it. Of course he’s Mr. Cade. Who else would he be?

As the story unravels, the reader takes it for granted that the hero knows things beyond the scope of what a mere Anthony Cade might know. He’s clever and quick-witted and affable. He’s lived abroad and encountered lots of people and cultures. When characters’ identities start getting called into question, we can count on him to be who he says he is.

…Or can we?

Other characters begin to speculate on Mr. Cade’s true identity, and the reader has this scene playing in the back of their mind. He answered to a different name. Does anyone really know who this person is?

Christie both foreshadows and disarms that foreshadowing, so that the truth emerges in a delightful plot twist.

Maxim of Quantity

The abundance of attention paid to Anthony Cade’s name in the first chapter seems to point to his authenticity instead of away from it. But this is a case of TMI. Instead of reassuring us, it should spike our suspicions.

Maxim of Quality

Our hero never actually tells Miss Taylor his name. He hedges around it by saying he “thought [she] knew it was Anthony.” While what he says is technically true, it also leads her—and the reader—to believe something false.

Maxim of Manner

Mr. Cade’s vague manner of speaking allows those around him to assume they know who he is. So, too, does the narrator’s ambiguity allow the reader to make assumptions about his identity.

Maxim of Relevance

The nickname itself, Gentleman Joe, gets played off as a bit of playful sarcasm. In fact, it’s an insight to Anthony’s character, that he comes from different origins than he pretends.

So who is he really? The infamous jewel thief, King Victor? The missing-and-presumed-dead monarch of Herzoslovakia? Or simply an old Oxford boy drawn into an adventure of murder and mayhem?

This one I won’t spoil, except to say that he’s not Anthony Cade.

Misdirection #3: Her Real Freaking Life

In December 1926, at the age of 36, Agatha Christie disappeared. Her car with her coat in it lay abandoned on a hillside above a chalk quarry.

Was it a publicity stunt? An abduction? A suicide attempt?

No one knows. Eleven days later, she turned up in a hotel in Harrogate, where she’d checked in under the name of her husband’s mistress. While a massive manhunt searched the countryside for her, she’d been attending evening parties and other such events.

She claimed amnesia and never spoke of it again.

Speculation has abounded, that she crashed her car and lost her memory, that she tried to commit suicide but had a change of heart, that she faked her disappearance to make her philandering husband the center of a murder investigation. Personal events in her life at the time pointed toward emotional upheaval: her mother had recently died, her husband wanted a divorce.

But the episode remained shrouded in mystery.

When, decades later, she dictated an autobiography, audiences expected some revelation about this period to emerge.

Christie opted out. She didn’t even mention it.

But really, what better badge of honor can the most successful mystery writer of all time have than an unsolved mystery in her own life?

Conclusion

Christie is a master of misdirection because she uses her audience’s truth bias and cooperative defaults against them. She drops subtle clues and then plays them off as nothing important, and we believe her.

And thus, she fulfills her Author-Audience contract to a tee. She tells us a gripping yarn, and twists a knife in our backs when we least expect it.

***

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Breaking the CP on 3 Layers | Liar, Liar

Now that we’ve explored the Cooperative Principle and how to break it, we turn our attention back to our three layers of dialogue. Breaking the CP will look different on each of these layers.

Some breaks are good and can drive the plot, while others should be avoided at all costs. We’ll examine these by type of break and layer of dialogue.

Breaking the Cooperative Principle on 3 layers graphic

Unintentional Violations

Layer 1: Character to Character

As discussed in our case study of Miss Bates, unintentional violations on this layer can have many forms. Characters who unintentionally violate the CP may do the following:

  • Talk too much or too little
  • Give false information by accident
  • Accidentally skip necessary information
  • Use pronouns without referents, causing confusion
  • Mumble
  • Speak too quickly
  • Fail to allow their conversational partner to respond
  • Wander off on tangents they assume have relevance

The only item on this list that is possibly undesirable is the fourth bullet point, particularly when missing pronoun referents lead to conflict. (Not to point fingers, but this happens an awful lot in the romance genre…)

In the real world, we are keyed to tie pronouns to their referents. When the referent is missing, there’s usually a double-check, “Sorry, who are we talking about?” or something similar. Pronouns only have meaning in their context, so this is one area that we instinctively clarify when there’s any ambiguity.

Long story short, if you’re using a “vague pronoun causes misunderstanding” trope, make ABSOLUTE CERTAIN there is a reasonably assumed referent. Otherwise, this trope becomes contrived.

Layer 2: Narrator to Reader

In a perfect world, we would never see a narrator breaking the CP in this manner. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. Unintentional violations from the narrator include the following:

  • Dumping information and/or backstory (wall o’text exposition)
  • Leaving out information by accident
  • Contradicting earlier information later in the book
  • Repeating or recapping events the reader already knows
  • Using barrier objects
  • Taking long tangents on non-plot-essential details (or, why an abridged version of Les Misérables exists)

These types of breaks frustrate a reader at best. At worst, they drive the reader away from the book entirely and can generate ill will and scathing reviews.

The narrator should not commit unintentional violations of the Cooperative Principle.

Layer 3: Author to Audience

If the narrator should not commit these types of violations, it’s doubly so for the author. Breaking the CP in this way on the Author to Audience layer of dialogue includes the following:

  • Plot holes and/or contradictions
  • Inconsistent characterization (usually caused by sticking to a plot outline even if it requires out-of-character antics to maintain)
  • Inconsistent world-building
  • Accidental failure to meet genre expectations
  • Blatant anachronisms

Unintentional violations on this layer break verisimilitude with the audience because they are mistakes in the very mechanics of a story.

Intentional Violations

Layer 1: Character to Character

Intentional violations on this layer of dialogue can drive a conflict. Characters breaking the CP in this manner might

  • Lie and get away with it (for the moment)
  • Omit important information on purpose
  • Use ambiguity to keep their listener out of the loop
  • Hurl veiled insults

The reader might or might not recognize that a violation occurs, but at some point, it should come out. It can be a strong reveal or a satisfying payoff. Or, it can be a detail that lies dormant, waiting for the canny reader to ferret it out from the other clues around it.

Layer 2: Narrator to Reader

This type of break signals an unreliable narrator, easier done in 1st Person, but a possibility for 3rd as well. Narrators intentionally violate the CP when they

  • Strategically withhold information
  • Misdirect the reader to a red herring
  • Give unreliable or biased accounts of events

Because the narrator knows they’re violating the CP, the reader shouldn’t realize in the moment. Otherwise, the violation becomes a clumsy attempt at storytelling rather than an authentic, immersive tool.

Layer 3: Author to Audience

The author SHOULD NOT intentionally violate the Cooperative Principle. Violations on this layer of dialogue include

  • Plagiarism
  • Subtly trolling their audience

What do I mean by “subtly trolling”? This happens when the author sees their audience not as partners in creation, or even as fellow humans, but merely as a means to a paycheck. The recent book-stuffing epidemic on KDP, for example, violated cooperation because readers often didn’t know they were helping those authors commit fraud.

Author-to-audience violations happen outside the narrative of the book. When discovered, they are a rude awakening to those who were duped.

Flouting

Layer 1: Character to Character

We’re back in “desirable” territory in breaking the CP. Characters who flout are the pride and joy of readers everywhere. They

  • Hurl blatant insults (often with a smile)
  • Use sarcasm as a conversational tool
  • Talk around a subject instead of addressing it (circumlocution)
  • Mutter audible asides
  • Code-switch and/or gate-keep

Flouting on this layer amounts to wonderful exchanges, where alternate meanings create multifaceted conversation. It’s the antagonistic flirtation between reluctant lovers and the battle of wits between rivals.

Everyone loves a good character-to-character flout.

Layer 2: Narrator to Reader

On this layer, breaking the CP in the manner takes a more literary turn. Narrators who flout the Cooperative Principle

  • Invoke dramatic irony
  • Foreshadow events yet to come
  • Leave open endings
  • Adopt an experimental point of view instead of telling the story straight

The reader knows there’s more than what they’re receiving, but the narrator doesn’t elaborate at that time (or ever, in some cases).

Layer 3: Author to Audience

The author who flouts on this layer of dialogue shows contempt for their audience. This is an author who

  • Insults readers on social media or elsewhere
  • Intentionally fails to meet genre expectations (overt trolling)

This is the author who lists their book with keywords that don’t apply, or who claims a genre they’re not remotely writing. It’s the erotica listed as a clean read, or vice versa. The audience comes to the table expecting one thing and gets slapped in the face with another.

Don’t flout your audience. It’s not nice.

Opting Out

For funsies, I’m including how to opt out on the three layers, but breaking the CP in this manner is pretty basic.

Layer 1: Character to Character

When characters snub, give the silent treatment, or avoid encounters with other characters, they are opting out. This can add a fun dynamic to a scene (or to the novel as a whole), but beware falling into the trope of “a single conversation could have prevented disaster.”

If your characters are opting out, they should have solid reasons for so doing, none of this namby-pamby “can’t talk to that person because [contrived excuse].”

Layer 2: Narrator to Reader

The narrator opts out when they stop telling the story. (Surprise!) Don’t like a cliffhanger ending? Too bad.

L O L

Layer 3: Author to Audience

The author opts out when they stop writing, and the audience opts out when they stop reading an author.

DO NOT WANT, for either of these.

***

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Miss Bates of Emma: A Liar, Liar Case Study

Continuing in the Cooperative Principle and how to break it, we turn our attention to a literary example of rampant unintentional violations: Miss Bates from Jane Austen’s Emma.

Character Profile: Miss Bates

Miss Hetty Bates lives in Highbury, a frequent associate of Emma Woodhouse. The novel describes her in frank terms.
Character description of Miss Bates from Jane Austen's Emma

So she’s a middle-aged spinster, plain in appearance and impoverished in purse.

(Basically, she’s my patronus. But I digress.)

Miss Bates is a fundamentally good woman. She would never hurt a fly. And yet, conversationally, she violates the Cooperative Principle on every level.

Unintentionally, of course.

The Many Unintentional Violations of Miss Bates

  • Quantity: She regularly gives more information than anyone wants.

“Mr. Knightley I declare!—I must speak to him if possible, just to thank him. I will not open the window here; it would give you all cold; but I can go into my mother’s room you know.” (Vol II, Ch 10)

  • Quality: She speaks her assumptions, whether they’re true or not.

“Two steps, Jane, take care of the two steps. Oh! no, there is but one. Well, I was persuaded there were two. How very odd! I was convinced there were two, and there is but one.” (Vol III, Ch 2)

  • Manner: She rattles off her information without letting others get in a word edgewise.

All this spoken extremely fast obliged Miss Bates to stop for breath. (Vol II, Ch 1)

  • Relevance: She routinely goes off-topic.

“My mother’s deafness is very trifling you see—just nothing at all. By only raising my voice, and saying any thing two or three times over, she is sure to hear; but then she is used to my voice. But it is very remarkable that she should always hear Jane better than she does me. Jane speaks so distinct!” (Vol II Ch 1)

In short, she drives Emma crazy. When Harriet compares the unmarried status of both women, Emma declares,

If I thought I should ever be like Miss Bates! so silly—so satisfied—so smiling—so prosing—so undistinguishing and unfastidious—and so apt to tell every thing relative to every body about me, I would marry to-morrow. (Vol I Ch 10)

Non-Cooperation as a Narrative Force

Miss Bates’s character arc reaches its climax in the Box Hill episode (Vol III, Ch 7), in an exchange with our heroine:

“Oh! very well,” exclaimed Miss Bates, “then I need not be uneasy. ‘Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I? (looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body’s assent)—Do not you all think I shall?”

Emma could not resist.

“Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.”

In this unkind response, Emma flouts the maxims of Manner and Quantity:

  • ­Manner: She insults Miss Bates in the form of a jest.
  • ­Quantity: She shouldn’t have said an insult at all (and she knows it).

Miss Bates doesn’t immediately catch the slight, but when she does, she becomes so flustered and embarrassed that she leaves the group as soon as she can afterward.

As for Emma, she retreats into a “violation” defense when Mr. Knightley calls out her poor behavior:

Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off.

“Nay, how could I help saying what I did?—Nobody could have helped it. It was not so very bad. I dare say she did not understand me.”

The event serves as a wake-up call. Emma realizes that she has a responsibility to treat her friends and neighbors with kindness. Her higher wealth and privilege comes not because of any merit on her part, but because of her good fortune to be born to it.

Multiple Layers of Deception

The whole scene at Box Hill has some awesome deceptive dynamics at play:

  • Mr. & Mrs. Elton’s poorly hidden contempt for Emma and Harriet
  • Mr. Weston trying to keep everyone happy and also matchmake between Frank and Emma
  • Mr. Knightly concealing his jealousy of Frank and his ardor for Emma
  • Frank and Jane having a secret argument and Frank flirting with Emma to twist the knife
  • Emma plotting to matchmake between Frank and Harriet and also concealing her dislike of the Eltons, Jane, and Miss Bates

In short, everyone except Miss Bates is hiding something. The crux of the scene, the insult, leads to the breakup of the party and our heroine’s greater enlightenment.

Miss Bates unintentionally violates the Cooperative Principle, but so also do Emma and her sympathetic narrator. They have both portrayed this honest, well-meaning woman as a contemptible nuisance when no one else in the neighborhood judges her that harshly.

And that’s the grand surprise: Miss Bates is a silly foil for a silly girl whose worldview is so often wrong, and so often mistaken as correct. Any reader who allows Emma and the narrator to guide their opinion has a rude awakening alongside them both.

The Moral of the Case Study

Miss Bates, good and well-meaning as she is, provides a perfect example of a character who unintentionally violates the Cooperative Principle. She also provides a standard for this type of break on our other layers of dialogue.

Consider your current Work in Progress. Now, imagine that Miss Bates is your narrator.

Did you wince? You should have.

***

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Dialogue and Deception | Liar, Liar

Dialogue (n. \ˈdī-ə-ˌlȯg \ )

 a conversation between two or more persons;  also a similar exchange between a person and something else (such as a computer)

 Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

For the purposes of this blog series, we will consider writing itself as a form of dialogue. In fiction and creative nonfiction, this dialogue has three layers at work within it.

Dialogue Layer #1: Character to Character

The most basic layer is the one everyone thinks of when they hear the word “dialogue”: Character to Character. This is the back-and-forth exchange we see on the written page. It can be verbal or non-verbal, including hand gestures, facial expressions, letters, and so forth. 

In short, this layer involves anything one character does to communicate with another.

Dialogue Layer #2: Narrator to Reader

The second layer is Narrator to Reader. This includes exposition and narration and consitutes the Narrator and the Reader interacting across the fourth wall.

Obviously this dialogue is one-sided. The Narrator will not hear anything the Reader says. Sometimes a Narrator will prompt what they assume the Reader is thinking (“Oh, you were wondering about XYZ? I was just getting to that,” and so forth), but these prompts feel disingenuous because most readers aren’t thinking along those exact lines.

(But you like people filling in your thoughts for you, you say? No, typically none of us does. Be very careful when using this narrative technique.)

3 Layers of Dialogue in Fiction: Character to Character, Narrator to Reader, Author to AudienceThe Narrator to Reader layer of dialogue controls the POINT OF VIEW. This powerful story element is a built-in mechanism for manipulating the Reader’s perceptions and how they receive the string of events in your plot.

When a Reader picks up a book, by and large they are sympathetic to things the Narrator is sympathetic to and critical of things they’re critical of. In cases where the Narrator’s worldview differs significantly from the Reader’s, the Reader more than likely puts down the book and walks away, and the dialogue ends there. (Consider the case of a narrator who openly expresses antisemitism, or one who expounds upon the joys of animal abuse. That’s a quick way to kill the joy of reading.)

This layer also conveys SETTING and CHARACTERIZATION. Because the Narrator determines which conversations the Reader receives and which character interactions get featured or skipped, the Character to Character layer of dialogue depends entirely upon this layer.

Dialogue Layer #3: Author to Audience

The final layer of dialogue is Author to Audience. The Author is not the Narrator, and neither is every Reader your Audience. As authors this is our most important layer of dialogue, the foundation that upholds everything else.

This is the layer of conscious literary choices. PLOT, THEME, diction, analogies, metaphors, and other literary devices all combine to communicate some greater message to the Audience, to manipulate thoughts and feelings.

This layer exists whether you acknowledge it or not. It is driven by what you hope to achieve as an author writing your work.

Together the Author and the Audience engage in a cooperative agreement. The generic version of this agreement is as follows:

  • ­The Author promises to entertain.
  • ­The Audience agrees to suspend disbelief.

Every genre has a specialized version of this agreement. The Romance author promises deep emotional connections between characters, the Suspense author promises tension, the Fantasy author promises wonder and adventure, and so forth. And each of these genres has an audience seeking fulfillment of those promises.

Not an intelligent person in the world picks up a novel and says, “If this isn’t straightforward and predictable, I’m going to riot.” Even the audience for the trope-iest of trope genres wants to experience those tropes in an original way, with a fresh perspective and the promise of surprise.

Hence, Author and Audience enter a dialogue of deception, built upon mutual consent.

If the Author fails their promise, the Audience will drop their side of the agreement as well.

In a nutshell, it is your job as an Author to deceive your Audience.

Workshopping Questions:

  1. As an Author, what specific promises does your agreement with your Audience include? What tropes or other literary devices might help you fulfill those promises?
  2. What point of view does your current work-in-progress use? How does this POV help or hinder your Narrator?

Up Next: Basic Tells for Deception: Contractions or the Lack Thereof

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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.)

Traits of the Truly Worthy

AverageEverygirl088

Doomsday catalysts come in many flavors: asteroids, volcanoes, earthquakes, alien invasions, global warming, global thermonuclear war, and so forth. These cataclysmic events project such an epic scale of destruction that they threaten the existence of all life on earth.

If they legitimately occur, that is.

The asteroid holds a special place in this genre. Referred to in some circles as the Sweet Meteor O’Death (or SMOD, colloquially), it reigns as the ultimate doomsday trigger because A) there’s precedent (sorry, dinosaurs!), B) its advent is beyond human control (thanks, physics!), and C) it leaves enough time between discovery and impact to layer drama thicker than the icing on Sandra Lee’s infamous Christmas cake (oh, the sugary suspense!).

This plot device lends well to a division of story lines: one each for the government character, the scientist, and the Ordinary Joe at minimum. And when it’s introduced, you can pretty much bet there will be a Noah’s Ark involved, because governments habitually sink tons of money into prepping for doomsday survival.

The Noah’s Ark can be a space ship or an underground bunker. Regardless of its form, it boasts three major features:

  1. Safety and survival from the extinction-level destruction
  2. A scarcity of space when compared with the population as a whole
  3. A scarcity of resources to last through the full duration of the calamity

Which brings to another type of division within this genre: the Elites vs. the Non-elites.

Whenever a Noah’s Ark comes into play, characters get weighed on a scale of worthiness to enter. The government types—usually the President of the United States or some other high-ranking super-elite official—have rubber-stamped access to the Ark. The scientist types are the best in their field (of course), and thus get a pass to the Ark but possibly struggle with the ethical dilemma of whether to retreat to safety or to continue fighting against the planet’s impending doom because they’re so very noble.

And the Ordinary Joes? They’re toast. But they will have an angst-filled, poignant struggle, oozing with pathos to drive home to the audience the desperation of their circumstances. And sometimes they even win against the cataclysmic force that threatens their demise (though not without sacrifice, natch).

Non-elite though the Ordinary Joes may be on the social scale, on the narrative one, they are gold.

From a literary standpoint, this second division of Elites vs. Non-elites is more important than the first. The protagonist of every story is, by default, a Narrative Elite. Their perspective is more important to tell than the millions of people around them, than the scores that they interact with throughout the story’s progress. They are special, even if they are only “ordinary”—and often because they are only “ordinary.”

While their also-ordinary peers picket the entrance to the Noah’s Ark or present faces of miserable martyrdom, the Ordinary Joes pull up their bootstraps and face their calamities head on. They act with full intent to triumph or to die trying. They present an ideal that invokes the reader’s admiration and empathy.

Thus, the Ordinary Joe is perhaps the most important character in a doomsday story. We, the ordinary audience, are each the hero of our own life. The Ordinary Joe provides an avatar, a window for where we might aim to fall if such a cataclysm ever should occur.

They are, in short, not ordinary at all.

(But they’re still not elite enough to pass into safety uncontested. Haha.)