characters

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.)