I saw the end of Hidalgo the other day. I have to say that, even though it isn’t the greatest movie ever, I really do like it. Mortensen’s character’s relationship with his horse is a thing I instinctually identify with; indeed, its something that a lot of people identify with. Domesticated animals and our relationships with them play a large role in many of our lives. They are as important, often, as our relationships with other people and, indeed, often our animals’ welfare can be seen as more important than the welfare of those humans we dislike or have no relationship with (cue Mortensen’s throaty growl: “Nobody hurts my horse.”). We think of them as our family, as our friends, and relentlessly anthropomorphize them. They are characters in our lives, and important ones, too.
It’s just a little bit odd, then, that fantasy novels so rarely depict animals as the real, well-rounded characters we know them to be. Granted, the story is often not about the hero’s horse, but rather the hero’s attempts to destroy the Evil One/rescue his lover/attain revenge, and it may seem as though incorporating their steeds as characters is a waste of valuable time. Truthfully enough, this might be the case in many situations. I’m not that certain, though, that this situation comes up as often as one might think. Perhaps you needn’t personify the horse or dog or what-have-you, but that certainly doesn’t mean you need to objectify it. It’s a living creature; it should get the same consideration any other random minor human character gets, from a shopkeeper to a barmaid to a nameless soldier.
Part of me feels like some of this objectification is a side-effect of our own modern society. Animals aren’t part of our lives on a daily basis, so we don’t always consider them as ‘alive.’ I have encountered a disturbing number of people who purchase dogs and treat them like fashion accessories, then can’t understand why the dogs are out of their minds with frustration and boredom. It’s because they’re alive! Our mechanical world is accustomed to conveyances that do whatever we say, whenever we say it and toys that turn on and off at a whim – no wonder we don’t always think that animals can be characterized. In pre-industrial societies (which includes most fantasy settings), animals and interacting with animals was a daily occurrence. They were required for a lot of the work that needed to be done in both farms and cities. Granted, these people didn’t have the overly-sentimentalized visions of pets and animals that we often do – they were as much tools as companions – but they were probably more aware that animals had attitudes and characteristics that separated them from mere objects.
Some of my favorite moments in some fantasy novels involve a character or characters’ interactions with animals. I love how hard Sam finds it to send the pony, Bill, away outside the gates of Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. I love how Kvothe introduces himself to his horse in The Name of the Wind – with a mix of kindness and caution – even though he turns around and sells it shortly afterwards. One of the best is Haplo’s relationship with his dog in Weiss and Hickman’s Death Gate Cycle, which is very nuanced. It is not by accident that the dog winds up being a part of Haplo’s own soul.
Anyway, what I’m getting at here is that animals can – and should – be used as important and interesting characters in fantasy settings, and not just in the ‘my horse talks and isn’t that awesome’ sense that permeates all that young adult fantasy stuffed aimed at girls. They are living creatures that can share in the story and enhance the main character, just like anybody else. Just like our animals do in real life.
You know when you’re reading a book or watching a movie/show involving beloved characters and it’s all coming to a head and you know somebody’s probably going to die, but you aren’t sure which one? Well, I’m the guy who usually knows who it’s going to be. I’ve got a system, you see, and it’s relatively foolproof (though not perfect). Let me show you how it works:
Step 1: Who Has Plot Armor?
Writers have characters who are essential to their story. If they kill them, they risk breaking the story or ruining the good thing they have going. These characters, if they ever die, will only die at the very end of the story arc, whenever that is, after they are no longer needed, since the story is about to end, anyway. Such characters are referred to as having ‘plot armor’ – they are, essentially, immune to death. Good authors, of course, keep you in suspense over this, anyway, but you all know, in you heart of hearts, that Luke Skywalker isn’t going to die.
These characters are usually fairly easy to spot and you can eliminate them as possible character deaths in most instances. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but they are rare.
Step 2: Which Characters Have Reasons to Stick Around?
Secondary characters are usually the ones lined up for the firing squad, but not all secondary characters are created equal. Ones that have essential purposes to the conflict or plot can’t die until that duty is fulfilled. If that duty is ongoing and they cannot be replaced, they cannot die. Now, once they reach that expiration point, their purpose is fulfilled and they are immediately candidates for termination, provided a few other factors are fulfilled.
Very often, it becomes apparent that particular characters, while they had been interesting, compelling, and important to the plot, are no longer in that category. The writers have milked their usefulness to the fullest and, they discover, (as per Step 3) that the character would be more useful dead than they would alive. As soon as this happens, boom – no more character.
To take Lost as an example, Boone was handy for a little while as a protegé to Locke and as a point of conflict for Shannon, but this got stale. After that, they needed him to help the plot but didn’t want him hanging around gumming up all their scenes, so *splat* – no more Boone.
By the transitive property of Character Death, Boone’s death meant Shannon was much closer to the chopping block, since her character had one less thing to keep her around for. Oh, and thank God they killed her, too – damn, she was annoying.
Step #3: Which Characters are More Useful Dead than Alive
Once you’ve established whom you can kill without derailing the plot, then it becomes a matter of ‘which character is better off dead’. This, ultimately, comes down to a certain degree of taste, and the best way to predict is to try and figure out what kind of story the writer is going for. The death of a beloved sidekick is a great motivator for the hero, but the death of the comic relief can take a lighthearted adventure and make it grim. The death of a beloved, comical sidekick does both things, which automatically bumps them ahead on the hit list, provided that the author needs to motivate his or her hero and wants the story to take a grim, frightening turn. Then again, there might be characters that are simply a drag on the plot and, by killing them, you kick the story out of a rut and start hurtling towards your third act.
Point in case: Joe Pesci in Goodfellas had it coming from a mile away. They needed to keep him for a while to give the movie some spice and, even, some cruel levity. However, there came a point when it simply would be too arduous to keep the character present and have Henry Hill do what he had to do. Bam! Dead Pesci. Now, granted, Goodfellas was based on a real-life story, so I doubt the *actual* mob killed the *actual* Joe Pesci character for the sake of plot development, but, then again, I don’t know if that part is factual, either.
Step #4: Which Character Will the Audience Miss the Most?
Okay, once we’ve narrowed down our list of characters to those non-essential, secondary characters whose deaths will actually help the overall plot somehow, we might still have two or three guys standing around. Who to pick? Well, the one that will hurt the worst, of course. Writers want to evoke pathos, and you don’t evoke pathos by killing Jar-Jar; nobody will care or they will be actively pleased, which is the opposite of what you want. You want tears or anger or bitter snorts and shakes of the head. You want people to feel it in their gut somehow. If you don’t, why are you killing a character at all? So, you pick your crowd favorites. You pick the nice, fat geeky kid (sorry, Piggy from Lord of the Flies) or the kindly old tutor (eat it, Dumbledore) or the positive father figure (here’s a bullet just for you, Willem DeFoe in Platoon). That way, while Charlie Sheen is weeping in the Huey on his way back to the States, the audience is weeping, too. Pathos. Catharsis. Yes.
Now, good writers wouldn’t be good writers if they weren’t inherently aware of this equation. Some of them buck the trend intentionally, killing off the characters you least expect when you least expect it (George RR Martin, looking at you), or decide they aren’t going to kill anybody at all, after all (let’s face it: Lando Calrissian dodged a bullet in Jedi, and you know it). Sometimes, breaking the equation means ‘breaking’ your story just to begin telling another one–a kind of plot calculus bait-and-switch. This is a risk, of course, and it doesn’t always pay off (looking at you again, George RR Martin), but it is bold storytelling. All that said, there is nothing wrong with the equation above, just so long as you are careful in managing the variables and keeping the audience guessing until it’s too late.
So, a week or two ago I mentioned I should tell you folks about Helmut. Now seems as good a time as any.
Helmut was a character in a 7th Sea campaign I ran from 2001-2004 or so (give or take–don’t remember exactly). He was a landless Eisen (German) knight with a stain of honor on his family, a grim demeanor, and a tendency to be a little *too* patient (he had the ’Indecisive’ flaw). He was played originally by my friend Mike and then later by my other friend Will after Mike moved to San Francisco (the character was too integrated into the plot to simply delete at that point).
Helmut was also a member of the ultra-secret Kreuzritter organization and a warrior of the Eisenfaust style, which involved a broadsword paired with an armored gauntlet. The style emphasized defense while waiting for an opponent to make a mistake, and then raining down horrible misery upon them with one massive swing. When Mike first made the character, we had no idea the Eisenfaust school either (A) actually worked as described or that (B) its patient style would dictate Helmut’s character from then on.
The first time Helmut ever used Eisenfaust as intended was in a duel against a man who saw Helmut’s family as cowards. This guy was almost Helmut’s mirror image and the battle was brutal. In 7th Sea, you can take as many Dramatic Wounds as double your Resolve before being rendered helpless. Helmut took 4 in the first two rounds of combat…and then proceeded to score 6 unanswered wounds to knock his opponent out. It was amazing–we hooped and hollered and cheered at Mike’s good fortune and at the awesome comeback. What we didn’t realize at the time was this: This was not a fluke.
Impossibly, and beyond all probably likelihood, Helmut was quite literally invincible. The funny part was that he always, always got his ass kicked in the opening rounds of a fight. If he had 8 wounds to deal with, he’d get 4 (i.e. become crippled) without doing much in return. Then, however, was when Helmut got serious. That was then the magic happened.
Sorely injured, often disarmed, flat on his back, exhausted, broken, battered, covered in grime, looking up through half-closed eyes at his foes celebrating over him, Helmut would slowly pull himself to his feet.
That was when I’d cue up this song.
We then sat and watched Helmut kick more ass while half-dead than he ever did while fully alive. He struck down an evil master swordsman and sorcerer after being tortured for months on end; he wrestled a giant bear-demon on the bottom of raging river (while drowning, mind you) and strangled it to death with one good hand; he’s get shot with an entire squadron of muskets only to grimly advance after the volley and slaughter every one of the bastards as they ran. There was, as far as we could tell, literally no limit to what Helmut could do if you gave him time. He was like a glacier–shoot him, stab him, run him down, but it didn’t matter. He was coming for you, and there was no escape.
What made the whole thing even stranger is that it was in no way tied to any one person’s luck–Mike and Will had the same luck with the guy; people who subbed in playing him from time to time would report the same phenomenon. Bad luck until crippled; incredible luck afterwards. The guy was magic.
Gradually, his character morphed from a young, serious, stalwart man to a grim, scarred, terrifying specter of death. His mysterious Kreuzritter training came more to light as we went along; he’d disappear at odd times, kept his own counsel, and you could never quite tell if he was friend or foe. He was the one guy nobody in that campaign wanted to mess with. His arch nemesis? The villain of the campaign–Gavin Fell, assassin and traitor to the Kreuzritter. Fell was quicksilver where Helmut was lodestone–he fought with knives, blazing fast and deadly accurate, cutting a man to death with dozens of blows before you could ready your defenses. Helmut, though, in the end, fought Fell on a narrow bridge over a bottomless chasm and took those knife cuts over and over and over, nearly bleeding out. Then, when he was on his knees, his throat cut, crippled and near death, he stood up.
Then we played the song; then we watched the magic.
When people ask why I play RPGs and wonder how I can get so excited about the things that happen, Helmut is who I think of. Yeah, he wasn’t real, but he felt real–every bit as real, anyway, as any character in any book I’ve read or movie I’ve seen. He was awesome, no bones about it. He wasn’t the only one, by any means–there have been others. Perhaps I’ll tell you about them, too (like Ruin or Galdar, Hool and Lord Edward, Finn Cadogan, Carlo diCarlo, or the Crew of the USS Lionheart), but I wanted to start with Helmut–the most badass character I’ve ever seen.
I’m just now about halfway through George RR Martin’s A Dance with Dragons. He is a fine writer and has a gift for characterization, but, while I tore through the previous four books (okay, the first three and read the fourth in a week), I’ve found myself stumbling through this fifth in the series. I’ve been trying to pin down why, exactly, and I believe I’ve figured it out: This series isn’t about a person anymore, or even a group of people or two groups of people. It’s about Everyone.
Let me be frank: I don’t care about everyone. I mean that in the context fiction, specifically (primarily, at least, but let’s not delve into my misanthropy just now). No matter how much I get drawn into a work (and Martin really sucked me in with A Game of Thrones), I pin my interests and cares on the main characters, whoever they are, and there my concerns stay. I did not cry when they blew up Alderaan. I did not give a crap when all those dwarves died in Moria. I produced a big shrug when the aliens in Independence Day nuked Los Angeles…
But I cheered when Will Smith’s dog evaded that giant fireball.
A story, to my mind, should about a character or groups of characters going through a journey that changes them and challenges them. The more characters you have, the harder it gets to keep the reader focused on the story and the harder it becomes to engage them with the characters. Too many irons in the fire; too many cooks in the kitchen. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has become an unwieldy behemoth of a series, with well over 100 characters. It’s a pretty huge struggle for me to give a crap what happens to them all. There are barely over 100 real people I care about that much.
Let me make this clear, as well: it isn’t that I can’t keep the characters straight. I have a pretty solid memory for things like plot and character–I picked up Dance and started reading after having read the other books many, many years before and was able to keep up just fine. I remember most things of consequence and the stuff I forgot I am reminded of as soon as it comes up again. I’m on top of the narrative–comprehension isn’t the problem.
The problem, I’ve come to realize, is that the only characters I care about–and I stress the word only–are those
characters present in Winterfell when King Robert came to visit in the first book. That’s it–those are my characters. Even Daenerys is, well, only mildly interesting (I was frustrated by her inclusion in the first book, honestly. She got better, but I still wouldn’t give a crap if somebody stuck a knife in her eye…well, aside from the overriding plot repurcussions that might prevent GRRM from reasonably resolving this story, but whatever). Those characters at that castle set the tone for the rest of the series and presented to me all the protagonists and antagonists I’d really care to meet in this world ever.
Now, how many of those characters are still around, keeping us interested? How many of them are still relevant to what is happening in the world at large? How many of them have we even seen in the past book and a half? Yeah, not that many. Two? Three? Screw it, I say. I’m getting bored, and not because the book is badly written (far from it), but because I feel like I’m done here. It’s like watching the playoffs after your team’s been eliminated–why bother? I got plenty of other books to read where characters I like are still involved in the main plot.
This, in the end, is the main cost of writing ‘epic fantasy literature’ in its various forms. The author gets so invested in his world, he forgets why it exists in the first place: To give interesting characters a place to live and strive and die. Take away the characters, or drown them in a sea of unfamiliar faces, and the books lose something essential, something elemental to all storytelling.