Making a Character Prodigiously Powerful Will Not Make Them Interesting

So, I was watching the trailer for ‘The Last Jedi,’ where Luke is telling Rey that he’s only seen her kind of power once before, that she’s amazingly in tune with the Force and so on and so forth and I thought “Man, I am tired of the heroes in these kinds of stories being amazing prodigies.”

Now, I’d like to unpack that a little. First of all, yes, in an adventure or fantasy story the hero ought to be special or extraordinary in some way. Otherwise there’s no point in talking about them. But something about this particular instance annoyed me, and I tried to compare it to some other instances I know about.

First there’s the preceding films, ‘Phantom Menace’ and its sequels, where, again, Anakin was repeatedly built up as Jedi prodigy without equal, and it struck me as similarly annoying (though there it was so buried in an avalanche of other bad storytelling techniques that it was kind of hard to notice).

So, latter ‘Star Wars’ films all have this plot element, and I find it annoying in each case. The originals, however, didn’t have it. Luke had potential and was attune with the Force, but nothing indicated he was anything unusually powerful: the issue was that he had aptitude, and was apparently the only chance for the Jedi to continue. Likewise, Han was a tough, clever outlaw, but not a master warrior or genius strategist. Yet, as we all know, Luke and Han were much more interesting and engaging characters than either Grey – sorry, Rey – or Anakin.

Are there other cases? Let’s consider the other major pop culture stories. The Harry Potter series actually avoids this as well. Harry was never portrayed as an extreme magical prodigy, on par with the likes of Dumbledore, Tom Riddle, or even Snape. He was pretty consistently played as being talented, but not extraordinary: he had natural talent in flying (which he himself points out isn’t especially useful) and was especially skilled in defensive magic, largely because he’d been through a crucible of extreme circumstances almost from day one. The point of the story was that his friends and his fundamental decency were ultimately more powerful than raw magical might.

Obviously in The Lord of the Rings the whole point was that Frodo and his fellow Hobbits weren’t anything extraordinary. Aragorn was, but it wasn’t really his story. Even when we focus on him, he’s not the ‘audience identification’ figure: we’re more meant to admire him as a paradigm than to identify with him.

Then there’s Avatar the Last Airbender. Now, in that one, Aang is uniquely powerful, which works because that’s the premise of the story, and the progression is watching him undergo training to make the most of his vast potential. On the other hand, all his friends are prodigies as well; Katara and Toph are presented as being among the greatest benders in their field, and Sokka is a brilliant strategist and inventor. Now, I love Avatar, but this, I think, is actually one of the few major flaws with the series: the fact that all the greatest Benders in the world are either under eighteen or over fifty: there are no middle-aged or in-their-prime masters on screen. That kind of hurts the suspension of disbelief.

As for My Little Pony, Twilight is presented as a great magical prodigy, but the story isn’t about her magical prowess: it’s about her learning about friendship, at which she’s explicitly portrayed as being below average to start with. Likewise with her friends, Rainbow Dash and Rarity are both played as being naturally very talented, but still needing a lot of hard work and training to reach their full potential, which is ultimately achieved only through a lot of time, sacrifice, and effort. Starlight is also a natural magical prodigy, but this is actually played as a bit of a liability, since her first instinct is always to use magic to solve her problems. Since, again, the point of the story is virtue and friendship, not magic.

Now, Phineas and Ferb is premised on its titular pair being extreme prodigies. But there are two things about that; first, it’s required by the premise and is obviously exaggerated to the point of being ridiculous. In the second, despite the title the show is really more about their sister, Candace, whose character arc involves her jealousy towards her extraordinary brothers and her own sense of inadequacy. Thus, the entry point of the show is still an identifiable figure.

Less well known, Larry Correia’s Grimnoir trilogy, with its X-Men-meets-Ray Chandler set up (Chandler himself is actually a minor character), also has a preternaturally talented cast. But there, it feels earned. The characters have almost all had intense, harsh lives and extreme training to augment their powers. Like, Jake, the main protagonist, is a WWI veteran who did hard time in a brutal prison, in addition to being naturally intelligent. Another character, Heinrich, grew up in the zombie-infested ruins of Berlin, where he’d have to develop extraordinary abilities to survive. There’s really only one character who is presented as a preternatural prodigy – Faye – and then her extreme talent is a plot point with a large part of the series taken up with trying to find out why she’s so powerful.

That, I think, is the main thing that separates the instances that work and the ones that don’t: if it feels earned. With Rey and Anakin, and some others, it doesn’t feel earned: we’re simply told that they’re uniquely powerful and talented, and that therefore we should be invested in their story. But the trouble is, they’re boring characters: there’s no reason to care about what happens to them. Luke, Han, and Leia were great characters in their own right, and were fun to watch. All the other characters I mentioned were also great, fun, interesting characters in their own right. That, I think, is the other thing that I find annoying about the latter Star Wars films and a lot of other contemporary stories: that it feels like a cheap ploy to try to make boring characters seem interesting.

I remember on one writing advice site I perused a while back, one of the principles offered was ‘Superpowers will not make a boring character interesting.’ If the character’s personality, story, and arc aren’t engaging, then assuring us that they’re a genius or a prodigy or amazingly powerful won’t change that.

As you can tell, I’m not looking forward to Last Jedi: I really just don’t care anymore. I didn’t like Force Awakens very much, and it’s gone down in my estimation upon reflection. I don’t buy that this is really ‘what happened next’ in the story: it just feels like they’re rehashing the same plot, only with duller characters. And the assurance that Kylo and Rey (AKA dull and duller) are the most powerful Force users ever only makes it seem even more boring.

In short, I don’t care what happens to these people.

Great Humor, Great Morals, and Why Having Your Heroine Be a Music Box for an Episode Makes for Good Writing

So, this week’s episode of My Little Pony was pretty fantastic (full disclosure: I actually saw it a week or so ago. You see, since FiM is produced in Vancouver, Canadian audiences get to see episodes up to two or even three weeks before the rest of us. The magic of the internet, however, allows some leeway to this). It was pretty much everything the show does best; strong writing, great characterization, solid moral lessons, and some fantastic humor. Season Seven has been mostly strong so far, about on par with the previous season, but I think A Royal Problem is the best one since the season premier.

Among the many, many reasons to love My Little Pony is the fact that it remains remarkably creative, even in its seventh season. Just as an example, this episode had Twilight magically project herself into a music box so as to keep in touch with Starlight on her first mission. So, we have our protagonist as a tiny, mechanical ballerina for most of the episode: who would even think of something like that? This leads to a lot of great gags (“I’m here if you want to talk. Or listen to music!”), culminating in a frustrated Starlight chucking the music box – Twilight and all – into a drawer.

Even better, it’s a gag that fits within the established universe (Twilight’s already projected herself into a book and talked to someone as an illustration a few seasons back) and serves only to enhance what made the character funny in the first place (Twilight’s freak outs are always hilarious, but when she’s a three-inch golden ballerina figure, the fun is doubled). The humor builds on the character and doesn’t feel forced, even in such a ridiculous situation.

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“The one and only thing that I am here to bring is music!”

Finally, from a story perspective, this device also serves the purpose of 1). Giving Starlight someone to talk to, 2). Keeping Twilight involved in the story, and 3). Emphasizing why Starlight, of all ponies, was the best choice for this particular mission even as it seems to be spiraling out of control, and 4). Providing a means to showcase Starlight’s second-guessing and self-doubts, furthering her character development.

All that from what is, at best, a tertiary element in the episode.

Oh, and speaking of great morals, the episode’s climax involves Princess Celestia coming face-to-face with the manifestation of her own darkest desires and temptations. This creature (called ‘Daybreaker’) declares herself to be “everything you want to be” and taunts Celestia with the fact that she could quite literally do anything, if only she stopped caring about other people so much, especially her sister.

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The Mare Mystique

So, a strong female character is rebuked for not making the most of her abilities and is told she can “have it all” (the phrase is actually used) if she would only forget about her obligations to her family, nation, and morality. Said character’s triumph comes in forcibly rejecting this temptation. All in an episode about appreciating the different roles we all play in the world and not assuming you have it worse than anyone else.

Man, this show is awesome.

Reviews: Pete’s Dragon

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Pete’s Dragon, like Cinderella or The Jungle Book, is a remake of a classic Disney film that not only improves on the original, but also manages to be a refreshingly individual film in its own right. Here’s a movie that doesn’t so much defy formula as simply ignores it; it’s content to simply tell its own story, without any kind of heavy handed message or attempt to appeal to mass audiences. Probably not everyone will like this movie; it has a leisurely pace and little ‘action,’ and the humor is low-key and elicits smiles rather than laugh-out-loud moments.

That, to my mind, is part of what makes the film special. Against all odds, this isn’t just a media giant attempting to cash in on a familiar title; it’s an honestly good story told by people who clearly cared a lot about the finished product. To me, it feels a lot like a classic children’s book; the kind that adults look forward to reading to their kids.

When five-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegly) is orphaned in a car crash in the Pacific Northwest, he finds himself unexpectedly adopted by a friendly, furry dragon whom he christens ‘Eliot’ after the main character of his favorite book. Six years later, he’s discovered by forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who, together with her father, Meachem (Robert Redford), her fiancée Jack (Wes Bentley) and his daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), slowly comes to realize that Pete comes with an unexpected level of magic.

Like I say, the film moves leisurely, spending lots of time just hanging around with its characters, especially Pete and Eliot. Their relationship is obviously at the heart of the film, and plays out rather like that of a boy and his dog. Only, of course, this dog is twenty feet tall, can fly, and can turn invisible. The relationship is charming, and Eliot is cute without overdoing it (one detail I especially liked was that Eliot has several noticeable battle scars, hinting that the dragon isn’t just a cuddly pet). Needless to say, the effects that bring the dragon to life are excellent, and I applaud the decision to make Eliot a mammalian dragon rather than your standard scaly beast. Not only does this make him more cuddly (and make his devotion to Pete more plausible), but it also makes him feel more at home in the Pacific Northwest setting (you don’t find pythons or crocodiles in Washington state or Canada). If there are dragons in those woods, I would expect them to look more like Eliot than, say, Smaug. Some might complain this makes his color-changing ability a bit harder to swallow, but then again, who’s to say it isn’t just magic? Put it this way; I found Eliot’s invisibility powers far easier to swallow than those of the last monster to share a screen with Miss Howard.

The movie spends its time, not in hairs-breadth escapes or high adventure, but in setting moods and encouraging us to enter into the feel of the scene: playful when Pete and Eliot are rollicking through the forest. Peaceful and serene when Grace is walking through the forest. Warm and comfortable when we’re sitting in Jack and Natalie’s house. Wonder and amazement when Eliot reveals himself to the other characters.

Though, of course, there is a story, and things do happen. Pete, having spent so long in the woods, at last begins to find himself tempted back to civilization, first by a chance encounter with Grace, then by another with Natalie (thus, he’s drawn out by beauty; a very nice touch). Of course, once it’s discovered that there’s a little boy living alone in the woods, no self-respecting adult is going to just let him stay there. Pete’s first encounters with civilization are very well done, as we’re allowed to feel his confusion, disorientation, and desperation to get back home, and then his growing comfort under the loving care of the family he stumbles into. The only problem is…what’s going to happen to Eliot? Especially when Jack’s troublemaking brother Gavin (Karl Urban) sets his sights on the beast.

Among the film’s bold moves is to avoid having a real villain. Gavin serves as the antagonist, but he’s not a bad guy. He’s just an ordinary, flawed human being. He’s presented as kind of a jerk, but his actions, though selfish, are by no means unreasonable and he has more than one redemptive moment. In fact, all the characters here are refreshingly ‘normal.’ They’re not generic Hollywood character types, but individuals of their own time, place, and milieu. I cannot stress enough how relieved I am that the film isn’t yet another rural-bashing story about small-minded villagers who hate whatever they don’t understand (a trope I have grown to loathe so much that it makes me cringe even in otherwise brilliant films like Beauty and the Beast). Everyone here is basically a decent person, and the small-town rural setting is presented with real affection.

I also like that the movie doesn’t feature any modern technology like cell phones or computers, and that the time period is deliberately left ambiguous. It could be modern day, or the eighties, or even the seventies. This helps give the film a timeless feel that fits perfectly.

Thematically, the movie tackles the rich and deceptively complex theme of belief and magic, a theme previously given scope in the writings of C.S. Lewis and, especially, J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay On Fairy Stories. Imagination, wonder, and the humble enjoyment of the secret glories of creation are woven throughout the film, not only in the presence of the dragon but in the joy the characters take in the forest and the delight of working with your hands and spinning tall tales. Eliot in particular brings magic with him, but the encounter with him deepens and enriches an experience that was already ‘magical’ in effect.

These ideas are drawn out in broad strokes primarily by Meachem (a wonderful performance by Mr. Redford). He’s a wood-carver who spins tall-tales about an encounter with “the Millhaven Dragon,” but whose stories turn out to have a core of truth to them. He insists that seeing the dragon brought with it a kind of “magic” that has never left him.

“It changes the way I see the world,” he tells Grace. “The trees, the sunshine, you.”

Reinforcing this is a folksong, played over the opening and sung later in the film by one of the characters, telling of the ‘dragons’ who live in the forest, calling to mind hic dracones and the primeval human tendency to fill unexplored regions with fairies and monsters. Later, Pete and Natalie have a thoughtful (though entirely childlike) discussion of imagination and reality.

I remembered C.S. Lewis’s comments in On Writing for Children; “Fairyland,” he says. “Arouses in [the child] a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him, to his lifelong enrichment, with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods. This reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” Pete’s Dragon is a film that not only explores this idea, but is itself a shining example of it. It rings with the love of nature, not in silly half-pagan environmentalism but in humble joy at the beauty of creation.

Like The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon is another movie that ignores parochial themes for deeper, timeless ideas that seek to enrich the viewer rather than instruct him.

Though I enjoyed the movie immensely, I find I don’t have a whole lot to say about it, at least not that would fit in a review. This isn’t the kind of film where a whole lot happens, so that you can say ‘here’s how this scene went’ or ‘I liked this bit.’ Rather, it’s a film that is best just seen and enjoyed.

I feel as though there are two Disneys at work today. One is the giant money making machine, pumping out films of varying quality, but all very much catering to the tastes of the filmmakers and the audience; no different from any other media empire.

Then there’s the Disney of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon (and, on the small screen, of Phineas and Ferb): the Disney that is still animated by the spirit of Uncle Walt, that has his audacity, his love of storytelling, and his ability to reach right down to the roots of our common humanity to inspire wonder and joy in the audience. I can only hope that this latter Disney continues to produce films like this.

Final Rating: 4.5/5: Probably not for everyone, but a film to treasure.

 

 

Another Illustration

Another way of demonstrating my idea from the last post: the ‘Princess and the Dragon’ motif (Chesterton used this to describe melodrama in Charles Dickens).

Phase One: meet the princess. The hero encounters the princess and falls in love with her. But he cannot court her because there is some kind of threat over hanging her or some kind of obstacle in the way of their relationship.

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Phase Two: the Dragon Emerges. Now the threat manifests itself. The ‘princess’ may be forever removed from the hero’s reach. Desperate measures are required, because if he fails, he will lose his true love for all time.

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Phase Three: the Marriage. The hero has successfully slain the dragon, removing the threat to his beloved and destroying the obstacle that kept her from him. He is now free to marry her and live happily ever after.

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A hopeless courtship, through a desperate battle, to finally claiming his true love against all odds. That is the pattern of melodrama.

Three Phases of a Good Story

Great stories, or at least a certain kind of story, work by proceeding along the following path: from false order through disorder to true order.

Before I go any further, I’m by no means an expert; this is just my personal observations and ideas, for whatever those are worth, presented for consideration.

As I said, false order through disorder to true order. What do I mean by that?

A story starts in apparent peace: things seem good, or at least tolerable. The community is intact, its institutions standing firm. Yet there is a problem; the protagonist’s life is, in fact, built upon sand. The problem is not immediately before us, but sneaks in, as it were, from around the edges. The community is in fact threatened or undermined by secret or exterior forces.

Then comes disorder. The threat manifests itself, no longer being hidden, but open. The institutions crumble or prove impotent and the protagonist is thrown upon his own resources. It no longer becomes possible to restore the integrity of the community from within, but requires unusual effort and atypical behavior to solve the problem.

Finally, the problem is solved and true order is established. The threat that undermined the apparent order has been removed, the fault lines have been filled, and the institutions are reestablished, having been purged of their impurities.

To take an example: consider the Harry Potter series (Spoilers ahead). We begin with false order: the wizarding world seems a wonderful, magical place; a haven from the stultifying world of the Dursleys. It is where Harry’s friends and interests all reside. There are threats, but they are external: Voldemort is in hiding and his followers have to act by cunning and secrecy. The institutions stand firm: Hogwarts, the Ministry, and so on all seem strong and safe.

Yet even now there is hidden disorder, not only in the continuing threat of Voldemort, but also in the structure of the wizarding community itself, which we begin to understand is rife with corruption and bigotry.

Then comes disorder. Voldemort returns. The Ministry is torn by corruption. Hogwarts becomes, not the triumphant heart of the wizarding world, but a fortress under siege. Harry and his friends are increasingly forced to work outside the normal patterns of behavior and even outside the law. Finally the community collapses entirely with the fall of the Ministry and Harry becomes an outlaw, culminating in a full-on battle royale.

But, at the end, true order is restored. Voldemort and his followers are defeated, the wizarding community is rebuilt on more humane grounds, having been partially purged of its imperfections by the war, and Harry and his friends take their place as hardworking citizens. The wizarding world is what it was supposed to be from the beginning.

Another example: Pride and Prejudice (again, spoilers). We meet the Bennet family, things are in a semblance of order. The family is not especially happy (with an ill-matched parental pair and three “very silly” youngest sisters), but they are respectable, reasonably well-off, and the household bumps along well enough. They are an integral part of the community and are generally well-liked and respected among their neighbors. Yet, this pleasant existence is built on a foundation of sand, as Mr. Bennet’s estate is entailed on the male line, and the family has no son. Once he dies, the estate will pass to his obnoxious cousin and the fate of his daughters will be shaky indeed. Thus, one of them has to marry. But this brings us to the other faultline under the Bennet household: the fact that at least half of it is very stupid, thoughtless, and ill-bred. When Jane, the eldest and prettiest of the daughters, falls in love with a rich and easy-going man, the rudeness and stupidity of her mother and younger sisters cause the man’s friends to quietly remove him from her company.

So, the Bennet daughters have to marry, but the foolishness of their mother and of some of their sisters make it unlikely. At the same time, there’s the hidden danger of Mr. Wickham; a charming, but completely amoral young man who has lately become acquainted with the young ladies.

Then comes disorder: Lydia, the youngest daughter, elopes with Wickham and lives with him for a time without marrying him. This threatens to cast the Bennet’s out of all society forever, and certainly to dash their hopes of marrying well. In the face of this threat, ordinary concerns fall by the wayside. Mr. Bennet rushes to London in a wrath, and, unbeknownst to him, so does Mr. Darcy: the fabulously rich, but socially-awkward young man who has fallen in love with Elizabeth, the second eldest Bennet daughter, and who is Wickham’s old enemy. Darcy hunts up and down London, dealing with the lowest kind of scum, until he traps his enemy and, to save the Bennets, takes him under his financial protection under the condition that he marry Lydia.

Finally comes true order: Jane and Elizabeth, against all odds, marry the men who have always loved them, being thus set up for life and ensuring the family fortunes forever. The threat of the entail is destroyed, Wickham is effectively neutralized, and the insipidity of Mrs. Bennet no longer matters.

A final example: Toy Story (still Spoilers). At first, everything seems idyllic. Woody is Andy’s favorite toy and the de-facto leader of the bedroom. He’s respected by his friends, and, apart from some minor bickering, they all get along fine.

But there is a hidden fault line in the arrangement, and it comes from Woody himself: he’s become so used to his exalted position that he doesn’t really know how to live without it. Unfortunately for him, that question is forced on him when Andy become infatuated with Buzz Lightyear, a flashy new action figure.

For a while, the community holds, though in a strained form. Then Woody’s jealousy leads him to go too far, sparking a crisis that drags both him and Buzz far from the safety and familiarity of the bedroom and threatens them both with destruction. Woody’s personal failures have brought disorder into his life and the lives of all his friends.

The only way they can restore order turns out to involve not only facing their own flaws, but also breaking the rules of being a toy. At the beginning, part of the life of a toy means returning to your proper place and freezing whenever a human comes near. Now, however, they not only break that rule but actually show their ability to move and speak. The institutions of the toy community will no longer avail them and they have to look to their own resources to restore order.

Finally comes true order: Woody has learned his lesson, he and Buzz have reconciled, and the toy community is stronger than ever, with no more fear of being replaced. The faults that threatened the stability of the community have been identified and corrected.

This pattern obviously doesn’t play out everywhere, but I come across it more often than not. It’s very useful in terms of reader investment; the first phase gives us a chance to get to know the world and see that it is something worth preserving. It makes us care. We care about the wizarding world because, with Harry, we see it as a fun, glorious escape from the boring and humdrum world of the every day. We care about the Bennet family because we like Elizabeth and Jane and we sense the real love that exists between the sisters and their worthiness to come through in the end. We care about Woody because we see how much Andy loves him and vice-versa and because we sympathize with the fear of being displaced by someone else.

The second phase threatens the thing we’ve come to love. The wizarding world might be turned into a nightmare and all the colorful characters destroyed. The Bennet family may be ruined forever and the beautiful, worthy elder sisters condemned to a life of spinsterhood. Woody and Buzz might be lost forever, depriving a nice little boy of his two favorite toys. The threats have become real and require our protagonists to stretch themselves and grow in order to escape. It rests on them to avert the disaster and save the thing we love.

Finally is the satisfaction of true order: having passed through the storm, our heroes are permitted to come to rest in a world freed from the threats that destroyed their initial contentment. Harry and his friends grow up, marry, and raise their own families in a world freed from the dangers they had to face. Elizabeth and Jane each end up with a wonderful man who not only loves her passionately, but who is wealthy enough to support the rest of the family if need be. Woody and Buzz become friends and assume joint leadership over the other toys, who have learned from their experience and no longer fear being replaced. The thing we love has been preserved, and we are assured that it won’t be threatened again, at least not in the same way. The problem has been solved, the community restored. All is right with the world.