Monday, May 14, 2007

The Major Malfunction Theory of Character Development

"What is your childhood trauma?"
- Cordelia to Buffy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Well, this weekend has gone by in a blink. I've been editing and shopping, watching Doctor Who, tweaking articles on Wikipedia, and reading John Scalzi's books. It's more than enough to fill a weekend, I suppose, but it doesn't seem like it.

I've started in on The Last Colony, having finished reading The Ghost Brigades last night. I'm going to wait until I finish reading the Old Man's War trilogy before writing about it in any detail (if I do it at all), but I do have a few thoughts about the protagonists of the first two books, as they relate to other characters I've read or written about.

Old Man's War is narrated by John Perry, an eminently likable example of the class of heroes I like to call "the smartest man in the room." (Somehow I haven't seen many female renditions of this character type.) Perry is the kind of guy who can improvise a solution to nearly any problem, and figure out hidden truths that elude others. This puts him in the same class as the Doctor, Don Diego de la Vega, Sherlock Holmes and Gregory House, among many others. But whereas the Doctor, Holmes and House are clearly seen as extraordinary people, Perry has a large dollop of Everyman mixed in. He's smart and funny and capable, but overall he's just the high end of the Bell curve labeled "average Joe" - as average as you can be as a 75-year-old green-skinned supersoldier.

I can't decide whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, having John Perry exist on the fringes of ordinary, with neither extraordinary abilities or extraordinary character flaws. Let's look at the other "smartest guy" characters I named above. Holmes is a drug addict, at least marginally, is apparently incapable of romance, and doesn't get on all that well with other people. House is extremely rude and manipulative, torturing friends and colleagues for the intellectual pleasure of proving himself right about them. The Doctor is an alien who both admires humans and distances himself from them, sometimes failing to understand something as basic as a companion's feelings toward him. Of the lot, Diego is the most like Perry; he's universally acknowledged as clever, but not considered all that amazing. It's a front, though, because at night Diego puts on his black suit and mask, and rides off as Zorro. Perry is a hero, too, but he is eventually acknowledged as such under his own name.

Now, there is no reason why heroes should all be cast from the same mold. Even the ones I name above come from different heroic traditions despite this one similarity. But one thing nearly every hero seems to have is one or more character flaws, or at least major problems to work through. Holmes and his modern-day counterpart, House, are not nice people. The Doctor has any number of faults, depending on which Doctor it is, and the underlying problem of being a rootless wanderer who can never have a single companion to share his life for the long haul, because they will age and die and he will not. Diego drives people crazy with his apparent frivolousness and lack of heroics, and cannot be himself, either with or without the mask.

And if I can jump to my own characters for a moment, they are pretty much all flawed or damaged in some way. Rani can't accept his tengrem side, which keeps him from being the person he wants to be. Carli is impulsive, and falls in love with the wrong woman. Cathma lacks tact. Darsuma is arrogant and dogmatic. Fayubi is deceptive and silly. Li is insecure and corruptible. Wil is too pragmatic, Talber too secretive. By the end of Mages, all of them have suffered, and been changed substantially by their experiences.

But John Perry doesn't seem to have any major faults or traumas. Yes, he misses his dead wife, loses friends in combat and lobs jokes at people who don't always appreciate them, plus he works for a morally questionable military force. But none of this seems to phase him very much, and as faults go, joking around isn't much of anything. He has a character arc, but it's a subtle one; green skin aside, he doesn't change all that much.

There's a type of character called a Mary Sue, male equivalent Gary Sue or Marty Stu. There's more to the concept than this, but basically a Mary Sue is an idealized character, the smartest, most beautiful, most competent person in the room, utterly without flaws but usually misunderstood and put upon. A Mary Sue is an author's fantasy stand-in, an impossibly good version of the author herself. The term comes from fan fiction, where Mary Sues are common, but is sometimes applied to professional fiction as well.

Is John Perry a Marty Stu? I don't think so, but he's not all that far off from it. His Everyman quality mitigates against it; one can't be high-end ordinary (within the context of an extraordinary milieu) and too-perfect at the same time. And really, I much prefer likable characters over the mean and miserable ones, so I like John Perry a lot. But I do hope he has more serious issues to deal with as a character in the third book - faults to confront, and serious personal problems to overcome.

The second book, The Ghost Brigades, is about an entirely different character, who does have the damaged quality I'm looking for. Jared has a major malfunction, as do Homes and House and the rest: there is a large part of himself he doesn't know about, which affects both the way people treat him and the difficult decisions he has to make once his hidden second personality starts to manifest. It's good stuff, once it gets going, the only problem being that it takes abut 75 pages for the character to show up on the page in person.

And yet I missed John Perry while reading The Ghost Brigades, which mentions Perry only in passing. I'm glad he's back to front and center in The Last Colony. Maybe that's what matters about a character: not whether he is flawed or damaged, or what heroic traditions apply, but whether you want to read his adventures.


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