A Duel Upon the Razor’s Edge: Flaws, Impurities and The Improbable Hero Archetype

An overworked dramatic adventure in an indeterminate number of parts!

Do you like high fantasy? I do. To a point, anyway. You see, there’s one thing that’s almost inherent in high fantasy that I just can’t stand. The exact definitions of high fantasy differ, but generally we think of something Tolkienesque in nature. You know the formula: lots of dragons, magic, good VS. evil and, of course, improbable heroes who suddenly discover some hidden strength they never realized they had. And that’s okay, I suppose, so long as it’s believable. Or at least, it was when it started.

Of course, instead of trying to give their characters enough time for the transformation to heroes to be remotely as plausible as just opening with someone competent, a number of authors try to make their character’s supernatural learning abilities okay by given them flaws. And by flaws, I mean serious personality traits which often raise the question of how these people ever survived long enough to become the Chosen One (and you already know I hate Chosen Ones, though I may have more on that later.) Let me put it like this:

Emile sat in the corner and sobbed, clutching his father’s spellbook in his hands. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I can’t do it, I’m sorry,” he wept. His tears stained the old pages and his heaving rattled the chair. “It’s too much!” Even though Emile was a competent wizard, he couldn’t overcome his fear of the old book and its ancient contents. There were spells within its pages to shatter cities and wither men, raise the dead and bind the living.

He was afraid of the book because it sat around looking creep, I mean you don’t even know how creep that book was, and Emile was more afraid of it than he’d ever been afraid of the unbelievably powerful sorcerer who’d nearly killed him three days ago because Emile decided it made tactical sense to attack him without a plan or any kind of information. In fact, Emile hadn’t even cast any spells because he was too cowardly to learn any before attacking people a million times more powerful than he was. He knew he needed to learn magic because he was a fucking wizard and all, but lightning was scary and crackly and totally more frightening than the ravenous dragon waiting outside his house at this exact moment.

Emile had been chosen, but no one ever asked him if he wanted to be, and in his heart he wasn’t ready or brave enough to shoulder this burden. So then Emile decided to run away from home, his family and everything he’d ever known to go on an improbable quest, making numerous mistakes that didn’t quite kill him because of his impenetrable plot armor. Emile would ultimately learn how to defeat Lord Evilmann Von Generichstad by training under a bunch of random master magicians who inexplicably all chose to live in the middle of goddamn nowhere so that Emile should never have found them.

And then when Emile confronted Lord Evilmann, Emile realized all along that the power was in him to defeat Evilmann, who was a thousand years old and the baddest dude around but somehow not experienced or powerful enough to not be outmaneuvered by a whiny son of two just-kinda-good sorcerers. Then everything ended well and Emile married the hottest witch ever, who he’d met, like, a week ago and instantly fallen in love with, because of reasons and that’s how love works.

There are a number of tropes I’m touching on here which I’m sure you’re familiar with if you’ve read much Fantasy, especially in the Young Adult subsets. First off there’s the idea of someone being so terrified of doing what they’re supposed to that they do something vastly more dangerous instead, which isn’t how fear works the last time I checked. Then we’ve got the whole improbable survival mess, which I don’t even need to go into because you’ve seen it so many times. In situations where all indicators are he should die, the hero survives. Not because he earns it- that would be fine- but because the plot just allows him to. And at the end of the book at the author’s spent the entire time building up the hero’s totally ordinariness (because ‘average’ is the first thing that comes to you mind when I say hero, right?) Then the author realizes that the hero needs to actually be a hero, and so pulls something directly from you-know-where in order to make it so. It’s all very dumb. The romance thing can and will supply its own separate post.

Fortunately, I have a solution! It’s a very simple one, too. Stop making heroes so damn improbable. Yes, I understand, underdogs and rags-to-riches and blah-blah-blah. If you actually believe any of that, stop reading my blog and go become Supreme Do-Gooder of the universe. Go on, help everyone live in a world of sunshine and rainbows with infinite free things! Nothing stopping you, right? Wait, sorry, everything’s stopping you, because you are a real person and things don’t just fall into place for you. Of course the reverse is that when you put considerable time and effort into learning something, I’m willing to bet you, oh readers mine, actually learn something. Don’t even get me started on all the protagonists who can’t do anything right and are supposed to be sympathetic on those grounds. Unless we’re talking satire, of course. Go read Terry Pratchett’s Rincewind novels in his Discworld series for the perfect example of that. Now, back to business!

There are endless permutations of all this, but the core pattern is the same. The author sets up the hero as being someone extremely ordinary or even sub-average in order to make that person’s sudden heroic leap more inspiring. Section two of this post will address why I think that’s silly, and what I think should be done instead. I’ll try to avoid getting preachier than normal, but I make no promises because I’m a self-important buffoon. After that? After that I address a reader’s limited suspension of disbelief, and how that ties into all the rest of this nonsense. And for those of you wondering about the pictures for this- there are none. Because they would be contrived.

One thought on “A Duel Upon the Razor’s Edge: Flaws, Impurities and The Improbable Hero Archetype

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