Reading Challenge Update / Character Assassination in Fiction (And not the cool kind with dark clothing, sorry)

11 Feb


First, Reading List Update:

Book with Non-Human Characters: Bone, Ash, Fog and Star by Catherine Egan
A Book that Came Out this Year: The Ehrich Weisz Chronicles: Infinity Coil by Marty Chan
A Book with Bad Reviews: Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Claire
A Book that Became a Movie: The Maze Runner by James

Technically any book out there should have some bad reviews. Taste, really – and I was aware of Cassandra Clare’s work previously, and for the most part, I’m counting it as Bad Reviews because I have more people whose reviews I follow have more bad to say than good . Me, it’s my first time reading the author in any official capacity and I thought it was okay. Maybe it’s just what I’m reading lately. Lots of stories of young special people fighting suprisingly demonic creatures from other dimensions so far. Might be the new dystopia… ahem. So far, two books with significant characters named Teresa, and two books making significant reference to Thomas Eddison. This wouldn’t strike me as odd if they weren’t so back-to-back.
Ah well – not like rough drafts matter, but I finished the other middle-grade book I was working on. The second was just a smidgeon longer then the first, but I can see why people can crank them out so quickly. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that writing for kids is tricky if you don’t want to be a condescending schmuck about it. I like that I’m more streamlined and focused, and it’s okay to have a sense of humor. And it’s okay if it’s not that sophisticated, kids get it.

Character Assassination
It’s okay to Have Bad Protagonists

I don’t watch much TV – but due to rural on call, last year I caught part of a tv series that I really wanted to see – but I decided to wait by starting with season 1. Finally bought season one of Vikings – a Canadian/Ireland production centered around Ragnar Lothbrok, a historical viking who became Jarl of Scandinavia set at the end of the 8th century. For the most part, I really liked it – while it does have a typical Canadian, “They won’t even know they’re being educated!” feel (Oh yes we will) which I think has more to do with grant money than anything, the casting was great, the stories didn’t drag, and it didn’t shy away from difficult storylines and a reality we like to romanticize. The purist might be like “It’s pronounced YARL” (jarl, not earl) but I’m a believer you can be historically accurateish for your audience. We need to fill in the blanks somewhere, and I’d rather an author/director/designer be consistent for what they’ve decided because as well as things get documented, there’s always some questions left unanswered. I loved the sets, the costumes, the men looked rugged and strong without being your chiseled 300 models for the most part. Hey, it doesn’t even shy from religion, so props to the balls for once.

Anyway – my chief complaint about the story is that it’s hard to take a character like Ragnar who, by our standards is a very heroic adventurer – but he also is a liar, a marauder, an adulterer, and a slaver.
They balance this out by making him seem very loving towards his family, as well as seemingly bright for his time (valuing knowledge over immediate material wealth) but our first time seeing him on his great adventure to the ‘west’ he attacks some defenceless priests in their monastery. I have no problem with this – it’s accurate to history. I’m sure there were vikings that passed over penniless commoners, but the mentality was generally geared towards raiding and pillaging. The mentality was that it was better to die on your feet and finding great wealth glory rather than building Ice-Hobbiton. It’s like someone caught wind of this and was like, “Audiences might realize that our hero is basically a maurader! (HE IS/WAS). We need to make our antagonists worse than the hero!” My guess is that they already spent some of the grant money on beer and it was too late to pick a historical era whose characters weren’t raping, slaving, and setting settlements on fire. (Though to be fair, this might eliminate a rather large chunk of human history…)

We’ll start with the jarl that Ragnar is sworn fealty and to obey – who Ragnar immediately disobeys in episode 2 and sails west.

He’s portrayed as a ruthless man, having a man executed in episode 1 due to a conflict of interest and killing men who are loyal to him but look the wrong way at his wife, having a child executed to guard his hoard in the afterlife. (It gets worse, believe me). Okay, let’s be fair – we’re in a brutal world, so this is kind of an accurate thing. Your typical jarl probably wasn’t used to being told ‘no’ and you didn’t get to be jarl by handing out kittens and roses. I actually liked the conflict between the two characters because we got backstory with the jarl and we understood his motivations, but there are scenes where I felt like they were included just to remind the viewers that no matter what Ragnar does, the jarl is worse.

Enter the King of Aelle, or as I like to call him, Robert Baratheon II. (Because I’m a jerk).


When we meet the king’s sheriff, he goes into the good PR of how they live in peace and prosperity, and I’m going to assume the sheriff doesn’t like complaining about how truly awful life is and maybe he’s giving a good spin on things, and MAYBE our sheriff was lying and going to take them all into custody because our hero matches the smirk of the barbarians who attacked that monastery last spring. The vikings attack a seemingly peaceful envoy of soldiers, led by Rollo, who we’ll get to shortly. Our slovenly king (nothing says I’m a slothful glutton no one should like – make him a former CK model and we might have more people being sympathetic to having something relatively peaceful and unprotected suddenly having to fight back against people who want to kill and plunder) sends other people to fight his battles for him (like a smart king, but in fiction-land this looks cowardly), but his most horrible moment is when the surviving lord, after retreating with what little men he had left after a battle with the vikings, goes to tell the king, “We had our butts handed to us, here’s some intel on our enemy” gets thrown into a snake pit. First, how does one have one of those installed without there being some rumours from the stable boys – (hey, don’t fail the king… I know he sits around getting fat and everything, but he’s vengeful, man) and also, was it done for any other reason than to think, “Bad man! Rothgar might be stealing from and killing relatively undefended peasants (well, not on screen…) taking what little wealth they have and, if their settlements burn, leaving them to scratch out a living in the harsh winter, fighting through some of the king’s men eventually but at least he’s not throwing one bravish grown man into a snake pit!” Maybe the king will actually personally suffer from the attacks, but he’s got funds for a snake pit. Maybe this will be a plot point in season 2.

Finally, there’s the foil to our MC – Rollo.
Ragnar’s brother, who has by far the most interesting story arc so far. Rollo, who is his brother’s right hand although we, the audience, know he’s not trustworthy in the least. He picks fights and seems to enjoy killing the onscreen defenceless, he rapes, he covets after Legretha, Ragnar’s wife – he also refuses to betray his brother when he could have taken everything he wanted. And just when he does something awesome, he usually rounds it out by getting drunk, sleeping around, and scolded by someone for being a dimwit.

Now, I’m going to throw out that I’m being overly nitpicky and the worst of these examples was the King of Aelle, and he’s also the character we spend the least amount of time with. On the whole, this show does this relative character assassination much better than a lot of times I read it in fiction. I know audiences want to like their main character, and when you’re writing history – even history from the 20th century – you’re going to have characters with very different mindsets then we have today, and writing them for modern audiences can be extremely difficult. As a whole, we like intelligent, attractive characters who think the way we think, but that limits our stories and also our intended audiences. I for one trust my audience enough to know that something a relatively uneducated 10th century man-at-arms says might not be a reflection of me as an author, but I’ve learned that not everyone can tell the difference. (I call them preschoolers, but the ones I know start to discern what is sincere and fooling at a young age. It’s a useful life skill, IMO) Thing is, I think it’s enough that we have a character who acts within the honour system of his culture – he disobeys a small minded jarl. He attacks a wealthy monastery – we don’t have to make Rollo look worse to make Ragnar look great – he does that by valuing the monk’s knowledge to plan future raids. He returns and attacks a kingdom, waiting for the time to strike. This is no ignorant raider – he’s relatively smart, and while no one deserves to have barbarians at the door, if you’re going after that time period, it’s better than covering it up and pretending it was for any reason other than it was. The king is no saint, we get it. Like the jarl, he needs a healthy amount of fear to keep his men in line. To me, Rollo being a drunken womanizer who drifts along aimlessly in his brother’s shadow doesn’t knock him down to build Ragnar up – it makes Rollo a much more interesting character. Part of this, at least for when I write, is that your noble supermen are harder to write. I might be able to identify with an aspect of a character’s excellence, but let’s face it, I have more in common with any of the hobbits from LoTR than with Legolas, and only part of it is Second Breakfast.

In general, what I described above (making a character really bad seemingly to make the protagonist seem not so bad) I call this character assassination, and I think this is usually to help with relative morality and make the audience agree with where the author took things – obviously the love triangle should go one way, because love interest B did something bad (which if the preferred character did, would be totally legitimized, such as stalking) therefore everyone has to get on board with the OTP unless they like puppy kickers or something. Even where shows try to be ‘edgy’ and show grey vs grey morality, they still have to pick a side eventually and to me, these bits of assassination just look like a saving throw because they recognize that the protagonist isn’t that good. And in my opinion, we can do this without having characters exist just to build up the protagonist.

A good example of a character who is ‘bad’ we can all get behind would be Richard B. Riddick – who I was told in a trailer was a new kind of evil, but basically, the series is my favourite adaptation of Conan the Barbarian so I consider him almost true neutral with tinkering towards good if you’re a kid or a dog. Riddick’s a murderer, leaves people to die, probably stole every spaceship he’s ever flown, etc. – but he also doesn’t go out of his way to kill for pleasure, never harms the vulnerable (although stealing their supplies to survive is fair game) and some of you are going, “But, what about Johns in Pitch Black? The merc who they made an addict…?” first off, Pitch Black’s main character wasn’t Riddick, but let’s look anyway. He and Johns are at a stalemate and they know it – and it’s Johns who mentions killing Jack first, and I for one see Riddick killing Johns because it was the best strategy (don’t let the one guy who could cause you trouble later get any advantage). Riddick is not a pillar of morality – in PB, he’s the strongest character and most apt to survive, but he’s not willing to go back and save people either. He goes against characters in later movies who are a different type of evil (religious dictators, slaving mercenaries, etc.) who still have kick the dog moments, but I get the idea it’s their actual characters and the world, not thrown in to make Riddick look better. The movies are far from perfect, but in terms of Riddick’s character, with the exception of him getting a wolf-dog thing in book 3, he doesn’t have a single pat the dog moment.

I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re doing history, which awards-wise is akin to CanLit, trust your audience. If us low-brow sci-fi audiences on the whole get it, your history buffs will too.

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