Badassery Part 1: The Non-Combat Protagonist

10 Aug

I first started to write when I was fairly young – I loved sport and was competitive. This, combined with a love of pulp-novels and adventure movies, probably made me write characters who, were capable of a variety of physical activity.

After I got my BA, I studied firefighting and paramedicine, and, while I’ll attest to the limitations of my own body (Chronic R ankle injury, yo) it has made my suspension of disbelief really fail really fast. I’m that jerk who kind of accepts that most people get CPR wrong in the movies, and whenever I see violence on screen, I am looking for mechanism of injury and start speculating what injuries are likely.

And, with the market as competitive as it is, I often watch movies and notice how we’re told that a character isn’t only cool – they’re badass. My main issue? It effectively becomes beating up Worf. I’m not saying you can’t have characters who are extremely powerful, but that means as a writer, I need to come up with characters that are even more badass, or make the threat to the character something that can’t be handled via physical prowess.

So how do we keep in mind character struggles, especially when genres such as science fiction, horror and fantasy involve characters that can be much stronger than average?

To me, the answer to how to create dynamic struggles with a very powerful character is considering how to solve a problem when you can’t punch your way through it. Obviously, one could argue that the use of superior technology is in the role of a combatant (in other words, if I give regular Joe a tank with training, and the best swordsman on the planet is across a field, their fight is a little one sided). Making your characters a force to be reckoned with but making their struggle real is gonna be split into several parts, and I’m going to start with “lightweights” – these would be characters most would assume no to light threat, followed by a standard mook, then the Uber Warriors. Feel free to nitpick and argue, because I am a firm believer in tactics over raw power. I believe most humans throughout historical conflict died from infection and, no matter how much of a magnificent creature you are, you and I are still prone to dying from minute concentrations of chemicals, heat exposure, and lots of stuff is poisonous. Look up “Carfentanyl” and how much is needed to tank one of us.

I’ll also point out the average human being, even if they are pacifists – is capable of fighting back. This is about a character who recognizes that, all things being fair, they’re likely to lose against a regular human being, let alone a hero amongst heroes. This might be because they’re very young or old, or they might have a disability or relatively weak.

Take this into consideration if you’re writing about individuals you would never consider physical if you were to place them in the population as a whole. Pretend, in a pre-cell phone era, we have a group of urbanite retirees out hiking, and their rough-and-tumble tour-guide gets injured in a rock slide, blocking the fastest route back to help. Someone has to go get help, so they’ll probably chose from amongst themselves the individual best suited to make the journey while the rest make camp and wait for help. They’d probably pick someone with orienteering skills or in the best shape physically, but if they’re in a very specific area, they might pick the person who is the most familiar with the type of terrain. They might argue about if the individual should go around the long way, compromising the injured guide as time takes its effect, or if they have the skill and equipment to repel down and go directly for help, knowing that if anything happens to the person going, they’ll have more than one injured person to contend with.

How does this relate to the speculative fiction genre? Especially when we have superheroes who need kryptonite for there to be drama? Perhaps there’s an extremely famous version in one of fantasy’s best examples: Hobbits.

You don’t have to save kingdoms and destroy ancient evils to prove your species is capable of accomplishing great tasks, but let’s be honest: If somehow you were to invoke trial by combat and allowed to pick any fictional character to defend you, and you probably wouldn’t pick any of Tolkien’s hobbits as your first choice. I’m not saying you couldn’t write a hobbit who was a powerhouse, but even this hypothetical character would probably recognize that his reach and jump isn’t as good as the average sized human.

One of the strengths of a hobbit is that they’re seen as not a threat, that allows them to go unnoticed – much to the detriment of Dark Lords everywhere. So for us, the battle seems like a physical impossibility. For the hobbits – even the journey is that much longer with shorter legs. But, not only are they capable, they are able to triumph because they hold onto what is good and just longer than humans might. Pretend, for instance, that another character took the ring from the council of Elrond, and for argument’s sake, they’ve got a hobbit-like constitution in terms of being corrupted by it. Virtually every other character at the council would be likely to slay golem or not be listened to by Faramir. Because they have strength, they might better rely on it rather than Frodo taking it seriously about destroying it the way he was told.

My character of Naguset from Tower of Obsidian plays in this theme. She’s a young Miq’Mac woman who was kidnapped and kept in slavery, she’s underweight and her value is as a guide. The aforementioned Tower was designed to defeat warriors and sorcerers. One of my MCs, Aaron, is let’s just say, as strong as a normal mook can get. The son of a blacksmith who became a man-at-arms, you don’t get to be either of those if you can’t open a jar of pickles. Aaron’s reliance on his strength got him into trouble more than once, and ultimately his going at things head first was useful in some instances, but ultimately failed him in getting the sword he needed to challenge the immortals of the tower. Naguset, by contrast, was able to perform a difficult swimming task and injured one of the dragons (albeit in human form) because he assumed she was helpless, whereas Aaron was incapacitated and left to starve to death. Stabbing someone when they’re not expecting it is hardly honorable, but given the character was going to Do Bad Things to her, Sir Wellington’s Rules of Fisticuffs need not apply.

A non-combatant specialist can be more than helpful – their help might be vital in a struggle. An obvious character who might be tagging along in a war might be an engineer who recognizes structural weaknesses in fortresses or an individual who builds siege weapons. In Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire, we’re introduced to Beetee, who won his Hunger Games by electrocuting his opponents. One of the most influential characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, Petyr Baelish, fell in love with Catalyn Tully and, when she was betrothed to Brandon Stark, he challenged him for her hand. Petyr was badly beaten, and realized from that young age he wasn’t going to win by fighting his enemies directly, so he manipulated others to his will to accomplish what he wanted, creating a wonderful Machiavellian manipulator. Characters like Beetee and Peter would die if they tried to act out directly, but because they were able to utilize other means, they become extraordinarily lethal. Molly Grue from Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn comes across as excess baggage – but she proves to be brave, loyal and fierce, learning the secrets of Haggard’s Castle and giving Prince Lyr the words he needs to face the Red Bull.

I don’t want this blog to get much longer, so I’ll wrap it up with a final thought. Am I off the mark? Does writing a non-combatant character change the way, as writers, a physically powerful character addresses the plot? Not all plots are physical, but we’ll get into that more on the next post.

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