The Tool For The Job

A recent post over on Superversive SF about Men With Screwdrivers And Men With Magnifying Glasses got me thinking about classifying fiction on the basis of those attributes which are required from the protagonist in order to resolve the plot.  Not what attributes any given character may possess, but those without which the plot would not have come to a satisfactory conclusion. 

That’s a non-trivial distinction, and I think an investigation of the issue may shed some light on modern trends in fiction.

A character does not become a hero simply by possessing a collection of virtues–a character becomes a hero by possessing the story specific set of mission critical attributes. Bravery does not a hero make, if bravery is not what is required to resolve the plot.

For example, take the X-Men films. (I know, I dump on the X-Men a lot, and I am sure that Bryan Singer cries himself to sleep every night because of it.  I feel bad about that, honestly.) There are characters who have particular virtues among the protagonists–wisdom, self-control, courage, ingenuity, and so on.  However, none of them mean bupkis because the Mutants solve their problems by being Mutants.  They are born that way. All of Charles Xavier’s wisdom or Logan’s compassion would mean nothing if they hadn’t been born superhuman.  The films are Evolutionary Calvinism–the Elect prevail because they are predestined to prevail.  Either you’re born a Mutant or you’re not, and if you’re not it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to face off against a guy who can shoot lasers from his eyes.

They are what might be called Tales Of The Elect, a story in which the critical attribute is some supernatural gift bestowed upon the character through an accident of birth. No matter what the characters may do throughout the story, what is important is that they are the Chosen Ones.

Then you would have Tales Of The Skilled.  These are stories in which the characters prevail through training or education or their own independent study. The scientist who figures out that a bomb made of cream cheese will destroy the giant wasps is using Skill to save the day–but then so is a soldier, spy, or detective. So one could break down this category further: Tales Of The Scholar, Tales Of The Warrior, Tales Of The Mechanic (Apollo 13,  anyone?) and so on.

The third broad category would be Tales Of The Virtuous.  What is required of the hero is a particular virtue, Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and the like. Again, though, it is not possessing any given virtue that is significant–it is possessing the one that is needed.

Consider Meg Murry, the heroine of A Wrinkle In Time. She was courageous and intelligent and justly proud of it, but those things did not save her and her brother or rescue her father.  It was her “faults”, as given to her by Whatsit.  Against the Brain of Camazotz her intellect was powerless. Trying to match mind for mind, hate for hate, availed her nothing. Meg triumphs when she learns that embracing her womanhood and her fierce irrational love for her family does not make her weak.

Obviously there is going to be a great deal of latitude in these definitions. This outline is intended to begin a discussion, not end one.  However, I think that if one considers the critical narrative moments in most stories one can describe them in terms of The Elect (and I would consider deus ex machina and random chance in that category), The Skilled, or The Virtuous.

As always, I invite comments and discussion.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Tool For The Job

  1. rawlenyanzi says:

    The “virtues don’t count because Mutant” thing doesn’t make sense. The creators have the X-Men fight superpowered beings so that there can be visually spectacular fights against peer competitors and highly destructive enemies (as opposed to common thugs.) It’s a matter of scale; normies typically face other normies, but supers against other supers creates the same effect since they’re on the same level. Thus, all the qualities of a hero — bravery, intellect, skill, etc. — still matter for superpowered characters since they’re far from invulnerable.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      My point is that without the mutant abilities there would be no story. Yes, there are individual choices made by the characters for good or ill, but those choices are far less important to the story than the status of mutant or human, over which the characters have no control. Logan may have to decide whether to kill or spare a particular adversary, but if he weren’t a mutant he wouldn’t be in the position where such a choice is required.

      • rawlenyanzi says:

        Yes, the “human or Mutant” question is most important in any X-Men story. However, they have to live with the hand they’re dealt as demigods among men, making choices that normies never have to make. Likewise, their super-powered struggles actually humble them in a way — it shows that there’s always someone better, and that their gifts won’t always get them out of trouble. Remember that they’re not invulnerable, and many regular people have to make choices in the context of circumstances they can’t control.

      • Bob says:

        I apologize for butting in, so to speak, but rawlenyanzi touched on just the reply I wanted to make: the specific nature of the X-Men and mutant stories is that the overarcing question of mutants, humans, and the future of the two diverging species is paramount and bigger than any one character.

        Also, with many of these ‘empowered’ stories (shown particularly in the case of the X-Men) the powers also carry attendant disadvantages. Rogue can’t touch people. Cyclops must constantly be careful of his eyes. Storm has to maintain a tight control of her emotions or risk a hurricane. Others, such as the Morlocks, have mutations that are almost entirely disadvantages. Their powers require intense training to master and very often shape their personalities.

        An on a personal note, the different limitations and combinations of powers is very appealing to me. A character can do one thing, but is vulnerable to something else. A team can use their combined powers to do this or that, etc.

        That said, I’d agree that characters like Batman or Green Arrow or Iron Fist or Iron Man have their own appeal. Characters raised up by good to be champions of good compared to characters victimized by evil and who forged themselves into weapons against evil. Those who were chosen vs those who chose. Spiderman has great responsibility with his great power, and every time he tries to toss his costume into the trash and quit, some disaster happens that only he can avert, vs Bruce Wayne, who can stop being Batman at any time.

        But still, both types of stories have their strengths, and their appeal, and their place.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        I am not saying that “Tales Of The Elect” can’t be interesting or worthwhile stories. I am just looking at one way of classifying stories.

      • Bob says:

        Sorry, bit of a knee jerk response. Hopefully not a jerk response.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        I’ll admit that I let my own preferences for other types of stories come through, which is bad form for writing about literary criticism.

      • Mary says:

        ” if he weren’t a mutant he wouldn’t be in the position where such a choice is required.”

        The powers raise the stakes and so make the choices much more important, and even, as you observe, make the choices possible. It matters enormously whether you are an X-man or a member of the Hellfire Club because your great powers will make your choice so much more consequential.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        Again, I am not saying that it doesn’t matter what one chooses to do in the X-Men universe, what I am saying is that the choices that the characters make are not as significant to the plot as those things that the characters have no choice about.

  2. I think you may have just explained why I never got into superhero comics, and why Iron Man is my favorite of the Marvel movies. I certainly lean toward Stories of the Skilled.

    Possibly the Campbellian vs. Pulp argument could be defined as Skilled vs. Virtuous (the main pulp virtue being courage).

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I agree that characters who become superhuman through their own efforts are more interesting than those who are granted powers ex nihilo.

      And I think there may be something to the idea that Hard SF tends to Skilled Characters while Pulp tends to Virtuous Characters.

  3. feralplum says:

    Achilles is elect. His heel is just a plot device akin to a mortis ex machina. I cannot build up hope or fear for the fellow. Odysseus is a human. I care about him. Virtues and vices both create a personality.
    I think bad pulp and romance tend to Virtuous Characters because they use Imputed Characteristics. Their characters are not smart or brave or noble because they do things, but because the narrator tells us they are those things. Hard SF has to show people calculating or working. Soft SF shows us a person who is ‘the great scientist.”
    Is this why mystery works? You cannot just tell me someone is a great detective. There has to be a puzzle that I see the detective solve when I cannot. Or, even better, when I can and feel the reflected glow.

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