Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Magical Specialness

I have decided that I'm going to ignore Daylight Savings Time until I finish the book. When I'm in Churning Brain Mode, I can't get to sleep at the regular time, let alone the new earlier time, and my brain is going more than full speed. Not only do I have the current book in there, but you know that wisecrack I made about writing Star Wars as urban fantasy? Well I now have the main characters and opening scene. I know that the theoretical way to reset the body clock is to just get up at the new time and then go through a day or so of grogginess until you can fall asleep at the new time, but I can't afford the grogginess now. So, the time change will have to wait.

Because there is no topic that I can't analyze to death, I've been pondering that Destined, Chosen One With Magical Specialness issue (from yesterday's post) and trying to figure out why it bugs me and what the loopholes seem to be. To clarify my terms, what I consider to be the Destined, Chosen One With Magical Specialness story involves the hero turning out to be the Chosen One who is destined to defeat the Evil Overlord/free his people/break the curse/rid the world of reality television, etc. To complete his destined mission, he will have to sword fight/ride a dragon into combat/do magic/beat the devil in a fiddling contest. Even though he's never so much as touched a sword/dragon/magic wand/fiddle, the first time he tries, he's remarkably successful. Often this happens in a crisis scene fairly early in the story, where in a panic he grabs the object/weapon/tool and ends up saving the day just by instinct. After about five minutes of instruction with his mentor, who has devoted his life to this subject and who is generally considered the greatest authority on it, the hero beats or otherwise surpasses his mentor at his own game. The mentor is, of course, in awe at the way the hero is the best ever at whatever he's doing, and no one has ever mastered this skill so quickly. (The mentor usually dies soon after this, and I generally suspect he's dying of sheer humiliation.)

It's not so much the destined part that bothers me. I even kind of like the stories where the farmboy/baker's assistant/apprentice underwater basketweaver turns out to be the long-lost heir to whatever or inheritor of whatever mystical power. What mostly bugs me is the Magical Specialness, and especially the one-two punch, in which the person is not only chosen for some great thing, but also incredibly good at everything it takes to do that great thing.

At the same time, though, we want our heroes to be competent, and we need to believe that they could actually accomplish the things they need to do in the story. We just don't want to take things too far. Yeah, there are real-life prodigies. Mozart definitely had a good dose of Magical Specialness going on, and he really did manage to surpass his teachers very quickly, even as a small child. I'm just not sure how good a hero someone like Mozart would make (you notice that the movie/play Amadeus isn't from Mozart's point of view). Most of us can't relate to someone like that. In fiction, when a character is not only Destined and Chosen but also Magically Special, then it looks suspiciously like a Mary Sue -- a character through which the author can live out his/her fantasies.

Here are some ways I think you can pull off Magical Specialness without being too annoying:

1) The specialness is part of the destiny -- being destined automatically gives the hero certain abilities. The example of this would be Buffy, who got super strength because she was the Slayer. It wasn't because she was intrinsically special, more that this was her role. She wasn't depicted as the Best Slayer Ever. In fact, some of the others we met might have been better fighters. She was just different because she had a different upbringing that made her a little more balanced.

2) Genes come into play -- certain gifts or traits that make someone good at something are inherited, either naturally or through some kind of engineering. Luke Skywalker inherited his strength in the Force from his father, as well as some of the traits that made him a good pilot. River Tam in Firefly was turned into someone with Magical Specialness by people who wanted to use those abilities. I think this works for me because the Magical Specialness then doesn't just come out of nowhere. There is some kind of logical path to it. This also works best when the inherent traits aren't enough to make the person ultra powerful. The hero still has to train and learn to use the abilities. Luke may have inherited strength in the Force, but he still had to go to Yoda to train to be a Jedi, and he lost his first big lightsaber fight, which meant he wasn't just instantly awesome.

3) The hero has a natural talent that still needs to be developed and that requires hard work -- there's a spark that shows potential, and you suspect that with time and work the hero will surpass the master, but it's not instant. This is where I think I am with Owen in my books. He's naturally incredibly powerful, but he's put a lot of work and study into developing his talents, and it's the combination of the power and the work that makes him potentially the greatest wizard ever. In my hypothetical backstory for him, he actually struggled more than his peers to master magic because he not only had to learn the spells, but he also had to learn how to manage the amount of power he put into them. For a real world example, we've got Tiger Woods, who was definitely a golf prodigy and who has sheer God-given talent, but who is known for working very, very hard to hone his skills (and I think that has a lot to do with him being so popular -- he's not just coasting on talent alone).

For an opposite, there's what they did with Willow on Buffy. It made sense that she would start exploring magic on her own, and as smart as she was, she could certainly teach herself a lot from reading up on the subject, but they totally lost me with the character when she turned out to be The Most Powerfullest Witch Ever, who even without real training could out-do people who'd devoted their lives to learning magic. When Tara, who came from a long line of witches and who'd grown up studying magic, was oohing and ahhing over how powerful Willow was, I started to hate the character who'd previously been a favorite.

The challenge with the Specialness needing to be developed is that it's really hard to show that learning curve in a book. Training sequences generally slow the plot to a crawl, and in print we don't have the luxury of a training montage set to a song by Survivor. Doing the "after three months of training" thing saps the story of urgency (things can't have been so dire if the hero has time to go train without being under attack or the world coming to an end). You can do training on the fly, in which the mentor desperately tries to instill a bit of knowledge in between other bits of action along the way. Or there's the Empire Strikes Back trick of having a B plot with a lot of other stuff going on around the other characters while the hero is off training.

4) The Destined, Chosen character's biggest skill is actually unrelated to the destiny -- prior to learning about the destiny, the character independently worked to become really good at something that ends up coming in handy in working toward the destiny but that isn't really magically special. I guess a good example of this might be Will in the Pirates movies, who became a master swordsman from working as a swordsmith. That skill ended up being handy in the adventures he got into as one carrying the blood of the cursed pirate crew, but it wasn't a Magical Specialness. In my books, this would be Katie. Yeah, she's immune to magic, and that's how she gets involved in the whole fight against the bad guys, but she's actually no more immune to magic than any of the other magical immunes working for the company. What sets her apart is her brains, common sense and real-world experience, along with her initiative. We even saw that when she lost her special magic-related abilities, she barely missed a beat in doing her job.

This particular approach can go to a new level if the hero has to give up his pursuit of this independent interest in order to fulfill his destiny (and then, of course, it ends up coming in handy along the way). This would be the scholar who has to leave his library and go out into the world because the world needs him, for instance. He'd still be brainy, and his brains would make him good at his destiny in an unexpected way, but his brains wouldn't be Magical Specialness.

That independent skill also can help in dealing with the learning curve hump on the Magical Specialness. Since we're generally dealing in series in fantasy, that means that the hero can use his existing skills in book one while learning to use the Magical Specialness that will play more of a role in subsequent books. Back to Luke, he had some experience as a pilot, and that was the skill he used in the first movie and early in the second movie. It was Obi-Wan Kenobi who squared off against Darth Vader in the lightsaber duel in the first film. Only after Luke had Jedi training did his Magical Specialness with the Force really come into play, just a bit in the second movie and then more fully in the third. That worked to not make the mentor look like an idiot who could easily be surpassed in his area of expertise by a newbie. (Lucas managed to do so many things right in the first films that it's amazing how terribly wrong he managed to go in the prequels with Anakin's EXTREME Magical Specialness. Sometimes I wonder if he'd have let Obi-Wan beat Anakin in that Episode Three fight if that outcome wasn't crucial to the first three movies.)

5) Or you could go the opposite way, with the Magical Specialness being the only thing the hero is good at, though not in a too stupid to live way. So the hero could have his magically gifted special skill, but it's very specialized and only useful in certain key situations, and then he has to rely on the skills of others for other situations. This is sort of what happened with Harry Potter, where his real area of Magical Specialness was the fact that he was pretty much incorruptible. He wasn't tempted by power for its own sake, and that gave him an advantage over Voldemort. But Hermione was far better at actual magic, and he had to rely on her knowledge for most of the day-to-day magical stuff along the way.

Along those lines, it also helps dilute the annoyance of Magical Specialness if you have a well-rounded cast with everyone having something to contribute (even if it isn't Magically Special) instead of just having a cheering section for the hero to constantly remind him how special he is. You can even throw in a Han Solo to mock the very idea of being Destined, Chosen or Magically Special (something the prequels were sorely lacking -- we had people going on and on about how special Anakin the Chosen One was and nobody to roll his eyes and say, "Oh, give me a break. The only Chosen One is the one I choose to shoot.").

And now I am going to go chain myself to the computer and try to get to the end of this draft.


Carradee said...

"Oh, give me a break. The only Chosen One is the one I choose to shoot."


Thank you! I needed that! *grins*

As usual, I agree with your points. Characters need negatives to balance their positives.

Now, if we could only have more character flaws outside of being stubborn, impetuous, or over-reliant on textbooks…

Shanna Swendson said...

(Finally catching up on comments!)

I've been known to write the stubborn character flaw, as it's one I'm intimately familiar with, but yeah, characters need more than that. Kind of like the appearance "flaw" of being too thin or having a "boyish" figure.

Carradee said...

Stereotypes make the world easy to digest and write. But they also can give writers a bad name. (Think of all those formulaic books that sell well despite people scoffing at their similarity. Mary Higgins Clark comes to mind; I like murder mysteries when I'm sick. Otherwise, they're more laughable than scary.)

Then there are those "stereotypes" that artists (including writers) tend to fall into because they're what the artist knows in real life—like the writers who avoid writing characters of other racial backgrounds because they know they wouldn't be able to get the culture right.

Sheesh, being "too thin" is a "flaw" of appearance? *looks in mirror* Guess that would be me, since I'm trying to gain weight. (I'm also more like Mimi than Katie in, er, figure. A lot of people don't seem to realize that well-endowment plus a size three frame = back pain!)

I suspect that "boyish" thing was invented by some Jane Austin type years ago to insult other women. Girls read it in their formative years and think, all aghast, "To look like a boy?! The horror!" And it stuck as a stereotype.

One of the problems I've noticed in trying to figure out other flaws to write is the common stereotypes are so easy to write! (Writing from the perspective of a socially-oblivious preteen is hard, even if that's how you were at that age! Er… probably still are now…)

Ever read any of Orson Scott Card? He tends to have very… interesting… characters. Enchantment, Ender's Game, and Ender's Shadow are my favorites, but I think Magic Street is also one of the better ones I've read. (Some of his works feel like quick character studies more than the in-depth character and plot exploration he does in others.)