Saturday, June 18, 2011

Pervasive Worlds I: The Heroes of Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars

I'll begin my look at these three popular franchises with a look at their heroes: Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, and Luke Skywalker.  Each of these three works immerses its viewer in a new world.  And each does so with success because it shows that world rather than telling through us through huge chunks of expository prose.  The perspective of each protagonist is the lens which reveals it to us.  Their exploration must mirror our exploration.

This means that each of these heroes is, by necessity, cut off from their world.  Their understanding of it must be closer to ours.  Harry Potter does this most directly.  Our hero is raised by an abusive nonmagical family, seeing only hints of the enormous power that is his birthright as a Wizard.  We learn about the Wizarding world at the same pace that he does.  We share his awe and wonder as he buys his first owl, eats his first Chocolate Frog, casts his first spell, and catches his first Snitch.  The Wizarding world's whimsical everyday details, separated from ours by an entire understanding of reality, but yet still charmingly mirroring them, help to draw the reader in.  Rowling's setup allows our protagonist can spend as much time investigating them as we would like to.  In fact, Harry's exploration is the driving force behind most of the first book's plot-- so the revelation of the world that we want is integral to the work rather than being a sideshow or distraction.  Well played, Ms. Rowling.

The other two works are set in worlds entirely separated from our own, rather than in a world hidden within our own, meaning that they can't pull the same trick that Harry Potter does.  Instead, these works give their protagonists lifestyles more similar to people in our world.  Frodo Baggins lives in the Shire, which is basically an idealized rural England populated with midgets.  His people, apart from members of the enterprising and adventurous Took and Brandybuck families, tend to stay at home, avoiding the High Elves, giant spiders, talking Eagles, dragons, and trolls that make their homes in Middle Earth.  Luke Skywalker was raised by moisture farmers (what a disgusting-sounding occupation.  Couldn't they have just been water farmers?) on a backwater planet, cut off by his socioeconomic status from pursuing his dream of becoming a starfighter pilot. These characters still experience many of the most awe-inspiring parts of their worlds for the first time at the same time as we do.

This need to have the protagonist discover things as we do doesn't seem to end with worldbuilding elements.  Each of these three heroes seems to be severed from the typical web of associations that binds each of us into human society.  None of them know their parents growing up.  None of them have siblings.  Their guardians are abusive and distant (the Dursleys), killed off early on and then not mentioned again (Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru), or somebody we already know (Bilbo Baggins)  Frodo is the only one who seems to have a proper circle of friends at the start of the work-- and the only one who he ends up spending a lot of time with during the series is Sam, who was, by constraint of social class, always relatively distant from him before their journey.  Luke has one mentioned friend, Biggs Darklighter, who is mentioned in a single line and then appears briefly in a single scene before going off to die a senseless death in the Battle of Yavin, forgotten by both the audience and, more alarmingly, his friend Luke.  (We see Luke mourn and remember Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Darth Vader, but he doesn't seem affected at all by the deaths of non Force-sensitive people in his life.  In fact, at times, he seems remarkably unconcerned about human life in general-- he never seems fazed by the deaths of nearly all his fellow fighter pilots during the Battle of Yavin, or by the deaths of what must have been a horrific number of people on the first Death Star).  Harry has no friends at all.

In the end, the protagonists get to know the people who are important to them just as we do-- which again allows our creators to show rather than tell.  We learn what kind of man Han Solo is when he (special editions and other re-edits notwithstanding) shoots first.  We understand Aragorn's courage and capability when he stands on a hill armed with nothing but a shattered sword and a burning torch, defending a wounded Frodo from Ringwraiths.  We learn about Severus Snape's cruelty when he takes yet another ten points from Gryffindoer, and learn about his hidden courage when Harry discovers that Snape had, despite his suspicions, been protecting Harry from magical harm throughout the first year.  In the end, the protagonists' lack of early associations helps with the development of the supporting cast, and that's a good thing.

Unfortunately, the "blank slate" aspect of each of these three characters extends beyond their exposure to the world and their associations with others.  They're all rather bland.  Frodo's emotions are binary-- his range seems only to include only heroically-surmounted anguish over the burden of the One Ring and nostalgia for his bucolic home in the Shire.  Throughout the entire epic narrative, he really only makes three choices: to carry the ring, to separate from the rest of the group at the end of the first book, and to express compassion towards the wretched Gollum.

Luke also lacks depth.  He's always less interesting than his companions.  Han Solo, with his selfishness, sarcasm, and motivation changes blows him away.  Leia, decisive and forceful, also overshadows him.  Even the nonverbal Chewbacca and R2-D2 have more charm to the audience than he does.

But despite this, at least Luke is something of a dynamic character-- going from the callow (and really rather obnoxious) youth of the first film to the hasty but much less annoying youth of the second to the budding wise man of the third.  The same cannot really be said for our final protagonist, Harry Potter.

To put it simply, Harry really doesn't change, apart from one rather obnoxious journey into adolescent angst in Book 5.  His principal traits are basic decency, balls-out courage in the face of Voldemort, and social awkwardness-- and he has all of them from the time that he's eleven years old.  He doesn't really grow into the role of the hero-- he just sort of has it from the start.  Neville Longbottom, who appears consistently throughout the books, but never gets much screentime, has a significantly more compelling character arc, going from idiot who can't find his toad to badass who kills a piece of Lord Voldemort's soul residing IN A GIANT SNAKE.  WITH A SWORD.  Harry doesn't have the initial flaws required to have such an arc.  This is something of a wasted opportunity on JK Rowling's part-- Harry's background of horrific childhood abuse could certainly have given him persistent fear, anger, resentment, and trust issues to overcome.  Instead, Harry is blandly virtuous and capable throughout.

So why are our protagonists bland?  Because we, the audience, must be able to identify with them, associate them with ourselves, understand their motivations, and empathize with their feelings.  Their battles must be able to become our battles, their dreams our dreams, their understanding our understanding.  And we, the audience, are a vast and diverse throng of humanity, each with our own unique battles and dreams and understanding.  Luke, Harry, and Frodo need to stand for all of us in their dark worlds.  Each is a symbol of the human race, and the values that we share.  Flat, narrow characterization becomes archetypal.  And thus, an element of each of these stories which is a great flaw comes to serve the needs of the narrative-- brilliant in its brokenness.


  1. So we want a way into this complex world of our protagonists without having to sit on the shoulders of a bland protagonists, but we can't understand the world very well unless they are blank slates. This seems problematic. I would think that with the series at least, the main character would have more opportunity to grow. We have already been introduced to the world. Though if the character started to develop his own opinions, that might alienate some readers who don't share those opinions or can't understand how the protagonist could grow in that way.

    Regarding Neville Longbottom, I can only say that his development and awesome story arc are the reasons for the pet fan theory that Neville is the true hero of the story and that Harry Potter is just an obnoxious ass who takes all the glory.

    Back to the flat characterization, the alienation of the main character is more necessary than the bland characterization. It would possible to introduce the reader to the crazy world without alienation, but much more difficult, especially in print. The characterization might just be to appeal to a larger audience.

    What about the Chronicles of Narnia? They just go through the back of the wardrobe to get to the new world. Any thoughts on their characterizations? I haven't read the books in several years, but I think they weren't as flat as Harry.
    And I still think you should mention "Pants."

  2. I approve of all things Neville Longbottom related. The true chosen one will not be denied!

  3. First of all, a couple of typos: in the last paragraph, it should be "they are symbol*s* of *us*" (or, alternately, "*each is* a symbol of *us*") rather than "they are symbols of we".

    The newbie protagonists---mediators---authors use for graceful exposition don't *have* to be bland. Hiro Protagonist, from /Snow Crash/, is a swordfighting hacker (in the traditional sense, not the "cracker" sense) who refuses to sell out and work in an office: hardly bland. (And Stephenson pulls it off. Hiro really is a very interesting guy.) These flavourful mediators are not limited to Stephenson, who (one could argue) tends to dodge the exposition problem with info-dumps. Consider Vernor Vinge's Bob Gu, the explorers of Rama in Clarke's /Rendevous with Rama/, or Tolkien's own protagonist (whose name I can't remember) in /The Lost Road/. Stross's Bob Howard (not to mention his girlfriend, whose name I also can't remember), Asimov's Lije Bailey and Arkady Darrell, and even Doyle's Watson also act as mediators, and none of them could properly be called "bland". Reserved and unimportant, maybe, in Watson's case, but not bland.

    Nor must a character be bland in order to stand for us. Surely we identify with Turin and Maedhros in their tragedy and despair, Hurin in his defiance, Aule his disobedience, or even Melkor or Feanor in their rebellions. Outside of Tolkien, what about Sophocles' Oedipus, Moses from /Prince of Egypt/, or Jesus Christ from /Jesus Christ Superstar/?

    No, I think this has more to do with the quirks and concerns of the authors. Tolkien and Lucas weren't interested in character so much as myth- and world-building. The much more personal /The Lost Road/ has a more finely-drawn mediator-protagonist.

    Rowling's failure to let Harry develop is somewhat harder to explain this way, as her characters are quite colourful and interesting. I would note, however, that *none* of her characters (with the exception of Neville, book I Hermione and book VI Draco Malfoy) seem to develop in ways that are significant and plausible but not irritating. She reveals things about the characters---most dramatically, about Snape---but new information about something static can hardly be reckoned a change in the thing itself. For lack of either skill or interest, Rowling just doesn't do character development.

  4. I can't comment on the Star Wars series, but I do agree that the protagonists in Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are annoyingly bland. Your theory that the protagonists are bland make it easier for us to empathize with them is interesting, but I would still personally appreciate more conflict in the characters. I feel like Harry Potter is a rather predictable character, almost always doing the right thing, and the excitement of the book comes mostly from things other than the character himself. Good observation!

  5. Chris, thanks for the typo pointout.

    To your first point (about the info-mediators): Of the works you mentioned in this paragraph, I've only actually read Snow Crash, the Bob Howard books, and some of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I won't deign to make conclusions about books I haven't read, so here goes my commentary on the works that I did read:

    I would contend that Snow Crash and the Bob Howard novels possess significantly narrower audiences than the works that I've mentioned. I think it would be reasonable to assume that this is because they demand far more from their readers than HP, LOTR, and SW do. Both of these works throw a lot more information at the reader a lot more quickly. Bob Howard really requires you to have some knowledge of mathematics, computer science, and Lovecraftian mythology to fully appreciate. It manages to achieve a lot of what it does by calling on things that you know from outside the text. Snow Crash does likewise, only the extratextual thing that it calls on is your knowledge of the real world and your ability to make extrapolations about what will happen to it in the future.

    Sherlock Holmes is a different sort of case than the other works under discussion. Watson, our mediator, is not the work's protagonist-- Holmes is. Sherlock Holmes is also really a fundamentally different kind of work than the ones I've discussed here-- it's driven by its complicated and clever plots rather than by world-building and a sense of epic struggle. It's a different kind of work.

    Now to the second part: I'm actually starting to think that perhaps "bland" might be the wrong word to use. Maybe I should have gone with "simple" or something of that sort. Turin, Maedhros, Hurin, Aule, Melkor, and Feanor (who I think is the most compelling character in The Silmarillion) experience emotions deeply and powerfully, but those motivations tend not to be very complex. Oedipus is the same way. I guess that I would also put Frodo in this category. He feels the emotions that he does feel passionately. It's just that he has a small range.

    POE Moses is rather different from the characters discussed above, since he does have a delightful amount of both character development and internal conflict-- you raise an interesting point with him. I'll have to think about that some more.

    You're definitely right about Tolkein and Lucas being more worldbuilding-focused. Perhaps that's why Lucas fell so flat when he did the prequel trilogy, which, being an account of the rise of Darth Vader, must be character-driven. That's probably fodder for another blog post (perhaps a riff about why the prequel movies suck so much).

    Rowling's lack of character development is a pretty interesting thing. In some interviews, she's expressed a very inherent-goodness centric moral worldview-- and this might explain a lot about why her books are the way they are. Also probably worthy of more exploration.

  6. Interesting points all around. I can't speak to most of the series/books mentioned. However, I would like to point out that PoE Moses's story was not the original creation of the screenwriters, and most of the audience would already have a good grasp of his world. This makes that story very different from the others mentioned. Additionally, most viewers would have some preconceived notion about his character. This would have allowed for more turning preconceptions on their heads and more character development and flaws.
    It might not be fair to include him in this analysis.

  7. Great to see you writing so well Henry!