Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What OW Can Teach Us About Building a Better Hero

There's been a lot--possibly too much--said about the Ordain Women "movement" (can we call it a movement when it's so tiny?) lately. This isn't a religion blog, but today a comment on a Facebook thread abut OW struck me. The commenter was an LDS woman who mentioned that she had two friends, who had been leaders in the young woman's program, resign their church memberships and even divorce their husbands over the controversy.

These women were demonstrably strong and, just like that, they... weren't. If we look at the church as a fantasy magic system, the antagonist just scored some major points, yes?

This got me thinking about Kaladin in Words of Radiance, Brandon Sanderson's brilliant second book in his Stormlight Archive series.

Kaladin is one of the most heroic heroes I've ever met. [Minor Way of Kings Spoiler Alert] Kaladin started as a gentle surgeon's apprentice, went to war to protect his younger brother, lost his younger brother, stayed at war to protect others who were weak, became a powerful leader, lost everything, lost everything a few more times, wound up bound to a living hell, crawled from the literal and figurative pit to lead others once again, and ended up by the end of the first book a legendary figure who had saved thousands of lives and elevated himself and his friends from dust to eye-popping influence.

If there is something you need done, Kaladin can get it done. Something killed, someone protected, a battle won, a puzzle solved, a life saved: Kaladin can do it all. Lesser men should just stand aside, for Kaladin is IT. A leader of leaders, a friend of the fallen, inspirational and awesome. 

But, as Mr. Sanderson knows better than any of us poor imitators, flawless characters are rather boring in book two. (True in fiction, true in life.)

I'm not going to spoil Words of Radiance, since the book is 1008 pages long and has been out for less than a year, but know this: Kaladin is also deeply flawed, and one main flaw prevents him from becoming EVEN MORE AWESOME than he was at the end of Way of Kings. That flaw comes this-close to destroying all the good he was trying to accomplish. Clinging to that flaw, in fact, LOST HIM a great measure of the good he had already accomplished.

Only when he overcomes that flaw can he come into his full measure of awesomeness. And. It. Is. Awesome.

Mr. Sanderson is brilliant. Lesser authors would have struggled to tear down such a paragon of all things good as Kaladin had become. His strategy, though, is rather timeless: he took Kaladin's greatest strength and then simply made Kaladin RELY ON IT. Kaladin was a great leader? What if Kaladin was unwilling to follow? Kaladin was a friend to the underclasses? What if he held the upperclasses in contempt? Kaladin was great at surviving hardship? What if he accepted hardship as solely the work of cruel fate, and took no personal responsibility in the events that shaped him?

I'll stop there: read The Stormlight Archive. You'll thank me.

Let's discuss someone who is even better than Brandon Sanderson at taking extreme strength and turning it into weakness. Someone, perhaps, who was once called the Son of the Morning, but became the Father of Lies. What would HE do if he wanted to turn our greatest strengths into our greatest weaknesses? How would he convince a strong, intelligent, faithful woman to turn her back on the power she'd embraced since birth? How would he convince others to follow her? How would he convince them all that everything they once knew to be true was flawed, rotted, and powerless?

The strong can be too strong when they rely only on their own strength.

The intelligent can become idiots when they erroneously believe themselves the masters of all knowledge.

The faithful can become apostates when their faith turns inward instead of upward.

Do you have a character in your WIP who needs to be taken down a notch or two? Have you someone in your story who hasn't quite suffered enough for true change? Perhaps you should stop building in extra weaknesses and start inflating their strengths. Tell him he's wonderful, that he's always right, and that others--especially those the character himself has always looked to for guidance--would be wise to heed his counsel. Convince her she's invincible. Whisper that she's infallible. Let her glory in the wonderous joy of being practically perfect in every way.

Then just turn them loose and watch them fall. 

Won't that be awesome? Insta-tenderized characters all set for your build-them-back-up plot lines. Wiser and humbler and far more teachable heroes ready to step onto the higher plane of powerful perfection. And all you need to do is knock them off the pedestal you convinced them they belonged on. Spectacular fall, hard rebuild, fantastic end.

Just what every writer--or human--needs.

On a more serious note, my wise friend Jared Garrett posted an excellent commentary on Facebook yesterday that basically reminded all of us that 1) the best discipline is all about RETURNING someone to grace, and 2) exulting in anyone's fall from grace is... bad. Real bad. 

Let's all be like my friend, Donna Weaver, who, while she was reading the bad-Kaladin parts of Words of Radiance, kept texting me, seeking reassurance that her beloved hero would come out right in the end. Who was so agonized over his slightly less-awesome decisions that she wanted to avert her eyes and not finish reading it at all. Who loved him too much to take joy in watching him squander his potential.

None of us have seen the endings of our real-life stories. It would behoove us all to check our judgment of others and to take careful inventory of our own strengths, lest we, like Kaladin and so many others, fall prey to the oldest trick in the book.

So what's your favorite way to tear your hero to shreds?