Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Oops, I win. That was easy.

There are lots of wonderful things about Patrick O'Brian's superb Aubrey-Maturin series, and when I try to explain them to someone who hasn't read them it feels like introducing Christmas or the idea of kissing or cookie dough to someone for the first time. O the riches that await you!

Once of the most interesting things about the plotting of the books is that sometimes things just don't work out. People try things and fail, or they guess wrong, or something goes awry and they have to improvise.

Note: These are not O'Brian spoilers; the plot below is made-up.

For example, say the characters are onboard a British ship of War (in 1802 or thereabouts) slanting downwind toward the French coast, on a mission to close with the shore, slip in under the coastal artillery fire, and take, sink, or burn the French ships in the port. The main characters are gathered in the captain's room at the stern of the ship, a low-ceilinged space of curved lines and small windows. A fresh breeze keeps them tearing ahead across the English channel. The captain and his aides are walking dividers across a chart, studying the shape of the harbor, likely tides, the accuracy of French cannon fire.

Everything is ready; everything is progressing, and as readers we are swept ahead of them, inexorably it seems, to France and the waiting battle.

Now, pause. Remember that these are the heroes of the book, the British are the good guys, and we even know that Napoleon was ultimately defeated. So we (or I did, at least) expect a swashbuckling fight scene, certainly some hardship, but ultimately victory. Our heroes must prevail, after all. And so much is at stake: they must defeat the French!

In Star Wars Luke must use all of his training, all of his patience and willpower and ability to bullseye womp rats in his T-16 back home to destroy the Death Star. There is only one way to destroy it, and he is the only person who can do it. And SURPRISE, he's successful.

Was it really that surprising?

Back to our British frigate coursing towards the French coast. The land draws near. The men run out the guns and rig the ship for battle. The smoke of burning slowmatch drifts along the deck. Closer. The captain orders the sails re-set to slow the ship.

They round the point of land and find the harbor empty. They run aground on an uncharted rock. The French ships slip around a distant point and the battle is over without firing a shot. Our heroes are captured and placed into French prison. They escape and face a dangerous overland journey to a port, where they are smuggled back to England in the dead of night.

SURPRISE: the mission to attack the French was a complete failure, and the result of a series of misjudgement so severe that our heroes were lucky to escape with their lives.

To me this seems to be a richer, deeper plot, more reflective of actual life and the choices we make that -- like it or not -- are sometimes wrong. When the characters are forced to live through the consequences of their own occasional bad judgement, the story feels more real.

Now. There are many, many reasons why comparing O'Brian's books to Star Wars is a bad idea. And certainly I'm not suggesting that characters should get to the climax of the story and then fail. But think about it: was Luke really ever going to do anything else than destroy the Death Star?

Flawed characters are more interesting than flatly perfect ones. Flawed ideas are more interesting too. It's not just a matter of avoiding situations that are "too easy" for characters, I think there should be occasional ... let's call them "diversions from immediate success."

Another example. China Mieville's Un Lun Dun, a wonderfully odd book about an "Un-London" that exists below/alongside London. Two girls discover UnLondon and learn that one of them is The Chosen One who must -- you guessed it -- save the world from evil. Sound familiar?

But instead of slipping into the rut of a traditional fantasy story, Mieville throws us a curve. The Chosen One is knocked out in a fight and returns to our world, defeated and, frankly, pretty useless. It's her friend, Deeba, until now the sidekick, who ends up returning to UnLondon and ultimately saving it.

The story doesn't just slide past the issue of The Chosen One, it catapults past it and in doing so, gives us the message that who you are or what a "prophecy" says are less important than what you do. "Forget the prophecy, we have work to do."

[Edited to add:] Sarah Rees Brennan brings up a very similar point on her blog. It as actually her posting that got me to read UnLunDun in the first place.


Peter S said...

It is probably unfair to include movies in the comparison, where it is much less likely for a main character to die, fail, or otherwise not deliver on the promise. Books, and especially epics, have more latitude to meander, shift, and break free from formulas because the writer isn't responding to studio accountants.

In some ways, the ability of the character to fulfill his goal DESPITE all the obstacles is what makes it interesting. You end up wondering how in the hell he/she will make it around this one, even though you know they will.

And in some cases the invulnerability of the main character even in the face of outrageous punishment and odds is...well...don't see the new Indiana Jones if you want unpredictable story arcs. But that doesn't mean it can't be fun.

If there really are only 7 basic plots (damn you, creative writing professors!) then recognizable story arcs is a given. Predictability, however, can be avoided when a story that appears to be a quest story turns into a forbidden love story, or a struggle with the gods story.

S R Wood said...

Indeed. But there's something about the pure unexpected *improvisation* of some of the O'Brian plots that leaves me shaking my head in delighted recognition: that's a real world he's telling us about.

Also note Sarah Rees Brennan's take on the same issue (she also cites UnLunDun):