Series Introduction

It occurs to me that even though we often point out what is wrong with books like Brisingr, we never go as far as offering our readers better ways that the author could have gone about writing this or that aspect of the book. Since ImpishIdea is about improving your own writing by learning from the mistakes of others, this series won’t just say “NO UR DOING IT WRONG PAOLINI” it will also say, “This is what Paolini (read: an aspiring writer) should have done to make it right.”

Especially appropriate for the inaugural installment, I shall be discussing the much loved character of Murtagh. See, if there is so much that could be improved on for one of the high points of the Inheritance Cycle, imagine what I can do for the not-so-high points. Pretty damn appropriate, right? Let’s review.

Mistake #1

Murtagh is an archetype. He’s mysterious and misunderstood but has a heart of gold. The good news is the brooding hero archetype, being rather ill-defined compared to others, is one of the easiest for an author to escape from. The bad news is Paolini never succeeds in escaping it. The problem is Murtagh is never allowed to evolve into his own person. The moment he meets Eragon in the first book, he becomes a plot device. Paolini makes him a slave to it. Eragon needs to escape from Gil’ead, Murtagh is introduced to make it possible. Eragon needs to get to the Varden, Murtagh is the one who helps him despite the fact that it’s not in the interests of his own self-preservation. Eragon needs a rival to focus his attention on defeating, Murtagh is made a Rider. The list goes on and on. Murtagh’s wants and desires as his own person are always secondary to what is required of him by the plot.

Starting your characters out as archetypes is fine. As your story goes through revisions though, the characters need to grow out of them and into themselves. Murtagh is a minor character but he is still a human being. He shows an unusual amount of loyalty to Eragon. Why? He has been treated badly by the Varden before, on the account of his parentage, but he returns to them with Eragon anyway. How come? And why does he suddenly want to try at playing hero after meeting Eragon? These questions are just the basics.

To go beyond an archetype, what Paolini should have done was to find the reasons that made Murtagh tick, then have it reflect in everything he says and does. He needed to give Murtagh convictions, values, an outlook, and a viewpoint, then put all that into the page. Paolini presents Murtagh as a conflicted character, but that inner unrest is never explored, never tested, never brought to the surface. What Paolini ended up doing was just stringing Murtagh along into doing what his plot dictated. As a result, Murtagh remained an archetype, flat and one-dimensional, despite having the most potential out of the entire cast.

So much for Murtagh before Paolini screwed himself over.

Mistake #2

As we all know, Murtagh pretty much disappears after the first book. This is another mistake. I can only speculate, but my personal theory as to why Paolini chose to introduce Roran rather than continue with Murtagh is because he is incapable of writing from an antagonist’s point of view.

Whatever the reason, it’s clearly a BAD DECISION. While I admit the role Roran ultimately plays in the story won’t be determined until Book 4, that doesn’t change the fact that he has been completely irrelevant and unnecessary in Books 1, 2, and 3. Roran’s storyline is so self-contained that I can rip all his scenes out and not miss a beat as far as the main conflict is concerned. That means Roran has nothing to do with anything for three whole books. On the other hand, Murtagh’s situation as revealed at the end of Eldest has everything to do with the power struggle and clash of ideals central to the series. If it was Murtagh instead of Roran would I be able to skip his scenes and still keep up with the plot? I think not.

A well-planned series doesn’t contain fluff to fill a page count quota. It sticks to telling the story. A sub-plot tells its own story from another point of view, but it also needs to continuously contribute something significant to the main conflict. The story in Inheritance is Eragon’s fight against the tyrannical Galbatorix. If Paolini didn’t intend for Galbatorix to make an appearance, what he should have done was use Murtagh as his second POV character. Murtagh is the natural choice, being turned to the dark side Galbatorix’s most powerful servant and all. He would have provided readers with a glimpse into the other side of the thematic conflict. Murtagh would have enriched the story in ways that Roran never could. And that is what Paolini should have based his decision on, rather than whatever it was that made him pick Roran.

Mistake #3, #4, #5

HOWEVER. Here it is that we hit another problem. We already know that sticking with archetypes isn’t the most sophisticated way to write a write a story. But it’s doable. Just look at Eragon’s character for example. He has several thousand pages, four novels, and jeebus knows how much craptastic Internet fanfiction behind his name. But I digress.

Remember blocks of text ago when I said that Murtagh’s dark hero archetype is one of the easiest to escape from? Well, in Eldest and Brisingr Paolini has written Murtagh into another archetype: the reluctant villain, being forced to do evil. This one, due to the epic fail of the magical Ancient Language, is a corner that is less easy to get out of.

The facts:

1) Brainwashing is retarded.1
2) “I have no choice” is retarded.2
3) A good bad guy is retarded.3

All three of which applies to Murtagh. Suddenly a character who was on the verge of coolness is now riding the short bus around Alagaësia.

The issue isn’t that they’ve have been used and overused. SSD has pointed out to me that the reason why they’ve become cliché is due to the fact that many authors have used them and used them well. I completely agree. The real problem is beginner writers who don’t know how develop characters properly use them as shortcuts. For the sake of clarity, let’s review separately:

It’s easy to say that someone has been brainwashed and that’s why they do evil things. A writer just slaps “brainwashed” onto a character and that excuses them from having to explain why their character is evil. It excuses a writer from having to explore their villain’s motives and persona. It excuses a writer from having to dig into a character’s background and mind frame. It excuses an author from having to tackle the question, “Why do good people do evil things?” (And certainly this is the case with Murtagh.) It’s an impossible question with no answer, but one of the great advantages of fiction is that authors can attempt to provide one through their characters nonetheless. In fact, it’s one of the best ways you can give your villains the depth they deserve.

Equally, the “I have no choice” line is a feeble excuse that automatically pardons an author from having to make their character bear the full weight of the consequences for actions and decisions. Murtagh had no choice in serving Galbatorix, so Paolini doesn’t need to think of reasons why Murtagh would want to defect and betray Eragon. It’s another example of Murtagh merely being used as a plot tool rather than treated as his own person, but it also reveals a large degree of laziness on Paolini’s part.

In an earlier age when reader’s taste for fiction was not so evolved or demanding, the use of “I had no choice” was perfectly acceptable. Most modern readers however, require more complexity in a character’s rationales and justifications. In the same way that we don’t want to see a deus ex machina (which used to be a very common and acceptable plot device in Greek theatre), we don’t want to see a character simply let off the hook after stating that they had no choice. Employing that line pardons the author from having to consider how a character’s decisions will weigh upon them then having to play it out in prose. A character’s decisions and the impact the author has those decisions make on both the character’s self and world makes the character come alive. It gives them weight and a degree of complexity that makes the character not just words on a page but a person you and I could perhaps know.

When a character is asked “Why are you doing this?” answering with “I have no choice” is an excuse, not an explanation of motives. Excuses have their place and use but ultimately isn’t satisfactory. Go ahead, have a character say “I have no choice” but don’t make the mistake Paolini did and stop there by throwing in a convenient magical Ancient Language caveat. A character can make his excuses, but there still remains the underlying reason WHY a character would make such an excuse in the first place. Taking the time, spending the brainpower to look and dig deeper into the whys and how comes is how an author develops a character.

A bad guy who is really a good guy is the classic reluctant villain archetype. Paolini’s mistake here is that he made this archetype character the de facto #1 villain (since Galbatorix doesn’t make a single in person appearance). Bad guys who are really good guys deep down have their uses, but they do not fill the role of an antagonist who provides the conflict that makes a story interesting. The value of a protagonist’s virtue is entirely dependent on the wickedness of the antagonist. And Murtagh, who isn’t really evil, makes a poor foil for Eragon’s supposed goodness. When they confront each other, it’s not some epic showdown between two fearsome Dragon Riders. It’s a BAAWfest interspersed with half-hearted swordplay. That’s because Eragon doesn’t have an antithesis to fight in Murtagh, which devalues his own role in the scene.

A story needs conflict to keep readers interested and conflict between characters is a great way to provide it. Hero vs. Reluctant Villain just doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t have to be good vs. evil embodied in your characters, but make sure that when you pit two characters against each other, they are actually opposed to each other. It raises what the reader perceives is at stake and gives the clash of ideals the characters represent real value and meaning. It makes the reader feel involved in what they are reading; it makes them CARE about the outcome. As an author, if you can get the readers to care about the story you want to tell then you’ve got yourself a story worth telling.

Epilogue

Writers who are lazy will take all or any combination of easy ways out, and it shows—especially if the story is lengthy. But a reader’s tolerance for crap dwindles as the page count rises. There’s a reason why Murtagh in Eldest and Brisingr comes across not as sympathetic but forced. Murtagh never rises out of the just-another-archetype status, is given artificial reasons to play the Evil Dragon Rider, and he doesn’t succeed in filling the role of antagonist because he’s actually a good person. On the inside.

Maybe Paolini can’t do better, but you can. Don’t take shortcuts. Put thought and consideration into your bad guys. Give them real and tangible reasons for doing morally questionable things. Give them motivations of their own, let them make their own decisions, then have them live with what happens next. A character who makes their own decisions rather than having it forced on them by Fate (read: the author) is infinitely more complex, more intriguing, and comes across more naturally than any Murtagh. It doesn’t make them any less sympathetic, but it will make them more of a real person.

Bottom line with any character, major or minor: Remember that characters are people, not plot devices. People have emotions, desires, needs, ambitions, even dreams. And that’s only scratching at the surface. Everything a person does or doesn’t do is linked to a reason. Perhaps even many reasons working in conflict and combination. This is the kind of intricacy that makes your character as real as any person. And in the end, a character’s depth given to them by a carefully woven web of complexity is what readers will appreciate, not the ephemeral twinges of sympathy generated out of using shallow archetypes. Paolini really fell flat when it came to Murtagh, but that doesn’t mean you have to make the same mistakes.

Next installment, I’ll be hacking at one of the most inane elements of the series in the name of self-help writing advice: the magic system.

1 “And what a vision it is, Eragon. You should hear him describe it, then you might not think so badly of him. Is it evil that he wants to unite Alagaësia under a single banner, eliminate the need for war, and restore the Rider?” (Eldest, 649)
fn2. “‘I had no choice,’ snarled Murtagh. ‘And after Thorn hatched for me, Galbatorix forced both of us to swear loyalty to him in the ancient language.” (Eldest, 647)
fn3. “‘I was ordered to try and capture you and Saphira.’ He paused. ‘I have tried… Make sure we don’t cross paths again.’ … ‘You’re doing the right thing,’ said Eragon.” (Eldest, 652)

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Comment

  1. Artimaeus on 25 March 2009, 22:59 said:

    Very nice.

  2. Ari on 25 March 2009, 23:17 said:

    Loved it, except for the profanity. Say, is it really necessary to use the f-bomb? You could say ‘screwed’ instead. Honestly, that sickens me to no end. It makes you look crass and immature.

  3. SlyShy on 25 March 2009, 23:18 said:

    You’re doing it right.

    It’s really regrettable what happened with Murtagh. I mean, he was what got me through the first book, back when I was young. Murtagh was the cool hero who knew what to do, while Eragon was sort of whiny and not at all a role model. As everyone has noted before, Murtagh had the most potential to redeem the series. Too bad he fell off the face of Alagaesia.

  4. SlyShy on 25 March 2009, 23:23 said:

    Loved it, except for the profanity. Say, is it really necessary to use the f-bomb? You could say ‘screwed’ instead. Honestly, that sickens me to no end. It makes you look crass and immature.

    If f***ed and s****ed are taken to mean the same thing, what is the difference? Surely it can’t be semantics, if we are accepting one in place of the other meaning wise. Then the difference can only be syntactic. Why is it that one combination of letters put together to mean ‘really ruined something’ is more offensive than another combination of letters put together to mean ‘really ruined something’? I say it is social conditioning.

    But, not being one to cause undue distress, it’s been changed anyways.

  5. Ari on 25 March 2009, 23:36 said:

    Perhaps it is social conditioning, and I would rather neither of them be used, but the wince-factor for ‘screwed’ is much less than it is for the f-bomb. Thanks, though.

  6. Reggie on 25 March 2009, 23:53 said:

    I sort of agree that the profanity’s unnecessary, but I don’t think that takes away from this being a great article. Murtagh’s demise as an interesting character killed my interest in the series — I was actually a fan of the first book, way back when.

    Funny story: My friend and I were hiking, talking, about a month before Eldest came out, talking about what might happen in it. And he was like, “I think Murtagh will end up being Eragon’s brother or some close relation to him, and I think either Brom or Galbatorix will end up being his father.” We must have been like, I don’t even remember. Very young. And I was all, “no way! that’s so obvious, he’d never do that.” XD

  7. SlyShy on 26 March 2009, 00:21 said:

    I was dead serious about them being brothers, and joked about Brom being Eragon’s father. Sigh.

  8. Legion on 26 March 2009, 00:30 said:

    It makes you look crass and immature.

    Well, my take on writing stuff for internets has never been to be super professional. 1) I do it for the lulz. 2) It’s the internets.

    So, you’ll have to excuse any current and future crassness and immaturity on my part. =]

  9. falconempress on 26 March 2009, 01:26 said:

    great article! It was a pleasure to read.

    And oh, I so cannot wait to see how you deal with the magic system:)

  10. Kevin on 26 March 2009, 01:31 said:

    Wow, I love this site.

    Legion, I’ll go on record that for me, the profanity doesn’t detract at all from your points.

  11. SubStandardDeviation on 26 March 2009, 01:54 said:

    Don’t take shortcuts. Put thought and consideration into your [characters…] Give them motivations of their own, let them make their own decisions, then have them live with what happens next.

    I don’t remember everything that was in the first draft, but the above point comes across much better in this one.

    The magic system? ulp…I wouldn’t touch that one with a ten-foot pole.

  12. LucyWannabe on 26 March 2009, 09:39 said:

    Hey, great article! I’ve far too often seen people fall into the archetype trap, but then they never do anything with it. But then it’s always great when you see something that turns an archetype on it’s head or revitalizes it.

    And, for the record, I liked the profanity. :P I think it gave you a unique article voice. Sometimes articles seem too dry and that gave it color. ;)

  13. OverlordDan on 26 March 2009, 10:29 said:

    Awesome job, and I cannot wait to see you do the magic system.

    Good Luck.

  14. Gildor on 26 March 2009, 13:17 said:

    Trying to point out where CP went wrong with his magic?

    That would take months! And you’ll not escape unscathed from something like that.

  15. Legion on 26 March 2009, 14:12 said:

    Lol, there’s so many mistakes with the concept and execution of the magic system that it’s been rather easy to write about it. On the other hand, the sheer volume makes being thorough and not leaving anything out a nightmare. XD

  16. Kevin on 26 March 2009, 14:18 said:

    We should all probably pitch in to get Legion a team of archivists. That magic system is not a one-person job.

    I bet a few nerdy grad students could be had on the cheap.

  17. Juniper on 26 March 2009, 15:18 said:

    Nice. Can’t wait to see the magic system article.

    And as long as we’re all commenting on the “bad word” issue…I can’t refer as many people over here if they are prolific on the site. It was an issue more at A-S since I wanted to refer multiple people to it but felt I had to include a disclaimer lest anyone be insulted/shocked out of their brains.

  18. SlyShy on 26 March 2009, 15:42 said:

    ExitMouse is working on a magic system compendium. It’s taking a while. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, however.

    Juniper, as for the content, that is what the warnings underneath the article title are for. If you have any doubts, just tell your friends not to read anything with a warning the are uncomfortable with. Remember, the rating scale is Safe, Scissors, Fire, Murder. So far we haven’t used Murder yet.

  19. LucyWannabe on 26 March 2009, 16:25 said:

    I must’ve missed it, Sly—what articule had the Fire rating?

  20. Lord Snow on 26 March 2009, 16:35 said:

    The EWW’s are fire.

  21. The Angel Islington on 26 March 2009, 17:29 said:

    Wow, I didn’t think they are that bad…of course you do keep a verbal orgasm count…that might have somehting to do with it.

  22. Reggie on 26 March 2009, 20:05 said:

    Everything I write is Fire until it’s heavily edited — then it’s just hot. Boo-yah.

    Also, Islington — TAI? May I call you Angel? Regardless, that is actually not an orgasm counter, but rather a measure of how many times a line in Twilight was irksome to the point that the staff had to go out to the local pub and get some Irish Creams to relieve some of the stress.

    In retrospect, we probably should have picked a different phrase, like “Ejaculate Count” — you know, counting the number of times a line was so funny we ejaculated a burst of laughter. However, the CC has become such a fan favorite by now that we’re just sticking with it. Sorry for the confusion, and keep reading!

  23. LucyWannabe on 26 March 2009, 21:22 said:

    LS: Ah, yes. I just started re-reading the sporks of Twilight and noticed the Fire rating. ‘tis a beautiful thing.

  24. Juniper on 26 March 2009, 22:12 said:

    Juniper, as for the content, that is what the warnings underneath the article title are for. If you have any doubts, just tell your friends not to read anything with a warning the are uncomfortable with. Remember, the rating scale is Safe, Scissors, Fire, Murder. So far we haven’t used Murder yet.

    I’m usually on IE and all I see below the title is a line of dots and dashes. It looks like an attempt at Morris code. Suspicion confirmed. I just opened this article with firefox and it shows the warning below the title.

  25. Dan Locke on 26 March 2009, 23:07 said:

    Please, it’s Morse code! It’s not that hard to remember!

  26. Falstar on 27 March 2009, 00:45 said:

    Really liked the article. It raised some excellent points. thumbs up

  27. Juniper on 27 March 2009, 09:50 said:

    Please, it’s Morse code! It’s not that hard to remember!

    Haha, sorry. I’ll never forget it again.

  28. Snow White Queen on 27 March 2009, 20:16 said:

    Poor Murtagh.

    I actually liked him once.

    RIP.

    (Well, as a character, he is DEAD)

  29. Proserpina FC on 31 March 2009, 02:23 said:

    Oh dear God, keep writing this.

    And about government. But especially this.

  30. helvengurl on 29 September 2009, 08:54 said:

    Poor murtagh. However, I’m pretty sure he’ll be killed off. Another tragic death, like Brom.
    Although, Is it just me, or is Nasuada an uber bitch?
    And, one more point: Angela is actually a cool Character, because she, gasp has a semblence of a personality.

    @ the whole cussing topic: So, may I put it this way:
    Would you prefer if I said to screw you, or fuck you? Either way, it has a negitive connotation, so get over it. eyeroll

  31. Thorn on 12 May 2010, 18:04 said:

    Funnily enough, Paolini DOES delve into the reasons behind Murtaghs liking for doing evil things. if you actually read the books, instead of just picking out quotes and inventing mistakes, you would know that Eragon hypothesizes that Murtagh enjoys using his power to others detriment because of the way that he was treated for his entire life. he wants to get back at the world for being so cruel to him. this is part of his personality, to not let himself be walked over again and again, as you seem to think he should. If you are going to analyze a book, perhaps you should read it next time.
    Just a suggestion.

    Oh, and NO, Nasuada is NOT an uber bitch. she is, like Murtagh, a character that is apparently too complex for you all to understand.

  32. Danielle on 12 May 2010, 18:20 said:

    @ Thorn:

    “Characters too complex for you to understand?”

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!

    Please. In the first book, Murtaugh is the Character With an Evil Father On the Run From His Past. The Varden hate him because of his father; he hates the Varden because they hate him; Eragon likes him because….well, the plot demands it. In the second book, Murtaugh is the Bringer of Plot Twist Everyone and Their Dog Predicted, who Eragon now hates because He Made a Bad Choice, even though he’s really sort of forced into making said Bad Choice. In the third book, he doesn’t really do much; just acts like a traitor and makes Eragon mad.

    Complex? Not really. He’s more of a stock character.

    If you want a complex character, read Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis. The narrator’s motivations are many, her morality seldom black-and-white. She manages to keep her darkest sin secret from everyone—including herself.

    If that doesn’t do it for you, characters more complex than Murtaugh and Nasuada are a dime a dozen. Severus Snape is more complex. Frodo Baggins is more complex. Heck, Spongebob Squarepants is more complex than either of them put together!

    If you want to make a solid argument, read more than the Inheritance cycle, okay?

  33. Puppet on 12 May 2010, 19:45 said:

    Oh, and NO, Nasuada is NOT an uber bitch. she is, like Murtagh, a character that is apparently too complex for you all to understand.

    Murtagh the stereotypical bastard character. He’s the Bad Guy who will eventually end up helping the Good Guys in the final battle. All of Paolini’s characters are fake and flat. There’s nothing complex to them at all. He has no character, don’t give me the “He’s getting back at the world because he was abused”. Because he isn’t. His kind of character could be effective if written right, but Paolini utterly failed. While I think Murtagh has the most personality of all the Inheritance Cycle characters, that personality is still virtually nonexistent.

  34. Hekateras on 8 July 2010, 10:47 said:

    Actually, even in Greek theare Deus Ex Machinas were just tacked on to the end to give the tragedy or pathos an artificial happy ending to satisfy the simpletons who couldn’t appreciate the sophistication of a tragedy/pathos. People who weren’t clamoring for an artifical happy ending largely pretended the Deus Ex Machina hadn’t happened and treated the non-DEM story as the “real” one. :D