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.
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.
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.
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.
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)