“The Succeedinator”

written by Dark

It is a central principle of Buddhism that the source of suffering is desire, and the ultimate way to achieve enlightenment is to rid oneself of desires. Since most characters we meet in fiction however are not highly advanced Buddhist adepts, it is central to any story with a character, that the character has one or more goals or desires, and that a major part of that journey will involve trying to achieve those goals or fulfil those desires.

Also not being Buddhist adepts, it is equally true that characters will suffer in pursuit of those goals, particularly because in fiction at least, suffering literally builds character, especially suffering in pursuit of their goals or because they cannot fulfil their desires.

It doesn’t matter what the actual goals are, avoid death by monster, defeat the evil empire, find love or hell just survive, it is the pursuit of those goals that gives characters their motivations and makes them interesting, especially in that most important aspect of a story, character development, I.E taking a character from one place at the beginning of a story to another place at the end. Of course, this isn’t to say characters automatically should achieve all their desires in every story, indeed the better stories are those where characters are complex and have various desires, some of which they may achieve, some of which they may have to give up, some of which might be not the thing they desired at all.

After all, its far more interesting to read a story about a young man who is not the legitimate heir to a throne, who struggles to find a place for himself, who loves a young woman but fears court politics might be a danger to her so is forced to leave her, and who practices a forbidden form of mind magic in addition to learning assassin skills, than simply a story about a handsome prince who just wants to marry a beautiful girl, indeed complexity of desires is often the hallmark of both a good author, and a story intended for an older audience.

Just having desires isn’t enough though, your character must do something to fulfil them throughout the story, and this is unfortunately one area where many characters get stuck.

Fairness is a fundamental human principle, if a person is going to get something good, we generally want them to have to work to get it, people who get good things without having to work are people who get on our nerves, we call them spoiled, and lazy, and thieving, and bankers and international business tycoon’s and lots of other derogatory things.

In stories the principle is the same. If our character has a desire which is to be achieved (or not; depending upon the cruelty of the author), then we want them to work to have to achieve it, indeed often the amount of work or suffering a character goes through in their desire is directly proportional to the vicarious satisfaction we as readers get through seeing them achieve it, I doubt anyone would’ve been so thrilled at Indiana Jones exploits if he sat down at his computer and bought the holy grail off eBay.

Suffering can of course take many forms. A person might do the right thing despite a strong desire not to, a person might have to undergo great danger, a person might have to endure actual physical harm, or a person might have to give up something else they desire in order to achieve their goal. All of these forms of suffering can make for wonderfully tense story sequences which both increase the value of the desire, and increase our empathy for the character trying to attain that desire despite their suffering.

Sadly, there is one type of character who sometimes crops up in fiction who ignores all these rules, that is the succeedinator. A succeedinator is any character who automatically attains their desires too easily without the requisite amount of suffering, a succeedinator is in effect a spoiled brat of a character with the author as their overindulgent parent giving them whatever they want. The most perfect example of the succeedinator was Richy rich from the old cartoon series. Any problem? Money, and where money failed there was always the gadget of the week, or (just to be different), sometimes he’d use the money to buy the gadget of the weak instead.

Of course, succeedinators rarely crop up in stories where they simply sit around and are given success, usually the author attempts to include some degree of suffering or danger the succeedinator has to undergo. The problem however, and what turns a character from someone who is merely successful into a full blown succeedinator is the legitimacy of the suffering involved in attaining their goals (richy rich suffered nothing worse than the odd gadget explosion, and even those were usually easily remedied by his butler or robotic maid.

By “legitimacy” here, I simply mean that the suffering needs to feel as if it might have a real affect on the character or their future.
It doesn’t matter if Dan Mcdashing is having to run across the top of a speeding train whilst a fleet of flying saucers pelt him with utter destruction bombs, and rabid crabs take swings at him from beside the train tracks. If Dan is so amazingly competent that there is zero possibility of this business going wrong, then there is no danger, and thus no suffering, and so when Dan finally catches up to the Mcguffin thieves at the head of the train it is more a question of simple fate than any kind of achievement.

The same is true for other sorts of suffering. If I do not actively feel that the fear which Pauline is feeling might actually have a chance of paralysing her with inaction or causing her to fail in her confrontation with the big nasty, then I probably am not exactly going to be on tenterhooks whilst she explores the scary abandoned house.

Of course, being that this is a book and we frequently get inside characters heads, there are a lot of tools at an author’s disposal to ramp up the suffering their character goes through in pursuit of their goals.

One is what I have seen referred to as Chekhov’s skill. Similar to the eponymous gun, this is the facility of giving your character a requisite skill to achieve their desire by showing they have attained the skill previous to that desire’s occurrence in the plot. For example, if we already know that Pauline is a master thief and has spent years perfecting the art of unlocking, then when she picks the lock on the cellar of the haunted house we don’t have reason to believe she attained her goal without trying, especially if the author can give us an idea of the tortuous years Pauline spent practicing lock picking, and include the possibility that even though she possesses the skill she may still not be able to pick that particular lock.

This principle of showing the suffering and work inherent in character goes especially for occasions in which one character’s skills are tested against another’s.

Note, that this testing isn’t about the difficulty of the task itself, but the possibility of character failure.

It doesn’t matter if a character is fighting a thirty foot tall, fire breathing, zombie mecha dinosaur skeletal necromancer from hell, if we know simply because the main character happens to be the hero and thus the best fighter in literally the entire universe; or at least the universe the author has created, that they are bound to win.

Aside from physical or emotional conflict, another major form of suffering is conflicting desires. Duty or love, personal vengeance or letting go, one relationship over another, indeed sophisticated characters may hold our attention specifically because of the way they navigate these sorts of decisions, keeping us guessing which way they are going to jump. Here again however, if the author does not adequately give us a possibility that the character might choose one option, then the choice becomes no choice. After all, if there is absolutely no possibility Dan McDashing is actually not Going to relinquish the Mcguffin to Count Von Cloakenstache and let him slaughter innocent bystanders, Von Cloakenstache is hardly a credible threat and said innocent bystanders aren’t in much actual danger.

Of course, not all of a character’s success has to come directly from the character’s skills or determination. Sudden incites or even changes in luck are a twist on occasion, however if these happen too often, or a reader can always rely upon them happening, again we are steering too close to succeedinator territory.

This also goes into the phenomenon which my brother has dubbed “emo fire” in which emotional suffering is directly translated into an explody magical get out of trouble free card, especially if said emotional suffering doesn’t really feel like suffering at all since its chief affect on the main character is simply said blast of emo fire rather than the possibility of negative emotions having negative effects.

Of course, another major tool in an author’s arsenal in avoiding the succeedinator is writing style, that is using the rhythm, choice and flow of words in a poetic or evocative manner to increase the realism of their characters.

After all, there is a huge difference between just saying “your character is afraid”, and describing the fear in detail, the sudden starting at shadows, the dry mouth, the intensive clench of muscles etc. Style is the reason why one author’s description of a soldier finally conquering their fear to go into battle might fall utterly flat, and why another’s of a similar scene might be hailed as one of their finest moments.

One important question of course, is why is the succeedinator actually bad? After all we often live in a world where our desires are not directly achieved, where we must struggle and suffer to get what we want and rarely get it, so what is wrong with seeing a character tramp unstoppably onwards getting everything with ease?

For me at least, the two very major problems I have with the succeedinator are tension and identification.

If I know someone will succeed in attain their desires, I have no vested interest in waiting to see whether they will succeed or not.

In the TNG episode “the game” (otherwise a cute story with a genuinely appealing guest star), the main part of the action ends with an Enterprise full of crew members enslaved to an alien game. Though Data is able to knock out the bridge crew Picard simply explains in a log entry that “doctor Crusher was able to restore us with her usual skill”

This is probably the best example of a tension killer I’ve seen. We know the episode is over, we know the Enterprise crew must go back to status quo for next week’s instalment so Picard simply tells us that everything resolved.

It is a credit to the writing of episodic TV shows like TNG that they actually managed to achieve any tension at all on occasion despite us knowing that status quo is king and things are probably not going to change unless an actor wants to alter their contract.

The Succeedinator is very much like this style of episodic tv. We know they will always succeed, especially if the conflicts they’re going through in achieving their desires are so obviously formulaic ones (see my previous article). Maybe for some people this for knowledge of success is comforting, to me however, it’s quite the opposite, something which makes me actively lose interest in a character’s fate.

The second reason I do not like succeedinator characters, is lack of identification. As I said previously, we have all sorts of horrible names for people in real life who succeed without trying, and usually the less we’ve succeeded ourselves, the more we dislike these sorts of people, especially if their success also comes with a snobbish or arrogant attitude.

I have encountered some characters who succeed so much that frankly I spend most of the book wanting them to fail just to learn a little humility.

For myself, the characters I am interested in, and those who I feel a real connection with are the precise opposite of the succeedinator, those who must struggle, and suffer, and frequently don’t get what they want, since it is in seeing those characters succeed that I feel hope for myself, and the rest of us none succeedinators out there, since if a person who is as human, fallible and prone to failure as we are can succeed, or even be heroic in their endeavours, well we just might be too.

Addendum, the Mary Sue.

People might have noticed that my concept of “the succeedinator” bares some resemblance to that of that much maligned lady Mary sue, and her lesser known brother Garry stew.

The problem though, is that the term “mary sue” has become more loaded than a fully loaded load of breach loading rifles loaded onto a front end Loader.

The debate usually runs something like this:

Person A: I think that such and such a character is a Mary sue.

Person B: How dare you say that! Don’t you know the term Mary Sue is sexist! Its sexist to call anyone a Mary sue, so begone with you you great big sexist!

Person A: I was not being sexist! I just meant this character is a Mary sue. Why do you have to be so sensitive you idiotic marshmallow!

Person b: Marshmallow is it! You only call me a marshmallow because you are sexist! Don’t you know that calling someone a marshmallow is sexist you great huge sexist!

Person A: Why is calling someone a marshmallow sexist? That doesn’t even make sense!

Person B: How dare you not know why calling someone a marshmallow is sexist! This just shows how sexist you are!

And so on and so forth, and thus any discussion of the actual merits or flaws of a given character are entirely lost in a storm of accusations and sweeties.

Was Mary sue a sexist term in the past? Quite possibly.

Is Mary sue a sexist term now? I do not know, I certainly wouldn’t use it that way, and I have heard other people who do not, but there might well be people out there who do.

Is describing a character (especially a female one), as a Mary Sue a sexist dismissal of that character? Well again, it may well have been in the past, but these days, maybe not, or at least certainly not all of the time, after all when I use the phrase “my wife” I simply use it to refer to the wonderful woman whom I am married to, but when someone else uses the phrase “My wife” they use it in the sense of “the wife that I own”

The difference here is the attitude of the speakers, not an inherent problem in the word “Wife”

This is the reason I suggest, in best philosophical tradition, that we drop the term “Mary Sue” as one with far too much cultural baggage to be of valid use, and instead employ a similar term, my proposed “succeedinator” which can essentially fulfil the same function without any specific gender bias, rather the way “stewardess” on airlines has been replaced with the gender neutral “flight attendant”

I’ll also say, in my own experience I’ve run into not a few Succeedinators of both genders, so the concept, if not the term seems to be pretty gender independent, which is another reason why a gender neutral term of critique might be helpful here, since unfortunately with an ever increasing amount of corporate storytelling and committee thinking with little creativity behind it these days, (especially in cinema), Succeedinators are now more common than ever, so having a term to identify them whenever they rear their ugly heads seems like a good idea.

-Dark

Formulae

To begin, I will discuss hamburgers. What has this to do with formulae in books? Well not a lot, I just felt like playing some hunger games.

Your basic burger has a few essential elements that exist for it to be a burger. You have the meat patty, the cheese, the bread bun, the sauce and probably some salad. You can get a burger with these elements from many different places. You might go to McDonalds or a similar fast food place and get a general, mass produced burger. Yes, the sauce was more likely made in a chemistry lab than a kitchen, and the patty’s content of actual beef is questionable, and the cheese is processed, and you will get the very same quality burger at pretty much every single instance of that fast food place (they don’t call them mass produced for nothing), but fundamentally there is nothing essentially wrong with this. You can eat it and enjoy it, and there are times when it might be very welcome indeed.

Of course, you could go to a more serious restaurant and get a more serious type of burger with the same elements, but with a massive shift in quality. You could have a patty made of prime steak, locally sauced farmhouse cheese, and handmade sauce on a fresh baked bun. If you’re used to this gourmet type of burger, you will probably think less of the mass produced, fast food variety, for all you might still enjoy them for what they are.

Of course, not all burgers come with just cheese and sauce. Even in McDonalds, you might have one with bacon, different sorts of relish, chicken or fish instead of beef. Some burgers might take the concept to whacky levels with jerk sauce, pickles, cream, maple syrup, and goodness knows what. Usually, the more experimental, crazier combinations will come with better quality individual ingredients, though not necessarily always, and of course some experiments might or might not be successful.

As you might have guessed, all this talk about burgers is a metaphor. What’s a meta for? Making people think you’re being clever when you’re actually just lying badly. The fantasy genre has always been full of formulae and archetypes. It doesn’t matter whether it’s hopeless children with special powers, wizards with beards telling innocent peasants their destiny, or square jawed space captains rocketing into the unknown bravely travelling where nobody had previously travelled. Epic and high fantasy in particular is prey to such tropes and formulae, indeed pre-Tolkien most high fantasy was of the Conan the Barbarian, extremely mythological and archetypal sort. I have often thought in fact that aside from his amazing body of work Tolkien’s greatest gift to the fantasy genre as a whole was showing how an epic, high fantasy tale of good and evil, war and magic can also include human, flawed, and likeable characters.

To an extent, with the rise of role playing games these archetypes reappeared somewhat, since obviously for a role playing system people would need to choose a class or type of character to play, and such classes and types are now almost archetypes of their own from leather clad two weapon wielding rangers to effete, glass canon mages.

It’s not just in epic fantasy however that these character archetypes are used. Noire detectives chasing after a fem fatale, rogues with a heart of gold (and possibly the fastest ship in the galaxy), tough lady gunslingers or beautiful courtiers (of both genders) playing dangerous politics plus a host of others, indeed odds are if you can describe it coherently with a couple of adjectives and a noun and people know what you’re talking about, it’s a character archetype!

Neither do these archetypes have to be specifically character based either. An ending that returns to status quo, a huge battle in which the young protagonist’s family are slain leaving them free to journey into the wilds, a monster lurking in the dark, a young hero rescuing a beautiful and mysterious lady whom he falls instantly in love with, a magic MacGuffin which the evil forces are searching for to gain ultimate power, there are far too many of such tropes to list, indeed there is a large and extensive website devoted to just that endeavour.

I have often seen someone dismiss a book as “formulaic” or “just a typical example” but one question I have found myself wondering about is why is this a bad thing? After all, just as a person can enjoy a standard burger of the cheese and sauce and patty variety described above, surely a person can enjoy a formulaic book?

Some people directly equate formulae with sexist, racist, homophobic or other negative cultural stereotypes. This might be true for several formulae, although I believe myself the relationship between formulae and stereotypes is a little more complex (particularly since critics of this sort often concentrate on their favourite cultural stereotypes and completely forget many others) and unless a person really stretches the idea of harmful assumptions there are many formulae and tropes that fall outside them, particularly in a genre that can explore any and all other worlds, societies or circumstances. After all it’s a little difficult to claim how the idea of a school for teaching magic or an alien invasion is in itself racist or sexist.

For myself, the issue that really irritates me with formulae is very simply one of predictability, and how that predictability alienates me from the characters emotions and reactions to the plot.

It doesn’t matter how much Count Von Cloakenstache cackles as he ties Princess Pauline to the railway tracks if I know the actual chances of her being hit by the train are zero I feel no tension whatsoever. I have in fact been divorced from the action entirely.
This doesn’t even have to be about life or death situations, if I know two characters will end up together right from the boy sights girl moment, I have little investment in their growing romance because I can see where it will end. There is no use the boy thinking “does she love me” when I know simply from the fact their eyes have met across a crowded room that she does, and even if she is set to marry someone else that it will never actually happen and she’ll end up with the boy after all.

For some people this level of predictability makes for safety, but for me I prefer a world where characters are not safe, where bad things happen to good people, and where I simply do not know where the story will go, where what happens to the characters for the first time is also being read about for the first time by me.

Like the creators of the crazier types of burger mentioned above of course, some writers thrive on knocking formulae on their heads.

I’m pretty sure that not only would George R R Martin have Pauline squished by the train, but also he’d have Dan McDashing end up receiving a severe injury while trying to save her and then (just to mess with our minds even further) reveal that Pauline’s family had actually been involved in the bloody murder and torture of the Countess Von Cloakenstache, a fact Pauline was fully aware of.

However, I find it isn’t just a question of equating how good a book is with how much an author can divert from formulae, or indeed how nasty she/he can be to the characters in a book. Indeed some modern writers have made dark and depressing torment of their casts almost a formula in itself (I was greatly impressed when Patrick Rothfuss refused to follow this particular track in Name of the Wind).

After all, some experiments, like the above mentioned burgers with cream might simply not work, while on other occasions a book that is deeply formulaic and has a lot of standard tropes I might find I am completely emotionally invested in despite my ability to predict it’s plot.

This is because of the most major part of cooking or writing – ingredients! It doesn’t matter whether your cooking a classic burger or one that is wildly off track, if you start with low grade ingredients, however good your recipe or your idea, you’re not going to make it come out well. In the same way, if a book  stands out in its writing style and the portrayal of its characters, if an author can make me feel that sense of connection, tension and emotional investment with the characters even though I am fully aware what turns the plot will take, then the book will succeed despite the fact that it contains tropes or formulae.

A perfect example of this is the original Ian Fleming James Bond novels from the sixties. Sexist as heck, jingoistic in parts, racist, homophobic in places. Villains with world dominating plans, gadgets, a hero who is close to invincible and who always gets the girl, indeed the books and the accompanying films have inspired a whole genre and countless tropes in themselves. The problem? Fleming writes so dam well. I defy anyone to read the centipede scene in Doctor No and not get a creep on the skin, to not get a little romantic at James’s courtship of Tatiana on the Orient Express in From Russia with love, or not cheer James on during the underwater battle in Live and Let Die. The writing is exotic, exacting and colourful, indeed even though I largely gave up on spy fiction and action thrillers after my mid teens and switched to fantasy and science fiction full time, the James Bond novels are the only things from that period of my reading life I have re-read since.

So, formulae are like anything else (burgers included), fine if done well, occasionally fun to experiment with, but ultimately it all comes down to the ingredients. If a person just slaps something together out of pre created, low grade materials, like McDonalds, you’re probably going to end up with something sweet, none too satisfying and mass produced – okay if your mildly hungry but probably not something that will stick with you once it’s passed through your system.

Likewise, be your formula ever so creative, if your ingredients are bad, you’re not going to impress. However, for someone who can source the best quality ingredients, prime characters, high quality dialogue, a full, satisfying plot with a well paced flow, it doesn’t matter if they’re working to a classic theme or experimenting wildly, it’ll still come out as most tasty.