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.