Sunday, July 30, 2006

Shifting Allegiances: Key Failures!

This is based on my key theory. (Technically, there are spoilers. But it's spoiling the first chapter of any given book, so...)

I've been reading the Vorkosigan series recently. It's an interesting series, and because I'm primed on the idea of tying the audience to key characters (or things), I'm coming at it from a slightly different angle than most people would, I think.

The Vorkosigan series is a clear demonstration of how emotional keys work - and fail to work.

The books focus almost entirely on the central character: Miles. He's obviously the emotional focus, and in the first book, he is clearly the key. Every other character exists solely to make us feel more for Miles. He does audacious things, has fun friends, beats challenges with his great big brain, and in general raises hell.

By the end of the first book, we're very attached to Miles.

The next stories are interesting and well-written, but they aren't about the same character, at all. Sure, it's Miles. But it's Miles Vorkosigan, not Miles Naismith, and that's just not good enough. It adds a lot of depth to Naismith to know that he's actually a frightened boy out of his depth underneath - but we're not attached to that frightened boy. We're just using that boy as a hook to latch onto Naismith even more.

Vorkosigan is not a key. He is just a hook, allowing us to attach to a key.

In my opinion, the author makes even more dire mistakes later.

Like Vorkosigan, the Dendarii fleet is not something we've invested in for itself. It only exists in relation to Naismith, the same way Vorkosigan does. The fleet is a hook which lets us attach more "gee, isn't he the greatest" vibe to Naismith.

The fleet is not something we consider an independent entity, any more than we consider Vorkosigan an independent entity. Watching it do things without Naismith is kind of like watching someone's right arm wander off and chat up the nearest girl. It's kind of interesting, but it's both bizarre and somewhat repellent. It turns into a kind of bleak comedy when you really like the person who is chasing after their own arm.

Lois McMaster Bujold (the author) is a master (mistress is more correct, but definitely gives the wrong impression) of focusing the reader's emotions into one central sink. What she doesn't seem to realize is a basic fact: a reader is invested in the thing she wrote. It's not the personality of the character, or even the character himself. It's the character's situation, everything about him, from his dialog to his assistants to his fleet.

Every bit you take away reduces the strength of the connection between the audience and the key. Every hook you used to snatch emotion into him, when removed, loses that much emotion.

Lots of people love this series, and it is very well written. But it takes until Mirror Dance (which is, I believe, the fifth book) for Bujold to develop even any secondary keys. Vorkosigan is the only key in the first four books. He's the only person we feel for. He is our Captain Jack Sparrow, our The Force, our Robin Hood. All of the things that happen are hooked directly to him, pulling us to him.

In Mirror Dance, they drop him to a background character. The first half of the book is spent in screaming agony as hooks are pulled off, scattered around, wasted. Reading it was like pulling teeth. I simply do not care about the other characters. In fact, several of them I have grown to strongly dislike, because they were made into heels to make me like Miles more in earlier books.

The last half of the book is interesting, but it isn't at all a Naismith book. And it ends with Miles diminished.

I don't think that was the right move, but it was fascinating to watch to Bujold's artistry slowly shift gears. In Mirror Dance, she played with using multiple keys - Mark, Thorne, even certain clones were made into more than just hooks. They grew into keys of their own right. Minor ones, but that's fine.

So, what am I going on about, with an arrogant review of a popular book series?

Actually, I'm leading up to diversity.

You can't keep spiralling in the same orbit forever. One person (one key) can only be plumbed for so long before the well runs dry. Miles is an unusually (unnecessarily?) complex character, but five books (four books and a collection of short stories?) is still a very long time, and most of the books are backtracking. I can only imagine that the remaining books will use other keys to try to keep my interest, because Miles is plumbed.

Now, in the process, Miles became an icon - an unforgettable part of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

But then it's over. There's no more Darth Vader: you explored him, he died, end of story. Well, except for the backtracking, which might have been cool if it was written by someone who knew how to write.

That's the point: icons cannot go on to bigger and better things because they have hit the extent of their power. If they get any bigger, they stop being who they were and start being someone else. That's not necessarily bad, but it does split and mush up our key enough that it stops being an icon.

If Miles continued on to conquer the known universe, it would probably still be a fun read. But it wouldn't be about Miles, any more than Mirror Dance was about Miles. It will be about someone Miles has become.

You can avoid this problem by using more than one key.

If you develop multiple unique individuals and get the audience invested in all of them, you can use them in combination and permutation. You have thousands of times more stories with a mere three or four keys rather than solely one.

Perhaps that's what Bujold finally decided, when she sat down to write Mirror Dance. She almost certainly thought Miles was running out of rope - because he was. He had already turned into an icon by the end of the first book, and it was concrete by the end of the third. The only way to continue the series was to put in some other characters we felt emotion about, and in order to do that, Miles had to be shattered.

But you shouldn't have to shatter your mythos to save your mythos: from the very beginning, build in multiple keys. It is a bit harder to manage, but it's sustainable.


Willow_41z said...

I disagree.

One of the reasons I like the Vorkosigan books so much is because the secondary characters are so engaging. Perhaps I have a different point-of-view, having read Cordelia's Honor first, but I didn't think that all the other characters existed to make us like Miles. Elena, for example-- he's a bit of a jerk to her. I thought that his interactions with her made him more human, and eventually I came to like him for being more human, but they certainly didn't make me admire him. In fact, I disliked him for a while specifically because of those plot points.

I also disagree that Miles Naismith is the main character. Have you read Memory and the books after? Admittedly I haven't read Memory yet, but I know that one of the key issues is how Miles combines Miles Naismith, Lieutenant Vorkisgan and Lord Vorkosigan, especially after one of them is fatally wounded, so to speak. As he tells Elli in Brothers in Arms, he doesn't see Miles Naismith or Miles Vorkosigan when he looks in the mirror; he just sees Miles.

(By the way, if you haven't read past Mirror Dance, I can understand where you're coming from. But read the other books anyway; they're good, and I think you might be surprised at how Miles Naismith becomes Miles Vorkosigan, who also "does audacious things, has fun friends, beats challenges with his great big brain, and in general raises heck".)

I'm not trying to say that your point of view isn't valid, only that it's not universal. So maybe the results you're experiencing-- not liking Mirror Dance-- are for a different reason than your theory suggests. Granted, it is a bit of a shock to see the focus taken off of the main character, and to see some previous characters change for good and for bad. But that's what makes them realistic characters is that they change, I think.

Craig Perko said...

I have stopped reading the books, as you mentioned. However, it sounds like most of your points aren't disproving my theory: they support it.

Elena's character doesn't really do much on her own - everything she does (in the first few books, at least) is in interaction with Miles. Her purpose is to give Miles a human side, so that we don't invest in his iconification too quickly for the level of tension...

But that's covered in a different essay, so you're definitely right that it's a weakness in this essay.

After Miles is broken down to human in all the books after the first, he is slowly turned into a central, but not the only, main character. In order to do that, the writer had to boost the independence and appeal of the other characters.

I've since expanded this essay into more detailed ideas - here has more info if you're still interested. :P

As to characters being more realistic because they change: I don't disagree with you. Characters need to change, or the whole piece stagnates. But I don't believe that characters have to be "realistic", any more than a cartoon has to be "realistic". Many of the great characters - Mordred, Robin Hood, Captain Ahab - were not realistic. Being unrealistic can be a strength, when used right. :)

Willow_41z said...

Aw, come on, give Memory a try! I'm picking it up from the library tomorrow; it ought to be good.

I don't think Elena's purpose is to give Miles a human side, but to richen the general background of the story. She also makes Sergeant Bothari more human. I suppose one could argue that she helps redeem him from negative iconification, but that's already occurred; she just makes him more complex.

I would also argue that the other secondary characters, for example Gregor and Simon, are strong enough to stand on their own, and don't act merely as foils for Miles; Cordelia and Aral do stand on their own, in Cordelia's Honor-- have you read that? I would be interested in reading secondary stories about either of them, or Ivan, or the Koudelka girls-- who get much more interesting in the following books-- or Lady Vorpatril, or Ivan... the list goes on. I think one of the reasons the segments set in the Vor society are so successful is because of the variety and depth of the characters involved; they stand on their own and make the story rich instead of merely acting as a foil for Miles.

I think the unrealistic characters you're talking about are more icons than characters. And of the three you've mentioned, I would only classify Robin Hood as being unrealistic, simply because the legends that have grown up have eclipsed whatever man was originally there. But realistic Robin Hoods can be written; Robin McKinley did it.

Again, your theory is logical, but the fact that I and other people can relate to Miles as something other than a hook means it isn't universal, and if I'm reading your theory correctly, it has to be universal to exist. Perhaps a better way of saying it is that Ms. Bujold didn't make her characters universal enough to withstand all methods of reading?

Craig Perko said...

Sorry about the slow response - I had to watch someone get married.

I think that you and I are talking at tangents. I don't disagree with you, and you don't seem to be disagreeing with my core assumption.

I agree that later in the series, the other characters get developed. That was kind of my central point.

Anyhow, if I have time, I'll read some more and see how it works out. However, at the moment I'm awfully swamped.