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Writing Difficult Decisions

January 27, 2011 at 4:05 pm

In recent weeks I've found myself giving a lot of thought to some difficult decisions.  But I'm not obsessing over how to make such decisions: I'm concerned with how to write them convincingly.

(As far as making difficult decisions goes, I have a long track record of doing that.  Like every other human being on the planet.  But on a more personal record, I also have a long track record of making poor decisions.  But that's a topic for three days after never.)

My thoughts were brought to this subject from two different directions.  One from television, one from books.

Below the cut: The Cape vs Lord of the Rings.  (Spoilers follow for both.)

I like superheroes, and I like any show that potentially involves Summer Glau beating people up, so it stands to reason I've been watching a new television series called The Cape, which premiered here a few weeks ago.  This show is…not completely grabbing me yet.  But hey, it's doing its best.  Early days and all that.  I wish it well. 

It has a few things going for it.  I like the humor, the fact that the show embraces its own hokiness, and that the superhero is no more outlandish than, well, any superhero ever.  And, up to a point, I like the protagonist's relationship with his family—

—but this is also one particular piece of the story that really sticks in my craw.

Here's the setup:  In the pilot episode, our hero (pre-Cape) is framed for crimes he didn't commit.  In particular, he's framed for being a notorious supervillain.  Said supervillain uses the frame job as an excuse to kill our hero.  But, of course, our hero (a straight-arrow police officer) narrowly escapes his deadly fate.  At which point he is faced with a choice:  he can return to his family, acknowledging that the accusations against him will bring difficult times and unwanted attention to the family while he fights to clear his name via the justice system, OR, he can…let his family believe he truly is dead, and attempt to clear his name by becoming a law-breaking vigilante holed up with a carnival full of low-rent criminals.

Guess which one our hero chooses?

The rationale, apparently, is that our hero's family will always be in danger from the supervillain if he knows that Hero is alive.  So Hero chooses instead to watch from afar while his wife and son grieve.  Also?  They suffer massive social ostracism because everybody in town believes the deceased husband and father was a murderous supervillain.  So that part about saving them from difficult times because of their association with him?  Not working.  And I have to admit it's not entirely clear to me that the family really would be in danger if our hero opted to rejoin the living and fight to clear his name through legal means.  Because, leaving aside the fact that the "evidence" against our hero is flimsier than wet tissue paper, there's this thing called "change of venue".  But I'm willing to accept that maybe there's some strange reason why our hero (who is, as I mentioned, a dedicated cop and a firm believer in the justice system) didn't want to deal with the struggle to clear his name through legal means.  Seems that the chance to be reunited with his family would be a strong incentive in this direction, but whatever.

But that's not his only option.  He could also reunite with his family and then get the hell out of Dodge.  They could move across the country, change their names, and start over.  Sure, that's a difficult thing to do in real life, but this is a comic book universe with comic book logic.  If it's that easy to become a costumed vigilante superhero, then surely it can't be that hard to change one's identity and erase all signs of one's past.  Because, after all, that's exactly what our hero had to do in order to become The Cape.

But no.  Instead he chooses to isolate himself from those he loves, and cause them tremendous heartache, in pursuit of a very questionable goal.  Which drives me bonkers.  This is the decision that the story needed him to make; it's not the decision that the character himself could logically be expected to make. I can see why the writers went in this direction; that isolation factor is crucial to the origin of this superhero.  And that's fine.  I just wish it had been possible to get at that decision from another direction, one grounded more deeply in the character himself.  Unfortunately it wasn't. 

The result is a prime example of behavior driven entirely by plot rather than by character.   Which is a pet peeve of mine.

Now here's another story where characters face extremely difficult decisions: The Lord of the Rings

It's been years since I reread Lord of the Rings.  So I picked up the books recently because I realized I remembered more from the movies than I did from the books, and I wanted to refresh my memory of the "original" story.  Overall I'm quite impressed with what a clever and faithful adaptation the films present.  Yes, there are changes, and even some questionable ones, but overall, considering the scope of the story, I'm impressed. 

But anyway.

There are things in Lord of the Rings that never made much sense to me when I was (much) younger.  For instance, the notion that there would be any debate about what to do with the One Ring—isn't it completely bloody obvious that they have to get rid of the damn thing?  And yet the Council of Elrond fails to come to a decision about whether to bring the One Ring to Gondor, or to try to destroy it at Mount Doom, and thus lays that epic decision upon the Fellowship itself.  I tripped over this both times I read Fellowship in the past.  The fact that even Gandalf isn't willing to take the One Ring (heck, later on even Galadriel questions whether she'd be able to withstand its corruption) should be a major warning sign that nobody in Minas Tirith would stand a ghost of a chance of using the Ring against Sauron.  No offense to Aragorn, but in this matter at least, Gandalf > Aragorn. 

But when I read this as an adult, I can accept that the choice isn't so clear cut for the characters within the story.  (I still think anybody who lobbies for taking the Ring west instead of east is a short-sighted fool, but to each their own.)  There are many factors at play here.  Politics: Boromir sees it as the duty of Gondor to do anything it can to withstand the Enemy.  Pragmatism: bringing the Ring to Mordor is a suicide mission, and runs the very real risk of bringing the Ring straight to Sauron.  Personalities: the Ring tempts one and all, twists their judgement and blackens their hearts. 

Also, choosing wrongly means the end of the world. Which is probably a good incentive for weighing all the options.

So at the very least I can accept that even if there is only one viable choice, the characters within the story would see this as a complicated issue.  My ability to accept this is compounded by the fact that very wise characters within the story are similarly conflicted about the course of action.  I believe in Gandalf's wisdom: if he says something is so, it is so.  And yet he doesn't express a clear opinion on the best course of action.  Neither does Elrond.  Because the story has invested time getting me acquainted with their age and wisdom and intelligence, their indecision carries great weight for me as a reader.

In this case, the characters' decisions (or lack thereof) spring naturally from themselves, the circumstances, and the world around them.  Frodo's eventual decision to take the Ring to Mordor, and to try to go it alone, is cemented only after he sees how the Ring corrupted a great man like Boromir.  His personal experience informs his decision.

But there's also a point in the story where, even today, I have trouble accepting a character's actions as authentic and not plot-driven.  I've never been able to buy Aragorn's decision to follow Merry and Pippin rather than Sam and Frodo in the beginning chapter of The Two Towers.  (Yes, I know, it happens at the end of the film version of Fellowship of the Ring.  My comments below apply to either.)

Much of The Two Towers springs from this fateful decision.  So I can see why the story required Aragorn (and Gimli and Legolas) to follow the orc band west instead of hurrying to catch up to Frodo on his journey east.  But let's face it: if Merry and Pippin get tortured and eaten by orcs, it isn't necessarily the end of the world.  I like those little guys as much as anybody.  Really I do.  I think they're great.  And I love their adventure with the Ents.  (Possibly my favorite part of LOTR.)  But what's more important in the big picture?  That Merry and Pippin survive, or that Frodo and Sam get the Ring to Mount Doom?

The Enemies (both of them) already know the Ring is carried by a halfling.  The Fellowship has been hounded by orcs and spying eyes for hundreds of leagues.  So it's not clear to me what potentially devastating information the halflings might give to Saruman and/or Sauron. But if Frodo and Sam are captured, or killed, the Ring will get back to Sauron and it's game over. Furthermore, Aragorn and company already know that Gollum is stalking Frodo—probably with murderous intent.  If Merry and Pippin have their faces chewed off by ravenous orcs, that's too bad, but nothing is fundamentally changed.

And yet the decision is to try to rescue Merry and Pippin. 

I've never fully understood that.  But I can accept it more easily than I can accept our Hero's fateful decision in the pilot episode of The Cape.  Why?  Because the world of Lord of the Rings is steeped in a poetic fatalism.  The world moves on currents of things that are meant to be, and not meant to be, and the characters are aware of this.  Aragorn's decision, while questionable, is rooted in his feeling that the future of the Ring has passed out of his hands. I can accept that the characters in this world think in these terms.  But The Cape offers no such clues from its setting.  In spite of the fact that the setting is a comic-book universe with comic-book logic (that's not a denigration, just a statement of fact) there's nothing on screen to make me believe that characters in that world wouldn't weigh choices the same way they would in this world.

(I like to believe that Aragorn's decision is also motivated by his knowledge that the Ring corrupted Boromir.  There's a real possibility that it would do the same to him, or Gimli, or Legolas.  And if it did, the hobbits wouldn't stand much chance of keeping the Ring safe. )


Victor Milan January 28, 2011 at 12:57 am
Like your assessment, here. Your problem with THE CAPE sums up in large part why I generally can't take TV dramas. As for LOTR, I think your final point is probably the telling one. Aragorn is a proud and strong man who's used to treating Gandalf pretty much as a peer. He might well have believed that, all respect to the wizard, Gandalf overestimated the Ring's allure, or underestimated his own resistance. But after seeing what the Ring did to Boromir, whom Aragorn respected despite their differences, me might reasonably decide (especially in the cultural context you cited) that Fate has spoken and he should let the Ring pass from him. In line with that, to me, " 'I pass the test,' she said, 'I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel,' is one of the most powerful and affecting moments in fiction or cinema.
Ian January 28, 2011 at 8:05 am
The Cape does have one thing going for it, namely Ms. Glau. Though it has been falling down on the part where she head-punches people nine ways from Sunday. But I live in hope. As for the Ring, your point about Aragorn and Gandalf is well taken. And in fact it points to a subtle alteration of details in the film adaptations that I think is really quite apt: in the films, Gandalf refuses to touch the ring. I was surprised to find that this isn't actually the case in Fellowship-- he handles it a couple of times at Bag End. This strikes me as a misjudgement. If I suspected half of what Gandalf suspected at that point, I wouldn't touch that sucker with a ten foot pole.
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