Why I Like Heroes With Unsolvable Problems

And just what do I mean by that? Surely there is nothing more tiresome and existential than a hero who beats his head repeatedly against a brick wall before retiring in frustration. It may have a certain air of reality to it, but as a friend of mine once said of cinema veritie, “Without the artifice it would be like real life, and then who would want to see it?”

For Pete’s sake, Doris. Give a hero a solvable problem. Provide dramatic structure in the poor character’s life. What kind of omnipotent author are you, anyway?

I know my duty to my characters, and I assure you I would not betray their trust in me by forcing them to wander in a desert of plotless dissatisfaction, forever drinking sand from their canteens. But because I love them, I want to give them more. They deserve a narrative structure that provides them with a beginning, a middle, and an end — of course they do. And to do them proper service, they should have adventure and drama poured over them with a bounteous hand. But they deserve more; they deserve grace.

Any automaton can stumble through a simple mystery plot, for instance, identifying an wrongdoer and restoring the balance of good and evil. But side by side with the conventional plot, what a lovely thing it is when a character has another, and neverending story — a high wire they can never truly descend from.

A drop of blood-reality in the pearl of artifice. Because the truth is, we all have unsolvable problems. Some are worse than others, granted, but we all have to deal with them. People are quadriplegics, or diabetics, or alcoholics, or just butt-ugly. They’re afraid of more things than I can possibly list here. They’ve lost opportunities that will haunt them the rest of their lives. They’ve humiliated themselves in front of their friends and enemies. They’re dancers who’ve trained ruthlessly for years, only to begin to suspect they will always be second-rate. They’re fat, they’re ill, and they have bad skin. They yearn to be part of a pair but keep finding themselves frustrated and alone. Tell me if you don’t recognize yourself in this list, even if I haven’t called you out by name, because trust me, you’re in there somewhere.

And even if you’re basking in a brief afternoon of Impressionist sunlight, you know in your heart that the boating party is coming to an end — you and I are both growing older, weaker, stiffer, and more lined, and will continue to do so until we die. Life is a terminal experience, no one’s escaping, and there’s not a damned thing we can do about it.

Having depressed us both, I will go on to add that in both life and fiction, part of what defines our heroism is how gracefully we deal with the chains we carry. I would submit that you cannot really know a character from the way he handles a cut-and-dried professional crisis; it’s those chains you need to inspect.

This is one of the reasons, I think, that black humor is so respected in a character — you listen to that dialogue and you think, “They’re handling that six feet of iron clank really well.” It’s the Fred Astaire method of dealing with the unsolvable; smile at it with faint contempt, make it look easy. Of course we, the audience, have been privileged to see the hooks set in our hero’s soul, and we know that dance is an unnatural act, and if we like the character at all we can’t help applauding.

In fact, this is quite a powerful method of making even the bad guys look good. As a writer I have a wicked desire sometimes to see just how bad I can make a character and still have the audience like him. One can cheat, of course, and have all the nasty stuff happen off-stage, so that the audience doesn’t actually see the harm inflicted on the innocent. But how much more satisfying to bring your villain right up to the floodlights and have him do his damage; and then to drench him in ambiguity by showing as well that he possesses courage, self-knowledge, and the ability to withstand a bleak existence with grace. It’s that drop of blood in the pearl that gives it its luster.

I was interested when someone suggested to me that Tal of City of Diamond was a handicapped hero, in the same vein as, say, Miles Vorkosigan. Tal is handicapped, I believe, but I’m beginning to think that a lot of the characters I’m working with these days are handicapped in one way or another. As for Miles, he presents a good case study for unsolvable problems; he may get his bones replaced, but he’s never going to be able to do anything about his appearance. He has an even more lovely unsolvable problem, though — his need for the manic phase of his own little bipolar disorder, his addiction to his other identity. And Lois Bujold is good enough to wrap these unlockable chains around individual narrative structures that can be mostly solved within the confines of a book.

It’s the sort of thing that adds spice to a television series, as well; we can’t all have our sisters kidnapped by aliens or be forced to join secret and ruthless organizations that make us kill people, but we do all understand that some things aren’t going to get fixed in an hour. In fact, if everything did always get fixed, it would be hard not to develop contempt for the character and their plastic life.

Dramatic structure most often asks the question, “How will they solve this problem?” Character asks, “How will they adapt to this problem?” And it’s watching them attempt B while having to do A that evokes the flash of empathy in the audience — that in fact makes “A” worthwhile. Because, after all, a mere court case or a murder is not enough — we want to know how Sherlock Holmes will deal with this. Or Peter Wimsey or Fox Mulder or our boy Miles. We want the specifics, the style of this particular dance, the scent of the rose and not merely the dried petals.

We want a little bit of mess in the perfection of structure, and the hint that we have here a life that will go on after we close the book or turn off the television.

And that’s why I like heroes with unsolvable problems.

Originally posted September 1997.

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