Friday, November 8, 2013

Cliches Explained part seven: Acting When Forced To

People in fiction have it tough – that’s an undisputed fact. In order for us to have poignant, exciting, bite-your-nails, edge-of-your-seat, (and other dash-worthy adverbs,) stories, they need to have the stakes stacked high against them, be forced to make tough choices, and generally stomp out hearts out in the end so that we pick up the next book. (Or is it just me?)

That said, having the odds against you sometimes makes for a too-complicated situation. For example, sometimes the hero/ine might be faced with a lose-lose choice, or a morally ambiguous one at least.
Sometimes, they might have to do something that goes completely against their moral code, and so they wait until the last possible moment to act. That, in itself, makes for a fascinating read because then the audience watches the character struggle with having broken their own set of rules, and the moral dilemma that stems from such an action is a very interesting motivation.

However, as with all good tropes gone bad, the “being forced into doing something” is also often deployed as an attempt to make books look “edgy” and “dark” without the authors sacrificing the moral integrity of their protagonists.

Oddly enough, today’s examples of both good and bad usage of this trope come from the same book. 

Consider it an exercise in contrasts (as Divergent is known to be.)

The story, if you haven’t read the synopsis, follows Tris Prior through her inception in a new faction in a dystopian Chicago. In this society, there are five factions, each governed by a particular personality trait, and Tris moves from Abnegation to Dauntless, hoping to find herself in an environment where her natural talents can strive and grow (for the sake of brevity, let’s ignore the meta-text because gun culture and anti-intellectualism really are in a trope-league of their own.) However, when Tris arrives in Dauntless, she quickly realises that under the uber-cool façade, her new faction is having some really rotten leadership.

We at the Lantern have already spoken about our experiences with “Divergent” and how we find some (or a lot) of the content problematic. However... on the surface, that’s not the case. Tris, raised in a society where definitions of valour and goodness are narrowly defined, is naturally frustrated, as are many characters, by their apparent lack of choice in regards to their self-definition. Throughout the book, she struggles with the system, trying to fit in while her instincts are screaming for her that this is all wrong. It’s a story about overcoming social conditioning, really (if it was just that, actually, I would have been a very happy camper.)

Early on in the book, we’ve got a scene where that conflict is brought to light – one of Tris’ fellow initiates gets picked on by Dauntless’ Eeeeevil leader Eric (ELE for short), for having common sense and not making himself into an unnecessary moving target. ELE makes the initiate stand in front of the others and tries to force them to throw knives at him. Tris stands up for her fellow initiate (whose name I honestly can’t remember now,) saying that there’s a difference between bravery and recklessness.

ELE makes her stand as target while Designated Love Interest Four (DLIF, because reasons) is told to throw knives at her. He does, and nicks her ear in the process. Later, he tells her he did it on purpose and warns her not to rock the boat.

It’s a very interesting scene – twice so if you read it from DLIF’s point of view (see: Free Four.) Throughout the novel, these two characters will be trying to balance the lives they believe they have with the reality, and they will both have trouble for it. They’ll both wonder if it isn’t time to rebel… but only Tris has the excuse for it.

See, here’s the thing with this trope – you really have to believe that the protagonist is between the rock and the hard place in order for it to work. Tris is a newbie, not even a full-fledged faction member. She’s idealised the Dauntless and has been raised to think that there’s nothing worse than being Factionless. Added to that, she’s pushing back against lots of prejudice, about her faction and about her gender, and she genuinely has an incentive not to rock the boat, because let’s face it – if she did, she would quickly be disposed of.

Four is a completely different character. He’s a full-fledged faction member, head of training for the new recruits, and a genuine thread to ELE’s leadership. He used to be the faction favourite, and still gets respect and trust from the senior leaders. On top of that, he’s also a big strong man, one that you don’t want to mess with (as he proves, again and again.) In the scene above, Four could not only have stood up to ELE, he would have probably succeeded.

Imagine what would have happened if, rather than going with what ELE suggested, Four casually invited him to demonstrate what real bravery is. He could have suggested ELE stand as target, or, better yet, suggested that ELE threw knives at himself, Four. A subtle rebellion would have thrown the weight of the decision on the one who made the situation terrible in the first place. ELE would have had to decide either to put his money where his mouth is (and risk being killed, or kill a potential rival and spiking inter-faction divisions), or admit that he was wrong and go home with his tail tucked between his legs. It would have been a win, especially if Four really espouses the views he claims to (all character traits in moderation and intelligent bravery.) In this situation, Four was literally the only person capable of getting away with this.

But Four does nothing? Why? The short story doesn’t shed much light on that – he ostensibly is worried about Tris and wants to protect her (so of course, he nicks her ear with a knife rather than have Eric do the throwing, duh!) but that’s a flimsy excuse. The faction is uneasy. Eric can’t afford to cock up, and ruthlessly killing initiates is not the marking of a good leader. We’re supposed to believe that Four is stuck between the rock and the hard place, but he isn’t, not really. Hell, he even says he considered going Factionless until Tris showed up because Dauntless is no longer the faction he joined! He literally has nothing to lose! So what’s the point of this scene?

Surely not to prove how special Our Heroine is, because that would be just a cop out.

The only explanation is that Four is lying to himself – that he’s simply not brave enough to defy convention. 
Which would have been an interesting struggle, if the book bothered to acknowledge that for two seconds!

Will YA books ever cease to dangle carrots of awesome only to snatch them away?

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