My panning of The Name of the Wind‘s Kvothe over on Chimaera has raised a valid question: If Kvothe is a bad character, how do you write a heroic character? Surely any character who accomplishes epic things will end up sharing many of the traits for which I criticize Kvothe, right?
My immediate response is that you don’t need to write an uber-competent heroic character in the first place; you could just as well write a Harry Potter or Bilbo Baggins who is no more competent than the rest of the cast and accomplishes great things primarily out of a mixture of chance and necessity. But let’s assume you want to write a bona fide heroic champion, and no lesser character will do. He still needn’t suffer from Kvothe’s flaws.
Consider Ged, from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels*. Kvothe’s and Ged’s stories are eyebrow-raisingly similar, yet Ged is not an objectionable character at all. I will highlight the key differences between the Earthsea series and the Kingkiller series which serve to make Ged work so much better. I won’t repeat all the Name of the Wind quotes from my previous posts, so if you haven’t, you should make sure to read them first.
Curiously, a great deal of the contrast springs from differences in narrative style. As I have also discussed on Chimaera, the commonly-cited rule “show, don’t tell” is in error; which one is appropriate depends on the situation. A Wizard of Earthsea, clocking in at under 200 pages, makes heavy use of telling, and this actually helps Ged as a character. The uncharitable explanation–that Ged would be just as ludicrous as Kvothe if his account were as detailed–needn’t be entertained. Telling is simply the best way to write a large-scale story and yet keep it focused on one character: There is no implication that the actions of other people in the world (such as the other students at his school) are either more or less important than Ged’s, but the story is about Ged and so it omits anything that doesn’t relate to him, whereas Kvothe’s entire world really does revolve around him.
At school, both Ged and Kvothe initially excel, but get into feuds with an older students that lead to trouble. The spare narrative, however, makes Ged’s experience feel much more plausible and less solipsistic. When Le Guin tells us that “The other prentices had soon learned that they could seldom match themselves either in sport or in earnest” (Wizard 45), we learn that Ged is excelling, but not necessarily that he is completely undefeated, and she certainly doesn’t take us blow-by-blow through a contest where we’re supposed to root for the reigning champion. Le Guin understands that this isn’t the point: Ged’s aptitude merely lays the foundation for his later conflicts. Likewise, Ged’s rivalry with Jasper seems to be a personal issue and we rarely see any indication that anyone else (aside from Vetch) cares. Yes, when the conflict comes to a fore, “[t]he younger boys…watched him in wonder” (Wizard 58), but those are younger prentices who are awed by the older students, and it’s only during their biggest fight; Kvothe, in contrast, draws a crowd of hundreds within days after admittance.
Yet narrative style isn’t the only reason why Ged’s story works better than Kvothe’s; there are also key differences in characterization. Consider Jasper and Ambrose. Jasper seems to act dismissive to everyone; when he says “‘I am sick of boys and noise and foolishness'” (Wizard 56), his comment is not directed at Ged in particular. Nor does he ever go out of his way to make Ged miserable or take any malicious actions against him. The entire feud is fueled by Ged’s own pride:
Jasper alone neither praised him nor avoided him, but simply looked down at him, smiling slightly. And therefore Jasper stood alone as his rival, who must be put to shame. (Wizard 45)
Jasper’s character is believable as a privileged youth who feels innately superior to the lower-class boys he is forced to interact with. Ambrose, on the other hand, has it in for Kvothe in particular from the first moment they meet. The amount of time he spends harassing Kvothe precludes the possibility of his doing the same to other people, and he would have quickly gotten into trouble if he pranked all the new students by giving them candles. Ambrose’s singular obsession adds to the impression that the world really does revolve around Kvothe, whereas Jasper’s scornful disinterest suggests the opposite.
Earthsea being a big place, Jasper isn’t the only one whose world doesn’t revolve around Ged. At the end of A Wizard of Earthsea, we learn that “If Estarriol of Iffish kept his promise and made a song of that first great deed of Ged’s, it has been lost” (Wizard 183). The book’s entire climax is so small in the grand scheme of things that, in-universe, it survives only as a garbled folktale that doesn’t feature Ged at all. And Tenar, being from an entirely different part of the world, has not only not heard of him, but hasn’t even heard of the land he’s from (Gont):
“Where do you come from?”
“From the Inner Lands, the West.”
It was the only name of a city or island of the Inner Lands that she knew. (Atuan 79)
The world of The Name of the Wind is a big place too, with varying languages, currencies, and customs, but Kvothe’s fame seems to be universal.
The most critical difference between Ged and Kvothe themselves is that Ged suffers the consequences of his actions. Ged’s big blunder is purely of his own making–no deception, no extenuating circumstances–and the scars are permanent. No jumping off a building and recovering in a matter of days for Ged; when he gets hurt, he is actually hurt:
For four weeks of that hot summer he lay blind, and deaf, and mute, though at times he moaned and cried out like an animal…Still when winter came he could speak only with a stammering tongue, and the Master Herbal kept him there in the healing-chambers, trying to lead his body and mind gradually back to strength. It was early spring when at last the Master released him… (Wizard 64)
More importantly, he permanently loses his position as star pupil:
The boys he had led and lorded over were all ahead of him now, because of the months he had lost, and that spring and summer he studied with lads younger than himself. Nor did he shine among them, for the words of any spell, even the simplest illusion-charm, came halting from his tongue, and his hands faltered at their craft. (Wizard 66-67)
Contrast Kvothe, whose setbacks, aside from virtually never being his own fault, don’t prevent him from being far and away the best at every skill he attempts.
Kvothe is also a tremendous braggart who takes great relish in making sure that everyone knows every detail of his exploits. On the other hand, Ged is surprisingly reserved. He is modest and even ashamed about many of his accomplishments. Observe his reticence about his past with Tenar:
“What is that?” she said. “That scar.”
He did not answer at once.
“A dragon?” she said, trying to scoff…
“No, not a dragon.”
“You’re not a dragonlord, at least, then.”
“No,” he said rather reluctantly, “I am a dragonlord. But the scars were before that. I told you that I had met with the Dark Powers before, in other places of the earth. This on my face is the mark of one of the kinship of the Nameless Ones. But no longer nameless, for I learned his name, in the end.” (Atuan 80-81)
When asked his name, Ged just says “Mostly, I’m called Sparrowhawk,” and provides no elaboration. Allow me to repeat Kvothe’s teeth-grittingly painful introduction, the one printed on the back of the book:
“I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak during the day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. You may have heard of me.”
You tell me which of these people you’d rather meet in real life. I think most people would choose the one who doesn’t sound like Ron Burgundy.
Also, Ged’s eyes don’t change color.
*I am not a particular fan of Le Guin; I think her Hainish novels have major flaws, so let’s avoid claims that I prefer her character out of blind loyalty.
Wizard citations refer to A Wizard of Earthsea; Atuan refers to The Tombs of Atuan, both by Ursula K. Le Guin.