Behold, you thought the story was about this character, but actually it was the cutesy animal companion pulling strings from behind the scenes. Aren’t you in awe of this clever twist? If you’ve ever beheld something like that, you’ve seen a puppeteer in the wild, and that’s what we’re talking about today. We explain why puppeteers are the worst archetype out there, how they can completely destroy your story, and go through some examples so you know what to look for. Also, we discover that no matter how bad a character seems, it could be worse: they could be doing eugenics.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Mouse. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[opening music]
Chris: This is the Mythcreants Podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is…
Chris: And just letting everybody know that we could use more transcription volunteers. That means that we send you a really badly computer-transcribed transcript of the podcast, and then you just sort of fix it up for us and send it back. And then we post it so that our podcasts are accessible to as many people as possible, and not everybody has to listen to the audio to get the material. So if you’re interested in doing that, just go to mythcreants.com/transcribe. We also have a link to the transcription volunteer form on the page for each podcast.
All right! So this episode, we’re talking about how I have been arranging every podcast behind the scenes. I know that you thought that Oren and Wes had independent opinions, but actually, that’s been me. I’ve been subtly manipulating them into the opinions they have so that I can perfectly arrange every podcast.
Wes: Why does that give me comfort….
Oren: You did that like it was a bit, but that’s absolutely also true.
Wes: Yeah, yeah. Let’s not pretend.
Oren: I used to think that multiple points of view were cool and good, and I even have a podcast where I went on the record about it, and I completely changed my opinion on that. And it’s basically your fault.
Wes: It’s true. Chris will send out her show notes, and Oren will be like, “Well, guess I better revise mine.”[All laugh]
Chris: Yeah, that’s assuming that I’m not cribbing from Oren’s show notes, which I totally do. [laughs] Anyway, so this time, we’re going to be talking about puppeteers.
Oren: So like The Dark Crystal then, right?
Chris: Yeah, The Dark Crystal, they’re all puppeteers—no! So this is a specific character archetype, which we consider to be a role that a character plays in Mythcreants, otherwise the definition of the word archetype is kind of vague. We’ve talked about this briefly before: I had a post years ago, Ditch These Five Character Archetypes. And this is not the most common archetype or the most common bad archetype, but it’s worth discussing on an episode because it’s really bad. It is the worst. I don’t think there’s any character archetype that is worse than this one.
Oren: I really hate it. So I would agree.
Wes: It just robs us of any kind of real satisfaction. It’s like, oh, everything I just went through…and that wasn’t even the point? This action didn’t matter? Come on.
Chris: Yeah. It pretty much—it can, depending on how bad…and there’s different levels. There are characters who are kind of puppeteerish, and there are characters who are puppeteers. But when it’s bad, it can just completely rob the entire story of satisfaction, ruin the entire plot from start to finish, just with one character that has a bad role. Which is remarkable.
Oren: Yeah, there’s not a lot of other character archetypes that can say that.
Chris: So, what is a puppeteer? Specifically, a puppeteer is a side character, generally a minor protagonist, although it’s not often clear that they are a protagonist in the beginning of the story. And they are pulling the strings behind the scenes—usually behind the scenes. Often they’ll appear as a suspicious trickster, and their string pulling is supposed to be a secret that’s revealed later in the story. But that’s actually optional, although that’s very common. The issue is that they are basically arranging all of the events that happen. So yeah, that’s what the puppeteer is.
Wes: And do they have to be protagonists, or can villains fulfill that role ever?
Chris: Well, okay, there are also issues when villains do it, so it’s not great when a villain does it. But it’s generally a protagonist, because it’s very different if they’re benign versus if they’re antagonistic. Because if they’re antagonistic then, by definition, for the protagonist to win the day, they actually have to oppose the puppeteer and win at some level, generally. Whereas the issue is when you have a protagonist that’s super powerful and arranging everything, their intention is benign, so the story isn’t pushing back against that in any way.
Oren: When an antagonist does it, it’s usually an issue of believability. To a certain extent, a scheming antagonist who is arranging things behind the scenes can absolutely work, and that can actually be a good antagonist. But authors very often take it too far, and they’re like, “It’s all according to my master plan!” And it’s like, that can’t possibly have been your plan. It’s just not possible.
But when a hero is doing it, when it’s a good guy, then it doesn’t actually matter if their plan is believable. It almost never is. But it doesn’t matter because it’s just infuriating that it takes all of the agency away from the actual main characters, the ones we’re supposed to follow, and gives it to a side character. And it’s like, oh, well, I guess nothing the characters did actually mattered in this entire story, and they could have just been replaced with mannikins, and it would have turned out the same.
Chris: The issue with string pulling in general, regardless of whether it’s a protagonist or an antagonist—and this is a character who’s revealed to have been planning and arranging and pulling the strings all along—is, it’s really hard to not fall into one of two categories. Either A, it’s completely unbelievable because there’s absolutely no way this character could have predicted everything that happened in the story. Some of the events were just out of their knowledge, out of their control. It’s just absurd to believe that they somehow managed to arrange everything.
And if you avoid that problem, you almost inevitably do it by basically removing all of the agency from the characters—the protagonists. It feels like it’s a railroaded roleplaying game where nothing that the characters do ever matters. They never solve any problems on their own. That way, the string-pulling character can actually control and plan for the outcome of events. But it comes at a cost that is much, much too high.
Oren: And this is especially bad for roleplayers who are reading your story, because game masters do this too. And when they do it, it’s because they really like a specific NPC, and they want to show you how that NPC is super great and cool at the expense of your character. And when a GM does that, it’s infuriating. It’s like a personal betrayal, because the GM is supposed to be there to help you be your coolest self. And so when they use their power to instead heap glory on themselves, it’s like, Why did you do that? You’ve ruined everything.
So even if an author doesn’t mean to do that, anyone who’s ever played a roleplaying game recognizes that feeling. It’s like, hey, this is the main character, and you’re supposed to sympathize with them and feel the story through their eyes and watch what they do and cheer for them. And then it’s like, oh actually, this guy who you barely know was behind everything, and he arranged it all. And that just feels like you really like that character and wanted to pull one over on me. And even though I doubt there’s ever actually that kind of malicious intent by the author, that’s what it feels like. And it drives me up the wall. I hate it so much.
Chris: And storytellers, it feels like they invariably create tricksters in their story because they think it’s funny, they think it’s cute, they think it’s novel, and they just love the trickster character that is pulling strings. They usually just love that character. I don’t think I’ve seen…very few instances of these kind of characters where it didn’t feel like the storyteller just had a disproportionate love for a side character instead of their main character. Which is one of the reasons why, when we’re talking about throughlines and other plot structure, we try to— Hey, your main character should be your favorite character. And if you start writing your story and you find that you love a side character way more, then maybe you should think about making the story about that side character and avoiding these problems.
But we have an issue where some people just really want to write a story about a character they love and they don’t want that character to be anything less than perfect in every way. So they know that they can’t get away with having their main character not have any flaws or problems, and so sometimes I think it’s a sneaky way to try to slip in that character that’s one hundred percent candied off to the side. But it’s worse than having a main character that’s candied, I think. Because at least if you have a main character that’s candied, hey, it’s going to be obnoxious to a lot of audience members, but some people might still identify with your main character and enjoy it. And at least your main character is doing the role they should, saving the day like they should. When you try to heap all that on the side character, suddenly you’re asking your audience to sympathize with the main character but then never allowing them to have the satisfaction of watching that character change the outcome of events or save the day or anything like that.
Oren: Yeah, it basically feels like authors use the puppeteer character to trick themselves into thinking it’s fine for their main character to be overpowered and perfect. If they tried to make the trickster their main character, they would be confronted with “oh actually, this character is too powerful and can do too much, and there’s no conflict.” So they lie to themselves by pretending that that’s not the case if they shove that character into the background, where he’s a little bit hidden. Should we talk examples?
Chris: Yeah, yeah, I think we need to move on to examples so people know what this looks like.
Oren: Okay, can I vent my spleen? I have a spleen to vent.
Wes: [chuckles] Just go for it, Oren.
Chris: Let’s do the spleen venting.
Oren: Okay, so, spoilers for the novel Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig. Massive spoilers.
So in this novel, our main character are in, theory, a CDC doctor, and a teenager, and a musician for some reason, and a couple of others, who are all somehow involved in this group of semi-zombies; they’re sleepwalkers, they walk around, and no one knows why. And it’s like, “Oh, boy, this’s weird.” And this is all set against the backdrop of an apocalypse that happens about halfway into the book. So it takes a while, but it gets there eventually.
But the actual main character—the puppeteer, as it were—is this AI called Black Swan who, you find out as the story goes forward, has arranged everything to happen the way it did, including getting all of the characters into their starting positions and then manipulating them so they do exactly what Black Swan wants. And Black Swan knows everything, has all information, is super smart, and has time magic.
Wes: Ooh. All the works.
Chris: [laughs] Time magic is super random.
Wes: [sarcastically] Yeah but what a cool character.
Oren: Yeah, it’s so cool, right? And it’s like an AI thing. And its plan is complete bogus, right? And I can tell that some people brought this up in beta reading ’cause there are a bunch of scenes where characters are like, “Hey, why don’t you do this instead?” And they’re like, “Oh, well, this reason.” And it’s like, that reason is bullshit. That’s clearly something you just put there to try to answer a thing you know didn’t make sense, but it still doesn’t make sense, ’cause your plot is just too complicated. There’s just no way that all of these moving parts are going to fit together the way you need them to because there are just too many of them.
And because I hate Black Swan so much, because it’s stealing agency from all the other characters, I’m not inclined to give it any benefits of the doubt. There are plenty of characters who, if I really looked at their plan under a microscope, they might not all make sense. But I’m willing to let it pass because I like them. But Black Swan is super irritating in a “oh, I’m so cutesy but also way smart!”
Chris: That’s how a puppeteer usually appears, honestly. It’s a cute animal or something—which, we’ll go into an animal example.
But I just want to give some context for this Black Swan issue in Wanderers. So Wanderers is about—I guess you would call it a zombie story. We have a bunch of walkers that are people who just sort of get up and just start walking in a direction together. And we have a character who’s from the CDC, and his job is to figure out what disease is making them do this. But we find out, of course, that it’s Black Swan doing this, and we don’t want the problem solved.
And this book is also just way too long, which makes it much worse. So we just spend tons of scene where he’s like, “I don’t know. I just can’t solve the problem. We can’t do anything. Oh look, we can’t even puncture them with needles to get a blood sample. Oh, we had a body, but somebody stole it! Oh…” And it’s just incredibly frustrating to watch.
And we have another character, Shana, who is there with what’s called the “flock,” which is the group of zombie walkers, trying to protect her sister, who is a walker. And she never does anything of significance, as far as I got in the book, at all. She just kind of hangs out, doesn’t—one time she takes a picture that managed to get on the news, I guess that’s something.
But it’s just filled with these characters who don’t make a difference. And it’s especially frustrating for the CDC character, whose job it is to solve this problem, and who never makes progress at it practically at all because he’s just not allowed to.
Oren: Right. And there are multiple scenes where Black Swan insists that “I picked you for a reason.” And I just…what reason? He never does anything. I’d say anyone with a pulse could do what he does, but even that’s being too generous ’cause he doesn’t do anything. An empty space could do what he does. It’s amazing.
Chris: Right. Yeah. And of course the book just being too long exacerbates this problem. Having characters do nothing for a short period of time is more tolerable than them doing nothing for a long period of time.
Oren: And I’m at the point where I’m about seventy-five, seventy-six percent of the way through the book. And they’re getting to the point where they are talking about Black Swan like it’s an actual god, and it’s so over-the-top that I’m just hoping it’s foreshadowing for Black Swan actually being evil. But that doesn’t make sense either at this point.
We spent too long with Black Swan being the puppeteer good guy that if Black Swan actually turns out to be evil, I’ll just be like, “Well, yeah, no duh!” ‘Cause there were all these signs that it was being evil before, and you just never noticed any of them, which I assumed meant those aren’t actually supposed to be signs that it’s evil. Like the fact that it’s doing eugenics.
Wes: [laughs incredulously] Oh my gosh.
Oren: Because it’s picked a thousand people to survive. And it’s picked them based on their physical health—so high ableism—and on their standardized test scores!
Wes: Oh no!
Oren: So, high racism, and it’s really obvious if you know anything about these issues that this robot is doing eugenics, but no one comments on it. And so I’m like, at this point, if it turns out that Black Swan is supposed to be evil, I’m just going to be like, “Why didn’t any of you notice before, when it was doing eugenics? Like, why didn’t anybody ask that question?” And it’s gonna—it’s just—it’s the worst. I hate this robot so much.
Chris: Yeah. And just to go back to when Oren and I started listening to this book, I was like, “Hey, I think, I bet that Black Swan is behind these walkers, and it’s the villain.” And then Oren’s like, “No, I think you’re right that it’s behind these walkers, but it’s clearly not the villain because, you know, Wendig loves it so much. I can just tell, the way that he writes about Black Swan, that he loves this character. So it can’t be a villain.” And yeah, it was a puppeteer, so that was a bad outcome.
Oren: I could just feel the dread growing the more I read about Black Swan. Black Swan just doesn’t fit into this story. There’s no reason for Black Swan to be here—because normally, it’s a very realistic, super gritty, happening not even ten minutes into the future story. That story is so focused on being set in the present that it uses memes that are current now. It references them.
Wes: Oh no.
Oren: I’m honestly wondering if they just went in and switched out memes right before the publication because memes don’t have a very long shelf life. So the idea that in the middle of this extremely right-now-set story that a super time-traveling AI could exist is—it just doesn’t fit. It doesn’t make sense. The only reason for it to be there is that the author just really loves it, and there’s no way he’s going to make it a villain. And I mean, at this point, I’m maybe wondering if that was actually the case. But it doesn’t matter. It’s been too long.
Chris and Wes: [laughter]
Chris: So another example, moving on to another one: so the book Lirael, by Garth Nix, which is a sequel to the very good book Sabriel. Lirael unfortunately is not a good book, and one of the main reasons is of course because of the puppeteer in this book, which is the dog.
So Sabriel had a cat that was a really good character. It was kind of a shapeshifty character that was maybe good, maybe bad, basically kind of a negative spirit that had been imprisoned by its collar into being a cat, pretty much. So Lirael, the follow-up book, with a different main character, adds this dog. But unlike the cat, the dog is just benign. And from the start, we just watch them—the main characters—go through scene after scene where the dog solves their problems for them with a magical bark that sends enemies running. And everything, the dog just does it. And… [laughs] And then we get to the end of the book, and it’s like, “Hey, did you know? The dog is really a powerful god!” And it’s like, no, you think?
Oren: And it’s like, somehow I had a clue that might be the case.
Chris: And it’s just obnoxious because, again, we want to see the protagonist save the day. And instead, the dog does everything for them.
Oren: And it’s even worse ’cause the cat, whose name is Mogget, is still there. For some reason, he’s still in the story, even though he has nothing to do now because his role as animal companion has been taken over by the dog. And I don’t even know why Mogget is still in that story. He’s just around now. At the very least, leave Mogget out of this! He did his time, okay? He served well in the first book—why are you doing this to him.
Chris: Right. The two main characters already feel superfluous next to the dog. Having Mogget there too is just… There’s no way that Garth Nix is going to let Mogget do anything with the dog around.
Oren: Yeah, gosh. I just don’t understand the point of the dog. ‘Cause it’s not like the main character is underpowered. She has her own magic. She is perfectly capable of handling these situations. And instead, the dog does it for her. And I’m like, is this supposed to be a wish-fulfillment story?
Chris: [tongue-in-cheek] But Oren, isn’t it “clever” that this cute little dog was actually a super-powerful being that was arranging for everything?
Oren: Oh my god.
Chris: Isn’t that so clever?
Oren: Ugh, Chris!
Chris: Isn’t it just fun and humorous?
Wes: Oren, you have to put your faith in the dog. As powerful as you are, the dog’s the one that’ll solve all your problems.
Oren: Yeah, obviously. I accept dog as my lord and savior.
Chris: As I said, that’s the—“isn’t this clever” is usually the mindset behind the puppeteer.
Wes: And that totally makes sense. It almost feels like even just in reality, we like to think that someone’s behind things pulling the strings. Because otherwise it’s just random and chaotic, and we have to do it on our own.
Chris: Right, we want a narrative to explain things.
Wes: We have to have something making sense of this. And so yeah, I think that’s probably why it’s a pretty popular thing, and why some people honestly think, “Oh, cool! That character is really powerful and cool. Neat!” And it’s like, okay, so you didn’t really care about the other ones at all, huh.
Oren: Nope, it’s just this dog, I guess.[all laugh]
Oren: At least the dog’s not doing eugenics, I’ll give the dog that much.
Wes: It seems like a pretty low bar though.
Oren: Yeah, but the dog manages to jump it, okay? Give it that much.
Wes: Fair. Fair enough. [laughs]
Chris: A milder example, which I think is worth going into: what a puppeteer looks like when it’s not quite as bad as the dog or Black Swan, but still enough to be irritating. So there’s a novella called The Black God’s Drums. It takes place in New Orleans; it has a Black girl as the main character; the world has a lot of novelty. There’s some nice things about the story.
But there’s a pair of nuns that are mild puppeteers in there that are really irritating. And the funny thing is, they appear for the first time only halfway through, so we’ve already gotten half the story done before there’s suddenly a pair of puppeteers. And you can tell, again, that the writer just really likes these nuns. They work in sort of a New Orleans convent, and they do charity work. But they also know everything that’s happening in the city, to the point where it seems like it must be a magic power.
And when the main characters meet them, we also learn that they were responsible for some of the things that the main character seemed to do on her own using her own agency. She found out that there was a dangerous possible weapon coming into the city, and she went to tell somebody who was an airship captain, hoping that she could trade the information and also become a crew member on the airship. That seems to be something that she would just do of her own…with her own motivation because she really likes airships.
Oren: Right. And they also establish that this airship captain knew her mother.
Oren: So it just seemed like, obviously, that’s why she did it.
Chris: Right. She’s familiar with this airship, she’s familiar with this captain. Then suddenly we meet the nuns, and we find out the nuns told her to do it. And so it’s—why did you do that? Why did you retcon that agency away from the protagonist? I mean, granted, it’s not as bad as watching them tell her and then her doing it, because this way, in the moment, we got to experience it as though she had agency.
But yeah, from there, they tell the main characters everything they need to know about the villains—the main characters don’t do their own sleuthing—and exactly what to do. And luckily, they’re not there for the rest of the story; again, that makes it better. But they even, at the end of this, they even like, “Oh, yeah, and we managed to get somebody to give us a ride to where we were going, because we just named the nuns, and then they gave us a free ride.”
Oren: The nuns also give them a super-powered NPC. I call these two the deus ex nuns—
Wes: Love that.
Oren: —because they are completely superfluous. You could take them out of the story. Just take out that whole scene, and all you would need to do is replace a little bit of exposition.
Chris: Right, it’s also really too long, too. If you just cut it out, you have them do a little bit of their own clue-finding and sleuthing to find out who the villain is and where they are, and then you just continue the story, it would be exactly the same.
Oren: Right. Or I mean, heck, if you didn’t even want to do that, the main character could just know. Okay? She’s part of the underworld of New Orleans. It’s totally reasonable that she would know about this group of ex-Confederate soldiers hanging out in the swamp. There’s no reason to think that she wouldn’t know that if you really didn’t want to write a sleuthing sequence. So they show up, they meet these nuns, who tell them a bunch of information that they either didn’t need to know, because the nuns—a reoccurring problem with this story is that there’s too much world building that’s not important.
Chris: Too much exposition that we just don’t— The world is really cool, but there’s still too much exposition about it that isn’t relevant.
Oren: The nuns are some of that. So they tell us a bunch of information we didn’t need to know and then tell the main characters the information that they do need to know that they either could have found out themselves—or just have known, if we didn’t want to do that. They then give them a bunch of stuff, which they also did not need.
Normally the deus ex machina is solving an unsolvable problem that you’ve written yourself into a corner. But they hadn’t done that yet. In fact, it was, as we’ll find out later, perfectly within the character’s powers to just win this fight on their own. But instead, the nuns just give them a bunch of stuff, a bunch of loot, which I think is also partly a reason to work in more world exposition. And then the nuns just tell them what to do—and then we retroactively find out that they told them what to do earlier—give them a super-badass NPC who will save the main character later, and that’s the nuns. That’s the deus ex nuns who are in this story. And I don’t know why. I don’t know why they’re there.
Chris: Well, they’re there—again, it’s clear that the writer just really loved them and thought they were the best and wanted them to be perfect in every way. It’s similar to the NPC they give; it’s this girl who’s supposed to be feral. And she’s just clearly—she has some of the same issues going, where she’s supposed to be “isn’t she novel and entertaining, and oh, look at her wacky ways.” But it turns out her wild and wacky ways are secretly genius. And the thing that made me frustrated was the fact that the main character has fast movement powers to some extent. She’s got wind abilities that lets her dodge and move around quickly and maneuver around people quickly. She gets into a fight with a villain. The villain is cutting her up—she can’t dodge him. But then this random feral girl can?
Chris: Even though she doesn’t have a power? That lets her dodge? And it’s just like, really. We…okay.
Oren: Look, she was very fast! She was trained by the nuns. [Chris and Wes laugh] But you know something that these nuns do have in their favor—they don’t do eugenics.
Wes: And they bring you loot.
Oren: They do bring loot. But just from now on, whenever I see a character that I don’t like, I’m just going to remind myself, “You know, could be worse. They could be doing eugenics.”
Wes: Really keeps things in perspective.
Oren: That’s the new bottom. That’s the new bottom of the barrel. And fortunately, this trope is actually pretty rare, ’cause the only other example I could think of is the Man in the Moon from Rise of the Guardians, which is a movie that…some people saw.
Wes: That’s the owl movie, right? No, what am I thinking of. Oh, I’m thinking of the guardians of something else.
Chris: Isn’t this a Dreamworks animated film that has Jack Frost as its main character? Rise of the Guardians is a really vague, not-very-good movie title for it.
Oren: Yeah. That’s probably why no one saw it—because there was nothing from the title to tell you that it was about Jack Frost, Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Sandman teaming up. If that was the title of your movie, then maybe people would have gone to see it.
Wes: Yeah, that’s a great title. [laughs]
Chris: In the beginning, we establish that the Man in the Moon has chosen Jack Frost to be a guardian. But apparently the Man in the Moon just really doesn’t want to talk to people, because nobody knows why or anything. And that gets back to the other thing about puppeteers that can be really frustrating and obnoxious. It’s because they’re inevitably all-knowing characters. In order to keep what semblance of a plot going that you can, they have to withhold information that they have no reason to withhold, and a lot of times they’re really patronizing about it.
And it’s just very frustrating, you know? It’s like having that random NPC show up and be like, [exaggerated mysterious voice] “Here, let me give you a cryptically-worded clue!” And then just like disappears again. And it’s like, why did you do that. Why didn’t you just talk to me like a normal person if you actually want me to succeed.
Oren: The hologram character in She-Ra is starting to tilt in that direction—I forget her name, the one who lives in the Crystal Castle. She’s got—she’s not exactly a puppeteer, but she’s definitely got this whole, “I could tell you what you need to, but I’m just not gonna.” And I just know that once we find out what’s actually happening, the reasons that she gives for not telling She-Ra are not going to be adequate.
Chris: I’m hoping she’s a villain. Right now, I’m rooting for her as a villain, so that that’s the reason she’s not telling She-Ra. It’s because her intent is actually not good.
Oren: Right. Light Hope. That’s her name. Yes. If she’s a villain, that would be a lot better.
Chris: As it would be with any puppeteer, usually; it would be better if they were a villain.
Oren: I mean, this would be the first time a villain wasn’t named something evil-sounding, so that could be neat.
Wes: And so far, no eugenics. So hey.
Oren: Yeah, and also no eugenics so far, so boom! Speaking of that, we are going to have to end this podcast now, because this podcast is also not doing eugenics. Good segue.
But before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo; she lives at therambogeeks.com.[closing music]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?