If your storytelling background is in tabletop roleplaying games, there’s one thing you learn very quickly: when confronted with an immediate problem, humans employ every resource available to solve it. Players will not only get creative with their own abilities but also with those of any NPC who can be convinced, cajoled, or extorted into helping.
Storytellers with a different background may never learn this lesson. Their characters only do what’s written on the page, lacking the free will to try anything else. Such characters often ignore allies, friends, or underlings who could easily help them win the day, making the plot into a contrived mess. Let’s look at a few examples to see how this happens.
Spoiler Notice: Rings of Power and A Desolation Called Peace
1. Star Trek Into Darkness
In J. J. Abrams’s second Star Trek film, the third act features a battle between the USS Enterprise and the USS Vengeance, which is big and painted black so you know it’s evil. At first, the Vengeance is commanded by the sinister Admiral Marcus. Then, it’s taken over by Benedict CumberKhan, though that doesn’t change much, since they both want to blow up the Enterprise.
Naturally, the Enterprise has no help in this battle. There aren’t any other Starfleet vessels around… even though the whole thing takes place within spitting distance of Earth. It’s so close to Earth that when the Vengeance is finally defeated, it crashes into San Francisco.
This is pretty contrived, but it’s nothing previous Star Trek stories aren’t also guilty of. No matter where our heroes are when there’s a problem, the Enterprise* is always the only ship in the sector, regardless of which sector they’re in. They’ve even done this with Earth before, back in the movie Generations. In that film, the Enterprise-B takes a shakedown cruise between Earth and Pluto but is somehow the only ship in range when refugees send out a distress signal.
What makes Into Darkness special is that early in the movie, they specifically established that a dozen or so ships had arrived at Earth so their captains and first officers could beam down for a meeting scene. Khan then attacks the meeting, killing everyone except Kirk and Admiral Marcus.*
It’s hard to judge time in this movie, but that meeting can’t have been more than 24 hours before the Enterprise vs Vengeance battle. Where did all those other ships go? As far as we know, there was no sudden crisis that required them to fly off without a captain or first officer. You figure they’d have stayed at least until the command issues could be sorted out, to say nothing of funeral arrangements or an investigation.
Trekkies suspend a lot of disbelief on a regular basis, but this is a completely unforced error. There was no reason to establish that all those ships were around Earth in the first place; it could have just been a meeting of Starfleet admirals. If the meeting was absolutely necessary, then the Enterprise could have confronted the Vengeance somewhere else. It didn’t have to be in orbit of Earth, other than for an excuse to drop a spaceship on San Francisco.
2. The Hidden Kingdom
In Tui T. Sutherland’s third Wings of Fire book, our draconic heroes visit the RainWing kingdom. This is so Glory, the group’s RainWing, can learn why her people are terrible. Each of the main characters goes through the same thing, but it’s Glory’s turn this week.
While most dragons are extremely aggro, the RainWings’ big flaw is being super passive and laaaaaaaaaazy. They’re the least active group of dragons you’ve ever seen, doing nothing even when over a dozen of them mysteriously disappear into the jungle.* This is a justification for why the heroes have to solve the problem themselves.
Sutherland is so committed to this bit that even after Glory provides proof that the missing dragons are in mortal peril, the other RainWings don’t want to do anything about it. That’s how lazy the RainWings are. It’s hard to believe they’ve survived this long with such an underdeveloped sense of group preservation, but that’s what the book tells us.
But wait! There’s a twist I didn’t tell you about, because I’m very sneaky. Before we find out that these dragons are defined by laziness, we meet an elite team of ninja RainWings. The heroes first encounter RainWings when these elite ninjas ambush them. They don’t like that Glory and her friends entered the rainforest without permission, and this is no laughing matter. Our heroes are no slouches, having fought and defeated several powerful dragons in previous books, but the fight isn’t even close. Glory and her friends are caught completely by surprise, then knocked out with poison darts.
If the RainWings don’t care about security, what’s with this elite team of border ninjas? Supposedly, the RainWings’ laziness comes from wanting to preserve energy, and ambushing a party of strange dragons sounds tiring. Glory could just ask this group of badasses for help.
Or maybe not, because one of the ninja RainWings does follow her around for a while, and he’s just as lazy as the rest. I don’t even know what’s happening right now. Did Sutherland write the ambush scene before deciding the RainWings were terminally lazy? That’s the only explanation I can think of!*
3. Rings of Power
In the most expensive TV show* ever made, we have two serious cases of failing at (non)human resources. First, everyone’s favorite menu lovers: orcs. When the sorta-orc Adar first sends his minions against the Southland humans, they trick him by collapsing an elven tower on his vanguard. I can’t really fault Adar for that, since I still have no idea how Arondir brought the whole tower down by shooting it with an arrow, but you figure it would put the orcs on notice for ambushes.
You would be wrong. After the tower, the Southlanders retreat to their village to set up more ambushes. This time, they have a bunch of people hiding behind buildings and wagons, ready to leap out when the orcs arrive. The problem is that their ambush is only hidden if you’re approaching the village directly down the main road. If you move even a little to the left or right, you can suddenly see the villagers in their hiding spots.
None of this occurs to Adar. We know he’s a veteran of some sort, but apparently the idea to send someone around the sides is beyond him. He does blunt the ambush by mixing some human cannon fodder in with the first wave of orcs, but he wouldn’t even have needed that if he’d just scouted a little first. From a production perspective, he doesn’t do that because then the good guys would have no chance, but maybe there was room in the budget for some better hiding places? As is, Adar wastes his first wave of troops when he could have preserved his full fighting force.
Next, we have the Harfoots, a migratory group of hobbit-like creatures. They have a tightknit community where they share the workload of important tasks and gather together in the evenings for stories and songs. This is exactly what you’d expect from people who move around a lot and are physically less powerful than the animals and sapient beings around them. It’s such a natural assumption that the show doesn’t even have to explain it.
So it’s grating when the Harfoots become Randian objectivists the moment they’re on the road. According to the show, anyone who can’t keep up during a migration, for any reason, is left behind to die. This is unbelievably cruel, and I mean that literally: I don’t believe the Harfoots are this cruel.
When we see the Harfoots socializing with each other, they clearly have friendships and close connections just like humans do. In small groups, humans almost always try to help each other, especially if it’s with an acute problem like a wagon getting stuck in the mud or a child getting lost. The Harfoots would stop to help each other, even if their leaders forbade the practice.
Speaking of which, the Harfoot leaders would have to be incredibly incompetent to institute such a policy. There are clearly not that many Harfoots in this band, so losing even a few could be catastrophic. We see no evidence that the Harfoots in charge are trying to get everyone killed. When the Harfoots tell stories about those they’ve lost, it’s always because they were eaten by wolves or poisoned by dangerous berries, never “we left them to die.” The closest is when they mention a family getting stuck in the snow, which sounds more like hypothermia than being left behind.
The only reason for this callous practice is to create conflict when a Harfoot side character injures his ankle. In any rational scenario, that wouldn’t be a major problem, so the writers added some contrived objectivism to increase tension.
4. A Desolation Called Peace
In Arkady Martine’s second scifi novel, the Teixcalaani Empire makes first contact with an alien species. Like any good space empire, Teixcalaan responds the only way it knows how: by sending in a battle fleet. But after a few months of indecisive engagements, they decide that maybe talking to these aliens is worth a try, so they summon the main characters.
From that description, can you guess the protagonists’ professions? Linguists and astrobiologists certainly come to mind, but they could also be anthropologists or maybe just high-ranking imperial diplomats. Instead, we have Three Seagrass,* a midlevel cultural liaison. She’s the entirety of the first-contact team until she also recruits her girlfriend, Mahit,* who isn’t even from Teixcalaan! She’s the former ambassador from a tiny station on the edge of Teixcalaani space.
As you might imagine, these two are a bit unprepared for the task of establishing communications with a previously unknown species. Humans have made first contact before in this setting, but it’s rare enough that there isn’t an established playbook. Mahit and Three Seagrass do eventually make progress, but they start at a major disadvantage, because they have no idea what they’re doing and no qualifications.
The best explanation for why these two would be picked is that they earned some political capital in the previous book by helping the current emperor come to power. Mahit is also in some serious trouble at home, so getting the heck off her station is a priority, even if it means heading right into a war zone. This scenario still depends on Three Seagrass wanting a dangerous job she’s not remotely qualified for, but it’s possible.
What this doesn’t explain is why the Teixcalaani wouldn’t hire anyone else. While the politics of this mission are murky, we know that at least the local military commander wants it to succeed. Her name is Nine Hibiscus,* and her rank of “yaotlek” is roughly equivalent to “admiral,” so she definitely has the resources to get a better team together.
And it’s not like Nine Hibiscus would have any shortage of volunteers, even if she didn’t have the money for salaries. Remember, aliens are very rare in this setting, which means there are entire fields of dedicated enthusiasts who have never seen one. Nine Hibiscus would have her pick of the empire’s best and brightest.
But she couldn’t do that, because Martine needed a reason for the previous book’s main characters to still be important. I sympathize, as readers get ornery when you take their favorite characters away. I just wish the justification was better.
5. Promise of Blood
In the first book of Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy, a general named Tamas kicks things off Cromwell style. He overthrows an authoritarian ruler to become the next authoritarian ruler but using a different title. The last guy was a “king,” where Tamas is a “field marshal.” Very different. He also executes most of the nobility for… being nobles, I guess? He’s not a nice man is what I’m saying, and it earns him a lot of enemies. Enemies who would just love Tamas to take a permanent nap.
This isn’t a problem though. Tamas’s power is based on his army’s fanatical loyalty, so he’s surrounded by armed men at all times. Or, at least, he could be surrounded by armed men at all times. He chooses not to be, despite the seemingly endless list of people trying to kill or kidnap him. I saved this entry for last because of just how often Tamas has this problem. It’s bizarre.
The first assassination attempt comes when a bunch of royalists sneak in under the guise of being petitioners. Tamas has specifically mentioned that he’s on the lookout for royalist attacks, but I guess he never considered that they would stoop to pretending to be someone they weren’t. Tamas’s soldiers let the royalist petitioners get really close and don’t even check them for weapons. Some of the royalists have flintlock pistols, which are not exactly hard to spot. Tamas and a couple of side characters fight the assassins off, but it’s a near thing.
The second attempt happens when Tamas has no guards at all. He’s in his office, which is at a secret location, but there’s apparently no one tasked with keeping people out. Anyone who learns about the office can just walk in, which an assassin immediately does. Tamas has another desperate fight that he barely survives.
This time, they’ve surely learned their lesson, right? Ha. Instead, Tamas attends a hunt out in the woods, which is possibly the best place for an assassination attempt. The trees limit visibility but not movement, and the hunt is open to the public, so any attackers can come and go completely as they please while being very difficult to spot. This time, Tamas has one entire guard, and that guard has a very special power: he doesn’t have to sleep. At least we know he won’t be nodding off during the assassination attempt.
This time, not one but two groups make a go of it, and Tamas only survives because they’re trying to kidnap him rather than kill him. One of them even succeeds for a while until the other characters are able to organize a rescue mission. Even then, Tamas only survives because these bad guys prove extremely inept at executing their “kill him if someone tries to rescue him” plan.
You probably thought we were done, but no, there’s one more. This time, a royalist named Nila gets a job as Tamas’s laundress and waits a couple months until his soldiers get used to her. They just let her into the field marshal’s room while he’s sleeping. Who can imagine an assassin going to the extraordinary measure of doing chores for a while? Fortunately, Tamas’s one bodyguard recognizes Nila from a chance encounter earlier in the book, so he’s able to talk her out of it.
Thus ends the fourth time Tamas should have died because he refused to take even the most basic security precautions. Frankly, it’s weird for anything to happen four times in a single story, and it’s even weirder with such a specific mistake. Each time, I kept assuming that now he would finally get some more guards, and each time I was mistaken. By the fourth attempt, I wondered if McClellan was trolling me. If so, then well played, Brian. Well played.
The problem with giving your hero friends or allies is that you have to explain why those friends or allies don’t make the quest too easy. Friendless orphans never have to deal with this issue, so maybe the solution is to only tell stories about Conan the Barbarian. Or I guess we could create conflicts that can challenge the hero plus their friends and allies. Whichever works best for your story.
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