Against everyone else's better judgment, I began watching Legend of Korra. This happened partly because my new so-called internet taps out at 25 megabit and partly because damn. Damn.
Korra is just about my favorite kind of character, and I'm not just talking about a brunette with a tight body.
I know I have a type. Shut up.
What I meant is that Korra, Lara Croft, and Ashley J. Williams are all members of a class of character that I've always had a soft spot for: she is competent at something. Competent characters make up one end of a spectrum along which all characters fall, in some way or another. On the one side we have Luke, who sucks at life in Episode IV, and on the other end we have James Bond, who is a consummate life-taker and heart-breaker.
Anyway, unfortunately, everyone was pretty much right about this show; it's often painful to watch. Tonight, I'm going to explain why in hopes I don't need to experience this kind of disappointment as often in the future.
This may not be obvious at first on the basis of the verbiage I'm using, but there is nothing inherently wrong with either option; both incompetent and competent characters can make for interesting stories. No one is going to say that Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. is inherently inferior to Frodo Baggins simply because Jones owns six pairs of ass-kicking boots and Frodo prefers a weekly pedicure. Having said that, Indiana Jones cannot be the one to carry the one ring, and Frodo cannot take on the Wehrmacht. Different character types require different story structures. Let's talk about why.
Les incompetents: the other character type
Actually, incompetent characters make up the bulk of the most famous characters in literature. Just ask Jolly Joe Campbell: the hero's journey was literally made for characters who, on day one, are terrible at pretty much every single thing a character can be terrible at. Duped by droids, murdered by Tusken raiders, rescued by geriatric has-beens; you name it, these characters will damsel right into it. And yet we still love them.
Bilbo, Frodo, Samwise, and all the rest demonstrate the inestimable value of a civil tongue, a level head, and a Full English, and that's genuinely about all most of us can bring to bear on the average Dark Lord. As a result, we root for characters like these, because these characters remind us of us. It's all right if these characters fail because we would inevitably fail under similar circumstances and it's great to know that, sometimes, things will still work out in the end.
The same logic does not apply to Aragorn, regardless of his feelings on the Full English.
The badasses: the other, other character type
Before I start, let me say that these characters are usually not protagonists, and they often do not have character arcs, but that's not necessarily the case. Aragorn's character in the original works by J.R.R. Tolkien does not have a character arc; he starts off as a stone cold badass and he ends as a stone cold badass. The same thing applies to most versions of Bond, every version of Indiana Jones, the Colonial Marines in Aliens, etc., etc. This is a long list. It's also not particularly relevant, because Movie Aragorn does have an arc. Let's talk about that version.
(Told you I had a thing for brunettes.)
In Jackson's film series, Aragorn steps onto the stage as something of an emotional wreck. He keeps it well-hidden, but he is weighted down with the sins of his lineage: he is the heir of Isildur, also known as "that one guy who really fucked up that one time and now we are all well and truly fucked." As a result, in spite of being the rightful ruler of the free men of Middle Earth, he refuses to take his place on the throne of Gondor. He refuses to accept his destiny.
Make no mistake: he is absolutely a badass. The reason Legolas and Gimli compete among themselves for orc-related belt notches is that neither of them can compare with Strider, Slayer of Minions, Destroyer of Orc-Hordes, He Who Knows Not Death Nor Mercy. He just has this niggling little mental block about taking up the reins of the kingdom; he has no problem whatsoever slaughtering every orc he can find in any given half-acre of battlespace. Mass murder is exactly his kind of competence, but he's not perfect. He has blind spots. He has weaknesses. They just don't involve his sword arm.
Which character is good for what?
This depends less on the specifics of the plot and more on what you plan to do with the character. How are you going to solve the character's problems?
If you're planning some kind of rescue after an all-out, last-ditch effort that fails, or else ends in some kind of successful failure, then we are talking about an appropriate gig for Frodo, for Luke, or for any of those loser-type heroes. Hey, I love Luke as much as the next nerd, but he got his ass kicked by the Emperor, and had he not managed to win over Vader at the last minute, that shit would have been permanent.
If, on the other hand, what you have in mind involves a no-win situation where even victory ends in defeat, and no degree of mortal heroism will be enough to win the day, you've probably got a job well-suited to Aragorn, 007, or the Man With No Name. In that case, we get to enjoy an amazing fight scene followed closely by an act of supreme faith or self-sacrifice, a moment of inimitable charm and daring, or maybe just some clever fuckery that shows our hero has moved beyond just being the fastest gun in the West.
To be honest, it's not difficult to get this shit right. Frodo does not win gunfights, and Clint Eastwood does not get rescued. These are pretty simple rules.
Then how did Legend of Korra get them all wrong?
I can't tell you why they messed up the way they did. I can offer you a guess, but that's not even related to the subject at hand; in short, I think they got arrogant, they wanted to create something out of the ordinary, and no one told them what is ordinary and what works usually have substantial overlap. I also think they created Korra as a significantly stronger character than they should have, early on, in part as a result of the ever-present push to make "strong female characters." Oy vey...
But I can tell you how they messed up. They took a character defined by her competence and then proceeded to undermine her competence.
"But Handsome Jack," you say, "don't we undermine Indy and 007 and Aragorn and..." First off, don't feel bad that you couldn't think of more names than that. Funny coincidence: those were all I could think of, too. Second, no, we do not.
Playing on a character's weaknesses does not undermine that character's strengths. 007 fucks up in Casino Royale because he has a thing for a tight brunette. Clearly, great men think alike. Indy has exactly the same problem in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and after that he pretty much switches to blondes. Hey, I like variety, too. It's standard procedure when dealing with a competent or hyper-competent character to put that character into situations outside that character's area of competence.
Unfortunately, Legend of Korra does something completely different with Korra. Within her only area of competence, they consistently demonstrate her utter lack of competence. It's effectively the same thing as having Superman lose a laser-eye-butter-melting competition, or forcing Popeye to come in last place in a spinach-eating contest. It's stupid.
With a competent character, we are all always waiting for the moment when we can say, "Shit, son, you done messed up. Now you're gonna get it." Like when Doc Holliday says to Johnny Ringo, "I'm your Huckleberry."
When we see a character hamstrung by cheating or injury or long odds, or held back by rules of engagement or decorum or whatever, and that character loses as a result, that's fine. But we live to see that character unleashed, and we want the bad guy to experience consequences at that moment. There are too many moments in Legend of Korra where the audience has been waiting for Korra to take the field for half a season and, when she finally does, we can't even get excited because we're too certain she's going to lose.
"Now you're gonna get it! ...I hope. Jesus Christ, please let me be right this time."
Please, guys. Don't do this to your characters.
You get three bonus points for knowing Ashley Williams is this guy instead of some babe: