Tag Archives: characterisation

Tony Stark Is Nothing Like Donald Trump (And Neither Am I)


So I read this article last week. It’s an explanation of Trump’s rise in popularity, and you may or may not agree with it. The only point I’m in interested in is the last one, where it says arseholes are heroes, and then proceeds to use Tony Stark and Dr. Gregory House as examples. To be clear, this post is not political. It’s about characterisation.

Now, I won’t say arseholes can’t be heroes. But the state of being an arsehole is not what makes you a hero, and on the topic of whether Stark and House have anything in common with Trump, and whether you can fairly label them as “arseholes”, I have strong opinions.

Now I’ll assume the writer of the political article knows nothing about characterisation, so I can forgive the ignorance, but his analysis is superficial at best. Let’s break it down.

Are Stark and House Arseholes?

Well, first question, what is an arsehole?

The dictionary gives a meaning to the effect of a “stupid, incompetent, unpleasant or detestable person”. Now of all those, I think only detestable comes close, otherwise a regrettably large portion of the population will qualify. Fortunately moral philosopher Aaron James was more precise, defining it as “a person, who is almost always male, who considers himself of much greater moral or social importance than everyone else; who allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically; who does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and who is immunised by his sense of entitlement”.

In other words, he feels he is not to be questioned, and he is the one chiefly wronged.

When Iron Man opens, Stark arguably is an arsehole. He’s arrogant, entitled, and he’s hard to like. Oh wait, look, he’s an arsehole and he’s hard to like. In fact, the audience arguably really only starts to connect with him when he does something nice for someone else. This is kind of what we call a “save the cat” moment—when the character does something to demonstrate he’s not a total arsehole. Stark starts an arsehole. He doesn’t start as a hero, and he doesn’t become hero because he’s an arsehole. Arguably, he stops being such an arsehole before he achieves hero status. dr-gregory-house-dr-gregory-house-31955058-500-375

What about House? Well, it’s clear from the beginning that House is an entirely different beast. He’s rude, abrasive, and not very nice to anyone, but there are two things to note about that:

  • He’s obviously in a lot of pain. This goes to set up the why of the way he behaves, and allows us to empathise with him and, to some extent, excuse or allow his behaviour. He’s not nasty for the joy of it, he’s nasty because all his energies are directed into dealing with his pain. Anyone who has dealt with chronic pain knows what this is like. There’s very little of anything left for civility (sad but true);
  • Although he’s in a lot of pain, and despite thinking most people are stupid (more on this later), he spends a great deal of his time saving the lives of people. Yes, he gets a bit of a kick out of solving puzzles, so his motivations are mixed, but he cares more than he perhaps wants us to know. He’s not just subjectively “on our side”, he’s objectively “working for the common good”.

House isn’t actually an arsehole. He’s pretending to be an arsehole as a kind of self-defence mechanism. It’s that which makes him most interesting, and it’s what he’s hiding from us that makes him a hero.

Are Stark and House Anything Like Trump?

Let’s talking Myers-Briggs for a moment. Stark is an ENTJ, House is an INTJ (and so am I, possibly why I took this personally), and Trump is an ESTP. Superficially, not a lot in common. Your MBTI doesn’t make you an arsehole, but it can certainly explain why you might come across as one, and INTJs and ENTJs are probably mistaken for arseholes more frequently than others.

INTJ explains House’s general lack of civility (we don’t always appreciate or understand social conventions), his belief that most people are stupid, and his difficulty with emotions (eww, emotions—let’s not discuss them, think about them, or deal with them). It also probably explains why he works so hard to save people’s lives. Not only do we need to be intellectually challenged, but bizarrely INTJs usually have very high empathy. Introverted Feeling means we can easily put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we just have trouble expressing hat that’s like (so we may appear unfeeling, even though poignantly affected). At the same time, we think being right is more important than people’s feelings. Now, that might sound a little arrogant or entitled but consider—for House, this means saving your life is more important than pussyfooting around whatever secrets you have that may kill you.

ENTJs can be rather similar, having a ruthless level of rationality, but they are more externally focussed than INTJs. But they have confidence in similar bucketfuls which can superficially translate as arrogance.

So you might be forgiven for mistaking Stark and House for arseholes.

However, more importantly, what Stark and House are not are sexist, racist or xenophobic, which are all things Trump has demonstrated himself to be through his own comments and behaviour. House has opinions about religion, and will express them, but not in a “I’m going to do something like barcode you all” kind of a way, more in a “I think you’re even stupider than average, but carry on” kind of way. They don’t have that attitude of not being questioned, or feeling they are chiefly wronged. In fact, they both invite (and possibly even enjoy) being challenged. They do not demand unquestioning, unthinking obedience of the kind required by an arsehole’s sense of entitlement.

Additionally, I’m not qualified to comment, but numerous psychologists have said online that Trump is a classic narcissist as well. Stark and House are almost certainly not.

Let’s be clear—speaking your mind doesn’t make you an arsehole. People who enjoy the unvarnished truth will appreciate it, while those who like things more sugar-coated will find it confronting, but the mere act of speaking the truth openly does not an arsehole make. What makes Trump an arsehole is his elitist and entitled view that male, white, cisgender Christians are somehow superior to the rest of the human race purely by dint of race, sex, religion, and sexual orientation. His entitlement is demonstrated by his sheer apoplectic fury at the idea that anyone might question or criticise him.

The take away from all this? Don’t think you can write an arsehole and make him a hero, the end. There are anti-heroes, and there are complicated heroes, and no one is perfect, but I challenge you to find a modern hero character who is a sexist, racist, xenophobic narcissist. If you try and write a book with a protagonist written like Trump, it’s a pretty safe bet that readers won’t like him and will fail to empathise or care at all.

Ergo, being an arsehole doesn’t make you a hero.

Worldbuilding: What Goes Wrong If You Don’t Get It Right

Worldbuilding Gone Wrong

In fantasy, we ask a lot of favours of our readers, the key one being suspension of disbelief. We take liberties with reality, and for this to work, the reader needs to accept those departures as fact. If they don’t, the entire plot will fall down. 

This is true across the whole gamut of fantasy sub-genres (and a lot of science-fiction too). If you’re writing an urban fantasy about an underground society of werewolves, or vampires living amongst us, you need a plausible reason why humans haven’t noticed. If they’re running around killing people indiscriminately and leaving a trail of bloody corpses, the reader isn’t going to accept no one’s noticed. 

This is why often these societies in urban fantasy have rules about not killing/feeding on humans, or have particular methods of doing so. Men in Black, while science fiction, has a similar problem – one solved by the neuralyser device. This is all worldbuilding – adding elements to the real world to explain and/or allow the reader to accept the departures from reality that we write about.

In high/epic fantasy, we take it a few steps further and build a world from the ground up. It’s often a completely different planet, with different people, different culture, different laws, ethics and societal values. You can do almost anything within the framework of a high fantasy world.

Provided it’s consistent with and explained by your world. 

You can’t, for example, set up a society in which women have no power or rights, and then have your female protagonist blatantly disregard the rules. In reality, she’d be arrested, stoned, killed, or punished in some other manner. If, in your book, she’s not, then that’s unbelievable (an early mistake of my own). 

You make the rules, but you have to play by the rules you invent. 

Another thing said about fantasy is that it’s even more important to ensure the characters behave true to our understanding of human behaviour than in other genres. The reason for this is because we are already asking the reader for so much suspension of disbelief in relation to the world of the story that the reader is more likely to notice when characters don’t behave true to form. 

Why is this relevant to worldbuilding? Because characters are a product of their world, their time, their culture and society, and their personal experiences.

Am I belabouring the point? Maybe, but I have a reason. 

You may have seen my review on The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty. I formed certain views about the sexual practices in that book amounting to the torture and debasement of humanity for no reason except sexual gratification – and I mean psychopathic torture, not consensual BDSM. A few people have remarked ‘but yes, it’s fantasy’ – and I’d like to make the point that it doesn’t matter. I’ve been reading fantasy for 22 years, and writing it nearly as long. ‘It’s fantasy’ isn’t an excuse for poor writing.  

So let’s look at worldbuilding using that book as a case study. 

The reason the book didn’t work for me isn’t because of the sexual practices depicted, but because of the worldbuilding – or lack thereof. 

So here are a few of the questions I asked that should have been answered by the worldbuilding and weren’t:

  • Why were Princes and Princesses offered up by their parents to this kingdom knowing the physical and sexual abuse and humiliation and degradation their children would be subjected to? I’m a parent, and I can attest to the fact that the maternal instinct to protect is very powerful. Even the notion of someone treating my daughter this way stirs a primal, even feral, violence. It’s very difficult to accept a parent would tolerate this treatment. I assume the reason they do is twofold – one, they underwent the same experiences, and are essentially broken i.e. they were mistreated to the point their will broke and they will now do anything to please their tormentors. A kind of Helsinki syndrome. Two – the threat of political retribution, war, total annihilation and destruction of their kingdom. Unfortunately, neither of these reasons are spelled out – I’m making assumptions;
  • Assuming my assumptions are correct, why should I notbe enraged that these people have been essentially tortured to the point their will is broken? No good reason for my acceptance of this act as anything other than vile torture is offered. Also, in all the hundreds of years this has been going on, I’d think one father would have snapped and marched to war rather than see his daughter or son mistreated, but if so, no mention is made of it.
  • Why does an entire society (not just a few sociopathic individuals) think this behaviour is OK? I got pulled up by an editor because a scene in which a tavern full of men accepted, condoned or participated in a rape was unrealistic. How much more so then a whole society? Terry Goodkind does a good job of this in his Sword of Truth series, offering religious and political ideologies fed down from the Emperor, and condoned and encouraged at his order by soldiers and priests, as the reason an entire culture behaves in a given way (albeit some of this compliance is procured solely by fear and there are still a few non-conformists, as in any society). No explanation is offered by Anne Rice, and we see none of the members of this society fighting against or protesting it’s cruel practices. Historically we have examples of cultures that were fairly brutal, but these are cultures in which essentially ‘might makes right’, and women are treated hardly any better than animals. How do we explain the apparently cultured and educated mistreatment of captives in Sleeping Beauty by a culture where women seem to have relative equality? I can’t.
  • Even if there was a good reason, my god, wouldn’t you get bored? I was bored just reading about all the spankings. Submersion in even the vilest kind of debauchery eventually gets boring. This is why serial killers escalate in violence – they need to engage in more extreme behaviour to get the same high. And I’m expected to believe this culture has existed for hundreds of years without varying the boring old spanking routine? Puh-lease.

See what you get if you don’t build your world properly? A reader asking very hard to answer questions. If a reader develops this kind of attitude to your book, they won’t be coming back for more. 

Please, build your world properly. Make sure it explains and moulds the behaviour of your characters. Make sure your characters aren’t flagrantly breaking the rules of the world with no consequences. Make sure there are rules, because in the absence of a compelling framework for this new world, we’ll default back to our own.

Getting your worldbuilding wrong can make getting anything else right very difficult.  ‘It’s fantasy’ is not an excuse. 

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