‘Old man,’ said the boy, ‘you have hinted at my great and terrible destiny and the power within me that may one day save the world. Won’t you please tell me who I am, that I may defeat the Dark Lord in Chapter Six, instead of having to plough through another seven books before our climactic showdown? Because honestly, you haven’t really come up with any reason why you shouldn’t, and you clearly know all my secrets, so you may as well, yes?‘
The old man chuckled. ‘Patience, my boy. You will know when the time is right.’
It seems that I’ve read so many stories like this. The hero is pushed around from pillar to post, herded from plot point to plot point by a wise (read: frustratingly reticent) mentor or an array of weird and wonderful characters all of whom know more than he does but for some reason won’t tell him. This is usually cloaked by some guff about how he has to grow and learn before he’s ready to understand the true nature of his heritage/mystical power/whatever, but there’s an even more teeth-grindingly annoying tactic, which I shall call the Lost approach.
The Lost approach is as follows: whenever the One Who Knows All The Answers (in Lost‘s case, it’s Ben, leader of the Others) begins to finally crack and start dishing the dirt, he only gets as far as a few cryptic hints before there’s an earthquake/someone screams nearby/an abominable snowman attacks, at which point the heroes hurry off to deal with it. When they’re done, for some reason the moment has passed, and no-one thinks to say: ‘Hey, Ben, what were you just saying about the mysteries of the island, I mean, it was pretty important information, right? Sorry about that abominable snowman and all, but y’know, carry on, eh?’ Instead they are content with the few scraps they’ve been given until the next time the writers need to drop us another hint, at which point the whole thing begins again.
For God’s sake. Sayid was a professional torturer. They could have dispensed with pretty much all of season 3&4 (and the rest for all I know; I gave up on that show by that point) just by tying the guy to a chair and pulling his fingernails out. Instead, multiple friends and allies died just because no-one would man up enough to shoot him in the nuts and make him spill what he knew.
A little of this is okay. More than a little and I start to go crazy. It drives me insane when I find myself reading a protagonist who spends the whole book being shuttled from place to place, following the meagre clues given by his wiser co-stars, and usually complaining about it as they do so. ‘What’s it all about?’ they wonder. ‘Why me?’ Usually there’ll be some collateral damage on the way: a best friend or lover gets killed. The protagonist laments the tragedy of it all, never once thinking that if they hadn’t been spinelessly following the dictates of their mysterious elders then their lover wouldn’t have gotten killed in the first place. But it doesn’t matter, because by that point I’m so mad at the hero for being such an utter wimp that I’ve thrown the book into the fireplace and followed it up with a tactical nuclear strike. Many’s the time I wanted to kill the entire cast of Lost. Whatever torments they’re going through now, they deserve them all.
The thing is, in situations like this it’s impossible for me to avoid the feeling that I’m wasting my time. If I could have been told the whole situation up front, why do I need to plough through a whole book just to have the information drip-fed agonisingly into my brain?
The issue here is lazy plotting. Of course you shouldn’t reveal everything up front, and drip-feeding information is far better than dumping it on the reader in one great wodge. But it’s bad drama to have a wildcard in your story that appears in a cloud of dry ice whenever the story slows down, just to tell the hero what to do next (or to offer him a hint, which amounts to the same thing, except that perhaps the author thinks the reader doesn’t notice that way). The hero should discover these bits of information by themselves. They should be earned, not given.
That’s not to say you can’t have a mentor. You just can’t have a mentor that keeps his information from the hero he’s trying to help, for no convincing reason. A good mentor figure was Gandalf. Right up front he’s all: ‘Dude, that’s the One Ring you’ve got there, we need to go and lob it in Mount Doom, oh yeah, and there’s Black Riders coming to get you, etc etc.’ If he didn’t tell the hobbits something, it was usually because he didn’t know it at that point.
So next time you’re putting together a story and you’re tempted to give your hero a hidden destiny or similar, think to yourself: why on earth do the people who know not tell the hero everything? If you can’t think of better reason than ‘The hero’s not ready to know yet,’ then you’re heading for trouble. Be ruthless with yourself. It’s hard work to come up with ways to dramatise the steps your hero will have to take on his way to pounding the Dark Lord, but having them provided for you by one of your characters is a cop-out, and it will make your story suck in the end.
More on this in the next pithy drizzle of wisdom, entitled The Protagonist Drives The Story, Dammit!