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David's Essays

A collection of David's thoughts, musings, and writings that didn't really fit anywhere else...so we collected them all and put them here for you to peruse at your leisure! 

Capability, Credibility, and the Problem of Mistakes

  • Series: General
  • Date: July 22, 2009

This post originally appeared on Tor.com.

People tend to think of me primarily in terms of the Honor Harrington novels and the “Honorverse” generally. Given how successful the books have been, I’m certainly not going to complain about that. [G] That doesn’t mean everyone uniformly loves my work, however. In fact, as shocking as I know you may find it, there are actually people who don’t like Honor. And – even more incredible, I realize – don’t really care all that much for my writing, either.

Fortunately, I’m a fairly resilient soul and, as important as my work is to me, I have so far managed to avoid falling afoul of the literary Copenhagen Syndrome and merging my own sense of identity and self worth with Lady Harrington’s. Much as I love Honor (and I do), I remain aware that she is a fictional character and that not everyone likes the same sorts of fictional characters. So I don’t really take it personally when someone simply doesn’t find one of my characters, or one of my books, or even all of my books, for that matter, to his taste.

I’d have to say that of all of the criticisms I’ve received about Honor and the Honorverse, though, the one which generally strikes me as having the greatest validity is Honor’s omnicompetence. She so damned good at everything she does. Well, there was that little self image problem she had. Or her failure to press charges for attempted rape against Mr. Midshipman North Hollow. And there was that inability to challenge personal, as opposed to professional, attacks upon her. Or the time she physically assaulted a senior diplomat. Then there was that murderous temper of hers which (among other things) would have led her to commit a war crime – did lead her to commit one, actually – if one of her (junior) subordinates hadn’t physically restrained her. And there were --

Well, my point is that Honor is far from perfect. In fact, if you really wanted me to, I could list chapter and verse on quite a few truly questionable decisions she’s made, both personally and in her role as a military officer and a political leader. One that comes to mind, for example, occurred in In Enemy Hands. Here we have a party of her loyal subordinates (and personal friends) who have literally fought their way across an entire enemy capital ship to break her out of the ship’s brig in order to save her life. They’ve done this because she’s their superior officer and, in the case of her Grayson armsmen, because she’s their Steadholder – their liege lady and their head of state in her own right. In the course of rescuing her, all but one of them has been killed, and then that last armsman, Andrew LaFollet, goes down – dead or unconscious; she doesn’t know which – in a corridor covered by a murderous crossfire when she’s already in the elevator to head down to the boat bay and escape. So what does she do? She throws away her own weapon, dashes out into the crossfire grabs Andrew, and drags him to safety (more or less) in the elevator, being critically wounded (and darn near killed) in the process.

Very few of Honor’s fans had any problem with what she did, and, in fact, given the way I’ve built the character, it would have been pretty much unthinkable for her to do anything else. Despite that, however, I submit to you that it was the wrong decision. Her duty was to escape, if for no other reason than so that she could continue to discharge her responsibilities as Steadholder Harrington. It was, in fact, her armsmen’s duty to die to the man, if that was what it took, precisely so that she could do that. Moreover, thirty or forty other people were waiting for her in the boat bay. If she didn’t get to them in time, if they waited too long for her before fleeing themselves in their captured small craft, they would inevitably ultimately be overwhelmed and killed, and if she’d been killed charging back out to save Andrew, they very probably would have waited too long for her. And, finally, if she’d been killed, then every person who died breaking her out of the brig would have died for precisely nothing.

Now, the truth is, that we tend to follow characters we care about as much for their flaws as their virtues. As Hamish Alexander has pointed out to Honor on more than one occasion, she has the vices of her virtues, the weaknesses which result inevitably from her strengths. Anyone who has followed Honor Harrington from the first book in the series would know Honor could not possibly not have gone back after Andrew LaFollet. The problem is that because this is so inevitable a part of who and what the character of Honor Harrington is, the reader doesn’t recognize the mistake when he sees it. Or, perhaps more charitably put, accepts it as not being a mistake because her response was the right thing for Honor Harrington the woman to do, however wrong (and even downright irresponsible) it may have been for Honor Harrington the steadholder to do the same thing.

Which brings me to the point I really want to make. I commented a few days ago on the need for characters’ internal motivations to be credible. Well, another problem is that their mistakes have to be credible.

When I set out to create the character of Honor Harrington, I intended for her to be several things from the outset. For example, I intended her to be an extremely capable person, not simply in her chosen profession of naval officer, but generally. I intended her to be intelligent, driven by duty and responsibility. I intended her to be less confident, at least initially, where her personal life was concerned than she was where her professional ability was concerned. And I intended all along to avoid the “Jim Kirk Syndrome,” in the sense that she would, eventually, attain high rank, be good at it, and actually keep it. Oh, she’d have personal enemies and encounter problems which would delay her promotion, and she would make additional enemies in the course of her career, but, ultimately, I knew from the outset that she was going to end up a senior admiral and a major player on the political scene, as well.

The problem is that when you create a smart, capable, ultimately successful character, the mistakes they make have to be credible ones for that character to have made. Competent people make competent mistakes. They don’t just wake up one morning and say “I know! I think I’ll do something really stupid today! What the heck, at least it’ll be different!” Based on the information they have, and the resources available to them, they’ll usually make the right decisions. You can give them incomplete information, or cause their resources to be somehow flawed, in which case the battle plans they make, the decisions they reach, are going to be unsuccessful in terms of accomplishing the desired result. But the decisions themselves are going to make perfectly good sense.

A second, but associated problem, is that if the character acts consistently with his or her own qualities and personality, then a wrong decision – a mistake – may not be recognizable by the reader as such. Honor’s decision to shoot the commander of Blackbird Base out of hand in The Honor of the Queen comes to mind, for example. There’s no question that the guy had it coming, and there’s also no question that the decision to kill him was totally in keeping with Honor’s personal sense of honor. There’s also no question, however, that it would have been a clear-cut and flagrant violation of military law, that it would have destroyed her professionally (and probably personally, once she realized what she’d done), and that it would have been at least as wrong as it would have been right. Yet because the reader understands why she’s doing it, and because it’s such an inevitable consequence of who she is (and because readers like her), I keep having people look at me blankly when I point to it as an enormous mistake on her part. In fact, it was one which was avoided only because Scotty Tremaine physically knocked her weapon aside even as she squeezed the trigger. Or, put another way, she did shoot a POW out of hand; she simply missed her shot because of unforseen interference.

As an aside, Steve Stirling ran into what might be thought of as the converse of this problem in his Draka novels. Steve played fair with the Draka in the sense of allowing their motivations to make perfectly good sense – to be completely rational, for that matter – given their fundamental philosophy and worldview. He wrote them, at least in terms of their own view of themselves, as sympathetic characters, and when you think about it, very few people see themselves as the villains of their own stories. More than simply writing them as internally sympathetic, however, he also allowed them to succeed, although anyone who actually followed the stories realized that their successes of the moment probably spelled ultimate defeat, given that the non-Draka of those weakling, despised democratic regimes kept coming up with counters and finding ways (as societies, at least, if not always as individuals) to live to fight again another day. The problem for Steve was that because he played fair with the bad guys, people assumed that he identified with the bad guys, the same way that readers tend to identify with characters whom they like and of whom they approve. The truth, as I can testify from personal knowledge, is that the Draka represented about the most horrendous group of bad guys Steve could think up. They represented everything he found most loathsome, and the fact that as individuals they could actually have rather admirable characters (within the limitations of their worldview) only made Draka society even more loathsome and horrific in Steve’s view. Asserting that Steve approved of and identified with the Draka because they were the villains in his books (and because he wrote them as credible, well developed villains) would be as absurd as arguing that Steven King identified himself with the Walking Dude in The Stand.

So how do you cope with the problem of the capable character (be he hero or villain) and the competent mistake? I realize my own solution doesn’t work equally well for all readers, but that’s the nature of the beast, when all’s said. Different writers pursue different approaches – it’s what gives writers different voices and what causes them to attract different audiences -- and I can think of quite a few of those approaches which have all worked. On the other hand, I can’t think of a single one which has ever worked without being internally consistent and – above all – credible in the reader’s eyes.