Looking at Character

Looking At Character: The Ace

For this week’s Looking At Character article, let’s do the exact opposite of our previous topic, which, if you recall, was the Load, a helpless but essential character.  That opposite is the Ace: the flawless, best of the best character that everyone looks up to and pales in comparison.  Most often the Ace is used as a mentor figure or something with which to compare other character’s relative ineffectiveness or lack of moral character to.  Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Aces often don’t make it through the stories they are featured in, often killed, eliminated, or otherwise marginalized or humbled before the major climax.  With those bare-bone basics laid out, what is the story and characterization value of the Ace?


As mentioned above, often the Ace is position as a mentor figure for the protagonists, someone so amazingly good at what they do that they offer a logical path to let the other characters reach those same lofty heights.  Similarly, they may not be so much a direct mentor but a role model, someone other characters in the piece look up to and model themselves on.  Either way, this version of the Ace is used mostly as a characterization device as opposed to a plot motivator: his/her direct instruction or the ideal he/she represents shapes the development of the protagonists and how those characters progress down that road can reveal truths about their character.


Juxtapose the ‘Ace-as-mentor/role model’ concept against this idea: using the Ace as a foil for the protagonists.  The Ace often is shown to be almost unrealistically good at what he does or to be a sterling tower of morality, whether this is actually true or simply a public image.  Such an impossible standard may just not be something the protagonists can achieve and thus they (or other characters) may compare themselves to the Ace and find themselves wanting.  Perhaps, in cases where the Ace’s legend doesn’t match the truth, this comparison and the eventual discovery of the truth can lead to some very humanizing moments for both the protagonists and the formerly untarnished Ace as one realizes they, in fact, are good enough and the other gets brought back down to humanity.


Used as a plot device, the Ace’s main purpose to actuate a plot point is, most often, to die or to otherwise be taken out of the action.  Most often, this is, story-wise, done to allow the protagonists to step forward and take the Ace’s place.  Also, the Ace can be used to provide breathing room in a story, if there is some threat or conflict that the Ace’s presence keeps at bay but begs to be fleshed out before the climax.  The protagonists and the reader can be exposed to this conflict in a controlled manner, enough to be well-informed but always safe with the Ace’s presence.  At the appropriate dramatic time, the Ace is removed from the equation in some fashion and the full tension of the conflict can be realized, leading to an appropriate climax for the story.


One may wonder why the Ace, being depicted as nearly-flawless, isn’t often used as the main character.  In many ways, the Ace is what many protagonists end up as at the conclusion of their story arcs, especially in heroic fantasy and superhero tales, so why not use the Ace is a more direct fashion?  The reason is made clear by the mention of story arcs.  The Ace has no arc or, to be honest, had her/his arc already.  There is no heroic journey; the Ace is already at the pinnacle.  With no arc to explore and few flaws to provide drama, the Ace has no personal story that is worth telling on her/his own merits.  In that way, the Ace often represents the hero’s goal, that ultimate pinnacle to rise to, but are almost never the actual hero of the story.


Is there some character archetype or some particular brand of characterization you want me to ramble about?  Anything to add to the musings above?  Drop a line in the comments!

Looking at Character: The Load

Looking at Character is going to be the first of several semi-regular categories of my starved authorial ramblings and is going to concentrate on various character tropes and archetypes, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’, looking at the pitfalls and uses of each.  As with all my musings, the thoughts and ideas shown here are purely based on my own experiences and ideas.  Take them as the opinions they are and feel free to dispute them.  Disagreement is the basis of discussion, after all.

The first subject of this feature is the ‘Load’.  Named quite literally, the Load is a helpless character (at least in comparison to the conflicts of the majority of the story or to the main characters) who, despite this, not only is deeply involved with the story but is essential to either the main characters or to the solution of the conflict of the piece.  The Load is a vital person, but is a burden on the main characters.  The Load generates plot points not through their action, but their helplessness, sometimes tied into a nature as a MacGuffin.  Often, the Load develops as a character over the course of the piece, proving their worth and rising to the situation, but this isn’t always the case.  Sometimes they just remain a burden on everyone around them.  Common examples include some portrayals of children, the ‘bumbling sidekick’ from superhero lore, or the ‘person of prophecy’ who has some vital purpose but has no actual power as is seen in some fantasy works.

I think it’s important to note that what makes the Load a load is often how the author writes a character.  For instance, take two fantasy stories with a ‘person of prophecy’, like I mentioned above.  In both pieces, the character has no unusual abilities outside of their importance to the prophecy compared to the other protagonists.  However, this person is only the Load in the first story, where all he/she is capable of in danger is hiding, freezing, and crying.  Outside of danger, he/she is equally a burden, showing no appreciable skills at all.  In the second story, simple characterization turns the Load into something else: he/she had been a farmer before picked by prophecy, let’s say, and, while not helpful in a fight, their knowledge of the land and homegrown common sense prove an important balance for the group.  One is a Load, the other is something else.

Does this mean that the Load is always a bad thing?  Well, no.  Not always.  There are some characters that would, realistically, be a Load in most situations.  Take a protagonist who has an infant child and is forced to bring he/she with them on their adventure.  The infant can’t fend for themselves and must be constantly protected from danger.  He/she may be the Load, but can still provide valuable characterization.  A Load can provide an interesting foil in a story, provided they are well characterized and dealt with realistically, which often means, at times, they may not be a total burden on the protagonists.

The Load can become an annoyance to readers, however, when dealt with unrealistically.  If the author continually creates contrived situations to keep the Load around or to keep the Load useless, the reader’s patience will wear thin quickly.  Even worse, an author may make a mistake of combining a Load, poor characterization, and common racial, ethnic, social, or gender stereotypes to form a truly insulting character, one that makes the reader just put it down in disgust.  Remember, as an author, everything you write makes a statement about yourself and creating a ‘lazy, useless ethnic sidekick’ to add to your story makes very unfortunate implications about your character.  Don’t do it!

I think the best way to handle a Load is to take a nuanced approach, something I will often say about any character trope or archetype.   These archetypes come to the fore because they hold certain truths about human nature and resonate with readers.  If you use any of them too strongly without a gentle touch and fleshed-out personalities, however, you will bludgeon your readers so excessively you overwhelm that subtle resonance and break their suspension of disbelief.

What do you think about including a Load in a piece of fiction?  What other good or bad points might there be to their use as a story element?  Is it possible that the Load is an artifact of a more blunt and stereotypical writing style and doesn’t have a place in more nuanced modern literature?  Let me know in the comments!