There is a writing podcast out there, on the interwebs, called Writing Excuses. For anyone passionate in the world of literature, I recommend checking it out. One of the first episodes that I listened to had to deal with an issue called “three pronged character development.” I will let their words do the summarizing, as I feel that they provide a simple explanation:
“We talk about characters a lot, which is fitting since character are what make things go in most of our favorite books. [There is] a new model for examining characters in which three primary attributes – Competence, Proactivity, and Sympathy – are contrasted. We treat each one as if controlled by a fader or slider, like on a mixing console, and we look at what the relative positions of those sliders do to a character.”
So there it is: a system of attribute management used to determine the strength of a created character. Personally, I love the idea of this model and have used it in my own writing ever since. That said, if the model is a genuine tool then it must be applicable when it comes to characters created in the past. For this post, I have chosen Garion, the protagonist from David Eddings‘ fantasy series, The Belgariad (anyone out there looking for fantasy but not simply wanting to reread the Lord of the Rings should check this out). As there are five books in the series, let this be an examination of Garion in Pawn of Prophecy (the first book in the series).
Garion is your standard unknowing chosen one. He is the titular pawn of prophecy. In the book, Garion is a young teenager (there are also several early chapters where he is younger). Introducing his age brings us to the first point that I have chosen to cover: competence. Garion is a young boy who has been raised on a farm. He does not know how to read and spent a large portion of his childhood cleaning kitchens. So far this is not sounding like an especially competent character (unless the villain is defeated by poor kitchen hygiene). Nevertheless, Eddings takes great care to show the reader that Garion is merely ignorant, not stupid.
Ignorance fits with his character background, but Garion does not stay that way for long. While the plot moves forward without Garion being aware of its significance (despite his best efforts), the protagonist learns a great deal on his journey. From a hidden sign language to beginning his tutelage with a sword, Garion keeps active. He is not the best at his skills (it is only the first book) but he applies himself and does not shirk responsibility. Where Garion’s competence truly shines, however, is his ability to sneak. No one teaches Garion how to move without being noticed, he is simply naturally talented. This gives Garion a certain believability as most people out there have natural strengths and weaknesses (Garion does possess all the arrogance and self-centered attitude that one might expect a young person to have). Overall, I believe that, if we were to examine the model of Garion’s attributes, competence would be set close to the middle – with a slight inclination towards “high competence.”
Next we come to sympathy – this would undoubtedly be Garion’s highest attribute setting. Garion is an orphan. His parents were killed (violently as he learns) when he was just a baby, and he was sent to live with his aunt. While Aunt Pol is not a wicked relative by any stretch, she is very strict. It is obvious to everyone in the story (Garion included) and to the reader that Pol is keeping her nephew on a very tight leash. While she does praise him occasionally, Aunt Pol is far more likely to point out everything in the situation that he did wrong.
Add to this the fact that Garion is a pawn. His life is out of his hands entirely. While he is not overly sad to leave his farm and begin his quest, Garion has little choice in the matter. Think back to the beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Harry has little influence on his life in the beginning. He did not choose to be a wizard or to begin his learning at Hogwarts (not that he wasn’t very eager to do so). Garion is like Harry… only Garion never gets to choose his classes… or whether to play Quidditch, or how to stop Professor Quirrell. Garion is held, throughout the book, as an observer to his fate, and not the active participant. This generates sympathy as the reader experiences a protagonist whose life is outside his control.
The last attribute is Garion’s proactivity. This is the lowest factor of his personality. As said before: Garion is a pawn. Yes, there are moments in the story where he is active and contributes to the plot (even foiling an attempted coup at the end of the novel). That said, even when Garion is alone, he is not acting solely on his influence. He is semi-controlled by a “dry voice” in his mind, separate from his own consciousness. This “dry voice” is the closest that the novel comes to deus ex machina. It exists for little more than to explain why Garion does not do certain obvious actions at certain times. Is there a fantastical explanation for this voice: of course.
For the record, I cannot say for certain that Garion’s attributes change throughout the course of the series (I have only completed the first book), however, it is beyond likely that they do so. This attribute scale provides not only a great way to measure the start of a character, but also a tool to chart their growth. Characters with low sympathy may very well gain exceptional amounts of humanity as the story unfolds (think Quenton from the Magicians series). While I do not know for certain, I am willing to bet that Garion develops into a much more proactive protagonist by the end of the Belgariad. He is, after all, the chosen one.