Clipboard02Twilight creator Stephanie Meyer has a gift for characterization. On first (and second, and third) reading, you might think the gift is defective, coated in Anthrax, made by slave labour in Shenzhen, China, and should be returned posthaste to the dollar store where she bought it.

But it’s true, she does write good characters…if you view characterization from a certain perspective. Complaining about Bella Swan being a bad character is like complaining about Georgi Markov’s ricin-tipped umbrella because it doesn’t keep you dry in the rain.

Bella’s supposed to have no motivations, no will, and no identifying details. This is intentional, because young girls are supposed to imagine that they are her. She’s a blank shape moving through the text with “YOUR FACE HERE” written on it. You’re supposed to close their eyes and imagine you’re Bella, being romanced by a handsome jerk. They say that cricket appeals to people because everyone thinks they’re good at it. Twilight seems like cricket – it packages a fantasy in a way that makes it seem like it could happen to you.

There are male equivalents. Ninety years before Twilight, there was a book called A Princess of Mars, where a man from our world is transported to Mars, and more or less becomes king of it, winning the heart of a beautiful woman. But Edgar Rice Burroughs made a mistake in John Carter’s characterisation – he was too tough. Tall, handsome, a soldier from the Civil War, he lacked that everyman quality. Maybe that was less of a problem in 1912, when you still met everymen who were like that, but still.

Ripoff books soon appeared that corrected this flaw. John Norman’s infamous Gor series eventually pupated into a diary of Norman’s unashamed and aberrent sexual fantasies, but the first book (Tarnsman of Gor) was a retread of A Princess of Mars with the intimidating alpha male hero changed into an unassuming college professor. That’s doing it right. To appeal to science fiction fans, you really want a nerd hero, not someone who resembles the jocks who bully them on the football field.

It creates realism problems: it doesn’t seem plausible that John Norman’s hero could so quickly pick up Bruce Lee-esque fighting abilities (at one point, defeating a dozen armed men with his hands literally tied behind his back). But that’s not the point. The hero has to code as a nerd. It doesn’t matter whether he actually does anything nerdy. It’s like The Social Network Movie – where Mark Zuckerberg effortlessly owns every conversation he’s in, has the eerie confidence of a cult leader, but he knows a lot about programming so I guess he’s a nerd.

In any case, “nerd becomes king of fantasyland” was the number one cliche of fantasy books for several decades (wielding several ancillary cliches such as “the first alien lifeform encountered on the planet is an attractive humanoid female”). It started to become annoying, because usually the author tried to both have his cake and eat it, by making their nerd suddenly a cool ass-kicking hero when the story required it.

This approach has metastasized into the world of videogames (where blank cipher Gordon Freeman is a dorky scientist who obviously can outfight teams of Black Ops specialists), as well as Hollywood movies (where the hottest girl in high school can’t get a date because she’s quirky and has a random sense of humor, or whatever).

Artists try to have it both ways, and we get characters that aren’t just fake but contradictory in a self-annihilatory fashion, like matter and antimatter mixed in a flask. Books, movies, etc are full of fat characters who wear size zero jeans, master generals who make utterly retarded decisions for the sake of author’s convenience, etc. In books, the labels always lie.

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