Monday, February 9, 2009

*bump bump bump* Another Trope Bites the Dust

As I mentioned earlier, I've been known to hang about the Television Tropes and Idioms Wiki. I don't contribute - not yet - but I might have to soon as I think I've caught on to a trope that they haven't yet.

A trope that really pisses me off.

I shall call him the Arbitrarily Powerful Patriarch (APP), and his time has come.

APP is defined by the following traits: he is male, Caucasian, in his autumn years, and very wealthy and influential. He is either gray-haired or balding and he always dresses in dark suits and sober ties. APP appreciates the finer things in life - wine, whiskey, cigars - but he is neither an epicurean nor an aesthete. If he has children - he has sons only slightly more frequently than daughters - they rebel against him. If he has a wife, she is defined by him: either she meekly obeys his every whim, rebels in small ways, or openly opposes his nefarious schemes. And his schemes are invariably nefarious, in a power-hungry, intellectually farseeing but morally shortsighted sort of way, and usually very complicated. When written tolerably, he produces entertaining Xanatos Gambits, but he is definitely a candidate for the dreaded Xanatos Roulette.

So far, I'm not describing anything annoying. He might be a little dastardly and two dimensional, but it would be easy for a talented writer to muddy up his motivations, complicate his familial relationships, and generally breath some life into him.

It is not APP's potential for flatness that bothers me, it's this: he can do anything he wants and get away with it.

Anything. He. Wants.

It's as though his money and power have passed some invisible event horizon and transformed him into some kind of capitalist god. Does APP want to know something about you? Privacy is no object. Does APP require that a woman lose her job? She's as good as fired. Does APP need to send an innocent man to prison? No problem. Does APP need to get away with murder? He can "take care of it." Even in a world where the characters regularly encounter bureaucrats, cops, and other officials who really do care about their jobs - establishing that such people exist - APP never has any problems massaging the system into giving him whatever he wants.

Now, I'm as much a fan of conspiracies as the next guy. It's sometimes fun for the heroes to be harried by invisible forces. In a setting where there seems to be a sharp line between the natural, sane world that the main characters inhabited before the story began and the madness they are currently enmeshed in and possibly trying to escape, it can be fun to attack the trappings of their normal life: cut them loose a little, let them flutter in the cold wind, see what it drives them to.

The first problem with the Arbitrarily Powerful Patriarch is the "Arbitrarily." His powers have no limit. Nothing can phase him or stop him. I know what he represents - a fear of "the system" and "the man," and the power of those unknowable, unstoppable forces to totally screw up your life - but no one character should be able do anything. Everything should come with a price. This needs to go for antagonists as well as protagonists, or the antagonist becomes more annoying than anything else.

In a similar vein, the omniscience and omnipotence of APP hurts my ability to suspend disbelief. Will there be consequences if I, say, piss off a powerful United States senator? Sure. Will that senator be able to get me fired (if I had a job), get my parents kicked out of their home, have my dog killed, and turn off my electricity so I miss my favorite TV show? Probably not.

Finally, the fact that the Arbitrarily Powerful Patriarch has an answer to everything just sucks the drama out of the story. He is going to win, he is going to hurt everyone, and then he is going to be stopped, probably by an equally, obnoxiously darling character.

So, that's it, APP. I'm coming after you. Arthur Petrelli, Charles Widmore, that dude from The Declaration... you better make your peace with your authors, write your wills leaving everything to your rebellious daughters, and have that one last touching scene with your meek wives, because you are over. Tropes.

* * *

  • Where have you encountered a particularly egregious example of the Arbitrarily Powerful Patriarch?
  • Where have you seen the Arbitrarily Poweful Patriarch inverted in some way to make the character fresh, new, and - most importantly - not totally annoying?
  • Have you ever written something that inclued an Arbitrarily Powerful Patriarch? Come on. Fess up.


Scattercat said...

Bradford Meade from "Ugly Betty"?

Phronk said...

Does the Massive Dynamic bionic arm lady from Fringe count as an arbitrarily powerful matriarch?