Vivek's blog: What writers can learn from Merlin

Monday, July 27, 2009

What writers can learn from Merlin

Wizards are back in vogue. And boy, am I pleased!

As a young fan of Gandalf, I'm all for the wizardization of reality. The world needs more wisdom, contemplation and restrained power. I'd vote Dumbledore for president any day.

But sadly, our friends at the BBC have screwed up the tale of one of the greatest wizards of all time: Merlin. Their train wreck of a TV series teaches us some fantastic lessons about what makes writing captivating - and what can make it crushingly disappointing.

The final episode of The Adventures of Merlin (season 1) aired last weekend in Australia. If you haven't seen the show but intend to, stop reading. This post is going to be chock full of spoilers. (I hope they're illuminating spoilers.)

Lesson the First: Keep your rules straight
When creating your universe, you develop a set of rules. It's OK to ask your audience to ignore the rules of reality and adopt the rules of your universe instead. But once you create them, stick to them.

This doesn't just pertain to 'scientific' rules (such as the behavior of photon torpedoes or warp drives in Star Trek). It means keeping character behavior and actions authentic-feeling.

In Merlin, the young prince Arthur gets bitten by a magical beast. We are assured by a sage figure that such a bite is inevitably fatal, and that there is no cure. However, it turns out that there is a cure - a cure that, frankly, should have been freaking obvious to the sage figure. This erodes the character of the sage and tries the patience of the audience. It's particularly galling because it's so obvious: of course Merlin will cure Arthur. The writers lose the audience's trust and get nothing in return. Not an iota of suspense or twist.

Lesson the Second: Make the audience feel the protagonist's pain
The cure mentioned above requires a soul-trying quest. Of course. No objections there - that's standard fantasy material, and it can rock hard.

But after being treated to a description of the nearly impossible lengths Merlin has to go to in order to achieve his goal, we get about two minutes of sweeping vistas and then an easy arrival at the mystical destination. Huh? Where's the pain, the sweat and tears, the character-building voyage? We never get a visceral sense of Merlin's tribulations, so there's no payoff (for us) when he finishes up.

This goes from silly to ludicrous when Merlin learns that he must go back to that place...and he just hops on his horsie and gallops away. At this point, it's as though the writers are running out of time and have shrunk their universe by 90%. Not cool.

(By the way, there's another scene where we completely fail to see Merlin's pain: when he has to confront his mother's affliction. The lack of empathy here is probably more due to bad acting, though, than to poor writing.)

Lesson the Third: Calibrate your moral compass
At the end of the episode, Merlin kills the villain in cold blood. Now, she's a nasty piece of work and has done some pretty evil deeds throughout the season. But Merlin attacks her unprovoked and ends up murdering her while her back is turned.

This would be fine if it were treated as a piece of character development. It's a perfect opportunity to bring out darkness in a previously untarnished protagonist. It could set the scene for a blacker second season. But there's nothing to indicate that the writers are aware of the horror their hero has committed.

I'm not saying that fantasy characters always have to be black and white. Shades of grey are what make the great works of fantasy worth rereading. But there needs to be a degree of self-awareness if subtleties are introduced into a plot. Merlin's writers show nothing of that.

Lesson the Fourth: No glory without sacrifice
At the end of the episode, Merlin is on Cloud 9. He's saved his prince, he's saved his mother and he's saved his mentor. His nemesis is dead. No one has found out any dark secrets of his.

This is terrible writing. How can we revel in a protagonist's achievements when he has done nothing to deserve them? Take a cue from JK Rowling: personal loss is compelling. Even in the nicely tied up Lord of the Rings, the protagonists come home to a loss of innocence. Merlin loses nothing, and so we don't have to feel for him at all.

Lesson the Fifth: Odd numbers work better
Actually, this is one that puzzles me.

For some reason, in fiction writing - and especially in fantasy - odd numbers work far better than even ones. If you're going on a quest, you should look for one, three or nine things. If you seek companions, your party should be made up of an odd (preferably prime) number. Merlin returns to meet his nemesis once (for a total of two meetings); for some reason, three encounters would have been much more satisfying.

I don't know why this is. If anyone has a theory, I'm all ears.

On a personal note, I'm really sad. Merlin is a show I could have loved. I have half a mind to have a go at creating something like it myself. But boy, am I mad that the Arthurian idea has been taken, and taken so poorly.