Dec 18 2007
Eragon is one of the worst novels I’ve ever read. But let’s look at the positive: how can Eragon improve your writing? It can help you identify and fix problems in character development, story structure and plotting. For example, let’s look at its characters.
Eragon is the prototypical Chosen One. Unfortunately, he never really grows into something more than someone destined for great things. Why does his dragon come to him? Because he was destined to have a dragon. Why does he decide to stop Emperor Palpatine, err, Galbatorix? Because he was destined to. Why will he eventually get the girl and save the world… well, I could go on.
A strong character has traits that drive the plot. In His Majesty’s Dragon, Temeraire the dragon is a radical abolitionist and supporter of dragon rights, which leads him to (spoiler– hold your cursor here). That doesn’t feel contrived at all, because Temeraire’s morality clearly dictates that he should perform that action. This works because his character traits cause the plot. Temeraire is rebellious, so he should act rebelliously.
Eragon’s characters do not drive the plot. They act as the plot needs them to. Eragon is a wuss, until he learns that he’s really a hero. What causes that change? His great destiny, apparently. Being driven by destiny makes him passive. Let me show why that’s a problem.
Saphira (the dragon) comes to Eragon for no particular reason. Eragon doesn’t do anything to get his dragon. That wastes an opportunity to show us what he’s capable of, and why he deserves to have a dragon. His Majesty’s Dragon used the experience much more effectively. Captain Laurence’s ship captures Temeraire’s egg. Instead of the dragon being an honor and privilege, the dragon is something the characters want to avoid. The unlucky handler will have to live away from civilization and work in a dangerous, filthy profession. The crew draws straws and a 14-year-old sailor draws the dragon. When Laurence sees that the kid is struggling with the dragon, he decides to sacrifice himself by taking the dragon instead.
This shows us several things about the characters. Lawrence is a compassionate and loyal leader. He’s brave. He was not passively destined or chosen to have a dragon– he chose to take Temeraire. He has realistic concerns, like worrying about not ever being able to see a play again. In short, Laurence is both heroic and relatable. We even learn something about Temeraire: he has standards and cares who his partner is. Unlike Saphira, we can relate to him as something more than just an animal. My problem with Eragon is that there isn’t any reason Saphira comes to Eragon. Worse, I can’t think of any reason that I would advise Saphira to pick Eragon. He has no traits that suggest he would be a valuable partner.
Temeraire from His Majesty’s Dragon is a fantastic example of how a side character can drive a plot and develop the main character. But Saphira is a case-study in cardboard. Saphira makes most Pokemon look three-dimensional.
Consider the following: Pokemon (successfully???) characterizes Ash’s Charizard as lazy and disrespectful, which is fairly impressive given that he doesn’t say anything intelligible. Saphira has every advantage but she is actually worse-characterized.
Strong characterization depends on readers being able to associate characters with key attributes. Han Solo is selfish but loveable. Charizard is lazy. Temeraire is idealistic and rebellious. Saphira is nothing but a flying pack animal.
Wasting Saphira in this book was particularly egregious. She’s on the front cover, and the only selling point of Eragon is that the book has a dragon in it. If all the superheroes in Superhero Nation were as boring as she is, we’d have a real problem.
These characters came right out of Central Casting. Brom is the Friendly Storyteller and Murtagh is the Mysterious (But Friendly) Stranger. Both serve essentially the same role, to provide wisdom and insight to the brash and clueless Eragon. Conveniently enough, one enters as the other dies.
I’ll preface this by acknowledging that I’m fond of many supervillains. I write stories about them, too. So you might argue that it’s hypocritical for me to criticize Galbatorix for being one-dimensional. On the other hand, you could also argue that “wow, if even a superhero novelist thinks Eragon’s villains were superficial, they must have been truly awful.” Indeed.
Galbatorix is the villain and he doesn’t have any motivation other than being EVIL. He’s like Green Goblin, but without the nifty armor. As far as cartoonish villains go, Galb is a particularly bad one. And not bad like Darth Vader was bad, but bad-like-Gigli bad.
There are two main ways to make a villain interesting.
- Ideological power—when the audience vaguely sympathizes with the villain’s objective (separate from his means). This worked particularly well in The Rock, for example.
- Badassery—a combination of swagger, flavor and/or whupass.
Galb had neither of these, but the best villains usually have both. For example, Darth Vader and Doctor Octopus are obviously badass, but Darth Vader is also ideologically powerful because his villainy stemmed from a noble desire to create order. Doctor Octopus (in the movie) wanted to vindicate what his wife died for. And he had 6 arms.
Cliché fantasy races
The author of Eragon stole his elves and dwarves so blatantly from Lord of the Rings that Tolkien should have been credited as a co-author. Many fantasy novels draw on Tolkien’s conventions, but usually they try to make up for that by adding their own spin to the source material. For example, if you were writing a book set at a magical university like Hogwarts, you could make it feel fresh by using a new perspective. Instead of focusing on a precocious young wizard, maybe you’d look at the teachers or the administrators or campus security or the admissions office instead. Eragon doesn’t do anything like that. It ends up feeling like LOTR fanfiction. With Pokemon.
I could say more, but you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to Eragon. This book and its sequel* are best enjoyed as an expensive alternative to firewood.
*It has two sequels, but I’ve only been unfortunate enough to read the first.