10 February 2016 - 6:45 pm

Catalyst characters

Is the character the fuse, the spark, or the explosive? (Picture via Videezy)

Is the character the fuse, the spark, or the explosive?
(Picture via Videezy)

I’ve seen catalyst characters crop up in a few books and stories, and I have to say, I’m not a fan.

What do I mean by ‘catalyst characters’? I mean characters around whom important things happen, but through no action or choice of their own. Their mere presence can cause things to happen or turn out differently than if they had not been there. This may or may not be recognised by others in the story, and may or may not be manipulated by others (to their benefit or detriment).

One of the most obvious examples is Fitz in Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy. He is called out explicitly as a catalyst in the text (I believe another character refers to him this way at one point), and he’s pretty much told that he serves no other purpose.

Similarly, Ara in Tanith Lee’s The Heroine of the World is a catalyst in the story. The prophecy states that ‘lightning is attracted’ and predicts that she will influence the events shaping the world, but at no point does she take a proactive or even particularly conscious part in it. She winds up moving through the story like a doll.

In both of these cases, the catalyst characters are our viewpoint. The protagonists and heroes of the story are other characters entirely, and we’re put in the position of watching the real struggles in the story happen to other people, from the perspective of someone who has no ability to change what’s going on (for better or worse). Also, these viewpoint characters barely seem to understand what’s going on.

It’s a strange choice for a writer to make. The point of view doesn’t have to be the hero of the story (as I mentioned in a recent CWG meeting, Sherlock Holmes would be very different if he told his own story; Watson’s viewpoint is humanising). The choice of viewpoint is important, as it frames the reader’s perspective and interpretation of the story.

Ultimately, both of the stories mentioned above felt slightly detached and out of touch with the real story that was happening around these characters. As a reader, I was increasingly frustrated, partly because I wanted to know more about what was really going on – the interesting parts of the story – and because I wanted to shake these catalysts into doing something.

I’ve come to realise that the lack of agency they employ is a big part of why I struggle to like these characters. Ara lacks even the desire for agency and floats along in the story like a doll in a bubble. Fitz is vastly out of his depth in both knowledge and skill, and doesn’t get beyond doing what he’s told (at least as far as I recall, and I’m only referring to the Farseer trilogy; I haven’t read the subsequent series revolving around the characters in the trilogy).

I kept wanting the catalysts to take an interest in what’s going around them, to at least think about it and try to do something. Even if it’s the wrong thing, even if it’s pointless: I wanted them to at least want to try. To have a goal, to strive, to fail, to care. To become involved and interesting. But they didn’t. They were just catalysts for external things, like the butterfly that flaps its wings and causes a drought.

I keep trying to think of other examples of catalysts, and I struggle to name many. I think that Dorothy Gale in the Wizard of Oz comes close: things happen around her, but she’s not the usual kind of hero that we tend to see in stories. She defeats the first witch by being in a house caught a storm, and the second is an accident (she doesn’t know that the water will kill the Wicked Witch).

However, Dorothy is a likeable character. She’s proactive: she actively sets out to find her way home, and has her own goals and struggles. She tries to do the right thing and to help, and it matters to her what’s going on around her.

In her own story – finding her way home – she’s the hero. In the story of Oz, however, her role is more of a catalyst. She inspires the other characters to do what’s necessary to resolve the issues at hand, simply by being herself. She helps the Scarecrow to go on to become the leader of Oz; at no point does she look likely to take the throne herself.

Through her, we get to see the whole story, including the parts she probably doesn’t understand well herself (like the Wizard and his manipulations). Unlike Ara and Fitz, she’s proactive and driven, and has an interesting journey within herself as well.

By the end of the story, I don’t think Dorothy still qualifies as a catalyst. She is sent on a mission and, in the end, succeeds in defeating the Wicked Witch. But she does seem to start out as a catalyst.

That growth is perhaps what I find most lacking in Ara and Fitz: they never grew beyond being a static catalyst. Ara has almost no arc at all, and Fitz doesn’t manage to escape the bounds of his catalyst role. This is why I got the urge to shake them, and rolled my eyes as I wanted them to step out of this role and into something more active in the story. I wanted them to get involved. This is why these charaters are the reason why I won’t ever re-read these books again.

This leaves me with some questions:

  • Can catalyst characters be effective, engaging viewpoints?
  • Can a story about a catalyst ever be interesting, if they never grow beyond being a catalyst?
  • What other other examples of catalysts are there? Are any of them likeable?
  • Is it just me who feels this way?

I’d love to here what you all think about this!

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