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Baldrick

Or how to write the villain’s dumb henchman, who makes the story work.

For those you who don’t know Blackadder – a BBC sitcom… you should. Blackadder – a singly inept and inevitably short-sighted, entirely self-serving and self-centered… and self-defeating cowardly opportunist, always with his loyal (and, naturally abused by Blackadder) and incredibly stupid servant Baldrick, blunders from disaster to disaster, leaving bodies in his wake, and history and indeed nobility in tatters.

It’s cynical and at times both poignant and very funny (sometimes in the ‘iffen ah don’ laff I’s sho’ gonna cry’ sense. The driving motivation in each case is Blackadder’s (in his various incarnations) charming nature. But the plot… ah, the plot thickens. In this case, literally, because the plot so often comes down to Baldrick’s ‘cunning plans’ – usually to rescue his master from his own inept scheming and behavior (Blackadder, who inevitably places his benefit above any other larger issue, is inevitably the perfect butt-kisser to those above him (who he schemes to displace) and the perfect swine to those below (who he considers stepping stones –literally. To be stood on, often just for casual nastiness). The latter often backfires on Blackadder, when he discovers he made a mistake in his judgement of the hierarchy.

But really, it’s Baldrick, and Baldrick’s ‘Cunning Plans’ which make the stories.
Baldrick –brilliantly played by Sir Tony Robinson (one of the best voice actors, ever, in my opinion) – is thick. I mean… not as thick as pig-sh… but closer to a neutron star. His ‘cunning plans’ are so patently stupid and ridiculous that the audience is set up to expect everything going wrong. That’s a potent tool for a writer.

Blackadder inevitably knows the cunning plan is next to useless – but his own actions have put him into a position where there is little else he can do but go along with his loyal-but-thick Baldrick’s cunning plan.

When you’re setting these things up it’s important understand just what drives the various characters – and this, if anything is the flaw in Blackadder—the antagonists are often just a version of Blackadder own character (sometimes smarter, sometimes more callous, but inevitably just as self-centered), but in power over him. Blackadder’s only worldview is his own ‘set’, and climbing in that hierarchy, so as the story is essentially from his point of view, that’s less of a flaw than it seems. In more complex stories or stories not intended to be funny (well, even funny sometime – Sir Terry Pratchett did this well for humor, Lois Bujold crosses between the two) skilled writers actually have antagonists and protagonists with vastly different (and equally valid to the character) viewpoints and worldviews.

As often as not, this means one character is boxing and the other is wrestling – or one is playing Chess and the other Drafts on the same board at the same time. The reader is in a godlike position, seeing both, and seeing the plot, and knowing it will all go horribly wrong BECAUSE one side doesn’t really get the motivation or nature of the other, and is playing the wrong game to win. Usually, to make a good story anyway, the reader gets that one player is much more powerful, has the odds etc apparently on his side… The reader does get hints (or it is too much like ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream’) that really powerful person A is reacting to what he would do if the roles were reversed. Person B is working to his own agenda, and may (or may not) understand person A’s behavior and motivations. Person B can use Person A’s delusions as a tool, but they’re not why they do what they do.

We’ve seen real life examples in the Hugo debacle – where the Traditional Establishment who have all the apparent power, and influence – who can and do get false and slanderous stories published about their foes in large mainstream media, who can and do ignore the rules without a breath of criticism (in fact with overt support) of supposedly ‘obliged-to-be-neutral’ Hugo committee, who can and do threaten jobs and livelihood of anyone who gainsays them… assume that their foes value the same things as they do, have the same lack of integrity they do, and will do what they do… Which basically hasn’t worked at all. They want (and value) Hugo awards for themselves and their chums to steal the honor hard won back in history… when multi-million sellers won and lent their prestige to the Award. They do a good imitation of Blackadder. As the other side really have no interest in the same goals… it has been a disaster area for them. The first attempt to manipulate straightforward votes (‘E Pinched Hugo – aka EPH) is gradually morphing in various cunning plans as… er, Jameson Quin plans to save the holy Hugo by various ways of blacklisting (but without admitting it is blacklisting, tying to pretend it is really democratic popular vote – because the last shreds of credibility hang on that). His first plan has failed already, but never fear, Blackadder, he has plenty more ‘consensus’ cunning plans.

I get a hilarious image of a sort of cross between Tweety and Sylvester and Blackadder in mind, with Baldrick saying “I have a cunning plan, master! We’ll lock the cage and throw away the key.” (the reader knows full well there is no floor to the cage. And that the precious Tweetyhugo is available to anyone who lifts the cage.)

When that doesn’t work, Baldrick says: “I have a cunning consensus plan (and I’m an expert in voting systems – who just failed completely in manipulating the voting system in Blackadder’s favor). We’ll put a heavier cage on top of it. And if that fails we’ll put a three hundred ton concrete drop-block to crush the cage. It will drop at random so Sylvester can’t plan to avoid it.”

Blackadder says: “That’s the stupidest cunning plan I ever heard, Baldrick. It’ll stop us getting Tweetyhugo, because we can’t get into the cage. And the concrete block will crush Tweetyhugo – and me too if I do what I always have.”

“But it’ll stop Sylvester getting Tweetyhugo, master. It’ll stop him trying. And then we’ll send people to hide it and kill them before they tell anyone where it is!”

And a little later Blackadder goes to order the concrete, quite unaware that Sylvester doesn’t want Tweetyhugo, except to peeve Blackadder, and is perfectly delighted if the birdy is destroyed, or lost forever and forgotten.

Which is rough on the bird, but makes a lot of amusement for those who have no interest in the bird, but dislike Blackadder.

And Baldrick makes it all happen.

Never underestimate the value of a Baldrick, but unless you’re writing humor where the reader accepts them as a ridiculous stereotype device, remember fiction has to make sense, and cannot be as stupid as real life. Fiction has to be plausible.

31 Comments
  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

    Stupid Villains are necessary when the Heroes are just as stupid. 😦

    I’ve read/watched too many stories where if I were the Villain, the Heroes would be dead. 👿

    May 23, 2016
    • Ah but a villain’s stupid sidekick….

      May 23, 2016
      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

        Yet, Blackadder is (from what I’ve heard) not that much smarter than his “stupid” side-kick. 😉

        May 23, 2016
        • Blackadder is a crooked as a corkscrew. That’s part of the fun

          May 23, 2016
  2. freddie_mac #

    As often as not, this means one character is boxing and the other is wrestling – or one is playing Chess and the other Drafts on the same board at the same time.

    I’ve actually run into this in the corporate world (shudder), and when I mentioned it to a colleague (“I’m a native English speaker, why aren’t people understanding me???”), she referenced the shorthand that she and her husband have adopted: potato.

    Person 1: blah blah blah blah
    Person 2: Potato!
    Person 1: (scratches head in bafflement) No, I didn’t say “potato”. I said, blah blah blah.
    Person 2: Potato! Potato! Potato!
    Person 1: (hides under table/desk/chair)

    May 23, 2016
    • I was thinking of the US State Department and certain non-western powers. “They can’t really mean what they said because we wouldn’t mean that if we said it so of course they mean _____________.” Or “That’s just for domestic consumption to keep the crowds happy. The leaders are much more nuanced people, like I am, and so they just have to pander to the ignorant, like I do, and so they say Death to America/We will Bury You/Yanqi go home/You are the Weak Horse. I know they don’t mean it, because I wouldn’t.”

      May 23, 2016
      • A surprising easy trap, and all it takes is assuming folks all have the same mindset.

        May 23, 2016
      • This. TXRed, precisely. We’ve said exactly what we mean. And they still don’t believe it -because they wouldn’t do that (say exactly what they mean, for starters).

        May 23, 2016
  3. Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    So who is the Hugo Baldrick to the PNH Blackadder? There are SO MANY choices,

    May 23, 2016
  4. There are sentient humans in the English-speaking world who know not of Blackadder and Baldrick? Well, knock me down with a feather …

    May 23, 2016
    • Ox never watched Blackadder. Ox still know of Baldrick.

      May 23, 2016
      • I have only seen two episodes of The Blackadder, the first generation, as it were, and of that the only one I watched in its entirety was when the Blackadder becomes the head of the church in England. Such are the circumstances of life.

        May 23, 2016
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      I have never watched, but have heard of, Blackadder. Secondhand Baldrick didn’t stick in my memory.

      May 23, 2016
  5. C4c

    May 23, 2016
  6. I have long wanted to have a bumbling but ultimately effective character named Rick, who’s bald. I wonder if anyone would get it.

    May 23, 2016
    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

      Took me a moment here to “get it” here but I suspect that few would see “Bald Rick” as “Baldrick”. 😉

      May 23, 2016
    • I guess it would depend if I had been primed to look for Randall-Garrett-isms. That sure sounds like something he would have done.

      May 23, 2016
      • It is. And the world is poorer for his loss.

        May 23, 2016
    • Heh, I do pun names all the time, and hide them by splitting them up. Professor Gunn is never called “Tommy” in the same paragraph, or many paragraphs apart. BTW, his daughter is Minnie, and his late wife was Bibi.

      May 23, 2016
      • I do that too, and did all sorts of loopy stuff in Ten Gentle Opportunities. Humor that requires the reader to think a little (and jokes that hit them in the middle of the night) may be the best kind.

        May 24, 2016
        • My favorite is a fighter pilot, Lt. Emily Nem, Call sign, “Candy”. She goes by Emma.

          May 24, 2016
          • Ha! Took me about twenty seconds. At first I thought you were alluding to Eminem. And you are, in a slightly different context. (His initials are MM.)

            May 24, 2016
            • She has a good REASON not to use her whole name at any given time….

              May 24, 2016
      • We do that too. James Tiberius Mater was not just a callout my overweening geekery

        May 29, 2016
    • Perhaps if he was really really short. you could say… sawed off.

      May 25, 2016
  7. Joe in PNG #

    The first series is okay. Blackadder really hits it’s stride in the second series.
    My favorite has to be the 4th series, the one set during WWI.

    May 23, 2016
    • Chacun a son gout. The 4th series is the one I like least. But yeah the second series is definitely the best.

      May 23, 2016
      • Agreed. Blackadder & the Spanish Inquisition still makes me laugh. ” I was the sheep”

        Be a-ha-ha…

        May 29, 2016
    • Definitely the fourth series is my favorite. The final episode is heart breaking.

      May 23, 2016
    • Second and third series do it for me.
      “Yes, I was that sheep.”
      “Not only is it a great likeness, but it’s in such a lovely frame.”
      “I may be as thick as a whale omelet.”
      “Anti-distinctly-minty.”
      “If you want anything done right, kill Baldrick first.”

      May 25, 2016

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