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.