Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Useful Idiot

There is a term that was coined by Vladimir Lenin during the early days of the Cold War. In Russian, it goes something like this, "polyezniy idiot". That translates into "useful idiot" and the phrase was used to describe clueless westerners who blindly followed the Communist ideology. Stalin took up the phrase though with a more sinister connotation.

Every antagonist needs a useful idiot or two to help them towards their goals. In comic books and superhero flicks, they are called minions. In fantasy novels, these sort of people are called lackeys or henchmen. I believe they are called thugs in crime novels. They help move the story along by performing menial tasks (usually off stage) such as readying the horses or spying on the protagonist. This frees the antagonist to do things that actually matter to the plot of the story. In short, these ancillary characters are but tools for the main characters.

Sometimes, however, these secondary characters get thrust into higher stations in the story. Whether through the machinations of a villainous plot or jus from sheer stupid luck, these characters find themselves in positions of control and/or power. Now, as is usually the case, these characters are not usually up to the task of their new position thus creating tension and drama in the narrative. For instance, perhaps the antagonist will exploit the incompetence of the character to make gains where he or she would not have been able to with a more adept opponent. Or, perhaps the anatagonist will have to doe nothing at all and simply,let the newly risen lackey create his own destruction.

It is possible, of course, that the minion need not fail. The character could actually rise to the occasion and prove themselves to the collective populace of the story. This in itself creates drama and is a theme that has been used ad naseum in recent years ( pick any YA  novel as an example of this).

As a reader, one always hopes for this. Yet, in the end, we are at the mercy of the circumstances that brought the hapless character to his undeserved elevation. All we can do is read on and hope that our former jester can move beyond himself and the forces seeking to control him.