Monday, 31 August 2015

First Things First

Sorry for the long gaps between posts. I'm just having trouble sleeping lately, but I don't want to talk about my anxiety all the time, that can get a bit heavy and depressing if that's all I'm talking about. So, what do I want to talk about instead? Well, a while ago I was doing research for stories, and I came across a trope regarding early incarnations of modern characters, and that idea struck a chord with me.
For example, there are a lot of vampires in the modern day fiction, but there are all kinds of variations, from Nosferatu to Edward Cullen, even to the Count of Sesame Street. So, what inspired all of these? You may think Dracula, but you'd be wrong. No, he wasn't the first. Vampires did exist in folklore, such as the Greek vrykolakas and the Romanian strigoi, as well as some German poetry about vampires. But the very first vampire character in fiction was actually Lord Ruthven, of the 1819 short story The Vampyre by John William Polidori; you can even read it online at Project Gutenberg if you want.
But isn't that fascinating? I think it's fascinating, these progenitors of fiction, predecessors that inspired modern characters; even though they are not as famous as their later incarnations these firsts iterations are both fascinating and inspiring.
The Word of the Day is: 'FIRST'
First /ferst/ adj. 1. Being before all others in time, order, rank, importance, etc. (used as the ordinal number of one); 1st. 2. Motor Vehicles Of or relating to the lowest gear ratio. 3. First hand, From the first or original source. ♦adv. 4. Before all others or anything else in time, order, rank, etc. 6. For the first time: She first met him at a party. 7. Rather than something else; sooner. 8. At the beginning. 9. First up, at the first attempt. ♦n. 10. Anyone or anything which is first in time, order, rank, quality, etc. 11. (pl.) The best quality of certain goods.
So, the following list is a list of firsts. However, I have to say, it can't be a comprehensive list. One of the things I discovered while doing my research is that stock characters are a nebulous concept.
For instance, what was the first vehicle? Some might say the "car", but is a vehicle a vehicle if it is man-powered? If so, does a bike count? What about a rickshaw? A pair of shoes? If not, what about a horse? Is a horse a vehicle? It's an animal, but if animals can't count, could a horse-drawn carriage count? If that counts, what about a sled? What about a rickshaw, or are we not counting human-drawn vehicles?
There will be different definitions based on each person's understanding of what defines a certain thing (in this instance "fictional character"), so I will try to list a few examples of "other firsts", and my reasoning for why they don't count, as well as my definition for that stock character.
So, with that disclaimer out of the way, this is . . .

The A.W.N.'s List of Stock Character Firsts

The First Mary Sue
What is a Mary Sue?
A fictional character whose accomplishments are unreasonably positive and successful, with very few flaws and is written as an author surrogate to live a more successful life vicariously through the character, but is not an author insert.

Honourable Mentions
First, I considered Dante Aligheri, from The Divine Comedy, since that's an early author surrogate, but the story is about Dante going to Hell, so I don't think that is unreasonably positive and successful. Also, since Dante is his real name, and the character doesn't do anything unrealistic, I think this is merely an author insert. So, after then, I considered Marco Polo. Although Marco is his real name, I figured that the character's exploits of travelling to outlandish places and surviving was wild enough that the character wasn't really him. But I felt uneasy about him having the same name, and the semi-fictional accounts of his exploits didn't feel like they painted the main character in a great light, so I also dismissed MP. However, in researching him, I found my true Mary Sue.

"Sir Jehan de Mandeville". Sir Jehan is a fictional English knight who travelled all over Africa. He served the Sultan of Egypt, fought the bedouins, was offered marriage into royalty (but denied, for he could not forsake his religion); he also travelled through Europe, including Russia and Ukraine, drank from the Well of Youth, served the Emperor of China & his story is totally true, you can trust me, because it was confirmed by the Pope as a true story.
However, this is a total lie. In truth, this is a French story, called The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a fictional travelogue that was written before 1357 and the British Sir John Mandeville does not exist. The story is most likely written by a Frenchman, some suggest Jehan a la Barbe, others say Jean le Long, but either way, this character did not really exist, so he was not self-insert. While some facts are accurate, it is believed that these are accomplished by careful research of the writer (Jean de Long, one of the writers, was a monk who collected genuine travelogues, which would explain why he would need to live vicariously through his Mary Sue character), and the fact that the character meets royalty and serves them greatly, yet does not appear in history, exposes this story for the fiction that it is.
It just seems like some preening French fanboy idolized English knights, and wanted to go on an amazing adventure.

The First Murder Mystery Detective
What is a Murder Mystery Detective?
A fictional character who solves crimes for a living, often murders. They are suited to the job because of an extraordinary skill set that they possess, and for this reason they often find themselves encountering cases which are more difficult than the commonplace. They, along with the reader, investigate the clues and their job is finished when they uncover the answer to the mystery.

Honourable Mentions
Around the 1300s, China had its own version of the Mystery Genre, called Gong'an, which centred around fictionalized versions of historical judges and magistrates who deliberated over local crimes. Despite having some interesting characters, such as Judge Bao & Judge Di, these crimes are not mysteries, as the plot of the story is the telling of how the crime was committed, and ends with the judge using some manner of making the guilty party confess. Also, many involve supernatural elements, using magic to solve the crime and all of them contain very little investigating or detective skills, so they are dismissed outright. Next, I considered the works of Conan Doyle, and while quintessential, he was not progenitorial, as more came before him.
The first murder mystery in English history was The Notting Hill Tale by Charles Felix, which involved a complex mystery of poisoning, only discovered by the lawyer managing the deceased's estate, but the lawyer himself was not a detective and only solved the case after the fact by looking through his papers. So, for a long, long time, I thought the very first was "Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin", the main character from The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe. But then, in doing some last-minute research, just now in fact, I discovered that there was a detective that came before him.

"Zadig". An ancient Babylonian philosopher, Zadig travels from Babylonia to Egypt and then back again, encountering woes, helping others and getting into trouble thanks to his trysts with women (femme fatale, anyone?). What is most odd about Zadig is that he comes from Zadig ou la Destinée by Voltaire in 1747, and it is written as a satire of the philosophical and political issues of his day. Yet, Zadig himself is like Genre Refugee, because although he partakes in drama, romance and tragedy, he has an uncanny ability to use his powers of "discernment", to determine truths based on keenly observed evidences. He dedicates himself to justice, firstly as a philosopher dedicated to uncovering truth and reality, then as a Babylonian minister (basically an arbiter of law) and then as a wayward traveller who seeks to help those which have suffered injustice.
Admittedly, he only uncovers one murderer within the novel (unless he arbitrates over a few as a minister), but only by using his skill to discover the lead witness - the queen - and not through direct analysis of clues. But by the nature of his discerning skills; his solving of several mysteries, riddles and troubles in the land including crime and murder & finally evidence that Zadig was the character that inspired Edgar Allen Poe to write Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin (as Poe himself admitted), leaves no doubt in my mind that Zadig is, in fact, the first murder mystery detective in fiction.
If you're curious, you can read it online if you want (Zadig begins on Page 47),

The First Slasher Killer
What is a Slasher Killer?
A fictional antagonist within a story with a monstrous look, either through costume, disfigurement or genetic anomaly. They kill three or more people and often cause fear either because they stalk their victims effortlessly, they terrorise their victims mercilessly or they kill their victims gruesomely. They tend to have an iconic weapon, yet most murder using a variety of methods.

Honourable Mentions
For a long time, I believed the first slasher was the killer from Black Christmas, a 1974 slasher film. However, despite the film being a horror with abundant murder, the killer in those films was not iconic, and while he was a serial killer, he was not a slasher. Also, just like with the Murder Mystery Detective, I thought I had found my man in The Terror, a hooded serial killer from a 1927 play (and 1928 movie, the first ever horror with recorded dialogue), but that wasn’t the first.
So, I looked earlier - much earlier - to find an iconic murderer, disfigured and in costume, and I actually came across Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Titus, the titular character of the play goes mad after his daughter is raped. He even cuts off his own hand, disfiguring himself, and he is a renowned Roman General and often portrayed wearing his Roman Helmet and decorations, so he is quite iconic and he kills six people through the course of the play (as well as condemning his two sons to execution. However, fourteen people die throughout the course of the play, and although he kills over 50%, most Shakespearean tragedies are bloody and Titus, despite his insanity and horrendous murder, he is not portrayed as fearsome, as he is not really a villain and not all portrayals include the iconic Roman General costume (and the disfigurement is just his hand), so fear is not a part of his character. So, while this kind of play inspired Grand Guignol theatre, which was the progenitor of Gorn which is a subtrope of the Slasher genre, the character himself is not the kind of scary monstrous killer I’m looking for.

"The Bat", I uncovered this character when I was researching superheroes. The character inspired Batman, but he is by no means a superhero as he is the villain, so I put him aside. However the Bat is a masked criminal who dresses up as a bat, commits crime and also terrorizes his victims and commits murder.
In this play from 1920, several people are staying in an old, mysterious mansion so they can look for a treasure stashed within. But as they do they are terrorized by The Bat, a legendary criminal who has committed robbery and murder in the past. At first he scares them with flickering lights, threatening notes, mysterious phone calls and glimpses of him through the windows, but when the occupants refuse to leave, and instead bring in more people to investigate, the Bat starts killing them off one by one. The play was a mystery and melodrama moreso than a wholehearted horror, but the villain’s use of fear, a frightening masked killer and several murders at the hand of the caped criminal makes The Bat the first Slasher Killer.
You can read or download the original play online in digitized pdf format [link may cause a download], or if you prefer a more visual medium, you can find the silent film on YouTube.

So, I was going to make a list of ten, but the research was taking too long (and I could only come up with 7 Stock Character definitions anyway), and it's been so long since you've heard from me. So, I'll continue this list in a later blog post (or two). For now I just hope that this inspires something creative in you, as it has in me.
Also, if you disagree with my definition, or you think you know of an earlier incarnation of one of these characters (or, just an early incarnation of any fictional character or trope), feel free to leave a comment.
Until Next Time, I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and you read it here first.

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