I’ve finished The Name of the Wind, and my opinion of it in general and the protagonist in particular has shifted from mild disinterest to hearty dislike. Kvothe is not a good character. In my previous post, I labeled him a Mary Sue; I can now confidently state that he nails virtually every defining Mary Sue characteristic as if it was a contest. Even with conservative scoring, he gets a 70 on the Mary Sue Litmus Test, where anything over 50 is “scrap it and start over.”
But before I get into that, yes, The Name of the Wind does pass the Bechdel Test! On page 467, Auri offers Mora an apple. That’s it. Granted, the fact that the rest of the Auri/Mora conversation is disqualified because it’s about Kvothe doesn’t mean anything about gender–there’s scarcely a conversation in the entire book that is neither with nor about Kvothe. That’s one of his Sue traits. So, without further ado*: The Mary-Sue traits of Kvothe. If this post is long, only Patrick Rothfuss is to blame.
The Black Hole
As mentioned above, Kvothe absorbs everything in this story. It’s as if he has a gravitational field around him that bends every event back around to being about him. The other characters, especially Chronicler, who is wasted, and Bast, who is egregiously wasted, sit quietly in his shadow, hanging on his every word and begging for more.
An inherent problem with bookends? To some degree; they are frowned upon in screenwriting circles (if I recall correctly), perhaps for this reason. But bookends can be used effectively. They cannot, however, be used effectively if the events in the framing device are more interesting than the events in the main plot. It stretches credulity to follow up an attack by an unidentified demonic creature with “Do you feel up for a little more writing tonight?” (639).
It isn’t limited to the framing device, either. There’s astoundingly little development of any of the supporting cast. Quick: What are Wilem and Simmons studying? What are their histories and goals? It isn’t like there wasn’t time to deal with them; think about how much we learn about the other students in any of the Harry Potter books. They just aren’t important. Rothfuss doesn’t consider them important; Kvothe doesn’t consider them important; they don’t consider themselves important. They are content to hover around Kvothe like a Greek chorus:
Occasionally, I would talk about Denna with Wilem and Simmon. Being true friends they gave me sensible advice and compassionate sympathy in roughly equal amounts. (651)
Kvothe, in contrast, is a terrible friend. He never listens to a word about his friends’ lives and problems, nor does he ever help any of them. He does help Auri, but she is a perfect demonstration of the black-hole effect: She refuses to tell him anything about herself, not even her own name, and just wants to sit around and listen to him play his lute.
Kvothe loves to talk about himself. I won’t repeat the quote from last time, but here’s some more:
“Very well, for simplicity’s sake, let us assume I am the center of creation. In doing this, let us pass over innumerable boring stories: the rise and fall of empires, sagas of heroism, ballads of tragic love. Let us hurry forward to the only tale of any real importance.” His smile broadened. “Mine.” (53)
Simplicity’s sake, my [body part of your choice]. He really does think he’s the center of creation. Look at his attitude towards Chronicler when the latter suggests coming back in a few days to hear the story:
Kote gave Chronicler a look of profound disdain. “What gives you the slightest impression that I would be here when you came back?” he asked incredulously. “For that matter, what makes you think you’re free to simply walk out of here, knowing what you know?”
Chronicler went very still. “Are–” He swallowed and started again. “Are you saying that–”
“The story will take three days,” Kote interrupted. “Starting tomorrow. That is what I am saying.” (48)
Note the death threat; we’ll see it again. And then:
Chronicler shrugged. “Most simply tell me what they remember. Later, I record events in the proper order, remove the unnecessary pieces, clarify, simplify, that sort of thing.”
Kvothe frowned. “I don’t think that will do.”
Chronicler gave him a shy smile. “Storytellers are always different. They prefer their stories to be left alone. But they also prefer an attentive audience. I usually listen and record later. I have a nearly perfect memory.”
“Nearly Perfect doesn’t quite suit me.” Kvothe pressed a finger against his lips. “How fast can you write?”…
The innkeeper nodded to the scribe. “I know your reputation as a great collector of stories and recorder of events.” Kvothe’s eyes became as hard as flint, sharp as broken glass. “That said, do not presume to change a word of what I say. If I seem to wander, if I seem to stray, remember that true stories seldom take the straightest way.” (50-52)
You will record my story exactly as I tell you, when and where I allow it, or I’ll probably kill you. (This book would have benefited if Chronicler had removed the unnecessary pieces.) Kvothe believes he’s so important that anyone in the universe would do anything he says in order to hear him talk about how great he is–and, unfortunately, the narrative agrees, since Chronicler meekly transcribes statements like this:
I was brilliant. Not just your run-of-the-mill brilliance either. I was extraordinarily brilliant. (335)
Nor is his hyperbolic self-praise limited to him telling his story. He talks to everyone this way:
“In that case, Master Kilvin, I am better. I learn faster. I work harder. My hands are more nimble. My mind is more curious. However, I also expect you know this for yourself without my telling you.” (434)
Fred Clark of Slacktivist wrote a perfect response in a different context:
From a purely technical point of view, this appears to be a simple mechanical problem and something that might be easily fixed. We could posit a simple rule — something like, “Don’t have characters praise themselves exuberantly” — and that rule would seem to be something that Jenkins, with a bit of practice, could learn and apply, thereby correcting a flaw in his writing.
Unfortunately, this simple rule seems to belong to that category of rules that shouldn’t require explicit articulation. Another example would be “Eating people is wrong.” The sort of people who would need to be informed of such a rule are not the sort of people who would be inclined to accept or to abide by it, or even to care much about its existence. Trying to explain the rule to them and the reasons for it becomes surprisingly difficult, requiring one to step back — way back — to explain all sorts of fundamental things one had previously assumed were previously assumed. Dealing with the sort of person who needs to be told that “Eating people is wrong” or that “Self-praise seems unreliable” puts you in the position of having to explain things you wouldn’t think needed explaining and leaves you wondering whether it’s even possible to find a shared language in which you could communicate such ideas to a person who didn’t already intuitively recognize their existence.
All I can add is that, when the same criticisms can be leveled against your book and Left Behind, you’ve got a problem.
Sadly, Kvothe really is as good as he says. I’ve already explained why this makes for a dull character–how is the reader supposed to connect with someone whose biggest challenge is others’ failure to appreciate how awesome he is?–but, as we’ll see, it also makes for a dull story because all conflicts must be external: Kvothe is never in conflict with himself because he’s always right and virtually never makes mistakes. Also, he gets tons of praise heaped on him by others, as elucidated in the previous post, because no sensible person can deny that he’s good at everything. Kilvin’s reply to the previous quote from 434 is not the logical response, which would be “You have just failed my class and will continue to repeat it until you accept that the world doesn’t revolve around you,” but rather:
Kilvin nodded. “That is better. And you are right, I do know these things.” (434)
Another writer would at least have included some sort of justification for why Kvothe is such a special snowflake. He was touched by Tehlu. He was born under a favorable star configuration. His mother took the right neonatal vitamins. Or something. But no, he’s just especially special for no reason.
The Tragic Orphan
Spoilers–Kvothe’s parents get killed. Of course this happens to all sorts of heroic characters, but it’s common among Mary Sues. Since Sues are perfect and consequently don’t undergo any of the ordinary problems and disappointments that the rest of us are subject to, how do you give them emotional depth? A tragic backstory, obviously**!
After his parents die, Kvothe spends some time as a street child and many terrible things happen to him. This is another attempt to give him emotional depth, and again, it’s poorly executed. I’ve already mentioned that Kvothe apparently caught the idiot ball by not using any of the countless skills at his disposal (at the end of the sequence, he abruptly regains competence). Rothfuss also seems to think that making more terrible things happen to him will make us feel more sorry for him, when in fact it just feels overwrought and hyperbolic:
When Pike threw me to the ground, my body was almost too numb to feel my father’s lute being crushed underneath me. The sound it made was like a dying dream, and it brought that same sick, breathless ache back to my chest. (136)
He spun me around and threw me down. I slid in the greasy alley snow. My elbow struck the ground and my arm went numb. The hand clutching a month of food, warm blankets, and dry shoes came open. Something precious flew away and landed without even a clink as it hit the ground. (147)
The sound reminded me of the terrible noise my father’s lute had made, crushed beneath my body in a soot-streaked alley in Tarbean. I bent to pick it up and it made a noise like a wounded animal. (605)
There was no Kvothe, only the confusion, the anger, and the numbness wrapping them. I was like a sparrow in a storm, unable to find a safe branch to cling to. (606)
Kvothe has an inexplicably high lute attrition rate, doesn’t he? When he asks to hold the other musician’s lute, I’m thinking “I don’t know. You don’t have a great track record with lutes.”
In about three years, Kvothe’s injury count comes to approximately:
- Three concussions
- Ten broken ribs
- A broken nose
- Eleven cuts requiring stitches
- A dislocated shoulder
- Two serious burns
None of these keep him out of action for more than a day and subsequently elicit no more reaction than a manly wince, even though a broken rib takes about six weeks to heal even with modern medicine and ten could therefore keep him out of action for essentially all of three years. This is another common storytelling shortcut, because who wants to watch the hero lying around recovering, but why does a 700-page doorstopper need storytelling shortcuts? Rothfuss never exercises discretion elsewhere about what to include or leave out, so an extended sequence of Kvothe recovering would fit in perfectly.
The Center of Attention
The instant Kvothe shows up at the University, he becomes the center of attention:
“All those students, and Hemme, and his friends, they’re all watching me, waiting for some sign of weakness.” (280)
All together, it was enough to start a steady stream of rumor around me, and I decided to take advantage of it. Reputation is like a sort of armor, or a weapon you can brandish if need be. I decided that if I was going to be an arcanist, I might as well be a well-known arcanist. (317)
The audience held themselves quiet, tense, and tight, as if the song had burned them worse than flame. Each person held their wounded selves closely, clutching their pain as if it were a precious thing.
Then there was a murmur of sobs released and sobs escaping. A sigh of tears. A whisper of bodies slowly becoming no longer still.
Then the applause. A roar like a leaping flame, like thunder after lightning. (371)
Several hundred people show up on his third day to see him whipped (how many people are there at the University, anyway?); several dozen gather for an apparently-routine sniping match with Ambrose. Apparently nobody at the University has anything better to do than to follow a petty squabble involving a first-term student.
At Harvey Mudd, we were nice to frosh, but at the same time, nobody was terribly interested in them. Frosh did frosh stuff; you helped them with homework and listened to their problems if they asked, but they weren’t terribly of interest until they’d plugged themselves into the dorm’s existing social life. At Scripps, we had tight in-class friendships and hardly any cross-class ones. In neither case was frosh drama something that upper classmen really cared about. Hence I have an alternate character interpretation where nobody else at the university actually cares what Kvothe is doing, but he’s too egotistical to notice. It doesn’t hold up, of course.
This is a consequence of the black hole problem. We never hear about any non-Kvothe floggings, even though if it’s a common punishment it ought to happen regularly, because nothing actually happens out of sight of Kvothe. The only two exceptions I can think of are Mola gaining El’the and Sovoy’s riding crop incident. No wonder Kvothe is all anyone ever talks about.
Not only does Kvothe have to excel at whatever he does, he has to master them all instantly, at a younger age than anyone before him. No earning skills with years of study here; the storytelling cliche “hard work hardly works***” is in full play. He’s admitted to the university at age 15 (average: 18 or older) with just a year of previous study, is admitted to the Arcanum after three days (average: three terms), makes Re’Lar after two terms (average: six terms), spends seven days to qualify for his apprenticeship to Kilvin (average: a month), and finishes said apprenticeship in half the usual time. He thought up a lamp idea off the top of his head that took Kilvin ten years, learned a language in a day and a half and Chronicler’s shorthand in fifteen minutes–with no mistakes, naturally.
I’d mainly like to point out the sheer overkill. I know exactly how much faster than usual Kvothe manages everything, because Rothfuss is always saying so in the most explicit terms, like:
I’d made my way into the Arcanum in three days instead of the usual three months. I was the youngest member by almost two years. (317)
Some students took an entire term. Start to finish, it took me seven days. (335)
Once again, Rothfuss doesn’t seem to understand that doing half a dozen things extraordinarily fast is no more effective, narrative-wise, than doing one thing extraordinarily fast. You quickly ceased to be impressed when he accomplishes something, and cease to invest in his goals because you know he’s going to get everything done. In fact, since he does everything early, you never even have a chance to want him to accomplish things–he always meets his goals before you were even thinking about them.
The Perfect Success
Kvothe always wins. Period.
Elxa Dal kept careful track of the results. In the class of thirty-eight, I was the only one to remain undefeated. (343)
Not just first place, but undefeated. Anything less than a perfect track record would be unworthy of Kvothe. This puts him in the company of Ash from Pokemon. I remember a friend’s dad asking us while we were watching the show as children, “Doesn’t he ever lose? Or win two out of three?”
In the fight that follows, he puts himself intentionally at an extreme disadvantage and, surprise, not only wins, but also earns a bunch of money from betting on himself. And we don’t care. Why should we? We’re watching his struggle to maintain his position as better than everyone else; by all rights we should be rooting for his opponent. There’s a reason there aren’t any sports movies about the undefeated team who beats the ragtag underdogs.
The success applies to the important stuff, too. He never fails at anything he attempts. A couple of things happen to hinder him, like being banned from the Archives, but those were due to outside circumstances; he himself wasn’t attempting anything. Rothfuss sometimes tries to couch the success with a disappointment:
“You have completed your apprenticeship and distinguished yourself in terms of skill.” I relaxed a bit. “But your greater judgment is still somewhat in question. The lamp itself we will melt down for metals, I suppose.” (435)
Don’t let it distract you–he still got what he wanted (the completed apprenticeship). The lamp itself is immaterial, and no, it doesn’t get melted down. He keeps it and uses it several times.
Unsurprisingly for someone who almost always gets what he wants, Kvothe thinks he deserves to always get what he wants:
“I may seem young, but I belong here as much, if not more, than some rich lordling who can’t tell salt from cyanide by tasting it.” (235)
Rules are for other people. Ambrose gets cast as a villain for not letting him into the archives early:
“Goddamn first-termers,” Ambrose groused as he headed back around to sit behind the desk. “Come in here dressed like rag piles and act like they own the place.” (247)
Of course that’s exactly what Kvothe is doing; he refuses to just wait until his name is in the ledger and demands immediate admittance, but it’s villainous to point it out. He later actually breaks into the archives; he has absolutely no ability to conceive that maybe he actually shouldn’t go into the archives after being told not to. He’s also told:
“Principles of Sympathy is one of the classes you’ll have to slog through before they elevate you to E’lir.” (244)
Clear enough; Manet is telling him that everyone here already knows sympathy and no one learns anything in Hemme’s class, but you have to take it anyway. But Kvothe thinks that he shouldn’t have to even if everyone else does, so he talks to Hemme–who also gets cast as a villain when he doesn’t give Kvothe a pass.
But the best example is the dorms. Sovoy isn’t a villain, but he is cast as a bit of a pompous jackass because he’s a noble who thinks he’s too good to stay in the dorms and eat in the dining hall like the rest of the students:
“I’ve had to give up my rooms at the Golden Pony. I’m on the third floor of Mews. I almost had to share a room. What would my father say if he knew?…My blood goes back fifty generations, older than tree or stone. And I am come to this,” he put his head against the palms of his hands and looked down at his tin tray. “Barley bread. Gods all around us, a man is meant to eat wheat.” (243)
So Rothfuss understands the concept that entitlement is bad and you shouldn’t act like you’re so special that you deserve better than your peers. Unless you’re Kvothe:
I was determined to try every single inn on this side of the river before I resorted to paying for a bunk and a meal chit again…Anything was better than going back to Mews and the silent scorn of my bunkmates. (415-416)
Kvothe is poor. He is always bemoaning how he’s living on the edge, unable to afford the luxuries his friends have, constantly in jeopardy of running out of money because he doesn’t have savings or parents who will bail him out. He was living on the streets a few months ago. And yet he still thinks he deserves better than Mews. Sure, he has reasons, but so does everyone. And yet only Kvothe’s reasons are treated like they count.
Kvothe is good at everything. He knows at least three languages, can act, sing like an angel, play the lute beautifully (even with a broken string), survive in the wilderness with no supplies, beg, steal, do sympathy, blow glass, mix alloys, sculpt stone, synthesize chemicals, make runic bindings, size up and properly care for horses, track someone through the forest, call the name of the wind, name all the bones and muscles in the body alphabetically (before being admitted to the Medica), and sew up his own wounds with, no doubt, thread that he spun himself out of his own back hair. To Rothfuss’ credit, all these skills except woodcraft are things that Kvothe had a logical opportunity and reason to learn, and he usually explains why:
You see, troupers live and die by the horses that pull their wagons, and my parents had not neglected my education in this area. (493)
But everyone has an endless number of skills that would be useful to have, and you still can’t possibly learn all of them. Besides, it’s terrible for the narrative. In essence, the question underlying any narrative is “How can the hero use his skills to solve this problem?”, and the interest comes when the hero seems to lack the skills he needs. But Kvothe’s skills range from “good” to “extraordinary”. There isn’t a single thing he’s bad at, so he’s never faced with a situation where he lacks the skills he needs. He literally has no weaknesses. That makes Superman a more balanced character than him, and that’s the guy with the super-landscaping powers.
The Wrongfully Accused
So how do you create conflicts for someone who always succeeds at everything? Simple: Have him be falsely accused. Have obvious villains tell obvious lies about him.
Ambrose raised his hands helplessly. “He came in earlier and I wouldn’t admit him because he wasn’t in the book. We bickered for a while, Fela was here for most of it.” He looked at me. “Eventually I told him he’d have to leave. He must have snuck in when I went into the back room for more ink.” Ambrose shrugged. “Or maybe he slipped in past the desk in Tomes.” (291)
Of course, when the real story comes to light, everyone sides with Kvothe, who is obviously innocent:
“Damn it, Hemme,” Elxa Dal burst out. “You let the boy make a simulacra of you, then bring him here on malfeasance?” He spluttered. “You deserve worse than you got.” (266)
The Beloved and Hated
Everyone loves a Mary Sue. In story, that is. Everyone immediately gravitates to them and wants to be their friend. For instance, multiple masters specifically request Kvothe to join their classes. Look at how the notoriously prickly club owner Deoch instantly warms to him:
A sudden impulse seized me, and I held out my hand. “Deoch means ‘to drink.’ Will you let me buy you one later?”
He looked at me for a long second before he laughed. It was an unrestrained, happy sound that came leaping straight from his chest. He shook my hand warmly. “I just might at that.”…
“Deoch owns this place,” Simmon said sharply. “And he absolutely hates it when musicians suck up to him. Two span ago he threw someone out of here for trying to tip him.” He gave me a long look. “Actually threw him. Almost far enough to make it into the fountain.”
“Oh,” I said, properly taken aback. I snuck a look at Deoch as he bantered with someone at the door. I saw the thick muscles in his arm tense and relax as he made a gesture outside. “Did he seem upset to you?” I asked.
“No, he didn’t. That’s the damnedest thing.” (358)
Except for villains, who will immediately be repelled by him and antagonize him with no provocation (and, of course, falsely accuse him of things). Pike jumps him in an alley. Ambrose greets him with “Feel free to piss off” (246). Hemme alone is unwilling to give Kvothe a chance during admissions:
“Come, Herma,” Hemme said, slapping his hand on the table. “The boy is obviously lying. I have important matters to attend to this afternoon.” (228)
Of course nobody else likes the villains either:
I guessed from the student’s reactions that Master Hemme was not particularly well loved. As I sat on a stone bench outside the Mews, passing students smiled in my direction. Others waved or gave laughing thumbs-up. (261)
But they can’t outright cross the villains, because they’re powerful and it would just make trouble. How many characters can possibly be universally hated but too powerful to cross, you ask? At least three.
Of course a hero is heroic; that’s a truism. However, when played wrong, it can become a Sue trait. Fela’s overwrought description of Kvothe’s rescue is a little suspect:
“Then you were there, running through the fire. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. It was like…have you ever seen Daeonica?”
I nodded and smiled.
“It was like watching Tarsus bursting out of hell. You came through the fire and I knew everything was going to be alright.” (461)
Mainly, though, the problem is that Kvothe is the only character who ever does anything remotely heroic. Denna actually passes out so as to eliminate any competition when he fights the draccus. It’s as if Legolas and Gimli went unconscious after the breaking of the Fellowship and Aragorn had to bodily haul them around until they reach Minas Tirith. It’s also the only explanation why Chronicler, who we’re told would be a match for Bast, becomes useless in the spider attack:
Chronicler threw up his hands just as the black thing struck his face and chest…Staggering away, the scribe felt his heel snag on the rough ground, and he began to topple over backward, arms flailing wildly. (36)
He doesn’t even get an ineffectual strike at one of the spiders. He doesn’t even fall forward, the way Kvothe told him. He is dead weight, less effective than Carter’s horse. The net result is mostly just odd. Kvothe killing four spiders and Chronicler killing one would still cast Kvothe as the vastly more competent character while allowing Chronicler to not seem like a complete liability, but that would infringe on Kvothe’s heroism. He needs to do everything completely unaided.
One consequence of Mary Sues being universally beloved is that they aren’t held responsible for their behavior, and can therefore act egregiously without anyone calling them out. Kvothe behaves himself through most of the story, but near the end, he starts spewing death threats:
“Let them know I’m mad as hell, and I’ll kill the next ones that come after me. I’ll kill them and whoever hired them, the middlemen, their families, their dogs, the whole lot.” (488)
“I will walk back to Imre this very night and set fire to your house. Then, when you run out the front door in your nightshirt and stockle-cap, I will kill you, cook you, and eat you. Right there on your lawn while all your neighbors watch.” (493)
Devi, the target of the first quote, does balk a little, but neither of the people he’s talking to gives the logical response of “You’re a complete sociopath. Go away and never come back.” His sociopathic attitude apparently continues into the bookends, given his veiled threat to Chronicler and Bast’s terror of anyone asking the wrong thing and upsetting him. It reminds me of my hamster Inky, who has figured out that he can always get what he wants by biting my finger, but it isn’t very becoming in a human being, least of all one who’s supposed to be sympathetic.
At this point, it’s easier to list the Mary Sue traits that Kvothe doesn’t have. He isn’t, as far as we know, a half-elf or other half-supernatural-creature, and he isn’t possessed of extraordinary beauty or any other exceptional physical traits, like unusual eyes or…oh, wait…
“I thought I was imagining it before,” Denna said, looking up at me. “But your eyes really do change color. Normally they’re bright green with a ring of gold around the inside…But I’ve been watching. When you broke the pump handle yesterday they went dull green, muddy. And when the swineherd made that comment about the Ruh they went dark for just a moment…They’re pale now. Like green frost.” (562)
Yes, you could discard the statement because Denna is stoned, but:
“I’m surprised you noticed,” I said. “The only other person to ever point it out was an old teacher of mine.” (562)
Kvothe is a Mary Sue. Case closed.
*Okay, one bit of further ado: Bear in mind that Mary Sue is an aggregate term. There is no one criterion that is necessary and sufficient to define a Mary Sue. Therefore, disagreeing with one or a few items on the list–either with whether they are Sue traits, or whether they apply to Kvothe–doesn’t change the applicability of the term, unless you actually contest the majority of the list.
**Dead parents are also an extremely blunt storytelling instrument, so they often appear in poorly crafted stories, the very place you expect to find Sues.
***This trope refers to the classic scene from any number of movies where the hero, in one training montage, masters something that other people have been studying their whole lives–think Kung Fu Panda.
For a more detailed look into Kvothe and The Name of the Wind, check out this readthrough on Doing In the Wizard.
EDIT: A friendly reminder to be civil, don’t whine, and don’t sockpuppet. Not only will enough of this get you moderated, but it won’t exactly make your opinion look cool and objective, either. It’s just a book, guys.
ANOTHER EDIT: Since there’s been sockpuppeting, I’m going to stop letting through anonymous comments (on this post only). If I have to close comments because people are unable to talk about a book in a reasonable manner, then I’m going to officially subscribe to the “there are drugs in the pages” theory.