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The Best Characters in SFF are Chaotic, Prove Us Wrong

There are so many different type of protagonists out there, from the sweet cinnamon roll hero to the tortured, tragic titular character. But one of our favorites? The chaotic problem protagonist. Read on as Everina Maxwell, author of Winter’s Orbit, breaks down the trope and why we love it.


By Everina Maxwell

Some characters are good at solving problems. It’s an author’s job to make their lives difficult, so many of my favourite SFF heroes trudge on stoically through the slings and arrows of a plot that does its damnedest to stop them reaching their goals. They fix disasters, right wrongs, and generally leave the world a better place than they found it.

Then there’s the other type of character.

The other type of character innocently walks into a room and three fights and a fire break out around them. They go to the shops and return with an army of the undead. There are some protagonists who solve problems; this is the kind of protagonist who creates them.

I propose four tentative classifications:

1.       This Isn’t My Fault

Protagonists who fall into this category attract chaos like flies to honey. It’s not that they intend to cause large-scale turmoil, it’s just that if you hand them a list of forbidden activities, their first instinct is to treat it as a bingo card. When things go wrong—and they do!—they try and fix them with further wild leaps. This type is exemplified by Wei Wuxian of the c-drama series The Untamed who, through a pinball-like series of individually logical decisions, rapidly graduates from smuggling alcohol to his fellow students to full-scale demonic cultivation. And yet, there’s no real malice there. He wasn’t out to create havoc; he was trying to do the right thing. But sometimes you have to raise a legion of unquiet spirits to do your bidding because you’ve been backed into a corner, and that’s just how things are.

2.       This Isn’t My Fault (honestly)

This type genuinely don’t want to create chaos. They just constantly end up around other people who do. Take Murderbot from All Systems Red: it just wants to be left alone to watch its shows in blissful silence, but wherever it finds itself, several things are invariably on fire or shooting at it. The fact these fires are usually caused, directly or indirectly, by the squishier humans it’s become attached to is unfortunate but inevitable.

3.       This Is Absolutely My Fault And I Did It On Purpose

Some characters act like they prefer to plan, but in fact are at their best when the situation has fallen into total disarray. Because they’re able to react faster, and commit in a split second to ideas that would have your average Health and Safety Committee looking around for a fainting couch, they don’t have much incentive to make it stop. One that comes to mind is Miles Vorkosigan from The Vorkosigan Saga—he might not have caused the chaos, but he’s not sorry it’s here.

Once the dust has settled, unlike the other three categories, this type of character will often claim that they meant things to happen like that all along.

4.       Chaos? This Is Science!!!

I could call out the entire cast of Girl Genius for this category, but instead I’m going to point to Lio and Song, the protagonist’s loving and supporting parents from Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts (spoiler warning)These two scientists discover how to reverse the mutation that’s made animals so big that humans can’t live on the surface anymore. They defy restrictions and wander up to the surface. Hm. These big animals seem cool. Maybe our life’s work for Evil Scientist Boss is a lie? Ooh, what if we figured out how to make big cool animals? Great idea, honey! What if I tried to get pregnant with a big cool animal shapeshifter? Amazing – but wait, what if we made five big cool animal embryos, so we didn’t know which shapeshifter you were pregnant with? (This sounds like the wildest book series you’ve ever read, I know. These scenes, collectively? Ten minutes, tops. They’re like the Sonic The Hedgehog of dubious bioethics decisions.)

Perpetual (narrative) motion

All four types of character above barely need a plot, but it’s fun when they have one anyway. The villain can’t predict what they’re going to do. No one can, because even the character themselves doesn’t know. And it works! These stories can just run and run, because we’re desperate to know what wild idea the character is going to get in their head next. Let chaos reign.

Everina Maxwell is the author of Winter’s Orbit, on sale from Tor Books now. Winter’s Orbit is Everina’s debut novel. 

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4 thoughts on “The Best Characters in SFF are Chaotic, Prove Us Wrong

  1. Yes! I’d put Francis Crawford of Lymond (by Dorothy Dunnett) in the same category of It Wasn’t My Fault as Wei Wuxian. And Prince Kiem of Winter’s Orbit fits here, too. I have a feeling I really like this category!

  2. I bought All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault purely on the strength of the title. I was not disappointed.
    Now, it’s a world where The Dark came out a couple decades earlier, and heros are showing up to deal with them, and Mad Science is around, but the four college student protagonists who suddenly get zapped with mysterious forces really weren’t trying to do that when they were sneaking into the lab one night to move some surplus equipment to a more accessible location. So having chaos around wasn’t exactly a surprise to the reader, even if the title wasn’t enough of a hint, but it certainly was to the characters, who then have to figure out what they can do and how they want to react to it, and how to deal with suddenly being responsible for protecting Waterloo* from Evil and from the more chaotic sides of Mad Science.
    (I bought the sequel “They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded”, because the first book was lots of fun.)

    (*Canadian Content, also LGBTQ. Rated ~PG-13 for “Americans sure are prudish about language” and explodeyness.)

  3. And now I find myself pondering just where Shuos Jedao fits into these categories.

    He was my immediate thought as an example when I saw “3. This Is Absolutely My Fault And I Did It On Purpose”, but whereas Miles and similar characters thrive by being able to twist and realign far faster than anyone else, General Shuos in many ways had everything planned right from the start.

    I can’t comment on “Chaos? This Is Science!!!” as I’m skipping the spoiler, not having seen Kipo as yet, so if that’s the category he would fit into, my apologies.

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