I’ve started digging through Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant books. It’s an excellent series with wit and danger and daring, and while there’s much that could be said in praise of it, today I’d like to highlight a recent favorite character, Vaurien Scapegrace. As ever, minor spoilers ahead, though they will only extend through the end of book three.
What is it?
The Skulduggery Pleasant series follows the many adventures of skeleton sorcerer/detective Skullduggery Pleasant, his partner Valkyrie Cain, and their friends as they save the world from the many sorcerous groups and creatures that threaten the world. Think paranormal young adult noir with all the snappy comebacks and panache one would imagine with that description.
Vaurien Scapegrace is not one of Skulduggery’s friends. Instead, he’s a low level crook determined to “turn murder into an art form” despite never having successfully killed anyone. He’s weak, gullible, disliked by just about everyone, and easily cowed into doing the bidding of just about anyone who deigns to bully him.
How it works
As mentioned above, Vaurien in many ways plays the usual idiotic minion, passing hands from one group to another as he’s threatened, bullied, or bribed into cooperation. When not imprisoned or under someone else’s thumb, he does his utmost to fulfill his aspirations of becoming a killer, presumably for the notoriety and power such a thing would bring. Along the way, his aspirations often bring him (willingly or not) into the machinations of other characters, who then readily use and abuse him as needed to serve their purposes.
Why it’s effective
Now, it might be easy to think that a character like the one listed above would be nothing impressive. Sniveling cowards like Peter Pettigrew and Grima Wormtongue have never made it onto my favorites list after all, so one would think Scapegrace would be no different. That being said, I think there are several factors that really set Scapegrace apart.
For one thing, Vaurien Scapegrace is sincere. Now, is Grima sincerely a terrible person? Yes. Do a lot of evil characters sincerely believe in their evil cause? Yes. But for Scapegrace, what he’s tapping into doesn’t strike me as a sincere belief in some terrible ideology that would instantly put distance between him and me as the reader (ex: It’s easy for me to put up a wall between myself and Dusk, a vampire that wants to murder a teenage girl out of personal spite), but into things that most people want. Scapegrace almost from the outset is painted as someone who doesn’t really have a murderous bone in his body. He’s not a killer, he’s just a guy trying to fit in, to prove himself amidst his peers. And really, who hasn’t struggled with that? It’s a quality that gives him an instant sincerity and genuineness that makes me as a reader want to root for him (in the redemption arc sense, not the murder).
Secondly, Scapegrace has aspirations. Not only aspirations, in fact, but delusions of grandeur so out of step with his accomplishments and skills that it’s no wonder everyone around him thinks he’s a fool. And yet, as a reader, these qualities almost have an opposite effect. For one thing, characters who want something and chase after their goals are likable. Grima, Pettigrew, and most idiot guards that get instantly tricked or knocked out may have goals, but for the most part, they’re passive. Their stupidity or cowardice prevents them from accomplishing anything significant in the story as soon as tribulation comes. Such is not the case with Scapegrace. His desire to fulfill his goals gives him the oomph he needs to get back up again, connive, double-cross, and even help the good guys if it will help his cause. It gives him a certain flexibility in the story that most characters of this type don’t have.
Finally, Scapegrace has potential. From his first scene, it’s clear that, in many ways, Scapegrace is misguided–in his aspirations, his confidence, his chosen career, and more. This ineptitude, when paired with the affection and fun Landy clearly has in writing him, creates a genuinely enjoyable underdog, the kind of person you root for not because you feel bad for them, but because you really care and want them to succeed. The same can be said for Scapegrace’s moral journey. In his first scene, he’s bragging about his murderous intentions while standing over a girl he’s just attempted to throw off a tower. Later, he helps that same girl escape from a prison where she’s being wrongfully held (at risk to the entire world, I might add). And, while those later interactions are still colored by his mulish resentment, self-servicing goals, and cowardice, there are seeds there, the kind that make you hope that someday he’ll really come alongside, no matter how drawn out or unlikely that might be. Combine all these factors together, and you have a character who can serve as plot device, comic relief, fully fleshed out side character, and more, all in one. Truly an accomplishment.
So, how about you? Are you a Skulduggery Pleasant fan? Any favorite side characters who share Scapegrace’s traits or instances where you’ve put a twist on the cowardly idiot trope yourself? Let me know in the comments below (you may need to exit mobile only mode), and if you want more story craft lessons sent straight to your inbox, make sure to sign up for my newsletter in the sidebar.