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  1. Autokrat
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    Autokrat New Member

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    Oh Terrible Chessmaster

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Autokrat, May 6, 2010.

    Oh Terrible Chessmaster​

    The Chessmaster is one of my most favorite character tropes in fiction. Maybe it's because I'm a bastard, but I really like the Chessmaster. I love characters that outwit and make fools of other characters by correctly guessing the odds or moving the right pieces into place. It's a matter of personal taste obviously, but one way or another, I love the Chessmaster.

    What I don't love, is the Chessmaster gone wrong.

    Alright, you're asking. What is the “Chessmaster” gone wrong?

    The Chessmaster gone wrong results when you have a manipulating character that just knows what should be impossible for him/her to know. Predicting the future is hard and even the most ingenious characters with towering IQs and phenomenal pattern recognition, will have difficulty predicting even simple events with any degree of accuracy. Too many writers (in my opinion) fall into the trap of having a smart character manipulate events down to the finest details, pulling the setting and characters within like strings. Unless this character is privy to some form of supernatural foresight (or a mathematical model capable of replicating such foresight like as Asimov's Psychohistory,) this concept is absurd. This makes for a bad Chessmaster and a canon sue character.

    What then, is a good Chessmaster?

    A good Chessmaster, is a character that doesn't base their plans around the fine details. A good Chessmaster, is a character that lays out their plans based on the events most likely to happen. They play the odds they believe will most likely result in a positive outcome. A Chessmaster never knows what is going to happen. They may believe that certain results will be more likely than others, but they will never truly know them. It is not dissimilar to counting cards because ultimately, the Chessmaster is a gambler, playing the odds.

    Even when events don't go their way, the true Chessmaster is adept at adapting. Making good use of a bad set of cards is what really shows a character's intelligence.

    So why do so many writers get it wrong?

    Because, writing a good Chessmaster is hard. The character trope presupposes that the Chessmaster is going to be a kind of strategic genius.

    How do you write a good Chessmaster then?

    Before you can create a Chessmaster, you have to know the variables. Chessmasters act in a logical fashion and ergo, they will know the variables that create the premises in their arguments. A Chessmaster makes mental arguments about what he/she believes will happen and bases their plans around them.

    As a writer, you have to develop your setting to such an extent, that you know and understand all the variables your character will be considering. This is hard, but a necessary condition. It gets worse though, because even after you identify all the variables, you have to figure out these variables will effect each other.

    If Character A does Action Z, what will Character C do in response and how will that effect the actions of Character D?

    If Character C does Action Y in response to Action Z, how will that effect Character D? What if Character D responds with Action X? How will that effect Characters A and C? What actions will they do? What if Character D's Action X had an effect on more than just Characters A and C? What if Character F gets involved due to Action X? What action will Character F take and how will that impact the actions of Characters A, C and D?

    See how complicated that was? And that was just the framework of causality (case and effect) within limited parameters. I did not include detailed profiles of Characters A, C or D and nor did I specify details of Actions Z, Y and X. The cause and effect is alone, a difficult thing to keep track of, regardless of the specific details.

    How do I keep track of Cause and Effect then?

    I imagine many writers have different ways of doing this, but for me, I use a whiteboard. I literally use a big whiteboard and cover it with lines, showing how one action results in another, like a flow chart. A lot of people will find that it helps to have a visual reference to look back to, so they can actually see what is happening.

    Now, we have two rules to follow:

    1. Know the variables.
    2. Know how the variables interact with each other.

    What is next then?

    Chessmasters have goals, be they the protagonist or antagonist. Therefore, they have to figure out which variables to use to achieve that goal. By knowing the variables and knowing how the variables interact with each other, they can know what would be the best action to take to achieve the most positive of results, or play the odds in the best way possible. Three rules then.

    1. Know the variables.
    2. Know how the variables interact with each other.
    3. Understand the goal and what actions can most likely achieve the goal based on the prior two rules.

    By no means or any of those three rules easy, but they are the rules that I tend to follow when developing the plots of my Chessmaster characters. Naturally, this is just the technique I use and my opinion, but I figured I would share it.

    As a writer, you may not be as smart as the character you are writing about, but you do have a very powerful advantage, you know far more than any one character in your setting or story is going to know, ergo you can use that to develop realistic and satisfying characters that cleverly manipulate the odds.

    Also, this is by no means a comprehensive guide, this is just something I threw together as a kind of helpful a starter.
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    What you have described is not a chessmaster, it is a poker player. He calculates the odds and plays accordingly.

    The chessmaster has considered the possible choices he can make, and what consequences can come back to bite him the worst. He then chooses the option that minimizes his risk, but also is looking ahead to what his next move should be, depending on what happens next.

    The chessmaster doesn't play the odds. He plays for the minimum risk. He assumes that any opposition will always choose the strategy that will do him the most damage, even if the opposition is unlikely to find it.
     
  3. Eternity
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    Eternity Member

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    Ummmm.... what is a "chessmaster" in writing? A "poker player"? I've never heard these terms before. Any other terms like this that I don't know about?
     
  4. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    They aren't writing terms. He was drawing a metaphor for his character, and I suggested that his metaphor was flawed (an opinion).
     
  5. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    an opinion to which i agree in toto!
     
  6. Eternity
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    Eternity Member

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    I still don't really get it. :( That's okay, thanks for explaining it anyway! :p
     
  7. ManOfSteel
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    ManOfSteel Member

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    Eternity, there's a website called tvtropes. You can get its URL from Google, and search for the "Chessmaster".
     
  8. Loup
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    Loup Member

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    Without being mean, I don't see the whole point of it. Maybe I should get glasses, but really I don't get it. Could you join an example in order to support your theory please ?
     
  9. Norm
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    Norm Contributing Member

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    I appreciate your detail OP. I especially like when antagonists are 'chessmaster' types that always stick the protag in situations where they either get a sudden stroke of genius or just very lucky to survive.

    Anyway, I think your guide is very informative, and an interesting read.
     
  10. Anonym
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    Anonym Contributing Member

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    Wow. Semantics aside, this is a good read. I too loath the infallably omniscient 'chessmaster'. Well done.
     
  11. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I also feel the need for an example. Does Iago qualify as a Chessmaster?
     
  12. JTheGreat
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    JTheGreat Contributing Member

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    This sounds like a Xanatos Roulette to me *Facepalms From Too Many Hours on TvTropes*. But really, Xanatos Roulettes really play the odds, to the extent that the character should be psychic for the plot to even be plausible. The more benign, yet equally complicated version is the Xanatos Gambit.

    Nyah, TvTropes DOES ruin your life!

    I suggest mapping out a plan, like your character would in-story, except he/she would probably do so mentally. If you've already written out a main plot chart, it helps, 'cause you can connect what's going on with your Chessmaster to the events in the story.
     
  13. JTheGreat
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    JTheGreat Contributing Member

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    Have you ever watched Death Note? Both L and Light are Chessmasters. As are Artemis Fowl, Azula, Themistocles, and Dumbledore.

    But yes, Iago is an ancient Chessmaster. Shakespearian, too.
     
  14. Lankin
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    Lankin Member

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    I was about to write that, hey :)
    But seriously, Iago is so much more...
    Never heard the term "chessmaster" before in this context, so thank you for the thread.
     
  15. deltaquid
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    deltaquid Member

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    But it kinda gets sad if there's a wannabe-chessmaster who gets outbested and fails miserably.
     
  16. DanielCross
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    DanielCross Member

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    @autokrat

    I prefer Magnificent Bastards :p

    And tvtropes make your life better. Just shorter :p


    kind of an inside joke
     
  17. Zwinge
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    Zwinge New Member

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    There was a youtube video that made fun of the chessmaster archetype. It had Dr.Doom and Lex Luthor fighting. One would go, "ha I went back in time and stopped you from stopping me" and then the other would go "ha I knew you would do that so i went back in time to stop you from going back in time to stop me from stopping you." and went on and on and on. That is a chessmaster gone wrong.
     
  18. Kirvee
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    Kirvee Contributing Member

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    I, too, love the Chessmaster type of character. None of my characters have ever approached me with that particular mentality, but I do enjoy that type in other writing. Like two of my favorite manga :-D.

    For the people here wanting an example, I suggest you go read Black Butler. It's a manga and the main character, Ciel Phantomhive, is an excellent Chessmaster example for what the OP was getting at.

    And as someone else previously said, L and Light from Death Note are also Chessmaster characters. Vincent from Pandora Hearts is also kind of a Chessmaster.
     
  19. MadMiro
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    MadMiro New Member

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    Aizen from the manga Bleach is a Chessmaster to the max (and a badly written one it seems since he knew what was going to happen to the main character every step of the way). Honestly, there are more than a fair share of mangas that have this type of character.
     
  20. Kirvee
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    Kirvee Contributing Member

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    @Miro: Aizen was a Chessmaster during the Soul Society Arc, I do agree with you there.

    But recently (As far as the anime goes. I haven't really been reading the manga that much), he seems to have degraded to more of just the all-knowing villain that you hate with a passion but can't help liking him because he's so BA (and has a mullet).
     
  21. JTheGreat
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    JTheGreat Contributing Member

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    Pretty much all most Death Note characters are chessmasters, not counting the ones that have no idea what the frick's going on (Matsuda XD).

    BTW, TvTropes planted a malware in my PC, so in a sense, it really did ruin my life. Waaaaah....
     
  22. Unit7
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    Unit7 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah but we love Matsuda anyways. :)
     
  23. Kirvee
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    Kirvee Contributing Member

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    @J: Lol Matsuda. Well, in a way, his presence needed to be there because a series with only chessmasters wouldn't function too well if it didn't have the clueless-but-lovable idiots. Someone has to be the pieces for the chessmasters, after all.

    As for the malware, probably a bad ad. I've been there plenty of times and never got a virus from them, or an alert from my Norton.
     
  24. Unit7
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    Unit7 Contributing Member Contributor

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    That and to give them a reason to explain some things. While in Death Note its not uncommon for either Light or L to explain somethings while thinking to themselves. But often, they would be forced to dumb it down a bit and explain it so that the readers/viewers could easier understand.

    Or maybe I have this wrong?
     
  25. JTheGreat
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    JTheGreat Contributing Member

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    You're pretty right, in a way. I think that Matsuda is more than an expository device. He contributes comic relief and innocence to such a dark premise, showing that not all of those characters are corrupt Kiras. Oh, and he delivers the final blow in the end, showing his true purpose.
     
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