The Mad Scientist Narrative Arc

Let’s talk a little bit about what I like to call the Mad Scientist Plot Line or Narrative Arc. I outlined this particular series of events in my post on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:

  1. Mad scientist thinks of crazy goal.
  2. Mad scientist accomplishes crazy goal.
  3. Mad scientist becomes horrified at his own accomplishment.
  4. Mad scientist tries to rectify the problem.
  5. Mad scientist dies.

Now, I know it might be a little bit early to be talking about general plot lines, considering I’ve only read four books from my list, but I have a feeling that we’ll see this general story line in later novels, and it’s a fun one so I really wanted to talk about it now. It appears in full in Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde and to a lesser extent in Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Time Machine.

Since I love reading and writing, and since I’m writing my own science fiction novel, I find it fascinating to dissect the stories, ideas and science of this genre. So let’s get started with the first step of this narrative arc.

Plot Point 1: This Is a Great Idea!

Let’s start with the first plot point of this story line: thinking of an impossible goal. Frankenstein, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jekyll and Hyde and The Time Machine all feature protagonists consumed by one insane goal: Viktor Frankenstein wants to reanimate a corpse; Otto Liedenbrock wants to visit the center of the planet; Dr. Jekyll wants to split his good side from his bad side; and the Time Traveller wants to, well, travel through time (#nobigdeal.) These goals all cross some sort of line, whether it’s an ethical line or simply a personal safety line. But being men of science, they just don’t care.

Plot Point 2: It’s Alive!

The characters work tirelessly on achieving their goals, and none of them can see the problem with what they are trying to achieve, so blinded are they by ambition. This is really important because if they did realize, there obviously wouldn’t be a story. Moreover, this is a great character flaw to incorporate into a story’s protagonist. I’ve mentioned before that one of the differences between modern tales and classic tales like the ones I’m talking about here is that classic tales are more character-driven.

The protagonists are flawed in some way so that their actions directly push the story forward. And with the exception of Otto Liedenbrock, each character does actually accomplish his goal. So points 1 and 2 represent possibility, drive, action, and conflict; if you work hard enough, rigorously enough, and are determined enough, you too can make your crazy dream come true (though it might cost you!). This leads us to the next point.

Plot Point 3: This Was a Horrible Idea!

Upon accomplishing their goals, the characters must realize the error of their ways. (Points 3-5 apply mainly to Victor Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll). Victor Frankenstein is most notable among the pack because the second his creations comes to life, he freaks out and abandons it (#youdidntthinkthisthrough), basically condemning himself and his creation to a life a misery forever more.

Actually, both Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll spend the rest of their days suffering as a result of having accomplished their ethically questionable goals. Only after accomplishing their goals do these characters really come to understand the negative implications of having done so. So let this serve as a warning to all! 

Plot Point 4: I Can Fix This!

Step 4 in this narrative arc is the protagonist trying to solve the problem he has created. Again, the hubris-filled character flaw I describe above provides the momentum for the rest of the story. The protagonist has created a problem and now needs to rectify it or face certain doom. Needless to say, he can’t fix it. Frankenstein’s creation, let’s call him Jack, becomes an extremely intelligent, independent being. Try as he might, Frankenstein cannot destroy him. Dr. Jekyll experiences the same thing with his evil side, Mr. Hyde.

It’s interesting to note here that the Time Traveller freaks out at the state of the future world to which he travels and subsequently tries to help out the Eloi in that world. At least, this is what the ending would have you think even though it’s not so clear. So we’re not sure if he is successful or not. 

Plot Point 5: My Days Are Numbered and I Must Die

The last stop on this narrative arc is the death of the protagonist. This part is optional depending on how the story has progressed. Both Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll die trying to destroy what they have created. Interestingly, Liedenbrock does not die but he does not accomplish his goal of reaching the center of the Earth either, so he doesn’t have to die. And we simply don’t know what happens to the Time Traveller. 

The death of the protagonist can be seen as his retribution; he crossed the line and now he must face the consequences of his actions. After all, you can’t do ethically and morally questionable science and get away with it! But, I think, the death can also be seen as the final freedom for the character. The protagonist got himself into a situation that took over his life and made him miserable, and his death finally brings him peace (or does it?).

Well, at least he can finally rest.