… And the fate of the very world hangs in the balance! Wait! Conan, wait! Where are you going? Come back here this instant!
We talked, last week, about a classic high fantasy trope I can’t help but like: the United Colours of Fantasy Benetton. This week, we’ll move on to something a little less salutary; see, all those elves and dwarves would be a lot more likeable if they just stopped saving the world.
So you’re wandering down Your Favourite Street – let’s call it Yonge, because Toronto is the centre of the universe – when suddenly, you’re accosted by a robed figure.
“Repent!” quoth he. “The whore of Babylon something something fire and brimstone! Cats and dogs, sleeping together!”
Do you: a) avoid eye contact, keep right on walking; b) engage in conversation; c) offer him your unconditional fealty and strike a blow against all those filthy world-enders?
And yet, every other high fantasy is about Dark Lords and armies of the damned and forests of woe and the fate of the very world hangs in the balance.
Yes, I know, the logic of a fantasy world is different. When the pointy-hatted wizard shows up and tells you that the Evil One is plotting an apocalyptic jamboree, there’s a half-decent chance he’s telling the truth. (Though it really wouldn’t hurt to toss some skeptics in there now and again).
The save-the-world part of good save-the-world stories inevitably fades into the background. I’m not sure we actually care that Sauron’s orcs are on a rampage, except in the most fluffy, generic orcs-and-war-are-bad sort of way. The world-shaking threat is just a data point. Lord of the Rings works because of Frodo’s addiction to the ring. It works because of the way Sam and (perversely) Gollum help him to work through that addiction.
Likewise, Avatar: the Last Airbender succeeds because of its wit, its excellent characters and the interplay between them. Does anybody really care that the Fire Nation might take over the world? Aang – the Avatar – does, and that’s mostly because he blames himself for shirking his responsibility and allowing things to go so far in the first place. There’s context there, not straight, unearned authorial fiat.
These stories work because their writers understood that readers can’t meaningfully engage with existence-level stakes. They’re too abstract. We can’t even agree on greenhouse emissions. Readers need characters to identify with, and themes to subconsciously pull everything together…
… and yet, for every half-decent use of the trope, we get a bludgeon used to beat character development into submission.
“… And you must lead the armies!”
“Dude, kinda busy with these three kids and the harvest coming in. Wouldn’t it make more sense for you to go tell, I dunno, an actual soldier?”
“No. For the very fate of the world hangs in the balance!”
“Oh, well that’s alright then. Let me just pack a lunch and abandon my every responsibility, and I’ll be right with you.”
We hates it. Yes, we hates the nasty little writerses.
I think a lot of it comes from a desire to raise the stakes. When faced with the inevitable collapse of the world, surely our characters must be motivated. Surely, our readers must care.
I’m not sure either is true.
There’s a sense in a lot of genre literature that the plot is, de facto, everything; we’ve set up a threat and the only proper source of drama and climax is the solution to that threat.
That’s a rather limiting view. Far better drama has been built from humbler building blocks. We identify far more easily with the fate of a single well-liked character than the world that character inhabits.
Take The Wire. Do we even care whether the police get their drug-dealers? What is the destination, compared to the journey? What’s a warrant and an arrest compared to Bubbs fighting his heroin addiction, or McNulty’s narcissism, or D’Angelo growing further estranged from the life he’s been born into? Setting can go a long way in contextualizing a given work, but in the end, characters are the real source of drama, because it’s through their eyes that we’re introduced to conflict.
If you absolutely must save the world instead of, say, reuniting a father with a daughter or watching a rogue claw his way to the top of the underworld pile, fine. That’s on you. But the fate of the world can’t carry a book. You need a lot more in there.