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Oct 252011

There’s something blissfully surreal about Halloween. I’m not quite clear on how a festival concerned with our departed loved ones turned into a monster movie turned into sugar shock, but I do love watching all of these little monsters gallivant about and demand candy.

I love monsters. I think every fantasy reader does. One might be forgiven for thinking there’s something charmingly anachronistic about them; a reminder of a more credulous time when evil things lurked just outside the ring of torchlight. Indeed, most of us over the age of eight aren’t really afraid of the supernatural. I’m not even sure that’s possible in a post-Scooby Doo world …

… and yet, the 2000s and 2010s may be the monster-iest decade we’ve had in at least a century. Vampires are everywhere and no G20 or OWS protest would be complete without its incongruous zombie walk. And the reason is simple: we may not be afraid of monsters, but we’re still plenty afraid of the things they stand in for.

What are we afraid of? Sex.

Vampires are to our time what ninjas were to the ’80s. They’re on TV, they’re in movies, they’re in books. They run the gamut from villains to anti-heroes to brooding, tortured heroes. No longer content with ‘traditional’ depictions, we’re throwing a coat of glitter on them and having them parade about in sunlight. We are, no doubt, only a few steps away from a band of teenage vampires that live in the sewer, eat pizza, and bludgeon gang violence. In short, vampires have gone from cinnamon artfully dashed about to a heaping bowl of salt upended into our collective wheaties.

And nobody takes more blame for this than Twilight, which is frequently accused of stripping out everything that’s scary about vampires in order to indulge tweens who have just recently discovered fetishism. It’s to be expected. Whenever something blows up in popularity, the hipsters come out. I liked vampires before they were cool. When it was all about the scary monster violence, man. Now it’s all just tawdry sex.

The irony of all this is that Twilight is just carrying Bram Stoker’s torch. Vampires have always been about sex. Dracula, the prototype for modern depictions of vampirism, is essentially a sexual predator. He seduces the local womenfolk, nibbles on their necks, and turns them into his blood-sucking brides. He’s charming, urbane, glamorous, rich and a whole lot of other nice things, and if those nice things get you into his boudoir, it’s perdition for you – you’ll never be the same again. Dracula, in its obsession/repulsion with sexual themes and the oblique nature in which it references them, is an essentially Victorian work. Given that our societal outlook on sex has changed so much, it’s probably to be expected that vampires aren’t really at the top of the villain list any longer …

… and yet it’s interesting to note that the current vampire revival started with Anne Rice. Her books became popular in the ’80s, when the high-profile rise of blood-borne AIDS made sex scary again.

What are we afraid of? Anger.

Vampires may have gone all soft on us, but werewolves are old reliable. They still transform when the moon is full, and they still rampage about, eating everything in sight. While Twilight is apparently trying to throw a coat of glitter on them as well, I’m not sure there are enough furries in the world to make werewolves into a sexual thing.

The defining feature of the werewolf is a loss of control; he’s essentially a fuzzy Jekyll and Hyde, doomed to transform from a dapper doctor to a snarling beast. The werewolf is a rabid animal, a rock star one hurled whiskey bottle away from self-destruction. It lives simply to kill (and sometimes eat, although that’s typically not considered an important part of the mythos), and inevitably, the people likeliest to become the werewolf’s victims are its nearest and dearest. The werewolf can’t control itself. It’s every little explosion we’d like to take back, all the regret we’ve built up over a lifetime of accidentally killing and eating our husbands and wives.


What are we afraid of? Mindlessness.

Zombies are in a strange place. They’re almost as popular as vampires, and even share one of their most common characteristics: the ability to propagate via the medium of chewing on the living. But where vampires still cling to a few shreds of dignity, zombies have exchanged self-respect for parody. They’re dangerous only through overwhelming numbers and tirelessness. Their shambling is easily outrun. There’s no need for silver bullets or garlic: they’re defeated through the low-tech application of blows to the head. They groan things like ‘braaaains’.

I guess we have to blame George Romero for this one. Dawn of the Dead and its sequels are the archetypal zombie apocalypse movies: plague of unknown origin, everybody wants to eat brains, plucky band of protagonists try to escape and are then forced to hole up someplace and hope they can wait it out. Except with parody. Romero’s movies were a commentary on mindless consumerism. There’s a reason why Dawn of the Dead was set in a shopping mall.

The mindless hunger of the modern shambling zombie (or its cousin, the speedy zombie of 28 Days and the like – a ghoul, in nerd parlance) goes back to the zombie origin story. Voudoun practitioners in West Africa and notably Haiti designed and applied – allegedly and quite possibly apocryphally – with a chemical treatment / sensory deprivation combo designed to convince people that they were in fact dead in order to break their spirits and turn them into the perfect slaves. Yes, this sounds mental, but how accurate the sources are isn’t particularly important where mythologizing is concerned, and there’s a very short leap from the perfect mindless slave to … well, the perfect mindless slave of capital. The exact nature of zombie stupidity changes with the depiction, but the core of it remains: zombies want to eat brains because they haven’t got any of their own, and they want you to be just as dumb as they are.

What are we afraid of: Collective guilt.

The ghost story is, in many ways, the least uniform of monster stories. Virtually every civilization we’ve got has some form of afterlife belief in its cultural playbook, and sheer volume makes it difficult to find ties between phantoms and spooks that go deeper than the fact that they’re dead.

Given that, it’s almost surprising how consistent western depictions of ghost activity are. The traditional formula is simple: a living person is wronged or has done wrong, and must now spend an eternity suffering for the sin. And if, in the doing, said ghost can terrify or kill a few tourists and their mangy dog, so much the better.

There’s an element of injustice to the standard ghost story. When a murderer is consigned to eternal haunting, well, that’s just Biblical. But when the ghost is an eternal victim, something’s gone badly wrong in the afterlife’s HR department. It’s not our fault that Old Man Murray kidnapped and killed thirty accountants, but try telling that to the crazy thing trying to brain us with flying ledgers. The ghost is the victim of circumstance, and we’re the victims of … well, ghosts. It’s the job of the living to atone for – or simply get the hell away from the result of – the sins of the dead, because the results of their actions remain with us.

And that sucks, because all we wanted was a spiffy new house.

Happy Halloween!

Sep 202011

… And the fate of the very world hangs in the balance! Wait! Conan, wait! Where are you going? Come back here this instant!

Fucking barbarians.

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.

Aug 302011

The average fantasy career seems to entail a lot of travel and vagrancy, and an income made up mostly of whatever can be found in the pockets of orcs that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We have names for this career path here in the real world, but none of them are ‘adventurer’, and most carry a mandatory sentence.

And when we’re not writing some sort of ronin, we toss in the standard magic farmhand, who dreams of glory and will learn important lessons about something or other from a wise mentor when he predictably leaves his entire family behind to go adventuring, for some no-doubt excellent reason that a real human being would totally go for. (Alternately, of course, his beloved village might be torched by the Dark Lord for another no-doubt excellent reason).

Interestingly, our farmhand never seems to know a whole lot about, say, weather or growing cycles, but he usually knows how to read. He’s been living on the 13th-century equivalent of Dragonlance novels, y’see, despite the fact that a) he’s uneducated and b) the farming day is about 20 hours long. Indeed, it’s a minor miracle if our farmhand ever actually farms something, which raises questions like “So why is he a farmer anyway?” and “Would somebody please burn down this Beloved Village already?”

Giving our heroes actual jobs makes a certain amount of sense. A job can be a hook to get them into the adventure, and it can contextualize their abilities so that you don’t have to pull out some surprise I-knew-how-to-ice-skate-all-along twist when the evil Penguin Lord takes to the glaciers. And, from the standpoint of verisimilitude, it … y’know, makes a certain amount of sense that our adventurers have lives outside of adventuring.


Job Description: confidence jobs, theft, shake-downs, beatings, the occasional murder
Must Have: entrepreneurial spirit, knife
Occupational Hazards: imprisonment, betrayal of and by allies, crises of conscience

The classic adventurer, as seen in sword-and-sorcery novels and World of Warcraft, is basically a criminal already, so the job lends itself perfectly to the patterns of a guy played by Toshiro Mifune or Clint Eastwood. The traveling can be explained by the need to get out of Dodge now and again, and the income takes care of itself when you shank some villager leaving the pub and rifle through his pockets for… I dunno, chickens or some shit.

The criminal will know all sorts of neat adventurer tricks, like how to pick a lock, how to kill a dude and make it look like an accident, and when a welcome has been overstayed and it’s time to mosey on out. He can be pulled into the adventure when he’s imprisoned and given One Last Chance to redeem himself (sort of like Frank Abagnale, only with more dead orcs), or when he steals something he oughtn’t and is relentlessly pursued by the Dark Lord’s Hooded Cronies.


Job Description: Filling woodland animals with spears, arrows
Must Have: spears, arrows, duck calls, patience
Occupational Hazards: bears, treacherous terrain, US vice-presidents
Better-educated Variant: Explorer/Cartographer

The farmhand’s more adventure-inclined cousin, the hunter is a good choice for a salt-of-the-earth hero who comes ready-made with skills that can be adapted for battle. He knows all sorts of things about travel and survival, and since every uncharted fantasy territory is basically orc heaven, there’s a decent chance he already has some experience under his belt when it comes to the Dark Lord’s fell beasties.

He’ll be pulled into the adventure when visiting knights-errant need a guide into the wilderness, when he’s captured by orcs while out hunting and needs to escape to warn his beloved village, or when his beloved village is set aflame by the DarkzzzzzzZZzzZZzzzzz… oh, sorry, I must have dozed off a moment.


Job Description: Dicing, drinking, occasionally being sent off to kill things
Must Have: Weapons, armour, foul mouth
Occupational hazards: various stabby things, inevitable death after talking about sweetie back home and how his tour will be over in only two weeks
Variants: Mercenary

Soldiers are convenient. They have plenty of the classic adventurer attributes – the ability to fight, cover lots of ground, and stay upright despite being strapped with 80 lbs of weaponry – with all the authorial convenience of being easily ordered around. They’ll be pulled into the adventure when and where I damn well please, private. Now scrub me some latrines.

Former soldiers can most often be found tending bar or farming in the Beloved Village, and while they’re older and grizzled-er than their active compatriots, they still have weapons, ill-fitting armour, and a desire – frequently articulated – to show those kids how things were done in the old days. Perfect for the doomed-mentor-to-Jesus-not-another-fucking-farmhand role, the retired soldier will be pulled into the adventure when his Beloved Village etc.


Job Description: debauchery, mercantile endeavors, poor treatment of social inferiors
Must Have: inflated sense of self-worth, education, birth from correct uterus
Occupational hazards: poisoning-by-brother, revolting peasants

Nobles are convenient in the sense that they’re rich enough to fund whatever they might like to get up to and educated enough to provide some of those skills that you might want in a medieval adventuring party and can’t get elsewhere. The noble may know how to read and how to recognize the local heraldry. They’re decent in a fight, even if they tend to take the choicest mowing-down-peasants areas of the battlefield rather than the more sloggy, muddy action at the field’s centre, and unlike just about everybody else in Fantasyland, they’ve been raised on a proper balanced diet and as such have teeth and muscles.

But there are real inconveniences as well. First off, nobles are pretty recognizable. Sure, Fantasyland may not have TVs or tabloid reporters following the royal family around, but when all the peasants are ordered to flatten themselves to walls when Prince Valiant passes, they’ll probably learn his face. Plus, it’s tricky to infiltrate a ring of thieves when you’re the only one with perfect skin and all your teeth. Finally, nobles have duties to their families and the wealth and power to shirk anything too unpleasant that comes up, so they’re not easily browbeaten into heroism.

As such, consider ninth sons or what have you – in other words, those more likely to poison brothers than be poisoned by them. Being well behind the heir and multiple spares in the inheritance stakes, the ninth son a) needs to forge his own way armed with little more than eight thousand advantages over everybody else; b) is basically expendable if the King decrees that all noble families must pitch in against the Dark Lord.


Job Description: herbalism, divination, administering 13th-century contraception to local wenches
Must Have: herbs, weird shit in jars
Occupational hazards: zealots, Things Woman Was Not Meant to Unleash

The witch is the reclusive medieval equivalent to… y’know, a real doctor. In addition to leeching and bleeding, those mainstays of ancient medical practice, the witch knows a few things about actual healing, because she’s magically inclined and/or knowledgeable where herbs are concerned. But for all her talents and knowledge, something like 90% of her custom comes in the form of buxom local wenches still sweaty from tumbles in the hay.

Now, the availability of contraception terrified idiots even more in those days than it does now, so the witch has an unfortunate tendency to not-so-spontaneously combust. But if she can survive the depredations of the local yokels, the witch knows all sorts of interesting things about magic, the spirit world, and which mushrooms are edible and which will cause your soldier to flash back to the Battle of Hastings.

She’ll be pulled into the adventure when the Heroes show up on her doorstep covered in open sores because they packed a noble rather than a hunter and consequently ate the wrong kind of mushroom, or when the Beloved Village on which her custom depends is burned down.

In closing:

Fantasyland could really use some fire-fighters.

Join us next week, when we talk about something else.

Aug 022011

How do you find a gift for the deity who has everything? Sure, it’s the thought that counts, but there’s still something mildly embarrassing about offering up a glitter-and-macaroni thank-you card to a being that magicked up the entire world from formless chaos.

It’s a good thing, then, that our deities had the foresight to populate the earth with nature’s foremost spiritual currency. I speak, of course, of the humble goat.

Sacrifice takes many, many forms. Its most common face is a ritual of thanksgiving; of offering up to the spiritual world the gifts it’s bestowed upon us, to show our appreciation and – more importantly – to keep those gifts flowing. A sacrifice can burn or bleed or be spilled. It might be a goat, a prisoner of war, a sheaf of wheat, or a plate of cookies for Santa. Whatever the case, it must be valuable – it’s not a sacrifice, after all, if we’re not giving something up.

Animal sacrifice was the most common, and the oldest, take on this practice. It certainly predates people writing about it, but they have done, at length. There practically isn’t a holy book out there that doesn’t, at some point, discuss best practices: a hecatomb for the harvest, a goat for good health, conscious or unconscious, bled or burned.

Such rituals were not always wasteful. After all, once you’ve knifed a goat, something needs to be done with the body (sacrifice via immolation was somewhat cleaner, but more commonly practiced with wheat and other such bloodless rituals). While it was frequently the case that priests would, by complete coincidence, dine on goat for a week or two following a festival, it was also common to share sacrificial meat with the laity or distribute it to the poor.

Animal sacrifice, and the related sacrifice of other foodstuffs – most commonly grain or wine – are a sort of sympathetic magic, like for like. Give food that we may get food.

Human sacrifice was somewhat more wasteful. In a fantasy context, it conjures up images of demonic magic, or of princesses tied to posts that the dragon may eat them instead.

Mesoamerica is human sacrifice’s poster child. Aztecs were offered up en masse to this god or the other, and for the strongest reason of all: to stave off the inevitable end of the world. When prisoners of war weren’t available, they sacrificed their own people, and they were serious about it: the wiser or more beautiful, the better. As a symbolic measure, that’s pretty powerful stuff, but one imagines that killing off your smartest and strongest creates some governance issues.

Usually, though, human sacrifice was far more boring than that (except, one presumes, for the sacrifice). It was frequently just a two-birds-one-stone scenario: a way to rid oneself of pesky out-groups and please the gods with one thrust of the dagger. Prisoners of war and criminals were the most common targets in this context.

But there’s another face to human sacrifice, and one that’s more pleasing for pharaoh than Osiris. Burial sacrifice was not an offering up to deities, but rather a rite to ensure that the dearly departed had every possible advantage in the afterlife. And since our nobility has historically faced challenges such as inbreeding of such magnitude as to make even the most minor tasks impossible without help, that meant slaves (and even government functionaries, on the off chance that one might need help preparing one’s spiritual taxes) in addition to horses, boats, food and coin.

Echoes of this practice can be seen in many different cultures. Coins for the boatman were at once a sacrifice and an anti-inflationary measure (no, not really). Sati was retainer sacrifice for the masses, and makes for catchy slogans like ‘Bring your wife to the afterlife!’ A burial with weapons was not merely symbolic: Torstang the Mighty’s gonna need those swords when he gets to Valhalla.

Of course, human sacrifice eventually ran afoul of goddamn activist lawyers, and the prevalence of animal sacrifice began to decline as well. They were replaced by wishy-washy post-modern symbolic sacrifice. Now, instead of offering up a goat, you give up eating chocolate for a month. Odin wept.

Jul 262011

An interesting set of Open Yale lectures on the Old Testament make the argument that the evil ball didn’t find its way into Mesopotamian humanity’s court, philosophically speaking, until the development of Judaism.

The Jews demystified evil. Before their belief system came along, it was an animate force, a thousand little devils on shoulders, a thousand gods and malign spirits doing their thing for the greater bad. But when Simon’s brothers schemed to kill him for his coat, they weren’t possessed. They were just greedy, jealous assholes.

Certain branches of Christianity then went and remystified evil, of course, but it was never quite the same again. In the belief that there’s a devil lurking about, whose greatest joy in life is coaxing people into knocking over a convenience store, we see in some ways a return to one of the oldest human beliefs: that every human phenomenon is indeed a spiritual one, and that good and evil are constantly at war for our souls. Still, the cat of agency had already been let out of the bag of tortured metaphors, and even at its devil-made-me-do-it-est, Christianity stressed that there was a choice involved. It was possible for people to resist the supernatural lure of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

The nature of evil is one of those questions that pops up everywhere. If the gods are good, we wonder where all the wars and famines come from. If the gods are not so good, we wonder how best to buy them off. If it’s a mixed crop, we can’t help but wonder if they’re at war, and if we should bet on bad or good. It’s so common a question that you need to have an answer for your own writing.

Supernatural Evil

At long last, an excuse for all those Dark Lords and Forests of Woe and Killzor, God of Evil! Toss all that shit in there. It’s okay!

A society with a belief in tangible, spiritual evil is a superstitious society. It propitiates a hundred not-so-nice deities to look the other way. It prescribes exorcism and two aspirins for migraine relief. When the crops go bad, it accuses brownies, witches, or convenient foreigners. It has laws about ‘the evil eye’, and countless folk rituals to avoid it. Got a haircut? Burn the hair, or it might fall into the hands of a witch. In this sort of worldview, luck and simple coincidence are the sorcerous mumbo-jumbo. When weevils infest your favourite cigar, it’s because you pissed off the weevil spirit. Sacrifice a goat, and do better next time.

A world where this sort of belief system represents reality opens up some of the oldest fantasy cliches. If evil is an animate force, after all, perhaps it can be fought. Perhaps it makes sense, all of a sudden, to gather three dudes, an elf and a dwarf to head through the Vale of Darkness to the Mountain of Grim of Deeds, swords in hand. The orcs they butcher along the way can be cheerfully forgotten; they’re just mindless servants of the Dark Powers, after all.

If the Dark Lord can be killed, our dear adventurers will strike a blow for good, and it doesn’t seem quite as hokey as it otherwise might (well, it does, but in a good way). We depressing existentialists know that offing a Dark Lord really just takes out one of a thousand threats (and banking regulation would, frankly, save more lives at lower cost), but the Free Peoples of the World live in a different context. Their accomplishment is very real, and may have dramatic consequences. Evil might actually scurry back to its hiding places. There might be a happily ever after. Dwarves and elves will live together in harmony.

The Anthropogenic Theory of Evil…

… is one we don’t need to spend a whole lot of time on, I don’t think. Should we want to see a society that believes people and chance are responsible for the bad things that happen in the world, we can look out the window.

Perhaps the only thing that needs pointing out, here, is that the tropes of high fantasy are not modern, and that they don’t fit well into this sort of context (unless you’re playing at deconstruction). Sure, there may be a Dark Lord out there, and maybe he needs some offing, but he’s really not much more than an unpleasant dude who gathered a big army. We know full well that stopping him may do some good, but it’s not a panacea. And if we believe that evil is a reflection of choices made and not in some way inherent or supernaturally powerful, all those butchered orcs start to look a little bit like a war crime.

Of course, it’s worth mentioning that beliefs are a spectrum, and that it’s perfectly feasible to have a society that believes garden-variety bad things are just boys being boys, while famine and natural disaster are matters of pissing off the wrong god. Moreover, as with any belief system, it won’t be universally held. Those pesky evil deniers have been lobbying pretty damn hard.

Jul 192011

Last week, we discussed some of the basic concerns a fantasy author ought to keep in mind when designing a religion (or just filing the serial number off Zoroastrianism).

This week, we’ll dip into our grab bag to pick out a pair of religious/metaphysical questions whose answers can lend some cultural weight to your setting.

Standards of Proof
The biggest difference between a standard fantasy setting’s approach to life after death and our own is … well, zombies, really. Fantasy is so thick with the things (and ghouls, and vampires, and…) that it’s amazing necromancers aren’t unionized. Throw in a seance and a few resurrections, and you can potentially have entire societies with a strong, practically first-hand understanding of what precisely happens after they verb the noun*.

*I’m fond of the nonsensical ‘buy the farm’.

In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t really that big a change. Our earthly neighbours have managed to fervently believe all sorts of things without the need for proof, or indeed have chosen to disbelieve things that are staring them directly in the face (the blithering insanity of credit default swaps, say). So in one sense, you can keep on keeping on. Do note, though, that while skepticism is part of the human condition, it may look a little bit different in a world where answers exist. If you can climb Olympus to visit Zeus, “Are the gods real?” is not a question that’s going to get a whole lot of traction. But “Are the gods truly divine, or just really powerful magicians?” might, and I can’t wait to see what sort of animal Zeus will turn that little doubting Patroklos into.

The Afterlife
While we’re here: a belief in (or understanding of) the afterlife shapes a society. An afterlife belief can be a source of comfort: don’t worry how things are going in this life, because it’s not that important in the grand scheme of things. It can also be a source of wine-swilling life-is-finite terror: what do you mean I get to spend infinity in some grey
morass with a bunch of depressed ghosts?

One of the first things to bear in mind is that burial rituals may have very real effects in a fantasy world. A shoddy burial might keep someone from moving on, and perhaps very real spiritual problems arise if one’s buried according to a different religion’s playbook. Or perhaps proper burial rites can keep somebody from a long unlife of brain-eating. If the local necromancer is known to pop by and raise the occasional army, you can bet even the cash-strapped kingdom will find a way to shell out for incense.

The afterlife may not be for everybody. Perhaps most of us just die, and only the beardiest and killiest get to swill mead with Odin. If that’s the case, I’d think pretty seriously about investing in blacksmithing and life insurance, because there’s going to be a lot of swords swinging about. Perhaps the afterlife is means-tested. If you can’t pay the boatman because somebody pilfered your coins, sucks to be you. If you can’t get buried with your slaves and enough food for the journey, well, maybe you should’ve been a pharaoh. Such limitations on who gets to play at forever are perhaps the clearest reflections of a society’s values.

Perhaps there isn’t an afterlife, because infinity takes place right here. Reincarnation can also have a moral element. Do well, and you come back as a mighty eagle. Kick a nun, and it’s horsefly time. Interesting questions for fantasy sorts might include: “How much memory do people have of their past lives?” Eternal lovers or enemies are an ancient story, but they’re not the only possibility. Want to be rid of a particularly meddlesome courtier? Send him in search of a particularly Bob-looking eagle.

Finally, perhaps there’s no afterlife because we die and… well, that’s that. That hacking sound is a weeping necromancer. Won’t somebody please think of the necromancers?

Jul 122011

There’s an awful lot of atheists in fantasy’s foxhole. It’s somewhat rare to see religion playing much of a role (outside the antagonistic, which is quite well represented) in the behaviour or thoughts of our various characters. Yet there’s something bizarre about setting a novel in a medieval Europe with no friars or monasteries, or in a Rome without constant propitiation, or in an Imperial China without the Mandate of Heaven.

I understand this. There’s a question of ‘write what you know’, and while many of us certainly are religious, the question of faith is approached very differently now than it was even five hundred years ago. If we’re writing a priest, we’ll send him to church now and again, job well done.

Of course, there’s also the controversy. No matter how you incorporate religion, there’s a decent chance you’ll offend somebody. I’m sure readers of faith are a little tired of seeing organizations superficially like their own brought out only when it’s time to burn a witch or two. Readers of a more skeptical bent can’t help but cock an eyebrow when we come across The Irreproachable Order, who in between opposing the Dark Lord at every turn organize bake sales, run a puppy shelter and heal the sick without any compensation or the smallest division in the ranks.

Today, we’ll discuss religion in fantasy writing, with an eye primarily to organized ‘modern’ faiths (i.e. 2000BC and on; we have an interesting relationship with your newfangled ‘modernity’ here at crow on a wire). Animism, ancestor worship and the like will wait for another day.

The cardinal rule

Any organization – religious or otherwise – is capable of doing great good and great harm, often at the same time, and sometimes in the exact same context. To take a simple example, Dominican friars were one of the earliest forces to speak out against slavery, and indeed the abolitionist movements in Europe and in North America owe a lot to them, to Quakers and, eventually, to the Papacy… but it was a much earlier Papal bull that legitimized European enslavement of African colonies in the first place, by convincing the laity that it was totally cool as long as you did it to Saracens and Moors (who themselves had a rocky relationship with slavery, of course).

This sort of thing is inevitable. Faith organizations are just as prone to infighting and politicking as everybody else. The seizing of temporal power with protestations of Deus Vult started when the very first shaman realized people were really keen on doing what the spirits told him, and it hasn’t let up since.

The important thing: this is not, in any way, shape or form, a condemnation of or an argument against organized religion. It’s simply the game of power disparities being played in yet another arena, and the religious part of it is practically incidental. It’s as human as the big monkey chasing the little monkey away from his stash of nuts. And faiths have been – and will continue to be – both monkeys.

Religion has inspired great men like Martin Luther King Jr., and it’s also brought us swine like Ted Haggard. Or, perhaps more accurately, great men like MLK find beauty in religion, while venal men like Haggard go straight for the ugly, the divisive.

Religion is complicated, it affects people differently, and organizational behaviour doesn’t always intersect neatly with the principles for which that organization stands.

So, rule the first: don’t write a polemic. A religion whose every priest is a money-grubbing hypocrite or a fire-and-brimstone moral crusader is exactly as believable as Standard Fantasy Monoculture. I think we’ve moved past the land of every-dwarf-is-a-Scots-drunkard.

This isn’t some sort of bid for ‘political correctness’, nor is it the exultation of verisimilitude for its own sake. It’s just writing. Different characters can explore different approaches to religion, and that can be really, really interesting.

What religion is

A religion is equal parts philosophy and metaphysics. It’s a group identity and a set of behavioural guidelines for said group. It tells us what its adherents value, what they profess to value, and what punishments and rewards – if any – are laid out for good and bad behaviour. It explains how things came to be, and where they’ll end up, through the medium of metaphor (which, in the absence of Hubble telescopes, was most of what our forebears had to work with).

Every religious story about how something came to be is also a moral lesson. Abrahamic faiths will tell us that we speak in different languages because their god cursed the builders of the Tower of Babel. That’s an explanation of a natural phenomenon, but it’s also an injunction against hubris. If those pesky humans hadn’t tried to build so close to heaven, we’d all be speaking… er, Aramaic, I guess?

But did people actually believe all that?

That’s a thorny question. We like to pretend that our ancestors were credulous buffoons who accepted everything at face value, and that we enlightened sorts know it’s all just fable and metaphor.

In reality, the literalist/interpreter divide goes back quite a long way, as do prioritization questions – how much of this do we really need to follow?

The Protestant reformation, let’s remember, was in large part about that. Paul Veyne’s ‘Did The Greeks Believe Their Own Myths’ goes back even further, and addresses the issue with the argument that truth hasn’t always been about verifiability, which makes the scientists among us twitch, and those of us who pay attention to politics say “Duh” (also, twitch).

People are very, very capable of picking and choosing what exactly they want to believe in. The traditional-unto-the-point-of-cliche example is mixed fibres or shellfish. Leviticus hates ’em, but we don’t much care. But lordy, when two men want to marry, all of a sudden a poorly translated treatise on proper ritual behaviour for Levite priests becomes Holy Writ.

Do they actually believe this? Short answer: Yes, no, both, neither. Work out the details of belief character by character.

Spiritual distance

The idea of an ineffable, distant and omnipotent deity is a new(ish) one, in the grand scheme of things, but certainly appropriate for the medieval context in which most fantasies find themselves set.

If you’re looking further back, to Rome, or to the Celts, or to Egypt, you may wish to reevaluate this. Religious conceptions that predate Christianity (some might argue Judaism, for which see below) generally involve deities who are more likely to get their hands dirty down in humanland. They can be bargained with, they can be tricked, they can be bought off. They squabble with their co-deities. They’re prone to fits of god-sized jealousy and love to give insufficiently respectful worshipers a chance to cavort about in animal form, or roll boulders uphill forever.

They’re less like the modern conception of deity as Cosmic Dad, and more like royalty whose heads have swollen with power. And, importantly, this is frequently how they were treated by worshipers. Certainly, the gods were propitiated with sacrifice and people generally acted respectfully towards them, but it wasn’t a respect born of any great love – it’s just, if you don’t play nice, they’ll fuck your shit right up.

But even the Abrahamic faiths had their genesis (haw haw) in this religious context – the G*d of the Old Testament could just as easily be Odin. He appears to worshipers directly, makes bargains with them and is held to these bargains by his worshipers*, tricks people into demonstrating their loyalty, and alternates without warning between the magnanimous fellow that leads the Jews from slavery and a brooding, vicious sort that visits collective punishments on humanity.

*Okay, that last bit’s not very Odinly.

Who is worthy of speaking to the gods? Will they visit anybody? Can one interpret their words without the help of a qualified professional? These questions of spiritual distance can shape entire societies. If meeting a god is as simple as climbing Mount Olympus, or if they constantly and visibly intercede, that has implications on society far different than: “Yeah, he’s out there somewhere, being ineffable.”

Polytheism, monotheism, monolatry

Definition time! Polytheism = worship and recognition of many gods. Monolatry = recognition of the validity of many gods, but worship of only one. Monotheism = worship and recognition of one god.

After a few millennia of you-don’t-believe-what-I-believe strife, it’s easy to forget that, for the most part, earlier conceptions of religion generally made room for other people’s gods as perfectly valid – if, of course, lesser – spiritual options. In fact, when this whole organized religion thing was just finding its feet, there was a lot of “My dad can beat up your dad” going around. Conversions were common after losing battles, because hey, the other guy’s deity protected him better than ours protected us, so nuts to this weakling.

Cyrus, Persian imperialist extraordinaire, was the other side of that coin. When he took Babylon, he made a point of praising and publicly worshiping Marduk, that city’s god. Because why piss off the people you’re gonna rule, y’know? Ich Bin Ein Babyloner.

As monotheism became more common, this sort of your-god’s-cool-too approach faded in the Western world, until the Enlightenment and more modern times. Today, Unitarians are the foremost champions of the old ways: worship whoever you want, but stay for tea and cake.

Next time:

Religion in writing is an enormous topic, and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Join us next week, when we continue on in this vein but get into some specifics – ritual purity, animism, apotheosis, and how beliefs in the afterlife shape the now-life.

May 252011

Fantasy is, as a genre, about the supernatural, and in particular about magic. There are almost as many takes on how magic works as there are fantasy novels to read.

With the right approach, magic can be a tool to emphasize what should be emphasized, occlude what isn’t necessary, and draw readers more firmly into a story. The wrong approach brings us yet another battered-hatted wizard deus ex machina-ing his way to an unsatisfying climax.

To write a fantasy story in which magic is more than window-dressing, the author must ask some questions, make some decisions, and chart a whole lot of consequences.

The Purpose

So, why use magic in the first place? What does it accomplish? What’s it for?

The easiest, laziest answer is that it’s a fixture of the genre, and we use it because readers like it. Which, I mean, fair enough. C+. There is a certain grandeur to being able to move things with your mind, or shoot fire from your nostrils. But we’re after more than the cargo cult.

As I see it, magic has two purposes: the first is technical, the second thematic.

The technical explanation is fairly simple: magic allows us to break the rules a bit, and to build scenarios that highlight our themes without necessarily getting bogged down in whether or not something is realistic.

First, a question of plot. In the real world, when eight thousand orcs show up on your doorstep, your options are probably few and far between. Fantasy-land opens new plot options. Perhaps you’ve been debating signing over your soul to the Dark Lord for the sort of magical powers that could get you out of this mess. Is it better to live a life of servitude than to be poked to death with rusty steel? How will you react when you eventually learn the Dark Lord sent those orcs to hasten your decision? There’s nothing in this plot that couldn’t happen outside of fantasy per se: the Dark Lord could be a boss that’s willing to offer you a bonus for doing something unethical, and the orcs could be rumours of imminent downsizing. But orcs are more fun than accounting.

Second, a question of setting. Here, magic plays the same role as technology in sci fi – that is, we’re playing with the ‘speculative’ part of speculative fiction. How would the world be changed if magic could heal diseases, or conjure food out of thin air? How would that change, in turn, if this magic was ubiquitous or limited to a tiny handful of people? What would human spirituality look like if you could teleport yourself up a mountain and talk to Zeus in person?

There’s not necessarily anything here that can’t be written without magic – perhaps in lieu of conjuring up food we can talk about genetically modified soy – but fantasy makes certain things easier, and more importantly, it grants you a readership that’s willing to roll with it and slowly discover how your world works rather than experiencing dissonance every time something a bit far-fetched happens.

The thematic explanation was partly touched on in the last bit. Magic certainly allows you to hone in on certain themes, but it is in itself a sort of theme. Fantasy, with magic as its secret weapon, is essentially the fiction of the uniquely powerful. It allows us to tell stories about heroes or villains with capabilities that stretch disbelief well past the point where it might snap elsewhere… or it allows us to tell stories about the lot of the common bumpkin in a world far beyond his pay grade. How helpful would the villagers around Sherwood be if Sheriff Nottingham could scry their actions and then fry them with a waggle of his eyebrows?

Magic is power, and fantasy is about power – its exercise and its consequences.


The Rules

Now that we’ve established that magic allows us to break rules, it’s time to codify rules that govern it and stick to them, conformist squares that we are. We need limitations for our stories to make any sense.

“A Dark Lord rose up. When Tom found out about it, he teleported over and turned the evildoer into a newt. The End.”

Not the stuff of legend, that.

So if we’re to use magic, we must first and foremost decide who can use it, and what it can and can’t do. And as we’re doing so, we need to think about the effect of our decisions on the setting and make sure everything is congruent with the story we’re trying to tell. Maybe Tom can’t teleport, and he has to walk over the Dark Lord’s lair. Maybe he can only turn him into a newt if he collects the Six Talismans of Amphibia. Or maybe we could, y’know, write something good.

What can magic do? What are its limitations? I’m sure you’ve read a hundred stories in which magic could do just about anything, except *drum roll* raise the dead. (Still boring).

One of the most common magical beliefs in our own mythologies is that of sympathy; that is, magic can only affect something of which you have a piece. To turn into a swan, you need to wear a cloak of swan’s feathers. To torture someone from afar, you need a doll shaped like that person, and probably some of their hair or blood. Perhaps you can’t implant emotions into a victim, but you can tease at and emphasize emotions that already exist. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, people can learn to affect the elements, but in order to bend water to one’s liking, one must a) be near enough water to bend; and b) be born into one of the Water Tribes.

What can all wizards do? Can they all recognize when something is magical? Your story offers different possibilities if wizards instantly recognize each other as wizards, Highlander style, than it does if this is something they only learn by staring down a fireball.

What can no wizard do? Are the dead beyond our reach? Perhaps magic can never kill directly. Perhaps it can only affect the non-magical, and no wizard can cast spells on another.

What influences magic? Is it more powerful at night? Does it only work when the gods approve of a wizard’s ends? Are there any areas that are magic-dead? For that matter, does it always work the same way, or is there an element of chaos or caprice?

Whatever you decide, you need to work through consequences to ensure that it all holds together. In the D&D roleplaying game, even the most neophyte priest can conjure up food out of thin air, yet we’re frequently asked to believe that society is agrarian: that people farm and that droughts are a problem.

Does this make sense? Why not simply hire a priest to magic up some eating all day, every day? Well, some folks might argue that even neophyte priests are so few and far between that one can’t build an economy around them. All well and good, but somehow we have a neophyte priest in every adventuring party. If I were a church patriarch, I surely wouldn’t be letting my newbies wander off to get ganked by goblins when I could just put them to work making pies. That’s especially true given one of the most common rationales for an adventuring priest is to raise money for the faith. If I could poof up food from thin air, I doubt fund-raising would constitute a problem.

But perhaps the gods don’t want their worshippers creating food except in the direst emergency. Why might that be? Maybe the harvest god is offended that people are ignoring his beautiful wheat. Or perhaps magic can only make beef pies, and you need something else to ward off vitamin deficiency (why yes, we are reaching a bit). Or maybe we should can the food summoning idea because it changes the game more dramatically than we’re interested in dealing with.

Where does magic come from, and who can use it?

The most common answer throughout fantasy is that magic is inherent. Either you have it or you don’t. Does that happen along hereditary lines? If so, one can bet that wizards will be intermarrying to ensure passing on their magic. What if magical talent is completely unpredictable? Perhaps there’s an industry of quacks offering libations and amulets to guarantee that a child will be magical.

How common is it? The world is a very different place if wizards are common enough to be integrated into society, or to constitute their own societies. We can have items enchanted and sold in magic shops. We can have teleporter relays set up to whisk people away. But if we’re to do that, magic has to have fairly predictable workings and, of course, there needs to be a lot of it.

If wizards are rare, what does that mean? Are they primarily celebrated or feared? Will they absorb piles of yes-men, or draw a torch-and-pitchfork mob, or both? Obviously, if wizards are rare, we can’t have our magic shops. But were they always rare? Maybe what we have are relics of a golden age when blah blah blah (beware: golden ages when magic was still grand are one of the most tired fantasy cliches).

What if magic isn’t inherent? What if it’s basically just technology, and anybody is capable of learning how to use it? Will that knowledge be jealously hoarded, or encouraged? Can it even be hoarded, or is there a critical enough mass of rogue wizards selling teaching services that any attempt to keep magic bottled up is doomed to failure?

What if magic doesn’t come from the wizard, but from the environment? Here we come to another of our world’s most common magical traditions: shamanism. Perhaps magic is not something the shaman can do, but something he must convince the spirits to do on his behalf. All of a sudden, we need to understand those spirits: what they want, and why they do what they do. What price will those spirits exact? What if a well-loved shaman asks for something that isn’t in the spirits’ best interests? Perhaps, like Faust, wizards must make a contract with evil things. What responsibilities might that contract stipulate? Are there any loopholes in it? What kind of sorcery will a malign spirit grant? What price will it exact?

How and where does magic work? Nuts-and-bolts stuff. Do wizards need to wave their arms around and say the magic words? What happens when a non-wizard waves the same pattern and recites the same spell? Do wizards need wands? How long does it take to cast something? If the creation of magic is obvious, and a ritual takes a while to complete, a wizard might get stuck full of arrows before he can finish. Or a charlatan might wave his arms about to scare off brigands. But if you can just think a spell into being with no outward sign of doing so, the brigands might be in for a nasty surprise, and magic in general will be a bit scarier. After all, even your mild-mannered next-door neighbour might be a filthy Red.

We talked about sympathy earlier – if the alchemist wants to turn lead to gold, does he need some gold to start the process? If he wants to hurl a fireball, does he need sulfur?

Let’s say magic only works at night, or a shaman can only call the spirits if he ventures to the secret grove. What happens if a wizard’s enemy lays plans to attack during the day, or if the grove has been desecrated?

What if entire swaths of land are magic-dead, and no spells can be cast inside them? How’d that happen? If these areas can be recognized, maybe warlords will build forts in them to ensure they have nothing to fear from magical enemies.

Finally, why have we made the decisions we made? How do they support the story we’re trying to tell? We need to pull it all together and make sure, as my Polish compatriots say, that it has arms and legs.

Let’s say we want to tell a story in which magic is a heresy zealously expunged by inquisitors (classic fantasy cliche). If magic only conjures up pies and makes fluffy clouds and rainbows, it’s a bit of a hard sell. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it just means that we need to think about consequences. Peasants who like pies and rainbows will do their best to hide their magical buddies, and maybe eventually they’ll be pushed past their breaking point and rise up against the unfair zealots. But what if magic is genuinely dangerous? What if it’s hard to control? The inquisitors may find, all of a sudden, that they have more support.

Let’s say we want to tell a story in which a civilization collapses because magic stops working. Well, for a society to collapse for lack of magic, we need, first and foremost, magic that was common and dependable enough to integrate into its workings. And how did magic disappear? If an anti-magic zone just happened to spring up under our city, maybe it’s a matter of moving next door. But maybe the spirits we depended on to grant all this can no longer be contacted. Maybe they’ve been imprisoned, or wiped out, or they no longer approve of the way magic has been used? Why might that be? What can we do to solve the problem and bring magic back?

Traditional fantasy writing is, essentially, about magic. It’s critically important that we do it right. We have to know how it works, how it doesn’t, and what all that means. Even modest changes in the way these questions are answered can significantly impact the nature of a story.

Next time, I may do a Magic 201 case study, charting how magic works in my own fantasy writing and why I made the decisions I made. If that sounds interesting, or you have other subjects you’d like to discuss, please let me know in comments or via Twitter.

May 082011

A large part of the corpus of fantasy fiction is, and generally has been, aimed at youths.

Sometimes, this is explicitly intended – Narnia, Harry Potter, etc. – and in some cases, the underlying themes and assumptions so common to high fantasy find a young readership because they hold more appeal for the kids these days than they do for those of us who are more concerned with paying bills than hunting dragons.

How, then, does one write fantasy for adults?

In some ways, the assumptions behind that question are mildly silly. C.S. Lewis thought so, and gave us a gorgeous quotation in an essay on writing for children: “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

Which is to say, of course, that I don’t think adults typically find anything inherently off-putting in youth-focused fiction. The Bildungsroman is a fiction staple in any genre you could care to name, Glee is hyper-popular among its teen target market and adults alike, and of course everybody on the bus is reading Harry Potter (even if they’ve slipped it into a War and Peace book jacket out of embarrassment).

So on the one hand, I think the oppositional way in which some people approach adult-oriented vs. youth-oriented fiction is misguided, as is the (bizarre) idea that adults no longer have formative experiences and thus can’t be arsed to read about them.

On the other, of course, there’s a real difference between fiction targeted at somebody else that one can nevertheless enjoy, and fiction aimed directly at… well, us. And it’s true that, the Kays and Bakkers of the world notwithstanding, there really isn’t so much out there. Few fantasy novels have much to say about parenting, or mid-life crises, or nostalgia, or trying to keep a marriage together when you’re always heading out on business trips to chop some heads off.

But let me tell you, the I-just-want-to-pay-my-bills experience of adult life is very well represented. Semi-honourable thieves, poor honest men who could make a killing by… well, killing, but gave it up for lent, mercenaries willing to take any job with no questions asked: such characters are very much the stuff of fantasy. Indeed, once upon a time, sword-and-sorcery was built on their iron thews.

Meet Conan. Some of you may know him from a mildly awful (yet amusing) Arnold movie that entirely misrepresented the poor chap. The literary Conan was whip-smart, defiant, bipolar, not terribly discerning about where his income came from, and often disappointed or disgusted that the world outside his native Cimmeria just didn’t value good, honest, barbarism. (His answer was generally to cleave it in twain).

He was one of many such. Sword and sorcery was not really aimed at children (inasmuch as an entirely child-oriented fiction industry existed at the time; that’s a more modern conceit). The pulps, particularly the fantasy pulps in which we’re interested here, were penned at a difficult time, sandwiched between a war, a depression, and another war. They reflect it. There’s a wonderful Onion article in Our Dumb Century that laughs about the US finding solace in the wit and whimsy of H.P. Lovecraft’s utopianism. The joke is that the depression was so crushing that being killed or driven mad by gibbering cosmic entities and Nouns Man Was Not Mean to Verb constituted a step up.

Which isn’t to conflate adult with dark, of course. Those are orthogonal. I’m only pointing out that the answer to the question “Why doesn’t anybody write fantasy for adults?” is “We did.”

Why did pulps fall out of favour? Firstly, the ’50s did them in. When everything’s peachy-keen and our greatest concern is finding a way to hide our pregnant daughter from the Joneses, Lovecraft seems a relic of an entirely different eon, to say nothing of decade. There’s a reason why the ’50s gave us so much utopian sci-fi (up until the Cold War got a bit hotter). I also suspect we stopped identifying with the purely mercenary protagonist. Most of our thieves and lawbreakers these days have hearts of gold under there somewhere, and in fact the actual human consequences of their actions are usually glossed over so that we never have to think too hard about the fact that they’re maybe not the best of role models. At their best, they’re often the Sams Spade of the modern world – fakers who pretend at corruption and world-weariness but are actually driven by a rather strong moral idealism and a desire to do good things.

And, of course, one needs to consider the business of it all. When high fantasy sells and sells and sells for decades, publishers will want to see more high fantasy. There’s a perception among some of them that genuine, adult concerns don’t belong in genre, and so when books that deal with them are successful, there’s a bizarre song and dance to ignore and reclassify. 1984, Oryx and Crake, The Road. They’re not sci-fi. They’re not post-apoc. They’re Big Serious Literature.

(And they are, of course. But they’re Big Serious Genre Literature, or as close to it as makes no meaningful difference).

So how do we write fantasy for adults? We throw in a flawed protagonist and pull him into a situation that challenges those flaws. We remember that our characters may worry that their children are getting the wrong idea about their mercenary escapades. We write honest, adult relationships, both romantic and platonic, between people who are likely to already know their needs. We deconstruct – if somebody’s life involves drifting from town to town and righting wrongs, what does that say about this character? Who on earth would do such a thing instead of living a normal, healthy life? What are the costs of a lifetime of violence?

In other words, we just write books. Genre is a shorthand, not a story in and of itself. Certainly, if we use it, it should be for a reason, but that reason doesn’t have to be a checklist. Fantasy is an ideal backdrop for stories about uniquely powerful individuals and the things they can achieve for good or ill. It can also be an ideal backdrop for stories about common, mundane, everyday people caught up in a world where a wizard might fry them because they looked a mite uppity.

And now that independent self-publishing is again a viable option, an author who believes in his work and is willing and able to market it can sidestep a whole lot of publishing houses talking about what sells – or, to be more specific, about what sold. Many will seize that opportunity, and fantasy will be richer for it.

Next time: I don’t know. Something. Maybe we’ll talk about magic.

May 032011

Heroism is not what you do, it’s who you are.

Bit problematic, isn’t it?

I’ve alluded previously to high fantasy’s obsession with, essentially, heredity. High fantasy heroes are more often born than made. They have the blood of kings, or deities, or heroes. They’re The Last <Noun>. Only they can wield the magic blade of Some Dead Guy. Only they survive the killing curse.

High fantasy heroes, in short, triumph not because they work at it (they often do, of course), but because they’re special, or prophesied, and the universe folds itself in around them.

The semi-divinity of heroes is of course nothing new. Heroic figures in myth were virtually always larger-than-life: kings so important the gods built them companions, warriors explicitly born of deities, men bathed in invincibility juice, etc. But it’s worth noting that this was no guarantee of success in the ancient world. Gilgamesh loses his best friend and learns that even he can’t triumph over mortality. Hercules goes nuts and kills his whole family. Achilles’s Heel is still a metaphor for a flaw so complete that it can drag down what is otherwise perfect.

So if, as I believe, fantasy is the heir of myth, how did the current state of things come about?

As with most things high fantasy, I think Lord of the Rings is the answer. Now, let’s note that Frodo isn’t The Last Hobbit or any of that nonsense, and that he does suffer quite a bit to get things done. Nevertheless, while he isn’t precisely the prophesied one (Aragorn comes closest in that particular cast), the thematic elements that underpin Frodo and the rest of the hobbits – that anybody, no matter how small, can make a difference – led pretty naturally into what came later.

The popularity of LotR was built on the back of the hippie counter-culture, and it’s in this context specifically that the foundations for the rest of what we now call high fantasy were laid. And you know who talked a lot about the small making a difference? Hippies.

My contention – and I hasten to add that I’m not a sociologist – is that the ethics of high fantasy were shaped in no small part by the focus on self-esteem and self-actualization that was common in the parenting styles of the day, by people who championed those ideals and people that grew up with them.

It’s all about self-esteem. And while straw-man oversimplifications of self-esteem parenting abound and set tongues to clucking about the (not always healthy) ways things were done back in the day, it’s worth remembering that the twee, syrupy joy of “I’m worth it!” can most certainly turn into real happiness and a sense of self-worth.

I think this explains why teenagers enjoy high fantasy so much, and why so much of it is written directly at them (and, indeed, why high fantasy in general has a reputation for being childish, on which more at a later date) – they’re at a point in their lives where the idea of inherent worth is a bit alien, and the idea that people are important just by dint of being is one that many of them need to hear.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t problematic elements to this pervasive theme. It is, in many ways, awful. It’s inegalitarian, and it feeds the idea that success is an inherent trait rather than the result of hard work. Better done high fantasy avoids this.  Harry Potter, for all that his thunder is always stolen by Dumbledore Ex Machina, really does work for his heroism, and more importantly, his not-so-special comrades put in a good shift (and indeed, where would they be without Hermione?).

But the bad stuff is everywhere too. Heroes succeed despite rank stupidity because they are who they are, or because they profess the right political belief. Everything falls in place for them. The universe bends around them. Their every stupid snap judgment is proven correct. Their enemies, despite having somehow draped their black cloaks over the world entire, are woefully incompetent.

The line between self-esteem and narcissism is thin.

How do we fix it? Well, it’s already been fixed. For all the really terrible fiction out there, there’s a lot of fantastic stuff. But my nuts-and-bolts summary:

First, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of the protagonist being special, chosen, prophesied, etc. (other than the fact that it’s played out, of course, but execution is bigger than ideas and it can be pulled off well). There is something wrong with the protagonist being the only person who can contribute to the plot in any meaningful way. His companions – for there are always companions – need to be more than nodding yes-men. Also, if a protagonist is the only person who can do something, that needs to be reflected in the way they see themselves. I don’t mean why-me angst, necessarily, but some thought should be given to the weight of the responsibility. Our intrepid hero certainly shouldn’t be charging into the lion’s jaws without any sort of plan, because he needs to be aware that if he’s done for, so’s everybody else. (Although, that said, a nihilistic chosen one could be a lot of fun).

I’ll take this opportunity to direct you to Avatar: The Last Airbender, a kids’ cartoon series done in the timeless good-for-them, fun-for-us style that marks all good children’s media (nb: I hear the movie sucks). Aang is terrified by the weight of his task and the magnitude of his own powers, he has trouble reconciling what he has to do with the happy-go-lucky pacifist he is, and he has friends that get their own character development and actually help out now and again.

That said, I definitely would like to see more of the proletarian approach. Even in the highest of fantasy, there’s room for people who aren’t in some way marked for great deeds, but who achieve them because they’re driven, or courageous, or caught up in events greater than they are. People the world over have managed to do incredible things without needing to be the last wizard or the last unicorn or the last hippie.

And these heroes, be they super-speshul or merely brave, need to fail sometimes. They need to make snap judgments that are wrong (especially if they’re teens). They need to disregard good advice, get into scrapes, and learn to think. They need to be up against credible threats that act like threats. It doesn’t all need to be terribly dark, particularly if you are writing a bildungsroman or something aimed at an even younger crowd. The villain doesn’t need to order babies executed gangland style, and the hero doesn’t need to contemplate suicide. But please, too many Dark Lords just phone it in. I know they’re busy with their succubi and figuring out property taxes on the Fortress of Woe, but if your villain can’t present at least some difficulty for an intrepid teenager, I’m going to have some difficulty taking him seriously as the would-be ruler of all creation.

Next time, we’ll talk about writing fantasy for adults instead of those damn kids with their hair, what’s mildly silly about that goal, and iron thews.

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