This was inspired by trying to read Diana Pharoah Francis’s Path of Fate last night, which I won’t be finishing. It’s an excellent lesson in how not to begin a fantasy book. In six pages, we have angsty monologues, plucky!orphaned!heroine, infodumps, “As you know, Bob…” conversations, and the bully who, of course, only exists to make the heroine’s life miserable. The bully makes even less sense in context, since he’s apparently been chosen to be part of an order of good people.
1) Here comes the Frozen Psychology again. It doesn’t matter how long ago the abuse happened, or how severe it was (though for quite a lot of fantasy protagonists it was severe), or what kind it was, or who committed it. I can assure you that 90% of the time the protagonist is still as traumatized as if it had happened yesterday. This could be an interesting indication of fairly deep psychological wounds. I could enjoy reading a fantasy that involved a recovery from those wounds.
But not a whole lot of fantasy writers can write recovery. (It’s much easier to write despair and angst than eucatastrophe and evangelium for most people, which I’ll get to further down the list). Instead, they freeze the heroine’s mind for twenty years, so that at thirty-five she’s still the traumatized fifteen-year-old, and then suddenly throw her into some situation that's supposed to heal her, like getting a new love or going on a quest. And it always works. Why has nothing worked up until now? Why didn’t time soften the wounds at all? Why has the heroine made no attempt to help herself? (See point 2). Who knows? The author writing this tripe certainly doesn’t.
Trauma shouldn’t be switched on and off like that. If you have an extraordinarily sensitive character, fine, although I’d like to see this sensitivity portrayed in other ways than the response to abuse; quite a lot of abused characters aren’t very compassionate, altruistic, empathetic, or perceptive, so I wonder why they have such hair-triggers for abuse. But that very sensitive person shouldn’t heal after a few weeks of sexually-tinged bickering followed by an, “I love you!” If nothing has worked so far, why does love? I’d like to see some damn reasoning behind it.
Lately I’ve started to skim the parts where the character reminiscences about being abused, or just put down the book.
2) A suffering character inspires tears and pity, but not a whole lot else. Say you have your heroine. She has powerful magic that no one in the family line has, and her father hates her for that because it was supposed to go to her brother. So he beats her and makes her do all the chores and takes away her wolf puppy when he finds it. (My god, I almost put myself to sleep writing that). How is your reader going to feel about her?
Well, I’d pity her. I might cry for her if the writer was skilled enough in portraying pain. But I’d wonder why she didn’t just use that powerful magic to fight back. I’d wonder why she didn’t run away, if life at home was that intolerable and if she could trust that someone else would want to hire or train her for her gifts. I’d wonder why she doesn’t try to appeal to someone else, a neighbor or a family member, for help. Those people are often shown as standing around and going, “Awww!” but not helping. What’s the use of them?
In a way, the abused heroine is just a new variation on the helpless princess who sits in her tower waiting for the prince to come rescue her. I’ve heard numerous people deprecate the tale of Rapunzel because why didn’t she just climb down her own hair, the silly girl? The abused heroine is similar, a lot of the time. She’s meant to make me cheer for her, but it’s really difficult when I can see half a dozen ways out of her situation and she just sits there, waiting for the powerful mage to come along and rescue her, or the goddess to choose her, or the animal companion to insist that she’s special and has to get away from there. Consider giving her some strength of will of her own, some courage, some good traits besides being prettily horrified. Show me why I should cheer for her.
3) Most fantasy authors misjudge the scale of the abuse. They go too far one way or the other. On the minor side (this sounded on its way to happening with the Francis book), there are characters who can suffer taunting for years and still burst into tears in front of the taunters. I honestly don’t understand. Is there a person alive that thin-skinned? The people I knew who got teased worst in high school at least learned not to burst out crying in front of the bullies, however much they cried in private. And there were people who developed coping strategies, from ignoring them to fighting with them to taunting them back. Why do none of these coping strategies ever occur to fantasy teenagers? When the author introduces melodramatic responses to the slightest imposition on Miss Dreams-But-Can’t-Work’s lifestyle, then I start taking the story a lot less seriously.
On the major side, the author introduces a character who was beaten by her mother. And raped by her father. And had her teddy bear ripped apart. And who was neglected. And whose beloved brother died trying to protect her. And whose uncle starved her. And whose sister died in a fire for which the character blames herself. And whose magic was weak enough to get her teased by the other children in the mage school. And who was tortured by the bad guys. The author is screaming at me, insisting, “This character is in such pain that you can’t even imagine it!”
Increase the pain too much, and my imaginative connection with the character snaps. She becomes a blank to me, just a body for the author to heap fictional torture on. I don’t feel about her the same way I do about a victim of atrocities in the real world, because the author has reminded me that it’s all make-believe; the only reason this person is suffering so much is because the author wants her to. You could call it numbness or shock, I suppose, but it resembles indifference too much to escape that name for me. I just don’t care any more about what happens to this person, because the pain has gotten ridiculous.
At some point, authors need to rein back the abuse and torture, and ask themselves when the character is going to achieve anything. If she’s not, if her mind’s going to break and she’ll die, that’s one thing. But if the character has no death and no victory, just suffering, what the hell is she doing blocking my view of more interesting people?
4) Abuse shoots the characterization of other people all to hell. There are the bullies, of course, and the parents. With the exception of a very few authors, I no longer read fantasy books where the main characters are teenagers, because I’d like to at least imagine that all the characters are complex and real people, and the author doesn’t allow me to imagine that about the teenager’s parents. They are Horrible, Horrible, Horrible. And it’s the narrative, not the character, telling me this.
There’s a reason that I am Not a Fan of the omniscient voice, the characters that are created only to watch the scenery and have no thoughts or personalities of their own, or narrators whose perceptions are identical to reality (a.k.a Canon Mary Sues). When I start reading a book, I take the viewpoint character as the hero automatically, or my favorite of the viewpoint characters. It really doesn’t matter if someone else is supposed to be more important to the story. My reading mind doesn’t work that way. It will transform the viewpoint character into the hero, if necessary. The person whose thoughts I’m sharing is the important one—and, I naturally assume, intriguing, complex, and fallible.. If for some reason I can’t bond with the viewpoint character, I try with a minor one (and if that doesn’t succeed, I put the book down). But there has to be, for me at least, some doubt. Things might look a certain way to a certain character, but they need not be actually so.
In fantasies with abused main characters, it usually isn’t the character who tells me something about the abusers; it’s the narrative. These people are “horrible,” “malicious,” or “disgusting,” and it’s the author telling me so. I’m not allowed to make up my own mind. There is no possibility that these people are abusing the main character because of abuse in their own childhoods (which would actually make sense if the author is following Earth psychology), that they don’t see it as abuse at all, that they’re doing it for religious reasons, or that there’s some other perspective that that would make them continue the abuse. They’re “really” doing it out of the jealousy and hatred that the protagonist usually imagines to be the ‘why.’ The author sacrifices characterization for the sake of abuse. I find it boring and mediocre.
There’s also the characterization of the people who moan about the abused character’s suffering but don’t actually attempt to help. Either they’re all cowards or they’re all completely unobservant or they’re under the pay of the abuser. Really? Everyone in the entire village/city/country? It’s laughable, but it’s the fiction the author has to maintain if she just wants the character to suffer, and other people to be in the know and not do anything, which it seems the author does want most of the time. I don’t comprehend it, but there you go.
The people who come in from the outside and rescue the abused character are sometimes slightly better, but for me the ‘abuse discovered and revenged’ plot is like the arranged marriage plot. There are only so many ways you can do the sucker, and most of the interesting variations have already been written. Is it really all that interesting to write about what happens when someone discovers abuse? I’m much more interested in the heroine getting back some sense of control over her life and dealing with the memories—or, at least, I would be if I could find some fantasies that spent more time on that than on the traumatic memories.
5) Angst and abuse are easy. I’ve ranted before about how abuse is an easy trauma to make a character suffer. Everyone knows what they think about it, it doesn’t implicate the character as at blame or at fault in any way, and a lot of readers seem willing to accept that all by itself, it can define a fantasy protagonist. Struggling to make your heroine seem real? You don’t have to! Introduce some physical abuse, and suddenly everyone’s prepared to accept her as The Brave Heroine.
The problem is that it’s easy to write angst of this kind. It’s Diet Coke angst, or it’s the author working out her own problems (which should be done in diaries and therapy, not in a fantasy book where everyone can identify her issues with a glance). It’s also easy to write a cheesy happy ending from it, the kind that most authors go for, where everyone is miraculously healed and married and resurrected. It’s desperately difficult to take this kind of beginning and get any joy from it, though.
I would like to see more joy in fantasy—and, for that matter, more true tragedy and despair, rather than angst. Fantasy has a grand excuse for using the depths and the heights of emotion, in a way that would become infected with cynicism and irony if the author tried it in most other genres. What Tolkien called “eucatastrophe,” the absolutely triumphant ending, and evangelium, the joy “as poignant as grief,” are the heritage of fantasy, too. And in the traditions of epics, sagas, and things of that kind, there’s far more ground for passion than there is for writing angst that is indistinguishable from angst in a mainstream novel or a “dark” fanfic.
Strange how there are authors I will let get away with anything, even melodrama (like Kay and Martin), as long as they show that the suffering the characters go through is not the only thing that matters.