There seems to be a barrier to actually harming the heroes in a lot of fantasy. It often isn’t as obvious as a deus ex machina ending, or killing the character and then resurrecting him. Instead, the author simply has a list of things that are Not Allowed to Happen Under Any Circumstances, and makes no attempt to justify why they don’t happen.
Here are some ways to get rid of this barrier.
1) Try not having loopholes. A lot of fantasy climactic battles or confrontations with the villain end in a loophole. The hero has a weapon he forgot about. The villain forgot to take precautions against a particular spell. (With the villains who are supposedly immortal and cunning, I am tempted to classify that as a deus ex machina all by itself). Suddenly, the heroine manages to gain control of her out-of-control magical powers, or the hero discovers the power of loooove and saves everybody through it.
Try achieving a victory, or even just a confrontation, without one of them, and see what happens.
It’s amazing, most of the time. The character suddenly can’t rely on that convenient
I think the reason a lot of fantasy authors don’t do this is one of those barriers. They know that if the character goes up against the villain on roughly equal or “bare-handed” terms, he’s going to suffer, even if he wins. He might lose some part of the world he’s trying to save, whether that means people he loves or the villain managing to destroy lands and peoples. He might not win as much as he wanted, so that perhaps the villain’s particular brand of destructive magic is extinguished—but with it goes all the productive magic that relied on the same system of rules. He might wind up maimed, wounded, chronically sick, near-mad from the effort of what he did, having people mad at him or at least less than perfectly adoring.
Keep in mind that the definition of “good character” doesn’t include, anywhere, getting out of the final battle healthy and whole and completely happy. He can live, since so many fantasy authors have an aversion to killing the characters, but that doesn’t mean he can’t suffer.
Suffering and conflict are what stories should be about, because they create them. If the story is a golden march to the throne, who cares?
2) Think like a villain. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say or write, in their plotting, “Well, this would be really cool to write about…but I can’t do it because it would mean the villain wins/the hero’s love interest dies/something doesn’t work out for the hero at the end.”
Why should the story be hero-centered?
I love fantasy villains who are as intelligent as the heroes, and whom the author makes seem intelligent. Too much of the time, when the fantasy villain has supposedly found a new way of doing something or a loophole in the rules, my thought is not, “Wow! How clever!” It’s, “Why didn’t anyone think of that before?”
Make your mental conception of the fantasy world villain-centered for a moment, and see what happens. What actions is he going to take, and what actions would it make sense for him to take, to achieve what he wants? What does he care for? What are his faults—his real faults, not the ones that fantasy heroes might see in him right off the bat, or make up and stick on to him? In what way does he regard the hero? This can be strangely liberating, and it can free you from the traps that too often crop up when writing villains, most of them centered around the fact that the villains gets tripped up or prospers by means of the blindingly obvious. The former makes him look stupid instead of the heroes look clever; the second makes the heroes look like dumbasses who should long ago have patched whatever hole in the system is allowing the villain to take power. (Although, you know, a story where the heroes are all dumbasses and the supposed villain wins because they are could be interesting to read…)
Take one step further back, and don’t make the villain a villain at all. Let him be just one more person in the fantasy world, trying to achieve whatever his goals are. How does he look then? If the veneer of absolute evil, ugliness, and stupidity that the author usually lays on him immediately is stripped back, what’s underneath? Walk in his mind, wear his skin for a while. Most authors don’t, even when they’re writing a book that includes viewpoints from the villain’s eyes. Their creations consciously think about how evil they are, about how many lives they’re going to ruin, or about how they’re rebelling against all that is good and right. No person thinks like that, unless he’s insane to some degree, and then—hello, other common villain stereotype. It immediately moves the villain into the realm of cliché and stereotype.
Plot from his point-of-view, and you knock down another barrier: the sometimes unconscious arranging authors do so that things work out in their hero’s favor. If it’s how things work out in the villain’s favor instead, there is more suffering, and there is more conflict. Conflict= story.
3) Stop idolizing governments. Now, this may sound silly, since a lot of fantasies are about heroes rebelling against the evil usurper or whatever to put the rightful government back in place. But in that case, it’s the fallen government that gets idolized. The hidden prince’s father was the most pure and noble king EVAR. The council member who got murdered would have been the best choice to run the city, by far. The fallen empire was a golden age.
Other times it’s a foreign government that the hero goes to for aid that gets idolized, or the country he lives in and which is threatened by the Dark Lord. Everyone leaves their doors unlocked at night. The whores aren’t whores; they’re women and men who chose their lifestyles and are honored for it. The inferior gender or class or race, if there’s one, isn’t unhappy or oppressed; they have a happiness and culture all their own. The ruler/rulers are the absolute bestest, and the only reason they might ever try to expand their rulership is to help some other country in danger of being taken over by the Dark Lord, never for those oh-so-nasty things like money and power and land.
Go read history, goddamnit. Empires were not benevolent. Their rulership always cost someone, somewhere. Despite the prevalence of common myths, there’s not much difference between, say, how the French, Spanish, and British thought of the Native Americans, as revealed in their letters and reports and books and diary entries. In cases where some people seemed kinder than others, it was often economic and demographic factors that compelled the “kindness,” not any country-wide or empire-wide standard of humane treatment. The French, for example, generally treated the natives better because they didn’t have as many colonists to take over Indian land and not as many soldiers to fight them off if they became hostile, so their continued profit depended on good relationships with various groups.
That doesn’t mean that you have to go on a legend-slaying run through your imagined country, showing that everything the hero once believed beautiful to be ugly and corrupt. It does mean removing another invisible barrier: that no matter how bad things appear to be, no one would actually, say, rejoice in the slaughter of another people, unless they’re the minions of a stereotypical Dark Lord. They could just be human. Your hero could live in a place that seems convincing, rather than La-La-Land. Or he might think he lives in La-La-Land and discover he doesn’t, and then what is he going to do about it? Uncertainty= conflict= story.
4) Don’t always make the blame easy to lay. In the rant on diseases, I mentioned how often the plague is the fault of the Dark Lord—despite it not killing the hero, which you’d think would be easier than leaving him to grow up all vengeful-like and come after the Dark Lord later. Neither are disasters like enormous storms, volcanic explosions, wild blasts of magic, or anything else that disrupts the fabric of the hero’s universe often accidents. They alter him, and then he finds out who’s to blame, and he goes after and slaughters that person. Simple equation. Simple story.
Dead boring story.
One of the most frustrating and frightening and sick-making things that we have to deal with in this world is the idea that something can totally destroy our lives—and it’s no one’s fault at all. Someone dies in a car accident not because there’s a malicious car-accident-causing person out there, but because the other driver just happened to be turned around talking to his kids instead of watching the road. An earthquake happens, and there are no earthquake demons to blame. Instead, there’s tragedy to be dealt with, and the survivors have to concentrate on, well, surviving and dealing with it and mourning the dead. Someone leaves a campfire untended in the woods out of thoughtlessness, and thousands of acres burn.
The clear assigning of blame in a fantasy story is, I’ve heard it argued, essential to make a reader feel comfortable. But too often it also forecloses any possibility of truly deep character development. The protagonist settles on the goal of getting revenge for her loss and then destroys the person responsible for that loss. End of story.
I have read about dozens on dozens of fantasy teenagers who just escape from their village or their home before everyone is slaughtered by the Dark Lord. They blame the Dark Lord, go after him, and kill him. I have never read a book where the deaths were the result of an accident, or a natural disaster, or sheer freakin’ stupidity, or even killers who weren’t after that village specifically; they were a marching army or looting soldiers, and the village happened to be in their way. No, the villain is always fixated on the hero, and so is any harm that he causes, despite the fact that the harm never manages to defeat him.
Remove that last and most pernicious invisible barrier: the idea that everything that happens in your world has to be related to the hero, or what’s the point? It’s almost, but not quite, the same thing as barrier 2. I have read fantasy books where heroes suffered and villains were clever, and they still left a foul taste in my mouth because the author was so obviously tying everything back to the protagonist: he’s the focus of every prophecy in the book, every major battle scene or council, every revelation another character has. The author took the story, the complicated interaction of plot and character and setting and everything else, out of the center, and put the hero in the center to be the story’s sun.
Have random things occur. Unleash chaos. Have the hero suspect that someone is behind something bad that happens to him, and then find out he was wrong all the time. Pain= conflict= story.
Not sure what rant I should do next.