1) People will suspect me! Because of Badly Explained Event X! This is the kind of thing that’s used to get fantasy protagonists up and moving out of the small villages that spawn so damn many of them. In cases where the villain doesn’t come and kill the protagonist’s parents/uncles/siblings/lover/dog/pond scum, something happens that the protagonist fears she will be blamed for. Thus she takes off into the night without bothering to find out if the angry mob is storming her house.
Um, author? Just why, if a random fire happens out of the blue, would anyone suspect that the protagonist had caused it with her OMG forbidden! magical powers?
Really, do some fucking thinking here. In a fantasy world where the greatest threat is a Dark Lord hovering on the horizon and the villagers are really suspicious for that reason, I would expect them to question or deny entrance to strangers, jump at every mysterious happening, tell wild tales of ghosts and black riders in the shadows, and be sure that perfectly ordinary events which don’t go well are the work of the Dark Lord. That’s all fine. But why in the name of heaven would they suspect that one perfectly ordinary young woman in their village, or even one who’s bullied and tormented—and isn’t that the natural state of a fantasy protagonist?—was the cause of the fire or the lightning storm?
It gets even weirder when the protagonist has made sure to keep her powers secret. So, no one suspects her. That’s fine. That’s dandy. That’s even smarter than 80.6% of naïve fantasy heroines are. I suggest she keeps it up. But why, why, why would the village then turn against her, if they have no reason at all to think she’s different from them?
If anything, fantasy protagonists in this situation would make people more suspicious, not less, by running. Make some of them do something besides panic, or else explain the connection of the event and the instant suspicion of the people around her. For example, if this woman takes strangers into her house, grins at the mysterious happenings, has been seen consorting with the ghosts or the black riders, or is known to have magic, I could see people getting suspicious of her. Doesn’t explain why they didn’t turn her out already, of course. But one can’t have everything.
2) The evil is hunting me! Because of No Reason! I know that you thought no example could possibly be sillier than the first one. I am sadly, sadly horrified to tell you that you were wrong. Sometimes the protagonists take off on a world-trotting quest, hunted by evil demons, evil monsters, evil leathery-winged dragons, evil nobles, evil wizards, evil beings from the Seventh Dimension…
And we don’t know why. Or else the connection makes no sense in fucking hell.
Yes, I know it’s a time-honored tradition to keep your protagonists in the dark while the wizard rushes them around, because somehow the wizard just doesn’t have time to tell them the truth, even when they’re doing nothing but jogging through the countryside for hours on end. You know what? Time-honored traditions are sometimes worth honoring, and other times worth shooting in the head and leaving for wild dogs to eat, and this is one of the latter.
For me, the story loses a large part of its momentum and interest if I can’t figure out why in the world the villain wants to hunt these characters, especially when said characters are young, innocent, and powerless or seemingly so (which is the vast majority of fantasy characters hunted by villains). The explanation that they could be a threat someday, and the villain knows it, doesn’t measure up. If he always had a prophecy or scrying mirror or whatever plot device it is this time that tells him the protagonist will be a threat, why didn’t he go and eliminate them as a baby? If the prophecy is mysterious and he only just figured it out, why are the people who save the protagonist and rush out of town with her always in the nick of time? If the place where the protagonist was hidden is obviously open and chancy, why the fuck didn’t the good guys do a better job of protecting her? And why don’t they tell this hideously frightened young person whose life they’ve just changed completely the truth as soon as possible, or at least a comforting lie, instead of sneering at her and charging on? I tell you, fantasy villains are fucking stupid more often than the good guy secondary characters, but good guy stupidity is much, much deeper and broader. And most of them are no good with children or teenagers.
“But wait!” you are saying. “I’ve read plenty of fantasy books where the wizard or the guard or whoever does eventually tell the hero or heroine why the Dark Lord wants them!”
Yes, eventually. After hundreds and hundreds of pages. And then, you know what? That often makes no fucking sense, either.
Why is the Dark Lord afraid of a teenager who might someday destroy him, as opposed to this older wizard who can already rip up mountains with his magic? Why does the Dark Lord not take the magical object he wants so badly away, and just kill this annoying little girl trying to use it against him? (I know, he probably can’t touch it. Then why does he want it?) Why does he go charging in the moment he figures out the protagonist’s location, instead of sending his minions dressed as ragtag gypsies to lure her away? With the amount of teenage girls stuck in random villages and longing for adventure, that last part should be easy.
Please consider why this hunt is going on at all. If the villain really can’t hurt the protagonist, he should be doing something else. If he has powerful enemies opposing him, let him take care of them first. If the wizard has to conceal the secret of the protagonist’s birth or powers for hundreds of pages, there had better be a damn good reason, or I will hunt you down. And trust me, that hunt has a good objective.
3) People will die for me! Because the Author Said So! I’ve ranted before on various aspects of the hero’s relationship to secondary characters, but for sheer irritation value, there is little worse than the instant and complete loyalty said secondary characters hand to the protagonist the moment they meet him or her. Most of the time, they don’t even have to know that much. They hear “last descendant of the Royal Line of Kehehrjehehe” and they’re bowing and swearing their lives away before the reader can figure out how to pronounce that stupid name.
Lots of people say things they don’t mean. Lots of people are devoted to ideals in principle, but would faint away if ever asked to actually put them into practice. Still other people demand proof of someone’s character before accepting that she’s their natural leader. Then there are the characters who won’t want to be pulled away from comfortable homes, and the ones who couldn’t be the heroine’s loyal servants because of the way the author portrays them, and, and, and…
You see the problem. Having every (good) secondary character bow in awe to the heroine is a matter of author’s convenience, not good portrayal. At its very best, it reduces the characters all to the same stereotype of noble, selfless,
Look, it’s because the fantasy author doesn’t want to do any damn work! Did you have to make me say it aloud?
Show me why. Show me why these people are willing to sacrifice their lives—not only literally being alive, but the chance to stay with their families and make a living—to follow her. A long-ago oath sworn to royal blood can sound impressive, but when the time comes for its fulfillment, why does no one ever think that it means jack shit next to the chance to love and serve the people they’ve known all their years?
This is a place where authors actually pass up an excellent opportunity. The heroine’s natural followers are those who know her already, from her village or city or town, and can make judgments based on friendship or love. But for some reason, they rarely follow her. I think the author wants me to gasp at the way total strangers give everything up for adoration of some slip of a girl. All it convinces me is that the author doesn’t want to dig into these peoples’ souls. They’re just there to be marks on a page, not the awesome beacon of shining splendor that is the Heroine.
For her to deserve that capital H, I have to know why she deserves it.
4) These tricks work! Because the author is an asshole! There’s always the scene where the author has to pretend the heroine is clever and talented. So she does something based on a trick that she knows, or she sings, or she dances, or she tells the story of her life, and by the end everyone is thinking she has magic, or has been soothed to sleep, or has been won to her side, or is tearing up.
It reminds me of nothing so much as the scene in King Solomon’s Mines where the “advanced” white Englishmen trick the “simple” natives into thinking they’re gods by the means of eyeglasses and the color of their skin. It gets even worse when the fantasy heroine is performing these tricks in front a crowd of people of a different class, race, or species. It was one of the few things that drove me absolutely batshit about the otherwise enjoyable Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. Phèdre, the heroine, manages to listen in on her captors’ private conversations, impress everybody with her singing, free her fellow captive, and sneak out of the camp by stratagems that would be fine—except that her captors are always, always being compared to the D’Angelines, the people Phèdre is from, and being found wanting in beauty, in intelligence, in skill. At one point Phèdre explicitly compares them to children, while the D’Angelines are adults. There’s no sense that this is just Phèdre’s perception. The D’Angelines are objectively more beautiful and smarter and more civilized, and Phèdre is the most excellent out of all of them.
Listen, authors. Not only does this make you sound stupid, it pulls the element of suspense out of your story. If the heroine only escapes because her captors are dumb, then that’s not a victory. And if the strategies don’t involve at least an element of risk, likewise. While I enjoyed Kushiel’s Dart, I felt that Phèdre was in danger exactly twice, once at the very beginning of the book and once at the very end, and neither of them came from the supposedly ferocious (but dumb!) enemies.
Show the cleverness in its own right. Make your heroine almost escape from the dungeon, and then fail. Make her get grievously wounded in the escape. Make her suffer, doubt, walk the knife’s edge. Otherwise, the author just excuses all the struggle with a wave of her hand, and suspense declines accordingly.
5) We’ve changed our minds! Because it was time for a plot turn! How many times have I seen a fantasy character change their minds on something they’d held a deeply entrenched position on for pages and pages and pages?
I don’t have a number, but I can still tell you. Too many frickin’ times!
Change, in a character, can’t be painted on. For one thing, your characters will smell bad and drip. And for another, it just isn’t convincing. Make the character who’s bitterly opposed the crazy plan to ride off to the frozen north change his mind on the dawn of the trip, and 99% of the time it won’t work, because his thought processes aren’t at all clear. He goes from the bitterest head-shaker to an equally fervent yes-man.
This is especially disappointing because there are all sorts of reasons a character might agree to something he didn’t agree to before, many of them rife with something other than that boring purity. Perhaps he wants to keep an eye on his pig-headed charge. Perhaps he counted on another character changing his mind, sees he won’t, and decided to go with him. Perhaps he plans to betray everyone involved. Perhaps someone’s told him that his family once had extensive property in the north, and he wants to get an eyeful. But, of course, he’s probably not the hero, and if he isn’t, then the author doesn’t explore his motives, because why would they be important????? (See point 3).
Character changes have to make sense in accordance with everything—not only what the author wants the story to do at a particular point, but with what comes before. Ignore it, and you are asking for a beating. From me, if no one else.
Is it really that hard for people to make sense?