In most rants, I attempt to have a sense of moderation. There might, for example, be one situation where I think a stupid villain would work, if [insert condition x here] exists. Or there might be a situation where the heroine of the book could be a red-haired, fiery-tempered fire mage and not annoy me. (Arguably, there is one book kind of like that, Sarah Micklem’s Firethorn…but the heroine doesn’t have any control of the fire magic, which comes as a favor from the gods, and she is not in the least fiery-tempered, being the ‘hero’s’ obsessed and codependent camp follower, so nevermind). Or I’ll try to suggest solutions that I think will better the problems I see, even if those solutions aren’t common in fantasy, probably because many authors actually like the stupid things better.
This rant is just on things that annoy me. I’m not going to try to justify them, or excuse them. This is me in full out rant-mode. Also, there are lots of swear words, including the one I heard primly referred to as the ‘f-bomb’ the other day.
1) Characters that exist only as shells and shadows and satellites of the hero. This is number fucking one. This is the one that makes me want to vomit just reading the descriptions of books, never mind whole novels. This is the reason that the moment any story now starts out with an abused orphan whom everyone hates, I scream and run away, immediately.
Now, I’ve complained about stupid villains and henchman and characters like Wise Old Mentors who only exist as plot devices before. This is related to them. It is not them. (“For stupid villains and henchmen and characters like Wise Old Mentors who only exist as plot devices, please press button #3”).
This is characters who have no inner life, no separate existence or conception of their own existence. This is characters who exist solely to serve as mirrors, cheerleaders, minor petty obstacles, validation, and rewards for the hero/ine.
Shall I give you a few examples?
-Designated Love Interests.
-foils who are the “dark mirrors” to the hero.
-the random kitchen maid who shows up to talk to the hero just as he’s feeling down.
-the character who gets wounded just to give the protagonist a chance to demonstrate compassion.
-the jealous bitch/bastard who changes into a worshipper of the hero/ine the moment he or she does something “noteworthy.”
-the party companions who never seem to eat, drink, or sleep in case the heroine wants to talk to them, and who think more about whether she’s having regular sex than whether they’re making progress towards saving the world.
-the siblings who are in the story only to get compared un/favorably with the protagonist in terms of intelligence, magical talent, and looks.
-the village bully who’s obsessed with raping the heroine for unknowable reasons and then at the end is shoved face-down into the dirt when the heroine rides back into town on her white horse.
-the parental figure who, by requiring any sort of discipline from her child whatsoever, is an “abusive mother.”
-the character of a different social class or race who follows the protagonist around like a puppy, supposedly demonstrating he can pierce those kinds of barriers, and in reality conjuring up the worst sorts of stereotypes.
I could go on. I have tons of these.
At least stupid Dark Lords who are trying to take over the world have their motivations that are separate from the protagonist. At least stupid henchmen fear their boss, and don’t suddenly become obsessed with whether the heroine will win her guy. At least Wise Old Mentors are usually represented as caring more about the fate of the world than whether the hero/ine gets validation.
These characters have no reason to exist in the story, except to make the hero/ine feel good or prop her up or wipe away any tiny trace of a mistake. And that is so fucking stupid I cannot get my mind around it. Real people have their own minds, their own motivations—even if they’re romantically obsessed. They are not blank templates to be stamped with serving the fucking protagonist, and not even the fucking plot.
No, I am not rational on this. Yes, I have undoubtedly enjoyed books in the past that had these kinds of characters—because I didn’t classify them that way. If I feel like a character has independent existence, even if it’s in the gaps between the lines, I am willing to let it go. I cannot tolerate a story where the author explicitly reveals to me that random people with no reason to trust or love or care about her would get down on the floor and lick up the heroine’s shit if she asked them to.
Stop it, stop it, stop it. Stop loving your protagonists so much you make them the center of the universe. Stop using other characters to give them everything they want. Stop making them so unique in the world that they deserve everything in return for their uniqueness. Stop conceiving of your other characters only in relation to them.
2) Let your characters make a fucking mistake. Related to point 1, but not the same, since that’s about characters, and this is (mostly) about plot.
The heroine makes a wild guess. She guesses that the hero loves her, or that she can defeat the Dark Lord with X device, or that she should follow the watchman when he slips away from camp. And, gasp, she’s right! The hero returns her feelings, the Dark Lord dies, she gets to overhear the watchman having a secret conversation and not just listen to him piss. This gets excused under the name of “intuition.”
Y’know what? Take your intuition and shove it back up your ass where it belongs. It doesn’t count if the heroine doesn’t ever make a wrong wild guess.
Yes, people make wild guesses in our world and have them turn out to be right. But you know why they seem so numerous and so wondrous? Because we remember them better than the guesses we get wrong, of course. Those are so common and, usually, so non-catastrophic that they pass out of our memories much more easily.
No perfect knowledge without the price of imperfect knowledge. That’s the first one, and probably the most common.
And no, by the way, I don’t buy it that the heroine will just “forget” about her wrong guesses and so the author doesn’t need to report on them. A novel is a constructed narrative of reality, and the author is making constant POV choices, and if lying to the reader about a plan that the heroine makes is considered Wrong, I do not see why in fuck’s name just “happening” to drop all her imperfect guesses from the narrative is Right.
Then there are the mistakes of perception—most often, who’s good and who’s evil. Most of the time, with teenage heroes, the ones they think are entirely trustworthy are, indeed, entirely trustworthy. Somehow, despite coming from an isolated backwater village and only now traveling in a wide variety of different political and social landscapes, they know all the wildernesses of the human heart.
Hi, Canon Mary Sue. When your character’s perceptions are identical to reality, there is no choice but to hack her apart and bury her at the crossroads.
Then there are factual mistakes, wherein the hero senses some “deeper truth” that no one has ever bothered to look for. Oh, yes, bloody ha-ha. A thousand years of historians and scholars and interested mages that authors represent in the background just never happened to be as intelligent and curious as this one teenager with a trowel and the ability to read dead languages. I don’t fucking think so. At the very least, make him follow a logical road to his conclusions, or get lucky. Representing him as more intelligent and superior than all the rest is just not on.
And, of course, you get all the possible mistakes of action, such as making a bad decision that causes one person, or even quite a lot of people, to die, or really putting themselves in harm’s way. That doesn’t happen, no matter how often it should. Fantasy heroes often appear to have a damned suicide wish, the way they’re always running off without protection and without any reason to think they’ll survive if they don’t take it along—or, really, they’re behaving like people who know they’ll survive until the end of the book.
Get your bloody deus ex machina out of the bloody story, author.
3) “Hi. I am here to infodump/be stupid at you.” Does the villain who recites his plans to the hero, thereby letting the hero know how to defeat him, have any currency any more?
Why, yes he does! In bad amateur fantasy short stories! I’ve read three in the past year, which is still too fucking many.
I have a list of wishes that I would enact if I were ever made Supreme Dictator of Fantasy Publishing. The ones that follow are not at the top—you can guess which ones are after reading the first two points, I’m sure—but they’re up there:
-The villain cannot be stupid.
-The villain cannot be insane, which too much of the time is just code for “stupid.”
-The villain cannot want to take over the world without explaining why and what he would do with it if he had it.
-The henchmen have to have an obvious reason to keep on serving their boss, even if it’s fear.
-There shall be at least one relatively intelligent person on the evil side, whether that’s a lieutenant or the arch-villain himself.
-No character in the book exists just to infodump—whether that be the villain or a Wise Old Mentor.
-In fact, let’s excise Wise Old Mentors.
Because infodumping is stupid. Because so are the situations that the author sets up to supposedly enable it, including the classic (ha-ha!) situation in which Character A tells Character B something he already knows, “As you know, Bob…” Because Wise Old Mentors are, too much of the time, stupid and presented as knowing less, despite a hundred or more years of experience, than some kid who’s just seen his fifteenth birthday. Because too many insane villains have no inner reality of their own, though, at least, their replaced inner reality is for the plot’s convenience, and not some mindless worship or easing of the way for the protagonist.
In fact, let’s not have villains. Let’s not have heroes, either. Let’s have people. I’m tending to agree more and more with Ursula Le Guin. “That is why I like novels: instead of heroes they have people in them” (from “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”).
4) Here a loophole, there a loophole, everywhere a loophole… This is not the one I hate most. It is the one I don’t understand the most. I can see the (ultimately silly, stupid, and childish) reasons that an author might want to put a bully character in the book who resembles her own bullies from childhood, and then beat him up, or why she turns to infodumping. It’s easier.
I do not understand why so many fantasy authors go to such lengths to build their heroes up as paragons of cleverness/intelligence/magic/courage/ho
Say it with me! The “unbreakable” oath will turn out to be breakable because of vagueness in the wording. Some random object the hero gets handed on page 200 turns out to be what saves the day on page 900. The Dark Lord will forget what time the eclipse happens when he’s spent years building up to this ritual to make him immortal, which has to be held at the exact same moment as the eclipse. Some random guard who has no reason to change his mind changes his mind and comes to let the heroine out of her dungeon cell, instead of her figuring out a way out on her own. (Actually, that goes back to point 1 again, and betokens an author who can’t figure out that just because she’s unwilling to let her heroine rot doesn’t mean that other characters would not be perfectly willing to do so).
Was the entire fantasy genre dropped on its head as a child? This makes no sense whatthefuckever. Yet it keeps happening.
These I just want gone. No replacements. Go. If you’re going to build a character up to suffer, let him suffer. If you’re going to build a character up to defeat the Dark Lord by cleverness, have her do so. If you’re going to build a character up as ultimately having a confrontation with her complicated, intriguing, traitorous sister, do not, for the love of fucking holly berries, have the sister just collapse sobbing at the heroine’s feet at the last instant, so that the heroine doesn’t have to do the “bad” thing of rejecting a family member.
…Maybe loopholes aren’t the problem in and of themselves. Maybe the problem is point 5.
5) “And in come the bombs.” “flinch* Authors are the ones who write the stories. Yes, I know some things just come. Plot twists, character concepts, cool ideas—all can appear out of thin air. Not every author outlines. I know that, too. And so I know that you might unexpectedly come upon a scene that’s a lot harder to write than you thought it was.
But you know what? Then you owe it to yourself to figure out a way around that, or to grit your teeth and force your way through the scene anyway.
Do not flinch. Do not make it extremely likely that the hero will suffer and then have it turn out to be just a test, ah-ha-ha-ha, when the villain had no reason to make that test and every reason to torture him. Do not have the heroine start to suffer from unrequited love, but, don’t worry, it’s okay, the hero loves her after all, despite no previous signs of it! Do not make the villain refuse to chop up the heroine’s child and serve it to her for dinner like he planned because, gosh darn it, he just can’t kill children, despite all the children he’s killed in the past! Do not, when both sides have shown themselves to be engaged in a genocidal war, not have the Other Side attack any of the towns where the hero has friends, relatives, or acquaintances.
All of those aren’t examples of sudden revelations developing from carefully-planted clues beforehand and ultimately explicable character arcs. Those are moments when the story pushed for the author to hurt the character, and she could not bear to. She knew what she had to do, and she turned aside.
You can tell moments like this pretty easily. They seem perfectly logical and inevitable, given what has gone before. They are supposed by explicit details (like the villain discussing his plan to chop up the heroine’s child and serve him to his mom for dinner), not implicit ones. They are always hurtful, painful moments for the protagonist, never positive ones, and never ones that would hurt only a character the author doesn’t really care about.
Work past these, by all means. Don’t set them up, by all means. Find some less painful way but still logical way for them to resolve, by all means. But do not set them up and then refuse to face them. I think of these as points where the author has failed the story.
6) Speshulness should never be only claimed. A special subcategory of telling, this is in here because it annoys me, which I am sure surprises no one by now.
This happens most often with the chronological and psychological maturation story common to fantasy, the bildungsroman. The kid gets taken off to save the world because…
Well, there’s “something special” about him or her.
Oh, really? Could have fooled me. As the author proceeds clumsily through discovery of magical talents and royal bloodline, sudden epiphanies with no background, and an (inevitably) bickering romance, I keep watching and waiting for some strength of character, something that doesn’t depend on birth and that the character earns and demonstrates, rather than being handed or explained as having despite the utter lack of evidence.
Nope. Nothing. Not there.
You claim that this character is “something special,” you’ve gotta fucking show me how that works out. Characters telling me and each other that the protagonist is special doesn’t work when there’s no evidence to work with.
7) Romantic love is not the end-all and be-all for all people. I’m sick of everyone being forced into a romance, regardless of whether it makes good sense, or plot sense, to have these people end up with each other. (If you have two characters who will be perfect for each other, but they’re on opposite sides of the world, I consider a telepathic/dream connection that makes them fall in love and transports them instantly to each other’s side to be Cheating with a big fat Ch. Put them closer together, for fuck’s sake, or restructure the plot so they don’t have to be far apart). I’m sick of bickering romances. I’m sick of love at first sight. I’m sick of the soulmate bond.
I’m sick, in other words, of fantasy authors pretending that all love is essentially romantic, and that it doesn’t take any more work to make it work than a few Big Misunderstandings. I think there’s a reason that so many fantasy books describe romance, but end with marriage, and that’s because the author does not have the guts or the balls to handle the marriage.
Yes, I have special caveats about female characters being forced into romances when males aren’t, and love triangles—I now simply refuse to read any story that contains a love triangle, including Arthurian retellings, because they never handle it right—and how even authors I respect equate people bickering and flirting and screaming at each other with “maturity,” while if you are single and happily so there is something wrong with you. But you know what? I don’t see a point to making them, because they all boil down to the same things:
You can write a book without romance, and it will still be a good book. And most fantasy romances have no heart, and are all genre convention.
8) Give me some substance, not just style or symbolism. Why is it okay for so many people if a fantasy book or short story has pretty language, even if the heart of it is no more than a boring retelling of “Beauty and the Beast?”
In some ways, it’s funny that I object to this so strongly, because, hello, goddamned English major, trained to look for symbolism, to be able to work out a plausible explanation, if necessary, for why this author put one word in front of the other. But, on the other hand, I despise literary fiction, the kind where a character makes a “deep” remark on a pot and then the story ends, the kind where alliteration is supposed to make up for the utter lack of plot, the kind where there are no colors but black and gray and sepia, the kind where the author never mentions the sky or animals at all, and no weather except when it rains. (The Ultimate Sign of Doom is when someone quotes T. S. Eliot).
And yes, this is pretty damn personal, and I don’t care. It irritates me to hell and gone, so it goes here. See, I want fantasy stories to do everything well: to have a gripping plot and stunning characters and wonderful language and believable relationships and a setting to rival Middle-earth in depth and beautiful conlangs and a living, breathing world that exists apart from the protagonist and a beginning that rips me out of the water and an ending that sends me over a cataract.
I know that not every story is going to give me that. But there is no excuse, there is no fucking excuse, for doing no more than writing in pretty language, and declaring that that is enough, or desperately imitating the tricks of literary fiction in hopes that that way you’ll be considered a “real” writer. Fantasy writing is real writing. If you only want to write literary fiction with no fantasy content, why the hell aren’t you writing literary fiction with no fantasy content?
Once again, as with point 5, this comes down to authorial motivation. Maybe there’s a story that I feel is all style and no substance, but the author wrote it as honestly as she could. Then we just have different beliefs. There are plenty of people who still like Patricia McKillip, for example, and I can respect that, although Alphabet of Thorn convinced me she’s lost any reasonable plot and characterization under pretty language, and I won’t read her again.
But a story deliberately crafted to be dependent on style and symbolism and nothing else?
No. I despise them. I’ve given my reasons why. There are things that are possible in fantasy that are possible nowhere else. I see no reason at all for neglecting them while you try to write yet another Depressing Short Story about Lovers Who Have Lost It All and Are Smoking Cigarettes While Taking Cocaine and Contemplating Suicide.
That is the longest rant I have ever done. And it only took me an hour and a half.
Guess I’ve had my say.