There’s the typical Exile Plot: someone who’s been exiled, or exiled himself, for crimes (which often turn out not to be crimes after all) gets dragged back into the thick of things because someone needs his expertise or his knowledge of his homeland. He almost never wants to go. Yes, hi, Mr. Reluctant Hero, fancy seeing you around here again. I know you’re common, but you’re not the sum total of everything that can be done with exiles, so move the fuck over.
1) “Inner conflict” is more interesting than “I am Exile, hear me angst.” I’d think that someone who’s an exile, especially someone who’s been an exile for a good number of years, is not going to feel something clear and uncomplicated for his homeland/home city/home organization. After all, he’s had to live somewhere else and build himself a different life. He’s had to speak about and think of other things than just his exile (at least, please, for the love of God, I hope so. Do you know how boring it’ll be to read about him otherwise?). He’s made new memories, and unless the author is employing the frozen psychology trick again, whereby the character never changes at all past the age at which he suffered his trauma, those new memories will affect him in ways that do not all lead back to his exile. He’ll have emotions other than angst. He may even, though this is more likely in a story about an expatriate, have a good deal of scorn towards his homeland, and be glad that he left it.
So now he has to go home, or perhaps he gets the chance to go home; if he left for political reasons, perhaps the political enemy who made his flight necessary in the first place dies.
Well, yes, he gets the chance to go home, but he’s also having to leave the new life and memories he built for himself. What if he has friends, lovers, a spouse, children? Will they be willing to just pack up and trundle off to an entirely new place on his say-so, or just watch him do so? (I find it awfully convenient when the exile just happens to fight with his friends and break up with his lover right before someone comes to offer him the chance to go home. And by “convenient” I mean “stupid” and “too easy.”)
I like watching people being tugged back and forth. And if the character has a more than one-dimensional concept of “home,” the chances increase that he’ll be more than one-dimensional himself.
2) Which are the lies, which are the truths, which are the justifications? Can you tell? If you really want an exile who doesn’t have many ties to his new society, you can still make him more interesting than someone who does nothing but brood on what he’s lost. You can do this by looking at the reasons that he’s neither tried to go home nor settled into this place—and I don’t mean the “real” reasons or the “subconscious” ones, but the ones the character tells himself are the reasons.
Did he have an unwitting hand in his own exile, such as not knowing when to shut up? Perhaps he’s twisted that around so that he says now that he chose to leave, even though he really is unwilling and would go home in a heartbeat if the chance got offered to him.
Did he leave with someone else, someone who now lives here with him? Perhaps he says that he couldn’t have done anything else but leave; it was for her sake, not his. Many people love to use others as excuses for their own behavior. Of course, he could also start resenting her, particularly if there’s a real chance that he could have stayed if he hadn’t chosen to stick with her.
Did he make an impulsive decision, one that he now regrets? He might think of himself as heavily wronged. People should have known he wasn’t being serious when he said that he wanted to emigrate. Take him back, you humorless bastards!
Did he get forced out because of a crime? (Of course, this would require the author to take the unusual step of making the crime real, not imaginary or a very small thing that the character spends more time than is sane angsting over). Well, he wasn’t being a criminal, he was a resistance fighter! Yeah. S’right. The fact that he’s walking around here and not at home enslaved to a tyrannical government just shows how seriously he took his responsibilities to the cause of freedom.
My, these are unattractive people, aren’t they?
Not necessarily. They aren’t the usual tormented people who did nothing wrong and had the whole world turn on them.
In other words, they’re flawed, and real, and interesting.
3) “Dad, stop that. It’s embarrassing.” Perhaps the exile/expatriate is part of a whole community of people from his home country/city/organization. Perhaps he even came over with members of his family, or a spouse. In other words, perhaps you’re writing a fantasy immigrant novel.
The society they settle into doesn’t have to be relentlessly assimilationist, nor does it have to shove all its immigrants into enclaves and ignore them. (The latter gives me hives, since it leads pretty easily into message fantasy—often unwittingly giving the “message” that only the special or talented or magical are worthy of being saved from persecution). It just has to be different enough from their native one, and the older members of the family devoted enough to the one they grew up in, to cause intergenerational conflict.
What happens to their children? How old were they when they left their “home” society? Or were they even born yet? Did they learn the family’s customs and the family’s native language as they grew up? What about religion? What about a change in lifestyle? (A family who has to deal with not only a shift from land to land but a shift from country life to city life will have another set of problems to deal with). How different are they in appearance from the people around them? What are the feelings of the society around them towards “their kind?” Are the traditional gender roles and the ones in this new society different? What about marriage, the age at which someone is expected to act adult, the kinds of play and education thought appropriate for children? And what about the personalities of the older members of the family? Do they encourage their children to embrace the new customs because they want to forget their homeland, encourage them to stay “close to home” to “preserve the culture,” see themselves as temporary exiles who should try to live as if they were still home, or push their children towards newness so that they can survive?
And that’s not even getting into what happens if this is a society where immigrants are expected to labor in menial jobs, and where different groups have sufficiently different views on the treatment of immigrants to inspire political quarrels. And then you can add magic. Now you have a cooking kettle, which does not have to be a melting pot.
That’s really fascinating, actually. Sure, it could fall into stereotypes, just like the Reluctant Exile Returning Home story, but not when the author goes to some effort to worldbuild and develop the personalities of the characters involved.
4) A character’s definition of “home” does not have to be rock-solid. I know the exact moment at which I decided I loved Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel Tigana. One of the characters is returning home to a country he hasn’t seen since he was two years old. He’s now in his early twenties, or possibly nineteen. He rides along as they cross the border, telling himself desperately that he should feel more than he does, that he should see something special in the trees, the air, the very ground. And he doesn’t. It takes him a little while to work up the emotion that he thinks he “should” be feeling, and even then he envies the people around him, who had the chance to know the country when they were still teenagers.
I loved it because it struck me as exactly what I would feel if I were returning to a place that had never been home in my conscious memory. I haven’t lived in the same place all my life, and I’ve never bonded to a place so strongly that I felt I couldn’t bear to be ripped away from it, and I don’t have much sense of loyalty to the country I live in as a country. So the typical “This is my home! I could kiss the soil!” reaction is not one that I believe every character can or should have.
Other reactions they could have:
-Acceptance of this as just another transitional stage in their lives. Perhaps they’re exiles indeed, but everyone else seems to feel more strongly about that than they do.
-Uneasiness. Yes, they’re home now, but they’re able to see that the reasons they left in the first place are still there, the same old political and religious divisions. Perhaps they’ll only end up leaving again.
-Anger. Damn it, shut up, quit peering at me as if I could burst into tears at any moment! And don’t tell me what I should be feeling!
-Indifference. Their home is where their friends and their loved ones are. The place doesn’t matter so much.
-Connection to one small place instead of the whole of the land. As I’ve pointed out in a few other rants, nationalism is a fairly modern idea. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if a character in a fantasy world was upset about being ripped away from his home village, but didn’t really care what kingdom he lived in.
Look long and hard at your protagonists and ask if they would really have that rock-hard definition of home, only happy there and pining for it when they’re gone for any reason, that seems to be the base-line definition for many fantasy characters. Some won’t.
5) Tangled loyalties make everything so much more fun. This is a subset of 1, in a way, but an internally conflicted character can still go back to his home country and eventually decide that he likes it there and this is his home and therefore the cheerful lesson is learned that Nothing Can Ever Really Change and Your Birthplace Is Your Home and Everyone Is Happiest Where They Were Born, Yay.
What about a character from society A settled comfortably into society B when A and B go to war? So, at least, she’ll have to face scrutiny from people who think she might be a spy or loyal to her “home” society. She might get visited and warned and watched over by the government of society B. She might watch with unease as any people she knows from society A are mistreated or discriminated against. She might even get offers from society A’s spies to help them, or coaxing or persuasion or orders to do so.
And that’s not telling what’s going on in the landscape of her mind. Which society does she consider home? If it comes down to a final choice, which would she choose? Does she even know? Perhaps she’s disgusted with society A’s behavior and that’s why she chose to leave, but does that mean that she’ll let punishment fall on innocent people whose only crime is being born in society A, or that she won’t fight to defend herself from B’s paranoia? And what about her pain as she sees friends or neighbors who smile at her with the shadow of suspicion in their eyes?
I prefer complicated stories about this—is that really a surprise?—to the too-simple solutions where, once again, the heroine’s decision is easy because she’s really been a sleeper agent all along, or because she was born in society A and damn everything else, she has to stay with where she’s born, or because everyone in society B turns against her for stupid reasons and has no internal conflict themselves. But, done right, there’s not much that’s more interesting.
It looks like moments of great social change is next.