1) Consider who does the work. This can be something as simple as wondering why clean clothing appears in the middle of a wilderness camp when it’s already been stated all the refugees are too tired to wash clothing and had no opportunity to pack it, or as complicated as trying to make a working class visible in a Victorian-based fantasy novel. I often find the questions interesting in and of themselves, but even if you don’t, they can still spawn an awful lot of plot.
Who does work? Why do they do so? (For example, if there’s no power structure in place and everyone is supposedly equal, why do some people volunteer to serve others, or do disgusting and menial jobs?) Where do they get their materials? How much leisure do they have? Education? Clean water and food and clothing of their own? Large houses? I am now automatically cynical about any aristocratic, high-class, or otherwise non-working character who has oodles of compassion, but only for people just like them.
If you’re writing about characters without job skills, how well do they survive without armies of servants or laborers or farm workers to take care of them? How do they feel about this? Can they make shift to survive? Nobles who miraculously know how to care for themselves even though they’ve never been a day without servants remind me of servant girls who miraculously have read every book in the nobles’ libraries despite working twenty hours every day; there might be an explanation there, but on the surface, it reads like the writers’ sheer refusal to confront class issues that might cause inconvenience.
2) Keep in mind that the secondary, hard-working characters can be quite fascinating. Lately, I find myself wanting to write stories about mentors rather than the students they train, about lieutenants rather than generals, about diplomats who actually engage with the enemy by talking to and living among them rather than heroes who demonize entire countries and perhaps gain one token friend who worships them. This isn’t just the duty-bound personality, because you can certainly have someone in these positions who complains endlessly, takes bribes on the sly, thinks of her job as a way to pay expenses instead of something sacred or inspiring, or plain gets tired. It’s my fascination with people working again.
Consider all the situations secondary characters like this have to face, which are rarely, if ever, faced by heroes:
-responsibility for others. Maverick heroes, orphan heroes without siblings, and people who are the most important whatever in the world may occasionally be told that they have a duty to others, that if they fail the world ends, but far more of the narrative’s sympathy is spent on their own, personal, individualized suffering.
-dealing with people more powerful and important than they are, as well as pressure from below. Again, many heroes are told they’re the most important whatever in the world, or become the center of attention for other reasons, so their scope of action is often wider. They butt up against limitations that come from inside more often than from outside, Dark Lords excepted.
-seeing goals get sidetracked and their best intentions turned aside—another consequence of not having all-powerful magic, military might, royal prerogative, or other things that will give them the ability to say, “Do this,” and see it done 99% of the time.
-“everyday” problems not connected with romance. Believe it or not, I think it’s actually possible to make an interesting story out of bribery, petty political corruption, rumors, a reputation of being difficult to work with, people who push at them and can’t just be shoved aside, bonds like nagging family members and uncomfortable marriages, and, heavens forbid, bureaucracy. Again, these secondary characters are rarely gifted with the ability to overturn the whole system that seems endemic to so many fantasy protagonists.
-limited mobility. Heroes often travel around quite a bit, so can outrun their problems (and their enemies). Imagine having to stay and face the consequences of the burned barn or the scattered horses instead, and a quite different story emerges.
To face up to all of these and keep going takes a competency that is missing in most of the traditional fantasy heroes I read about.
3) How is work valued in your world? Most of the time, the answer is “not highly.” The fantasy heroes who do need to work for a living—the notorious farmboy, but also scullery boys, maids, scribes, factors, cart drivers, and so on—usually hold the job as a kind of prelude to the fabulous quest in which they may starve, shiver, run through woods from ferocious dogs, and ache from training with swords, but will not need to work as they used to. Heroes like thieves and bards have that combination of fantastic mobility I mentioned earlier as well as, often, a genuine enjoyment of their work; they can even display a kind of contempt towards the people whose money they take, as if they can’t imagine lives more boring. And, of course, nobles or the leisure class don’t need to work at all, unless they have to disguise themselves.
It puzzles me, it really does. I mean, on an individual character level it can make sense, as a milkmaid extremely bored with her work might dream of traveling elsewhere, but why do all the good characters hold the same attitude? Why are the characters around her who do think highly of practical work ridiculed, or made to seem mindless drones or bastions of fussiness or—this insult is the worst of all—ordinary? After all, it’s on the products of those people’s labor that the good characters still depend. If they steal food to eat, someone grew or baked or gathered or hunted it. If they buy it, likewise. If they have clean clothes, people washed them, and drew the water, and made the soap; if they have finely-made weapons, someone forged or crafted them. If they have money, either they earned it, or they stole it from people who earned it, or they inherited it from, probably, someone who worked or gathered the earnings of workers. They’re not separate from work, although authors can try to make it seem as if they are by never acknowledging the presence of servants, villagers, farmers, or others except in the aforementioned ridiculous contexts.
Before implanting this attitude that work is silly or needless in your protagonists as a given, examine the context of the world and the character backgrounds, and see if it makes sense for that attitude to exist.
4) Consider the consequences of incompetence. I have a deeply ambivalent relationship with training stories, those in which the protagonist learns to become a fighter, or a mage, or a courtier, or—much more rarely—to accomplish a trade. On the one hand, I can think of all sorts of aspects that, well-done, fascinate me: the teacher-student relationship; the process of change, conscious and unconscious; the relationships among people learning the same skill; how a formal organization like a guild handles such instruction; what status the fully-fledged trainees have in the society around them, and what that status says about what their society values; and on and on and on.
On the other hand, there are aspects that frustrate me immeasurably: miraculous “inborn” talent that means the protagonist jumps ahead of people who’ve been working at the task for years; everyone else who learns the skill being portrayed as jealous of that inborn talent; stupid neglect of the exhaustion and other physical effects that would follow training that strenuous; dumb mentors; and, what I’m going to talk about right here, the “cute” mistakes that training protagonists make when they lose control of their magic or practice some fancy move they’re not ready for or go too far in an attempt to impress their teachers.
Are the mistakes cute? Are they really? How much rides on this? If I were a teacher desperately training a magic-using student to save the world, I think I’d be less inclined to chuckle kindly the tenth time she made the same mistake because I was so sure she’d stop doing that when she faced the Dark Lord, and a little more likely to get tense and angry, or hammer away at that mistake until she fixed it. Nor do I think too much effort would always produce a result better than average; it could also do damage, as in a sword-cut inflicted because the trainee is showing off, or result in something malformed, like a box carved the wrong way. These are not all devastating. I do wish the authors would sometimes adopt another attitude towards them than, “But my protagonist can do no wrong!” Actually? Yes, sometimes she does. And while she can learn better, and mistakes like this are perfectly forgivable, the effort to cushion them and make the protagonist look great all the time sets my teeth on edge.
5) Your protagonist does not have to do everything. It’s here because I keep falling into the same damn trap.
I’m toying with a story right now where the protagonist is hired to travel with a certain army unit because she’s their psychological model of “normality,” and thus able to perform certain tasks that the more sensitive, psychic, and excitable troops can’t. Then I started thinking she was also trained in adapting cleverly and extensively to new situations, and scouting, and leading other soldiers across hostile terrain, and—
And then I had to stop, because why? Not only does it not really make sense with her class background and the world I’m creating, but there is no rule saying that the main character must be the one to do everything. Claim there is, and I will show you stories where, once again, the protagonist ends up miraculously talented at everything she accomplishes just Because, and the only reason other people with the same skillset exist is to praise her or bitch at her because they are oh, soooo jealous.
Consider splitting up skills and competencies across your characters. Remember that even a fantastically determined person cannot specialize in everything and know everything and have great skills at everything by the time they’re x amount of years old (a young age, for most fantasy heroes). Lack of time, lack of knowledge, lack of books or teachers or other necessary materials for learning the skills, lack of power, demands from other people in their lives, and lack of any reason except “It’s cool!” for them to learn particular things should all be given their due.
I think it’s much more fun to acknowledge and invent clever solutions for the problems than to pretend they just don’t exist—which is why point 6 irritates me so.
6) Societies that don’t have to work can’t provide any sort of moral context for work. Baldly stated like this, yeah, it sounds stupid. But I’m tired of seeing fantasy societies that have miraculously solved all their problems by magic—such as faerie courts that create everything they need out of thin air—held up as superior to societies that do have to labor and muddle and sweat their way along. It’s like saying the energy crisis in our world would be solved if we could all just find some free, renewable, clean, natural, self-sustaining, commonly available source of energy. Yeah, no shit. Do you have one on offer?
A modified version of this sometimes goes on with aristocratic characters, who are all just horribly shocked at the poverty and hopelessness and ignorance of other people, and the way they treat those of their own class who are different than they are. Are they trying to solve these problems? Are they trying to provide alternatives to the patterns of abuse and ignorance they can see so clearly, like refuges for the lower-class characters who are persecuted for having magic or for being of a different religion? 90% of the time, no. Those characters exist to provide the aristocrats a chance to show how good they are, and then the narrative forgets about them. Please don’t insist that your characters are just wonderful and have none of the ills associated with constant work when they’ve never had to work.
(That was really bitchy, but I honestly think I’m just tired of aristocrats in general, and my fascination with societies that solve every problem with magic died a gruesome death some time ago).
Once again, no idea what the next rant will be about.