Rant the Fifth: I Wish I Was Special, But I'm A Freak

In this rant I shall proceed - more or less - to rule out any and all characters from actually taking centre stage in any story. This is because it is a rant, and in the words of the wise and noble Buffy Summers, sense really has no place in it. In particular I intend to rail against characters with normal upbringings, characters with abnormal upbringings, characters with destinies, rebellious characters and conservative characters. As ever, I am mostly trying to point out pitfalls, rather than truly saying that no element that I mention here should ever be used by anybody in anything ever.

Point the First: You've Got Your Mother In a Whirl, She's Not Sure if You're a Boy or Girl

Rebels. Rebels, rebels and more rebels. From the relatively inoffensive "spirited princess who refuses to consent to an arranged marriage" to the hideous "freewheeling rebel who don't take no stick from nobody". Now, don't get me wrong, I fully understand that stories all about meek, timid people that live dull lives and never do anything surprising would be terribly tedious to read. If Bilbo had stayed in the Shire, the Hobbit would have been a far shorter book, and the Lord of the Rings would have never happened at all. However, reading through the various works on this site (in any genre, in fact) one is forced to conclude that nobody in any fictional world has any respect for tradition or authority whatsoever. This I see as a problem, and I will now go on at great length about precisely why I think it is a problem.

As I have said before, and will doubtless say again, I feel that the purpose of fantasy is to take the reader into a different world, and one that is substantially different from our own. (In case anybody cares, I feel that it is distinct from Science Fiction in that Science Fiction should present a world which is actually a viable alternative, either technologically, socially or as a thought experiment). So to my mind it follows that if you are including a custom, practice or tradition in a world it is because the story you want to tell takes place in a world where this custom, practice or tradition is customary, practised or traditional. If the only introduction we have to whichever custom it is that is being so roundly bucked is. well. somebody roundly bucking it, we do not get the feel of this tradition as tradition. We see it instead as something Bad that is Imposed on Our Hero by the dark forces of history. Furthermore, when the hero does buck tradition, nine times out of ten they prove to be right. Personally I find it deeply irritating when the pluck guts and spunk of one individual can fly so heavily in the face of a thousand years of history and tradition - what are these people, stupid? And before anybody mentions Rosa Parks or anybody of that ilk, the people that do fly in the face of tradition are (a) rarities (b) often not particularly sexy and (c) have an enormous weight of cultural pressure behind them.

I could get behind a fantasy story about a wilful young princess who refuses to consent to an arranged marriage, if it was set in a kingdom undergoing progressive social changes. I could get behind a story about an eighty-year-old duchess marrying for love now that her husband had finally popped his clogs. What irks me about the young rebels of so much derivative fantasy literature is that their rebellions are so often portrayed in such a simplistic light - good wilful youth sticks it to bad old tradition. Were I a cynical man, and let us face it I am, I would suggest that this particular phenomenon was indicative of a certain immaturity in the genre. A naïve belief that all that is right comes from the young and the new, that our fathers can teach us nothing. Ironically, this contrasts with the other rather naïve assumption of fantasy, that all wisdom is to be found in the old - in the lost, the ancient and the ruined. In fact the two assumptions are both sides of the same coin. We are never content with the world we live in, we are always yearning for the past or scrabbling for the future. That this foible of human perception so often becomes literal fact in Fantasy is perhaps understandable. When one builds a world, one builds it according to ones own ideas of how a "world" works, so your own prejudices become facts, your own assumptions realities. This is, however, no excuse for not doing your level best to keep an eye out for this sort of thing creeping in.

"Get to the point" I hear you shout "get to the bit where you get all up yourself and tell us how to be better writers like you have a clue yourself". My point is this. If somebody I read about in a story is a Rebel, I want to know three things. What are they rebelling against (and yes, to a degree "whadda you got?" is an acceptable answer)? Why are they rebelling against it (and here note that "because they're a Rebel" is not an answer, it's deeply circular logic) and crucially why are other people not rebelling against it (and in case you haven't guessed "because they haven't seen the truth" or similar answers are not valid). This, in fact, generalises to pretty much any cause in any story I am likely to want to read. In order to really believe that somebody would fight for a cause, I need to be able to believe that somebody else would fight against it.

While I'm on tradition, loyalty and rebellion I should probably also note that the flip side of the coin can be just as bad. Characters who blindly and slavishly follow the most insane, depraved and downright stupid traditions can also get on my wick. Worse still is when they have sudden changes of heart just because somebody points out how blatantly stupid whatever strictures they're following are. Either something is blatantly wrong, in which case most people shouldn't do it, or it isn't, in which case people that are strongly devoted to it shouldn't be easily turned away.

Point the Second: One Girl in All the World

Chosen ones. Last descendants of long lost lines of kings, people with special destinies, slayers, whatever. Once again it can be done well. It just usually isn't. My basic problem with the Chosen One setup is that it is about as lazy and shortcuttey as you can get. A dozen or so plot questions that you might otherwise have to think of answers for suddenly get filled in really, really easily. "Why am I going on this quest?" "Because you're the chosen one". "How come he got that good with a sword that quickly?" "Because he's the chosen one". "Why do improbable things keep saving her neck?" "Because she's the chosen one". By pleading Chosen Oneness you can strip a character of any need for motivation, competence, or depth. This is not to say that a Chosen One cannot have all of these qualities, but a character who is motivated, competent and well rounded doesn't need to be "Chosen" as well.

A very, very interesting example of a Chosen One done well is (here we go again) The Lord of the Rings. The most interesting thing about LotR, Chosen One wise is the fact that depending on how you look at it the Chosen One could be either Frodo or Aragorn. They are, in a sense, two very different types of Chosen One, and it is the failure to keep these two types distinct that leads to so many of the irritating, Mary-Sueish qualities of the Green Eyed Girls that appear in so many stories on this site and elsewhere.

Frodo is the Chosen One. The Ring came to him rather than to anybody else, and it is ultimately to him that the task of its destruction falls. Ultimately, however, it is just dumb luck that got him the gig. There are no prophecies about him (unless you count "For Isildur's bane shall waken, and the halfling forth shall start", but that was a dream that somebody had after Frodo had already had the ring for about a year). He has no special powers and develops none. He doesn't beat anybody up, he doesn't get suddenly really good with a sword. Indeed at the last even his will fails him, and he cannot cast the ring into the fire. Yet he ultimately comes out of the affair a hero. The important thing to note is that Frodo is "Chosen" not by Destiny but by Fate. The burden of the ring fell upon him because he was the one it fell upon. It could just as easily have been anybody else. This then is one sort of Chosen One, those who are cast unprepared into their great task by blind fate, who succeed or fail only on their own meagre resources.

Aragorn is the Chosen One. He is the Heir of Isildur, the rightful King of Middle Earth, bearer of Anduril, the Flame of the West (which, you will note, never shoots lightning or shatters stone or indeed does anything but function as a perfectly normal sword). He and only he can command the Oathbreakers of Dunharrow, heal with Athelas and defy the will of Sauron. His is a destiny he has borne all his life, his entire life has been leading up to the events of Lord of the Rings and he is utterly ready. He is also damned good in a fight. He is the second sort of Chosen One, the true king, the saviour ordained at birth, or indeed before. Lean, mean and utterly prepared to take destiny head on.

Where people go wrong is in trying to combine the two. Somebody can either be completely ordinary and unremarkable, or they can be omnicompetent, infinitely stylish and possessed of strange powers. Simple logic dictates that one cannot be both without compromising something. Of course I am again oversimplifying, the actual problem is no so much people trying to confound these two "types" of chosen one (which are, after all merely arbitrary constructs I have this moment made up) rather it is their not realising what they want their Chosen One to be. If you want your Chosen One to be a regular man pitted against impossible circumstances, then make them a regular man pitted against impossible circumstances, and when they win through, make it because of regular human virtues - tenacity, dedication, sheer bloody mindedness or indeed absolute dumb luck. If, on the other hand, you want your Chosen One to be literally the Only One Who Can Save The Day then do yourself a favour and make them more like Aragorn. Give them a bit of experience under their belt, have them actually know what's going on. That way when they do wind up recruiting an enormous army of the dead at the end of the book, it won't look like a huge deus ex machina.

"Ah" you say "but what about the Matrix, neo started out clueless in that, and wound up being kickass powerful". To you I say the following. Firstly the Matrix was a one off, a unique product of the increasing convergence of Hollywood, Hong Kong and the Graphic Novel. Secondly it had style. So much style that they damned near reinvented the action movie and you really need that much style to carry that sort of thing off. Thirdly it's a movie, and you can get away with a lot more in a movie - people jumping about looking cool is great on screen, but on paper it's just tedious. Particularly when it boils down to the writer saying "they jumped about and looked cool" (often in so many words).

Again it strikes me as an immaturity at the heart of the genre. Some part of us still wants to believe that we can - to put it in its simplest, bluntest form - get good at stuff without practising. We favour these awful portmanteau heroes because they tell us that we can, through no effort of our own, become something greater than we are (or, more to the point, realise that we in fact already are something greater than we are). At its best, this is an empowering and uplifting message, but it is seldom seen at its best. Usually instead it taps into the nasty bitter side of us, the bit that says "one day I'll be rich/famous/dead and then you'll all be sorry".

In a sense, it comes down to simple storytelling. When a character in a story does something, I like to have an idea of what they have done, how they have done it, and why they could do it. For that to work the character really needs to have some idea themselves. If a character only ever succeeds as a result of their Chosen One inspired Specialness I can't believe in them as a character, and if I can't believe in them as a character they've failed in their purpose.