Jun 15, 2011

5 Things You Don't Want in Your Novel, pt. 3

Part Three: The Mildewed Touch of Royalty

What does Princess Leia have in common with Snow White? Why would the ‘last king of Scotland’ desire that title for himself?

Monarchies seek legitimacy in tradition and privilege, not universal suffrage. It is for this reason that they are, at heart, incompatible with democracy. Under kingly rule, men and women are not created equal. By an accident of birth, some are created better than others and deserve different treatment before the law.[1]

The first human beings to call themselves free in recorded history were aristocrats; yet freedom like theirs was available only to a select few and sustained by a legion of slaves. Lest we forget.

Why do so many influential works of fantasy and science fiction include monarchs or royals as characters?

I can think of a few reasons:

1. Kingship has been with us for a long time and old habits die hard.

2. Royals enjoy the kind of status most of us never will. That’s something you want to fantasize about – when you’re king or queen, you don’t have to worry about elections. Only extraordinary circumstances will eject you from the throne.

(Thrones do not whitewash souls, only reputations. There’s nothing inherently ennobling about power.)

3. Royal lives are at once commonplace and remote, banal and luxurious. Yet unlike common folk aristocrats seem to live in a choose-your-own-adventure book. They have access to challenges and opportunities most of us don’t.

4. Kings and queens are ancient symbols of human/divine achievement rooted in a distant past. They play alpha male and female to the human ape and embody idealized traits of strength and leadership. Royals are supposed to make us pine for the heights of human achievement. As if they were better versions of ourselves.

5. Royal lives are an odd carousel of working vacations. Missing a mortgage payment? Losing your job? Such concerns are immaterial. What is poverty to them? Royals don’t go dumpster-diving, nor do they sleep in homeless shelters.

What does Leia Organa have in common with Snow White? The two women start out as prisoners. Both orphans, they suffer the pains of exile and are barred from their ‘rightful place.’ Their homes are destroyed and, as a part of their character arc, they must make new ones. Formidable foes, Darth Vader and the Evil Queen are almost interchangeable -- nocturnal, brooding, vindictive magicians.[2]

Snow White is, well, white as the driven snow. Leia Organa is introduced in an all-white gown.

Their thoughts and intentions are pure and straightforward. They align their actions with the ‘good’ side, the bright side.

White can be sinister, too. There's the right kind of white, and then there's the wrong.

Telling a story is no mean feat, nor is it a simple one. Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm Brothers understood this. The stories they collected and sometimes reworked are subversive and demonstrate the world is anything but black and white.

Moral ambiguity is one of the reasons I enjoy Game of Thrones: the nobles are either stupid or scum, but it’s never as simple as that. Show me a world where believable characters make do with what they have, where they all have to navigate treacherous waters like we do in real life, and you’ll have a staunch defender, if not a convert.

Feed me garbage about Princess Mary Sue of the Aureate Ringlets who is sweeter than candy apples and I will forget all about you.

Who will remember those Princess Barbie movies in twenty years?  

The Bony Hand of Prophecy

Most prophecies are as useful to the average human being as a fishing pole is to a bear.

Angel spent entire seasons making sure viewers understood that Angel, the vampire, would play a pivotal role in a future apocalypse. ’Twas foretold. When said apocalypse finally came, it was nothing more than a ruckus in a blind alley. Four heroes against faceless legions of evil. Odd that the ultimate army of darkness would go out of its way to crush two vampires, a dying human and a waning demigod, when they had bigger fish to fry. Revenge? Overkill.

Prophecy is an old human habit. From the jungles of South America to the treeless Caucasian slopes and beyond, it has informed a number of myths about the end of this world or the beginning of the next one. The messiah, redeemer, culture-hero is borne along by the whitewater current of myth, changing from story to story. Despite the thousand faces[3], he or she is always recognizable.  

When it comes to fiction, it’s no surprise the old trope pops up so often. Words handed down by a deity provide a convenient setup and give you plenty of chances to foreshadow story elements. Not to mention last-minute revelation. After all, it’s a shock when prophetic vision turns out to be wrong.

Frank Herbert came up with an interesting idea for Dune: the Bene Gesserit sisterhood developed prophecies to infect budding religions. (I can think of no better term than ‘infect’ at this point.) BG-endorsed holy writ would inevitably serve the sisterhood’s goals. The sisters would work, one generation after another, toward the fulfillment of their false prophecies. Thereby making them true. Oh, you sneaky ladies, you.

Prophecy is an instrument of political power. Penned by the idealist, it’s hijacked by the relativist. “Blessed is the mind too small for doubt,” goes a saying from the Warhammer 40k universe. Because visionary texts are obscure and malleable, the powerful twist them to their own ends. The conquistadors in Mesoamerica pretty much invented the ‘return of Quetzalcoatl.’ Cortés himself had much to gain from the hype.

What bugs me the most about prophecies in popular entertainment is how screamingly dull they tend to be. I’m tired of saviors and chosen ones. Especially sword-wielding ones. There’s a glut of champions fighting for good -- literally fighting for good. When you solve all your problems with violence, rather than creativity, are you really a hero?[4] The chosen one’s lifestyle begs the question: does the hero champion peace or embrace fighting for its own sake?

What of the ‘chosen ones’ who’ve outlived their usefulness? Coming back from the dead to lead a nondescript life negates the meaning of sacrifice.  Aren’t they supposed to ascend to a higher plane of existence? Go on to greener pastures -- you know, as a reward or something? On a number of books, movies and TV shows, the Powers that Be seem to be a bit confused as to what they really want from their champions.

Why not give your heroes a glorious send-off? Good things come in threes: Beginning, Middle and End. Remove the end, and your prophecy is neutered. There’s no prophecy without blood, fire and pain. After the last battle to save the world, the one that had your champion killing old friends and losing half his teeth, there should be a proportionate reward.

A statue would be nice. 

On the next installment: Learn how heavy a sword really is, and how swords have gone from killing people to killing fiction.


[1] Nobody should inherit political office. Furthermore, it amazes me that in this day and age there still exist tax-funded fairytales.

[2] Before Star Wars devotees flay me alive -- I know full well that Darth Vader is not a ‘sorceror.’ Yes, he manipulates the Force, and now the Force has been given a 'biological,' pseudo-scientific basis. So how does Vader manipulate it? Is there a brain-midi-chlorian interface where commands are sent out to the midi-chlorian system in your body? If midi-chlorians are located inside living cells, how the hell do you make them knock an opponent off their feet, or turn the little fuckers into lightning? Maybe ‘force lightning’ is made up of pissed-off midi-chlorians? I need aspirin.
I’m sorry George Lucas shat all over your childhood memories; for what it’s worth, I loved episodes IV-VI. Heck, I even had them on VHS.

Don’t try to strangle me at a distance. Darth Vader, you’re not.

[3] If you’re not familiar with Joseph Campbell’s seminal book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I recommend that you check it out.

[4] The Power Rangers are possibly the worst children’s show in the history of television. There’s only one plot and it involves kicking, shouting, and two different-sized versions of the same monster. The only way to solve problems is by hitting them hard. When the problem hits back, you hit it harder until it explodes. ‘Problems’ always explode. 

Every time I think about the Power Rangers, my IQ drops 20 points.

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