I wanted to call it “diminishing the character,” but that’s not really what it’s about. Nor is it really about diminishing the plot, my second thought for the title. I suppose it could be about “moving your plot away from those damn archetypes, though.”
1) If your plot starts as an archetypal or typical situation, it should not stay there.
I know I get a lot of plot ideas that seem very simple at first. “This hero does this to the villain.” “I want to write about two people who are violently in love.” “My hero is an older man who is going to take a strange journey now that most of his family is dead.”
The problem is that a lot of amateur fantasy- and too much published fantasy- gets that idea and stays there.
I’m always wary when I read the back of a book and see a description such as, “The adventures of a brave young heroine in the frozen north.” If it can be reduced to that, what kind of individuality does it have? If your heroine is exactly like every other teenaged girl in fantasy, why write the story? It can be comfortable, I suppose, but I don’t think writing is meant to be comfortable. I’ve always found startling writing superior to it.
Roll the plot idea around in your mind. See what else it picks up. Use a character who has personality traits that are not exclusively born of the first plot idea. If you’re tossing around the “young misunderstood woman who saves the world” idea, why not give her a passionate scientific interest in butterflies? It can easily have nothing to do with being young, being misunderstood, or saving the world. Characters shouldn’t be limited to just the traits that you need for the plot.
Occasionally, I get the feeling that authors are shaping the world around the character- that a system of monarchy is in place because the author wants to write so desperately about the heroine becoming Queen of the World, say. Stop. Make your character an individual. Don’t write a story about how #Misunderstood Teenager Who Stands In For the Author feels about becoming Queen; write a story about how Henrietta, (butterfly-collector, losing sight in her right eye, nervous and flighty, prone to fidget on long carriage rides, and highly loyal to her friends), feels about becoming Queen.
2) Show the heroine and her rival racing neck-and-neck, not one miles ahead.
Obviously this is easier to do if you’re writing from both viewpoints (something that I encourage people to do, because it makes it harder to tell just who is heroine and who is villain), but even from one you can avoid some of the archetypal conflicts that people use. One scene I hate with a violent passion is the scene where the rival or the villain laughs in the heroine’s face and tells her how much closer she is to: recovering the Quest Object/conquering the world/solving the mystery/saving the world/whatever. Really, why? At this point, I know the book is going to end with the heroine pulling some bloody idiotic ”clever” thing out of her ass and making up the distance. The author is echoing the laughter of every single cartoonish rival or villain or schoolyard bully in existence. There’s nothing individual behind it.
The situation is rarer, I think, but if the heroine gloats to the villain or rival, the same thing happens. Suddenly, she’s not Henrietta anymore; she’s #Random Gloating Heroine, speaking in high moral platitudes and using those “witty” comebacks that should be dragged out and shot behind the barn and perhaps even “giving a cool smile as [interject cartoon rival’s name] spluttered.” Ugh. My god. Am I supposed to find gloating in character when the author deindividualizes the heroine like that, just because she wants her to have a Cool Gloating Moment?
3) Don’t give the heroine all those dramatic revelations in the “nick of time.”
You’ve read it, I’m sure. The heroine figures out one character has been lying all along and charges in just in time to stop him from completing his dastardly plan. Usually she tells him all about how she figured it out, too. Yawn, whinge, whine, cringe, pass me another fantasy book. This one smells like something died.
Really. What are the chances that the heroine would figure things out just in time to both stop the villain and make herself look good? One or the other would be fine with me, most of the time, but no, it must be both dramatic and public- or, if it isn’t public, the heroine still has to stupefy the villain and give him no real chance to kill her, even as she stands there prattling on about her cleverness. A private confrontation in which she’s made to feel like a fool, or one in which she wins but doesn’t immediately go bragging to her cronies, is something rare and would be more to my taste.
And if the villain has managed to get away with lying/spreading rumors/sending suspicion in another direction this long, I say: why does his skill suddenly run out? (Usually, the author does represent it as a sudden failure of his skill and not a run of luck for the heroine. Can’t have her looking lucky instead of clever, after all). Let him get away with Dastardly Plan A. Have the heroine stop Dastardly Plan B, after she sees A and realizes who it must be. Or let her figure it out by some means other than the villain tripping up, bragging where she can hear, or suddenly and completely breaking down and telling her everything.
Or- and I say this because I am a fan of tragic fantasy and a bitch at heart, really- let him get away with it. Let the heroine deal with the consequences. Let a friend die because she didn’t figure it out fast enough.
Just don’t let her angst about it unnaturally.
4) Not all wounds are healed in dramatic epiphany scenes.
At least, they aren’t in good fantasy. The characters often do restore something that has been lost, like the status quo (though I have yet to find a bad fantasy that would arrange to give me back my sanity). They heal wounds, sometimes literally. Lost loves return. The dead get resurrected, in the most determinedly “you WILL be happy!” scenarios. Everyone smiles.
But what about other wounds? What about the grief the heroine feels for the fact that the war was necessary at all? What about the teenaged king’s insecurities about the throne? Can they really be burned away in the light of the rising sun?
“Yes!” says cardboard fantasy.
“No!” say I.
A wound that has plagued the character all through the story, whether it be physical or emotional, and that is not directly tied to that shattering eucatastrophe at the end (for example, the loss of a friend who didn’t die in the war and who isn’t resurrected), should be mentioned, but not necessarily healed. Perhaps the heroine will decide to stop regretting her part in the friend’s death, though she will always miss him. Perhaps she will decide to let time heal it, and carry regret and guilt with her even to the last page. Perhaps she will still miss him, even more intensely now that he isn’t here to see the sunrise with her.
Show grief and healing that is in character and individualized. Yes, eucastastrophe and healing are archetypal in fantasy. Doesn’t mean they need to be universal.
This is the part, for me, that no mere imitator of Tolkien can match. He wrote about his characters’ deaths. He wrote about wounds that couldn’t be healed by some miraculous newfound love or the mere restoration of the King to the throne, and sent the characters to a place where they might be- but didn’t write about them coming back, all healed and healthy and tanned, ten years later.
Most fantasy writers know that sacrifice is part of their happy ending. Their fault lies in piling all the happy on their plate and forgetting that necessary side helping of sacrifice. Eat your sacrifice; it’s good for you.
5) Give the minor victories to other people.
Does the heroine have to do everything?
In some fantasies, quite literally yes. She may well excel in skills that have nothing to do with either the plot or her character, such as knowing how to play a musical instrument flawlessly with no instruction, or being the best student mage in a class without training and even though her defeat of the Dark Lord will rely more on some super-powered weapon than magic. This is done to show how SPESHUL and WONDERFUL she is and how jealous minor characters are, usually, and irritates the fuck out of me.
Then there are the victories that are important to the plot, but which the heroine doesn’t necessarily have to win, since they’re steps along the road to the Dark Lord. Sometimes they don’t even have much to do with the final defeat. A character needs cheering up, or someone needs to hear a story, or a traitor has to be discovered (see point 3). The heroine still does it, no matter how much the author must twist the plot with coincidence and the ever-convenient “overheard conversation.” This reduces the other characters to the status of sidekicks, or comic relief, because even the ones who are funny or knowledgeable don’t get to do the serious cheering up and investigating. It’s the Perfect Heroine to the rescue!
Let other characters do things, please. Why are they there? Even if they are sidekicks, don’t announce them as such. Show them in their proper function in the plot, which is usually helping the heroine along.
This is a case I really don’t get, since the idea of minor heroes helping a main one along is close to archetype; look at the animal helpers in fairy tales. Yet a lot of bad fantasy cuts them out or reduces them for the sake of making Miss Shining Light here the most important one.