This is not, specifically, against cynicism in fantasy novels. I love cynicism in fantasy novels, provided that the character is expressing it in such a way that it fits the story, and not just because the author thinks it’s Cool. However, as the dominant tone of a story, it can become just as nauseating as a fantasy where the dominant tone is praise of the loose cannon who has no idea what ‘diplomacy’ means hero.
1) Use some humorous and gentle cynicism as well as the more jaded kind.
A few of the funniest authors I’ve ever read are cynics. For example, Dorothy Parker. Her counter to Clare Booth Luce, who let her go through a door first with the “Age before beauty” line, was “Pearls before swine.” Someone who can think up a line like that on the spur of the moment can be a valuable addition to a fantasy novel, particularly if they do it in a more appropriate situation than it’s usually done (i.e., any situation that is not one where the enemy is about to skin them alive).
It’s hard to make this look natural, of course. And there’s the problem that most fantasy authors mistake “Fine!” and the like for snappy comebacks. All right, then. Go for a gentle cynic. He can have as dim a view of human (or elven, or dragon) potential and motivations as anyone else in the story, but he doesn’t have to express himself in as acid a tone. He may present a mask of smiling indifference rather than the hostile, snarky kind. Perhaps the hero has no idea that he’s a cynic until he asks the character outright if he believes their quest is doomed. “Oh, certainly. But we’re going on it anyway,” is a response unusual enough to spice up some fantasy conversations, and, if complicated and unexpected enough, will make the hero blink for a while instead of casting the cynic into one of those stock character molds that fantasists are so fond of using.
2) Make the cynic-who-complains also the cynic-who-does.
This is my point. As in, this is the point that, of course, all fantasy authors should add to their books tomorrow, solely because it would please Limyaael.
*climbs down off pedestal*
I hate reading about people who complain but take no steps to make their lot better, whether they’re heroes whining about how the other characters have disappointed their expectations or wise old mentors disgusted because the hero doesn’t know everything that he should. It’s very easy to complain, but not so easy to improve, is it? It’s very easy to be reactive, but not so easy to be active, is it? I want to kick their asses and get them into motion. If they’re so unhappy with the situation, let them do something about it.
I’m always happy when the author kicks their asses for me.
Seriously. These people have awesome abilities, don’t they? They often have people loyal to them, powerful magic (sometimes the most powerful magic in the world), prophecies or gods on their side, armies willing to march at their command, friends or love interests or companions who would die to protect them, and a much clearer idea of their purpose in life than your average fantasy peasant, or reader for that matter, gets. And then they want to sit around and think themselves superior to the world because they “see it for what it is.”
Hey, you, author. You made them able to do stuff. So have them do stuff.
And I don’t think that cynicism and doing things are at all incompatible as character traits, though I’ve heard some people argue that. Take your average diplomat, who is forever having to go and explain to some neighboring kingdom that, no, the hot-headed young king really didn’t mean that Queen Gertrude of the neighboring kingdom was fat and ugly. He’d be cynical as all hell by the fifth time he had to do that, but on the other hand, he’d also know that no one else was going to do anything, or they would have restrained the king before this. So he goes and does the job right, because obviously he’s the only one who can, and because he’s mad at all hell at the world and is going to save it from itself even if it doesn’t want to be saved. Your reader will forgive a lot of cynicism, I think, if you can put him inside the mind of that kind of powerhouse of a character.
Hey, that’s another idea.
3) Use raging cynicism, not apathetic.
I consider myself a cynic. And yet I don’t see the point of sitting in an ivory tower and declaiming about the state of the world while drinking poisoned wine. And I find those “cynics” in books who do nothing but mope about boring. Their color is gray.
Show me rage. Show me red.
Those shattering traumas that happen in fantasy often (when they don’t conveniently kill the hero’s family so that he can go on the quest) make characters into cynics. But they’re the kind who stand behind the bars of inns and warn travelers about the Mountains of Doom and dolefully shake their heads. They don’t really care about the fact that no one comes back from the Mountains of Doom, because they don’t really care about anything. Their minds obsessively circle their own tragedies, and somehow this kind of brooding is supposed to be romantic.
Wouldn’t a better course of action be to go to the Mountains of Doom and find out what’s killing people, then kill it so that it can’t slaughter any more, then come home obsessively self-satisfied?
It would still give characters the ability to brood. It would give a quest structure to the story. It would bring in the motivation of vengeance, which authors seem to love to use. (I’m wary of vengeance stories now, but mostly because I can never believe that these particular people would spend years tracking murderers across the world, or trying to find out the secret of what killed their parents so that they can kill it, because they care about too much else. Also, 9 of 10 authors do the “Vengeance that comes true is empty ashes” thing, which is one of my most hated clichés ever). It would employ the self-involvement and obsession that are also attractive traits—I guess, anyway—for some fantasy readers. It’s cynicism still, but it’s cynicism with claws and teeth on. “Fuck with me? Yeah, I expected that to happen. That’s what people do. But I will now fuck you up and down and sideways. So there.”
I would love to see a story written from the point of view of someone who is nominally an antagonist like this, perhaps a lieutenant of the “evil” side who’s in it for personal vengeance. That personal vengeance is supposedly never justified if he’s working for the Dark Lord, of course. But justify it, for once, and you’d wind up with a dangerous opponent for the “good” side, with a motivation that couldn’t be boiled down to, “Well, he was just mistaken.”
Also, if the lieutenant is after someone high-ranking on the good side, with reason, then you have a tricky ethical moral dilemma. And I love tricky ethical moral dilemmas.
4) Include scenes dominated by other emotions, too.
It always amazes me that so many people seem to think that one emotional tone must rule their fantasy book. If it’s a dark fantasy, there can be no humor, EVER. No, NONE. If it’s a high fantasy, often the same—because, as I’ve mentioned before, a great many high fantasy authors have no nodding acquaintance with this mysterious entity called “wit,” though they might like to think they do—and the seriousness takes over everything. What should be an ordinary scene of the hero facing a minor enemy becomes Ye Olde Grande Contest of Life and Death. Every deathbed scene is stretched out, even when the character is wounded through the throat and logically should not be able to talk. Every minor conversation takes on Incredible Symbolic Significance. There are Random Capitals everywhere. (See?)
But, though it can be possible to write a book like this, I don’t think it’s possible to read it all the way through like this. Unbroken seriousness or darkness begins to rot. And so does unbroken cynicism.
Oh, yes, cynicism may be the New Cool, or the message that you’re trying to demonstrate about the futility and evil of the world, or whatever. I don’t care. If you’re seriously trying to create breathing people and a living world in your story, and not just archetypes passing through the undefined background of a fairy tale, dream, or nightmare, then add in some other emotional tones.
The heroes may joke to relieve tension, even if it’s humor suitable only for midnight on the gallows. They may have a tender moment, and then something may interrupt it, and the hero will be all the angrier and snappier for his tender moment being spoiled. There may be pain and danger described in greater or lesser detail. One part of the book may have the seriousness and grandeur that comes from the moment of defeating the greatest enemy, and another the seriousness and grandeur that comes from being captive in an underground pit. (Fantasy authors are often much better at describing beautiful things than disgusting things. Battle scenes are keen on the flashing sword blades and banners, while the mess of corpses afterward is indistinguishable from a hundred other such descriptions. Get better at this, and a sense of tragedy could join the cynicism).
Even cynical characters will smile. Even cynical characters will make mistakes, and feel joy when a comrade is freed, and get seasick, and get annoyed because they have to get up in the middle of night when they’re assigned latrine duty. Find those moments and exploit them.
And, while we’re at it, not all the characters should be cynics.
5) The equation should not be as simple as experience= cynicism or heritage= cynicism.
Cynicism is a particular kind of attitude about the world. Done right, it’s as complex as any other attitude.
Done wrongly, it can seem as though someone who was a perfect optimist before went through one bitter experience and gave up, though his character dictated that he should have gone on fighting. Or a girl whose mother is a cynic decides to become cynical just to imitate her mother in childhood, and never stops, even when she passes out of the stage in which she hero-worships her mother.
My point: Make sure that your conceptions of the character cohere. Yes, yes, there can be explanations. But if your character is cheerful, optimistic, empathic, trusting, and yet given to saying “I told you so” about everything, then that’s an apparent four-fifths of the character ranged against the fifth fifth. (That sounded better when I thought it, I swear…) I want to know where the last fifth came from. I see no reason why I should give an author mixing in a completely unfathomable character trait the benefit of the doubt. If there’s no explanation forthcoming, ever, I conclude that the author didn’t notice, or is trying to be Cool, and I become significantly less interested in the character. I’m always less interested in symbols than people.
6) Cynicism is not a crime needing redemption.
Another thing I’m always dreading whenever a cynical character appears in the story is the author launching something at her—a baby, a sick or ill character, a grand task, a quest, whatever—and using that to “redeem” her from being cynical. “Oh, she doubts everyone’s ability to live up to their potential, but don’t worry! She was wrong, and she didn’t mean it anyway! Look how shiny and happy she is, now that she has something/someone else to worry about!”
I especially hate it with the baby scenario, since I don’t think that a character set in her ways over forty years will reorient her universe just because there’s a baby involved and she’s female, but the other ways are annoying, too. They happen with the vengeance motivation; they happen with characters who doubt the hero; they happen with the characters who made one wrong choice based on something that was not their fault, like a lack of knowledge (provided they’re not the hero). The author makes them act a certain way, then punishes them for acting that way and “rescues” them from being “wrong” into a shiny, happy, totally fake personality.
“Vengeance is an empty motivation!” isn’t something new. By now, to make it new, it needs fancier trappings. “Oh, you were wrong, but I forgive you!” is meaningless when the character made an honest mistake, and has done nothing to be forgiven for. And “You were cynical, but you have regrown faith in humanity!” is stupid when the cynicism was justified.
Think twice before taking the track of silly redemption, please. There’s more than enough of that already.
Next is (I think) the ‘earning extreme situations’ rant. That shall make a nice companion to the ‘putting characters through hell’ rant.