The bookish protagonist rant—another one I’ve been looking forward to.
1) If you set up your society the right way, a bookish heroine can be just as much a rebel as a sword-wielding one.
This is something I would, frankly, welcome, since it seems that so many heroines “rebel” just by grabbing a sword and dashing off to fight. But if you look at sexist societies in our own world, it doesn’t work like that. Sexism is institutionalized. It’s not as though women in past centuries were only prevented from fighting and could do anything else they liked.
Here’s a quote; guess when it was written before you look past it:
“If we wish to have women who fulfill their responsibilities as mothers, we cannot expect them to have a masculine brain. If it were possible for the feminine abilities to develop in a parallel fashion to those of a male, the organs of motherhood would shrivel, and we would have a hateful and useless hybrid creature on our hands.”
If you said 1898, you would be correct. That’s good ol’ Paul Mobius, in On the Physiological Debility of Women, not much more than a hundred years ago. And science had advanced considerably further then than in most fantasy worlds.
A bookish woman in a society where women’s childbearing abilities, or beauty, or, for that matter, magical abilities, were more highly valued than their brains would be in for a fight. It’ll be nothing as dramatic as her brother kicking down the door and taking her sword from her. On the other hand, it might be a good deal tenser and more of an uphill climb, because the enemy is societal and internalized and intangible—and a good many fantasy worlds lack the words and the philosophy for those concepts.
Know what I want to see? A woman who starts a feminist movement in a fantasy world because her family won’t leave her in peace to study. There’s a heroine.
2) Consider making your protagonist a bricoleur.
A bricoleur is someone who practices bricolage, which is putting a solution together out of whatever bits happen to be lying around. Rather than having everything delivered to his doorstep, he uses what he has. This might not result in the same solution as he would create if he had everything, or a solution as complete or elegant, but it works.
This would be much more practical for many fantasy worlds and situations than the solution that’s usually presented, which is the protagonist having access to the most complete library, of magical books and otherwise, in the world. Yes, if your protagonist is already in an academy (see point 3), this can work, but what if he’s in a castle with his book-hating relatives? They would have texts that their ancestors may have assembled, but why would they have thousands? Wouldn’t they be likely to sell the more expensive ones—books bring a lot of money in most fantasy worlds—or do something else with them that didn’t involve housing them in a bright, warm, well-lit library? Insure that the libraries fit with the lord of the manor’s attitude, please.
So perhaps your boy has a few books, but not nearly the amount he would have in an academy library. He knows from his reading of one of the old books that the way the castle is shaking isn’t good, and isn’t something natural, like an earthquake. However, he doesn’t have the one book that might tell him, completely and unequivocally, what it is. Or perhaps the book is damaged at key parts that would tell him the truth. He has to work around the gaps and put things together.
This is where you get to have fun. Reading the answer straight out of the right book doesn’t do much in the way of suspense. But having to guess, and knowing your guesses might be wrong, and sneaking down into the dungeons to see what’s going on with your own eyes, and trying to persuade people to get out of the castle when they won’t and are being stubborn assholes—that might lend itself to some exciting fantasy.
(Brought to you by the fact that I’m a bricoleur, and would dearly love to see more heroes who worked that way, instead of just locating the right treatise).
3) Fit your protagonist into his academy, or explain why he doesn’t fit.
Sometimes a character is obviously and grossly mismatched with the school he’s in. His abilities are too strong for the teachers to train, if it’s a magical academy; or he’s smarter than any of the others and bored with the courses; or he’s already read all the books in the library and is ready for something new; and so on. Yet most of these, broken down, don’t make that much sense:
- Why is he so much stronger than the others? And if the teachers realize it, why wouldn’t they make arrangements for training him in a different place or with different lessons? (Stop proclaiming that the teachers are all jealous of him. Yes, there is jealousy among academics, but many of us are too completely obsessed with the subjects we’re studying to waste all our time on that. There should be some human mages, too).
- Same thing with the intelligence. What is it that makes him so much smarter? Did he perhaps have previous training at home? And if his parents could afford to give him that, why wouldn’t they scout out some other school and send him there? (Authors could at least show their protagonists’ backgrounds and school experience matching. Why should someone who was stifled both at home and in school by dull and stupid people and books turn out smart? He certainly wouldn’t be encouraged to develop his mental abilities).
- The library has thousands of books, and he’s read them all. While dealing with schoolwork, and the thousand minor crises that childhood and adolescence bring on, and other bookish people reading the books, and the fact that most fantasy worlds don’t have electric lights to keep reading going after sunset. Yes, because I believe that.
There are plenty of interesting, realistic ways to show a protagonist who’s bucking at the confines of his schooling. All those reasons I mentioned just don’t make much sense without more explanation.
4) Kick the absent-minded professor and his variants out the door.
I open a fantasy book. I read about a bookish protagonist. My mood is one of alternate joy (because I’m empathizing, much more than I do with a heroine whose major problem is that her parents want her to wear dresses) and terror. The second is because I just know that scene is coming. Or, if the author is particularly humor-deaf, a whole string of those scenes.
You know the one. The one where the protagonist turns out to be completely and totally absent-minded and loses small objects to the hilarity of everyone around her. Or the one where the protagonist has gotten “crazy” with too much studying. Or the one where people continually josh her, in words the author no doubt pounded out with a shit-eating grin on her face and expected to provoke the same responses in her audience, about forgetting five meals in a row because she’s reading.
The bookish protagonist has just become a stock character. Congratulations.
- These are really one-note jokes. Having them run in the exact same words throughout the book proves just how few fantasy authors are truly competent humorists.
- The very fact that they’re stereotypes means that it’s stupid to turn every bookish character into them. Writers have generally learned to avoid making every warrior character gruff with a heart of gold, or every thief character quick with a wisecrack. Yet somehow, it’s just de rigueur to make the bookish character absent-minded or crazy. Think about it before you do it, okay?
- You’re passing up an excellent chance to have a truly nasty character flaw, one not turned to the heroine’s advantage every time the way that flaws such as a quick temper or too much compassion tend to be. If she really does forget to lock the door when she goes out to tend the cattle and read her book, what’ll happen when a thief creeps into the cottage? If she misses meals because she’s buried in her reading, what happens to the younger siblings she was supposed to cook food for? Authors tend to forget, in their chortling, that these “hilarious” bouts of forgetfulness can cost other people, and cost them dearly. Show that happening, and I’m completely and totally willing to forgive you for the absent-mindedness.
5) Bookish characters can be argumentative, too.
They’re often surprisingly passive, even when they’re nominally the heroes of the book. They exist mainly to read things, find out about things, and put their bookish solutions into practice. Most of the time the author could replace them with a fact-finding spell and not make much difference.
Yet, if you have a highly trained fantasy academic who’s been recruited on the quest to furnish information about something obscure and dangerous because she’s studied it all her life, she will most likely have her own theories on the subject. If she’s a polite kind of person, she might keep those theories to herself—but if she’s the protagonist, we’ll still be reading her disputing thoughts inside her head. If she’s argumentative, or the rules of the world she’s now in are different from the rules of the academic one, she’ll probably present her own theories.
These can lead to arguments. Arguments are nice. They can get the story moving.
Of course, long conversational passages are the bane of some fantasies. The thing is, go back and read one some time, and you’ll probably see that those really aren’t conversations, in the sense of a give-and-take exchange between two (or more) people. They’re lectures. The wise old mentor telling someone the prophecy is the favorite old chestnut, but there are other instances, such as when the angsty teenager lectures everyone about how much worse her life was than anyone else’s, or when the soldier lectures someone on the history of the latest war for four pages straight.
Try some debate instead—and debate about alternate theories for the whole quest, not the philosophical moralizing that many fantasies also suck at presenting. Make the reader start wondering if this little expedition haring off into the Wilds of Wherever is really that competent. Are they sure they know everything?
6) Calling Renaissance men (and women).
This term originated for, surprise, Renaissance men who were accomplished in many areas, not just one. So someone might be a master poet, but also a good philosopher, a good alchemist, a good courtier, a good fighter, a good rider, and so on and so forth.
I think we need more of these people in fantasy.
“But,” someone might say, “during the Renaissance, knowledge was more limited, and so someone could know things more easily.”
This is different from the situation in most fantasy worlds how? Without the printing press, the number of books will be limited. Without a higher standard of living than is usually shown except among the highest classes, there will be relatively few philosophical symposiums, or time for moralizing or developing other skills. Without a developed scientific and/or magical tradition (the ones that the fantasy worlds may have had in the past are often presented as having fallen into ruins with the Destroyed Magical Empire™ anyway), there isn’t going to be a vast body of wisdom for the characters to memorize over millennia. Stuffy old mages with white beards aren’t the only ones who can learn, though they may strictly control access to education, which makes for an interesting conflict.
Just imagine how dangerous an enemy, or how cool a protagonist, a person with both brains and brawn, someone accomplished in the common courtly pursuits and the ones usually reserved for eccentric old people, someone who can chant a poem to melt your heart andride down a boar, would be. There are not enough of them. There are not enough Renaissances in fantasy, either—or Byzantiums, or Roman republics.
Reading this over, it looks like a list of “What Limyaael wants in fantasy” again.
Oh, well. These rants were always personal.