Ooh, yay, one of my favorite topics. (Seriously).
1) Show the goodness, don’t tell it.
There are some qualities in fantasy it’s often better to tell (a character’s height, simple emotions); some qualities that might be good to show or tell depending on the situation (tell me about the character’s beauty if you must, but please don’t rhapsodize); and others it is fatal not to show (for example, compassion). Don’t tell me that your ruler is a good one. Especially, don’t start out the fantasy novel with an omniscient voice burbling on about his goodness and then slip me into his viewpoint. This is a quality that your readers will need to discover for themselves. If they start thinking that, really, he’s just an immature little nincompoop who doesn’t deserve the title of governor, they’ll resent the telling even more.
How do you show this? The same way with any other deep characterization, really. Demonstrate his virtues in action. (One reason that fantasy characters often seem to be flawless hellspawn is because the author will tell the reader that they’re compassionate, brave, talented, etc., but provide no scenes where the character acts out those things). Balance his virtues with his vices. Show how he interacts with equals, superiors, subjects, soldiers, rulers from other countries/lands/cities, mages, love interests, the secondary characters most important to the story. Though your ruler might well have a different public than private persona, the qualities that make him a good ruler shouldn’t simply vanish when he’s alone with his wife (a common cliché is the ruler who’s somehow smart enough to keep everyone around him fooled, but then stupid enough to reveal his “true, evil self” to at least one person whose testimony will destroy him). Showing him as a whole person who happens to be a good ruler is more challenging, more joy-making, and more fun to read than chopping him up into little bits and putting one bit on the throne, one bit in the bedroom, and one bit in the cups.
Which reminds me…
2) Keep carousing, drinking, and other out-of-control behavior to a minimum in a ruler who’s supposed to be a good one.
These are common problems given to rulers who need to go on a quest to save the world before they can straighten up. Great. Keep it up. I’d like more scenes of princesses waking up in puddles of vomit and realizing they need to change their lives.
Just…don’t expect me to cheer on a woman who does it, really.
Drinking to encourage loosened tongues is one thing—though after a while, when the queen’s used that to entrap a few nobles, I’d expect the others to wise up and just refuse to drink around her. Drinking to the point of falling down, blabbing secrets, and going out on the town to look for whores (of either sex) is another. I fail to see why people would admire a princess like this. Popular? Oh yes, I’ll grant you that. I would imagine your stereotypical careless young noble would be thrilled to have a friend who could pay for every round. But that doesn’t mean that she has the right to show up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next day, judge some case aright, and walk away to leave everyone rolling around on the floor in admiration. She can recover well from drinking all the author wants, but I would expect someone to remember the crude joke she made when she had her hand down the whore’s pants and think, “Hmmm…”
Reckless rulers are really, really overrated. The ruler who goes off by himself, putting his life in danger, and then comes back and spits indignation at people is one I’d like to see smacked. It isn’t about how well he can take care of himself (or herself, actually more common in some scenarios because the author just has to prove that this is a kickass fighting princess, not a wussy dress-wearing princess). There are always accidents, hostage situations, and crippling wounds even if death doesn’t come along. Someone who insists on running off into the dark by herself, when other lives depend on her, isn’t brave, but reckless. Yes, there is a difference. Find the line in the sand, memorize it, and don’t cross it if this ruler is really supposed to be good.
3) Make him aware of his own power.
I adore Dave Duncan for the A Man of His Word quartet in general, which has two of the only teenage fantasy characters in existence I do not want to slap, but also for the small ways in which he develops his princess character, called Inosolan. (This guy is GOOD. Inosolan is an only daughter who’s being forced to marry, who has special-colored eyes, and who could have powerful magic, and I adore her to pieces). In one scene early in the first book, Inosolan, who’s been brought to a kind of mainland “finishing school” from her island kingdom, tries to make friends with the servants around her. Her own polar kingdom, Krasnegar, is so small and isolated that the servants and their children are all her friends, so she sees nothing wrong with this. It’s her aunt, Kade, who explains gently that Inos is making the servants confused; they don’t know how to act around her, since Inos also still expects them to bring her what she wants.
Consider this the next time you have a prince who “doesn’t see any difference” between a servant and himself, or a female general who for some reason wants to get all chummy with a new recruit. There is a palpable difference between them. That difference relies on power. A prince could wave to a shopkeeper’s daughter as he passes each day, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t buy out her whole shop if he wanted. A general could dismiss a recruit in an instant, and if it was her word against his, his would be ignored.
A good ruler will not simply expect everyone around him to act as his best buddy at one moment and his servant at the next. He’ll be aware of the effect he has on people, and what it might mean for someone whom he invites to “tell him what she really thinks.” Anyone involved with him could be in remarkable danger—if not physical danger from his enemies, than danger of spite and envy from people who also want his favor. When he’s talking to someone actively opposed to him, like a ruler of a hostile country or a criminal, make him remember the situation. These are not his bestest buddies. I don’t care how compassionate he is. If he makes a mistake in judgment, more lives than his ride on the outcome.
I suppose that last sentence sums up this point, really: Make him act as a leader as well as a private citizen.
4) Make the majority of his political actions active, not reactive.
Hey, evil invading Dark Lord who’s actually sent out spies and scouted the area and prepared his soldiers to invade and managed to sneak up to the border without anyone noticing! Want some help?
Yes, it’s “OMG, no good ruler could ever suspect evil of anyone, so he’s completely unprepared when the war rolls around!” time again. It makes no sense with the rest of the author’s world, as usual. The ruler is smart, yet hasn’t noticed the Dark Lord’s spies or troop movements or incredibly obvious preparing of a superweapon. The ruler has spies, yet none of them have told him anything. The ruler commands the loyalty of everyone around him, yet they all inexplicably abandon him so his country has to face the evil alone. The ruler has ample evidence that there’s only one course of action available to him—such as preparing for war or sending the small, furry-footed creature east with a golden ring—yet hesitates until the first casualties actually roll in.
This is a perfect place to demonstrate your good ruler’s intelligence, flexibility, listening skills, and charisma, which are qualities that most authors want to bestow on such people. Let him figure out what’s coming, decide on multiple response plans, weigh the evidence and make the right decision, and convince people to go along with him. But, of course, that would make him, gasp, an attacker.
Why, yes. It would.
The fantasy genre in general has absorbed the lesson “War is not a good thing.” That’s obvious from the way that authors slam moralizing speeches about it into the readers’ faces. I don’t think the genre has managed to absorb “There is no such thing as a just war.” They will make every attempt to make the leader’s decisions about war just. Usually, that means paralyzing and crippling not only their fantasy country’s war efforts, but their leader’s characterization. Nice guys attack last.
ATTENTION: FANTASY GENRE
RE: GOOD LEADERS
GOOD LEADERS ARE NOT NECESSARILY NICE
This applies out of war situations as well. When a leader has ample evidence that a traitor is plotting to blow up the city, why oh why does he almost let the traitor blow up the city before he acts? When he knows that the defeat of evil will require a sacrifice of lives, why doesn’t he explain the situation clearly and ask for volunteers, instead of hugging the secret to himself angstily and then having to rely on whatever ragtag band happens to be there at the time? When he realizes that another country is outmaneuvering his people economically, why doesn’t he start looking for ways to outmaneuver them in return and for new markets and products, instead of sitting around helplessly and finally fighting a war?
The author’s addiction to drama is only part of the answer, I think. The real culprit is the desire to make the leader appear innocent. But in most politics, knowledge whips innocence’s ass every time.
5) Make him a creative person in areas other than art.
It sometimes seems that every other fantasy ruler is hiding a harp, or badly-written, though we never know because the author never includes any of it poetry, or a secret room where she dances, or a beautiful singing voice, or something of the kind. The author usually insists that the talent and creativity is part of what qualifies her to be a good ruler.
*Limyaael stands on head trying to figure this out*
No, the view is no better from here.
Artistic talent in and of itself doesn’t mean anything for good rulership. Creativity does. The main problem is that most people equate creativity with artistic talent. If someone is supposed to be imaginative, better show it by having her scribble a quick picture, or strum something on a harp, or “sing a sorrowful song in a melancholy voice while gazing, lonely, at the moon.” (Hopefully, this last person will fall off her balcony at any moment now).
Why not have her imagine, I know this is wild, solutions to problems facing her people instead? Since this might actually be a useful skill for a ruler to have.
The supposed “right brain/left brain” divide is another cliché that people take for truth and import into fiction without questioning it. Someone who is sensitive and plays her harp and all the rest cannot possibly be good with numbers and strategy and tactics and maps because those are, like, icky practical stuff. What really matters is that she can play the harp and somehow come up with a way to get her people out of trouble at the eleventh hour! (See point 4 again. Always see point 4. In fact, staple point 4 to your forehead).
Creativity in one area doesn’t mean creativity in another. Show the skill that you mean to portray. Don’t have someone playing her harp and insist that this somehow saves people’s lives. An artist character who’s also a good ruler would be very interesting, but one does not equal the other.
6) Tarnish your ruler.
Even good rulers will make mistakes. In a very skewed fashion, the kings who wait until the last minute to start fighting the Dark Lord and are scolded for it (usually, these kings are not the protagonists, which is the only reason the author lets them get scolded) are of this kind.
By “tarnishing,” I mean something more than that. Show how even his best decisions are a choice between evil and evil. Show how he almost loses his soul at politics, because the most skilled political gameplayer will have to compromise sooner or later. Show how he gives up one dream to attain another. Show how his greatest triumphs are moments of tragedy for someone else. (That last doesn’t, believe it or not, have to happen in war. If his country achieves peace and forces all the bandits out, they could go over and start plaguing the next country. It’s not a hostile attack by the good ruler, and he didn’t encourage the bandits to do that, but nevertheless it sucks for that other country).
This point is the reason that there is so little purebred political fantasy. Most fantasy authors represent politics as ruthless, dirty, full of compromises and wheel-dealing, upsetting, and emotionally a minefield to walk—so of course they don’t want their heroes anywhere near it. Their heroes are the mavericks who defy politics, either by acting outside them entirely or being so shining and good and special that everyone stops wheel-dealing because They Say So. There are few politician heroes.
I say that a good ruler wouldn’t avoid politics altogether. For one thing, that’s sacrificing other people to a burden that he should have to share, too. For another, it makes him much more likely to be a puppet or a figurehead, even if the people handling the politics for him have the best intentions. And finally, it deprives the author of situations that would make the characterization more intense. Go for intense, damn you, not shining. Go for the tarnish.
That was fun.