The last of the education rants, on ideas that don’t fit anywhere else. Some of these actually present more flexible plots than the academies or schools, I think; a lot of the school fantasies end up sounding the same. (Of course, one could argue that that’s a convention of the genre, but in that case I would prefer to read a less conventional genre).
1) There are always families and guilds.
A good portion of any one person’s skills would probably come from his or her family. If your fantasy world has a strict division of men’s and women’s duties, it would be easy, commonsensical, and probably seen as desirable for a mother to teach her daughter(s) women’s duties and a man to teach his son(s) men’s duties. If that’s not the case, then both parents could cooperate in teaching the children, but they would probably still teach the children. Children shouldn’t be blank slates to their families unless they were taken away from their families as infants.
Also, consider what could happen with family structures other than the traditional nuclear ones. Perhaps each family member is in charge of some particular skill, and insuring that someone in the succeeding generation learns it. Perhaps family members who haven’t had children, by choice or lack of marriage or lack of fertility, are expected to do the teaching part of the childrearing. Perhaps a wife or husband who comes into the family for the outside will be expected to pass on whatever secret skills survive in his or her bloodline. There are all sorts of ways that someone might learn how to cook, sew, read, write, build fires, hunt, tan skins, cobble shoes, tame horses, make cheese, and so on without going into a formal academy structure.
If a student enters a guild, and assuming it functions on the typical model of guilds, the chances increase. Guilds are all about insuring that a trade survives into the next generation, and many are portrayed as not wanting their secrets, whether magical or not, spread into the outside world. Even within that structure, of course, there are ways to play around. Are the guilds family-dominated? Are they strictly entered into by choice, so that the daughter of a cheesemaker could as easily become a glasswright? Does the family have to pay an apprentice’s fee, and so a peasant artist might not be able to find a master to teach him? Since the whole point of this kind of arrangement is to learn, it’d be an ideal set-up for a story where the author wanted to focus on education but didn’t want to use an academy (or wanted to use a character who, for whatever reason, couldn’t attend one of his world’s academies without a lot of convoluted plotting; see point 5).
2) Try methods of learning other than lectures and fairy tales.
“Lectures” are my names for the infodumping monologues/conversations that show up most often when the Wise Old Mentor tells the hero information he didn’t know, and “fairy tales” for when the infodumping lecture comes disguised as a fictional story. (Perhaps I should just use “lecture” for them both. Fantasy worlds seem to have perilously little fiction in them. Whenever any hermit or mysterious wizard or grandmother in a fantasy says that the tale might not be true, I automatically assume it is true, because it inevitably turns out to be).
What is the problem with these? Well-done, nothing. But:
- Many authors can’t write these interestingly. They forsake all purposes but exposition. I’ve said before that huge paragraphs serving only one purpose are boring, and I still believe that. And if the author abandons every consideration but getting the information across, good-bye to any grace, style, or sense that the character in question is speaking them and not an omniscient narrator.
- Most authors seem to assume that their listening characters will take in every detail, remember them faithfully (see point 4), and be intensely interested in them—even when they’ve created characters who won’t be. Why would a restless child who likes adventure stories sit still for pages and pages of exposition about courtly politics? This once again snaps the constraints of viewpoint.
- They can work too easily as deus ex machinas. Got a character who must figure out the solution to a puzzle, and you can’t figure out how he should? Hand him a convenient storyteller whose stories he will remember, word-perfect, many years later! (Point 4 again. Memorize it, learn it, love it). Many times, the storyteller has no other purpose than to spout this nonsense and then leave, and no personality outside the telling, which is another manifestation of the teacher having no personality outside his role.
- They encourage each other to multiply, I swear. If there’s one lecture at one point in the story, chances are good that there’s another one coming up. I just finished The Barbed Coil by J.V. Jones, because I promised myself I would, and there were at least five separate pages-long infodumps. Not fun.
Instead, think about interesting, characteristic ways to get the information across that don’t slam the action to a dead halt. Perhaps your character would learn better by looking at drawings. Perhaps a treasure hunt technique is in order. Perhaps the character very deliberately builds up a puzzle from clues around him, and so each time he finds another clue, he stops, closes his eyes, and adds it in—without needing to summarize everything so far, because the readers are discovering it along with him. Perhaps he’s a ‘model’ learner who learns best by doing whatever it is that the old woman is babbling on about.
Like I said above, this doesn’t mean lectures and fairy lectures never work. But I am getting tired of seeing so many of them, and there are authors and characters who simply shouldn’t (or wouldn’t) use them.
3) The better a skill is built, the better an audience can accept it.
One reason it’s hard to suddenly believe that, oh, a princess who’s never had to do her own cooking can whip up a gourmet meal, or a boy who’s never had anything to do with weaving suddenly creates a marvelous tapestry, is the number of small tasks involved in the big one. It may be true that some people have a native talent and passion for cooking, and have dreamed of being cooks even if servants have prepared their meals all their lives. But authors try to start them out at the top too quickly. It’s much better to show that skill building over time, especially if you’re going to show this protagonist as bereft of formal, structured education.
How does someone learn to cook? There are practical tasks involved, sure, like learning to clean pots, not mix certain ingredients, estimate how long it will take before something is fully cooked (imagine doing this in a low-tech fantasy environment without clocks!), and knowing how much of a certain spice to add. But there’s also the ease and long familiarity that nothing but time can give. This effortlessness is another part of what I don’t believe about suddenly skilled fantasy protagonists; they should still struggle more than they do.
So. Show the skill as building throughout the novel. Show the protagonist mastering small tasks that all build up to that one ultimate moment at the climax. Show her getting comfortable with things she struggled with before. Show her asking tons of questions that gradually taper off. Show her going with intuition and getting things right—and thinking she knows more than she does and making mistakes.
Best of all, try not writing this as conscious. Rather than having the protagonist look back from fifty pages on at a task she performed on page 1, and commenting how much easier that task is now, have the familiarity start creeping into her mind. She can be prouder of present accomplishments than past ones, the way that new learners often are. The reader can notice for her, especially on a reread, how much more skilled she’s becoming, and the climax won’t be an out-of-the-blue bolt. But the process will seem more natural.
This, I think, has other advantages beyond naturalness. I’ve lost count of the baldly foreshadowed endings I’ve read, where the protagonist is obviously learning those skills only for the purpose of saving the world. Refusal to spend paragraphs infodumping and introspecting on the protagonist’s progress would make the foreshadowing gentler.
4) Let students wander in thought, forget, get bored.
How many of you have ever been students in classes where the professor lectured at you? Raise your hands.
Now, how many of you have ever been in a situation where the information in the lecture would have benefited you—it doesn’t have to be a test—and you could recall the lecture word-perfect just as you needed it? Raise your hands.
Smaller number of hands this time, isn’t there?
This is directed at the student’s role this time, rather than the teacher’s. Too often, the protagonist hears the ultimate answer to a riddle, to a mystery, to the book’s plot, in one of those lectures or fairy lectures I complained about in Point 2. Then, hundreds of pages and sometimes days, months, or years later, he recalls the lectures word-perfect and can solve the riddle, the mystery, or the book’s plot.
I would not object to this if the author had portrayed the protagonist as really, really interested in that information, for whatever reason, or in possession of a memory that won’t let him forget anything. Yet oftentimes the protagonist is shown as bored, prone to daydream, forgetful about minor things (like the much shorter pieces of advice that other people he meets along the way give him), and completely unfamiliar with a lot of basic details that underlie the lecture, such as a village-dwelling protagonist who’s clueless about the big picture of world history that his wise old mentor is explaining to him. Why these lectures don’t run out of their brains like bathwater is beyond me.
So. Stay true to your characterization. Let the protagonist forget the clues, or remember them wrongly and make mistakes because of them. Show him having to work by guesses and testing, as well as by “intuition.” Most of all, make his role as a student connected to the rest of who he really is. If he’s a more visually oriented student and more interested in adventure, then he might well tune out the wise old mentor as he blabs on about court politics and start thinking about the enemies he’ll fight instead.
Speaking of connecting education to who protagonists really are…
5) Connect protagonists to all levels of their educational background.
pussinboots made a comment in the last rant that got me thinking about this, and which eventually there will probably be a whole rant on. This is the subject of fantasy protagonists who seem to spring out of whole cloth, or whole song, or thin air. There’s no connection with their environment, or else the explanation is so ridiculously convoluted that the author would have been better putting the protagonist in a different environment altogether. Examples related to education are:
- the peasant hero who dwells in a world where every other peasant lives a life of brutish desperation, can’t read, and finds the most enjoyment in small local events like festivals—while he dreams about saving the whole world, knows how to read and most of the world’s history, and is determined to attend a festival in a city 500 miles away that no one else has even heard of.
- the princess who, despite parental, cultural, sibling, friend, and mentor disapproval, has somehow become an expert swordswoman, even as the author assures us that people just waiting to report any unladylike behavior watch her every hour of the day and night.
- the noble heroine who has grown up in a culture where all the nobles have long philosophical discussions about marriage and love with a tradition going back a thousand years, and she manages to come out with an insight about love in her first philosophical debate that astonishes everyone and which no one has ever heard of before.
- the hero who has suffered injustice and jealousy in the village school, in the exams chosen to pick people for university, and in the university itself, and knows it was injustice and jealousy, yet is completely unable to suspect the new bully, using the same old tactics, who has appeared in his school life.
Before you create a completely separate character and setting, think about intertwining them, hmmm? With education as with everything else. It would help make it seem as if you’re writing about a ‘realistic’ fantasy world, or at least one where you aren’t desperately reaching for exceptions to your own rules in order to give the protagonist the kind of background you want.
*checks poll* The rant on surprise endings and in-story revelations is next.