The unsung, unwanted heroes of fantasy…

1) “I WANT.”

If you’re going to write a good selfish character, I think, both parts of that statement have to be emphasized. That means two things:

  • As I discussed before in the rant on active characters, it means giving the character a personal stake in what is happening—something many authors are reluctant to do because they want their hero to care about the whole world.
  • It means that the selfish character is an “I,” does not have a problem being an “I,” and is not going to start suddenly changing her desire just because other people tell her to or it’s convenient for the plot (see point 2).

Frankly, I find a character with a personal investment in what’s happening to her far more fascinating than a character who cares for a great amorphous mass she might call “the Wheel” (Jordan) or “the unborn” (Goodkind) or “the world” (lots of other people). Why does she want to save the world? I think it’s perfectly plausible that she might want to save the world because, if the world explodes or the Dark Lord conquers or whatever other crisis the writer picks does happen, it will destroy her home, her friends, her family, her profession, or herself. It’s similar to the reason a lot of people participate in political causes in our own world—because those causes personally affect them. (See point 3).
I find it very, very much harder to believe that this protagonist, who often knows nothing of life beyond her isolated backwater and finds it hard to even imagine the gods and magic and immense history her Wise Old Mentor is telling her about, would suddenly and convincingly decide to save Everything. Yes, some authors have convinced me. For the record, I don’t actually consider Tolkien one of them; the hobbits do what they do for the Shire, Boromir for Gondor, Aragorn for his throne and the sake of his impending marriage to Arwen, and so on. Only Gandalf strikes me as someone who cares about everyone, and he’s had thousands of years to build that love.
As for the “I,” I’m afraid it does condemn you—if that’s the right verb—to using someone whose sole identity is not that of a group. Selfishness could easily be anathema to someone raised in a hive-like society, for example. On the other hand, convince her that she needs to go on this quest or her hive might perish, and maybe she’d do it.

2) There can be selfish women, too.

It hit me recently how disturbingly common one particular scene is in fantasy: the scene where the heroine tells the hero that her only desire is to be with him, to support him and love him and never leave him.
The disturbing thing? Usually, these women start out wanting something else, which can vary from involvement in the quest to revenge. But they change as they bicker with the hero and listen to him rhapsodize about his problems. Suddenly his problems are more important than theirs, his desires replace theirs, and what they want seems small and petty next to what he wants. (Those thoughts are disturbingly common in the heads of female protagonists, too). What they really want, they decide, is to be the hero’s moral support.
To their credit, I suppose, a lot of fantasy authors have the hero reciprocate and declare he wants to stay by and love the woman, too. But 99% of the time, it’s the heroine who initiates it. She’s the one who must make the declaration, take the risk, sacrifice her desires first, and, more often than not, get kidnapped so the hero can prove what a big strong man he is.
*knock, knock*
Opportunity’s been banging on the door for a while now to transform that particular irritating dynamic, in the form of selfish female characters.
Not all women have love as their first priority. Really. (This becomes even less true in worlds where the gender roles are supposed to be indistinguishable). Not every woman feels a maternal urge, or the urge to be taken care of. Really. (You’re reading the words of one). And not every woman will be willing to give up what she wants just to place the hero’s desires first. Really. And no, I don’t think it’s better if a woman sacrifices what she wants just so that her children or her lover or her parents can have an easier time of it, either. It’s still the same trap: sacrifice is required of her because she’s female. It’s fine for men to have their own desires, because they’re male. It’s fine for children to have their own desires, because they’re children. It’s fine for parents to have their own desires, because they did the work of raising the children. But a selfish adult woman? Gasp shock horror!
There be bears in these woods.
If you plan to write selfish characters, go back and look at them. Hard. Really hard. If a selfish woman gives up her own desires because she changes into a truly altruistic person or because her greatest desire is to be needed, that’s one thing. But if the only reason she yields is because you have a hard time imagining a female character wanting things that are different from a man’s…time to take out the hacksaw.

3) Selfish characters get to have human motives.

Fantasy—well, more modern fantasy anyway—often takes up themes of not blaming people for what they were born with. Someone shouldn’t be sexist, because a person’s genitals don’t connote their worth. Someone shouldn’t be racist, because a person’s skin color doesn’t matter, either. Someone shouldn’t reject another person because of their past, or their father, or their sexual orientation, and so on and so on and so on. Though the results get to be execrable sometimes (Sexist Scenes, anyone?), the intention is usually admirable.
What puzzles me most about this is that fantasy often doesn’t handle the converse. Characters get valued for things they were born with and did nothing to help along all the time. Descendants of a particular bloodline are the best thing to happen to a country since they got the demons to stop invading, which that particular bloodline probably had something to do with. Inborn magic is what makes the person special, and worthy of rescue from an unhappy home situation. A birth foretold in prophecy is soooo much better than all those ordinary births out there.
Digression: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell sits on those stereotypes very effectively. Magic isn’t linked to bloodline in it. This is another reason you should read it. /digression
So, of course, those characters aren’t ordinary. They don’t even have ordinary qualities transmogrified into heroic ones, like high courage or intelligence or wit. They have things other characters specifically don’t have. And that includes motivations. They want overblown revenge that makes Hamlet look tame. They want to save the world even though they don’t know anything about the damn world. They want to fulfill the prophecy even though the mentor just told them about the prophecy five minutes ago. Quite a bit of the time, the only thing human about them is their species.
Selfish characters get to be mortal. They get to want to go home and leave all this uncomfortable adventure behind (Bilbo, anyone?) They get to want to fulfill the legacy of one particular person, without questioning if that legacy would be good for the entire universe (the Consul in the Hyperion Cantos). They get to want to leave their father behind, not because their father is a bastard in general, but because their father was a bastard to them specifically (Blaise in A Song For Arbonne). Their wants drive the story, and if they change their minds—as all those characters do, at one point or another—that shifting has more power than a thousand backwater-raised Callow Young Men blinking and deciding that yes, they’d quite like to fulfill that prophecy.
Make your characters mortal in motive. You would not believe what plots it kicks into flight.

4) Never underestimate the power of “No.”

I’ve heard some people say that, well, there is no way to write a fantasy novel but to have the character agree to go along on a quest or a journey, or enter into a war, because otherwise there is no story. There are about six things wrong with that sentence, notably the idea that all fantasy plots have to be quest or war or a combination of the two, but I’ll spear the one that has the most to do with this rant:
Make your character disagree, and all else follows.
What happens if the character refuses? I want to know a million things, and all of them will propel me along. Why is she refusing? What’s her motive for staying as she is or where she is? Is the refusal absolute, or conditional? (I always wanted to read a story where the heroine holds out for more information before dashing headlong into agreement, because foolhardiness presented as courage tires me. Write me one). And, best of all, what will these people who want her to come along do when she refuses?
Perhaps they will negotiate. Yay, more information and no stupid Old Wise Mentors keeping secrets for no reason!
Perhaps they will lie. Yay, future character conflicts!
Perhaps they will kidnap her and drag her along. Yay, the “good” guys aren’t plaster saints, and the selfish character gets to plan her escape!
The prime reason, I believe, for people thinking that there would be no story if the heroine refused the quest or war is that unquestioned assumption that the people asking her for her help aren’t desperate, even if they say they are. She has to agree, because they would never, never, never do anything like the three options I just listed. Of course not.
Drastic times call for drastic measures, kids. On the part of the people who want the selfish heroine to save the world as well as the selfish heroine herself.

5) Selfish people can understand other selfish people.

Stop reading this when you feel the urge to bash your brains in: Krystallynne is a peasant girl who’s grown up in a village so isolated the biggest excitement is a peddler passing once a year. She comes to the court because a mysterious, shadowy force has shown up, bonded itself to her in the form of a cat, and told her she’s needed. Once there, she becomes a lady-in-waiting, and despite never having encountered political intrigue before, unbraids the cruel conspiracy against her mistress and saves the day…
Actually, I would have picked up the sledgehammer at the first mention of that name, but you get the general idea.
Political intrigues are the fine wine and poison of fantasy. I love them. But I grind my teeth when an innocent, naïve heroine who’s never experienced court intrigue before (I bet she’s clumsy, too, isn’t she? Oh, please kill me now tell me more!) shows up and somehow figures out everyone’s plans. She doesn’t have the knowledge of court motives or politics to do it. What happens is that the author makes her perceptions identical to objective reality, which is the sign that the character needs to be hanged by the neck until dead, then cut into small pieces and scattered to the four corners of the earth. If Krystallynne thinks someone is evil, that person inevitably turns out to be evil.
Karon, on the other hand, whose main purpose is to get a cushy job for herself, walks into a court where people are scheming and following their own desires, and feels right at home. Even if she has no prior political experience, I would expect her to have a much easier time of figuring things out than Krystallynne, and without authorial cheating either. And her methods will be different. Instead of denouncing the Dark Duke in front of the court and making herself a powerful enemy, she might well coax and persuade him to her side, or at least make a bargain whereby he offers her a job in return for her finding out who’s been sending him bits of cut-up corpses.
Let’s see some contests of equals. Krystallynne, whether she’s an innocent idiot or a character granted insight into human hearts by authorial cheating, just isn’t up to the task.

6) Selfish characters don’t need to be redeemed.

They can change. They can decide that their own motives aren’t that important after all, or that the Wise Old Mentor was right when talking about the danger to the world. But changing is not the same as redemption.
Redemption implies that the character was evil, or dark, or whatever term the author wanted to use for it, and needs to be changed, instead of change on her own terms, Or Else. This can work when the character in question is really a villain (by role or action) or feels guilt. It shouldn’t be the main concern on the line when someone’s chosen to write a selfish character.
What’s wrong about wanting something for yourself? What’s wrong about working against people who might harm you, and incidentally others too, by methods other than the Young Dunderhead’s way of declaring his open opposition and flinging lightning bolts? What’s wrong about learning to see the wider world gradually, instead of stumbling into some ill-explained epiphany of Wondrous Understanding? Nothing. Yet, somehow, all those are crimes on the fantasy author’s slate.
No. They’re not. They’re the marks of wonderful, human characters, of mortal ones, of realistic ones, of layered ones. Those people are the protagonists of what I could call transformative fantasy, and which I may write a rant on. They’re characters who grow in ways that no other character can, because the villains are forcibly changed by circumstance or other people or the author, and the perfect, shining ones have no need to change.
I’ve recently switched from writing a selfish protagonist to writing a more altruistic one, and my main wish is not that he show off his compassion more or adopt orphaned children…
I find myself wishing he would grow a pair.