Sorry this one was so long in coming. I went through another of those periods in which I couldn’t think of anything to rant about without sounding repetitive. So I did what I probably should have done in the first place and started rereading good fantasy, in this case Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
And it hit me that while Martin’s series is incredibly brutal, with torture, rape, murder, humiliation, mutilation, wrongful executions, casual suffering, and sadism galore—in fact, the reason I’ve heard most people use when giving up on the series is that it simply makes them too depressed to continue reading further—I don’t mind the suffering. At the same time, all it can take is one abused and sniffling heroine in a different series, and I am outta there.
This topic isn’t completely new for me. Here is the far more ranty take on why many abused characters fail to impress me. But this concentrates on other kinds of suffering, not just abuse, and techniques to keep the story from foundering, so this essay is not that one.
1) Keep a sharp eye on the unearned suffering your protagonist takes.
I’m defining unearned suffering specially here. If the character is hit by something from a completely indifferent outside force, one that could strike other people, I don’t have a problem with it. Thus a character losing her family to an earthquake or volcano, or losing a limb to frostbite, does not bother me. Nor does her becoming a victim of widespread chaos, like civil war. (This happens to the character Arya in Martin’s series; she’s essentially a nine-year-old sheltered noble-born girl thrust suddenly into situations where she has to kill just to survive, but the same thing happens to other children). And if she’s in power and someone works to depose her, but would depose any other person in her place, because they want the throne, hey, that’s the way that particular world works. This is another feature of Martin’s series that agrees with me; the noble families don’t strike at each other just out of personal vengeance, though that’s also a motive. They turn on the weak ones among them, no matter who those weak ones are.
But if someone is working to hurt your protagonist for reasons like being jealous of her, and she’s never done anything to further the feud, this is where my eyes start to narrow. She’s never done anything to them? Oh, really? She’s never even made a remark they could take in the wrong way? She’s never stood back while someone else bullied them? She’s never taken away a prize they wanted and given it to a friend?
Now, if she’s done it unknowing, hey. That’s fine. You can have an obsessive villain who’s built on that one little incident to the exclusion of all else (and sometimes they’re even done well). But making the protagonist a perfect little angel from heaven who gets evilly turned on by everyone else in the series, who gets hated when she’d never, oh never, hurt anyone else no matter how unwittingly or unwillingly? Yeah, that’s right out.
Try to make the suffering more indiscriminate and the protagonist a little less angelic. One thing I stop believing immediately when I see an angel is that she’s actually had any interaction with the world around her. Real characters influence and are influenced by the actions, beliefs, and presence of others. Making someone so passive that she’s never influenced anyone else and all their reactions to her are born of their own delusions is just stupid.
2) Show the cost of protection from that suffering.
Martin really does excellently at this. In the far north of his Seven Kingdoms, there’s an ice wall, the Wall, manned by the Night’s Watch, an order of men who are sworn to chastity and, supposedly, honor. They’re also supposed to guard the North, and, ultimately, the rest of the Kingdoms from the wildlings, “free folk” of the north who don’t live by Westerosi law and come raiding. There are also legendary enemies they’re supposed to guard their people from, but no one believes in them any more.
What’s the consequence of people not believing in them anymore? Simple: Most people no longer see any honor in joining the Night’s Watch, with the exception of some northerners who know the damage inherent in wildling raids. The men who end up there are for the most part outcasts and criminals, so the Watch becomes a joke, which further diminishes its importance in the eyes of the Kingdoms. And, of course, when the wildlings begin moving south to escape the long, cold northern winters—seasons in Martin’s world can last for years for magical reasons—they find themselves trapped by the Wall, and fight frantically to get past. They’re suffering, but they’ll cause suffering to the Kingdoms if they’re let through.
I like this. It agrees with me more than the ancient order of guardians remaining honored in the eyes of the southern noble houses—why, if they don’t think the legendary threat is real and are too far south from the Wall to be troubled by wildling raids?—and somehow incorruptibly good and pure—why, if incorruptibly good and pure people see no reason to join? And, of course, the wildlings present a nice dilemma, particularly when some of the characters move among them and realize they’re not the vile, inhuman creatures they’ve been told they are. They are humans, and they are suffering and starving and dying. They think moving south is the only way to stay alive, and they’re right.
If you do have ancient orders of guardians assigned to protect the world, or a hero who comes up with a solution to do so, know what the cost of that order or that solution is. It’s too neat to just make all the evil people and people who might become evil die—yes, even if most of the people the protagonist knows sacrifice their lives to make that happen and save the innocents (I’m avoiding naming the trilogy that does this, but I’m sure people who’ve read it will recognize it). All that does is result in angst for the protagonist, which the author usually treats as a bonus. It costs nothing.
3) Good intentions can (and should) cause more suffering.
Another thing Martin’s got down pat. The very good, pure, and honorable Ned Stark has, for whatever reason, refused to divulge the identity of the mother of his bastard son. Good intentions? I’m sure he has them. But what it’s done is drive a wedge between him and his wife, Catelyn; make Catelyn treat the bastard son, Jon, with unreasonable hatred, especially because Jon looks so much like Ned; left Jon with issues up to here regarding women and siring bastards of his own; and left other people free to laugh and make mock of Ned’s famous “honor,” since, after all, he did sire a bastard.
There’s also the issue of what you do when you’re a good person—well, perhaps one should say “with more of a conscience” in the context of this series—attempting to bring about justice or end the suffering of the commoners. To date, every single attempt to do this in A Song of Ice and Fire has met with resounding failure. Warring to take the throne away from an imposter causes more war, more murder, more death. Warring to defend one’s own land causes alliances with outsiders that become more tight and tangled and binding until they trip you up and strangle you. Sending out a detachment of knights to arrest a known rapist results in the knights becoming outlaws whose moral compass slowly plunges into the dark.
Having a conscience is no reason for a character to automatically do only good. Nor does any other one character trait—courage, intelligence, honesty, the ability to say witty one-liners—make them exempt from adding to the mess. Lately, I’ve become very suspicious of the philosophy that says some villains are better than heroes because the villains are honest about being bastards. And that excuses treachery, murder, rape, and war how? They are still happening, and the villain telling you he’s a villain and knows it doesn’t really make it better.
I think admiration for the good traits of their protagonists puts a lot of authorial blinkers on most writers of fantasy. Try looking at it from the perspective of the story. Is your protagonist really going to come up smelling like roses because she starts a rebellion intending to free the slaves, while someone else starts a rebellion because he’s a crazy religious fanatic? Why? Does it make sense, or is it because the abolitionist is more admirable than a religious fanatic (to most authors)?
4) Know what an environment of suffering does.
This can apply to large scales, as in civil wars and revolutions—the scale on which Martin handles it—but smaller arenas, like a dysfunctional family or a cruel court, also qualify.
The main reason that Martin’s mess is so believable, beyond his refusal to say that a mess is good just because it’s the heroes making the mess, is that he really shows it hammering away on the characters’ psyches. Some are edging PTSD. One becomes paranoid and runs herself into the ground the moment all checks on her power are removed. Some do horrible things they would never have done normally because, normally, there’d be their own consciences, someone else, or courts of law in place to stop them. But when everyone around them is telling them “It’s war,” or “You’ve got to kill the other man before he kills you,” or “This is for honor and our murdered king!” or “What the hell, she’s only a peasant woman,” they don’t hold out against it. A few characters do much better than others, but for the most part, those characters are outside the most intense maelstroms of suffering, and/or have advantages that others don’t, such as horses, swords, and focused missions.
Some people are stronger than others; that’s true. It’s also true that one character may shatter in circumstances that would barely test another, but the reverse is also true and Person B self-destructs over something Person A would shrug off. And a character who sees himself as the chosen of the gods may not really believe that anything can touch him and hurt him, so he rides around self-contained in his own skull and suffers less than most others.
But that the environment makes no impact on the person…yeah, that I find much harder to believe. I also find it hard to believe that nearly all the main characters in a fantasy story are the kind to turn into saints under fire and simply get their faults refined out of existence, with maybe one token traitor or coward (who almost always turns back around the moment the hero/ine talks to him/her). A more varied set of responses to the suffering is more interesting, more difficult to pull off—therefore more likely to challenge the author—and more likely to individualize your characters than perfect sweetness and light will.
5) Show how suffering leaks into ordinary, everyday aspects of life.
Some aspects of this are pure practicality, of course. Most of your fields are burned in a civil war, where is the food coming from? All the horses in a certain area were taken for the lord’s army, why does the hero find one standing in a field? Most of the women in a given town were raped, why are they only worrying over the heroine’s sex life?
But I’d like to see more done with personal aspects of the hero’s life, too. Why do so few fantasy heroes ever seem to suffer from the lack of food or exhaustion we’re told they feel? Why do they care only about falling in love and having sex instead of, I don’t know, staying alive? (And yes, there are some people who will have sex to relieve tension; I simply don’t understand why there’s no one whose libido is killed flat by stress, and why the sex under tension always leads to perfect true love in the end). Why do they “understand” every person they pass and pause to help rather than ever jumping to conclusions out of fear, paranoia, exhaustion, or hatred, or deciding that they’d rather flee the hired assassins chasing them than pause for twenty hours to help this peasant woman give birth to her child?
This is related to point 4, I suppose, but focuses more on the authorial reluctance to let heroes make mistakes rather than the impulse to leave them unscathed by the world around them. In particular, many protagonists are not ever allowed to be less than perfectly perceptive and empathic. The hero on the run still remembers the heroine’s birthday and makes her a gift—no mention of when he had the time or where he got the materials, or that, you know, he might have simply forgotten with everything else going on. The tired heroine still sees the swordsman who would otherwise clobber her, even if her eyes are blurring with fatigue. The protagonists don’t get into arguments over rationed food, even though you’d expect that.
Let them make mistakes. That’s another thing that Martin’s good at. One character’s “compassionate” decision to save some citizens of a mostly slaughtered town—slaughtered by her own people—turns around and bites her rather sharply in the ass. Honorable offers made to dishonorable enemies are, guess what, met with dishonor, because the honorable people forgot some rather simple lessons. Declarations of true love to murderous bastards are answered with murder. Martin never seems to forget that, while some people might have qualities that others don’t, that doesn’t mean they change other people, or the world, just by existing.
6) Some levity is okay. Really.
A story filled with suffering that takes itself completely seriously is often a deadly boring read, because the author has a Greek chorus in the background telling me to pity the protagonist and feel horrified for her situation, and that no other emotion than pity or horror is allowable. EVER.
Martin, luckily, makes one of his eight viewpoint characters in A Game of Thrones of the brisk, witty, one-liner-cracking type. That doesn’t mean horrible things don’t happen to him; of course they do, this is Westeros. And he isn’t perfect, either; he’s a hunchbacked dwarf despised by most of his family, who dreams of burning his father and sister alive. But the variety of emotion in at least one person, and especially the fact that he gets to skewer at least two of the other viewpoint characters, keeps the series from being the great blundering thudding doom-fest it might otherwise become.
It wasn’t until I thought about it that I realized just how much of a mess Martin has made of his fantasy world. I’m a bit in awe. A fantasy world centered on a heroine sniffling because someone teased her just can’t compare, really.