The last rant of the poll, and one I’ve been turning around in my head for a bit now.
“Serious optimism” is one of those Really Cool Things I’d like to see more of in fantasy—not clichéd morals, nor Impending Doom turned by a loophole or deus ex machina, but a story with heavy flesh that yet steps lightly. The author who provides the purest example I can think of is Terry Pratchett, in his last few Discworld books, but I think the principles can be generalized.
1) Something to hope for.
Well, it’s optimism, so duh.
But though hope is often present in fantasy, I’ve grown tired of the way it’s presented—as desperate. The heroes take this wild and crazy chance of sending a teenager into battle because they have no other choice, or of seeking out the Lost Sword of Mooka-mooka because they can’t think of anything else to do, or of trying to lure the Dark Lord into battle on the Plain of Camalmas because the prophecy says they have to. That means that cleverness, intelligence, foresight, method, reason, and, incidentally, choice and free will get thrown by the wayside.
In a seriously optimistic fantasy, there should be several choices. And why? Not because the author artificially plants them in the body of the story, such as by making the villain so stupid that he ignores ways his enemies could easily beat him. No, instead they should be there because these people are clever enough to notice the evil coming, intelligent enough to figure out they’ll need to do something about it, foresighted enough to know what won’t work, methodical enough to make some plans, reasonable enough to find the flaws in those plans, and able to make a choice—whether because of love or stubbornness or bravery or the aforementioned intelligence—to deploy the workable plans. It’s not desperate hope. It’s cultivated hope. If the heroes do choose to pursue a certain option at the expense of all others, it will be for some other reason than because they were forced into it.
I love stories that move fast and light on their feet, heads up, making no gigantic stupid mistakes that the reader can notice. And such a story deserves characters that are the same way, who take a hand in saving themselves, rather than the omnicompetent geniuses or the Destiny-shepherded puppets that too many fantasy heroes are.
2) Something to steer by.
What does prevent the heroes from taking the cheapest and easiest way out, or, hell, just dropping the magical equivalent of an atomic bomb on the Dark Lord? As per Point 1, I hope it’s more than just “the gods said we can’t” or “we don’t have any mage that powerful.” Along with making decisions about what to do come decisions about what not to do, and here’s a large piece of the “serious” label in “serious optimism.”
This calls for moral characters, and it calls for a careful balance. On the one hand, you don’t want preachy bastards who spend a large part of the story talking about all the horrible things the Black Hats do, and how they’re not like them and never will be. On the other, you don’t want the reluctant protagonists who start out thinking “I’m just doing this for the money” when, in reality, 99% of the characters who think that will do an about-face as the story continues, because of that pesky fantasy author conviction that Selfishness Is Evil. Both roads are trite and annoying. Sure, you can do convincing characters of faith and convincing redemptions (as long as said character has something to be actually redeemed from), but I’m more interested in what serious optimism does, which is:
- Show the characters acting in accordance with their principles.
- Restrain long moral speeches, and always cast a tinge of doubt on them—that is, have them function more as excuses or rationalizations than justifications. This avoids the trap of the preaching that pressures the reader to agree without thought.
- Have the characters presented with genuinely tempting alternatives. The choice to enslave all the Dark Lord’s followers and magically order them to kill themselves is not going to be a real temptation to a protagonist whose hatred of slavery is bone-deep.
- Have the characters actually strive to cling to their old principles if they begin changing and noticing the change. This avoids the trap of the character who sees a dead child and suddenly turns from a soulless mercenary to a shining paragon of goodness and light.
- Have people live with their decisions, as well as supporting them. (See point 3).
I’m always wanting to know why more fantasy heroes don’t just take the simple and easy way out, if the Dark Lord is really as bad as all that. Moral objections, real ones, are probably the strongest reason to have an actual fantasy story, and to have heroes instead of protagonists.
3) Something to deal with.
The consequences of principled decisions. Ah, yes, how lovely they are, and how hard they fall.
Once again, balance. A seriously optimistic story has to keep both of its components alive. The author who heaps horrible consequences on her protagonist for one little mistake, including unreasonable self-blame and stupidly blind hatred from the people around her, has almost certainly created a walking angst-bucket. That means the character will probably be focused on her own guilt, and incapable of the kind of reasoned, principled decisions that points 1 and 2 demand. If the mistake was a long time ago, and the protagonist has gotten her guilt under control and decided that the hatred of others is a reason to stand up and fight harder instead of curl up in a corner and cry, then she may be an exception.
More common in fantasy, though, is the protection from any and all consequences. Even a hard decision, or one made in ignorance of the basic facts, turns out to be right. It’s probably “intuition’s” fault, and another manifestation of the need to protect and coddle the protagonists. There are no consequences. Everyone smiles and smiles at the heroine and coos about how right they were to trust in her. Often there’s some stupid line about “This shows that young people are just as good as adults!”
Not working. This is sugar cane and cotton-candy fantasy. Show the protagonist making decisions as in points 1 and 2, and living with them when they go wrong, when her plans collapse due to a flaw that she didn’t spot, when she makes a mistake. That there will give you the living story.
4) Something to aim for.
Have you noticed how few fantasies are about the future? And I don’t mean our own, Earth future. I mean that the future of the fantasy world is rarely presented and discussed with any seriousness. The Impending Doom squashes out—often, as noted above, by coincidence—any consideration of how the world will look in the long-term. The heroes are having to fight for their lives right now. How are they going to care about two years or ten years or twenty years from the present?
Except that, well, um, not using incredibly powerful magic because it might have terrible and long-lasting consequences would make an excellent argument for not using the incredibly powerful magic. And, um, well, most fantasies do use an argument along the lines of, “There will be darkness forever if the Dark Lord conquers!”; they just make no attempt to illuminate what future the Light side will provide should it win, or to show that the good guys are heroes because they would bring about something wonderful in and of itself, not just in comparison to the Dark Lord’s future. And well, um, it would prevent that stupid cardboard ending where the hero becomes king and suddenly everything is supposed to be right as rain, by showing that this world continues living and dying past the point where the author might choose to end the story.
Here’s the optimism part again. The heroes are aspiring to something higher, something better, not just stopgap measures—the kind that will let the Dark Lord rise again in another generation or so—and not just “Well, we have to do this because that’s what we have to do right now.” It goes along with the cleverness and the foresight I mentioned in point 1. Sure, no one can predict everything about the future, but in fantasy, you have a small group of people, or one person, usually granted unprecedented power over that future. Wouldn’t it be nice if they thought about it for a little bit?
5) Something to mix them.
Humor in fantasy tends to be slapstick, not mixed into the very fabric of the world. At the worst, it descends to puns and cute nods to our world that disrupt the entire flow of the narrative. The moments of lightness are forced, and in a few pages we’re back to the doom’n’gloom again. If the author is particularly inept with humor, the audience may even be sighing in relief.
Yet optimism does need that hopeful side. These characters need some reason to get out of bed in the morning, and I think I’ve established by now that that reason can’t be “My Wise Old Mentor made me” in a seriously optimistic fantasy. So what do you do?
Show characters sharing smiles and jokes during hopeful moments—perhaps when they finally achieve a plan they think will work to defeat the Dark Lord. Show them using humor to cope with the burdens they bear; apathy and endless angst are not the only realistic responses to being expected to save the world. If nothing else, the heroes are probably going to get sick and tired of waking up and thinking, “Life sucks.” So what do they think when they’re not thinking this?
I urge you to spread this lightness out over several characters, rather than restrict it to one. “Comic relief” characters are usually stock types, easy to spot, and often overplayed. The reader can grow bored by them or hate them. It’s much harder to hate a character whose sense of humor is odd or tiresome, but who also displays plenty of other traits, and there are probably enough different senses of humor in the book (because why would all the protagonists be the same in that area?) so that most members of the audience will find someone they like.
6) Something to keep them grounded.
I’ve talked about striking a balance, because seriousness can become doom’n’gloom and optimism can become singing light-hearted touchy-feelyness. Yet serious optimism also needs something to keep itself grounded, so that everyone in the book does not seem impossibly clever and awesome and noble—which, by itself, is nothing but another kind of type.
I believe ordinariness is the best anchor here. Everyday problems, practical problems, character traits that are not grand overarching flaws or virtues that determine the fate of the universe, relationships that flourish based on messiness and emotion rather than just rational consideration, quiet moments, inconvenient plot twists, will all help remind readers that these are men and women who live and die like the rest of us. In fact, the best seriously optimistic fantasy, for me, doesn’t feature characters who are extraordinarily skilled or talented; they feature characters who have traits that normal people could just as easily possess, but magnified. And not every trait will be exaggerated, either. A heroine could be brave enough to refuse the easy way out because it’s against her principles, and still be a boring conversationalist. Remember to keep some parts of your protagonists earthly.
This helps lend a sense of reality to the world, too, so that the stage is not divided into Our Heroes, Our Villains and Everybody Else, implying some huge gap of worth that simply doesn’t exist. And it can help the plot along. Plot problems caused by hunger, thirst, weather, and the like are often more believable than the idea that the villains are everywhere and control everything.
7) Someone to collaborate with.
Serious optimism as expressed through characters who belong in a story like this is not going to leave everything riding on one hero. For one thing, the idea that just one hero could see everything, plan everything, and execute every aspect of a plan without help is asking for the reader’s suspension of disbelief to snap. For another, even if a single person has the initial idea to save the world or create a better future, why would she go out and try to make things happen without persuading others and enlisting their help?
No, let’s see some stories about groups of people accomplishing things. This could lead to stories of revolutions that aren’t just about sighing, “Oh, yes, there goes another angry mob,” and stories of secret organizations that aren’t just about sighing, “Oh, them and their red tape! It will take the individualist hero to accomplish something.” This could lead to stories of cooperation and a broad basis for both seriousness and hope. This could lead to easy demonstrations of the characters’ intelligence and principles in action; they’re interacting with each other, not meditating in lonely silence on how great they, personally, are.
I want more stories like that. Fantasy involves many casts of thousands, but it can only afford to have them because cardboard is cheap. Carefully developed groups of heroes are relatively rare.
Poll post up in a while.