The rant on servant characters- something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately, since I have a main character in one of my stories who’s a servant.
1) It is okay to have servants who are neither heart-of-gold loyalists or dirty sneaky traitors.
This schizoid characterization of extremes reminds me of the way that people often characterize elves: either beautiful noble creatures who want nothing to do with humans, or fragile weepy things that need humans to save them. There is no in-between. There is no attempt to make it seem as if the elves are individuals rather than just a group. And the same thing happens to servants.
The first stereotype is usually for a servant who works for the hero (or heroine; I think it might be even more common for the lonely princess to have a loyal maid or nurse or handmaid). This servant is perfectly good and perfectly wise. She wants nothing for herself, not even more money or less danger. She only wants to serve her master or mistress. If she can spy at great risk to her life, then she does it. If her master or mistress so much as hints at wanting something, she goes to fetch it. She’s probably happiest when she can die for them. Etc.
Quite frankly, those servants freak me out. They remind me of the mammy stereotype in old movies with black servants, or books like Gone With the Wind. The racial element is sometimes openly present in fantasy books as well, where a darker-skinned servant is working for a white-skinned prince or princess. The absolute loyalty, tendency to be “street-smart” but use all those smarts only in the service of her master or mistress, and to care for her employer more than her own family are all evident.
The dirty sneaking traitor of a servant is rarer, but can never be excused when it happens. A servant takes money to betray the confidences of a prince or princess? Then it doesn’t matter how badly she was treated, or in what dilemma she might have been, or what her own dreams and desires were. How dare she betray the prince or princess!
This is nasty, open, in-your-face class bias. And it’s coming from authors who claim that the prince or princess is good because he or she really loves the servants and treats them like people. (Not true most of the time. See point 2). Just once, think about your story from the perspective of the servant. Why is she so loyal? Does she really have any reason to be? What dreams and desires and ambitions might she have that are crushed or kept in check by having to work as a domestic servant for someone else? What kind of emotion might she build towards that?
2) If aristocratic characters are sensitive towards servants, portray them as, well, sensitive.
You know the fantasies. The one where the main reason Good Angsty Noble A is such a good noble is because he “pays attention to people, and sees the servants as human, and really knows what they want.” He hangs out in the kitchen and is friends with the cook’s son. He rescued the scullery maid from drowning once. He knows just how hard it is to prepare meals and clean because he’s asked.
And then the author portrays him walking into a court party with his bodyguard, treating the bodyguard like a piece of furniture, and utterly ignoring the servants.
I’m not sure whether to laugh or beat the author over the head.
…Wait, no rule says I can’t do both. *hefts rock*
Look. If you’re the one making a claim about your characters, saying that so-and-so is a wonderful person because she really sees everyone as a human being (or elven, or whatever) and thinks about the work they have to do and helps them out, then you’re the one who’s responsible for making the person actually behave that way. The servants shouldn’t just disappear out of the character’s consciousness, or get treated like furniture or plot devices the moment court intrigues start. That makes the servants less than people, less than characters, hell, less than plot devices. It denies them the place in the story that you gave them.
I would much rather see an aristocrat who’s sneering and evil about servants, and learns better, than one who’s so understanding and wonderful, but is only that way because the author tells me so. Telling me about your characters only takes the story so far. If the character contradicts that telling flatly, or the author makes no attempt to sustain it, then it should be cut out, not made an integral part of the aristocratic character’s personality.
3) Consider what servants do when they aren’t around their masters.
I’m trying, and failing, to remember a scene in a fantasy novel that takes place in servants’ quarters and doesn’t have an aristocrat around to provide the eyes through which the reader sees. Of course the servants are jolly in such scenes, and have ever so much more fun than those people in the stuffy party up above, and meanwhile every one of them worships the hero or heroine for joining them (*stabbity-stabbity-stabbity*).
What are servants like when they’re not under such eyes, however? Do they voice what they’re really thinking? Do they complain? Do they gamble, drink, swear, do things their masters wouldn’t want them to do? Do they cook and clean for their own families as well as for their masters? Do they have places to sleep, food to eat, entertainments to attend, and how do those things compare to the aristocratic ones? (There’s a bit of social commentary that most fantasies don’t get into).
Even heroes who are servants often don’t have lives of their own. Instead, their thoughts and experiences revolve around serving the aristocrats and trying to figure out ways to have the same things and get a noblewoman or nobleman to notice them. And, of course, half the time those “servants” turn out to be hidden royal heirs anyway.
4) Consider that a spoiled princess to a servant may be just that- a spoiled princess.
You are a servant, let us say- a young woman who’s just had her first child. You get up early, nurse the babe, get dressed, and leave the child in the care of your sister, who’s sick and can’t work right now. You gather a bit of bread and cheese for yourself, eat, and then fetch a tray for the lady in the eastern wing. You carry the tray up a long flight of stairs to the door. You open the door, carefully. The first thing the lady does is shriek that she doesn’t want to wear a gown and throw a pillow at you, tipping the food all over you and ruining your dress- the only one you own.
Why, I wonder, would a servant be inclined to pity Miss “I-Don’t-Wanna-Wear-A-Gown!” after that?
This is an extension of a principle I’ve been propounding all along in these rants (you may have noticed): that characters other than the protagonist are real and have lives and motivations. If they exist only to reflect the protagonist’s glory and comfort her when she doubts herself, you don’t have a protagonist; you have an Author’s Darling. Author’s Darlings need to be hanged, drawn and quartered, and their bodies burned. There is no place for them in fiction that’s supposed to be more than wish-fulfillment. And enough fantasy is written to be wish-fulfillment already; the genre’s certainly suffering no lack of it.
With servants, the case is more urgent than it is with, say, other nobles who are the social equals of the supposed protagonist. The servants have a whole host of problems that Miss “I-Don’t-Wanna-Wear-A-Gown!” has never been exposed to. She most likely doesn’t have a kid (authors find them an inconvenience, and anyway, she’s supposed to only have children when she marries her own true love). She has a limitless supply of clothes. She doesn’t prepare her own food or wash said gowns, or even the trousers that she probably prefers; it gets to the point where I grit my teeth when a princess character dumps her dirty clothes on the floor and then whines about how hard her life is. She doesn’t have near as regimented a day. She certainly has time to run about the grounds and ride and fence, the lessons that her parents often suddenly threaten to take away from her. She can most likely read and write, and enjoys many other privileges that are more minor.
Put yourself in the servant’s shoes to see your aristocratic protagonist during the scenes when you have them interacting with servants. It might give you a whole new, and hopefully more realistic, perspective on what your protagonist could look like to someone else.
5) The imbalance of power is meaningful.
That means that if your aristocratic noblewoman is cornered and almost raped by a noble at a ball, there’s every chance that said noble has raped a servant woman. If a nobleman gets angry but doesn’t hit his wife or family, who does he take his temper out on? Maybe the animals, maybe the servants. Those who lack the right amount of power, and the right blood, to defend themselves are going to suffer far more often than the aristocrats.
They suffer in smaller ways, too. Their movements are regimented; a servant who’s plucking flowers, except on a lady’s orders, would probably be ordered back to work, while that’s unlikely to happen to a nobleman’s daughter. They’re working for a wage, with all the uncertainties that implies, while most noble characters have inherited wealth. They don’t have the time to attend to their hair and skin the way that ladies in fantasy do, they don’t have as many clothes, they have to take care of their own clothes and messes instead of trusting other people to wash them or clean them up, and they probably don’t have the time or water to bathe even if their society is one that thinks it healthy. (Some medieval societies didn’t- for nobles or servants). If a servant woman does make an effort to look pretty, the chances of her being raped or seduced and left could be greater. They can be commanded by most other people. Little gradations of rank among servants themselves can be very important, because small privileges go with them, and privileges in such an environment really matter. A servant who works in the stables might well be jealous of a house servant who doesn’t sweat as much and doesn’t dirty his hands as much. Their lives can be as complicated as the nobility’s, though the intrigues might be for different stakes.
I’m amazed that more fantasy writers don’t handle servant characters, really. The resentment and the longing to get away seems as if it would more likely propel a servant into adventure than a pretty pretty princess who’s had everything her own way most of her life.
6) Don’t take stereotypes for reality.
Done right, servants can be characters as deep and meaningful and profound and complex as any noble. The stereotype in fantasy, and in history for that matter, is that nobles had incredibly rich inner lives while the people who served them did nothing but what their masters told them, and thought nothing but about their next task.
This is just completely silly. So the stereotype exists. It doesn’t mean that you have to follow it, especially when following it is what most fantasy books do. Have a servant who can think, who can be sarcastic, who rebels in small ways against the restrictions of her role. She doesn’t have to be the savior of the world because of her bloodline or her magic. Perhaps she longs for just a bit of excitement or danger or change, so she steals a bauble from a traveling mage’s cloak, intending to put it back once she’s looked at it and dreamed. The bauble explodes in her hands, and directs the bad guys who were circling the castle looking for the mage to her. The bad guys snatch her instead. Here’s excitement, and danger, and change, and the servant in deep shit and having to survive it without playing that hoary story that she’s really a descendant of hidden royalty.
Servants can be as boorish, stupid, silly, vicious, and gossipy as the next fantasy character. The mistake lies in thinking they have to be.
Rant on the dead and necromancy is next.