In a way (a very vague way) this is like one of those rants about things I think are cool and ignored too often, but it concentrates more on plot and characterization ideas than world-building or themes. And it springs directly out of having read far too many fantasy short stories that follow the exact same structure.
What is that structure? Very simply: A character starts out the story convinced of something, usually a philosophical idea, which is obviously Wrong. There’s another character in the story, who may be a sibling, parent, friend, lover, whatever, convinced of something else, which is obviously Right. By the end of the story, the Wrong character learns the Rightness of the Right idea and is instantly converted to it. The action of the story often has surprisingly little to do with the learning of the lesson. Examples are children learning to respect their parents, parents learning that their children are much more important and special than they ever gave them credit for, male chauvinists learning that girls are just as good as boys, and atheist characters learning that faith is Good and True. (I especially hate that last one).
1) The ‘ethically muddy situation’ story.
So you still want to deal with themes or philosophical Big Ideas. You can do that. Just get everybody covered with mud, not one character who is Obviously Wrong, and put evidence in the text that can support any and all of the Big Ideas. (One common part of the ‘character learns a lesson’ story is the author giving away his or her own preference for the Right Idea by obvious intrusion into the text).
Both—or all three, or all four—characters could learn a lesson. They could learn to compromise. They could do what’s needed for the duration of the story and come out on the other side not liking it and determined never do it again. The right thing to do could be entirely fitted to that individual situation and unlikely to recur. A character could rely on skills, past experience, cleverness, people-reading, or something else to solve her problem instead of her philosophical Big Ideas.
I may be alone in preferring authors not to step into the story and tell me what’s Right. But in case I’m not, I offer this, as something that’s infinitely more interesting than a battle already decided.
2) The ‘theory meets practice and gets shredded’ story.
This one would work really well with sheltered academics, who admittedly aren’t the most common heroes of fantasy stories, but also with anyone who is entirely convinced of her Big Idea and has never field-tested it. It might follow the common structure of the lesson story for a good part of its length. However, when the character encounters trouble, instead of converting to the side the other person pushes, she finds no handy solution or answer. She spins into a crisis of faith that can’t be solved by someone else patting her on the back and mouthing some psychobabble at her.
Genuine crises of faith are interesting, but also rare, since there has to be some real doubt about how the character will resolve it. When the author has only two sides, sharply defined, and herds the character at one of them, it’s not interesting. Let her make her own choice, or perhaps end the story with some steps taken towards resolving the crisis but not yet there.
3) The ‘character makes a decision’ story.
I’ve mentioned this before in other contexts, notably about how much more compelling it would be if the character’s ability to save everyone and everything hung on a decision than on the magic skills she was born with, or how wonderful protagonists are who actually choose to do things. Reluctant heroes, reluctant kings, reluctant leaders, reluctant mages, whose reluctance means nothing in the end, are a dime a dozen in fantasy. There’s a true hostility to decision-making, to active bustling, towanting, among a lot of fantastic subgenres, as can be seen by the position of the people who do have those traits. That’s right. They’re almost always the villains.
Just for once, fuck that. Show me a character whose decisions and own desires to change his situation drive the action. If he learns lessons, have them be lessons that he set out to learn. Astonishing, isn’t it, that someone might decide to study the situation, study it, and then make up his own mind? Yet in our world, people do it all the time. I see no reason it should be exiled from the myriad worlds of fantasy.
4) The ‘equal time’ story.
I suppose one could divide the simplistic lesson story in two: the ones where the protagonist learns the lesson, often from someone older and wiser, and the ones where the protagonist teaches the lesson, often to someone older and wiser. In the latter, I always wonder how the other person feels. Does the man widening his eyes and exclaiming that he knows women are equal now experience any true epiphany, or is he doing what looks politic at the moment, until he can get out of these crazy people’s company? Does the mother whose daughter “teaches” her that she has magic and is therefore worthy and special really hate her daughter, or was she really convinced that she was raising her daughter the right way and astonished at this bitterness?
I don’t want shadows for characters to practice their lessons at, I want characters. Try telling the story from a divided viewpoint. It will almost certainly mean that longer stories are necessary, because it’s hard to get more than one viewpoint inside, say, a 1000-word story. But it will also present a doubled perspective, and almost certainly a more complex one, on the story that unfolds.
5) The ‘personality-dominated’ story.
This is the case in which the character’s personality is so deep, so formed, so dominant, that she can’t just walk into any old situation and be Enlightened. Nor does torture cut it, so put down the flaying knives. Instead of forcing a stupid and shallow lesson on her, work with the aspects of her personality, and show how they make the way she deals with her situation unique. What’s happening to her would not be happening to anyone else, no matter how many other people in the fantasy world find their magic or their soulmates or the answers to a question they’ve been seeking all their lives. Because she resists or bends or answers or acts in odd ways, that necessitates changing things.
Two examples, admittedly extreme: Someone whose soulmate comes seeking her when she’s already happily married, in love, and believes divorce or leaving her husband anathema. Good luck, soulmate. It’s not going to be as easy as walking up and saying, “Oh, the Other Man never loved you! Besides, we have to have sex/a special child to save the world.”
Another: A criminal cornered by empathic police, who stop the criminals’ actions by establishing an emotional connection with them and enforcing the society’s shared moral perspectives. Only this criminal is a sociopath. Good luck, empathic police. Could they even risk connecting with someone like that, just in case their understanding of her started corrupting them?
6) The ‘seduction and surrender’ story.
The protagonist gets caught up by someone Obviously Wrong: a criminal, an enemy of his people, a traitor, an inquisitor, someone with magic too dangerous to be left alive. Usually, when this happens, the audience can start betting that either the protagonist will, after perhaps a period of temptation, win free (often converting the Obviously Wrong character to his side as he goes), or else insure that the Obviously Wrong character leaves the society forever, such as sending her into exile when he had the opportunity to kill her.
Take the third road. Show the protagonist falling slowly into the darkness. The Obviously Wrong character starts seeming not Obviously Wrong, lines start blurring, a mindfuck starts happening. (I would call it Stockholm Syndrome, except that I think this kind of story is even more interesting when the protagonist isn’t captive and has the opportunity to withdraw). The protagonist “loses,” but by the end of the story, he isn’t going to think of it as losing.
Risky as these stories are by their very nature, tensely-controlled as they have to be, done right there’s nothing better. The audience has every reason to believe differently than the protagonist, yet can also see why he makes the decision he does. It’s not often that we get the chance to sink so deeply into someone else’s mind without adopting an outsider’s perspective. Reading a well-written seduction and surrender story, the audience can’t decide on pity or rage as a response. It’s always going to be mixed. The audience learns something, and while it’s highly uncomfortable and undoubtedly icky, it’s also rather wonderful.
7) The “that’s unthinkable!” story.
What’s unthinkable? It will depend on your character, and, sometimes, on your own ideals. A lot of SF authors seem to think it’s impossible that twentieth-century authors and actors won’t be remembered ten thousand years in the future, for example. A lot of fantasy heroes seem to think it’s impossible that the wise old mentor is wrong, or that the first person of the opposite sex and same age they meet is not their true love. A lot of people personally find the idea of the human race’s extinction unthinkable, which is why, I suppose, there are so many stories where a few hundred or thousand people manage to survive an “unsurvivable” disaster, or where humanity’s descendants retain all the emotional and moral traits (often quite modern) that we think of as human, no matter how different they look.
Confront your character with what’s personally unthinkable to him or her. No philosophical Big Ideas are going to help here; they were forged under thinkable conditions. She might try to put up shields, but circumstances can occur that will tear them down. She might make up new theories to handle it, and then the inevitable sits on them.
She could go insane, I suppose, but that’s not really interesting unless you manage to make it sound as though the story is narrated by an insane person, and that’s hard to do. Find something else for her to do instead. What is it? Maybe it’s unthinkable until you get to that point. But it would be fun to find out.
8) The ‘joy and triumph’ story.
Know the emotional punch that you get after reading through a whole trilogy, or longer series, of books and reaching the ending? The hours you’ve spent with these characters, the author’s built-up plot, and the sheer length of the pages often play into this.
Now imagine condensing this into a single novel, or a single short story. Write about the kind of moment of intensity that usually comes at the climax of a long series. It’s rarely going to be as simple as learning a lesson.
Of course, when you confine this kind of moment to a shorter form, you’re minus the hours, the built-up plot, the pages. I know. So go for intensity instead. Go for passion. Go for splendor. Go for the great writing that will knock your readers down and eat their hearts out.
“Light” fantasy seems to be synonymous not only with “funny” fantasy but also with any fantasy that doesn’t involve lots of sex and blood and death, and is short. Ha. Let’s have some deep fantasy instead, merciless with its own joy.
9) The ‘adaptation’ story.
This one isn’t so uncommon. It involves the character learning multiple lessons, quite often unarticulated, instead of a single one. She might learn survival skills, patience, how to move silently, control over her temper, and a liking of being alone if she was abandoned in the wilderness, for example. She might “go native,” and the story might be about the process of that, if she’s a human whose only contact for years and years has been with elves.
These stories exist, but they’re also easily ruined. What ruins them is the author treating them like lesson stories. She carefully notes each thing that the character learns and has her introspect it to death, when the character would probably be too busy just surviving to do the introspection, or when the character is someone who doesn’t do that kind of lengthy self-analysis, or when the lessons are too intertwined to be artificially separated. This is stupid. Lead the character and the audience through a transformation, and let them realize it was a transformation only later. The audience can always play the analysis games with the story when you’re done.
10) The ‘character learns a lesson of her own world’ story.
Lesson stories are simplistic in structure, intent, and characterization. They’re also often quite banal in the content of the lesson. This is why it’s easy to tell the Obviously Right character; what they’re talking about is something we recognize from our own world and century, probably learned quite young, and don’t disagree with. “Someone is not inferior to you just because of their gender or race” is one of those, and such a strong theme in so many fantasy lesson stories that I want to scream. Author, who is really going to disagree with you on this publicly, even if they privately don’t believe it? I don’t think you’re writing to reach the unconverted masses, I think you’re writing something that’s old and comfortable and easy, and enough of fantasy is already comfort reading, thank you.
But what about a character who learns a lesson of her own world? That peasants are stupid and to be disrespected by nobles, for example, because treating them like equals just confuses them. Or that this kind of magic really is bad and needs to be destroyed, because look at the devastation it causes. Plunge the character into the heart of her world’s moral system, let her learn its lessons, and stop making her analyze the people and concepts involved as if she were a twenty-first-century middle-class citizen instead of a native of this time and place. That is a good lesson story.
This rant gave me about three more ideas for more rants. Good deal.