Hell: An Exploration
 

Hell: An Exploration

Article

 
The Gods of Men by Barbara Kloss – SPFBO #4 Finals Review
 

The Gods of Men

SPFBO #4 Finals Review

 
Fantasy-Faction Game of Thrones Discussion: Season 8, Episode 1
 

FF Game of Thrones Discussion

Season 8, Episode 1

 

MIGHT EVIL PREVAIL? FANTASIES THAT THREATEN AN UNHAPPY ENDING

In fantasy novels, the ‘good’ characters are usually facing overwhelmingly bad odds. Whether it’s a dark lord, a corrupt monarchy, a horde of living dead or an army of supernatural beings, an evil force is always looming, and it’s up to our out-numbered and out-gunned heroes and heroines to stop it. As readers, we’re waiting to see if they will triumph in spite of dire circumstances.

Image_ShrikeExcept if we’re being honest with ourselves… we already know they will. Because we know how the fantasy genre works. How often does the Dark Lord actually win?

Almost all fantasy series have happy endings, so while we expect to see the good guys experiencing a few setbacks and losses, we’re not expecting them to fail completely. If they do fail, we’re certain there’ll be a sequel or two (or ten) to allow them to prevail in the end. In fact, the assurance of a positive, reaffirming ending is one of the things that makes the genre so appealing.

However, there are some fantasy novels where the situation seems so dire, or the possible outcomes so bleak, that they can make us doubt this expectation.

As an avid fantasy reader, I occasionally come across books like this… books that make a small part of me genuinely afraid I might not get my happy ending. What is it that allows these novels to strike readers like me with fear, even after years of reading in the genre? Most often, I think it boils down to five things:

A FLAWLESS IMMORTAL ENEMY

Sometimes the enemy is not only vastly more powerful than all the other characters, they are also seemingly devoid of weakness. There’s no ring to throw into Mount Doom, no hidden Horcruxes, no chink in the armour. They appear completely immortal and undefeatable and they thwart the heroes at every turn.

A prime example of this is the god-like Lord Ruler in the Mistborn series. Not only is his political grip on the world so complete, his supernatural powers vastly outstrip those of everyone around him. The ‘good’ Allomancers seem powerful when fighting his underlings, but when matched with the Lord Ruler they are like flies – crushed with the flick of a wrist. Many a fantasy or sci-fi monster has also made resistance seem futile – think the Slake Moths in Perdido Street Station, or the Shrike in Hyperion.

As readers, this kind of evil has us worried simply because we can see no viable path to success, and often, neither can the characters.

AIMING SMALL

Things are truly desperate when the goal of the characters is not to actually defeat the evil, but to rebel in some smaller way… be it holding out long enough to save a few important people, or making one last stand in order to die fighting.

A classic example of this is in The Return of the King when Aragorn and a host of key characters lead an army to the gates of Mordor. Their intention is to distract Sauron so Frodo can destroy the ring, but they are vastly outnumbered and expect to die. Furthermore, we’re never explicitly told that destroying the ring is going to solve the problem. Weaken Sauron and stop him becoming more powerful? Yes. Kill him and crush all his mighty armies? No. In the end the ring’s destruction does save the day, but we don’t know it will beforehand, and this pre-battle moment is a particularly bleak one.

With this kind of scenario there’s sometimes a sense of a possible future triumph, but there’s a much stronger sense of immanent failure and loss of life.

THE SELF-SACRIFICE

Image_AslanCharacters that perform noble self-sacrifices in fantasy don’t always magically rise from the grave or avoid the dagger, so when a key character is preparing to forfeit their life for the greater good, we have a legitimate cause for worry.

Countless fantasy series have either threatened or actually included a self-sacrifice –Harry Potter even does it multiple times. Perhaps one of the most quintessential examples, however, comes from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, when Aslan takes Edmund’s place and lets the White Witch humiliate and murder him (a scene that has probably distressed many an unsuspecting child). Yes, a resurrection ensues, but for several gruelling pages one of the central characters is dead.

A self-sacrifice instils fear not because evil might prevail, but because the price of defeating it might be too high. If we lose a favourite character, we worry our ending may be too bitter-sweet to be a happy one.

NO MIRACLES HERE

A climactic fantasy scene can fail to inspire true fear because we’re accustomed to seeing protagonists perform a clever last-minute magical act. Something terrible is about to happen, but we feel certain our protagonist will have the epiphany or miraculous power-boost they need and stop it.

There are two things that can cut through this expectation: a scene where something terrible does happen and the protagonist fails to stop it, or a magical system with rigid rules and limits. If it is firmly established that the character needs an item like a wand to perform magic and they don’t have it, readers can’t rely on a magical miracle occurring. Again, Mistborn is a prime example of this: when Vin runs low on ingestible metals – her source of power – we run low on hope.

UNEXPECTED DEATHS

Image_Neds_ExecutionLastly, there’s the truly shocking technique. When a fantasy author kills off a character we are certain is too important to die (with no resurrections or revelations of faked deaths thereafter), all bets are off. We can’t trust this author to let the good guys live.

George R. R. Martin is famous for this. He has killed off so many seemingly pivotal characters in A Song of Ice and Fire that we can’t trust him to spare anyone. Now every time one of our favourite characters is in danger we’re on edge, because there’s a very real possibility they might not be breathing for much longer.

This is a dangerous technique to use as an author, because if you kill off too many beloved characters you could seriously anger your readership… but it certainly keeps everyone on their toes.

IS THE FEAR OF AN UNHAPPY ENDING IMPORTANT?

A fantasy that has readers truly fearing an unhappy ending can make for a great read. It evokes higher levels of tension and suspense, and makes the joy of the final triumph over evil all the more satisfying.

However, this added tension isn’t strictly necessary for a fantasy novel to be excellent and enjoyable. Even if we have no doubt the good characters will win, we don’t know how, nor do we know what they are likely to lose or suffer along the way. Those question marks add a lot of tension in and of themselves. Many popular fantasy series are ones most readers probably never truly feared would end badly.

Still, there’s something to be said for books that have readers asking those age-old questions with fresh worry: will the good guy really die? Will evil prevail? Because even though we always want our dark lords to lose, we often enjoy it more if they come very very close to winning.

Share

5 Comments

  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    Hey Nicola, what a great article – I truly enjoyed that!

    I think The Lord Ruler in Mistborn was a fantastic enemy, Sanderson actually had a very similar on in Steelheart that was equally scary and seemed impossible to beat.

    I guess authors worrying about whether this was too cliche or that the good versus evil battle was what spawned the trend we see right now: gritty and grey fantasy that is laden with anti-heroes and the morally corrupt. Although we tend to back whoever the author chooses are their POV character, the truth is that it rarely seems to be good versus evil today as opposed to a pretty bad guy against a really bad guy.

    I think that George R.R. Martin used this to his great advantage in A Song of Ice & Fire. Essentially, the reader/viewer is left without the ability to get behind a ‘good guy’ who is both skilled and able enough to take the throne. Indeed, whenever one seems to present themselves, G.R.R. Martin has them killed, sent away or something similar. What this leaves us with is grey/dark characters and in this case we are forced to continually weight their actions in order to decide who we feel deserves to win. Daenerys, Tyrian, Cersei, Petyr…… if we choose any of these four (who seem most likely) we are supporting evil to some extent.

    Your article gives some really awesome ideas, things to look out for and examples in terms of creating a credible and enjoyable good versus evil story in the modern-day fantasy market 😀

  2. Avatar Brett says:

    Awesome article! I loved that you had an example for each situation. It is funny to think that we as fantasy readers know that the story will end with the “good guys” winning the day. Yet, knowing the outcome, we’re still so hooked because we want to know how the characters do it. Thanks for the good short read Nicola!

    • Avatar Nicola says:

      Yes I am always fascinated by how we still get hooked and drawn into stories, even though we know in general how they are likely to end – I guess it shows that a story’s true strength is in the finer details of the plot, characters and world. Glad you enjoyed the article!

  3. Avatar Wheezy Geezer says:

    Thanks for a truly inspiring article. I am in the throes of writing my first novel at the grand old age of … far too old enough to know way better!
    You have given me much to think about.
    One thing I will say though – and this relates to George R R Martin – if you kill of main characters too often don’t readers become disengaged with them as they ‘know’ they’ll die anyway. I feel the trick is keeping them guessing – some one may well die because others have, but then again others haven’t.
    In any case I have found some great inspiration in this short, searching article.
    Thank you.

  4. Avatar Nicola says:

    Great you got some inspiration for your writing, I’m glad it was useful. And I agree that if you kill off key characters too often readers might become disengaged… for example with the latest season of Game of Thrones when yet another member of the Stark family was killed it made me feel annoyed and part of me wanted to give up on the show altogether. Of course, I didn’t, because I’m too interested to see what happens to the characters that are still alive, which fortunately includes my favourite character! But it’s a risky game killing off characters so regularly.

Leave a Comment