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Blurring The Lines

Dragon Prince (cover)So I started reading the Dragon Prince trilogy by Melanie Rawn. It’s part of the classical fantasy cannon, and the books have been on my TBR pile for ages. While I am enjoying the books, one aspect that stands out to me is the obvious tone implicit in the “sides” of the story and their portrayal. It’s a classic example of good side = good people, evil side = cruel and manipulative monsters. The dichotomy is made even more obvious during chapter switches, as heart-warming family scenes are contrasted against political manoeuvring and subjugated magic users. Even though the first book has shown some trials and development for the protagonists, it’s still so one-sided that Rohan’s team may as well have a sign saying, “root for these guys” above their chapters.

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a “good side,” all through history literature has been filled with stories containing easily identifiable heroes that we are expected to engage with/aspire to. But by deliberately portraying one side as kind and noble, and the other as cruel and selfish it can be a bit jarring for the reader and make them very aware they are reading a novel. Such a black and white view can limit the kind of stories the author can tell, restrict what themes and ideas can be explored and rob the book of depth. The Dragon Prince trilogy is a product of its time, but even in the age of grimdark fiction it can be easy to fall into this trap as you write your characters.

When creating a hero an author will usually work to make them likable and engaging as they progress through the story, while equally they will try to make a villain that the reader despises. Multiply that by a whole cast of characters and without care this can quickly become a black and white situation. To combat this I thought it might be useful to look at some of the methods and techniques authors can use to avoid creating a too-obvious moral division and give their work more depth and complexity.

Characterisation

It's Time to Go by Gintas GalvanauskasTo begin, let’s dispense with the idea that all people on the “right” side have to be kind and decent human beings. Statistically it’s unlikely and it definitely makes for a far less interesting story. Not only does it give the writing more realism if some of the good guys are jerks, but it can open the way to interesting plot options.

Like with General’s Poulder and Kroy from The First Law trilogy. Though both are on the “right” side of the Union Army fighting the Northmen and later the Gurkish, as individuals they are arrogant and stubborn, spending more energy arguing with each other than fighting a war. This forces characters like the lord marshal and Colonel West to wrestle them into order, as they provide stumbling blocks for the characters. Later on they also have the potential for development, and a grudging respect forms. This kind of story arc would have been completely omitted if everyone on the Union side got on well and was of one mind when it came to the battle.

As for the main protagonist, we all know that perfect characters are boring, the more flaws and foibles the character has the better. They will seem more realistic and well-rounded to the reader, and are more open to development. Just because they’re a hero doesn’t mean they can’t be wrong, make mistakes, even selfishly choose the wrong path. Greek literature is littered with such heroes like Achilles and Odysseus who often let their flaws lead them into trouble. A character like this is far less predictable and more interesting for the reader to observe through the narrative. For when the reader doesn’t know that a character will make the right choice and save the day it gives a lot more weight to events and ratchets up the tension.

Catching Snowflakes by Stefan KoidlEvery bad guy need not be a moustache twirling villain either. Sure they might fight for the side of evil, but they might have a good reason, and if you can make the reader see that then it can give the conflict much more impact. Some might be forced into servitude, some might not know any better, or some might even really believe in what they’re fighting for, like Tanaros Blacksword from The Sundering books. Once the reader learns his back-story, how he was betrayed by his wife and forced to flee his home, they can begin to empathise with the character. He is a man who chose to serve a dark lord figure in return for his aid, but also because he believed in his master’s fight. Throughout the books Tanaros acts with honour and compassion, even as he battles with the forces of good, and while Carey is focused on subverting expectations in her novel, there’s no reason you can’t style a villain such as this in your own work.

Perhaps your villain’s ideas aren’t so bad at all, but they just go about it the wrong way. Magneto from X-men is a great example of this. At heart he just wants to protect his people, save them from prejudice and persecution, but the actions he takes to ensure this only evoke a greater level of fear of mutants and bring about more destruction. His motivations give a greater sense of complexity to his character and his rivalry with Professor X over the best course of action to save their people can give such stories a deeper, more philosophical tone.

Another way is simply to sell the reader on a particular character, get them to engage with an individual, no matter their allegiance. Tyrion is a good example from Martin’s early books – as a Lannister he is on the “wrong” side, and his actions don’t exactly paint him as a saint either, but his wit and determination are engaging and the reader may side with him even if they want to see the Starks triumph overall. This method requires a lot of work on a character to overcome any natural prejudices the reader might have but can evoke a great conflict of feelings, especially when two characters they like come to blows.

World Construction

The Coming Darkness by noahbradleyWhile characters are probably the clearest indicators of morality, the setting and world construction play a key part as well. If your story has a city of gold in a green field set against a black fortress squatting in a desolate wasteland, then it’ll be pretty clear who the reader is supposed to side with. When creating a secondary world the author has control over all aspects that can pre-determine a moral standpoint. Whether or not they set up an initial “evil” side, the presence of horrible monsters or demons, and even the political, social or religious constructs that determine what morality is in your world.

Are the forces of evil bad because they’re born that way, or just because they come from a harsh land that necessitated a ruthless nature to ensure survival? Do they fight for the joy of it, or to prevent some horrible prophecy from coming true? Giving some thought to this and developing justifiable answers to why a side is bad will not only create a more interesting culture for that faction but also add an extra layer of meaning towards any conflict within the story. Perhaps your “evil” side doesn’t even have the same concept of morality as the other, like humans defending themselves from a race of lizards who see their whole war as a hunting expedition? Some authors choose to just sink the whole scale like Salvatore with his Drow and other races of the Underdark. When Menzoberranzan is attacked in The War of the Spider Queen, there isn’t much difference in morality between the Drow and the army of Duergar and Tanuruuks, yet the reader sides with the elves because they are interesting and because several books into the series they feel like the home team.

Menzoberranzan by jjpeabody

Virtually every facet of the world of the story can be used to shift the reader’s perception of the sides within your novel, from living conditions within settlements, how laws are applied, even simple scenes of family life and etiquette can influence how a reader views a once merciless seeming foe. Such scenes can be used to humanise your villains, deepen their back story and give the reader a better understanding of their place in the world.

Unleash the Pack by lamlokIt can be a tight balancing act, especially if the author wants to keep the aesthetic of an evil side going without making them too much the pantomime villain. Yet careful work can allow the author to create something more than a generic evil race or empire, producing a more nuanced creation that will serve as a more engaging rival force. This can be done just as easily with the good side of the novel, painting a few black marks in their history, or adding some harsh rules they have to follow that create a less than pristine image of the forces of good.

Sometimes what the author needs is a truly black hearted villain, sometimes a book does have a cast of noble heroes, but never be afraid to challenge the pattern. Not only will it make the writing richer and more believable, but it can broaden the scope of the stories and let the author experiment with new ideas. There’s no need to unerringly follow some binary moral division, forcing the reader along with you, give them the choice to hate the villains and love the heroes, not because of literary convention, but because of the craft of the writer compels them to take an interest and make up their own mind. Just because you write in and black and white doesn’t mean your story has to be.

Title image by Gintas Galvanauskas.

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One Comment

  1. Sara says:

    It’s a long long time since I read the Dragon Prince series but I seem to remember that the who’s good and who’s bad does become more grey as it goes on.

    I don’t know if he was the first but Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant was the first true grey main character I ever read in fantasy. He is NOT a nice man and I know of some readers who won’t touch the series because of what he does in the first 100 pages. And yet somehow you don’t hate him because you come to understand him and and you are missing something special if you can’t get past that. Because like him you come to love the Land and it’s peoples.
    Yes, it’s one of my top five series.

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