Breaking the Mould - Reinventing Roles in Fantasy Fiction
The wise old wizard. The virtuous princess. The peasant boy with a secret heritage. The decrepit evil overlord. The beautiful but deadly noblewoman. The graceful elf. The dour dwarf.
Long-established staples of the fantasy genre. Writers and readers rely on them as shorthand, to keep the reader’s attention focused, and not lost trying to work out which character serves what role. But is there more to these roles? Can these characters step out of their expected stereotypes and surprise us?
I often find myself disappointed when a story plays around with tropes in an effort to surprise the audience. Surprise, for its own sake, is often misguided.
However, offering a different interpretation can open up all sorts of new possibilities. Who is to say that the hero’s mentor must be a wise old man dedicated to the cause of good? Why can’t he be a chain-smoking ex-womaniser who wants to keep as far from fighting as possible?
Star Wars turned the expectation of the wise mentor on its head when Yoda was introduced in The Empire Strikes Back. He was short and dirty, a mischievous little goblin that seemed nothing like the image of a great Jedi warrior. But his ability as Luke’s mentor is beyond doubt. In fact, his unusual appearance helped carry across his own message, that you can’t judge things by how they seem, and that the Force was about more than just fighting and physical might.
Does the ruling queen need to be regal and confident? What if she were stricken by age; a hunched crone with just the sharp clarity in her eye to hint at her lost vitality?
Why must the princess’ virtue, or lack thereof, determine her worth as a future ruler? These days we already have self-rescuing princesses. Why not one who smokes? Or swears? Or has had romantic relationships before the hero came along? Surely she’s worth more as a character in her own right than a virginal prize to be taken?
Many of these roles were defined long ago, often before modern literature. They’ve become so ingrained into our minds and media that even children who haven’t yet read very many books will expect that the wizard is an old man, the hero is a handsome young man, often (secretly) a prince, who must rescue the fair maiden from the evil sorcerer/king. I’ve often spoken on my own blog about the Hero’s Journey, the model which can be applied to stories to point out the plot elements which our brains look for. This is part of that. We’ve just come to accept that certain roles have certain requirements.
But I think we miss out on so much when we don’t challenge ourselves to play around more with these roles. Maybe the mentor is an orc, or other typically brutish monster. He could be a fake, knowing nothing about real magic and only using guesswork based on old storybooks. Have the princess save the peasant. Or have the princess reject romantic advances entirely!
Perhaps the destined hero is a jerk, or dies before he can save the world, leaving it up to someone else to take up the challenge. Or what if there is no destined hero? What if the prophecy tells that the evil lord will rise, and no one will stop him? How would your characters respond to that? What would they do? And what kind of story could you tell about the ones who decide that, prophecy or not, they’re going to make a stand?
A word of warning, however. Changing something just for the sake of being different is a risky proposition. There have been so many books and movies that tried to be different for no real reason, and they have been left by the wayside. It’s like everything in writing. Everything you do has to have a purpose.
Ask yourself, what are you trying to say by going against the grain? In Shrek, when Princess Fiona’s “true love’s form” was revealed, it wasn’t just a dig at Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, it was a statement about the nature of beauty and being true to one’s self. This statement was backed up by revealing the Dragon to be a sympathetic, lonely character, who was ultimately instrumental in saving the day at the end.
Remember this as you write, that old tropes exist for a reason. While we can, and should, challenge ourselves to reinvent them, we must also make sure we don’t lose sight of the true goal; to create a story both entertaining and meaningful.
About the author:
He lives near Dublin, Ireland with his wife Jen, their twin daughters, and their dogs, Pepper and Jasper.
About Locked Within:
The supernatural realm and the mundane world have existed side by side since the dawn of time. Predators walk the streets, hidden by our own ignorance. Once, the city of New York was protected, but that was another age.
Now a creature emerges from the city's past to kill again, with no one to hear the screams of its victims. The lost and the weak, crushed under the heels of the city's supernatural masters, have given up hope.
But one man finds himself drawn to these deaths. Plagued by dreams of past lives, his obsession may cost him friends, loved ones, even his life. To stop this monster, he must unlock the strength he once had. He must remember the warrior he was, to become the hero he was born to be.
His name is Nathan Shepherd, and he remembers.
Thanks so much for being with us today, Paul!
Would you like to be a guest blogger? Email your topic idea to lydiasharp4sff (at) yahoo (dot) com. Please put "guest post" somewhere in the subject line. You do not have to be a published author to be a guest blogger here, just a serious writer or a publishing industry professional or intern. We'd love to hear from you!