Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Dissecting Fantasy: What's Your Hero Fighting For? Part 1

This blog post is all about raising the stakes in epic fantasy.

I say "raising" the stakes, aware of how the phrase connotes swelling importance, as though your hero starts off searching for a lost cow, fights a dragon, and ends up saving the kingdom.  But often times in epic fantasy, the hero realizes the world teeters on the brink of doom by Chapter 2.  How can the stakes possibly grow bigger than that?

They can't.

But they can intensify.

The first step is to identify what the hero's fighting for.  I've narrowed it down to five "noble" objectives, with a sixth category for all the selfish ones.  A hero might fight for a single noble cause or all five of them at once.  Interestingly enough, in the scenario when the world is in jeopardy early on, the stakes actually may narrow, becoming less grand, but more personal.

Once you figure out what your hero's fighting for, it's now time to intensify the stakes.  Basically, you are going to threaten what the hero (and the audience) holds most dear.  This requires a certain amount of ruthlessness, because if you aren't willing to draw blood, the audience will never believe your threats.  On the other hand, if you destroy too much, the audience will cease to care and stop reading.  So it's a balancing act.

These are the six basic categories:

The World
Other, Less Noble Reasons

I'll go through each topic one by one, define it, give an example from The Lord of the Rings (hereafter abbreviated at LotR), and show how the author can intensify the stakes.  My suggestions are by no means exhaustive.  They're meant to spark the thought process.

* * *

Fighting for the World 

Keywords: Extermination, Extinction, All Life


Life on a massive scale.  This might mean all humanity (or what passes for sentient beings in fantasy novels), the natural world, or even the universe.  The antagonist (whether a person or a force) does not want domination, but massive destruction.

LotR Example

The Dark Lord Sauron cares nothing for nature, mowing down forests to feed to his war machine.  His stronghold in Mordor is a bleak and barren desert, with few plants and little water.  This is indicative of what all Middle Earth may soon become.

Intensifying the Stakes

From the moment you announce the fate of the world is at stake, you're bound to run headfirst into audience apathy.  After all, "a million is a statistic," and the readers are not going to care if far-off, generic forests get burned to the ground.  So your first task is to personalize the world.  Make your hero (and the readers) actually care about it being destroyed.

Find a piece of the world that is lovely and unique.  This doesn't necessarily mean flashy--you don't have to create crystal palaces and rainbow waterfalls.  Just find something to love.  Small but telling details can do the trick, such as trees that give off the faint smell of cinnamon, an odd-shaped rock, or crooked houses surrounded by wildflowers.  Emotional ties are equally important.  Look for places of healing, places that make the hero feel secure, places where he fell in love.

Now, that you've given the reader a reason to care about the world, you must deal with their disbelief.  Of course, the hero will save the world.  If he didn't, there'd be no story.  The readers know that, so the story loses its suspense.  But you, the writer, can take this power back into your hands, by calling their bluff.  Actually destroy the world.

Just not all of it.

It helps to think of destroying the world as a process, as opposed to a single act.  By the time the hero gets started on his quest, your villain should be actively channeling the forces of destruction.  Now, remember those wonderful places you built up earlier, with the cinnamon trees and wildflowers.  Burn them down.  Or, if you think that's too much, set a few forest fires and have your hero scramble to put them out.   This may seem manipulative, but it actually has a point--it puts the reader off balance.  Destroy one place and your reader knows the others are in jeopardy.  And she'll bite her nails, wondering if that oddly-shaped rock where the hero and his princess star-gazed arm-in-arm will also perish under the villain's touch.  

Just remember not to go crazy and burn everything down.  Leave something for the reader to love or they'll become numb to the destruction.

If, for some reason, you absolutely cannot destroy any part of the world at all, there is another way to use the fate of the world to your favor.

Imagine a carnival game.  Let's go with a classic one--three milk bottles stacked on top of each other.  You pay the man a dollar for three baseballs and attempt to win a huge fluffy bunny.  Now, in this analogy, the fate of the world is the fluffy bunny, and instead of paying the man a dollar, you pay him with your innocence, your health, your reputation, your most dearly held beliefs.  But you can't knock down those damn bottles, because they're glued down.  You're desperate to win the prize, but the costs keep rising: your friends, your lover, your life...

In this case, the suspense comes not from whether or not the hero will save the world, but what it will cost him to do so.  I'll discuss this more in the "Soul" entry.

* * *

Fighting for Culture

Keywords: Freedom, Truth, Justice, Peace, Democracy, America (or the name of another nation), Our Way of Life, Good, Evil


A large group of people who share a common belief or value.  It may be a kingdom, an empire, a nation, an alliance, or a religion.  It may be entire races of magical creatures.  This often crops up as a "versus:" Good versus Evil, Freedom Versus Slavery, Peace Versus War, America Versus Russia, etc.

LotR Example 

It's no coincidence that men, elves, dwarves, hobbits, and all the other "good" races are labeled as "free folk," while the evil orcs and goblins are called "the slaves of Mordor."  But the real litmus test of Good Versus Evil, however, is friendship.  The free folk consistently risk their lives for their friends.   The orcs stab each other in the back over a shiny shirt.  

Intensifying the Stakes

Good, Truth, Justice, Peace, Freedom, Evil, Lies, Corruption, Tyranny, Slavery--these are hot-button topics, which will incite emotions from your readers, so long as you back up these words with vivid concrete examples.  It's never enough to merely label yourself Good and your enemy Evil--these titles must be earned.

Of course, you may not want to write a straight-forward, black-and-white, Good versus Evil fantasy novel.  I support this.  I like my shades of gray.  But while you can do away with the judgement of what's good and what's evil, you cannot do away with values.  Everyone has some value, even if it's greed, power, self-interest, or chaos.

Of course, just because people have a value doesn't mean they're able to live up to it.

And this is how you intensify the stakes: you test those core beliefs.  If the Knights of the White Tower believe in courage, honor, and friendship, throw them into a battle and see if they stand with their friends and fight or abandon their friends and run.  If the good king believes in mercy, see if he'll actually spare the villain's life.  Sometimes people fail to live up to their beliefs--which only makes the story more interesting.  So long as they keep striving to uphold their ideals, the audience will usually remain sympathetic.

But what if the test results show the culture isn't even striving--what if the kingdom the hero is fighting for is weak in character and riddled with hypocrisy?  Is it even worth saving?

Let's go back to the carnival analogy, pretending that this time the prize is "Freedom" or something of that nature.  Now, in the previous example, the hero was forced to keep playing, because if the world ends, so does everything he holds dear.  But playing for "Freedom" is a choice, and any time the cost becomes too great, he can simply give up--or even defect to the other side.

This goes double with a tattered prize.  If the hero discovers that "Freedom" means a selfish, corrupt people touting their own right to do whatever they want while oppressing the less fortunate, he may reconsider sacrificing his life for it.

* * *

Fighting for Community

Keywords: Home


A group of friends and acquaintances that provides the hero with some measure of comfort and security.  A village, town, city, school, or military unit.  If the hero roves, the community may be a band of companions or a tribe.  Sometimes the hero may claim to be an outsider or a hermit, but if they have any acquaintances at all, they have a community, albeit a weak one.

LotR Example

The Shire is home personified.  Though the hobbits are forced to leave, they recall it often and draw strength from those memories.  Later the Fellowship of the Ring becomes a wandering community of those with the common goal of destroying the ring at all cost.

Intensifying the Stakes

Home.  On the surface, it seems negligible.  Assuming the hero has one to start off with, chances are by Chapter 3, it will be burned to the ground and/or the hero will find some other reason for abandoning it.

But the idea of home is too compelling to be left alone.  It exerts a psychological power, for it is the starting board from which the hero must jump.  A hero may yearn for his old home or he may gladly build a new one.  But if he ever returns back to his roots, he will usually find himself inextricably changed.

Meanwhile, heroes on long quests will knit together communities of traveling companions, strangers on the road, peddlers, innkeepers, and bards, which they'll rely on for shelter, supplies, information, medical aid, or simple conversation.  These long networks may become a hero's second family--or he may not trust them as far as he could spit.

Homes and communities are varied and interesting, but they all share one vital thread: they serve as a bridge between the public and private, the epic and the intimate, the universal and the personal.  As such, they are in the perfect position to be sacrificed.  What better way to show wide-scale destruction while still pulling on the reader's heartstrings?

Personally, I'm not fond of killing off communities just to manipulate emotions.  I do, however, support the hero losing his community from time to time.  This can mean running away from home, getting kidnapped, being banished, leaving on a quest, getting split up from a group, or simply moving on.  After a brief period of isolation, the hero usually manages to cobble together a new community of acquaintances.  Then, he promptly loses them all over again.  Depriving the hero of support, keeps him (and the readers) on their toes, as the safety net is stripped away.

One other note.  Your hero doesn't always have to like or trust all the people in his community.  That can act as another source of tension.  

* * *

Since my article is running long, I'll continue next time with the other three categories.

No comments:

Post a Comment