Monday, August 12, 2013

Dissecting Fantasy: What's Your Hero Fighting For? Part 2

Progressing the plot means "raising" or intensifying the stakes.  How?  Mostly, by threatening to destroy what the hero most cares for.  While simple enough, it helps to get more specific, to look keenly at what the hero's fighting for and find ways to undermine it.

Last Time...

We looked at broad, universal stakes, such as "The World" (life on a massive scale), "Culture" (a group of people harboring a similar belief), and "Community" (home).  Today, we examine the more personal stakes of "Relationships" and "Soul," as well as "Other, Less Noble Reasons."   As with last time, I'll give a definition, an example using Lord of the Rings, and my suggestions for intensifying stakes.

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Fighting for Relationships

Keywords: Love, Friendship, "It's personal"

Any person tightly knotted to the hero's heart.  Can be a close friend, a mentor, a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a husband, a wife, a love interest, a son, a daughter, and so on and so forth.  

LotR Example

Friendship is the main relationship in The Lord of the Rings, and the evil ring forever tries to turn friend against friend.  This is shown from Chapter 1 when Bilbo, when asked to give up his ring, snarls angrily at his good friend, the wizard Gandalf.  Later on Boromir, one of the fellowship, betrays Frodo by trying to take the ring from  him.  When Frodo gets captured and Sam is forced to take the ring, he momentarily considers abandoning Frodo.

Yet in the end, despite the temptation of an evil ring, most of the fellowship remains steadfast and true.  At the end of the book, they have forged a bond that nothing can severe.

Intensifying the Stakes

The curtain falls on Act 2, and the hero groans in the rubble.  Miles away, the villain has gleefully captured the beautiful princess and taken her to his dungeon of evil.  The hero thinks of the face of his true love and his spirit revives.  He already knew that the villain planned to destroy the kingdom, maybe the whole world.  But this is different.  Now, it's personal.  No matter what, the hero cannot lose the woman he loves.

This classic scenario has played out so many times, it's become a cliche. Yet it keeps getting used, time and time again, because it's effective.  Writers know that the easiest way to raise the stakes is by making them more personal and the easiest way is to toss the villain a loved one at the climax. 

However, there are other ways of testing relationships.

Relationships based on love are the strongest bonds in the world.  We, as humans, love to see them built and fear to see them dissolved.  In a story, when we see the seeds of a relationship, we're curious to see whether they will blossom to it's fullest potential or whether events will cause it to wither and die.  Thus, we get the romantic subplot--though, in fairness, it could also be a friendship  blossoming or the tightening of a family.

On the opposite end, if you want to destroy (or threaten to destroy) a relationship, there are three main routes: death, betrayal, and separation.

Death is the most direct--if the loved one dies, the relationship ends.  Usually.  Of course, fantasy being fantasy, the loved might possibly come back to life or become some sort of supernatural being--ghost, vampire, zombie, etc.  In most cases, however, death of a loved one is a serious matter, and the hero will stop at nothing to prevent it.  A sadistic villain will take advantage of this, forcing the hero to choose between the loved one and the world (or something of similar high stakes).

Betrayal is more varied--and more fun. 

You can go the obvious route--have the princess stab the hero in the back and run off with the villain.  But I prefer more subtle, personal betrayals, using knowledge of that person's weaknesses against him.  This might be ridiculing the hero when he's most vulnerable or abandoning him during a crisis.  It can be a single poignant act, or many small gestures that accumulate.  It can be a calculated betrayal, an accidental betrayal, a betrayal coerced by the villain, a betrayal that comes from a moment of moral weakness, a betrayal made with sincere intention to help the hero.  In all instances, it hurts.  And now the hero has to decide to forgive the loved one or abandon the relationship altogether.

Assuming of course, it was the loved one that betrayed the hero.  It could be the other way around.

Separation is the third way of threatening a relationship.  Classically, separation involves time and space--the villain captures the princess and holds her for three years in a tower a thousand miles away.  But separation may also be mental--different beliefs or social constructs.  This works especially well with families: two brothers, one who believes in freedom, one who believes in order, finding themselves on different sides of a civil war. 

Of course, separation by itself is sad, but underneath the sadness is a fear that the relationship will cool.  People change and grow apart--can love endure that?  Maybe, maybe not.  The reunion is the moment of truth.  When separated loved ones meet again, the barriers will be stripped away and everything will feel exactly the same--or everything will be different.

However you use relationships to raise the stakes, remember one thing: you cannot coast on the hero's love alone.  The readers have to care about the beloved as well.  It's all very well for the hero to fall in love with the beautiful princess, but if the readers find her to be whiny, self-righteous, and useless, they might just root for the villain to feed her to the crocodiles.

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Fighting for the Soul

Keywords: Transformation, Hero, Break, Sacrifice, At What Cost?

The hero himself.  His life, his personhood, his identity, his beliefs, his loves, his personality, his spirit, his core--everything he is and everything he might become--wrapped in one neat package. 

LotR Example

The ring Frodo carries corrupts the soul.  It did it before Gollum.  Once a hobbit-like person, Gollum murdered his cousin to get the ring and turned into a slimy, sniveling creature, addicted to the ring and miserable.  As Frodo journeys closer to Mordor, the ring drains him of personality, eating him from the inside out.

Sam, by contrast, starts off as Frodo's bumbling, overly-sensitive gardener and winds up arguably being the hero of the book.  He's loyal to Frodo to begin with, but that loyalty morphs into astonishing courage and inner strength, as Sam takes on a giant spider and a fortress full of orcs single-handedly to rescue Frodo.  By the end of the book, Sam is literally carrying Frodo those final steps up to Mount Doom, the only place the ring can be destroyed.

Intensifying the Stakes

Fighting for the soul means fighting to become (or remain) your true self, your best self.  It sounds selfish, but it is not, for it is from the best self that all other heroics springs--freedom, truth, compassion, love, sacrifice.  In my opinion, it is the most important thing that can be at stake.  "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?"

Losing the soul might mean forcing your hero to do morally despicable acts, it might mean stripping him of everything he loves, it might mean shaking his belief in God or humanity, or it might mean obliterating his personality.  In any case, something very human in him has been lost--maybe permanently.  Sometimes a hero must choose between saving the world and keeping his soul.  Sometimes he manages to do both.

But saving the world isn't always as depressing as that, for as often as some heroes lose a piece of their soul, others gain new insight into the strength of their spirit.  Rather than breaking them, circumstances transform them for the better.  The nobody farm boy becomes a king, the ragged street urchin leads a revolution, the repentant assassin saves the world.

But when transforming characters, remember to keep their innate personality intact.   If the smart-aleck brat transforms into a paragon of perfect virtue, the reader may feel as though the character's actually lost a piece of their soul.  The character should already have the good qualities inside them--the key is to bring them out and enhance them.

Does it have to be one or the other--losing the soul or gaining the soul?  Can it be both?  Yes.  Though it's easier to focus on one or the other. 

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Fighting for Other, Less Noble Reasons

Keywords: Money, Revenge, Power, Glory, Fame, Survival, "I'm in it for me!"


Any of a number of selfish or immoral reasons, aimed to benefit the hero alone.   
LotR Example

None, really.  However, in The Hobbit, Bilbo and the dwarves go on an adventure, obstensibly to steal back their treasure.  Of course, they end up defeating a dragon and a goblin army, benefiting the land and fulfilling a bunch of prophecies in the process.  Bilbo is also transformed along the way, discovering an inner reserve of strength, courage, cunning, able to embrace a love of adventure he never even knew he had.

Intensifying the Stakes

Not all heroes want to make the world a better place.  Some just want to make money.  And that's fine.  The thing is, no matter how selfish and immoral the hero's purpose may be, at some point, he's going to do something noble, even by accident, because otherwise the story would be meaningless and boring.

That sounds harsh.

But revenge tales usually end up being about the nature of justice.  Survival tales become about the best and the worst of the soul.  Treasure-hunters often sacrifice their fortunes for those they care about.  People obsessed with power find a cause to latch it to.  Without some faint nobility, why would we care about these characters?

When heroes claim they're looking out themselves, the reader is waiting to see them transcend their selfishness and find a cause worth fighting for.  Normally, it doesn't take long.  A person fighting for himself on Chapter 1, may be roped into saving the world by Chapter 2.

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That ends this installment of Dissecting Fantasy.  Hope you liked it.

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