Casting Characters

by A.M. Justice

We’re two weeks in to the new season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, and I’m still feeling the love for this television adaptation of G.R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss continue to take the best from the books and put it on screen, with enough new characters and plot streams to keep the avid readers on the edge of our seats. I wonder, will we get to see where Sansa is going? In my recollection, she disappears from the novel’s narrative after Petyr takes her from the Eyrie. And Jamie Lannister most certainly does not hook up with Bronn and ride off to rescue Myrcella from Dorne.

actors_game_of_thrones_tv_series_tyrion_lannister_peter_dinklage_house_lannister_wallpaperGOT works because the writing is so solid and the cast is packed with great actors playing great characters. The casting choices are spot on. Peter Dinklage is too handsome for Tyrion (in the book, Tyrion’s ugliness—a sign of his Targaryen blood—separates him from his exquisitely beautiful brother and sister even more than his dwarfism), but we can forgive Dinklage’s good looks because he so perfectly captures Tyrion’s empathy, intelligence, and pathos. And it’s not Gemma Whelan’s fault the GOT writers and producers robbed Asha Greyjoy of all her swashbuckling joie de vive when they changed her name to Yara and made her sober and dour for the television show. This is the single misstep taken by Benioff and Weiss: Asha is one of the few fun characters in the books; on the show Yara is just another pissed-off noble.

What about other casting choices when books became films? In the early Harry Potter movies, I was disappointed with Emma Watson as Hermione Granger. At first, Watson wasn’t at all convincing as the rule-bound teacher’s pet smart girl. It didn’t help that she was far too pretty for the role, when much is made of Hermione’s awkwardness and plainness in the early books. But as the films went on and the children playing Potter and friends grew up, Watson came to embody the character, and now I can’t imagine Hermione played by anyone else.

MV5BMTIzMTIxOTg1NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTM0OTcxMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR8,0,214,317_AL_It’s been a while since I’ve been really incensed about a casting choice; I generally give film producers the benefit of the doubt. Back in the last century, when Neil Jordan picked Tom Cruise (Tom Cruise, of all people!) to play Lestat in his adaptation of Interview with a Vampire, my friends and I held forth for hours about how Top Gun boy could not possibly capture the blond, sophisticated, French allure of Lestat. Then we saw the movie and Cruise blew our objections away.

One adaptation that did get my blood boiling was the SciFi miniseries Legends of Earthsea. Ursula LeGuin is my literary idol, and Ged, the central character of the Earthsea Cycle, was my first love. When I was young, Ged epitomized what a man ought to be—intelligent, courageous, and loaded with self-awareness. (Luckily I found a man with those qualities, and I married him.) Ged is also not white, a choice LeGuin made because she wanted to create fantasy and science fiction worlds populated by diverse peoples, to better reflect the world we live in. The fact that the majority of Earthsea’s population looks like they come from earth’s Southern Hemisphere was a deliberate and important choice she made. SciFi tossed that aside and picked blue-eyed Shawn Ashmore (better known as Iceman in the X-Men movies) to play Ged. Not only was Ged white in the TV miniseries, he was too young, at least for the episode based on Tombs of Atuan. In the book, Ged is twice Tenar’s age. He mentors and rescues her, but he does not become her lover until much later, when they’re both adults and social equals. By casting a young, white man as Ged and turning the story into a romance, the producers undermined the entire spirit of LeGuin’s masterwork. Or, in her words, they wrecked it.

FanFour2015The next big casting brouhaha surrounds the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot. I’ll say right off: the idea of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm doesn’t bother me at all. Sure, he and blonde Sue Storm are siblings, but step-sibs or half-sibs or adoption are all perfectly plausible explanations for their phenotypic differences. It’s Kate Mara who worries me. After watching her smolder and brass her way through House of Cards, I can’t quite see her playing a Grace Kelly–type ice queen. But, note to Hollywood, when The Woern Chronicles are adapted for the screen, Mara would be the perfect actress to play Vic.

A.M. Justice amuses herself by playing casting director for her novels, when she’s not rewriting them. To keep abreast of her doings, sign up for her mailing list or follow her on Twitter.

Snowed in and Snowed under

Snapshot_20140802_2by Chantal Boudreau

This year, the weather has brought me ample fodder for story concepts. Be it imagined scenarios of the aftermath of a bus crash during an April snowstorm or co-workers sharing ideas of snow monsters taking over the world when winter never goes away (not someone who writes stories herself,) the massive snowfalls we have endured here in late winter/early spring seemed to have inspired some unpleasant icy fantasies.

But that’s the thing about fiction – genre fiction in particular. The stories are found in the unusual, not in the norm. You’ll rarely see a “day in the life of…” kind of tale when exploring the speculative unless it’s presented in such a way to highlight the differences between our mundane existence and the strange alien planet, or the magical fantasy realm or the dystopian future society. Everyday life doesn’t tend to make for an exceptionally interesting story unless there is something exceptionally interesting about the protagonist(s)’s everyday life. Even in literary fiction, characters tend to have their eccentricities and are moving toward some point of self-discovery or self-destruction not just adhering to the status quo.

The entertainment value of a fictional story comes from events that wouldn’t typically happen. They might be used by the author for some sort of social commentary or moral point, something not likely to happen as the result of a protagonist sitting there twiddling his or her thumbs. Whether a character’s involvement is proactive or reactive, the story results from challenges, accidents, ambitions or extremes – something beyond the average.

I’ve been subject to the extraordinary for years, accused of being a weirdness magnet and of knowing everybody everywhere on more than one occasion (because I always seem to bump into acquaintances in the strangest of places.) I think that’s why, unlike some writers, I don’t cringe when people ask “where do your ideas come from?” I’ll gladly tell them. My life has always run so far outside of the norm, even when I’m trying to be just your average old boring accountant/mom, that I can’t escape new story ideas. I see them in my family, my friends, my co-workers, my environment, my goals, my fears and my trials and tribulations. Sometimes they even show up in the floors, doors or walls. With all this plot material building up in my head, if I didn’t write the occasional story, it might just explode.

So despite my unhappy mutterings about the record-breaking snowfall we’ve had this year, it’s really not all that bad. It’s just another one of those unusual experiences I can file away to break out when I need fictional inspiration – as the urge strikes me.

Something to keep me busy the next time I end up snowed in or snowed under.

How Flawed is Too Flawed?

(This post is partially inspired by this post at i09 “10 Authors Who Wrote Gritty, Realistic Fantasy Before George RR Martin”)

The dark, dangerous, and flawed characters of Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series haven’t always been the yardstick by which characters have been measured. Fantasy and Sci-Fi characters have not always had such a “realistic” feel to them. In fact, some of the first and most recognizable SFF characters started out barely flawed if at all (see: Superman).

But as society has developed, so too has our understanding of the Human condition and our desire to have our fictional characters mirror, in some way, our own reality.

On the one side of the matter is the “Flawed Hero”. This character is defined by their positive traits, but it is their character flaws that make them interesting and give them depth. The good-hearted scientist who has an anger problem and turns into a hulking green monster, the “Chosen-One” who sets aside his destiny until the very last minute in favor of exploration and freedom, or the hot-shot pilot who smokes cigars and has a temper. All are modern characters who have flaws that define them.

And it’s not always bad traits that are character flaws. Take Ned Stark from ASOIAF. In a world built on deception and back-stabbing, his loyalty and honor are his character flaws.

But what happens when character flaws go too far?

For those fans of The Walking Dead, Shane’s overly aggressive approach to situations and willingness to sacrifice anyone makes him a character whose flaws carry him into unlikable territory. Or Gaius Baltar from Battlestar Galactica; his drive for self-preservation and willingness to do anything necessary to save his own skin leave him in a place where viewers have a hard time empathizing with him.

On the other side of the coin is the Anti-Hero, who’s reality comes from their good traits rather than their bad. The Punisher being the poster child for the Anti-Hero, followed very closely by Deadpool.

So where is the line between “Flawed Enough to Be Realistic” and “Too Flawed To Like”? What are your thoughts on the current trend toward seriously flawed characters and realism?

Do Wizards Have Sick Days?

by Chantal Boudreau

16862_375871140031_2570479_nSuffering from a cold myself at the moment, I find myself reflecting on how illness is one of those factors of realism a reader might hope to see in fantasy fiction. Fantasy is often based on medieval culture where illness was abundant thanks to less than sanitary living conditions and limited medical care. Poverty meant crowded living quarters where the malnourished and overworked couldn’t avoid ill family members. Livestyle led to epidemic plagues and a lower average life expectancy.

Granted, characters in the typical fantasy tale aren’t necessarily the type of person exposed to these conditions. Royalty, or heroic figures from noble stock would be less likely to succumb to illness than the ordinary peasant, but including illness in a story allows a writer to explore realistic aspects from a more fantastical angle. How would illness be treated in a realm where magic is available, for example? Would it impact the lives of rogues, warriors and wizards in a significant way?

One of my favourite science fiction novels involves a time traveller who ventures into the days of the bubonic plague, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. I consider this book a part of the inspiration behind the magic plague I introduced in my Masters and Renegades series. The ailment only afflicts those who wield magic and is the central theme of my second book in the series, Casualties of War. Not only does this illness make the practicing of magic dangerous, but it serves as the source for biological warfare – another way of applying real-world concepts to fantasy stories.

If you look at the type of illnesses that tormented soldiers in the trenches during real wars, you might expect similar obstacles for fantasy warriors entering massive battles. Trench foot, caused by standing in mud and water for long periods of time, parasites (trench fever was caused by body lice,) dysentary and shell shock were all real problems, but how often to they occur in fantasy fiction? Not all characters, like my dark elf, Urwick, have the mindset to tolerate combat. It’s refreshing to see such things realistically depicted in the fantasy we read.

Consider the weather conditions that questing characters would have to face while treking through wilderness. Getting drenched might make a less physically hardy wizard or rogue more susceptible to the flu or the common cold – perhaps even pneumonia, but how often does a wizard actually fumble a spell because of sneezing or congestion? It might actually add an element of comedy relief to a tense situation.

An illness need not land a character on the brink of death to add flavour to your story but it could be a welcome touch of realism. I definitely think it would be something nice to see, now and then.

And maybe then somebody could actually offer up the answer as to whether or not wizards get sick days…

If All Were Equal

fisherby Chantal Boudreau
When someone mentions female characters in fantasy, some stereotypes come to mind. There is the damsel in distress, the plucky princess, the matronly queen or the bawdy tavern wench, just for a few examples. These seem to show up everywhere, unfortunate tropes who sometimes serve as sidekicks and who often give the male hero extra purpose to their cause, but don’t have much purpose in their own right.
Then there’s the flip-side – the “strong female” character: the man-hating amazon, the stoic and noble female warrior who is an exception to the norm, the experienced sorceress or priestess who often proves self-sacrificing. While they may have a prominent role in the story, they tend to be loners and atypical of the women in that particular fantasy culture. Most of the women in the story other than that one outstanding character fall into the traditional medieval female roles: the maids, the gentlewomen, the housewife mother with multiple offspring, perhaps an assistant to some professional or the healer/midwife.
What I enjoy more, but rarely see, is a fantasy society that is counter-culture, where men and women share roles with unbiased equality – where it’s the norm rather than the exception. Considering this is not something we’ve managed to achieve even in our own modern society, it would be nice to find more of that in the fabricated worlds of fiction. There, such a societal scope is an option for its creator rather than what we’re forced to live with in the real world. Why not break with tradition?
How does a writer apply this concept effectively? Lately, I’ve been watching the television show “The 100” that does a fantastic job of this. While it is post-apocalyptic/dystopian science fiction with YA elements rather than fantasy, it is a great example of gender-bias free storytelling. Just as a list of the female characters who aren’t what you would normally find in the average speculative fiction tale, you have the leaders of three of the factions who are female (the leader of the rebellious 100, the leader of the techno-savvy “Sky-People” and the leader of the tribal “Grounders”.) The head of security for the Grounders is a fierce and unyielding warrior woman who is now mentoring one of the 100 women in warrior-training as well. The head of engineering for the Sky People is a woman and their female leader is also a medical doctor. Even the more demure female characters (residing with the Mountain Men) have their moments of bravery.

The leaders make tough decisions too, and sometimes fail, but pick themselves up and move on, coming up with new strategies. At one point, one of these women chooses to kill a man who was once her romantic interest rather than see him tortured before execution as part of a punishment from their allies (he did murder innocents because of a misunderstanding and a mental break – and he was in the wrong.) She doesn’t fall apart after the fact, even though it was a painful and tragic decision for her. You just don’t see that in the average tale that presents women as predominantly soft and emotional. A typical female character would never be able to spare a loved one from torture by killing him, specifically because of their romantic relationship (“I can’t kill him – I love him.”)

Better yet, in “The 100” nobody questions these characters’ competency because they are female. Real people who have experienced life as both man and woman say that for the most part what they’ve found in our society is men are assumed competent until they are proven otherwise whereas women have to prove they are competent before being accepted as such. This unfair set of gender-biased assumptions often carries over into fiction. I’d like to see that change (as I’d like to see it change in the real world.)

I’ve made an effort to use men and women equally in responsible positions in my fantasy stories. The head of a major mercenary guild is a woman, Magic University is headed up by both men and women at various times, the head of the Renegade resistance in Feltrey is a woman, the Jadorans and Templars of Oron are equally men and women, assassins and soldiers as well as wizards. One of my heroes is a middle-aged female retired schoolteacher. A character’s competency has no basis in gender, age or social status. Everyone has their strengths and potential and are recognized for what they bring to the table.

In my fantasy fiction, I choose to not have a woman’s competency challenged just because of her gender. I hope to see this become commonplace in the fantasy I read, maybe inspiring more change in our own society in future.

Reliably Unreliable

by Bruce Blake

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fightclubRecently, I had a few extra minutes on my hands during my lunch at work, so I decided to fire up YouTube and waste a little time watching a video or two. The first one I decided on was a top 10 list…specifically a WatchMojo video counting down their version of the top movie narrators. Among them were two of my favourites: Fight Club and Memento, both of which are excellent examples of the use of the unreliable narrator.

I can’t say too much about Fight Club without giving stuff away (the first rule of Fight Club is don’t talk about Fight Club), so you’ll have to trust me that Edward Norton’s unnamed character (known even in the credits simply as ‘the narrator’) is completely unreliable in his relating the events of the movie.

Memento is easier to take a look at; the premise of the film revolves around a man who cannot recall recentdownload memories trying to track down his wife’s murderer. As the narrator of the movie, we know from the start that we will have to question everything he thinks he knows and every decision he makes. How can we trust the word of a man who can’t remember what happened only a day ago? (On a side night, if you haven’t seen this movie, you should. The screenplay was written by Hollywood’s current ‘it’ director, Christopher Nolan, and the story is told in reverse chronological order, not as a gimmick, but because it needs to be. Brilliant!)

The unreliable narrator is a device that has long been used by writers to keep things from readers, to set up surprises and keep us all guessing. I use the unreliable narrator myself in my Icarus Fell novels, keeping a tight, first person point of view through the entire first book, then loosening up to a couple of other POVs in books two and three. A few readers have expressed some level of frustration with this, because they only get to know what the character knows, but that is entirely the point. In these books, and many others, it is intended for the reader to be thrown slightly off kilter, to have events tinted by the narrators opinions, memories, biases, and so on. It can make for a more immersive read.

untilIfindyouAnother great example of the unreliable narrator can be found in John  Irving’s Until I Find You (it’s also a great example of how to write exquisitely flawed characters, as are all of his works). The first half of the book follows the main character, Jack Burns, through his coming of age as he and his mother search for his father. The second half is detailed by the grown up Jack as he retraces his youth and the unreliability of the young narrator is revealed bit by bit, until we see that Jack`s flawed memory has led both he and us seriously astray from the truth.

So what is your opinion of the unreliable narrator? Does it to the piece, or do you feel cheated by not knowing for sure if you are reading the truth? Who are some other memorable narrators who couldn’t be trusted?

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Bruce Blake is the author of 8 novels, 15 screenplays, half a dozen improv scripts, a volume of backwards haiku, and a complete set of encyclopedias written in pig Latin…or perhaps he is also an unreliable narrator.

Archetypes, with a dash of numerology

Icarus falling from the sky

Daedalus and Icarus

By Scott Bury

In the last couple of blog posts, Autumn Birt and Joshua Johnson have been writing about archetypal characters in fantasy. As this will be my I thought I would take the opportunity to delve a little deeper into one particular archetypal character: the father.

As much of a planner as I am, one thing I have learned from writing fiction is that your characters teach you. Another is that the archetypal role a character begins with can change, depending on circumstances and the needs of the plot.

The father figure is very important in every genre. The good father, bad father, the limited, damaged, drunken, evil or absent fathers all have a distinct yet equally vital impact on the hero and on the development of the story.

Three parts, three fathers

In my first full-length novel, the historical fantasy The Bones of the Earth, the number three plays an important role in its own right. I originally envisioned the book as the first volume in a trilogy called the Dark Age. Each book would be divided into three parts.

In each part of the first book in The Bones of the Earth, a different character is a father-figure to the protagonist, Javor. In Part One, Initiation Rites, Javor’s literal father is the father figure.

I presented Swat (all names are historically accurate) as realistically, rather than mythically or fantastically, as I could. Javor’s father is gentle and kind. He raised his last surviving son more by example and demonstration than through instruction or command. He’s also practical, instead of heroic. He literally holds Javor back from a fight he cannot win.

I this sense, Swat is the opposite of the legendary heroic father figure, the kind who, like Zeus, sets up challenges that will reveal his son’s heroic nature. Instead, Swat acted like I hope I would if my son wanted to attack armed men with nothing but his bare fists (formidable as they may be).

Finally, Swat dies—typical for a fathers in fantasy—defending his family against a foe he could not ever hope to match. But literally backed against a wall,he had no choice. So that part was true to character as well as to archetype.

A character’s shift

In Part Two, Tests, the character introduced in Part One as the Mysterious Stranger, the interloper with arcane knowledge who is both a threat and a guide, fills the father figure role. Photius guides and instructs Javor in fighting, languages, philosophy and in knowledge about the world. He also imparts his own values.

Image of the mysterious stranger

The mysterious stranger

At the end of Part Two, Photius dies protecting Javor. Hmm. I seem to be very hard on fathers. Nothing personal, Dad!

The father-figure in Part Three, The Mission, is the most aloof and formal of all. Austinus is the head of a religious order and, despite objections of his advisors, accepts Javor into this faith family. He is protective of Javor and spends a lot of time teaching him philosophy, history and religion.

Austinus is also closest to the archetypical father-figure of legend and myth. He ensures that Javor learns military fighting skills and brings Javor into danger, putting him in a situation that will bring out Javor’s true heroic nature.

Three stories, three different takes on the father character. They in no way exhaust the subject of the father-son relationship, but I found their creation rewarding.

In my next contribution to the Guild of Dreams blog, I am going to ask the bigger question: do we need archetypal characters, or should we be reaching further and digging deeper when creating characters?

 

Playing the General

A lot of fantasy, and a lot of good, popular fantasy, focuses on the individual and/or the small group. As we saw in Autumn’s post (here) there are many different archetypes that may be included in a small group of adventurers out to complete a quest.

But not every story focuses on this facet of the story. In fact, there are a bunch of Epic Fantasies that turn this around on its head by focusing on the “General” and the large group action.

Now, this character doesn’t necessarily have to be a “General”, a King, a High Lord, an Admiral, or even a somewhat lesser ranked official or officer, just as long as they have some level of authority.

What separates the General from the Singular Hero is their responsibility and how they handle it. Like the Small Group dynamic, there are different kinds of Generals. Some of them will overlap with aspects of the small group, but others won’t.

1. The Field Commander (Lead from the Rear)

tywinWhen looking at possible roles for a “General”, the Field Commander’s job is the most daunting. It is their responsibility to orchestrate and coordinate the movements of an entire army on the battlefield. It is the Field Commander that gathers reports from all parts of his/her army and moves each piece in the way he/she thinks will best suit his/her goals.

Field Commanders very nearly never get their hands dirty. They sit in their tents, reading reports and moving markers across a map, trying to see their enemy’s moves before they happen and shield their own motives against discovery.

In a non-military setting, the Field Commander would be seen as the person who sends the small party on their quest. They have something that needs to be in order for the rest of their plan to be successful and they accomplish this through a mission given to a willing party.

A good example of a Field Commander is Tywin Lannister, from A Song of Ice and Fire. Tywin is not the sort to ride valiantly into battle and seek out the enemy face-to-face. Instead, he schemes and coordinates, plans and executes.

A challenge in writing the Field Commander is that there typically isn’t a lot of action to be had when you’re sitting at the back of the battle, watching things unfold. I have a character in my upcoming novel who fits this role and it was a struggle sometimes finding things to maintain interest. Interpersonal stress with advisors and the mental weight of the role are good ways to maintain tension and interest when writing these characters.

2. The Tactician (Lead from the Front)

tacticianThe Tactician, on the other hand, is going to be down in the mess of battle or the mud of the trenches, risking his/her life for the cause. Whether its a drive for personal glory, or an attempt to rally his/her men in a time of desperation, the Tactician feels right at home among the rank and file of the army.

Tacticians have a lot in common with the Hero (from Autumn’s post). They dash into battle without concern for themselves and lead their soldiers right into the heart of the fight. It is in the frenzy that they are most useful and at their best. They can see the ebb and flow of battle with their own eyes and, if they can take time away from killing an enemy, can micro-manage their forces with incredible precision.

This role is much more common in a lot of fantasy because it can still focus on the individual while they play a larger role in the fight. Aragorn from Lord of the Rings; Jaime Lannister Robb Stark from ASoIaF, all fit this role. They’re generals, but they lead their men rather than direct them.

3. The Strategist (Lead from the Middle)

king_in_forestStrategists are a much different breed than the Tacticians. They may still find themselves in the heat of battle, but when they do it is because they choice to fight, rather than felt the need to. Where a tactician makes adjustments on the fly, manipulating the flow of battle as it happens, the Strategist has planned everything out and knows what needs to be done.

The Planner and the Strategist find themselves in very much the same role. Both will lay out what needs to be done and will direct their assets towards the completion of the task. Strategists are methodical about how they will complete their task, sometimes to a fault. If there is a downfall with being a Strategist, it is that every plan must be fluid, because not even the best laid plans entirely survive first contact with the enemy.

Tyrion Lannister is definitely a Strategist. He lays things out and then waits for them to come to fruition; sometimes he finds himself at the sharp end of a weapon.

4. The King/Queen in the Castle

queenThe King/Queen in the Castle is much like the Field Commander, but on an even more grand scale. He/She manages the war, or the overall mission in a less-militant setting. The Field Commanders report to the King/Queen in the Castle and take their orders from him/her.

The King/Queen in the Castle truly sees the world on an epic scale. They don’t see the faces of their enemies or their allies, they see pawns on the playing board.

Sauron from Lord of the Rings is a fantastic example of this role. He sits in his mountain, pulling strings and manipulating armies on a vast scale.

 

In nearly every story some of the roles are present. They may not earn more than a mention as a hero and his small group set out on their journery, but they’re there, leading the rest of the world while our protagonist garners all of the glory 😉

What other roles do you see “Generals” fitting?

Mothers in fantasy

By Scott Bury

Hindu Mother Goddess Durga

Hindu Mother Goddess Durga Creative Commons

One of the best aspects of writing fantasy is that it allows authors to play with characters and to compare ideas about archetypes. All fiction enables that, but with fantasy, we have more scope and can make more extreme comparisons.

As Mother’s Day is tomorrow, I thought I’d explore the presentation of mothers in fantasy. I don’t think mothers get much attention in our genre. There are not many mothers to be found in science fiction.

The Hunger Games series portrays the protagonist’s mother mostly as a victim, someone who suffers through her life in vain hope that her children will live.

Classic fantasy novels don’t spend much time on mothers, either. For example, in Lord of the Rings, nearly all the mothers are dead: Aragorn’s mother was killed by Orcs a half-century before the story begins; Arwen’s mother was wounded and goes to the West centuries before that; Bilbo’s parents are long gone, and Frodo’s mother and father drowned, again well off stage.

In A Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin, to his credit, has a number of main characters who are mothers: Lady Catelyn Stark, Cersei Lannister, and Samwell’s friend Gilly, to name just a few. Then there is the Mother Goddess, one of the Seven in his invented religion.

I may be wrong, because I have not done an exhaustive analysis, but I think that Martin is unusual in giving that much attention to the mother archetype.

Three sides of the Mother

As a writer, I enjoy the ability to explore different aspects of a number of character types. In my epic fantasy (historical magic realism), The Bones of the Earth, a lot of things come in threes, including three main mother figures:

  • the hero’s literal mother, Ketia
  • Mother Tiana, head of the order of nuns of Chalkoprateia in Constantiople
  • Kriemhild, mother of the main love interest, Danisa.

The suffering, supportive mother

The hero’s literal mother, Ketia, is close to the standard mother character in most fantasy works these days. She’s a nurturer and care-giver to her husband and child. A hard worker accustomed to suffering because of the poverty she and her people live in. Following this trop, she’s ultimately a victim, too.

Triple Goddess

Triple Goddess by NinfeAde, licensed under Creative Commons

The wise mother

The next mother figure in The Bones of the Earth is Mother Tiana. As Abbess of the convent of Chalkoprateia in Constantinople, she’s the stand-in mother for all the women in the convent, and in a more limited sense, for the men in the next-door monastery, as well. She plays an important role in the story and in the life of the main character, Javor.

Tiana represents what a mother can be. She is

  • protective of the hero, Javor
  • pious and gentle
  • wise, figuring out things that the men around her could not
  • the wife of a father-figure (yes, she’s an abbess and a wife. If that sounds complicated, read the book!)

Writing a character like Tiana allowed me to bring out important aspects that I think anyone would want in a mother: strength juxtaposed with vulnerability; surprising abilities; having old, arcane knowledge contrasted with an ability to think on her feet.

The evil mother

Kriemhild statue

Statue of Kriemhild. Wikimedia Commons.

The final mother character, Kriemhild (also known as Ildico—look that up), is the opposite of what any of us would want our mothers to be: controlling her husband and children, she’s destructive instead of nurturing in her pursuit of her own ambitions.

Writing an evil character who will do anything to achieve what she wants, can be a lot of wicked fun.

It’s also enjoyable as a writer to put different sides of the same archetype in the same room and see what will happen. What happened when the good mother met the bad mother? What do you expect?

I’d love to read anyone else’s analysis of different sides of the same stock character in a fantasy novel. What are your thoughts?

 

Scott Bury is author of the historical magic realism/fantasy novel The Bones of the Earth, urban fantasy short story Dark Clouds and other works of various genres. Follow him on Twitter @ScottTheWriter.

A Mother of an Idea

In honour of Mother’s Day, I decided to delve into the topic of mothers…parents in general, actually… in fantasy settings. I addressed the manner in which the parents of adolescent protagonists are often kept out of the storyline in my blog post “Parents – They Get in the Way of Good Fiction” but this is about what happens when a writer reaches that point in a longer running series where they deem it necessary for characters who have been romantically involved to finally start having children of their own.

From what I’ve seen, this is very dangerous territory in which to tread, especially if a writer aims to preserve realism within their fantasy. More than one series has effectively “jumped the shark” by adding children to the mix. You have to consider how children will affect the plot before adding them. Continuing on as if nothing has changed never works, and trying to avoid the obstacles younger offspring pose to progression of the plot has led to some pretty blatantly abused speculative fiction tropes I know that as a reader I don’t usually like to see.

Introducing children brings up a lot of questions modern couples face when deciding if the time is right for them. Should the couple marry if they haven’t already done so? How will the new addition affect character roles and dynamics? How will this impact characters’ health, livelihoods and availability? Will it change how and where they live? If the setting is a static one, like a town or castle, children could be integrated into the story without being overly disruptive, but what about if the story centers on a quest involving a great deal of travel or action? A child isn’t something that can be added to the story as a novelty item and then just swept under the carpet when they become inconvenient…or at least, they shouldn’t be. Plus the pregnancy itself could possibly take one of the characters out of the storyline for the duration, if not permanently.

Whether there has been any consideration with regards to becoming a parent or not, if a writer hasn’t addressed the issue of birth control, which may not be readily available in a fantasy setting, and characters are sexually active, eventually you would anticipate children to be the end result. When some of the young adults in my Fervor series become sexually active with no contraceptives available, they do not do so without consequence. I would expect similar results in novels set in lower tech worlds with no contraception or perhaps with something not consistently reliable.

For example, I have allowed for magical contraceptives in my Masters and Renegades world-building but even those do not always work as expected. Sometimes magic can be manipulated to yield unpredictable results, as my dwarven character in Magic University would attest. Spells can fail or be deactivated. Nothing is perfect.

So once children do come along, what then? You could keep them out of the picture until they are older(and with them likely one or both of their parents), try to work them into the story in minor ways or put them at risk (potentially bad parenting at its worst.) Or you could do something a little more extreme. These are my three least favourite speculative fiction tropes for dealing with the situation (although I won’t promise I’m not guilty of using these myself):

1) Supernaturally rapid aging to hasten the child into adolescence or adulthood – I absolutely hate this one and it has been done to death, from fantasy novels where a pregnancy is magically quickened so the child is born within days of conception so mom warrior-woman can get back to her quest as quickly as possible with baby in tow, to the sci-fi TV series baby who miraculously develops into adult over a matter of days or even hours (or in some cases, instantaneously). This trope is almost always accompanied by some sort of hokey explanation for eliminating the offspring inconvenience.

As I mentioned – I’m guilty of applying these under different conditions. I use it in Fervor, in a way, but in that case the children have been in stasis for years and have been kept in an unnaturally young physical form for their real age. The removal of the stasis causes them to develop rapidly to catch up to their actual age, not to surpass it. That, and the children involved are not a plot device for protagonist parents but the actual main characters themselves. Stasis plays into the plot as a whole and is not a means of hastening the characters into adulthood.

2) The child is outrageously precocious for their age – In more than one way the child thinks or behaves like an adult. While this one doesn’t bother me so much with older children who have been forced to fend for themselves or perhaps been trained extensively since birth, like in the movie Hanna…or have been genetically-manipulated to have heightened intelligence or targeted for such traits like Ender… I object to toddlers and preschoolers spouting Yoda-like wisdom without any attempt at explaining why.

3) The child is the extra special, chosen one, focus of a prophecy, destined to change the world, etc, etc (I think you get where I’m going with this) – I understand this approach more than the other two. It’s an excuse for involving children in a story with their parents where it would have been unthinkable otherwise. If the child has a unique or particularly unusual background, forcing them to be inherent to a plot, it makes some sense. It still seems to be more common than it ought to be though. Just how many “Chosen Ones” are there?

Running into one of these tropes seems to be par for the course in speculative fiction involving children. Then you get the stories that go overboard, like a certain series involving sparkly vampires offering up all three in one child(ugh).

Some writers have managed to handle the introduction of children with great forethought and finesse – it can be done. It requires a certain amount of creativity along with the acceptance that there may be sacrifices required and a reorganization of how things are done, just as you would have to do with the arrival of a child in real life. It helps if the writer is a parent themselves, since the experience is eye-opening. Maternal, or paternal, instinct can be a powerful force.

And remember, parents are still people too, including step-parents, foster parents and surrogates. You don’t just cease to exist because you’ve chosen to procreate (or raise someone else’s procreation.) So if the time is right, let your characters get to it.

Cheers to all the moms out there as your special day approaches.