The Hugo Awards: The Money Angle

I wanted to write something about the Hugo awards, but I don’t really know enough about them to contribute meaningfully to the discussion one way or another. I have never been to Worldcon, and as a self-published author who flies well below the radar I don’t expect to see any of my book up there anytime soon, nor do feel bad about that. I’m just here to write and entertain.

Personally I dislike both the extreme right, and extreme left getting involved in this debate. North American directional politics, fed by the twenty-four hours “news” channels and the pundit blogs, is capable of very little other than bringing rage and ruin to everything it touches right now. I hate to think that in the midst of the massive boom in genre fiction that this ugliness could turn people off, and possibly even stunt the growth of SF/F.

What interests me most about the whole debate is that none of the articles that I have read about the whole Kerfuffle, most of which are very good, none cover the economic aspect of winning an award.

I would not buy a book simply because it was a Hugo award winner. However, if I was on the fence about a book and saw that it won an award, that would make me more likely to buy it. An award is an indication of quality, at the very least.

Perhaps more importantly winning (or even being short-listed) an award acts as additional exposure acts for both the work and the author. It will not push a niche intellectual work to bestseller status, to be sure, but I am confident that winning an award, especially a prestigious award, will expose a book to new readers and elevate sales in almost all cases.

Many authors are ego driven enough to value the award above the sales that it generates. Some writers, however, are far more motivated by sales figures and really don’t care how they get them. Attaching “Hugo” to their name and book will get those extra sales and so they have an economic motive, regardless of what ideology they might be espousing to justify their actions.

So while there is an ideological battle here, which is very sad, there is also the simple fact that by gaming the system the Sad Puppies have gained publicity and increased sales. The people who are outraged by their actions are not in their intended readership and I suspect that they, or their publishers, know it. The very nature of their very public campaign, and the amount of publicity it generates for their works, win or lose, demonstrates that at least some of them are motivated by sales as well as ideology.

Making money is not a bad thing, of course, but while winning an award increases sales, battles like this can damage how people view the award, which degrades the value of the endorsement that the award represents.

Unfortunately, it is a hard problem to fix. Every system can be gamed, and as George RR Martin brilliantly stated changing the rules to stop this behaviour only feeds into the narrative of a liberal conspiracy at the Hugos promoted by the Sad Puppies. Incidentally this will get like minded people to buy more of their books as well. Readers will often support writers they feel are being persecuted, as I found out when this happened. After I complained, readers picked up on the attack and sales increased.

Which means that there is also a possible economic motive behind complaining about being persecuted, which can get people on your side and sell more books… 😦

P.S: I don’t like identity politics, but people who form factions to promote their works based on not being part of a certain clique are only engaging in reactionary identity politics.

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On Torture: Modern Fantasy and Dick Cheney

When the Senate report on torture surfaced last week, I was disgusted, but on certain level I was also excited. It was one of those moments where I felt that the rest of the world was catching up to me. It was as if the public conscious had finally digested all of the information that people who are interested in politics, power, and history had known about for years. As I sat down and watched Jon Stewart condemn the Fox news response to the report, I was minded of how people spoke out against the Robocalls during the last Canadian election, but it took some time for it to percolate into the general discourse. I was eager to finally discuss this issue with my friends.

Of course, I discovered that no one really talks about torture. This is doubly true during the holidays. I mean Dick Cheney said that the ends justify the means, was recorded, and the vast majority of people shrugged or twisted their noses

An overwhelming majority of people feel that torture is bad. However, some feel that if it saves lives, like it did in that one episode of 24 (and in no real world case) it might be justified. That pretty much hasn’t changed yet. I was hoping that the information in the report would clear the veneer of partisan bullshit away and open up the discussion. It has, to a certain extent, but the general public seem deeply unwilling to grapple with the issue, especially in the western world. Instead the discussion goes on between pundits, political junkies, and people who are interested in power and history. Everyone else avoids the issue like the plague, except in fiction.

Modern Fantasy is awash in torture and viciousness in pursuit of “the ends”. From the Book of the New Sun and The Sword of Truth series to The First Law, The Broken Empire, and A Song of Fire and Ice, fantasy authors have definitely stopped shying away from the ugly subject of torture. Interestingly the presentation is not once sided at all, as anyone who has even sampled those works could tell you. The only common denominator in the presentation of torture and the torturer is that it is inescapably present.

So as I sit back, somewhat bitter that very few of my friends and family want to discuss the deep and ugly truths of torture in democracy, I take solace in the idea that maybe people do want to grapple with these ideas, at least in Fantasy and genre fiction. That will eventually blossom into real world action and opinion, I have no doubt.

Until that happens, here is why I think Dick Cheney would make a near-perfect template for a villain in Fantasy Fiction.

  1. The Ends Justify the Means: The idea that the ends justify the means is about the most deplorable intellectual stance that anyone can take. People who feel that the ends justify the means perform a sort of arithmetic which allows them to justify any behavior by saying that the end result was worth those unpleasant bits along the way. For many years writers thought that it was too cliche or unrealistic for a villain to follow this thought process, but hey, here we are. A few examples of the ends justifying the means in Fantasy: A peace loving Kingdom that is raided by Orcs starting a “war of pacification” to finally achieve peace by subduing all Orcs, everywhere; A ruler who wants perfect order and so drugs his people so that they are obedient zombies; A druidic cult that sees that humanity will destroy nature and so decides to destroy humanity first; A
  2. Emotional Appeal trumps Rational Discourse: The idea that it was fine to torture and kill people because it might have prevented another attack is morally indefensible. Torture is not only demonstrably wrong and ineffective, it is also very likely to be used against the nation that supported it; after all, if there is one thing these people fear more than the enemy outside their borders, it is the enemy within. However, instead of trying to rationalize the idea of torture, Mr Cheney directly appeals to strong emotions when defending it. He brings up 9/11 and the safety of American children as a counter to every argument because he knows that that appealing to fear, patriotism, and hatred of the enemy erases the short term capacity for rational thought. Fear is the mind-killer, as a wise man one said. Fear and Hatred lead to the dark side too, I hear. Pastoral fantasy often paints the enemy as inherently evil, like the xenomorphs in aliens, or Tolkien’s orcs. Modern Fantasy demands more complexity from its antagonists, and so nations roused to vile acts through fear and loathing are particularly poignant.
  3. Twisting Words: I often feel that language loses its meaning as people try to muddy the waters to justify ugly actions. Rectal rehydration is a lovely example of this. Here we see a medical technique that is useful only in marginal cases (when IV rehydration is not available or possible, which was never, ever the case here) medically to justify anal rape as a part of a programs of torture. By calling it rectal rehydration they can redirect the public away from the ugly truth of the fact that they are violently sodomizing the people that they detain in order to break them down. The same is true with the modern euphemism for torture: enhanced interrogation. Torture is illegal in every court and standard of law, but if we call it something else then it helps avoid backlash, at least for a while. This kind of propaganda has obvious uses in a Fantasy narrative, since breaking down the very words and ideas that people use to communicate helps isolate opposing factions in nay conflict. If we get stuck on the definition of torture it is very hard to deal with the problems the act presents and put a stop to it, which is kinda the point.
  4. Innocents Don’t Matter: Chances are that if you torture someone, they will end up hating you and fearing you if they live. This kind of action is self perpetuating since even an innocent who goes through the process has a strong chance of being brutalized. It turned out that of the cases reviewed in in the senate report on torture around 20% involved mistaken identity, including deaths. In a Fantasy fiction narrative one can follow this same pattern.
  5. Torture is the Ends: People have known that torture is ineffective at collecting information for as long as people have bothered to study the results. People will simply say anything to stop the pain. The inquisition was well aware of this, and would often use torture to extract the names of people that they wanted to persecute from the lips of their victims. It is well known that The Templars were destroyed after the confessed to blasphemous rites under the duress of torture, including things that were plainly impossible, like raising mummies and demons. Thus torture is not really the means, it is an end itself. If you can create a situation where torture is acceptable then you can really justify anything. Don’t like Frank? torture someone until they name Frank as complicit. Want to stay in power? torture people to name your political opponents. The uses for a Fantasy villain are obvious.

A genre fiction can explore ideas like torture without getting bogged down in the morass of modern politics. In a sense I am glad that Fantasy authors are readers have been willing to delve into these subjects in the way that old media has not. Dick Cheney gets endless TV time, while the victims are virtually ignored in old media. I hope this changes, but until then writers will have to carry the torch. In the end, truth is often uglier and less palatable than fiction.

On Recommending Fantasy Books.

Recommendations?

Recommendations?

It used to be that Fantasy was a much narrower, and smaller, Genre. I could get away with recommending my personal favourite fantasy novels and not have to worry about leaving someone out. If someone didn’t like one of Tolkien, Moorcock, Fritz Lieber, Ursula K. Le Guin, or whatever you might be reading at the time, they probably would not be spending much time with the genre.

Since I started reading, fantasy has exploded as a genre, forming distinct sub-genres, mating with others genres, and branching out beyond medieval and classical world backgrounds. What this means is that people have far more to choose from, and I feel that I can no longer safely recommend just what I enjoy.

Fandom is a strange beast. A true fan often feels so passionately about their favourite obsession, that they will recommend it to everyone. As an author this works to my benefit, since word of mouth drives sales, and more importantly it refreshes me when I talk to people really enjoy my work. However, not every work is for every person. This is a difficult lesson to learn for some. When I was young, I simply assumed that people who did not like what I liked were lacking in some fashion. I liken it to pop culture in high school: people who have not developed their own personal sense of taste enough tend to gravitate toward the popular. This later acts a springboard into more specific likes. One might start with Justin Bieber or Britney Spears and end at Mozart, Led Zeppelin, and/or Sinatra. Not a perfect view of the process, but you get the idea.

True fans often forget that others do not have the same tastes as they do. You might absolutely love and understand every little bit about The Gardens of the Moon, or The Name of The Wind and defend them to the hilt, but they are not for everyone. People who don’t like what I like are not (necessarily) deficient: they simply have their own tastes. Fantasy is now diverse enough as a genre to accommodate a diverse readership, some with very different tastes. So how does one go about recommending a book without being boorish? Here are a few suggestions.

Simple Suggestions:

  • Recommend my book: I had to try.
  • Recommend your favourites, but qualify: If you are really enthusiastic about a book, by all means recommend it. Just don’t force it on someone. Don’t tell them they have to read it if they like the genre. Instead tell them why you like the book. Don’t go into too much detail, but try to capture the essence of what you think makes the book good. Are the characters interesting? is the plot engaging? is the World-Building especially good? that sort of stuff. While you are discussing the book, the listener will pick up on clues and keywords on their own and see if your description matches with their tastes.
  • Dot not attack their tastes: Often I see people putting down books, games, and other media that they dislike in order to promote what they like. This is a sales technique, and a fairly tacky one as far as I am concerned. If you are recommending to someone, and you care about being polite, don’t slap them down by saying your tastes are better than yours. Try to make your recommendation in a positive fashion.

Complex Method (step by step):

  1. Find out what books they enjoy: This is my preferred method of recommendation. These days fantasy is such a rich genre than you can usually recommend books based on similarity to other books. Even if those books are outside the genre, I can often recommend based on similarity to sub-genres of fantasy. For example fans of thrillers are more likely to enjoy the Dresden Files than Tolkien, at least to start.
  2. Delve deeper: Find out what the person likes about their favourite works. Do they enjoy strong, upright, moral characters, or do they favour assassins and bastards? Do they like a particular historical time period? are they looking for action or intrigue? Do they want a book with Dragons or Zombies?
  3. Find out what got them interested in Fantasy: Some people may not have book interests that can be easily related to fantasy, for these you have to discover what sparked their interest in the genre. Some will come from games, while others might have watched Game of Thrones on TV. Once you have established this you can go through steps 1 and 2 again.
  4. Remember that you live in the information age: There are plenty of helpful sites and lists out there that will help you find the right book for someone. Amazon has an also-bought recommendation section, Good reads has listopia, and so on. These can spark  your imagination if your are having difficulty.
  5. If they are new and nervous, start with something simple: Don’t throw Gormenghast at people new to the genre,, who are just looking to test the waters, it will only discourage them.

Above all, remember that the genre is big and growing, and with that diversity it is more and more likely that you will find something suitable and maybe even discover a new book that you might like along the way.

Disease in Fantasy

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all. – Edgar Allan Poe, The Masque of the Red Death

I have an annoying cold today, which, along with an episode of Vikings, inspired tonight’s topic.

Most of us who enjoy the benefits of modern civilization cannot quite fathom the  impact that disease once had. Disease has done far more to hold the human population in check throughout history than war. Times of plague could shape an entire narrative in a Fantasy world, especially when superstition and the politics of ignorance come into play.

The black death is perhaps the most famous of ancient diseases. It is best know for ravaging Europe, peaking in ~1350, a brutal time that is well recorded, but current theories have it originating  in the east and travelling along the silk road, the great east-west trade route that loosely tied Europe, the Middle East. the Orient, and Africa together. It reduced the world population from ~450 million to 375 million or lower, with a fatality rate of 30% or more at this time. Other outbreaks were reported, including a period in the middle of the eighth century that may have been just as bad. These are just general figures, but we don’t need to be exact to see how such an occurrence could be the centerpiece of a work of fiction.

In men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg…From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavocciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, now minute and numerous. As the gavocciolo had been and still was an infallible token of approaching death, such also were these spots on whomsoever they showed themselves. — The famous quotation from Giovanni Bocaccio’s Decameron about the symptoms of the black death.

The Black Death had several interesting consequences. Naturally fanatics bloomed in many areas that suffered, seeking to blame the spread of the disease on whatever local group most offended them, feeling that the disease must have a divine origin. While it is a sad comment on human fallibility that these acts became common, this sort of madness makes great fodder for stories. The plague his some nations much harder than others, greatly changing the balance of power. It also hit cities harder than rural areas, changing that balance as well.

Disease is underused in Fantasy. My favorite use of diseases in Fantasy, excluding diseases that make you awesome like vampirism or lycanthropy, and zombie based diseases, are found in the Elder Scrolls games, Morrowind especially. What I liked about these were the weird varieties of diseases that your character could encounter, each with its own symptoms and origins. Of course the fact that a simple potion or spell could rid you of most of them, made it less than arduous, but it was a nice touch. Many older tabletop RPGs had extensive lists of diseases, some of which could be the subjects of great quests to find cures.

Here are a few ideas to consider when using disease in a Fantasy setting:

  • What is the nature of your plague? Is the disease fatal, or just crippling in some way? Is it passed by fleas on rats, brought back by soldiers on crusade, or the result of the vicious spells of an insane cult? Is death quick or grim, blissful or horrific? In a way the disease is like a character in your work and should reflect the mood and themes you are trying to convey. The bubonic plague works much better for Grimdark than for a more pastoral fantasy.
  • How will people react to the disease? The emotional response of the characters to the disease is important to the story, and the attitude of groups and nations  to the disease is a key part of world building in a plague ridden setting. If fanatics lash out and blame, who will be there targets? If your world has visible, active Gods, what role do they and their priests play in the cycle of plague? What happens if the disease only targets elves? these are all rich considerations for story material.
  • How will the disease change how people live? If the population of the world dropped by half in a short period of time, things would change. Settlements and cities would shrink or be abandoned. Labour shortages could cause problems, but also create a rise in opportunity for those lucky enough to survive.
  • How will the disease alter the power structures? Some groups will use every opportunity that comes their way. If a kingdom is weakened by plague, another might decide to invade (which could, amusingly, increase the spread of the disease). A nation or guild might decide that keeping the cure to themselves is the key to power. Essentially you need to decide what changes the disease will bring to institutions as well as to individuals.
  • How will fantastic elements interact with the disease? How does the disease interact with magic in your world. If wizards hold the only cure they might become very popular and very powerful, but also make enemies. What happens if the disease interacts or changes magic somehow? The possibilities here are endless, but you should consider what effects the plague will have on the more unique and unesual elements of your world as well.

World Building and exposition: Xenophon’s Anabasis

Xenophon’s Anabasis is one of the key texts of ancient Greek literature. Not only is it a historical account of great importance; it is also a simply written tale of adventure that remains compelling to this day and has become the template for other works.

Xenophon was an officer in a mercenary force of Greek heavy infantry (likely hoplites) hired by Cyrus the Younger to help depose his brother, Artaxerxes II, and take control of the Persian Empire. They combined forces engaged the enemy in 401 BC at Cunaxa. (by comparison the battle of Thermopylae was in ~480 , and Alexander’s conquests of Persia began in ~334 BC). The leader of the ten thousand Greeks, Clearchus, arrogantly refused to follow Cyrus’ battle plan which led to the loss of the battle and the Prince’s death. After the battle Clearchus and most of the senior leadership of the Greek forces were tricked and betrayed when they tried to treat with Artaxerxes vassals. Xenophon is one of three leaders elected by the men to replace their lost leadership.

The main narrative occurs after the battle is lost and the Greek leadership is removed. The Greeks are deep behind enemy lines, no longer supported by friends, low on supplies, and with uncertain leadership. The Persians decide to let the elements destroy the Greeks rather than engaging them in a costly battle. Instead they harry them and force them into terrible terrain. And yet the ten thousand endure, marching North from Cunaxa to the Greek Colonies on the Black Sea, through desert and mountain, foraging, fighting, selling their services, and ultimately finding a way home. It is easy to see why this is a compelling tale, and how it can be used as a great template for militaristic fantasy. My favourite anabasis style work is Glen Cook’s Black Company series, although The Warriors movie  holds a special place in my heart as well.

Fantasy enthusiasts often create huge elaborate worlds with dozens of complex cultures, civilizations, places and so on. Take a look at this world building subreddit to see a few interesting examples of people’s imaginations run wild with world-building.

One of the problems encountered with this level of detail, when writing a novel, is that it is hard to download it on the reader without ruining the pacing that is expected of a good story. Games have a much easier time of this — especially open-world sandbox type games. The player being  free to explore and engage with a large world at the pace of their choosing is more or less the point, in that case. However the narrative structure of the novel is such that the author must dictate pacing, and paragraphs of exposition can really get in the way of a story. Nobody really wants to stop and read a long dissertation about where the Orc Barbarians who are storming the castle came from, and what their culture is like. Describing the culture of a people that the protagonists meet in passing, just once, in great detail can really make that escape from the oddly dangerous bandits that are tracking them seem a little less pressing. A lengthy discussion of history is also a great chunk of pacing issues, especially if it is not directly related to the plot. Exposition must be brought out organically, as part of the story in most cases, which makes it hard to show off s big, brilliantly built world.

The tried and true methods of allowing the reader to experience more of the world are

  • The Quest: In a quest base narrative the protagonists must travel to many different places to achieve their goal, often interacting with obscure arcana as part of the Quest. This arcana is a great way expose history and the journey is an excellent way to expose geography. The quest is the easy method of creating a journey that leads through many exotic areas  allowing the author to show off a lot of their world.
  • Multiple Character Epic: A multiple character epic allows the author to set different perspective characters in different parts of the world. In effect, each of those characters becomes the exposition for the part of the world that the author wishes to show off. This strikes me as the best way to showcase a huge world without ruining pace, but it seems quite hard to pull off convincingly.

The Anabasis Story offers an excellent alternative to The Quest for world exposition. Here are the main advantages of such a story type for world-building.

  • Exposition without dissonance: In the Anabasis form, the protagonists are strangers to the area they are in, picking up local customs and history as they try to get home. They have a legitimate void of knowledge that needs to be filled and real reasons to fill it.
  • Realistic Exploration: The easy way home is, of course, blocked. The group must take the unfamiliar path, which will require them to explore just to find that path. Climate, terrain, and food scources all become of utmost import to a group trying to find their way out of a strange environment.
  • Immediate Political Involvement: A small band wandering through an area is hardly cause for the high and mighty to react, an army on the move ALWAYS elicits a political reaction, and not always a hostile one. Opportunities abound: the Ten Thousand ended up selling their services in the their travels, after all. This allows the reader to experience even the most Byzantine political systems with great validity, since the members of the travelling army have a real interest in it and it is directly related to the story.
  • Home: because the characters will constantly be comparing every strange thing, to “the way it is back home.” it is easy for the writer to create exposition for the home culture as well.
  • Structure: The Anabasis narrative provides a strong structure for exposition without wrecking the pacing of a story. The band will explore their options, act accordingly, and move on. The hardships they face, the places they go, and the obstacles that they must overcome are all legitimate uses of your carefully built world that will not derail the story. It is an ideal form for a writer who wants to immerse the reader in multiple parts of a large Fantasy world.

The Protagonist: Freedom to Act

While reading about Toronto’s Mad Mayor in preparation for last week’s post, I came across a number of expressions of support for the beleaguered mayor that seemed nonsensical at first:

I like Rob Ford because he does whatever he wants. He does not let what other people think get in his way. He thumbs his nose at the downtown elites.

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Freedom to Act is why we often idolize criminals.

or as Bill Maher puts it “I love this guy Rob Ford because he sticks his fingers back in people’s faces and says, ‘What, you don’t do anything?'”

This sentiment is easy to dismiss as irrational, entrenched partisan support for a populist conservative. However, as a writer, I wonder exactly what draws people to a figure like Ford; a man so unfit for public office that his whole time as mayor seems like a joke, at least until I realized that he has a real, solid core of supporters that could grow and ensure his re-election. It reminded me of something I read in one of Joseph Campbell’s works. Let us move away from Ford, who is a false hero if anything, substitute other figures who are well known for their vices as well as their qualities as protagonists.

I like Alexander the Great because he does whatever he wants. He does not let what other people think get in his way. He’s not afraid of the Persian Empire.

Alexander the Great is possibly the greatest living example of a heroic figure. However, despite his accomplishments he often comes off as flawed — a bloodthirsty drama queen more concerned with his own divinity/posterity than creating something lasting. He certainly does what he wants, and definitely sticks it to the man — the vast Persian Empire to be precise. Interestingly when he starts to get cozy with the remains of the Persian Empire, adopting eastern imperial customs, his greek soldiers begin to have doubts.

I like Conan the Barbarian because he does whatever he wants. He drinks, he carouses, he fights, and he does not care what others think. He shows up all those weak, civilized men.

Conan the Barbarian is a fictional character. He is a an uncouth brute whose love for money, drink, and women constantly leads him into a cycle of thievery and violence until he builds up enough of a reputation to become a king. His dislike of civilization (the elites in this case) is presented as a kind of virtue. Conan wanders aimlessly in his pursuit of bling and babes and the only “good” that he does is incidental, the destruction of monsters, corrupt cults, and overbearing civilizations that get in his way. He is almost presented as a force of nature.

Another, more complex character that I constantly hear this kind of admiration attached to is Walter White, the broken chemistry teacher turned ruthless meth dealer from Breaking Bad. Walter is the protagonist of the show, a man that the viewers have great sympathy for because he overcomes tough circumstances and goes on to build a life. He shows toughness and resolve, and intelligence (the hallmark of a modern hero) as he does so. But as many have pointed out, despite being the protagonist he ultimately descends into pretty evil territory. None other than George RR Martin called him out as a monster, which is quite impressive given Mr Martin’s skills at creating memorable villains and flawed heroes.

Rob Ford, Alexander the Great, Conan the Barbarian, Walter White. What do these men, and people like them have in common as protagonists? What can they teach aspiring writers about the very idea of the protagonist? Why do some people admire them?

The answer is simple: Freedom to Act.

Each one of these characters, real or fictional, is seen as heroic on some level because they are able to act when others do not. Rob Ford drinks, smokes crack, associates with gang members openly, and lies (among other things) but resists any attempts to remove him from his job and seems to revel in the attention his bad behavior brings. Some people admire him for the ability to “live the life” and still maintain a hold on power. Meanwhile most people would have been buried by just one of the revelations that hound Ford. Hell most people go to jail if they are caught using crack, just once. Ford remains free and active, striking back at his critics, for now. Alexander marched his troops across the known world, founding cities, destroying decadent empires and testing his luck at every opportunity. He often acted in strange and dramatic fashion, descending into bloodlust or mad acts of bravado, but came off unscathed (except that last time). He challenged the very gods at times, and seemed to win. Even now he is admired for his boundless ambition and his willingness to act upon it. Even the responsibility of his position as a leader did not seem to weigh him down as it did others. Conan the Barbarian, the uncivilized man in a land of decadent civilizations, is also a man of action. He does what he wants and will fight anyone who tries to stop him. Walter White, a far more modern man, finds himself facing a bitter, pointless end and decides to fight back, casting off the chains of lawful conduct and descending into a criminal underworld where only the ruthless survive and prosper.

These protagonists all do things that some people want to do,  and even more occasionally fantasize about doing, with little thought for what the rest of their societies think of them — they are free to act, and ultimately the hero is defined by their descent into the realm of action (badly paraphrased Campbell) and is often at odds with the rest of society while they are in the process of acting. They bring change, and change is always unwelcome to some. Even Alexander, a mighty king far above the common man, had his own elites to contend with. Of course that narrative can be used to drive any fantasy story, or good genre fiction, and especially a tale where the protagonist is a villain or a false hero.

In brief, freedom to act, to do what others cannot do, to take on the monoliths of morality, law, and conventional behaviour is very compelling in a protagonist. This is especially true when this character’s freedom causes them to butt heads with the elite of their world; perhaps that is why `the rogue, done good’ seems to be the quintessential modern hero and why every politician in north america runs as anti-establishment. Freedom to act, without regard for others: an idea both wondrous and terrifying.

walter-white

Proof that some people will see freedom as heroism, even in the presence of undeniable evil.

Totally Not Allegorical: Example of A Corrupted System as a Fantasy Plotpoint

The Kingdom of Aurinfeld is the envy of the known lands. The common people enjoy great freedom and a chance at achieving great wealth if they are brilliant, hard working, or lucky. The King, the Aristocracy, and the Popular Assembly work together to ensure that the affairs of the Kingdom run smoothly and that a careful balance is maintained between the interests of the common people, the aristocratic and other elite, public, and private interests. The College of Mages uses its powers to ensure bountiful harvests and provide a magical edge to all of the Kingdom’s endeavors. The merchants take advantage of a strong infrastructure and plenty of freedom to gain great wealth. The Kingdom is governed on the principles of freedom, equality, and enterprise and is protected by a superb army and watched over by the Homeland Watch.

Revolution Pic from Fable III

Kingdom of Aurenfeld: Balanced

  • The King: The King is theoretically the most powerful figure in Aurinfeld. He can take command of the Army. He cares about the Kingdom as an idea, but does not really believe in equality. The King does not pay taxes and wants to gain as much control as possible over the Kingdom.
  • The Aristocracy: The Aristocracy are waning in power. The King has taken much of their ancestral strength and the popular assembly has taken the rest. They still have tremendous wealth in land and some servants, but are not flush with cash. They resent the King and consider themselves above the common people. The love the army but dislike the Watch. They feel they pay too much taxes.
  • The Popular Assembly: The popular assembly is an elected body that overseas legislation in the Kingdom. It is divided into factions, and everybody with a serious interest tries to control it. It is the tool of the Common People, at least in theory.
  • The College of Mages: The College of Mages are interested in arcane research. The byproducts of this research have made Aurinfeld strong and powerful. The mages would prefer to be left alone to their arcane study.
  • The Army: The army is proud and strong. No power can stand against it. It is expensive to maintain. The army tries to stay out of politics.
  • The Homeland Watch: The Homeland Watch enforce the rules.
  • The Merchants: The Merchants are interested in making money. Its not their only goal, but it is the only goal that they agree upon. They hate the King and the Popular Assembly, because they feel that too many limitations are put on them. They feel they pay too much taxes and also look down on the common people. They love the Watch.
  • The Common People: The Common People are content to go about their daily lives. Social mobility means a lot to them. Some aspire to join the army, the Homeland Watch, or the College of Mage. Others aspire to be elected to the popular assembly or to marry into the aristocracy. Most will not reach their full aspirations, but they will live relatively good lives. They admire and resent the other groups and tend to squabble among themselves to the point where the others just ignore them as much as possible.

The Aristocracy and the Merchant class both really hate taxation. Funny how so many conflicts begin with such a simple thing. Taxes have been used to improve the Kingdom’s roads and sewers, help the poor,  pay for the immense army and watch, and fund the College of Mages.  While the merchants and the aristocracy want to lower taxes they cannot do so without the assistance of the Popular Assembly, which is elected by the common people. So they begin a campaign to educate the Common People about how lowering taxes is good for everyone. It is an easy sell: the common people would love to pay less taxes. This idea seems to work well. The Aristocracy regains a bit of their dignity and power, the merchants gets richer, and the common people enjoy a little more money. So everybody is eager to keep lowering taxes. The problem is at this point there isn’t enough revenue to pay for everything they used to pay for. The first target to get cut is help for the poor. This upsets some of the common people, namely the poor and those who sympathize with the downtrodden. The parties involved blame everything and anything they can, except the tax cuts. The situation progresses. The next funding cuts are to the College of Mages. This forces the Mages to look elsewhere for money for their research. The situation progresses. By now the merchants and the aristocracy realize that they have a pretty good thing going, so they start spending some of the money they save on taxes to support their own candidates for the popular assembly and to create whole schools of thought to support their point of view and present it to the common people. They succeed, but it is getting hard to pay for roads and sewers.

Kingdom of Aurenfeld: Unbalanced

  • The King: The King fears a resurgent aristocracy. Using some of his personal wealth he hires some former members of the Colleges of Mages and gets them to create an artifact, the Palantir  that will let them spy on his enemies.
  • The Aristocracy: The Aristocracy are mighty. They are secure in the their lands. Some of them begin to to use their land to influence poor commoners who need work and food. Feeding these people creates a sense of obligation. The King does not like this.
  • The Popular Assembly: The popular assembly is now rife with factionalism. The Merchants and the Aristocracy control what they can, but corruption starts to make even this difficult.
  • The College of Mages: The College of Mages are still interested in arcane research. Sadly they must now work for individuals instead of the Kingdom as a whole.
  • The Army: The soldiers begin to wonder what they are fighting for, after all things seem to be getting worse back home.
  • The Homeland Watch: The Homeland Watch is given more and more power.
  • The Merchants: The Merchants have tremendous wealth. They begin to act extravagantly.
  • The Common People: The common people start to notice that they are losing the dream of prosperity and social mobility. They get upset and cast around. At first they elect reformers to the popular assembly, but these are just bought off by the aristocracy or the merchants. They become increasingly frustrated.

Things come to a head when a noble raises a private army from the people he feeds on his land and tries to kill the King over some ancient grievance that everybody knows about but thought was long buried. After a bloody battle in which the King is nearly killed  and a small town is destroyed martial law is declared. Many of the common people, desperate for reform and afraid of war, support this step. The aristocracy is forced to submit. The king, now paranoid, directs the Homeland Watch to use the Palantir to spy on everyone, after all many of the fighters in the rebellion were commoners as well. Objections to this are over-ridden in the name of security. The Watch gets more and more powerful. The Aristocracy turn to the army, fearing the power of the King. Civil war looms as a figure emerges among the common people, promising freedom and equality if the government is overthrown. The Watch uses the Palantir to find anyone connected with this figure, leading to mass arrests, which finally antagonizes everyone and all hell breaks loose…