Pep Talk - WHRN 2009 - Classic Fantasy and Modern Values by ThornesQuest/Gale

Can Characters in Classic Fantasy Credibly Hold Modern Values?

As some of you know, I am fortunate to have a “readers’ group”, a group of friends to whom I e-mail each chapter as I finish it. They offer encouragement, ask questions about things that don’t make sense to them, tell me how they experienced the chapter, etc. They are wonderful!

I didn’t intend to create the group; it just sort of … happened. I cautiously told a few people that I was working on a new novel and that I thought it was coming along pretty well. Some people smiled politely and seized the first opportunity to change the subject. Others asked a whole lot of questions, endured my enthusing and then wanted to know if they could read what I’d written so far. No, they didn’t want to wait till I finished it; they wanted it now! Thus was the group formed.

One of the members of the group is an avid reader of the Brother Cadfael-type medieval murder mysteries, and she had never read much fantasy. At the beginning, I think she thought the classic fantasy I was writing was just an historical adventure story with some magic thrown in to make it more interesting. So, after she had read four or five chapters, she hesitantly asked if she might offer me some feedback. Sure, I said. I’m always open for feedback.

My friend wanted to raise my awareness about the number of “anachronisms” in the story. She was excited whenever a new chapter showed up in her in-box. But she wanted me to know that in the medieval period, no one questioned the existence of god, women had no freedom or societal standing (they were chattels first of their fathers and then of their husbands, brothers or sons), very few people knew how to read, children were considered as miniature adults (the idea of psychological development had not yet been thought of), most poor people were bound to their lord’s land, and so on. She didn’t quite have a list, at least not that she showed me, but it was clear that she expected my world to conform, in every way, to medieval Europe.

Well, yes, I did know all those things about the medieval period in Europe. I explained to her that I wasn’t actually writing an historical novel, but a fantasy. The lack of electricity and the use of a monarchy-style government notwithstanding, Thorne’s world was not England of the 1400’s. Thorne’s world was located in Appelia’s realm, on an entirely different planet, and the cultures there had developed differently than earth cultures had developed. I guess she bought it, because she’s still reading, and still politely asks if everything is ok with me whenever I don’t produce a new chapter as soon as she thinks I should.

So, that answers the question of whether you can put modern social values in a fantasy novel. Yes, you certainly can. You can make your characters feminists. Gay-positive. Supporters of universal education. Raging atheists. Whatever you like. It’s your novel; you’re in charge.

*glances back up at Pep Talk title* Ah, but the question is whether it can be done credibly. If you choose to write classic fantasy, at the very least you need to remember that your readers will inevitably associate all those kings, queens, nobles, swords and lack of electricity in your world with the medievalism of historical Europe. If you also choose to give some or all of your characters and cultures modern social values, you will need to be mindful that some readers will find that combination anachronistic or even dissonant.

I’m a huge fan of free will and individualism, but the fact is that most of our personal values are culturally shaped. I feel like I developed feminism all on my own as a teenager in the 60’s. But I must also acknowledge that feminism was percolating throughout the western world at that time, as a result of women having worked in factories during World War Two, the invention of the birth control pill and the overall trend toward social liberalism, to name only 3 factors. When we’re writing characters, the most believable characters will be reflective of the cultures in which they grew up. Now that’s not to say that they have to be perfect reflections of the values of their cultures: they may be more traditional and conservative than most of their peers, or they may be fairly far out in front. But they ought to be on the same continuum.

Did you ever see the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Hallowe’en episode when everyone turned into whatever they had dressed up as? All the little children of Sunnydale turned into real goblins and ghouls, Xander turned into an army commando, Willow turned into a ghost, and so on. Buffy had dressed up as a fine lady of the 1800’s (because she thought that would please Angel), and she became that: she was constitutionally incapable of believing that she could defend herself or make any decisions at all. She kept looking for a strong man to tell her what to do. Although she presumably still had all her slayer abilities, she did not use them because she had no frame of reference even to suggest trying to take action on her own account; it was entirely outside her cultural conditioning. This is what you have to deal with when you create a fantasy world that seems to be set in medieval Europe.

When I started writing Thorne’s Quest, I didn’t know that it was going to take me five years to finish the series, but I did know that I wanted to work with a strong female character. So I needed her culture to be such that it would be possible for her to develop into a strong woman. Yes, there would be swords and nobles and a monarchy-style of government (because I love all that stuff). But Thorne had to be able to swing one of those swords and never be inclined to sit around waiting for someone else to rescue her.

I decided that, for Thorne to be the kind of character I wanted her to be, her whole culture had to be what we would call feminist. So the Vendani, her cultural group, make no difference between the roles of women and men except at the time when women are pregnant or nursing small babies. Men and women normally wear “breeches”, and all children are taught weaponry from age five. Boys and girls are both expected to help out in preparing and serving food, and to care for younger siblings. Upon reaching adulthood, all warriors, men or women, cut their hair short, and all non-warriors, men or women, keep their hair long and uncut (the theory is that warriors don’t have time to fuss with long hair, while non-warriors do have that luxury). All good: it now made sense for Thorne to be a strong woman who didn’t question her right to make decisions for herself and to take matters into her own hands.

But, remembering the rule that you need to have conflict on every page of your story, I then addressed myself to the southern culture, the one Thorne was going to find herself plopped into the middle of at the beginning of the story. The Izschadians are much more what we expect to find in a medieval setting. Among the Izschadians, it is illegal for women to take up any weapon, and women are expected to obey first their fathers and then, after being “given” in marriage, their husbands. They are extremely hierarchical: the man is seen as the “commander” of his family, with his wives as his assistant commanders, and the children as obedient privates. Children are understood as small adults and are held to the same rigorous standards for behaviour that adults are.

In that traditionally medieval culture, I did create a character that you might characterize as a proto-feminist. Bryna, one of Thorne’s Companions, gains permission to take up the sword, but otherwise she is quite traditional: when not in her military uniform she is more comfortable wearing a dress, and she expects to obey her older brothers and her uncle (her father is dead) and then, when she marries, her husband. Those who agreed to train her in weaponry did so on the understanding that she would never advance in the military, and she agreed to this condition. You might ask how, psychologically, Bryna got to a place where she could even imagine being a warrior, given her culture. The simple answer is that she had heard of the rights of Vendani women, and that knowledge gave her the freedom to conceive of herself as a woman warrior; the more complex answer is revealed in book 8, and I can’t post it here (mwahaha).

So, I have rambled on here, story-telling about my own life, my process in writing Thorne’s Quest and, of course, BtVS. What have we learned?

1. Your readers are likely to equate your classic fantasy with medieval Europe. They will need help understanding that your fantasy world is not medieval Europe, but a unique place, utterly fabricated out of your wonderful imagination. This will likely mean providing an adequate number of elements, not just a single one, that is not consistent with the medieval period, so that your readers really begin to feel, at a visceral level, that they are somewhere other than in Europe of the 1400’s.

2. World-building and character-building are necessarily connected. Specifically, if you want one or more characters to have modern social values, you need to address that in your world-building and create a culture in which your character(s) could logically develop those values.

3. Conflict! Conflict! Conflict! Whatever your character’s personal values, one way of providing lots of conflict is to toss your character into an area of your world where her values will be considered wrong-headed, illegal, immoral heretical or just plain disgusting. Good times! :D

4. Your character’s social values should have an inner consistency. It doesn’t make much sense to have a character who i) believes in the equality of men and women, but ii) always holds back and lets some strong handsome man rescue her. Obviously there are exceptions to that rule, but your readers should not be constantly startled by the inconsistency of your character’s personality. You can probably get away with a badly choreographed sword fight sooner than you can get away with a psychologically fragmented main character. Sword fights? Sword fights? We’re going to talk about sword fights?

Yes, but that’s another pep talk . . . :)

© Gale Macaulay-Newcombe, 2009. All rights reserved.