Human relationships in epic fantasy: Give me some quiet moments

As I was recently approaching the 95,000-word mark in the fantasy novel I was writing, I thought to myself, “I really wish I could just have a scene in a kitchen where my protagonist can talk to his girlfriend about something mundane. How was your day? How was work?”

In a genre where someone is always saving the world, fighting monsters, casting wondrous spells, or fulfilling a prophecy, who has time for the quiet moments?

Author Brian Staveley published a refreshing guest blog from his wife Johanna about how heroes of epic fantasy tend to be crappy boyfriends. And she’s right. Her take on the hero of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series:

I can still be fairly certain that it would suck to go on a first date with Rand al’Thor – always talking about himself, never picking up on hints, alternating between needy and surly. He doesn’t know how to make Egwene feel pretty, even though it’s clear that she really cares about her hair and all he’d have to say would be something like, “Hey, Egwene, I really like your your new ‘do.” Nope. Nada. Instead he “stares at that braid as if it were a viper.” By the end of Eye of the World, he doesn’t even recognize her face. Okay, fine, he’s just been through some epic stuff with one of the Forsaken, but still… Epic hero? Check. Terrible boyfriend? Check.

Hey, I loved The Eye of the World when I was 14, and I still enjoyed it when I read it a second and a third time, but let’s be honest. Rand al’Thor is a bad boyfriend. He’s a pretty complex character, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time on dates. He doesn’t spend a lot of time relating to people. He’s brooding. He’s leading armies. He’s fighting evil. There’s not a lot of time for his humanity to shine through, except with his own tortured internal dialogue.

Too many fantasy authors (and genre authors in general) focus too much on driving their plots forward. Given that the fate of the kingdom, world, galaxy or universe typically turns on the outcome of the plot, it’s easy to see why we do this. Who has time to talk about relationships when the evil devil king is leading an army of undead against the city?

But quiet moments are often the moments that allow us to fall in love with a character. They help us find a reason to root for the hero to get the girl (or boy) in the end. Not every scene has to have global consequences. Not every seen has to drive plot. And when you are devoting a scene to pure character development, don’t be afraid to throw in a little domestic drama. Your hero forgot to pick up a pail of milk at the market. His wife is so angry. They have a fight. He remembers why he first fell in love with her. He goes out to a field in the middle of the night and milks the neighbor’s cow for her.  Sure, in the next chapter he’s going to get into a sword fight with the mad prince, but for a quiet moment, we see what he’s fighting for and we care.

I recently read most of a fantasy novel, the first in a series, that had had some decent critical acclaim. (The book and author shall remain nameless out of respect.) I had to put this book down after about 350 pages. I simply didn’t care about any of the characters anymore. The hero had multiple relationships that were critically important to him and that motivated him to do the things he had to do. He had a best friend. He had a forbidden love that he longed for constantly. He had a mentor whom he loved and hated. But none of these relationships seemed authentic to me because the scenes that would have given them authenticity were missing. I never saw him fall in love with the girl. I never saw him strike up a friendship with the friend. I never saw him connect with the mentor in such a way that he would develop a complicated love/hate relationship with him. Instead, I was told that these relationships were there and I just had to take the author’s word for it. That’s not good enough. That’s bad writing.

If you’re going to make up a world for a fantasy or science fiction novel, don’t forget during your world-building to set aside some time to think about how human relationships work in that world.

When and how do husbands and wives connect with each other? It can’t be when the goddess of love commands them to.

How does a teacher or mentor win the respect and admiration of his pupil. It can’t be because he has snazzy armor.

How did your hero fall in love with the object of his love. It can’t be because she tugs on her braid in such a cute manner. Or maybe it can. But show me why it’s cute. And show me what he does and says when he sees her tug that braid. And then let those two kids go for a walk and talk about something other than Voldemort.

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