I’m getting a little tired of the fantasy hero whose first value is loyalty or honour. Or the supposed antihero whose dark, compromised behaviour turns out to be for some greater good. It feels like the values that once let fantasy authors make their characters different from modern people have become another over-used part of pop culture.
Noticing the difference – Conan
This issue really sprang out at me while reading Conan: Queen of the Black Coast, a comic collection written by Brian Wood, with art by Becky Cloonan, James Harren and Dave Stewart on colours. Wood’s an interesting writer, treading a difficult path between the expectations of a mainstream comics audience and a desire to try different things with character and story. His riff on Robert E. Howard’s classic barbarian character is no exception.
The character’s values are a key part of this. There is a search for adventure in there, and a certain attachment to protecting the people on his side. But this doesn’t translate into an unswerving sense of loyalty. Conan will compromise and join the side of the people who just slaughtered all his friends. He turns pirate on the whim of circumstance. He bends others to his will for no goal beyond his own quest for adventure and self-preservation.
These are not the values of a familiar fantasy hero, and realising that was like a breath of fresh air. I suddenly noticed how familiar, comforting and sometimes even stale the values were I was seeing in other fantasy novels.
The obvious comparison – Game of Thrones
When it comes to character motivations, Game of Thrones is one of the better examples out there. But comparing it with this single Conan story made me realise how familiar many of the motivations are. Ned Stark is obstinate and loyal. Arya is fiercely independent and, as time goes by, increasingly bent on revenge. Stannis is guided by a clear sense of right and wrong. Joffrey’s self-serving. Tywin’s ambitious. Snow has that classic heroic sense of honour, so that even when he does something terrible it’s for a great good.
There are a broad range of interesting motives at play here. They draw you into the characters in different ways. It’s very well done, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
But is any of it really new?
George R R Martin is a fantasy writer at the absolute top of his game. He’s using those familiar values in new and skilful ways. Just think how many times you’ve read them elsewhere and it’s just been more of the same.
I’m not saying I want every character to act like Wood’s take on Conan. As someone trying to draw in readers, using the familiar and comfortable is actually important for me. But it would be nice, both in what I write and in what I read, to push the boat out a bit further at times. To see motives and values that aren’t just different from our own but are different from what we’re used to reading. For the fantastic and unfamiliar elements of stories to go a bit deeper.
What do you think? Am I being overly harsh on what’s out there? Am I missing great examples of unusual values and motives? And if you’ve read it, what do you think of Wood and Co.’s take on Conan?