Gentleman thieves, loveable pirates and sexy tricksters – a FantasyCon panel

If you’re writing from inside the head of someone who’s just been robbed, they’re not going to think ‘I’ve been delightfully subverted’. – Frances Hardinge

This panel’s description featured the most amusing misprint of the FantasyCon 2014 program, promising us a discussion that would cover ‘sex tricksters’. For better or for worse, the panel swiftly moved away from that dubious-sounding subject, into a fun discussion of the place of roguish characters in fantasy fiction.

One of the many disreputable figures up for discussion

This panel featured:

  • David Tallerman – author of various novels, including a trilogy about a thief
  • Joanne Harris – writer of both literary and fantasy fiction
  • Frances Hardinge – children’s author, wearer of a rather dapper hat
  • Kim Lakin-Smith – author of fantastical fiction, particularly interested in gender issues and mixing up biology
  • Libby McGugan – fantasy writer with a taste for science
  • James Barclay – fantasy author, chairman of the British Fantasy Society, has a certain charmingly roguish air himself – James was chairing the panel

Favourite roguish characters

Favourite examples was a good starting point for the panel, and one that grounded the discussion in familiar stories.

Joanne mentioned the Pied Piper, and how he appealed to her because he was a villain but one who had been wronged, the sort of character who emerges once black and white moral divisions have been used up. For her the appeal of rogues goes back to childhood and fairy tales.

David talked about his own character, Easie Damasco, who he wrote because he wanted to deliberately get away from treating thieves as sympathetic people. After all, in reality they’re criminals preying on the innocent. It was a bit of a cheeky answer to this particular question, but I’m currently reading the first Easie Damasco book and I have to say that Easie’s becoming one of my favourite rogues, so I’ll let him off this once.

Frances discussed the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride. She pointed out that, much as we love Wesley, he’s presumably been killing lots of people in his pirate role.

Kim listed Pan, Puck and Robin Hood as among her favourites – mythic characters who intrigued her.

Libby picked Crowley from Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, a character whose defining quality is that he is struggling with being bad.

Motivation and complexity

James asked if it was the motivation and complexity of rogues that made them appeal, leading to an interesting discussion about where that appeal comes from.

Reasons for their appeal that the panel mentioned included:

  • The fantasy of freedom, letting us safely imagine doing what these people do (Frances)
  • Respect for people breaking the system (Libby)
  • Catharsis (Joanne)
  • Realistic decision making (David)
  • We all do wrong sometimes, and it’s enjoyable to see this in others (David)
  • Being intrigued by the bad boy/girl (Kim)
  • The character showing a broader social context (Frances)
  • Corrupt systems making law-breaking acceptable (Joanne)
  • They’re more fun to write (Libby – and I suspect that’s how most of the panellists got to this point)
  • Characters determining their own moral code (Joanne)
  • Making bad girls/boys safe (Kim)
  • The distance of time making people more appealing – we love Caribbean pirates not Somali ones (Frances – and with my historian hat on this comparison made me smile – ah history, how you warp our perspective)
  • The fun of dressing up – rogues often have great outfits (Frances)

How to make them appeal

James asked a couple of questions near the end that covered how to make such dubious characters appeal – do they need the capacity for redemption, and is this appeal partly down to sleight of hand?

The general consensus seemed to be that the possibility of redemption was needed. As Libby pointed out, we need something to identify with in a character. David made the point that there’s not even tragedy without the possibility of redemption, and it’s hard to read anything without hope in it.

There was also agreement on there being some authorial trickery involved. As James pointed out, the cleverness of the rogues themselves distracts you. But as Joanne pointed out, there’s a darker side to this, as we rely on taking away the victimhood of their victims so that readers don’t think about those consequences.

Last thoughts

One of the last notes I made was another one about historical context – shock horror, the history grad paid attention to the history bits. According to Frances, it has been argued that the appeal of roguish characters is a particularly English thing, a cult of the criminal having grown up here in the 16th and 17th centuries, celebrating the innovation and courage of such people.

I don’t know enough about other cultures to make a comparison, but certainly the appeal of dangerous rogues to the English rings true. In the middle ages we were renowned across Europe as a violent and disreputable nation, and some people took pride in that. The fame of figures such as Dick Turpin, Robin Hood and even the Krays reflects a long held romanticisation of armed robbers and violent crime.

On that charming note I’ll leave you with one last question – who are your favourite rogues and why? Leave a comment, share your love of bad boys and girls who kick against the system.