Friday, September 26, 2014

Rewriting Monsters


Have you ever met a good ork?

They're about as rare as a duck sitting on a rooftop, aren't they?

Recently, I read Rick Riordan’s House of Hades, and a small part of that story got me thinking about another book by Donita K. Paul. I don’t remember which book specifically, but it was one of the later books in the DragonKeeper series.

Both books—and both series as a whole—have several groups of characters who start out entirely bad. Riordan’s villains are the Titans and Gaia’s monsters in general; Paul’s are the seven low races of Amara. Partway through both stories, a character shows up who belongs to one of the ‘bad guy’ groups, but isn’t actually bad himself.

Now, my initial reaction was—“That’s odd, why would an author suddenly decide bad characters can be good?”

Oddly enough, I happened to run across two different articles on the topic soon after reading House of Hades, while I was still pondering the question.

The first was Rebecca LuElla Miller’s post on Speculative Faith, where she discusses why so many stories and movies want to reinvent the villains from older stories. Miller argues that this sort of story tries to erase the reality of evil by explaining the story behind it: “The problem, as I see it, with this kind of thinking is that evil is in the eye of the beholder. In fact, there really is no evil—just evil circumstances or evil influences.”

Evil is real. We can try to understand why someone would want to commit murder, but even understanding doesn’t change the fact that some people murder because they can and they like to do it.

Like Miller, I don’t really like the idea of explaining away evil, so at first I wanted to extend that line of thinking to Bob the Titan. If a group of characters are functionally orcs—their role in life and their nature is to attack humans—how can one of those characters suddenly be not an orc?

That line of thinking didn’t quite fit, however. Miller was writing about stories like Malificent (which I haven’t seen yet), with a misunderstood villain. My issue was with good characters belonging to villainous races such as orcs or trolls or Titans. The real question was whether those characters might be heavily influenced, but not trapped, by their background.

I found a better answer in another blog post—this one about portraying cultural drift in fantasy cultures. In this article, Hannah Emery, a sociologist, suggests developing fantasy cultures realistically with a full range of skills, opinions, personalities, styles, and motives. She points out that American culture—from McD’s to homesteading—is bigger than just one stereotype, so why can’t dwarf or orc cultures be the same?

The challenge is that you have to treat the characters as individuals—not as stereotypes or a chip of the cultural monolith.

Even Tolkien did this, I think. There may not be any good orcs in The Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien suggests that some characters fight on one side or another simply because that’s what their culture taught them to do. Some of his orcs fight humans because that’s what orcs do, but some would rather just get away from the bigger, meaner orcs, back to their nice, cozy, stinky orc dens.

Of course, that's the challenge with writing any character—even if the guy is evil, despicable, and thoroughly rotten, you still have to develop his personality. It’s not okay just to say “And this dude is evil, despicable, and thoroughly rotten” and leave the story at that.

Well, it might work if you are writing a parody of some kind—as with Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. Even in that series, though, the villain has a very distinct personality, motives, and methods.

That’s where I think Paul actually failed, while Riordan succeeded. Paul’s redeemed character felt like a side to the main story. His presence forced the other characters to reconsider their view of the low races, but he himself left very little impression on anyone.

Riordan, on the other hand, produces someone with a background and a personality, someone who is confused and struggling with the idea that he’s supposed to be bad but maybe wants to be good. He’s something more than a showpiece, and his presences makes a difference in how the story plays out. Plus, there are hints that maybe Bob is not the only one with a conscience.

Maybe it’s not so much about rewriting monsters as suggesting that the old stereotypes are more of a guideline than anything else. After all, ducks do sit on rooftops sometimes.

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