I’m writing something today I’m unsure many of you are going to like. It deals with a topic whose “moral” answer remains so ingrained in our culture that even stating a contrary opinion puts me firmly in the evil sections of the classic DnD alignment chart–but that chart is reductive as hell and appallingly stupid, so who gives a shit? (Yes, fellow DMs, I can hear you scribbling in “Chaotic”). This contrary opinion will shortly lead me to compare Women’s Suffragists with the Sith.
I promise you this is less insane than it sounds. Now, as to that contrary opinion I so coyly mention?
Power is not inherently evil, and if you have a moral code you wish to fulfill, you need it. You probably don’t disagree with that first part; you may feel uncomfortable about the second. Here’s where I make the statement I’m not supposed to make:
This means that seeking power is normal, and that having a moral code but refusing to acquire power is to sacrifice one’s actual morals for a self-aggrandizing display of idolatrous “purity”. Before I go any further I should define what I mean by power. I’m referring to any method, social, financial or purely internal, whereby we gain the ability to bring about the changes we desire in existence. Grass-roots activism is no less an attempt at gaining power than a fascist rally. In fact, the former often led to the latter. Yet it’s also led to Women’s Suffrage–what was the entire Suffrage movement but a conscious, prolonged effort by women to gain the power to vote?
I bring all this up because in our daily lives, most of us already accept my argument to a limited extent via our actions. Yet if you tell someone, “I want to be powerful,” they’ll likely give you some odd looks. Bear with me: this is where the interpretation and analysis starts. (Everything past this point is twice over more subjective than normal writing–if I’m horribly wrong, it’s probably because I’m trying to analyze a perceived broad pattern in an incredibly diverse medium.)
Now I just can’t for the life of me–Vader–imagine why that–Voldemort–might be the case–Sauron–it’s certainly not as if there’s some kind of deeply-entrenched narrative under which any entity which openly avows to wanting power will invariably be evil and use that power for the worst possible ends. Speaking plainly, I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that so many feminists have been unfairly compared with Nazis.
Okay, you know what I mean–it’s less of a coincidence than any other occurrence of Godwin’s Law.
You see, there’s a certain sizable portion of our population who work, night and day, to push the idea that even acknowledging that we are powerful is a hallmark of some irredeemable wickedness. As if merely acknowledging our own capacity to alter our reality means we will inevitably abuse it. This is notwithstanding that most of the greatest evils in our own universe have been perpetuated by exactly the opposite crowd. Every single child-molester, rapist, serial killer, and genocidal dictatorial micropenis vanguard has insisted on some level that they don’t have any choice. Every single guard, officer and official at the Nuremburg Trials was just following orders. Many dictators even believe in a little thing called “destiny”; Hitler sure as hell did.
Look, fellow writers, I’m not saying you’re Nazis. Reductio ad Hitlerum is a dish best force-fed to actual Neo-Nazis. I’m just saying that when the stories we write inevitably lend themselves to advocating people’s submission to and reliance upon arbitrary processes, abstracted morals which defy real-world examination, and the ever-resurfacing idea that the hero should just be “thrust into the middle of things”, we should keep in mind that this is the exact same checklist favored by the Medieval aristocracy to try and condition individual peasants out of self-actualization.
Id est, I am saying that a lot of the way power is acquired and handed out in speculative fiction creates painfully-overt coding which instructs anyone born into a lower station to remain there. Inscrutable fate or the old money shall decide which of the low people are raised above their birth, not individual effort: even now, this remains among fantasy’s core dictums. It’s so, so rare that we have heroes or even protagonists, regardless their morals, who manage to rearrange their circumstances on their own.
“But Cullen,” you might be saying, “that’s just like real life! Bootstrap narratives are a huge problem which have been used to justify many terrible economic policies!” Yeah, thing is, America’s working poor can’t do magic. More to the point, I’m not referring to bootstrap narratives–I mean having characters in speculative fiction whose success is purely a function of outside powers or the people around them rather than their own merits. Obviously they’ll need to pull in outside help, but how often do we get a protagonist whose own cultivated skills and specialties are what attract that outside help, rather than some prophetic contrivance or Force-like omnipotent direction or simple coincidence? When was the last time you read anything in any fantasy where a major character met the protagonist and said, “An honor to meet you at last, I’ve always been an admirer of your talents?”
And wasn’t a bootlicker and/or obvious traitor-to-be, I mean.
Probably never, because it’s evidently so vital for protagonists to be a blank slate when the adventure starts. Heaven fucking forbid the readers might actually learn more about the main character along with the rest of the world. I’ve ranted about this before as to why it’s just not good writing, but it also feeds into the messages I’m talking about here. It’s become so uniformly the case that a protagonist has no need to be qualified that speculative fiction ends up coding qualification as undesirable. What kind of Carpenteresque bastardization of a worldbuilding principle is that?
I’ve mentioned before that Frodo is one of the only classic fantasy protagonists I unreservedly like. Frodo does rely on the people around him, absolutely, but the distinction between Frodo and those who come after is that Frodo was still essential for who he was as a person. He couldn’t have reached Mordor without the Fellowship and especially Sam, but the Fellowship couldn’t have carried the Ring without him. Frodo is aspirational– in a purely heroic rather than lifestyle sense, I don’t know how aspirational I consider permanent spiritual scarring by contact with dark powers–because any of us could have or cultivate the inner grit Frodo withstands the Ring with.
Is it likely? Ha, fuck no! You give me that thing, and in a week’s time I’ll be clad in jet-black edgelord plating on Mount Doom 2.0 screaming “More buttresses! I said MORE! We’re building the fortress into the goddamn volcano this time, assholes!” Look, I said that desiring power isn’t inherently evil, I never claimed that I was the good guy. I spend so much time throwing shade at my own field I pretty much have to be the villain.
Lindsay Ellis, in one of her excellent video essays–I unfortunately forget which, I’ve been binging them recently–made the observation that Chosen One narratives have become less popular in recent years for a variety of reasons; on balance, this seems true. However, I have to assert that this isn’t because we as writers or as readers have moved away from the mechanics of those narratives; we’ve simply repackaged them in different formats where their conceits make even less sense than before.
As part of the same observation, Lindsay pointed out that one of the few mainstream hits featuring a Chosen One narrative was the Potter series, and that this Chosen One narrative ultimately turned out not to be true. She’s correct on both counts–the fact that Neville Longbottom could’ve stopped Voldemort has been well established. Yet, I don’t give the Potterverse a pass on this one; the handling of the trope indicates an awareness on Rowling’s part that it’s become played out, yet I don’t believe she truly deconstructed it.
Just as with declaring characters gay outside the main narrative for brownie points–and lest anyone get the wrong idea, yours truly is bi and I’m just disappointed at Rowling’s cynical, flaccid execution of an important idea–Potter still strikes every relevant beat of a Chosen One narrative otherwise. Harry meets all the people he needs to help him early on, immediately receives access to fabulous wealth and unparalleled educational opportunities (let’s not forget that attending Hogwarts is a huge achievement in itself, unless you’re Harry), and is treated by Voldemort and the Death Eaters as the most important thing in the universe.
Despite there being either a reduced cosmic element at work–the fact that the prophecy can apply to either Neville or Harry doesn’t mean everyone has a chance, just that both of them do–or none whatsoever, events fall out for Harry just as they do for classic Chosen Ones like (hrrk) Rand al’Thor. And no, I will never stop stating how much I hate Rand at every possible opportunity. My point: Harry still benefits from an improbably lucky sequence of events without a worldbuilding explanation for how causality itself has warped to favor him.
As much as I loathe the Wheel of Time’s use to explain dozens of contrivances throughout the titular series, it was technically an ironclad reason–just an ironclad reason derived from the laziest possible worldbuilding. If I had Harry’s luck, I’d be rich by now. “But Cullen,” you may be thinking, “The Potter franchise began as a series geared toward younger audiences that only slowly developed more adult tone and themes as it went forward. Of course there were a lot of contrivances in the early books!”
You’re correct, reader, though I may have to make a separate post later questioning why it is we feel media targeted at young audiences should inherently be more simplistic! However, you can apply Harry’s sequence to most of the characters in speculative fiction. Some of you may argue that this is just speculative fiction’s nature–after all, it’s plot rather than character-driven! Right? Well, leaving aside characters like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, a hyperactive, hyper-ambitious troublemaker who’s driven so many plots that he probably hears the lamentations of their spouses in his sleep, I believe calling speculative fiction “plot-driven” is missing the point. Much of speculative fiction isn’t truly plot or character-driven: it’s message-driven.
The earliest antecedents to the contemporary fantasy genre are myths and legends about gods and other supernatural figures dating back to the Greeks and Egyptians or earlier–or at any rate, for my purposes we’re going to work from this idea. These stories stand out to me because, on the one hand, they were often more character-driven than modern fantasy; events were frequently set in motion purely by the egos and goals of sapient beings with no regard for some overarching divine plan. How could there be a core plan for anything when Olympus’ tranquility (or lack of it) mainly revolved around whether Zeus felt like boning Hera or the umpteenth hapless mortal woman?
On the other hand, these tales were astonishingly preachy; vastly more so than the ones which come after. Just about every Greek myth can be readily reduced to a core message about the relationship between humans and other humans, humans and gods, gods and gods, or some blend of these things and the natural world. Even as we’ve moved further and further away from the Greek tradition, even as our messages and themes becoming more veiled by layers of abstraction, fantasy writers in particular have never moved past the core structure the ancients established. The Hero’s Journey remains much the same now as it did in B.C. Athens.
Let me just walk that back a little bit. What do we get if we refer to the story structure as “A Hero’s Journey” rather than “The Hero’s Journey”? Now yes, I know that the phrase “The Hero’s Journey” refers to a broad structural concept in storytelling which transcends specific enumeration. But I’m not talking explicitly about this story structure–I’m using it to reflect on the way speculative fiction approaches its protagonists.
We’re copying story structures and storytelling methods deliberately tailored to send messages without either changing them enough or thinking hard enough about the messages we’re sending when we don’t. The result is that, in my opinion, we’re sending our readers the message that it’s neither their responsibility nor their place to act to change the world. At the same time, we’re instructing them not to seek power unless they are trying to change the world, which is just prepping them to be taken advantage of on both fronts.
You remember all that madness back at the start about how the Sith are like Women’s Suffrage? Here’s where I attempt to make sense of my own lunacy. Which I guess makes me a Sith Lord, but it’s not as if I’ve written up a Sith persona for myself. His name is Nebulous. Apparently there’s a throwaway character in The Old Republic or something with the same name, but fuck ’em–I looked him up, there’s nothing nebulous or mysterious about him. He’s bland, generic, and just as dead as the MMO he originates from, and I used the name first, so feh.
This pretend-tangential rant isn’t actually tangential or a rant. Star Wars’ handling of the Sith, and the heroes it pits against them, are among the best examples of speculative fiction’s inadvertent propaganda. The Sith are a faction predominantly defined via their distortion of Nietzschian philosophy involving Will to Power. You remember what I said way up at the top? Power’s not inherently evil? Women’s Suffrage was a movement aimed at giving women the power to vote. However, it can be and has been depicted as taking away some of men’s power–their exclusive right to vote–effectively destroying a previous hierarchy–a pure patriarchy.
Whenever we seek to acquire power in areas currently dominated by others, even if we don’t take any power from them to do it, they will inevitably feel attacked and disempowered because our increased power has made them less proportionately powerful. It’s easier to be the man who can run fifteen miles an hour in a society where most people can only walk at a brisk pace than the same man in a society of marathon runners.
Much of the material directed against Women’s Suffrage attempted to paint women as selfish and even psychopathic, leaving their children to starve and destroying the fabric of a society which had always worked just fine, to be honest, I mean really. Even in the 1900s, a large portion of western culture tried to portray women as overwhelmed by their emotions, unable to be rational or make calculated decisions for the betterment of society and therefore unsafe for the kind of power they desired.
I’m saying that women are Sith Lords, yes.
As definitive proof, I offer the character of Yuthura Ban: a Twi’lek some of you may remember as a high-ranking Sith at the Academy on Korriban in Knights of the Old Republic 1. Yuthura was born a slave on Sleheyron and sold to a Hutt at a very early age, but wounded him and escaped when the opportunity arose. So far, so feminist (I say this positively). After being abandoned by a cargo ship’s crew on an alien world, she was eventually found by the Jedi Order–but they abandoned her too because she hated slavery too much.
Reread that last part a few times, I’ll be patient. Good to go? Yuthura goes on to join the Sith under the belief that she’ll be able to use the power she gains (hmmm) to free others from slavery across the galaxy (Hmmmmm) but then she gets too angry and she never actually does it (HMMMMMMM). I don’t know who wrote this tripe. I don’t care that it’s in Star Wars or from more than a decade ago because Star Wars has only gotten worse on this count; the message here is and has been incalculably destructive and it’s time to stop. The most active, compassionate people I know are the most pissed off about the injustice in the world. Anger is not the enemy–ignorance and sociopathic indifference to societal ills are.
This is where we come to the crux of the matter. Go back up a few paragraphs and note the subtext of the propaganda created against the Suffrage movement: that their quest for power would only make them more selfish as they discarded their responsibilities to the greater good. Now read what happens with Yuthura. Now go back up to Women’s Suffrage. Now back to Yuthura. Consider also that the Jedi are a small group of religious fanatics who spend most of their time secluded from the world and choosing not to influence politics unless those politics directly affect them.
Bioware’s writing team effectively created a scenario with a feminist-coded character–who escaped very literal sex-trafficking–who goes against the teachings of a conservative faction, which has always featured far more male than female characters of note, in which the feminist-coded character becomes the villain after giving in to the emotions she’s told are irrational by said conservative faction while seeking the power to bring justice for the oppressed. Despite the fact that her anger is justified and in the real world is directed at such a wicked scenario that telling someone not to feel anger about it is almost evil in itself, Yuthura becomes a villain because it’s so important that we be reminded “power corrupts”.
Crazy thought: if the only ones directly seeking power are shitty people, maybe the reason so many people with power are abominable is not that power corrupts but that it’s mainly the corrupt who attain it? Crazier thought: if only the corrupt will broadly attain power, then who really benefits from a narrative saying that good people shouldn’t seek power? Spoilers: it’s not the good guys.
Are you starting to feel angry yet? Are you beginning to feel a little pissed off as you mull this over? No civil rights movement has actually succeeded without incredibly powerful emotions, without that human drive to do what you know is right even though it goes against every order you’ve known–and indeed, without the power that comes only from having broad public support driving its agenda. Even today we can clearly see conservatives demonizing the anger of their political opponents. This continues even in the United States, where our President is an orange blowhard in a state of such perpetual uncomprehending rage I don’t understand how he manages to breath.
Now’s the moment where I bring all this back around and aim the cannon at my fellow authors. In tandem with conservative denunciations of any opponents that show anger comes the repeated accusation that they are “entitled” somehow, that they are demanding a role they don’t have a right to. Yuthura’s story was not deliberately written to be an argument against feminism and social justice–it just becomes such an argument because it was written to blithely obey the Good/Evil paradigm created in Star Wars without sufficiently examining its implications for our own universe when written with this particular character.
Despite discarding the Chosen One narrative, our stories remain clearly structured to prop up a designated “correct” protagonist: one and only one person is allowed to do the job. Anyone who goes against them and their alignment is at best misguided and mostly wrong; at worst, totally evil and totally wrong.
I’m not saying that we should focus on multiple protagonists because there’s just not enough space for that in a given narrative. But we can’t seem to stop ourselves from loading up the “Acceptable Hero” template every fucking time.
The Hero will experience anger but ultimately put it aside after realizing that it’s vital to not be angry for some reason of abstract purity. The Hero will be the one who least wants the job, which is why they deserve to do it. The Hero will not be the most qualified person or the one who works the hardest, but just the one who gets picked because the plot says so. The harder any of the people around the Hero work to be just as helpful–even if they just try to be similarly powerful without being as central–the more likely they will only end up being evil at the end. The Hero will arrive at exactly the right moment, and no one will ever solve the problem before the Hero. No one but the Hero could possibly do a better job if they fail.
Ostensibly, all of this is to raise the stakes. I’m not sure how removing any sense of competition from the Hero actually raises the stakes, but whatever. It would be so, so easy to tweak our worldbuilding such that each showdown can still be climactic while acknowledging that there will be others, but we never do. Speculative Fiction in general has this problem, but fantasy is the worst for it: there’s always an idea of one critical moment where everything will hinge on just two people who are allowed to be the main players. These two decide everything, and everyone else needs to just stand aside and let them do it.
This in itself wouldn’t be as much of an issue if there were ever a serious field of competition, a sense that these two only made it because they strove the hardest and that’s why it’s between them–no one else fought this hard to be here. It could’ve been anyone, and these are just the ones it turned out to be.
Let me go just a little more extreme: “Stand aside! I have been ordained by Almighty God (for a book’s purposes, the writer) to solve this and all other problems!” the Hero proclaims. “Anyone else who attempts to help without my invitation, anyone who acts on their own, is usurping my divine right to the power I hold!”
The ultimate effect of the Hero’s Journey as a narrative construct is to instruct people neither to take action nor take power until selected by some impartial outside force. No matter how unjust the institutions around them may be, acting against those institutions without being designated as The Hero would be Just As Bad(TM)–you can see this message in the way so many rebel groups are either lackluster or psychotic until the protagonist arrives to put them in order.
Again, high fantasy is by far the worst offender here. The bar for action is set impossibly high by design: the Hero must have only conventionally “positive” emotions, or if they are angry it will be a very reserved “righteous” anger that never manifests as animus against their enemies even though those enemies are objectively evil in many cases. The Hero must be able to perfectly unite everyone even though it takes inhuman charisma to get every person in a group of ten to agree.
The Hero must under no circumstances be interested in fixing or bringing justice to any of the corrupt social institutions previously present in the world, only defeating the designated True Enemy. This True Enemy will generally be defined as evil on the grounds that it is attempting to destroy the established order because, apparently, the fact that this order was present from the start means it is more legitimate than the one imposed by the True Enemy.
If the True Enemy is in power, their order is not recognized as a valid order in its own right nor allowed to reflect on the idea that establishments are not inherently good; it will always be juxtaposed against the True Order it has usurped. The True Enemy will never be subtle or use accepted social institutions to its advantage in such a way that the Hero has no choice but to tear both down, and will always be easily reduced to points on the same checklist. No matter how many of these points any other faction marks off, the True Enemy will always be the only “evil” one because it’s “more evil than we can imagine” in some abstract way that never creates a real narrative or mechanical distinction from any of the non-True Enemy factions.
The reader will under no circumstances be allowed to realize that all of this functions to justify protecting the wealthy and privileged of their own world from even the slightest loss of status because, after all, only villains would ever target the social order unless it’s ugly and has a sinister insignia. Like it or not, a lot of books are published and marketed by capitalist entities. Of course, on the flip side, it’s not as if there’s any unified pushback from writers to make their narrative harder to massage, now is it?
I could keep going like this, but I think I’ve stacked the moral message side high enough–now for the power side of the equation! The power of the True Enemy will be much talked about but never really manifested. The Hero will always be directed away from any line of thinking that maybe having more power to confront said Enemy power is necessary rather than “easy and therefore evil”–the moralization of hardship is another wrenchingly sinister idea I’ll have to shred later–and except at specific intervals they will never find that the True Enemy are able to fight them on an even footing. Power in itself will never be the key to victory; the Hero will find that they naturally acquire the power they need to defeat the True Enemy simply by pursuing their moral improvement.
You have spent every day of your life giving to those in need and consoling your friends through all their troubles. One day your car is totaled and your finances aren’t able to pay for the repairs after your insurance company refuses to help. You go into crushing debt and never fully escape it.
The Hero’s strong morality will often persuade the enemy to join their side, and if it does not, will stir up such unwavering support and adoration among the common people–who will never even slightly side with the True Enemy of their own volition–that this doesn’t matter. No matter how untrained, no matter how much time they’ve wasted on pining for a love interest or simple procrastination which should have been spent making ready for battle, the Hero will almost never be meaningfully injured by the enemy. Under no circumstances in any story will the Hero ever suffer a defeat for which they do not later gain payback with minimal to moderate effort.
You work at a shelter for homeless members of the LGBT community, and your compassion is one of the things your friends most love about you. It does not stop the fists against your jaw or boots in your ribs when you are cornered on a mostly-empty street one winter night and beaten unconscious. Later, you see video of the assault on the internet; the person who took it never did call the police.
In the end, no matter how much time the True Villain has spent cultivating power, the Hero will be raised to a superior or at worst equal level, or else it will turn out that the Villain has missed some vital truth in their mad quest for raw power alone. This abstract ideological difference will conveniently transfer into a power boost or decisive loophole the Hero can exploit. No matter what, the Hero will triumph in the end.
You are eighty years old, trapped in a homeless shelter yourself while the head of the company who laid you off for excess activism in the workplace–though of course, the PR statement said that you were “underperforming” and “creating a disruptive environment”–lives out his last years on vacation or at one of several palatial estates. Your goodness remains an inspiration to the other people at the shelter, but it has changed nothing.
To quote a much more interesting antagonist than most, “Might controls everything.” It at first seems a lovely sentiment to state that pure decency can overcome anything. But this idea’s ultimate function is to turn people working for good against each other, always worrying about whether they’re taking too much power, always worrying about whether they’re meeting the impossibly high standards to which they are supposed to hold themselves. Its ultimate function is to teach us not to plan in depth, not to fight our hardest, not to use every advantage we can to create a better world–if we’re not good enough, we’ll never be strong enough. If we’re good enough, our strength won’t matter… right?
Sugar tastes amazing and your body benefits from it in moderation, but too much will make you gravely ill, emaciated, and ultimately dead. Joy and reassurance matter, but joy and reassurance alone make terrible warriors. Make no mistake, making a better future is a war–an undignified protracted war of ideas in which our opponents are free to ignore reality itself if it suits their selfishness. Sentiment cannot overcome when the opposition are free to scorn that sentiment.
I’m not saying that any means are justified or that we should stage a coup even if we could acquire the power to do so, but we as writers have a responsibility about the messages we’re sending. Because the funny thing is that as much as we’ve tried to pretend the stakes are high in our writing, we haven’t written to a standard worthy of reality‘s stakes. I should state again: I’m not saying that feel-good stories with high stakes but easier resolutions aren’t allowed. Just because I can’t enjoy escapist writing doesn’t mean I think it’s unworthy; as I said above, joy and reassurance matter.
We’ve got enough of those stories to go around, though.
The problem lies on the other side of the equation. The counterbalancing stories have been overtaken by would-be A Song of Ice and Fire imitators–a series which, as much as I maintain it’s masterfully executed, has been masterfully executed towards a pretty mediocre plan. The counterbalance we need is that it’s okay to seek comfort, it’s okay to seek stories that just make you happy, but you shouldn’t take lessons from those stories when the time comes to fight. The counterbalance we need is that a time will come when we must fight if we want to stick to our morals. The counterbalance we need is an examination of what that fight will truly demand of us.
That’s the role the other side of speculative fiction is supposed to play. Instead, following George R.R. Martin’s lead, it mostly seems to be creating a mirror-universe in which evil will always win because good is dumb. That’s not a good message, it’s not good writing, and it’s not what I’m arguing for here. The opposite of the easy joy offered by much of speculative fiction isn’t useless misery and evil’s triumph, it’s difficulty and complexity. It’s that everyone has a part to play, and we’re that much likelier to lose for every person who doesn’t play their part. It’s that those who join in have to fight that much harder because some will always stand on the sidelines.
Anger is an emotional response evolved over the course of millions of years which we experience when we are opposed–be it physically or ideologically. It’s the emotion we’re meant to rely on when we fight. What we as writers should care about isn’t telling people not to be angry and take aggressive action–it’s telling them how to be angry and take decisive action effectively and without losing their humanity.
(What do you think? Is the message of disempowerment I’ve derived something you’ve seen yourself, or do you think I’m a cynical nutcase? Discuss in the comments! If you found this post enriching or simply enjoyed it, then please leave a like, share it with your friends wherever you may go online, and consider supporting me on Patreon!)