So a few months back, I wrote a blog-post about being tired of Fantasyland.
It’s all still true. I can count the fantasies I have read in the last six months on the fingers of one hand.
That said, ZOMG, The Goblin Emperor is amazing, go read it, I stayed up until three in the morning last night reading it, it is SO GOOD.
The main character, Maia, is just incredibly sympathetic. He is nice. I ached for this character, the way I ached for Aerin back in the day, the yes-I-would-be-this-person ache.
And this made me think that maybe, in my initial post about being jaded to so much fantasy as a setting, I had overlooked something.
Maybe part of my problem is that I am having a hard time finding fantasy characters I like.
It’s not like the old days, when all you needed was a bookish heroine and/or one who was not interested in pretty dresses and you had my immediate unswerving loyalty for the rest of the book. I am now past the point where any given persecuted teenage girl is automatically my soul-sister,* where the fact that your family/village/tribe just doesn’t understand you gives you a free pass to my sympathies.
I have not been willing to read books about awful people for a long time, because their awfulness is not the least bit interesting to me, but I am also starting to lose patience with standard fantasy people. All the interchangeable protagonists with interchangeable names. Yes, you’re scared, yes, your suffering is very important to YOU, but it’s not enough to suffer at me any more. You must be interesting while you are doing it.
Furthermore, god help you, I must like you. If I do not like you–not merely pity you, but like you–you are done.
(There are plenty of people who will argue for unlikeable protagonists, and that is great. I am not decreeing what future writing should be for all. I am saying, I don’t read those books. Because if I don’t like the character, I will not spend time with them. This is not to say that they are not valuable. Phillip K. Dick wrote some valuable stuff that should be appreciated. By people other than me. Because I hate all the characters in his books. A lot.**)
For this, I could be accused of a failure of empathy (and go ahead, feel free, I offer you my admission of my failure of empathy as a gift.) If I were a good person, or at least a sophisticated reader, undoubtedly I could relate to anyone. Any old barbarian warlord would do. I could put myself in the shoes of the entire cast of Game of Thrones instead of “On a good day Tyrion but generally nobody and actually I stopped reading awhile ago because I could not care less what happens to any of these awful, awful people.”*** I would pour myself into the personas of wise-cracking urban fantasy heroines with their hidden faerie underworlds and their nifty super-powers and their on-again off-again relationships with hunky muscled fill-in-the-blanks. I would play Angst Along With Elric. (Follow the bouncing Stormbringer!)
But I can’t, and I don’t. I have dumped out too much of my sympathy on whiny heroes and farmboys with destinies who throw stupid temper tantrums for no apparent reason. The Strategic Sympathy Reserves are running low and I do not consider it worth the environmental damage to start cracking open the Sympathetic Shale. I am just…tired of all these people.
It’s not that characters have to be me. I do not require thirty-seven-year-old divorced and remarried writer protagonists with a gardening bent, and if I did, I would be pretty disappointed by now.
But I would like to read more about people who are kind.
Not…y’know…not the lady-of-the-manor kindness you find in a lot of Regencies, not Tireless Social Reformer archetype, or Look How Selfless I Am, but just…kind.
I know it when I see it, anyhow.
You can do any horrible thing you want to them, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying “Write me a nice book without conflict!” Just…I look back at all the characters that I loved, really truly loved and who mattered–Aerin and Dr. Evan Wilson and Number Ten Ox and Brutha and Granny Weatherwax and Brother Cadfael and all the rest, and they were all good and most of them were kind (although it was a rather pointy kindness, at least in the case of Weatherwax.)
(Polite is also sadly lacking in many cases, as I may have lamented before.)
I am saying this badly, I think. I read back and there are huge holes where someone could shout things through, if they were so inclined. Perhaps I don’t know what I’m trying to say well enough to say it. I am not trying to shut up any character who is hard or angry, or tell any author that their characters have to be nice. No. If you need to write an angry and defiant character, write her. Someone will need that book, even if it isn’t me, or at least, isn’t me today.
Maybe what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t actually realize, until reading The Goblin Emperor, how much I was still willing to give to a book where the main character was so intensely sympathetic.
And it pointed up, in such sharp relief, how little I’ve been willing to give to a lot of fantasy books I’ve tried to read for a long time.
*Except at certain times of month for certain forms of comfort reading.
**Someone said to me once “They’re very human.” No, they’re very asshole. I know lots and lots of humans, and none of them behave like that. If they did, I would not hang around with them.
*Fine, I would prefer Arya not die, but given the series, the only way to do that is to stop reading.