Ari Marmell is the author of several works of horror and fantasy tie-in fiction – including Agents of Artifice, a Magic: the Gathering novel-as well as roughly ten-billion-and-one role-playing game supplements for Dungeons & Dragons, Vampire: the Masquerade, and others. The Conqueror’s Shadow, available from Random House’s Spectra imprint, is his first published non-tie-in novel. You can find Ari online at www.mouseferatu.com.
With the possible exceptions of horror and superhero comic books (which, though predating the field of “contemporary fantasy,” are arguably as much a subset thereof as they are a subset of sci-fi), the fantasy genre seems to contain a greater proportion of antiheroes than any other. From Elric of Melniboné to Vlad Taltos, Thomas Covenant to Xena, Locke Lamora to the Black Company, Jack Sparrow to-if I dare hope to place him in such infamous company-my own Corvis Rebaine, fantasy is absolutely replete with protagonists who are either former villains trying to make good, or who still would be villains if their tales were told from only a slightly altered perspective.
It almost goes without saying that for such a character to work, they must be given redeeming traits to make up for, or at least explain, their more villainous aspects. Vlad Taltos limits his “evil” to (more or less) those who have earned it. Jack Sparrow occasionally tries to do the right thing, and he’s just a whole lot of fun. I gave Corvis Rebaine strong motivations for his attempted conquest, and a family he loves and wants to protect once he’s “retired” from his martial life. I could write an entire (very lengthy) essay on all the various ways to make an antihero sympathetic, but A) that’s a little broader than I wanted to get, and B) I think most of you would lynch me if I tried to make you read that much on a computer screen.
So, let’s put that aside for just a moment and talk about something that’s going to seem unrelated, but bear with me. My mind’s tricksy that way, Precious.
One thing I’ve seen mentioned in multiple reviews of The Conqueror’s Shadow – sometimes as a positive, sometimes a negative – is the book’s use of classic fantasy tropes. It’s very, as one reviewer put it, “genre aware.” This was quite deliberate on my part-and, I strongly believe, many who write in the field today. It’s fun to examine the old standbys of the genre and either twist them in unusual directions or examine them from different angles. (Both of which I try to do in much of my own fiction.) Beyond even that, they’re comfortable to both writers and readers, something that many lovers of fantasy return to time and again precisely because of their familiarity. I’m not putting down originality of story or setting here; we all strive for that in one aspect of our writing or another. I’m just saying that these tropes are popular for a reason, and it’s not (pundits to the contrary) laziness on the part of fans. It’s the same reason we often have a favorite dish at a restaurant; we like these things.
But more importantly to my current point (yes, I do have one, and I promise we’re getting there) is the fact that classic tropes function as a shared shorthand by which authors and readers communicate. Authors cannot rely on said shorthand, or else a book really does become nothing but an unoriginal accumulation of clichés. You have to go past the tropes and the trappings, delve into characters and plot. But those tropes can and do serve as a great way to introduce the concepts in question: They swiftly explain to the reader the basics of a character or a scenario, and from that beginning-that doorway into the concept, if you will-the author can then proceed to deeper examination.
I’m going to keep using The Conqueror’s Shadow as my primary example-because, oddly, I know it well, and have a pretty solid insight into what the author intended. (You should, however, have no problem following even if you haven’t read it.) When we first meet Corvis Rebaine in the prologue, he’s in full-on warlord mode, the height of his power as the “Terror of the East.” And we meet him, not really as a human being, but as an imposing suit of black armor, complete with spines of bone and a skull-shaped iron-bound helm. It’s clearly intended to be intimidating more than it is to actually function in combat. (Any swordsman will tell you that spines on armor just help guide weapons in.) But while that suit of armor sends a message to the people he’s conquering-“Be afraid”-the message it sends to the reader is “You already know, in part, who and what this guy is.” The imagery of the black knight is an archetype, already ingrained in our minds. Darth Vader. Lord Soth. The Nazgûl, more or less. Heck, Dr. Doom. We see or read about such a character, and we know, at least to a very basic extent, what to expect from them.
So when we see Corvis again years later, in Chapter One, we know instantly that something dramatic has changed. Gone is the imposing black-armored figure; we’re left with an older, wiry man weeding a garden, listening to the shouts of his children. Again, I couldn’t leave it at that-just as I had to examine his motivations as a “dark warlord” throughout the book, so too did I have to examine his motivations as a father and a husband-but it’s enough to tell the reader immediately that the person he was is not the person he is.
And that, finally, ties us back into my original point. (And there was much rejoicing.) I know it’s not how all other writers do it, but I’ve found that one of the best ways to portray an antihero-and to make sure the reader sympathizes with him or her, despite the villainous aspects of the character-is through the careful use and manipulation of said tropes. The sudden sharp divide I mentioned above, in how the reader meets Corvis for the first and second times, instantly establishes a line of demarcation between the two sides of his personality and history. It’s a line that gets progressively blurrier as the book progresses, of course, but it remains present in the reader’s mind. Every time I do something that diverges from the “big bad warlord” archetype, it helps reinforce the fact that this character has his positive attributes, that he’s not just a villain.
Similarly, I used tropes to reinforce the malevolence of the actual villain of the story, Audriss the Serpent. By playing to some of fantasy’s standard “bad guy” appearances and behaviors, Audriss is very swiftly established in the reader’s mind as worse than Corvis Rebaine ever was-and every time I emphasize that, either via those tropes or through more detailed examination of motives and actions, it pushes the reader toward further sympathy for Corvis Rebaine, because he’s trying to stand up to this vastly more evil figure. Again, the tropes aren’t remotely sufficient – like I said, you can’t base a book or a character on tropes alone and expect them to come to life-but they’re an invaluable shorthand to establish basic details before going into more depth.
(And if all this sounds a little manipulative, I’ll let you in a little secret-that’s part of what authors do. We want our readers to feel/react a certain way, after all.)
Elric comes from a decadent culture where everyone else is even worse than he is. Raistlin is wracked with physical weakness and the constant desire to escape his brother’s shadow. Vlad grew up constantly suppressed and bullied by the dominant race of the city in which he lived. Thomas Covenant is sick, suffering, outcast. In every case, the authors are using not only details of background or personality, but what are arguably tropes of the genre, to explain or mitigate the darker aspects of their characters. And through the use of the shorthand of tropes, they’re able to do so swiftly, thus allowing the characters, the books, and the readers to progress that much more quickly into the meat of the story, and the further development of said characters.
Not all of this is conscious on our parts, I must point out. I didn’t become aware of what I was doing with the tropes around Corvis Rebaine until a few drafts into the novel. But if you look, I think you’ll find this to be a common (though certainly not universal) practice when it comes to antihero characters. And the next time you’re reading a book and noticing a prevalence of classic tropes-whether you consider that to be a good or a bad thing-you might take a moment to contemplate why the author chose to include them. You may find that he or she is telling you something about the characters that you didn’t even realize you were getting.