[GUEST POST] Richard Lee Byers on Fantasy’s Scoundrels


Richard Lee Byers is the author of over thirty fantasy and horror novels, including a number set in the Forgotten Realms universe. A resident of the Tampa Bay area, the setting for many of his horror stories, he spends much of his free time fencing and playing poker. His newest work is a story written for Blackguards, a kickstarter anthology of assassins, mercenaries, and rogues. Friend him on Facebook, Follow him on Twitter as @RLeeByers, and read his blog on Livejournal.

Fantasy’s Scoundrels

by Richard Lee Byers

I started reading fantasy as a teenager, and from the start, I was drawn to its rogues and antiheroes. Which is not to say that I didn’t appreciate Tolkien’s Frodo and Burroughs’s John Carter. I did. But not as much as I dug Leiber’s Gray Mouser and Fafhrd, Brackett’s Eric John Stark, Howard’s Conan, or Wagner’s Kane. I think there are several reasons why, some relating to the characters themselves and some to their creators’ styles of storytelling and world building.

For one thing, the rogues tend to be more credible. In the real world, we certainly have people who make sacrifices and even risk their lives for principles and causes, but rarely is the struggle all they care about. They have personal ambitions, attachments, prejudices, flaws, blind spots, and what have you. Which means that even the best of us are as much like Jirel of Joiry as we are Aragorn, and sadly, most of us are not numbered among the best of us.

With that greater believability comes a personality that’s more complex and more interesting to read about. The Gray Mouser shows us aspects of his inner life that are forever hidden in Legolas, and we can’t always predict what the Gray One will do and why before he does it.

In addition, the rogues are pretty much by definition antiauthoritarian. Even when they’re nominally in service to the established order as opposed to overt rebels and outlaws, they’re freethinkers willing to disobey their bosses’ commands when conscience or common sense tells them they should. For a reader living in a complicated modern society with its inevitable compromises and dissatisfactions, such an attitude is more relatable than the bliss of a Narnian woodchuck rejoicing under the Pevensie children’s allegedly perfect rule.

On top of which, antiheroes have more fun. They indulge their baser appetites, which means the reader does so vicariously as well. Unlike the Company of the Ring, who never get laid in all their travels through Middle Earth, Conan pretty much humps his way across the kingdoms of the Hyborian Age. Gimli slaughters many an orc, but never with the vicious joy of Kane avenging himself on a hated enemy. Bilbo steals the Arkenstone from Smaug’s horde because that’s the quest, but he doesn’t get off on it like Fafhrd pilfering the contents of a merchant’s strongbox.

Because fantasy’s rogues are flawed, their adventures can be more suspenseful. Whatever menaces arise to challenge the Fellowship of the Ring or Aslan and his principal agents, it’s difficult to worry about them too much. They’re so obviously the champions of all that is Right and True that their defeat is inconceivable. With a King Kull or a Cugel the Clever, it’s different. On one level, of course, we still know the character is the protagonist and likely to come out okay. But we can suffer a little more anxiety on his behalf if he isn’t so manifestly the anointed paladin of Goodness.

Finally, the antiheroes inhabit more interesting worlds. Their universes display more complexity and diversity than just all the good people standing against the onslaught of the Dark Lord. Yet the supernatural marvels and entities inhabiting them usually skew toward the sinister, and for a reader with a Gothic sensibility (I’m also a horror fan), demons, werewolves, and their ilk possess a greater allure than ethereal unicorns or melancholy elves.

Or at least that’s how it all hits me. But at the same time, getting older has changed my perspective on the fantasy genre just a tad. Having been robbed a couple times, I’m less inclined to view theft as merely an amusing sport. Observing the harm psychopaths do in the real world, I see the amoral protagonist a little differently. None of which diminishes my enjoyment of Northwest Smith or Kane. But perhaps it made me less likely to use a comparable protagonist in my own work.

Instead, I came up with Selden. He’s pragmatic, quick-witted, unimpressed by authority, generally motivated by self-interest, and kills without compunction when necessary, which suffices, I think, to admit him to the great sword-and-sorcery brotherhood of knaves and dubious characters. But he also has a fundamental decency that occasionally prompts him to probe dangerous mysteries and square off against malevolent sorcerers even when it won’t put gold in his pocket.

I’ve written several stories about him, but the one in Blackguards actually comes first in the sequence and is an origin of sorts, set shortly after his arrival in Balathex, the Whispering City. I hope everyone enjoys it.