Sunday, July 1, 2007

Fantasy, Horror, and Aging

by Stuart Sharp

There are genres of writing that clearly favour older heroes. The detective novel, for example, is usually more fun with someone nearing retirement, and preferably almost completely washed up, than with a shiny new character just starting their career. From Poirot to Morse, Holmes to Miss Marple, few of the great detectives and private detectives of fiction have been exactly teenagers.

Fantasy and Horror novels are a different matter entirely. Whether we’re talking about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Fritz Leiber’s books featuring Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Conan or the Harry Potter series, heroes in these genres have tended to be young. When they’re not, it’s often either for comic effect, as with Terry Pratchett’s character Cohen the barbarian, or as a way of exploring the attempts of that hero to live up to their reputation in the face of declining physical powers. Druss, from David Gemmell’s novel Legend, is a classic example of the latter.
Very often, when older characters show up in fantasy and horror writing, it is as secondary characters. They are the wise mentors, the helpers, and quite often the villains. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine many of these characters any other way. The likes of Dumbledore and Gandalf, for example, probably wouldn’t work anywhere near as well if they were both in their twenties. They need to be older to serve as founts of wisdom and advice, not to mention to have chance to grow the beards long enough.

On the other hand, it’s probably that same sense of experience and competence that prevents them from being anything other than supporting characters. Fantasy usually requires a sense of wonder and curiosity in order to explore whatever world the writer has created. Horror usually needs a sense of innocence and hope to increase the terror when circumstances become more frightening. All these things are more readily available in a younger character than an older one. Besides, running around forbidden temples killing things sounds very much like a job where aching joints, family responsibilities, and a tendency to forget where you left things aren’t going to be an advantage.

Of course, in the realms of fantasy, horror, and whichever of the million and one sub-genres is in vogue this week, there is always another possibility. You can have characters with minds hundreds of years old and bodies that don’t even look thirty. You can make them immortal, or undead.

I’m not talking about the shambling corpses that sometimes show up in horror fiction, of course. Those are monsters, baddies for our intrepid heroes to kill/be eaten by/run away from, depending on the mood of the author. Even in Dracula, the vampires are just there as a threat to scare and kill the main characters.

Instead, I’m thinking of those times when the immortal, nearly immortal, or un-dead characters get to be full characters rather than just being defined by what they are. They have lives and personalities of their own. Or un-lives and personalities of their own, at least. This is quite common at those points where horror shades into something else, but it also shows up in more mainstream horror writing, and in fantasy.

Anne Rice is probably one of the best known for this sort of thing, using an assortment of vampires and other supernatural beasties in the first person point of view for most of her novels. Laurell K. Hamilton, Kelly Armstrong, Kim Harrison and Jim Butcher have populated their supernatural thrillers with an assortment of long lived and immortal characters, while the likes of Sherrilyn Kenyon and Maryjanice Davidson have even pushed immortal and undead characters into areas that fuse with romance novels and chick-lit.

It’s an approach that raises some strange issues. Firstly, what explanation do you offer for the character’s status? They end up being as varied as the authors involved, ranging from a simple explanation based around a vampiric "virus" to the transformation of vengeful souls by a Greek goddess. Obviously, given the genre, the explanation doesn’t have to make any kind of "real world" sense, but it’s nice, and occasionally slightly worrying, to know that these things have been thought through.

The other main issue with immortal and semi-immortal characters is their past. This usually ends up as something of a balancing act. On the one hand, if these characters are supposed to be hundreds of years old they should probably give a sense of that. If they’re completely identical to every other character, then there isn’t really much point, so the writer needs to put in enough historical research and references to make us believe the character has been there. On the other hand, it has to be difficult to avoid the temptation to have them show up, Forrest Gump-like, at every famous historical event since their creation.

If I’m honest, I’m not sure how well immortal characters work as the central character of a novel. They have most of the same difficulties as older characters generally, such as a tendency to seem jaded by the world around them, without the compensations of a new set of issues to explore. They are, effectively, young characters that have been young for a very long time. At worst, there is a risk of having a character so divorced from real human experience that the reader can’t feel any sympathy for them.

Interesting, a lot of the authors I’ve mentioned seem to agree. Kelly Armstrong, Jim Butcher, Kim Harrison and Laurell K. Hamilton all have vampires and other immortal characters in their novels, but they are rarely the main protagonist. They are lovers, friends, and enemies of the main character, but that character is invariably mortal, if not necessarily any more normal. Essentially, they seem to have recognised the importance of a fairly normal character in drawing the reader into more fantastic worlds.

Of course, having said that, the success of Anne Rice tends to disprove my point. One of the most famous long lived characters of all also threatens to derail things, because Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, is probably as well known as any character if we take a fairly broad definition of what constitutes fantasy writing. The answer to this is that, by not just "not growing old," but also not growing up, Peter Pan remains a young sort of character mentally as well as physically.

This fits in with the conclusion that the vast majority of main characters in fantasy and horror writing remain fairly young, characters just starting out in a career of killing strange beasts (or running away from them). Surely there has to be a place for more variety than that, though, because the glut of fairly young characters is getting a bit predictable. I’m not suggesting that fantasy and horror literature should suddenly be overrun by octogenarians, but is it really too much to ask for a hero who can go out, save the world and stay up past Harry Potter’s bed time?


Imani said...

I was trying to think of older characters in fantasy who were the main deal, or close to it, and I can only come up with "high fantasy" writers like Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay (Tigana though I can't remember the age of the intended ruler of Tigana so maybe I'm stretching there). Older heroes are more common in the sort of fantasy that consciously follows classical and northern Europe myth and folklore it seems as opposed to simply borrowing parts of it to make something with more modern sensibilities (regardless of how many "thines" are thrown in).

Hmm. I'll have to think about this more. Nice article!

okcat said...

You should check out Karl Edward Wagner's Kane.