Tuesday 25 April 2017

Further Meditations on the Questing Ensemble

Here be more spoilers.

Anyway - following on from the last article - what of the group dynamics?

Let us accept for the sake of argument that People are their Actions (and lack there of). Any author's portrayal of their characters therefore relies on their actions. The majority of their actions, when in a questing ensemble, will be towards the rest of the ensemble. They're the ones together the most after all. This is less true if we're talking of major actions - climatic fights, plot altering decisions, moments of transcendental character growth - but the rest of the ensemble will still bogart a lot of that. The decision to rescue a friend, a betrayal, revealing a secret that leaves you completely vulnerable... all of these and more will probably be between a character and other ensemble members.

The short version of that would be "Your key tool for establishing character in an ensemble is their relationships with the other members of the ensemble". I'm just showing my working out in case I'm full of it and need to be called out.

Now one of the best ways - maybe the best way - of establishing character is conflict. As T.S. Elliot said, "If you aren't in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?" Which means there needs to be conflict within the group.

Okay, yes, that's really obvious now I've written it down. Shut up. I'll get to the point.

Lets look at Lord of the Rings. Pretty much all of the conflict in the Fellowship stems from Boromir. Yes there's moments of exasperation among the others, particularly with the early stages of the Gimli-Legolas double act, but little compared to Boromir's general doubt. I don't know if its coincidence that Tolkien killed off his agent provocateur when breaking up the Fellowship, but there is a neatness to it.

The idea that there's one guy at the heart of all the discontent seems pretty common. I should have re-read Dragonlance before starting this; it features a great group and one of the features if I remember right is Raistlin being a right royal pain in the posterior. In the Belgariad, which personally relies heavily on the group dynamic for its reputation, Silk is at the centre of most of the verbal sniping. Yes there's plenty of 1 vs 1 side shows - Belgarath vs Pol, Mandorallen vs Lelldorin, Relg vs Taiba, and Garion vs Ce'Nedra - but Silk shows up pretty much everywhere else, and often as a commentator on the above.

While Best Served Cold is just filled to brim with unhappiness, no one is quite as good at getting under so many people's skins as Castor Morveer, with him taking part in a lot of verbal sniping and quite a few attempted killings. David Gemmell has a fondness for using cantankerous middle-aged men as his primary source of needle - see Beltzer in Quest for Lost Heroes and Bison in Winter Warriors. I am a big fan too of how Butcher handled Dresden in Skin Game, where Dresden becomes the primary source of antagonism by being the good guy among the villains, rather than the usual antihero among the good guy. Its a fun inversion and it would be nice to see more writers take a swing at that.

Its not the only way to do it of course.The Sword of Shannara and Silverthorn don't really have that sort of internal dissension while in The First Law, its a royal rumble of bitterness with everyone causing trouble. I think a lot of what's made The First Law so big is how much it played with all the usual ways of doing quest fantasy (among other subgenres and also Glokta). But its popular and it works.

So if you have one chap acting the maggot, what other roles are the rest of the ensemble filling to round out the dynamics? I think a lot of traditional ensemble models don't really address this, mixing what the character does with how the character acts, as in TVTropes' Five Man Band page. You get a leader, someone railing against the leader, someone holding it together, comic relief and... whatever the big guy is doing.

Certainly there will be someone bowed under the weight of responsibility - often quite a few of them. Sometimes that's because they're leading, sometimes that's growing up - you can pretty much guarantee a kid who's got to grow up in most fantasies - or sometimes something else. There's probably comic relief, which can also be combined with causing conflict - true of Castor, Silk and the Gemmells here; true of Loki in mythology. Someone will probably be the main source of comfort to the group too, TVTropes' The Chick role. They too can be comic relief, particularly if they're less emotional comfort and more idiot child that makes us feel better/really bad at providing comfort; I'd argue that Elan in Order of the Stick is a good example of that.

But that doesn't tell us anything about how the characters relate to each other. 

I think that's ultimately because people relate to each other because of how they view the world. Talking about how they act, or the challenges they face, or their role, is putting the cart before the horse.

Look at Best Served Cold. It would be pretty easy for a group of outsider mercenary types to become too samey but Abercrombie is clever in using the obvious point in common - the willingness to kill - as one of the major points in difference. Castor is the driver of conflict in that his incredibly dismissive view of everyone else means he puts far less value on human life than anyone else. Caul Shivers' desire to be a good man puts him at the opposite pole with Monza in the middle. 

Yet Castor's conflict causing goes further. His ego leads him to take everything incredibly seriously, which creates friction with Nicomo, whose flippancy and desire for novelty gives him an incredible unprofessional facade. Monza is less in the middle here, yet it becomes clear that Nicomo's need for diversion has created her, for without his backing and failures she would have never become a great Captain. Nicomo's tendency to see the world as a place best not taken seriously jibes best with Friendly, who cannot quite understand the world himself.

So there's Castor, a man with a gigantic ego and disdain for the world that transfers into an uncompromising demand for professionalism, oblivious to anything else. His apprentice Day serves mainly to lampshade how this destroys his relationships. His main enemies are Shivers, a killer struggling to believe in old fashioned straight forwards honour and kindness, and Nicomo, a mercenary whose whimsical adventurous nature makes it very hard for him to stick to either professionalism or honour. That's the essence of the exchanges that drive the book.

Or at least so I believe. If I'm wrong, tell me!

Wednesday 12 April 2017

Quick and Idle Thoughts on Fantasy Questing Ensembles

Warning - Here Be Spoilers.

I've been devoting a lot of brainpower to ensemble casts in fantasy. I want a new project while I hammer out the fine details of the Sir Albric project. I keep finding myself stumbling on coming up with enough characters that hold my interest. So I keep thinking about ensemble casts, what makes them work, what makes them tick.

Certainly fantasy literature loves ensemble casts. There's plenty of lone heroes and tightly knit groups its true, but when we talk of fantasy, they don't seem to be what comes to mind first. Or at least they don't come to my mind first. Even when you're avoiding the Epics with their casts of thousand, there's still an urge to really inflate the cast.

So I started thinking about Lord of the Rings and the questing party. Lord of the Rings is epic in scope and does have a fairly big cast, but really it comes down to the nine dudes in the Fellowship. Which is a pretty big number anyway. How do you give equal page time to nine characters if they're all in the same spot? Obviously the Fellowship breaks up quick enough that this never really arises. What you really get is a bunch of smaller groups. Prior to formation, the hobbits are a group by themselves for a bit, then there's also the hobbits and Aragorn. After the break-up you get Frodo & Sam, Merry & Pippin, and Aragorn, Legolas & Gimli. Deliberately or not, Tolkien basically breaks them down into the original units, with the newcomers off doing their own thing. ALG go off and have warlike adventures; F&S have their quest; M&P act as the readers' eyes, while at the same time showing the heroism of the underestimated and innocent.

You kind of have a similar model in Eddings' Belgariad. There you get a core group, those who leave Faldor's farm; Garion, Durnik, Belgarath and Polgara. With the addition of Silk and Ce'Nedra, those are the characters that start and finish the book and when you see the party broken up, three of the four will generally be in the same activity group. Barak, Hettar and Mandorallen sort of form their own martial group equivalent to ALG (although Barak also has the buddy act going on with Silk equivalent to L&G, although its obviously a Leiber homage). To a certain extent, Eddings repeats the model in the Elenium. Sparhawk, Sephrenia, Kurik and Kalten are the core group. Tynian & Ulath get the buddy act - which so far seems to be placed outside the core (not that there aren't double acts in the core).

In Feist's Silverthorn, the questing group originally comprises of Arutha, Gardan, Laurie and Martin (although that's never seen on page), quickly joined by Jimmy & Locky (our buddy act), then there's Roald and Baru on the road. Once again, the main role for late comers seems to be muscle, although the original party is hardly short of it (much like Eddings' Elenium crew). The Sword of Shannara is similar to the Belgariad and LotR from memory; a core group of innocents and wizard (Flick, Shea, Allanon), the quick addition of the guide (Menion), then a bit later on all the muscle (Balinor, Hendel, Durin and Dayel).

Lets look at something a bit more modern. In The First Law, Abercrombie mixes up the order a bit. We start with the wizard and a member of team muscle (Bayaz and Ninefingers) and they end up picking up the bildungsroman 'hero' Jezal and the guide Brother Longfoot. There is some additional muscle in the form of Ferro, with whom Ninefingers forms a double act. If you count the apprentice Malacus Quai as another 'innocent', you do have something looking a lot like the traditional questing party, even if its formation has been somewhat twisted round, just like poor old 'Malacus'.

Of course not everything works this way. Take Jen Williams' The Ninth Rain and MD Presley's The Woven Ring, to pick two modern 'quest' fantasies; both of them have parties with only three members, none of them particularly innocent. In the Dresden Files, Jim Butcher has a rotating cast around Harry for when its quest time, although I can't think of anything much in the trad fantasy field with this sort of episodic nature. Going back to Abercrombie, Best Served Cold features a questing ensemble, but there's no real core group or innocents, unless we call Monza and Shivers the core with Shivers being the innocent. Which kind of works.

Nevertheless, it does seem a common enough model: a core group of adventurers, containing the story's innocents and their main guides (or with them joining shortly after), with further characters added as needed, mainly to act as protection. The protection usually forms its own bonds and has its own adventures. If the party breaks up, it usually breaks up into the groups it was originally made up of prior to the formation.

What does this mean? I've no idea. I'm not sure its helped me form new ideas. Although I guess you could have some fun with a story about a core group of protection who stumble across some innocents and their mentor fleeing from danger, take them on, and then find out they're not as innocent as they seem. 

But its nice to look at how things work (or at least I think so, and since you've got this far, you probably agree). And the more we think, the more ideas come. I guess the next thing to think about would be just how this effects the dynamics.