Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Smoldering Hot Royal Guard

I'm taking a break from my epic attempt to read/catch up on THE WHEEL OF TIME to visit my comfy, cuddly world of YA fantasy by knocking out three books written by some remarkably talented ladies. One is a debut (THRONE OF GLASS), one is book one of a new series (FALLING KINGDOMS) and the other is the final installment of a popular series(THE CRIMSON CROWN). It's also a run on reading some epic fantasy in the vein of what I write. Now, I'm not going to do full blown reviews. I don't like doing book reviews for an assortment of reasons I won't list here, but as I'm about a quarter of the way through the second book of my read (FALLING KINGDOMS) and I've noticed something that all three have. It's sort of a trope, I guess, though I can't be completely sure. I'm calling it (and I'm sure that TV Tropes already has an entry, but I'm sticking with mine for now) the smoldering hot royal guard. And I kind of like it.

Now, the term smoldering comes from the movie TANGLED, a vastly underrated Disney Princess movie. Now I know there are plenty of folks out there that will get their claws sharpened over the Disney Princesses but I for one love them if for no other reason my daughter's love of them. (In particular, Belle from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, who was really the first of the "new generation" of Disney princesses...anyway I digress.) TANGLED is a fun, adventurous, epic level romp that joyfully plays with the tropes of both Disney Princesses and the fantasy adventure genre and I don't think it gets the credit it deserves for being a good film. Anyway, there's a hilarious scene where Flynn Rider is held captive by Rapunzel and he tries to "seduce" her with his good looks, especially with his signature move, the "Smolder."

Now it's played off hilariously and full of winks and nods. Now, Flynn Rider is decidedly NOT the Smoldering All American Boy that I'm talking about. He's really Han Solo Lite...I mean he's even got the vest...but that's a blog post for a different time. I just wanted to sort of put that picture in your head...okay, maybe not that picture but something like it.

Anyway, if you look the word smolder up in the dictionary, it means "to burn sluggishly without flame with much smoke." And metaphorically speaking it fits this trope to a t...especially three characters from the respective books that are it.

In fantasy, royal guards are a dime a dozen. They are engrained into the psyche of fantasy writers. We usually just call them The Royal Guard, though sometimes we'll come up with something clever like the Kingsguard or in real life the Secret Service or something like that. Anyway, they are as much a part of the fantasy genre as the faceless mooks, the Dark Lord or the Action Princess. And I've noticed that in all of the above books/series, there is a royal guard that is smolderingly hot. I wish I could explain it better, but I think it makes sense if you think about it.

Now, let me say again I love this trope. This isn't a criticism, it's more of an analysis than anything else. All three characters have similar traits, attributes that connect them. Generally speaking, the royal guard just isn't any mook guard. He's usually a commander or captain or something like that. He can be a noble but he's not always a noble, it almost depends on what's convenient to the writer at the time. All three are inconvenienced in some way by the female protagonist of the story. Usually this involves their being assigned to the princess's detail. There is an immediate attraction between them and an equal amount of revulsion that eventually turns to respect and a deeper attraction. There is always a wall between the two and that just adds to the smoldering. See the royal guard can never be ravingly angry ever because guards are always under control (part of the trope!) so there's always a smoldering anger underneath as the guard does his job. It's all part of the tension. To make matters worse, the guard either is close friends with the king/duke/prince/love interest of the female protagonist OR despises the love interest/betrothed of the female protagonist. (I'm resisting calling her a princess because that is not always the case.)We can kind of understand why they always seem angry. But it's not just the tension from the romance, it's the very tension that have in their relationship with the nobility around them. It's tenuous. They aren't the same as the people around them and, on some level, that annoys them too, even if they are in enough control to not allow it to be on the surface.

Storywise, the same things happen to all of these characters. The long gazes at one another when they wonder "What if...", the almost cliched "Ditching the Bodyguard" and the "bodyguard shows up in the nick of time" all play out. But like with all tropes, it's not that you use them, it's how you use them. And all of these writers use them and use them well.It adds depth to a story and raises the tension. We all love the TEAM: ROYAL GUARD/TEAM HANDSOME PRINCE arguments in our work.

There is something appealing about the idea of a charge falling for/ being attracted to their body guard. The trope extends beyond the fantasy world. The movie THE BODYGUARD comes to mind almost instantly. It goes further back, Lancelot (in some ways) and Guenevere had a similar situation.

In THRONE OF GLASS, Choal is the Crown Prince's best friend and really could be the archetype of this trope. He seems angry all the time and it works. (Look, I have a thing for angry characters, okay.) FALLING KINGDOMS has Theon. (Which I have a hard time with only because Theon Greyjoy is a sniveling little s**t and this Theon isn't.) And CRIMSON CROWN has Amon. These guys are great characters that define this trope. I'm sure there are others that I haven't experienced and it makes me want to experiment with the character type in my own work. I like the conflict they feel: between their own feelings, their sense of duty and their loyalty to their friend, though that may not always be the case.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Reflection on Douchebaggery

I am completely and utterly fascinated by the resurgence of the insult "douchebag" and the general concept of "being a douche." The literal implications of the two ideas aside, has there ever been a clearer verbal descriptor with such an elusive and flexible definition? Almost all of us could easily, with very little thought, name someone we have relative intimate knowledge who's behavior, attitude and demeanor fit the ambiguous term "douchebag." Right? You've got a name or a face in your head right now. Need help? Sigh, this was the quintessential douchebag for my generation:

In addition to being fascinated with the resurgence of the word, the writer in me is completely drawn and in love with writing about characters that are douchebags. Now this comes from a brief Twitter conversation I had with some folks about the idea of an "unlikable protagonist."

In my series SEASONS OF DESTINY, in book one: WINTER'S DISCORD, I (and other people) noticed in the query that Ben, the protagonist, comes across as being very "douchey." He's not really, but he kind of is and, to me, that makes him a much more interesting a character to write about and even read about. Now, this isn't the only reason I'm thinking about it. I watched a movie a few nights ago, AMERICAN REUNION.

Now, if you are of a certain age, the AMERICAN movies are part of our pop culture canon. Now, while the first movie came out when I was 26 and it was about teens, I think I was the real target audience because it essential left me with a feeling of nostalgia for those days of my life and the attitudes that I had in those days. I think the same thing can be said for the remaining sequels (I'm ignoring the straight to video/ Comedy Central AMERICAN PIE movies for the sake of this essay.) I found AMERICAN REUNION to be "meh" as a had it's moments, but it was pretty much a tired retread of some of the same ideas they'd done in previous movies. Anyway, I was drawn to a character that I didn't think I would be and it is strictly because of my sudden interest in "douchebaggery:" Stifler.

Now, they sort of retcon some of Stifler's character for the purposes of the story that instead of being the cocky gym teacher/football coach, he's now a temp in an office where he's completely stifled and basically not allowed to be the cocky/douchey Stifler that we know and love. As the movie goes on, he begins to realize that the old days are gone and will never return, no matter how much he tries. In many ways, he gets his comenuppance throughout the story. I was much more fascinated with Stifler's attempts at his own version of redemption throughout the story, his inability to let go of the past and his revelation that he is indeed the problem (a theme that has been explored in the previous WEDDING movie far less effectively). In that movie, his redemption is an actual redemption where he makes up for his mistakes with actions. But in REUNION, they take a different tact. He is the group's douche (or DICK, using a more appropriate 90s vernacular to describe his role) and the realization of that helps define him as a character. His redemption comes in his own realization as to who he is, beneath the douchiness is a person that is deeply loyal to his friends. He is "their" douche and it is up to him to fill a number of roles: keep people in check, protect them when they cannot protect themselves, do the unsavory things that need to be done that the other members of the group won't do and even act as one end of the moral compass for the group at times. This is the very definition of an "unlikable" protagonist. And he's my kind of protagonist. He's all of our kind of protagonists.

Don't believe me? Who are the enduring, most likable people in our favorite pieces of literature or pop culture? Let's think. Let me list a few that I can think of.

  • Han Solo: Dude was a slick, hot rodding smuggler and a complete douchebag. Look at the way he treats Leia in the first two SW movies. Look at the way he treats everyone. That smirk. The way he stood. Christ, he shot Greedo, drove the SW Universe equivalent of a Trans Am and wore a Corellian bloodstripe down his trousers.
  • Jaime Lannister: Do I have enough room to list all the reasons the Kingslayer is a douche?
  • Countless Shakespeare characters: Henry V, Falstaff, Hamlet, MacBeth...I think you get the point.
  • Mat Cauthon: Supreme douchiness...he would have been on the Randland equivalent of the Jersey Shore. (Actually, almost all of the male characters have spent time on Douchebag Island at one point or another.)
  • Mouth from Goonies: The archetypical loud mouth douche from one of the best pure adventure stories of the last 30 years. 
  • Holden Caufield: Now to be fair, I read Catcher In The Rye when I was in my 20s, so maybe my perspective is skewed a bit, but Holden is the prototypical literary douche.
SO douchebags exist. Unlikeable as they may be, they are out there. Embrace them, fellow writers, they are far more interesting characters than many of the characters I read today (many of whom might actually fall under some version of the definition of douchebag). 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Tarmon Gai'don Is Upon Us

Today is a day that there a lot of people have waited 22 years for: the conclusion of perhaps the most epic of epic tales: The Wheel of Time. With the release of A Memory of Light, the Third Age comes to an end and thus begins the Fourth Age. I wonder how many thousands, and I have no doubt there are thousands, of people that have skipped work/school to read. I'm not one of them because, well, I'm out of work because of my surgery not because I want to read but I just finished book five. I'm a long way from Tarmon Gai'don. But that doesn't mean I don't have something to say about it.

One of my favorite things about being an English teacher/avid reader/writer is to hear about how people discovered a book they love/that influenced them. The excitement and love in a person's voice when discussing a book they love enthralls me. I hear it in my own voice when I talk about A Game of Thrones or Henry V or Fences or Dragonlance (I'll talk about Dragonlance in another blog post.) And WOT is one of those books/series. 

I'm late to The Wheel of Time party. I read The Eye of the World sometime in the late 90s or early 2000s. The way I remember it was that the paperback was on the shelf at the grocery store where I worked. I knew it was an important part of the "fantasy canon" (more on that later, probably another blog post), so I decided to buy it. It was okay. Not earth shattering. A Tolkien clone combined with some of the politics of Dune on some level. Toughed through it and The Great Hunt, remembering it fondly. I remember reading it while floating in my then girlfriend now wife's aunt's pool during the summer. To this day, I think of that time of my life every time we drive over there. Again, it was good, but not earthshattering for me. I quit The Dragon Reborn and didn't pick it up until many, many years later. And the only reason I did was because someone left four or five of the books on the desk in my classroom. Book three started to draw me in and by the end of The Shadow Rising I was officially hooked.

Now, I'm still early on and from what I've read the "problems" come in later volumes, but through The Fires of Heaven it's pretty amazing. J.K. Rowling is the media darling when it comes to integrating her knowledge of mythology, folklore and legend into her work but why Jordan never gets mentioned in the same breath is a travesty. It really shows the sort of bias (I'm not sure if that's the word I'm looking for there) there is against good old fashioned epic fantasy in the media. Jordan has weaved so much into these stories, I almost always read them with my computer or phone or Kindle nearby to look up things that I might miss or overlook as I'm reading. I've commented that I admire the freaking stones Jordan had in writing these books.

Now let's talk about the books. Big books. Big, epic books. Books with literally THOUSANDS of characters and hundreds of story lines. Books that made it okay for us, as fantasy writers, to tell even bigger stories. It pushed us to recognize the importance of myth, legend and folklore...not just our own but that of our characters. Can it get confusing and overwhelming? Sure, but that's part of the fun, isn't it? I'm really looking forward to finishing the series. No matter how you feel about it, it is a remarkably important part of the epic fantasy canon. Without it, many of us that write epic fantasy don't exist. Without it, there's no Westeros, there's no Malazan, there's no...well, I think you get my point.

Now, if you read this blog or know me at all, you know I am an unapologetic George RR Martin/Song of Ice and Fire fanatic. I was on board with ASOIAF relatively early. I regret having not been on board with the Wheel of Time books. I'll be plodding towards Tarmon Gai'don in the coming months and blogging about it as I go. For now, I'm burning through some YA fantasy to get back in the mindset (Throne of Glass, Falling Kingdoms and The Crimson Crown) for writing then diving into WOT.