Saturday, February 7, 2009
Groups in fantasy
I’ve always been fascinated by group dynamics, and fantasy offers plenty of opportunities to indulge that. Most of the stories I’ve enjoyed – or written – involve people having to work together, even if the protagonist comes up with a plan by himself or strikes the final blow.
One appeal of groups is how different they can be.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I recently read a Transformers fanfic that illustrates this perfectly, but it works with humanoid characters as well.
People often behave differently in groups than they do alone, so it’s only a small step from there to have them physically or mentally altered to the point where they work together smoothly once the group comes together. Well, maybe not that small a step. But in a fantasy, why not?
Part of the fun of writing the Glores in my manuscript Redemption is how dangerous they are in packs. Individual characteristics are temporarily sublimated as they function as a single unit (albeit one with several sets of sharp teeth).
In more traditional fantasies, the different skills and personalities of the people in the group contribute to its success. Watership Down is a great example of that – you have Blackberry the thinker, Bigwig the fighter, Fiver the mystic, and Hazel the leader who holds the group together.
Part of the fun, of course, is the friction within the group. Jealousy, past rivalries, sexual tension, competing ambitions, almost anything goes. The more conflict there is, though, the more the group needs a good reason to stay together. If the protagonist is extremely powerful on his own, and the other people in the group resent that, why do they stay with him? If they don’t believe the foreseer’s visions-o’-doom, why do they put up with her?
So, what might not work when it comes to groups in fantasy?
This is a cliché of traditional fantasy – the group, modelled too closely on Tolkien’s work, which includes an elf, a dwarf, a halfling and two or more humans, one of whom is the leader. The difference is that Tolkien gave the characters of different races good reasons for joining the Fellowship, whereas many other writers don’t show why a dwarf would leave his dwarf community and join such a heterogenous group.
Another problem group is where the different types of professions or weaponry are too evenly distributed – for instance, one swordsman, one archer, one magician, one thief. That’s probably going to come off as an imitation of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon.
I once read a book about a mercenary company where all except one of the mercs was a fighter. This might still have worked if they had had very different habits, quirks, flaws and so on, because that would have helped differentiate them.
The more emphasis there is on the characters conforming to a certain norm, whether that norm is the standards of a mercenary company or Scipio Africanus’s army, the more the characters need to be fleshed out. The men of the Night Watch, in A Song of Ice and Fire, are a good example of this.
The only exception to this is when you want to place more emphasis on the characters as a team than as individuals – though that can make it more difficult for the readers to connect with them. And the more distinctive they are as characters, the more conflict there will be within the group.