Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Cliches of royalty
So much of fantasy features royalty that it’s inevitable some setups and characters have now become cliches. I found an article about those here, and decided to expand on a few of them further in this post.
Wherein the royal person (or that person’s father) has been usurped by a scheming uncle.
Unless it’s obvious that the story is based on Hamlet, and equally obvious that it’s bringing something new to the table, a la The Lion King, this is going to come off as a huge cliché. And it’s not going to do much for the character of the uncle either.
That’s one reason I like Macbeth – the play makes you care about the usurper, at least at the start.
Man of the People
Wherein the royal person is beloved by the populace.
George R. R. Martin handled this very well in A Feast for Crows. Queen Margaery deliberately sets out to win the affection of the commoners in a city not her own by talking to them, tossing them trifles and generally making herself an attractive, approachable sight. As a result, when she’s arrested, the people start shouting for her release.
In other stories, unfortunately, the people love the princess because she’s the heroine. And she never manipulates them towards a goal as Margaery does.
Remind me why advisors exist?
Wherein the royal person ignores ministers and advisors.
The council scenes in the film Dungeons and Dragons are a great example of this. The empress is young and idealistic, while her ministers are old and cynical. Guess who we're supposed to cheer for?
I don’t mind this when it’s evident that the royal character knows better or at least has an alternative course of action that makes some sense. It’s also not bad when the royal character eventually crashes and burns as a result of their ignoring advice. But the readers need more than just the empress saying something like “I feel in my heart that all are equal” to cheer for her – and the ministers aren’t wrong simply for being cynical either.
Born great = good. Achieving greatness = evil
Wherein the royal person having power is good and right, but the vizier planning to achieve such power is evil and wrong.
There has to be a good reason for why this is wrong – for instance, the vizier plans to plunge the land into war. Otherwise, the mere fact that the subordinate has ambitions isn’t evil in and of itself. He might even be better at the job than the king is – there’s certainly historical precedent for prime ministers doing more for countries than kings have done (Churchill, for one).
Royal without a cause
Wherein the royal line has nothing going for it.
If a royal family has nothing but tradition behind it, then they’re at risk of either being toppled or being figureheads (unless the population is composed of drone workers, perhaps). They need some way to keep their power and defend their positions.
Finances and ties to other powerful families help secure the position of the Lannisters in A Song of Ice and Fire. Magical ability is another such way. If there’s some powerful skill that only the royal family has, it’s easier to see how they keep their place – and it’s also going to be interesting to see inter-family rivalries.
Freedom of speech
Wherein the royal person tolerates backtalk.
A king who allowed his subordinates to argue with him in public (or worse, show open contempt, which I’ve seen in a story presented for critique) would become a laughing-stock. Even if these subordinates are advisors, mentors, counselors or ministers, there’s a time and a place for disagreement and it has to be couched in reasoned, diplomatic terms when it’s proceeding from inferior to superior.
And with some royals, the reader should really get the impression that they’re condescendingly allowing the disagreement on this one occasion, much like someone allowing their dog a treat from the dinner table just this once. After that, doggy goes back to the corner and the bowl of kibble.