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.

Uncle Usurper

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.

7 comments:

GunnerJ said...

There's something to be said for the "Uncle Usurper" though: that it's basically realistic. Members of royal families were constantly scheming to take power from each other. Maybe it's the emphasis on the king's brother as usurper that makes it a cliche, so maybe the best way to handle it is not to make it some big dramatic shock. "Oh, King Harry was usurped by his brother? Well, that's how he got the crown in the first place."

Also, in "Royal without a cause," I think it's a little odd talk about royalty with "nothing but tradition behind it," kind of like "nothing but his charm, wits, and good looks;" the idea being that tradition on your side is a very powerful thing. If your culture explains politics as being a matter of the divine right of kings or the rule of the excellent as proved by noblesse oblige, then that is a very powerful force compelling people to obey their rulers, one which it's probably hard for members of modern liberal democracies to imagine.

Of course, it's also true that real nobility and royalty had more than a tradition of rule to back them, but it's worth mentioning military might in the same breath as wealth and alliance. One of the big differentiators between the lords and the serfs was that the peasantry worked their whole lives, and the nobility trained for war. Being fighters was basically the job of the nobles, and providing physical security is how they justified their power. This is why peasant revolts did so poorly when compared to one noble toppling another: the nobles actually had military power in an age before the gun leveled the playing field for the weak and unpracticed against the strong and well-trained.

Marian said...

There's something to be said for the "Uncle Usurper" though: that it's basically realistic. Members of royal families were constantly scheming to take power from each other.

I think that like all cliches, this wouldn’t be too bad if it was handled better.

For instance, make the uncle a character rather than a caricature – and play fair. Stannis is scheming to take the throne from his nephews, but that doesn’t automatically make them good and him evil. And while being dispossessed of one’s birthright is bad, not everyone reacts with thoughts of revenge and return to the status quo.

If your culture explains politics as being a matter of the divine right of kings or the rule of the excellent as proved by noblesse oblige, then that is a very powerful force compelling people to obey their rulers, one which it's probably hard for members of modern liberal democracies to imagine.

That’s an excellent point, which I didn’t take into enough consideration.

The security of the ruler’s position would also depend on the stage of social and technological progress of the land. If the society is on the brink of an industrial revolution or taken over by a new religion, that could make a position of power precarious as well.

But you’re right about tradition (backed up by the divine right of kings) being much stronger than I gave it credit for. Why shouldn’t that particular royal line rule? That’s the way it’s always been, so that’s the way it always should be, world without end, amen.

Kami said...

If this post makes people think deeply about royalty and spares me even one cliche' spoiled princess story, I will be a happy camper. It's not necessarily the set up for a cliche' that's bad, it's the cliche'-ness with which it's done. Yes, princesses can be spoiled, but if they're interesting rather than vapid and flippant and stupid ...

But I'm one of those people whose good opinion, once lost, is (often) lost forever. Much as I like coming of age stories, the spoiled princess I'm later supposed to like because she grows up seldom works for me because there's nothing there in the initial spoiled-ness, you know? But if she's really clever, or deep down she's kind-hearted but afraid of looking weak--I'm totally all over that.

Marian said...

Thanks, Kami. ;)

I personally don't want to read another story featuring a princess unless it's evident, right away, that she's different from the pretty, feisty, good-hearted, popular norm. I feel burned out on those, especially when they're heroines. They all kind of blend into each other after a while.

Still, ASoIaF is the perfect antidote to that - Shireen, Asha, Dany, Arya, Sansa, Myrcella and Arianne are all wonderfully different characters.

Madison said...

Ooh! None of the cliches you mention apply to any of my royals! Yeah! That means I'm doing at least one thing right! :D

Kami said...

Ooo, you triggered something with the feisty. Bleh!! Gag gag gag. And I agree, the non-stop pretty and popular and, let's not forget rescue-able princesses are just as bad as the spoiled ones.

Every time I see princess on a page I flinch. When I wrote a novel about princes and princesses, even though I steered clear of (I hope) the most hated cliche's, I still wanted to rename their titles. But that leads to explanations that lead the audience to think why is she calling a rabbit a smeerp? If it has a hat like a princess, and is the daughter of a queen like a princess, and has titles and estates like a princess, well, it must be a princess!

Marian said...

OK, Kami, you've inspired me.

Going to write a post on princesses now.