literature

Dangerous Artifacts and the Characters Who Love Them

Average has a gift for neutralizing dangerous artifacts.
When it comes to dangerous artifacts in a fictional setting, every writer faces at least two dilemmas:

  1. Why does everyone want this thing?
  2. Why is the main character the most appropriate to deal with it?

(I mean, you can ignore those two issues, but then you end up with a confirmed MacGuffin and a contrived plot. If that’s your cup o’ tea, more power to you.)

Issue #1: The Cause for Desire

The obsession with dangerous artifacts usually boils down to one word: power. “Dangerous artifacts” are dangerous because they grant or disrupt power and thereby throw off the balance of the universe. Consider:

  • The One Ring (LOTR)
  • The Elder Wand (HP)
  • The Amulet of Samarkand (Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy)
  • The Orb of Aldur (Eddings’s Belgariad)
  • The Godstone (Carson’s Fire and Thorns)
  • Every dragon egg and enchanted sword across the fantasy spectrum

Each is a singular item that amplifies its user into a new class of abilities. Hence, the bad guys want the power, and the good guys (generally) want to keep it hidden. Or, either side might want to destroy it, depending on how its powers affect them.

And then there’s that one poor sap who stumbles across it unwittingly.

Issue #2: “Why Me?”

When a dangerous artifact lies at the center of a crisis, the story inevitably needs someone to deal with it.

Enter the Chosen One.

I’ve encountered a lot of critique lately about how books—and fantasy epics in particular—keep focusing on this motif of a Chosen One. The snarkier critics point to it almost with a sneer.

“Oh, look! Another story about a Chosen One! How original!”

While I agree that the motif can be too heavy-handed, stories by their very nature must center on unique individuals. Protagonists have to measure up to their conflicts, or else they’d get eliminated in the first three chapters. And then what was the point?

(Or you can take away the conflict, but then we’re left wandering the hills with Wordsworth. Again, what’s the point?)

In a sense, every protagonist is a Chosen One, because the author chooses to tell their story.

So, answer #1 to the question of “Why this protagonist?” is simply “Because it had to be someone.”

A pretty crummy answer by itself. Which is why there must be something more.

That Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi

Some characters merit their Chosen One status because they are literally chosen by God, prophecy, or the villain himself to rise up against the conflict:

  • Princess Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza (chosen by God)
  • Taran of Caer Dallben (chosen by prophecy)
  • Harry Potter (chosen by prophecy and/or Voldemort)

Others merit it because of their heritage, lineage, or inborn talent:

  • Frodo Baggins (mild-mannered hobbit = less susceptible to the Ring)
  • Arthur Pendragon (son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine, daughter of a Welsh king)
  • Nathanial/John Mandrake (natural-born magician with all the advantages therein)

In some rare cases, the protagonist appears to assume their role by happenstance, but beware that condition. “Chance” almost always ties into fate.

Accept it. Embrace it. Enjoy it.

A Final Observation on Dangerous Artifacts

While jewelry and weapons receive favored status, the truly innovative artifacts fall outside these categories. For example, Lloyd Alexander’s black cauldron grants its owner the means to an immortal army and his oracular pig allows glimpses into the future. They’re both brilliant artifacts, because no one expects anything so grand from cookware and livestock.

(And yes, h/t to the Mabinogion for that innovation. Source material matters, my friends.)

The Grandmother of Guilty Pleasures

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When it comes to Regency Romance, there is one name that stands out as the paragon of the genre, at whose altar all other Regency authors and readers should bend in grateful homage. That one name is the intelligent, the prolific, the unparalleled…

Georgette Heyer.

And I sincerely hope you weren’t expecting me to say Jane Austen, because she didn’t even write Regency romance. She wrote contemporary satire. (Chew on that one for a minute, if you please.)

Heyer single-handedly established the Regency subgenre of historical romance. Her heavy research of that fascinating era shows in her books, from her in-depth descriptions of lace and textiles to her era-inspired slang, to her casual mentions of assembly rooms, gaming clubs, and horse auctioneers. Jane Austen, in contrast, never so much as referenced the ton, let alone Almack’s, White’s, or Tattersall’s. She didn’t need to. She was writing to and about her peers, not recreating an era that none of her readers had ever witnessed.

Genre Background

The term “Regency” refers to a period in the early 1800s, when Mad King George III of England was as nutty as a fruitcake and his son, also George, ruled as the Prince Regent in his stead. George III died in 1820, at which point the Prince Regent George became George IV and the Regency era ended. (And all of this occurred in a greater “Georgian” period, so named thanks to the Georges I – IV ruling consecutively.)

International events of note: the United States had already won its war for independence and established a constitutional republic. There was bad blood between England and the U.S. during this period (War of 1812, anyone?), so you’re not likely to find Americans hanging around London. The French, meanwhile, had Napoleon at their helm. The Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo and the French dictator’s exile to Saint Helena, but its repercussions echoed into the years that followed.

The iconic fashion of this era, for women, was the empire waist so popularized by scores of Jane Austen film adaptations. Society behaved according to a very strict set of rules, and a decided caste system existed between the upper and lower classes.

And Georgette Heyer set the definitive benchmark for all of these elements in literature.

Drifting by Degrees

It seems like the further we get from Heyer’s writing, the further the Regency genre strays from its roots. Modern characters with their modern values creep into more recent works, spouting off anachronistic opinions that would likely boggle the early 19th-century minds they’re intended to represent.

And that’s to be expected, to some extent. Heyer’s main characters were fish out of water in the Regency era too. She wrote more than a century after that era’s close, recreating the bygone world as best she could, but in the end, her creations are still counterfeits; and counterfeits, by their very nature, get smudged by the age and environment in which they are designed.

Perhaps that’s why many more recent works lack that “Regency” feeling for me—they lack Georgette’s distinctive touch. Sometimes, when I open a newer Regency novel, I feel as though I’ve stepped into a dark room, with only a spotlight on characters and no sense of any space that might exist beyond the boundaries of their meager setting. They don’t live in an entire world, but rather within a bubble, a Regency-themed island floating around in a nebulous ether.

And sometimes, that “Regency” theme only exists because the book jacket claims that title in its summary blurb.

Languishing in Austen’s Shadow

I adore Jane Austen. Persuasion is my favorite, but of course I love all her works. She deserves every accolade that is poured upon her head.

For some reason that I cannot fathom, though, after 50+ novels and millions of books sold, Georgette Heyer still gets back-burner treatment in comparison. It seems like many Regency authors readily attribute their inspiration to Austen and only mention Heyer in passing, if at all, as though she’s the guilty pleasure that no one wants to admit they love.

And I’m not sure that she would care. She was happy to write and sell books.

As the pioneer of the genre, though, she deserve some credit. So hat’s off to you, Georgette. Your imagination sparked tens of thousands to follow.

Whether they acknowledge you or not.

 

PS—Heyer also deserves a couple dozen film adaptations. The rights have been sold, but the production companies that own them are, apparently, content to sit on them.

The jerks.

Literary Influences: Beowulf

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(Did it work? Do I have your attention?)

Beowulf is one of those works of literature that, quite honestly, never interested me. Some beefy warrior kills a monster, and then he kills another one, and there’s a dragon in there somewhere, and at the end (spoiler alert!), he dies. I maintained a scornful disinterest for this epic over the course of a decade, until my conversion in my mid-twenties. Here’s how it went down.

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Literary Influences: Lloyd Alexander

“Melancholy men, they say, are the most incisive humorists; by the same token, writers of fantasy must be, within their own frame of work, hardheaded realists. What appears gossamer is, underneath, solid as prestressed concrete. What seems so free in fantasy is often inventiveness of detail rather than complicated substructure. Elaboration — not improvisation.” ~Lloyd Alexander, “The Flat-Heeled Muse”

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Sometimes, you just have to curl up with a blanket and a nice stack of books.

When it comes to fantasy, everyone has a starter series, right? That first set of books that gives you a glimpse of worlds beyond, that whets your appetite and cultivates your imagination: the starter series sets the bar for every series that follows. Is it better? Is it worse? Does it have similar themes? Similar characters? Similar plots? Similar settings? Does it evoke that same sense of wonder, or a greater sense of wonder, or does it leave the acrid taste of disappointment in your mouth?

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Literary Influences: L.M. Montgomery

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The Essential L.M. Montgomery Personal Libary (plus Jane of Lantern Hill, as a bonus)

Cynicism taints almost every facet of my life.  This may seem like an odd confession to make at the start of a literary influences post—especially one that focuses on the eternally optimistic works of L.M. Montgomery—but I feel like it has to be said. I acquired my cynicism by degrees from a pretty young age. By the sixth grade, I was a smart-mouthed, sarcastic, socially isolated 11-year-old. My only reliable friends were books (and with little wonder, given my temperament).

That was the year I met Anne of Green Gables.

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Literary Influences: Thomas Hardy

"Thos. Hardy"  LOC, LC-DIG-ggbain-13585

“Thos. Hardy”
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Heaven forbid that any of Thomas Hardy’s characters should ever get a paper cut; they’d probably saw off the injured limb in response.

I feel kind of odd listing him as one of my literary influences. He’s more my template of “what not to do,” which is terrible, because he’s generally considered to be a good writer, and many of his works are counted among the classics. I’ll set the stage for my dislike, shall I?

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