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Sunday, February 22nd, 2009 | Posted by Theo

I posted previously today – or at least thought I did – but the post appears to have vanished into the aether.  It’s no great loss, as it was a rambling collection of largely incoherent thoughts about the ease with which humans are slain in fantasy fiction, so I shall summarize it thusly:

Heroes and Villains appear to be significantly harder to kill than everyone else.  This occasionally reaches risible proportions, although some authors, such as Simon Green in his Deathstalker novels, at least provide some rationale for slaughtering millions while leaving nearly every main character unscathed.  Also, if it is a common theme in the Western genre that being gutshot is a slow and lingering death, then why does a sword thrust into the stomach always appear to kill people instantly?

Historically, the wounded significantly outnumber the slain in most combat situations.  In even the most lethal battles of WWII, the wounded/killed ratio was around 3-1.  In most fantasy fiction, this ratio appears to be closer to 1-100.  Also, it takes a long time to heal; even a pulled muscle can take months to recover.  Perhaps this is why authors prefer to simply kill everyone off.

Terry Pratcher’s Night Watch is hugely underrated and is arguably the best of the Discworld novels.  This is, in part, because he takes a collection of characters who would serve as mere cannon fodder in almost any other novel and forces the reader to see things from their perspective, to identify with them, and to recognize how even cannon fodder can rise to heroic heights when pressed by circumstance.

6 Comments »

  1. Interesting subject, Theo…

    The most obvious answer is that heroes and villains are “harder to kill” precisely BECAUSE they are heroes and villains. That is, IF this person was killed, he or she wouldn’t BE that central character in the story. What I mean is that you can’t tell a fantasy epic about a soldier who dies in the first battle on page 2..or page 12…or what-have you. Likewise, the evil sorcerer who gets trampled to death by the king’s hooves, isn’t going to be around to cast evil spells on the kingdom 100 pages later! In this viewpoint, your question is kind of looking at things backwardly: Those who SURVIVE…and those who are THE BEST at survival (or destruction, or chaos) must necessarily become the Main Characters of any story. The hero or villain who dies too easily simply CAN’T be a hero or villain because they’ve exited the story.

    Let’s say it was Aragorn in LORD OF THE RINGS who was tempted by the ring and was shot full of holes by Orcs at the river, instead of Boromir. If that had happened to Aragorn, the burden of being the Main Hero would have necessarily fallen on Boromir…or the next guy in line if Boromir found the same fate.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that heroes are heroes FOR A REASON. The easy-to-kill hero isn’t going to be celebrated in bard’s tales and written sagas…unless of course the hero’s adventures continue with him as a ghost…or in the land of the dead or something like that. The same is true in our “real world”–the war heroes that we celebrate the most are those who SURVIVED the war. Why? Because they are still with us and THEY HAVE A STORY TO TELL.

    Another point I’d like to make: In most fantasy combat, assailants are “fallen” which we take to mean killed. The very nature of most fantasy worlds (non-technological) means that medical technology can only do so much. Plus, if you go into shock after getting a stomach wound, you will bleed to death in a matter of minutes. So, I submit to you that MOST of the enemies hacked to “death” by Conan or Fafhrd or Jon Snow or whatever hero you mention…aren’t actually DEAD YET. They’re DYING. They’re laying there bleeding to death–neutralized–meaning they can do no further harm to the protagonist because they are in shock, or missing limbs, or simply trying to hold their guts in. But it would slow the narrative down too much to say “The evil wizard lay in shock, dying from blood loss.” It’s much more DRAMATIC to say “The wizard’s corpse lay in a pool of it’s own congealing blood.” No, he ain’t really dead yet, but he’s slipping into darkness, just like the forty “slain” hobgoblins who guarded his castle.

    Yes, sometimes sword/spear/axe weapons DO kill instantly–especially in the hands of those who are TRAINED to cause instant death (it takes severe skill to behead someone)…but most of the time the foes have simply been “taken out.” So any fantasy battlefield littered with corpses will always contain a large number who are dying…and those can linger long and miserable. Many writers handle this by having camp followers roaming across the battlefield using knives and stones to “finish off” the dying….which is something that really happened in history.
    One of the most realistic series when it comes to fantasy combat is George R. R. Martin’s SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. You can almost feel the pain of the lingering wounds his knight characters endure. It makes you damn glad you never had to wear a suit of iron and fight duds with big, sharp pieces of metal.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - February 22, 2009 6:45 pm

  2. Good post Theo. It got me thinking.

    WWII medicine far exceeded the ability to heal the wounded of medieval Europe, and since much of fantasy is written from an archaic or medieval level of technology, that plays a big part. Unless the fantasy world has magic, and then it spins to the other side of the spectrum, keeping alive characters who otherwise should be dead from the injuries they’ve suffered.

    The other thing I want to mention is the level of relevant details. Fantasy authors could go on for a great length about lingering injuries of minor characters, but readers today would be bored out of their skulls if it doesn’t contribute to the main story goal. There are a lot of details that could be written into stories today but are left out. Instead we show only the “highlights” if you will. Injuries, urination, deification, grooming, bathing, and sometimes even eating are left out unless something else is happening during that time. We don’t need to follow a character through every minute of the day, and authors who do, often find their bricks online selling for $.01.

    Personally, most of what I read falls in heroic fiction or epic fantasy, and the tales are about those who are extraordinary. I expect them to be about people who have what it takes to survive the dangers, that’s what makes them special. Sure the odd one might die here and there, and that reinforces that they are all not immortal, but overall. I want to read about the special characters who are not cannon fodder.

    My three cents.

    Comment by NewGuyDave - February 22, 2009 9:31 pm

  3. Of course, by the time WWII rolled around, we’d discovered both antiseptic and penicillin–both of which proved to be relatively important in preventing soldiers from dying from their wounds.

    Comment by braak - February 22, 2009 11:23 pm

  4. Good comments, all youz guyz!

    I think the important thing for a fantasy writer is to handle violence and its consequences (messy wounds and bodily mutilation) with enough realism to give the protagonists (and supporting characters) a sense of real JEOPARDY…while simultaeneously elevating that same violence above the crude description of gut-wrenching ruins of flesh and bone. In other words, there has to be some real possibility that your protagonist can get MESSED UP…KILLED, even…or the drama suffers.

    What amazes me about Martin’s work is that he manages to contain the reality of medieval violence with the sheer heroism of those who face it, endure it, and overcome it. Or don’t. His characters seem all the more real because of the horrible consequences they face every time they pick up a sword and shield.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - February 23, 2009 12:42 am

  5. It is, of course, obvious that the Hero and the Villain have to survive, or else there isn’t a story. But I’m not talking about prematurely killing off the protagonist, I’m merely talking about the absurdity of legions falling on every side while the Hero continues on unscathed for no discernible reason that the reader can see. Or worse, in the case of some science fiction, the Hero all but takes a direct hit, everyone around him is killed, but the Hero somehow miraculously survives. That must have happened at least 10 times in the three Deathstalker novels I read recently and it starts to get not only boring, but downright amusing.

    “Wait, you’re not going to tell me… he survived! Again!”

    Another thing is that when a Major Character is actually killed off in some severe manner, there’s almost always time for a few dramatic last words after the battle; meanwhile, scores of Minor Characters have all died instantly from their mere proximity to the Hero’s weapon. I am most definitely NOT calling for lavish and detailed post-battlefield blood-porn scenes, I’m only pointing out an obvious inconsistency that I’ve noticed in novel after novel after novel.

    As for modern medicine, I don’t know what the long-term survival rates of medieval battles were, but that’s a tangential point anyhow; sepsis and infection doesn’t kill anyone instantly, at least not that I’m aware of.

    I take your point about “falling” vs dying, John, but if it’s not a corpse yet, it probably shouldn’t be called a corpse. While such laziness on the part of a writer is understandable, I don’t think it’s indicative of good fiction writing.

    It is surprisingly hard, though, to kill off a character you’ve come to like. Even if you planned his death from the start.

    Comment by Theo - February 23, 2009 5:57 am

  6. I wonder how much modern writing suffers from the improper displays in other media.

    I constantly point out to my wife how quickly people die on film and in the few TV shows we watch. It’s often worse than in books. For example, in Alias and 24, bad guys are often dead the second they are hit by a bullet. Their eyes are closed before they hit the ground, and they don’t even have time to bleed.

    One of my MCs is a former assassin who struggles with causing death, so he turns away from a body after delivering a killer blow. At least once in the first book it comes back to haunt him because the first bad guy isn’t dead, and while another, the first gets an extra stab on him.

    Comment by NewGuyDave - February 23, 2009 9:25 am


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