Thursday, January 20, 2011

Farmboy Heroes; or, Why we need more Bruce Waynes and less Peter Parkers

Even though I read a lot, and have mentioned before that enjoying reading is one of my defining characteristics, I don't actually discuss it that much here.  I'm not sure why.  Partly it's because I don't want to commit to telling you what I'm reading all the time because then if I have a slump it gets boring (this is also why I don't have a separate reading blog).  Partly it's because I find reading quite personal and figure y'all (I've been reading too many USian blogs!) just wouldn't be that interested.  But I did want to discuss something that's been on my mind a lot recently, thanks to what I'm reading at the moment.

I read a lot of fantasy: it's the main genre I read.  I started reading fantasy when I was about 18, with David Eddings.  Shortly after I started getting into the genre, I was flicking through a magazine when I saw an ad for A Clash of Kings, by George R. R. Martin.  It was billed as the second book in a trilogy to rival The Lord of the Rings (yes, I know it's just one book and not a trilogy), and I thought it sounded good.  So I went out and bought the first book, A Game of Thrones.  I looked forward to what I thought was the concluding book in the "trilogy", A Storm of Swords, and devoured it when it came out.  When I got to the end, I thought, "Hang on a minute!  This can't possibly be the end of the trilogy!" (long-term fantasy readers are probably laughing at me about now).  I got online and discovered the series, A Song of Ice and Fire, had been expanded to four books.  The books started coming more slowly.  The series got expanded again.  As it stands now, there are four books out, with seven planned.

Please understand that I'm not criticising Mr Martin.  I love his work and his characters and am happy to wait as long as it takes to get the complete series.  This is all a round-about lead-up to why it took me so long to read The Sword of Truth series, by Terry Goodkind, and The Wheel of Time series, by Robert Jordan.  Here's the thing: many people think that you can't call yourself a fantasy fan if you haven't read these two series.  But I was so heartbroken after discovering a series I loved and then finding it wasn't finished that I didn't want to start two other series that were still in production.  So I delayed reading The Sword of Truth until the publication date for the final book was announced.  With The Wheel of Time...

I first tried reading this series in between A Song of Ice and Fire novels.  I didn't even finish the first chapter of The Eye of the World.  I found it so very boring.  After that, I kept using the excuse that I would wait until Jordan had finished the whole thing.  Unfortunately, Robert Jordan died in 2007 with the series still incomplete.  At that point, I thought I may as well read it, seeing as the series was surely done for.  I got halfway through book nine, Winter's Heart, before I got bored again, got distracted by something else, and gave up.  However, another author (Brandon Sanderson) has taken up the series from Jordan and has written two more books.  With one more to come in the next year, I figured it was time to start the series again.

(My memory for books is annoying: I can remember just enough that as I re-read, I remember things just before they happen...but not enough to just pick up the next book in the series if it's been a couple of years since the last one (this is why I have re-read the Harry Potter series so many times - the only reason, really!).  So I really did have to go back to the start of the series and start all over again.)

Lots of things annoy me about the Wheel of Time series - unnecessary detail, too much repetition, poor character development, lack of strong female characters, clichéd dialogue...But I do enjoy the story.  One of my biggest problems is that I simply don't care about the characters.  They're not developed, they're not sympathetic, they're just caricatures.  I can't love a series that doesn't make me cry - this is why I love Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire and struggle with The Sword of Truth and The Wheel of Time

Anyway, the biggest issue I have with The Wheel of Time is that I'm simply sick of farmboy heroes.  They're a fantasy staple, and crop up everywhere.  Let me define what I mean: a farmboy hero is of the unlikely hero variety.  He (heroes are almost invariably "he", but that's a whole other blog post) is usually from a small, sleepy village.  He grew up on a farm.  He never thought he was anyone special, or did anything remarkable, or had outlandish hopes and dreams.  He probably never travelled far from his village, or met anyone who had (except for one strange old man who everyone thinks is "crazy" - again, a whole other blog post...).  And then the story begins.  There's plenty of examples: Bilbo and Frodo from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; Garion from The Belgariad and The Malloreon; Richard from The Sword of Truth...And Rand, from The Wheel of Time.

NOTE: Spoilers to follow...

Rand meets all of the above farmboy hero criteria.  When we first meet him, he's trudging through the forest with his father from his isolated farmstead home to the closest little sleepy village.  By the end of just the second book in the series, he's become an amazing swordsman (he was already an amazing archer), and been declared the Dragon Reborn, the prophesied hero who is going to fight the big evil guy and save the world.  Part of the explanation for this amazing transformation is that, as the Dragon Reborn, he has magically inherited some of the skills of the first Dragon (who lived a long time ago).  I can kind of buy that, I suppose.  But all his childhood friends also magically become super-skilled in various fields - two other boys, and two girls, from the same sleepy village.  This is where the explanation, to me, breaks down - without going into too much detail, basically, Rand is so strong and so important that people around him become strong and important also (well, the boys do - the girls less so, and only through their relation to the boys (I just realised this, and this is tied into the "lack of strong female characters" mentioned above)).

My point ("finally," I hear you all breathe, with a sigh of relief) is that this happens all the time.  The hero can't be a hero if he's just a farmboy!  So he has to get super-powers somehow, and the explanation is often flimsy.  Bilbo and Frodo not so much, but the others mentioned above all certainly do.  Even Harry Potter does!  This supposedly makes the hero more of a relatable everyman, but really all it does is make him less believable, I think.  Sometimes, this can be pulled off, but usually, it creates plot-holes and makes it hard for the reader to keep up their suspension of disbelief.  A hero that starts out a hero, or already has hero training, like Sparhawk (another David Eddings character) or Jaime (from A Song of Ice and Fire), is more realistic to me.  Most heroes of this variety also have a bit of a badboy streak, which certainly helps with their appeal.

To relate this to characters that more of my readers might understand...This is why we need more Bruce Waynes and less Peter Parkers.


  1. Some people hate Sword of Truth and Wheel of Time too, so you can probably ignore anyone who says you NEED to read those. Though, they happen to be right about the first 4 Sword of Truth...

    The difference between Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker (in the context of your post) is how their super powers manifested (insane everything not super powered vs normal super power). Not really any meaningful difference. Batman started off as a little kid, not even a normal man/teenager. :P

    It's the nature of Hero's. Because if they're not special, they'd be dead. And that would be boring. I could be wrong, but your example of Jamie as a Hero seems to lend weight to my argument. He's not even a hero much less a good one. I'll be happy to hear why anyone sees him as a Hero, though. Fantasy at its finest right there. :)

    I need to read The Elenium and The Tamuli it seems.

  2. The difference between Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker is that Bruce Wayne was always rich and powerful and chose to do good with those things. Peter Parker was just a whiny nerdy teenager who got bitten by a spider and had a slightly different puberty to normal teenage boys :P

    And yes, heroes do need to be special, otherwise they're not heroes! It's just the way that specialness develops that annoys me. And I'm not going to have yet another argument with you about Jaime!

    Yes, you do need to read The Elenium and The Tamuli. First fantasy series I ever read!