Truly unfamiliar values – Conan: Queen of the Black Coast

Posted: December 2, 2013 in reading
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’m getting a little tired of the fantasy hero whose first value is loyalty or honour. Or the supposed antihero whose dark, compromised behaviour turns out to be for some greater good. It feels like the values that once let fantasy authors make their characters different from modern people have become another over-used part of pop culture.

Noticing the difference – Conan

This issue really sprang out at me while reading Conan: Queen of the Black Coast, a comic collection written by Brian Wood, with art by Becky Cloonan, James Harren and Dave Stewart on colours. Wood’s an interesting writer, treading a difficult path between the expectations of a mainstream comics audience and a desire to try different things with character and story. His riff on Robert E. Howard’s classic barbarian character is no exception.

Like Robin Hood, if Robin Hood was killing people for fun

Like Robin Hood, if Robin Hood was killing people for fun

The character’s values are a key part of this. There is a search for adventure in there, and a certain attachment to protecting the people on his side. But this doesn’t translate into an unswerving sense of loyalty. Conan will compromise and join the side of the people who just slaughtered all his friends. He turns pirate on the whim of circumstance. He bends others to his will for no goal beyond his own quest for adventure and self-preservation.

These are not the values of a familiar fantasy hero, and realising that was like a breath of fresh air. I suddenly noticed how familiar, comforting and sometimes even stale the values were I was seeing in other fantasy novels.

The obvious comparison – Game of Thrones

When it comes to character motivations, Game of Thrones is one of the better examples out there. But comparing it with this single Conan story made me realise how familiar many of the motivations are. Ned Stark is obstinate and loyal. Arya is fiercely independent and, as time goes by, increasingly bent on revenge. Stannis is guided by a clear sense of right and wrong. Joffrey’s self-serving. Tywin’s ambitious. Snow has that classic heroic sense of honour, so that even when he does something terrible it’s for a great good.

There are a broad range of interesting motives at play here. They draw you into the characters in different ways. It’s very well done, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

But is any of it really new?

George R R Martin is a fantasy writer at the absolute top of his game. He’s using those familiar values in new and skilful ways. Just think how many times you’ve read them elsewhere and it’s just been more of the same.

So what?

I’m not saying I want every character to act like Wood’s take on Conan. As someone trying to draw in readers, using the familiar and comfortable is actually important for me. But it would be nice, both in what I write and in what I read, to push the boat out a bit further at times. To see motives and values that aren’t just different from our own but are different from what we’re used to reading. For the fantastic and unfamiliar elements of stories to go a bit deeper.

What do you think? Am I being overly harsh on what’s out there? Am I missing great examples of unusual values and motives? And if you’ve read it, what do you think of Wood and Co.’s take on Conan?

  1. Ben Burston says:

    Sounds like he’s being fairly true to Robert E. Howard’s original Conan character. That’s what Conan is supposed to be like. He’s a selfish mercenary who is out for himself and practical rather than sentimental in his choices. Conan was changed by later writers (L. Sprague De Camp & Lin Carter), as well as by the success of the comic and the films.

    Sounds like your chap Woods is just writing a comic off the original texts rather than the later re-writes made 35 years after Howards death.

    • I’ve never read any of the novels, but I realised after writing this post that the comics I’m reading are based on a specific novel, so that makes sense. Funny how I’ve found something new and refreshing in a rather old story.

  2. Ben Burston says:

    Ouch – two ‘Sounds likes’ Badly written Ben. No cookie.

  3. glenatron says:

    I’m trying to think of unfamiliar motivations but it’s pretty difficult. I mean if you were to go out and perform some act motivated by something nobody else had ever been motivated by before, what possible motivation could that be? If you were telling that story how would you motivate your audience to care?

    I think when one writes genre fiction one is typically providing extraordinary means and/or environment to very human motives. Maybe a fault of many fantasy writers is to make characters a little too singular in their motivations in service to the plot, but I think those motivations typically provide an inroad and let the reader engage with the story. I do think inexplicable motivations can be an interesting thing to place in opposition to your characters, though, if one can find something suitably inexplicable.

    I’m trying to think of fiction where some characters have unfamiliar or unexpected motivations- the best example might be The Dice Man, where the principle of deciding everything based on chance – the dice being the character’s motive- is effectively the story itself, but there must be others.

    • I suppose you might be right, if I try too hard to find all new motivations I might end up disappointed. I think I’m just a little tired of seeing the same motivations too often, the same takes on what characters see as morally right. Game of Thrones actually does a decent job of mixing that up, as does Joe Abercrombie sometimes. But if you look at the value systems that existed in some past cultures, for example the ever-shifting medieval idea of chivalry, they can actually show ways of looking at the world that are now quite odd and alien. I think there’s potential to use more of that.
      On a different note, I’ve taken your advice and started reading Kay. So far so good – evocative setting, interesting lead character, though a bit heavy on the exposition.

      • glenatron says:

        I’m actually quite interested by this discussion because it does spark off a lot of ideas- an enemy with a motive that is entirely inexplicable is a great starting point for a story.

        I guess Steph Swainston does some clever things with that- both the Insects who are just interested in building their colony and take no interest in anything else in the world except as food but provide a terrifying and inexorable opponent as a consequence, and characters in the circle of immortals who have their place who are in the circle because they are the best at their own skill, but being the best at a single skill does not make a balanced person. Not to mention that our hero is spending half the time either trying to procure drugs or conceal his addiction. That adds up to some interesting storytelling.

        The other thing about the standard motivations that one sees a lot in fiction is that in addition to the single-minded thing I mentioned above, characters are often very explicit about their motivation ( “I must have revenge against Zagromar, whatever the cost!” ) but also very genuine. It makes things more interesting, to my mind, when either characters are not necessarily being honest about their reasons or when the motivations they believe themselves to have are not the actual reasons they are acting. Also I was inspired to think of the concept of a character with what we might consider a very positive intention causing mayhem deliberately due to a single-minded devotion to it – like the character whose prime desire is to create beauty and consequently manipulates others into a tragic situation because it is so beautiful…

        • That thing with being explicit and genuine about motivation all the time has been playing on my mind too. Real people often don’t even understand their own real motivations, never mind being open about them, but story tellers feel a need to explain. As readers, I suspect we’d get more satisfaction from having to work it out from time to time. It’s one of the many good things about the Hunger Games books that the motivations aren’t always there on the surface, even in the protagonist. It was also something I liked in Brandon Sanderson’s first Mistborn book, that the man with the plan kept part of it secret, even if the secret was actually pretty easy to work out.

          In roleplay games I enjoy a single-minded approach to motivation, or a single twist on it, as a source of both comedy and tragedy. It can create surprising moments, as people really that the thing they’ve been laughing at has a real edge to it too. Maybe I should try that in my writing as well.

  4. Tom Seaton says:

    Just started reading ‘The Corn King and the Spring Queen’ by Naomi Mitchison. It’s a historical fantasy set around 200 BC that focuses on a set of characters who self-identify as being barbaric, in relation to their ‘civilised’ Hellenic neighbours. One of the upshots of this is that their motivations include nice departures from the norms (I’m murdering you because I’m entitled to act that way!) although there are enough common elements included elsewhere to enable modern readers to relate – duty to family, love, envy. It reminded me how compelling characters who appear not to have a motivation for their actions or whose motivation is obscure can be (Othello’s Iago is a classic).

    • Sounds interesting, and it’s not often that fantasy steps that far back into the past.

      I wonder if part of what makes such characters so compelling is the opportunity for us as readers to work out their motivations? If so then there’s a fine line for authors to walk between creating a challenge and making motivation off-puttingly incomprehensible. Sounds like Mitchison has found a way to deal with that line by combining the familiar and the alien.

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