So if the right hook in Speculative Fiction Sucker Punches is convenient magic (as discussed in my earlier essay), what would the left hook be? Something that, on its own might merely daze, but combined with that right hook, could very well bring about a KO – which for the other person in the ring, the reader, is definitely not a good thing. At least, for me, it means that the author throwing both punches will most likely be one I won’t approach very readily again. Fool me once, shame on you – fool me twice, shame on me. So what is that left hook? Easy: uber leetness.
Ah, yes. The drop dead gorgeous female protagonist with a killer body, incredible athletic skills, amazing reflexes and senses, impeccable timing, an almost supernatural ability to ward off attacks or not feel them when they do land, superbly disciplined (which makes it more charming/terrifying when she does lose control), with strength, grace, and endurance that allows her to fight/travel/climb/etc. when a normal character would have no chance… silently, if needed. She’s usually quite intelligent, keenly perceptive, somewhat caustic in humor yet extremely witty (when she does speak), and did I say, drop dead gorgeous? Usually with cascading hair. Often red cascading hair. With green eyes – like emeralds. Or blue like sapphires. Or brown like the depths of … well, you get the idea. And with a killer body – don’t forget that. Yet heaven help the man who tries to hit on this lady.
Yeah, you know the type. And she’s usually wearing some kind of armor that no self-respecting warrior would be caught dead wearing… or, rather, any warrior would be dead if caught wearing it. Ample cleavage, an extraordinary amount of skin, or wrapped tightly to show every curve.
Male characters fall into that stereotype, as well. They may have a bit more latitude, but they still fit the same mold: well proportioned and muscular, with eyes that shadow the depth of the pain/knowledge they carry, usually with some kind of scarring. He also has incredible athletic skills, amazing reflexes and senses, impeccable timing, an almost supernatural ability to ward off attacks or not feel them when they do land, is superbly disciplined (which makes it more terrifying when he does lose control), with strength, grace, and endurance that allows him to fight/travel/climb/etc. when a normal character would have no chance… silently, if needed. Keenly intelligent. He’s usually quiet instead of gregarious. Women are drawn to them, even though he spurns or doesn’t even acknowledge them (or beds them and then rides away before they are awake).
Now, yeah, we all want our heroes to be, well, heroic. We want them to be the best. But it’s that aspect of the best in everything that trips my trigger. Do they have to be absolutely stunning in appearance AND incredible warriors AND keenly intelligent? Can’t they simply be heroic?
For me, the most memorable heroes have been the ones that don’t fit this stereotype. Look at the characters that inhabit George RR Martin’s incredible “Song of Ice and Fire” series (think books, not HBO) – none of them fall into the uber leetness trap. The most gorgeous of them (Jamie and Cersei Lannister) are morally bankrupt and their vanity leads to their downfall (well, the die has not yet been cast on Jamie). The most honorable – Eddard Stark, his son Robb, his bastard son Jon Snow – are handsome, but not overly so (at least not that much is made of them) and while they may be good soldiers, they are not uber leet; they can be and are defeated on the field. The smartest character, Tyrion Lannister, is a freak of nature, a “hideous” dwarf. And one of Martin’s most compelling characters brought is Brienne of Tarth, a formidable female warrior/knight (if women could be knights) whose appearance is large, florid, and “horse-faced”. She is often ignored or even openly mocked for her ugliness, and yet she is strong, focused and honorable. The passages between her and Jamie Lannister are amazing.
Tolkien’s heroes may have been mighty, and some (especially the elves) may have been beautiful, but this was not a factor of their being (except for the elves, where it was a cultural factor). They had weaknesses, and they were not unto themselves; but were intrinsically part of a fellowship. It was the least of them – a short, hairy creature – who endured the most and in the end was the most heroic.
Jacqueline Carey’s Phèdre nó Delaunay is beautiful and intelligent, but she is not a fighter. Her companion, Cassiline Brother Joscelin Verreuil, is handsome, highly skilled and intelligent, but he is only one man, superbly trained and conditioned, but not an overly uber fighting machine. He can be tricked and overcome. He can be overwhelmed. And sometimes, he is just plain wrong.
But this doesn’t mean a fantasy story can’t have a totally kick-ass hero or heroine. Jay Lake’s Green of the “Green” trilogy is beautiful and deadly, and has the attention of the gods, but she’s also emotionally bankrupt half the time and ruthlessly angered the other half, vicious and short-sighted, and her stubborn impetuousness can get others killed.
Brent Weeks’ Kylar (of his “Night Angel Trilogy”) is understatedly handsome (if even more slight of frame… he’s a ninja-type assassin, after all), very highly skilled, and intelligent – but he can be knuckleheaded sometimes, he’s conflicted and at times rendered inert by doubt, and his edge comes from a plot development which is acknowledged to be far outside “the norm” – this is what allows his uber leetness (I can’t go into detail because I don’t want to spoil too much for those who haven’t read these books yet).
However, interestingly enough, in the same set of books, Weeks’ heroine, Vi, does become a caricature of the uber leet heroine. Why? Because her beauty is taken to the extreme, and that is the point on which her entire being pivots; she doesn’t have the key magical advantage that Kylar does. Any kind of personal angst she may profess is completely lost in the fact that she’s drop dead gorgeous. Oh, and she’s got an incredible repository of magical power that she didn’t know she possessed, along with her physical prowess. And did I mention, she’s drop dead gorgeous? Weeks does, constantly. Sorry. The hero is fine, but the heroine? Less than successful, and it’s a cryin’ shame.
In fact, it seems to me that the more uber a literary character is, the less literary they become. Instead, they become merely one-dimensional cartoon caricatures with exaggerated features and no credibility. Give me a dose of reality in my fantasy literature (yes, I know how strange that sounds out of context), please, something that pulls me in and makes me believe in this character, let’s me feel he/she could possibly be real in some other universe/dimension/world/time. Engage my brain with something I can identify with, not just admire from a distance.
But wait – there’s more. In Part 3 of my series of Speculative Fiction Sucker Punches, we’ll cover a few more bases, in a final essay that I have entitled Upper Cuts, Body Punches and Haymakers (and I don’t even like boxing!).
(*According to the Urban Dictionary: uber = the ultimate, above all, the best, top, something that nothing is better than; leetness = immense skill and superiority over everything else in the universe.)