In fantasy lore, evil characters are often powerful, untouchable dark lords or spirits, a sniveling chancellor with bad teeth, or conspiring group where one member will betray the rest. But, I’d like to offer alternatives that may not be so evil to the naked eye.
Crafter of arms and horseshoes, these men work in extreme heat, for little pay and respect. A horseshoe is nothing to him, easy to make, yet essential for that daring knight off to rescue the princess.
On his journey, that knight just happens to fall off his horse, and snap his neck. The unlucky fool never realized the blacksmith altered the horseshoe material, and didn’t quite nail it in.
If the head of Paul Bunyan’s ax shattered, is it coincidence, or something sinister? Maybe the blacksmith lost a huge market when the lumberjack job market fell through. When the head of Paul’s ax flies off with one wide swing, crashes through the village, and chops the heads off innocent people, it could be the blacksmith’s sabotage.
A little knowledge can go a long way — off a steep canyon wall. Who’s to say that quiet, innocent librarian, isn’t altering the content of those hand-written tomes. Pulling out essential pages and tossing them in a fire; they weren’t all numbered, you know.
Some change of history here, some change of the law there, and castle bookkeeper could very well end up heir to the throne. Just as soon as the king kills off everyone who wears the color green, simply because the law said so.
Besides, how many people really question a librarian?
The man of town who knows everything of everyone, down to the personal lives of his patrons. You think he doesn’t use that information to his advantage? Think again!
This man of the glass and ale is secretly a spy for the enemy. The next time a certain hero stops by for a drink, it will be no mere accident he dies of poison.
Unless the farmers are slaves, they could just get up and move to a new kingdom; a place with more fertile land — or better tax laws. Then what will their people do for food?
Remember, Ireland had an infamous potato famine that prompted mass emigration. Could happen in a fantasy tale. Maybe the farmer wanted revenge, on that king who stole half his land for a giant rock garden.
Here’s a modern twist on medieval fantasy; the merchant who manipulates the kingdom’s economic system, to the point he has more wealth than the king. I wonder what he plans to do in an age where, “He who has the gold, makes the rule.”
Maybe his brother helped write the tax code, and the two are coming out on top, while the rest of the merchants suffer and close up shop. Happens today; it likely happened more than five-hundred years ago.
Most executioners are in the employ of the kingdom. With all their knowledge of how to properly kill a man, they could be important figures in a royal family member’s assassination.
He also has a better chance of getting away with murder, as he knows just where and how to cut to make the death look like a suicide. And who would suspect a man who is paid well to kill people, to need to do it on the side? You’d figure he would spend his time sewing quilts.
I’d like to talk a bit about how fantasy authors and game designers deal with broken bridges, of the literal kind.
In role-playing games, when a wood bridge is badly damaged, it almost always happens to be in a forest. Instead of fixing the bridge so they can cross it, the player must guide their character through a series of perilous tunnels, caverns, waterfalls, and ledges, without any assurance that it will get them to the other side.
You’d figure, if one of the characters carries an ax, or a sword, that they could chop down a tree and repair the bridge. But, as authors and designers, we must add drama and danger to our stories to make them interesting; can’t let our characters and worlds make sense.
As our characters navigate the dangerous terrain, we throw them against a gauntlet of well-placed orcs and goblins, who, not by coincidence, are waiting at the bottom of the deserted, lifeless chasm, for however long it takes for the heroes to arrive. It appears the orcs and goblins knew for sure the heroes were too stupid to fix the bridge.
Once the player defeats these well-placed individuals, an underworld demon skeleton rises from the ground, thereby initiating a battle that causes an unnecessary obstacle to saving the planet.
Meanwhile, the dark lord gets closer to ending civilization as we know it, and our heroes have taken the scenic route. But that’s okay! Because the dark lord will wait patiently until the heroes arrive.
What is strange, however, is that no matter the length of the bridge, no matter where the two ends are positioned, the journey through is always thirty times longer than if they repaired or built a new bridge of their own. It’s a technique authors use to create pacing, drama, and suspense.
I suppose if a dark lord is going to destroy their world, we might as well have our characters take in the beauty, wonder, and awe, one last time, of raging rapids crashing against jagged rocks, thereby foreshadowing their impending doom. Foreshadowing is an excellent technique, but it can give things away.
One thing they seem to never give away is the ignorance of the wise, intelligent person, at the time when they should be leading the party in the right direction. You get these old wizard types, well read scholars, paired up with muscle-bound jocks who know how to swing an ax. Yet! When you arrive at a broken bridge, the old man never speaks up and says, “Hey, ya know, we could just chop down one of these trees here and cross with that.”
Imagine that, the one time the wizard needs to speak up, the most common sense thing to do slips his mind. Just plain forgets it! I suppose that’s the way it will go in books; again, characters can’t make a common sense decision, just for the sake of drama and suspense.
We like to see characters in peril and danger, and watch them get out of it. If that’s the case, then what about when the characters do happen to try and build a bridge, or cross the one that’s already really messed up? Inevitably, someone either falls off the bridge to their supposed death; or the bridge snaps only after everyone has crossed, or just as the last guy is crossing.
Got to have that wonderful drama added in. Without it, it would just be a person walking across a bridge, and the whole scene would be pointless. You might as well throw it out. So, here’s a tip for you fantasy authors and game designers out there about common sense:
Don’t Use Common Sense!
Your characters are not meant to be common; they are meant to be extraordinary, or completely dumb. People are awed by heroes who accomplish great feats, and they find those unfortunate souls who are too stupid to use common sense, like that wise ass wizard, a great piece of entertainment. Either way works.
The trouble with common sense is that it’s common; it’s expected; and there’s nothing exciting about it. Nobody is surprised by things they expect will happen. Find a new way to cross the bridge, like, having the big, strong guy, hurl everyone across it; especially that old geezer who couldn’t speak up about chopping down a tree because he was too concerned with protecting the forest from human destruction.
I’ve always enjoyed putting cartoon physics into stories. Of course, in more serious stories, we want characters to be believable; make them break their legs, at least. But, you know me; I’ll just push my characters off a cliff and have them get right back up. It’s one of the things that allows me to keep the action going in my scenes.
That’s not to say my characters are invincible; something happens to Desi and Walton in the first book that serves as a reminder of certain things.