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A Day in the Life of a Monarch: "This Character is Powerful Because I Said So"

The fantasy writing community needs to address some things. I'll stick to addressing one thing for now, because we don't have all day. I want to talk about the tendency in fantasy novels to claim a character has power and authority without ever proving it.


I've noticed that this is especially common in romantasy, but it can definitely be the case in plain ol' run-o-the-mill fantasy as well. I'm sure we can all think of an example of this. We're introduced to this authority figure, who apparently wields tons and tons of power (be it magical, political or social power) yet we never actually see evidence of this power manifesting in any way.


To help us out, I've made my history degree work for its pay, and I've broken down the main elements that put power on display. But first, we need to understand the two main types of power (yes, there's more than one).


Invisible VS. Visible Power

Visible power is what you might expect. It's a king wearing a physical crown, a sea captain commanding a real crew on a real ship, one person rising up as the leader of a rebellion, drawing in real masses of people. Visible power is tangible. You can reach out and touch visible power.


Invisible power is abstract. It can't be evidently seen but its effects can be felt over time. An example I like to use of invisible power are those wielded by Littlefinger and Verys in Game of Thrones. Littlefinger uses cunning to deceive courtiers and orchestrates much of the events that happen in the books, arguably starting the war between the Starks and the Lannisters, simply by being in peoples' ears. Verys, in a similar vein, uses knowledge from his spy network to sway events.


There is an exchange between Cersei and Littlefinger that I think sums this up nicely. Littlefinger exerts that "knowledge is power." Cersei then orders the guards to seize him and argues that no, "power is power." The power she's referring to here is visible power. She's talking about the arm a king reaches out to command a physical, visible army. That's power.


I'm here to say that both are forms of power, and both need to be considered in different contexts to work with different characters.


The Theme of Power


I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that a lot of authors who write characters in positions of power aren't interested in writing about actual power. Let's face it: powerful titles make characters more impressive. A lot of the time, we also want our characters to come off as attractive - especially when writing romantasy. We want our MMCs to emulate power because influence is attractive. And look, y'all...

...I get it.


Power is super hot. But you know what's hotter? When we understand the amount of power we're giving our characters.


Because, with great power comes great responsibility. And I think that applies directly to us as writers.


We have a responsibility to flesh out and develop both our political systems and our fantasy job titles to the point where we are showing the reader how much power a character wields, not just telling them about it. No more, "this man is the most powerful king in all the kingdoms, past and present...because I said so" OR "this woman is the most powerful wielder of ancient magic since the first wizard ever...because I said so." We need to do better than "because I said so."


So, how do we show this? I'm glad you asked.


Power is Power


When it comes to visible power, a power one might give to an authority figure like a king or commander, there a few ways this power is shown. You can have a courtroom of people bow in reverence to their king, or cheer him as he travels through the streets. You can show a fear-based power in a room of courtiers too afraid to look the queen in the eye or move when she walks past. You can show these impressive figures leading armies, rousing soldiers through the use of motivating speeches. Or are all the soldiers silent? Maybe they're afraid to step out of line, more afraid of their leader than they are of death itself.


One thing's for sure. Visible power requires two main ingredients:

1) Respect/obedience

2) Love/fear


So I guess that's four ingredients. Technically.

The main way to achieve visible power is to have people behind you. You need masses to influence in order to have any influence at all, even if those "masses" are made up of like 10 people. That's still influence. You still have a certain amount of visible power.


To get people behind you, you'll need their respect and their obedience. These two go hand in hand in my opinion, because people usually don't obey authority figures they don't already respect. But how do I get them to respect/obey me?


Two routes:

1) Make them love you

OR

2) Make them fear you


The first one fits well with benevolent MCs. The second works really well with villains. How do rulers make people love them? By treating them fairly, justly, lovingly. That might look like:

  1. Refusing to draft their children for battle even though all the other kingdoms are doing it.

  2. Being generous with tax returns.

  3. Keeping a careful watch on trade and foreign exchange to ensure the people are taken care of.

Now, how might similar scenarios look when we're going for fear?

  1. Anyone caught stepping out of line gets to watch their kids go through mandatory military service.

  2. Taxing people blind for one's own personal gain / punishing missed taxes severely.

  3. Using trade and foreign exchange for one's personal benefit, maybe even doing something especially nefarious like selling citizens off to slave owners.

The first set of examples will bring about a power resulting from love, and the second examples will bring about a power resulting from fear. There are many more examples where those came from. The sky's the limit.


Knowledge is Power


Now, on to our Littlefingers and our Spiders.


This is personally my favourite kind of power because, behind the scenes, it often affects and changes far more than visible power ever could. This is the power associated with cunning, manipulation and careful arrangement of events. Think of a figure leaning over a tactical map, planning strategy for a coming war. They'll be moving around pieces to try out different tactics, all in preparation for their final move. This is essentially what knowledge-is-power characters are doing. Although, instead of preparing for a war that hasn't yet come, these figures are on the ground, in the ears of those more powerful, pitting nobles against nobles as a means of reaching a certain end—one they've designed and envisioned long before ever beginning their efforts.

I keep coming back to Littlefinger, but he's just such a good example of this type of character. He should be the blueprint for these sorts of characters, in my opinion.


I'm currently reading Game of Thrones, and learning to recognise his role in orchestrating events becomes a learned skill for readers as much as his natural manipulation tactics are a skill for him. There are certain qualities these sorts of characters need, so here's the ingredient list:


Knowledge-is-Power Characters need:

  1. Cunning

  2. Ambition to achieve that which they do not have

  3. Ruthlessness


Cunning, by Google's definition, means using deceit and evasion to achieve one's ends. What does evasion have to do with any of this? I would say, in Littlefinger's case, the physical conflict is evaded altogether. These characters have a natural wit that allows them to organize other characters into a giant brawl, while keeping themselves out of that brawl altogether. In this way, they benefit entirely from the conflict they've created. Remember that friend in middle school who would spread rumours about someone to you, then turn around and spread rumours about you to that other someone? Maybe it was just to witness the drama of conflict, or maybe it was divide you from someone. This is that times a thousand.


Ambition plays a crucial role in these characters' motives. Power-is-power characters likely have what they want, in many instances. They have the crown, the army to command, the kingdom to rule. Knowledge-is-power characters are often lower in rank, and their ambition to achieve something greater is what motivates them.


Ruthlessness is often absolutely imperative for these characters. They need to be willing to risk absolutely everything to achieve their ends—even putting those they are close to in less-than-ideal circumstances. They need to be willing to sacrifice every effort, every word and everyone for their cause. The only thing they're not willing to sacrifice is themselves, because the self is the point of the plan.


Something to Remember


Part of the fun of playing with power is showing what happens when characters are bad at it. There are going to be inept kings who would rather drink all day and have life handed to them than run a kingdom well. There's going to be that queen who is so evil and selfish that it leads to her downfall.


Flaws make characters interesting. "

No one likes a character who's good at everything. We call that a Mary Sue and we hate her here. Flaws make characters interesting. And, dare I say, flaws make characters in positions of power even more interesting. When immense power is held, the stakes are naturally high. Every little slip up, every tiny decision, can effect the course of events in a powerful way for those characters with lots of power.


No one character can be the most powerful magic wielder and the best warrior and the wisest king/queen. In this case, less is infinitely more. People are not perfect, so characters shouldn't be either. At the end of the day, readers want characters they can relate to, even characters living lives we could never dream of living.


There's a human element here that we need to consider when writing interesting characters, especially those with power and influence.


An Extra Tip


Make a daily schedule for every character. What do they fill their time with? These can be great ideas for some interesting scenes as well. For my romantasy authors: the power figure can't just be taking days off to dote on their love interest. I'm sorry, they just can't. If they have power, they have things to do and—as is typically the case for those with a lot of influence—they don't have enough time to do it all.


...what I wouldn't read is a powerful figure who neglects their responsibilities in favour of a love-interest-flavoured distraction, then suffers no consequences."

What will happen if the powerful figure does take off time and shirk responsibility because they're distracted by a romantic interest? Oh, the court of nobles and other important people under them will be totally cool with it. WRONG. Uprising, rebellion, war, fire, death. Pick your favourite. But, hey, that can be a fun little plot conflict for them to deal with, can't it? Heck, I'd read about a powerful individual who gets so enraptured by a love interest that they start to neglect their responsibilities, leading to fiery rebellion in the kingdom. That sounds epic. But what I wouldn't read is a powerful figure who neglects their responsibilities in favour of a love-interest-flavoured distraction, then suffers no consequences.


Conclusion


A king is expected to rule as much as a teacher is expected to teach."

We as fantasy authors need to recognise the true stakes of power, and what it means to offer titles to our characters. When one has a title, they need to use it. Remember, powerful titles are simply job titles. A king is expected to rule as much as a teacher is expected to teach. This could mean writing some scenes you don't think are necessary, like council meetings, political turmoil, scheming nobles with betrayal on the brain, visits to the peasant class, tax policies, arranging foreign affairs like trade and alliances—the more mundane activities. But it comes with the job. If your character won't do it, there will be consequences (something that can, I believe, be fun too).


Thank you for reading, please let me know what you think.


- A. H. A.


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