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Of Scullery Boys and Kings

November 29th, 2007

Once upon a time, there was a scullery boy.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about genre conventions and what they do to stories.

A genre convention is something, a certain type of character or a particular development of plot, that can be depended upon to show up in stories that share a genre. Loner private eyes are a convention of hard-boiled mysteries, for example. Tall dark men with sinister pasts are a convention of gothics. And scullery boys are a convention of a genre that can be called “epic fantasy” or “high fantasy” or–my preferred term precisely because it doesn’t carry a lot of baggage–“secondary world fantasy.”

And we all know what happens to scullery boys in this kind of fantasy: they turn out to be kings.

That’s what a genre convention is: it’s something we all know before we read the story.

Genre conventions aren’t always a bad thing; they’re a common language for readers and writers, and having a common language means that you can have a much more sophisticated and thoughtful discussion, instead of having to reinvent the wheel every time you get in the car. And every convention can be twisted or tweaked or turned on its head, and often the most fun and interesting stories are the ones that do that.

This is the important thing about genre conventions: they are not carved in stone. They are not immutable. They aren’t laws, or even rules. They’re grooves. And of course the problem with a groove is, it all too rapidly deepens into a rut.

Ergo, the scullery boy.

We all know the shape of his story: he will be extracted from his scullery and sent on a variety of adventures; he’ll acquire some loyal companions and some equally faithful enemies, and eventually, to everyone’s shock (except the reader, who saw it coming 300 pages ago), he will turn out to be the Long Lost King of Albion or Gondor or Riva or wherever the heck we happen to be.

That’s the genre convention, and if you think with it–if you let the convention dictate the shape of your story–you’re going to write flat and unappealing fantasy that no one will be able to remember five minutes after they’ve put the book down.

But what happens when you start to think about it?

For example, let’s not say a scullery boy. Let’s say this scullery boy. His name is Tam. He’s fifteen, an orphan, skinny and dark and he’s got a nasty hacking cough just like the one that killed his mother. The other boys who work in the castle beat him up on a regular basis because he’s an easy target, and he has small, subtle, and very elegant ways of getting revenge.

Or how about this scullery boy. His name is Patrick. He’s fifteen, the seventh of twelve children. Two of his siblings died before they were two years old; his eldest sister died in childbirth when he was twelve. His eldest brother stands to inherit his father’s croft and the anxiety is already turning him into an old man; his second brother is apprenticed to a cobbler and is miserably unhappy. His father intended Patrick for the priesthood, but he talked his way out of it, and got himself sent to the castle instead. Patrick loves living in the castle; he loves his job. What he knows is that he never wants to be responsible for anybody else’s life.

Or how about this scullery boy. Her name is Annalisa; she’s fifteen, the daughter of the head chef, and she works in the scullery so her father can keep an eye on her. Her mother died when she was born; all Annalisa knows about her is that she was a foreigner, she never talked about herself, and she left her daughter a golden locket that no one knows how to open. Her father tells her that it will look beautiful with her wedding gown, and Annalisa dreams that when she finds her One True Love, he’ll know how to open the locket.

Put any of these particular scullery boys into the conventional story, and the story falls apart. Tam’s got TB; he can’t go swanning off across the map on a quest. And he’s got a Machiavellian approach to life which many people are going to find inappropriate in the Long Lost King of Wherever. Patrick’s going to do everything in his power to avoid being sent off on a quest in the first place, much less being made king. And Annalisa doesn’t want to be in that story; she wants to be in Cinderella instead.

The genre convention falls apart, but the story you find in the rubble is much more interesting. We DON’T all know how any one of these stories–Tam’s, or Patrick’s, or Annalisa’s–would turn out. We can’t predict the plot developments 300 pages in advance.

Which means both the story and the characters are free to develop however they want to, instead of being ruthlessly trimmed back into the topiary shape of a grail. They’re free to be real.

We’re out of our rut, and that’s hard and scary, but the view is worth the climb.

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  1. November 29th, 2007 at 13:16 | #1

    Well-said. My one quibble (and I recognize this is a side point) is your choice to call it all “secondary world” fantasy. What term do you have left, then, for stories set in a secondary world that don’t have the tropes that usually identify “high” or “epic” fantasy?

    Definitional quibbling is of limited utility, of course, but asking how a given person labels things can sometimes be illuminating about how they view things, which is why I ask.

  2. Sarah Monette
    November 29th, 2007 at 13:28 | #2

    Marie–

    1. How many stories are there, really, that are set in a secondary world and AREN’T “high fantasy”? I think there should be lots of them! Lots and lots! But in the current state of the genre, I’m suspicious that the actual number is vanishingly small.

    2. In my own personal system, I consider “high fantasy” a subset of “secondary world fantasy,” and not necessarily a very interesting subset either. But then we have to get into what, exactly, “high fantasy” *means*. Would any of my proposed scullery boy stories be high fantasy? Does it make a difference in the genre definition whether Tam or Patrick or Annalisa actually becomes king/queen? Does it make a difference whether Tam or Patrick or Annalisa goes on quests?

    I was trying to talk about the trope of the scullery boy more than the inchoate boundaries of the genre, and trying to write this response is making me remember why. :-)

  3. RCJ
    November 29th, 2007 at 14:16 | #3

    Your essay spotlights some well-trod opening story fields that, at first glance, might not have been thought worth replowing. Well done, and thank you.

    RCJ

  4. November 29th, 2007 at 14:30 | #4

    Sarah — sorry, didn’t mean to drag you down into the sucking morass you were trying to escape. It really does depend on what the person is pointing at when they say “high” or “epic” — there may be quite a lot of secondary-world fantasy that falls outside that boundary, or not much at all, depending on usage.

    It’s something I knock my head against occasionally because I don’t have a useful sub-genre or adjective to attach when people ask me what kind of fantasy Doppelganger is. Some people see it as high fantasy; I don’t. “Secondary world” is the best I can do, and that’s awfully technical-sounding without being much use as an answer. It doesn’t bother me on a craft level — the story can be whatever it wants — but it makes nutshell descriptions hard.

    Anyway, yes: less generic scullery boys, please. This scullery boy, not Standard Scullery Boy #37.

  5. Sarah Monette
    November 29th, 2007 at 14:48 | #5

    Marie–

    Nutshell descriptions are an abomination on the face of the earth. I can’t do them.

    I *tend* to think of “high” fantasy as being fantasy that is about Saving the World and finding the Long Lost King of Wherever–not merely that it’s about kings and queens and so on, but that its subject matter is elevated and its tone serious and generally it bores me to tears. It’s the sort of fantasy Ursula K. Le Guin is thinking of in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.”

    “Secondary world fantasy” does, at least, have the benefit of meaning what it says: fantasy that takes place in an imaginary world. Much of what that term describes, if you go take a survey of what’s on the shelves, *is* high fantasy, because we just don’t have very much of anything else, but at least it leaves wiggle room for things like The Lies of Locke Lamora . . . or is The Lies of Locke Lamora high fantasy because it’s got the semi-pseudo medieval/renaissance setting and the magical artifacts and so on and so forth?

    Do we define by setting? by plot elements? by tone? It’s all very muddled.

  6. November 29th, 2007 at 15:45 | #6

    It’s all fantasy by my definition system, and that throws a lot of folks for a loop.

    High, High-Concept, Epic, Tolkenian, critter fantasy, feh.

    You hit the nail directly on the head when you said the groove can become a rut…and of course one should never give up on the readers who happily roll down the rut book after book, because they deserve stories too – but I hate seeing any book or author too narrowly categorized. Then publishers and readers alike must be dragged by their short hairs to a book that is intriguing and NOT running down the same rut – sometimes they never ‘get’ it and the only choice is turn back into the rut – or fade away – also a very sad state.

    Good stuff here…

    DNW

  7. November 29th, 2007 at 19:43 | #7

    Secondary-world or created-world fantasy (my preferred term, for reasons of baggage I ascribe to “secondary,” none of which are relevant at this moment) is the broad term. It covers High Fantasy (books about courts and kings), or Epic Fantasy (wherein the characters go haring across the countryside, often on wars but sometimes to destroy or retrieve a magical maguffin). The term also covers S&S and “Low Fantasy” (which deals with commoners instead of nobles), and a multitude of books that wander across the divides: is Kushiel’s Dart high fantasy (because it deals with the machinations of courtiers), epic fantasy (wandering around the countryside), or low fantasy (the protagonist isn’t a courtier, at least not until the end of the book)?

    I also loved Poul Anderson’s term “heroic fantasy,” which makes no claims as to the plot or birth-rank or -right of the protagonist, only that he or she is larger than life and more active and driven than the average person. (Heck, they’re not even necessarily *heroic*. This term applies to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and certainly the latter is a thoroughgoing rogue!)

  8. Sarah Monette
    November 29th, 2007 at 19:52 | #8

    E–

    Are those your definitions, or are you quoting someone else’s schema?

  9. November 29th, 2007 at 20:22 | #9

    Sarah —

    You and I are on roughly the same page, then, wrt “high fantasy.” It’s . . . elevated, somehow, in subject matter and/or tone. High fantasy has a limited tolerance for dirt.

    “Epic,” for me, requires a quest upon which the fate of the world depends, or something else equally earth-shattering. (Which tends to go hand-in-hand with “long,” to the point where the two terms are nigh-interchangeable, it seems.)

    GRRM’s “Song of Ice and Fire” is an epic fantasy with too much dirt to really be high. :-)

    In the end none of these words really matter, because types of fantasy don’t get shelved separately, and I don’t know of any awards specifically aimed at epic fantasy or what-have-you; the concrete effect of debating them is really quite low. But it does make me stop and think about how I think about such things.

    As for nutshell descriptions . . . yeah. HATE ON THEM. I’m so very glad I have a workable one for Midnight Never Come — “Elizabethan faerie spy fantasy” — that doesn’t feel like a horrible misrepresentation. Bad things result when somebody asks me to describe Doppelganger in less than a rambling and highly confusing paragraph.

  10. November 30th, 2007 at 19:19 | #10

    Really interesting! In addition, the scullery boy to king genre feels like a subgenre of the general ‘rags to riches’ type story. So many stories are simply variations on a theme here, but as you’ve aptly pointed out, it’s all about how you recreate the story, rather than derivate it (or rather, be deriviative – I’m think I’m doing a neologism here).

  11. December 3rd, 2007 at 14:39 | #11

    I’d love to read Patrick’s story.

    Very good points all around!

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