Of Scullery Boys and Kings
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.