Epic fantasy, the (sub)genre I feel most at home in, is about the changing of a world. Done well, as for example by Janny Wurts, Robin Hobb or Patrick Rothfuss, it is about the changing of a world through the changing of characters caught at the crux of events. Done poorly, and this once I'll refrain from slinging mud, it can be about the changing of a world as the result of lazy, simplistic narratives about heroism and destiny.
Why reflect on this now? Well, in three weeks' time, shortly after its third birthday, The Second Realm will come to an end. I'm going to be spending the next few weeks reflecting on the series in different ways, and I want to start with one of its key themes, which is the problem with lazy, simplistic narratives of heroism.
This is not a theme that came about deliberately. When I began work on the project, Rel was the Hero, and that meant he was going to Change the World, guided more by the forces of narrativium than either his character or the situation I was trying to construct around him. It was only as I started to plan out the arc of the story (and work out how to end it) that I ran into the shortcomings of this approach.
But I'm quite happy to have ended up tackling this theme. Rel gets some of his near-messianic self-belief from me. I struggle, when addressing changes I'd like to see in this world, to not think of myself as the future leader of such changes. The lessons I have taught Rel in the story are lessons I need to learn myself.
Confronted with questions about whether he's doing the right thing, whether he's engaging deeply enough with the situation, Rel often responds by dismissing the criticism and the views behind it. In his mind, he's standing unbowed in the face of cowardice or collaboration or outright conspiracy - he views this courage as the essence of leadership. Truthfully, though, it has more to do with paranoia and self-absorption, the sense that his personal narrative of himself as hero has no room for dissent.
In some ways, the recognition of and listening to others that Rel must learn (and that I'm still learning) is just a matter of growing up a bit. It's not necessarily a bad thing to centre your own world on yourself and your personal story, provided you can recognise that everyone else has the same right. Rel tends to assume that, where people he encounters don't fall into line with his narrative, their stances are chosen purely to obstruct him, as if they don't exist outside his encounters with them.
With one or two exceptions, Rel isn't much good with people, but he does learn eventually that genuine concern (and even, shock horror, complex personalities) can lie behind the faces of people who disagree with him. And, because there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of heroism, properly tempered, he does get a moment of heroism, though it's not one he (or I, for that matter) would have been able to recognise as such at the start of the story.