For some, it is to save a life or find something of value. For others, it is to change the world, to pursue a grand cause and improve life for thousands of people.
But it isn’t always that simple.
What cause do you pick, and how do you make it relevant and believable?
The Problems with Modern Values
Fantasy has, throughout its existence, been used to promote or present issues which affect modern day readers. Fantasy has the capacity to tackle sensitive issues without being too immediate, too raw. And because of this capacity, it is easy to be tempted to put in modern values and modern causes based upon the author’s ideals.
The problem with this is that is it difficult to do well. Modern values are not the same as those that were held in the past; as technology and society changes, so too do values and beliefs. And with many fantasy novels set in pre-industrial worlds, it is not always suitable to have a character fighting for gender equality, democracy, an end to the death penalty or the abolition of slavery.
Our values do not match the values of past societies, and that’s because the scenarios are different. For example, sex before marriage was deeply frowned upon a century ago because that could result in a child growing up fatherless, and that meant the mother would have to work and not have as much time to care for it. Sex before marriage now is far less controversial because thanks to contraception, sex does not need to result in pregnancy, and it is not unusual for a mother to have a career. There are safety nets in place to support single mothers – maternity leave, crèches, child benefits and support groups. And as people like JK Rowling have proven, a single mother can be a success.
Change Does Not Happen in a Vacuum
Now you’ve selected a cause for your character which is appropriate to the values of the society you’ve completed, you need to lay some groundwork. The great thinkers of the past did not claim to have achieved great things independently of everyone else. As Isaac Newton once famously said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” So don’t have your protagonist realise out of the blue that Slavery Is Bad when nobody else has ever realised this before.
Take the Athenian democracy for example. The actual move from tyranny to democracy in the late 6th century BCE was a fairly quick one. In the latter years of the joint rule of Hippias and Hipparchus, the sons of Pisistratus, they were becoming increasingly unpopular – and increasingly controlling. After the assassination of Hipparchus, Hippias fled to Persia and Athens soon became a democracy under the guidance of Kleisthenes.
Imagine that’s your novel. What does it lack? An explanation for democracy, rather than a new single ruler or an oligarchy taking over. Part of that is the personality of the individuals involved, like Kleisthenes. But part of it is groundwork.
The groundwork I’m talking about is history. How the tyrants gained power is part of it, since before Pisistratus secured his rule at his third attempt, the city was factionalised, torn between the immense influence and power of three major players – Pisistratus, Megacles and Lycurgus – with no influence from anyone else. But most of the groundwork for democracy came with the reforms of Solon, almost a century before, giving citizens greater influence in the running of the city and the power to elect officials and hold them to account. Arguably, the development of the courtyard house in the centuries before even Solon created the seeds of equality, as each adult male citizen was the ruler of his own house which conceptually, if not in reality, made him equal to every other male citizen.
So when you are creating your worlds and stories, think about what groundwork might have been laid in the past which has influenced attitudes in the present. It doesn’t even need to be things the historians of your world are aware of – I doubt Aristotle, writing in the 4th century BCE, would have considered house design part of the development of the Athenian democracy – but it does need to be there, because change doesn’t come from a vacuum.
Causes Take Time
The status quo is a powerful thing. Keeping things the same is comfortable and easy. It doesn’t need you to think about it and it means you don’t have to constantly change how you do things. So when your character comes along looking to change things, the greatest opposition they might come across could be from ordinary people who don’t like your protagonist stirring the pot, who are happy with the way they live their lives and don’t want to join a cause or get in trouble or change the way they do things – or worse, give up their own privilege and luxury for someone else’s cause.
And since the status quo has such power, a lot of causes in the past have taken a long time. Obliterating slavery, for example, is an ongoing goal in the modern world, and one which has ancient roots. It was illegal, in Christian-controlled Europe in the middle ages, to sell a Christian as a slave into a non-Christian culture – a law passed repeatedly by the Catholic Church in the early medieval period. In 1102 the slave trade was made illegal in England, a law long forgotten centuries later when the trade of African slaves throughout the world and primarily to America began.
The fight then to end slavery was a long one. Quakers in Pennsylvania protested slavery as early as 1688, Vermont (then an independent nation) abolished it in 1777, and the Slave Trade Act of 1807 made the trade of slaves, though not ownership, illegal within the British Empire. Slavery itself was abolished in the British Empire in 1833. It was another 32 years before slavery was illegal throughout the United States. It wasn’t until 1948 that freedom from slavery became a UN-sanctioned human right.
The point here is that whatever your protagonist is campaigning for, don’t just hand it to them on a plate. It takes steps to reach, as with my example of slavery above. There were victories along the way, and there were times when things went backwards. If you give your protagonist too great a goal you might damage the believability of their struggles – or trivialise the enormity of what they set out to achieve.
There isn’t any reason to rush things. If the cause is great enough, why shouldn’t it take the protagonist’s entire life – or even generations? Or if you want to keep the story within a limited time frame, stop it after a landmark has been reached, a point which can be called a victory that has been fought and struggled for, but one which does not yet meet your character’s ambitions – or your own values. Progress has been made; and it doesn’t hurt to leave space for a sequel.
When giving your character a grand cause, consider whether it is appropriate to the society your protagonist is part of. Give the other members of that society, past and present, some credit in having considered the cause worthwhile before your protagonist came along. Make the fight for what is right a struggle worthy of a great novel by giving it a timescale appropriate for what must be achieved.
How have you incorporated great causes into your novels? What other advice would you give to writers regarding grand causes? And where have you seen another author handle these situations well – or poorly?
Alice has other articles and reviews available on her website at aliceleiper.wordpress.com.