When writing and planning “The Knights of Avalon” and the other books in my future Arthur legendarium, I have come up with a sort of list of things that I find VERY IMPORTANT to avoid. Not all of these things are necessarily bad. Some have been used to very great effect by master authors. But they either don’t fit the themes I’m trying to convey or annoy me to no end with overuse. In no particular order:
1) The Batman Gambit – This is my term for the very common trope, used especially often, though not exclusively, in superhero stories, of making killing the ultimate evil. Besides being simply untrue, it has become overused almost to the point of self-parody. “Daredevil”‘s season two reinvigorated the trope, and had what I consider the definitive discussion on this it (No, not “The Dark Knight”; “Just kill the damn Joker” was never satisfactorily resolved, in my opinion), thanks less to the script and more to the terrific acting of both Charlie Cox and Joe Bernthal (Daredevil and the Punisher). But even it succumbed eventually to cliches near the end. When Daredevil tells the Punisher that, just this once, they could try it “his way” and kill the Blacksmith (a big bad who fizzles out a bit by the last episode), the Punisher tells him that this is “not how it works”, and tries to dissuade Daredevil from doing it.
But in fact, this is EXACTLY how it works. In fact, it’s how the police function at all: Don’t kill, UNLESS you have to. When fighting the Joker, you have to.
Old codes of chivalry were often quite strict and specific, but in none of them was there any prohibition against killing. Lancelot in “The Ill-Made Knight”, which I consider the second best fantasy ever written, is in some ways the prototypical tortured hero in the vein of Batman and Daredevil, but even he is willing to kill without considering it a line crossed. More important to him is the granting of mercy to those who ask for it; but if issued a challenge, or to protect himself or others, he is perfectly willing to kill, even if he doesn’t truly want to.
Chivalry is a necessary component of Arthurian fantasy. Partially because my setting is neo-western, I have decided to model my code of chivalry after “Firefly”. Mal actually has a very strict and very consistent code of chivalry, despite his relatively high body count. It is Mal and Lancelot I will be using as my models, not Daredevil and Batman.
2) The Chosen One – You might imaging that this is a difficult one to avoid in a story about the return of a character literally known as “The Once and Future King”, and you would be correct. But my characters are not destined to do anything. When Merlin picks his group to form the new Round Table, he is not picking people who are destined to take on those roles. Rather, he is picking people who HE thinks are best suited for those roles, because Britain is in its hour of greatest need and he can’t wait any longer. The reason this is important to me, besides the fact that this trope is used ALL THE TIME, is that it ups the stakes. When either doesn’t HAVE to die at the hand of the other, then both can die at any time. Nothing is fated.
This raises a particular challenge for me when dealing with the new Arthur, Michael Maddocks. To give a spoiler, in my story “The Tale of Lance” Merlin gifts Lance with the sword Excalibur in a vision and tasks him to bring it to Michael. My original reasoning for why Michael wasn’t simply given the sword is that he lived in Avalon, which is immune to enchantments and which also gives him immunity from the powers of Morgan le Fey, at least temporarily. But if I’m avoiding this trope, it no longer makes sense: Why is Michael on Avalon if he is not destined to take up the role of Arthur? I’m not sure, and further thought will be needed to solve this particular problem.
3) Villainous Incompetence – Being over a thousand years old, Morgan le Fey should have learned a thing or two. Yet often I see fantasies where villains return after hundreds or thousands of years only to make the same mistakes they did originally. The Rick Riordan series “The Heroes of Olympus”, while entertaining, was particularly bad. Old villains, many humans, are coming back from the dead, and one reason this is significant is that unlike monsters mortals can learn from their mistakes. And yet, in their run-ins with King Minos and Medea the characters make the exact same mistakes they did originally, and the stakes feel no higher than in any normal monster encounter.
It’s not just young adult books that do this. In Stephen Lawhead’s “Avalon” his version of Morgan le Fey returns – but everything she does in the novel somehow weakens her side. Not only that, but her allies recognize this instantly. When Moira (her modern name) sets thugs to attack James (the new Arthur), the Prime Minister is despondent, because he knows it will only make him more popular. When she kills the head of his opposition party in Parliament, he is even more dejected. And when she tries to seduce Merlin he even lampshades it when he says that he feels sorry for her, since she has no new tricks to pull. I understand the thematic relevance, but it makes Lawhead’s villain feel weak. She really hasn’t learned ANYTHING new in the 1,000+ years since the original Arthur was king?
Joss Whedon made it a rule in “Serenity” that the villains must be competent, and the Operative indeed comes across as a powerful force. He wears a bulletproof vest to his first fight with Mal, immediately sends out ships to track Serenity, and acts quickly and decisively to destroy all of Serenity’s possible hiding spots. When Mal and crew overcome him, it is necessarily at great risk to themselves and serious cost. Throughout the series and in the movie it is hammered into us that reavers are like boogeymen. The worst possible fate to befall somebody is to fall prey to reavers. So when Mal attacks the reavers in an effort to distract the Operative the risk is enormous, but feels genuinely necessary thanks to the Operative’s power and competence.
So, in other words, Morgan le Fey must be genre savvy. This will force me to be more creative but hopefully will make for a significantly better book.
4) Kill Em’All – Many times, in an effort to prove that the stakes are high and to manipulate emotions, authors make it a point to kill characters – J.K. Rowling was particularly egregious in “The Deathly Hallows”, as are various Disney movies (the firefly’s death in “The Princess and the Frog” couldn’t have been more pointless if it tried).
But the true masters can create high stakes and generate pathos and emotion without resorting to such tricks. In “The Lord of the Rings” a few characters are killed, but only one of the main characters, and quite early on as well. Poor Boromir was already the least important of the Fellowship. His death was sad, but Gandalf’s was far worse. And after Gollum, Frodo, and Sam destroy the Ring a series of almost impossibly good events befall the characters, to the point that Sam finds the whole thing almost miraculous. But the final scene of the book, the parting of Frodo and Gandalf and the return of Sam to the Shire, is incredibly difficult to read and achingly sad without ever feeling twee or manipulative.
“Watership Down” goes one further and kills none of the main characters in the course of the narrative proper, but I defy anybody to read of their escape from Cowslip’s Warren, their rescue of the Efrafan does, or the final attack by Woundwort and not agree that the suspense and tension are practically unbearably high. And nobody will be able to convince me that Bigwig’s response to General Woundwort’s offer of surrender isn’t as moving as any scene in fiction.
A main character finally dies at the end – of old age, after living a long, happy, and successful life, and he literally goes to rabbit Heaven in what is widely considered one of the most emotional scenes ever written. Cruel death of a main character mid-narrative was never necessary.
None of this is to say that none of my main characters will die. Perhaps most or even all of them will; I’m not done plotting the series as a whole. But I can promise you that my reasons for killing them will be very important to the narrative. The purpose their death serves will be clear, and cheap emotional manipulation will NEVER be a reason.
Writing a King Arthur story presents challenges that other fiction does not. Specifically: Everybody knows how the story ends. Thus, the most important part of every re-telling, at least in my opinion, is the ending. It is so well-known and has been told so many times that if you decide to write about King Arthur, you better NAIL it. Malory did. White did. Lawhead did. And I am faced with that problem in my re-telling: How do you end the story of King Arthur in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or unearned but at the same time is different enough from the classic endings to be worth telling. I have some ideas, but it won’t be easy. I can just promise you this: IF – if – Michael dies, there will be a very good reason for it.
This is already a long post, and there’s still more to talk about, like how I will handle my prose. On this account Tom Simon’s brilliant essay books “Death Carries a Camcorder” and “Writing Down the Dragon” have proven invaluable resources. I shall talk about my plans on that front later on.