Fantasy, bildungsromane, and liminality

Posted on May 17, 2011 by


Oogs again. Here to talk about the common use of younger (teenage) characters in epic fantasy, study the downsides and upsides of this approach, and look at characters on the threshold of one thing or another.

1. Hazards of Mixing Genres

I’ve run across a few epic fantasies lately that were bildungsromane, which leads me to ponder the philosophy of plotting them, as the two genres seem to be rather contradictory. The plot of a bildungsroman is of a much looser weave than an epic fantasy.

A bildungsroman, (to use a metaphor) is like a meandering stream weaving its way through the park, while an epic fantasy is water cascading down a gorge in a thousand waterfalls.  Once you start meandering, you don’t want to interrupt yourself with a sharply focused, one-conflict gorge (especially not if you go back to the meandering afterward).

I once read a novel where the writer couldn’t balance the two conflict styles and jerked me back and forth between incidents in the life of the heroine and an external-conflict driven story.  Not to say the development can’t be mixed, but in that case, the external conflict has to be the driving force of the internal character development.

A epic fantasy bildungsroman has one real plotting disadvantage. You still need a climax to it.  A crescendo.  Something to sum up the conflict and bring it to a conclusion.  And since it’s internal, you somehow need the external setting to marshal a suitable demonstration of what your character has learned.

But all things aside, when done right, this type of novel can have wonderful results.

2. Appeal of Younger Characters

Branching off from the above, I ask why even bother to write a younger character, who needs that internal growth and development? (I’ll skip over the marketing reason, appealing the target demographic.)

Some fairy tales start out with children young enough to return to the parental home after adventure is done; still fewer start out with an adult who left the parental home (and possibly even married and founded his own home) going on adventures.  But the main plotline is generally one in which the hero, living in his parents’ house, leaves (voluntarily or involuntarily), has adventures, marries, and settles down in a new home.

This has several advantages in fantasy.

If you want to send the hero on a quest, who is he leaving behind?  Spouse, children, job?  A little less than heroic.  No one?  But if it’s no one, how did an older character manage to get to his current age without acquiring responsibilities?  A little self-centered, mostly likely.  That’s where the teenager comes in. A sixteen year old  can have no responsibilities without any more reason than age.

Youth also gives more room for growth.  The character can grow, mature, develop—and not raise so many questions about how he started out so immature.

Romance subplots. An older character would need a reason to not be attached romantically (in most fantasy societies), while a teen can just be waiting for The One (who he’ll find during the course of his quest, conveniently).

On the symbolic side, younger characters are liminal. (More on this word later.)  Goes hand in hand with all the other liminal traits they often acquire—going on journeys; transforming into a wizard, a swordsman, or a king, etc.—and reinforces them.

In general, it’s easier on an author to find motivation for a younger character—he’ll want to explore, find himself, all those sort of things commonly found in a bildungsroman. An adult character needs more persuasion—the Dark Lord burned his village down, stole his wife/fiancée/eldest son. Thus, older characters need more backstory, which means more work, and  a heavier, more complicated conflict.

But then, when you’re using a teenage character, you run into the epic fantasy/bildungsroman plotting issues stated above. Everthing is a trade-off, isn’t it?

3. Liminality in Fiction

An explanation on liminality. It comes from the Latin limen, meaning threshold.  And those poised on the threshold are usually more interesting to read about.

And it’s really useful in fantasy.

The first is that the hero transitions through liminality in some way. In the beginning the character is removed from his normal condition, then he is transformed, then he settles down into a new condition.  This can be your full blown character arc.  It also has other transformations.  Going on a journey is a liminal state, one of transition.  Getting married.  Having a child.  Growing up (this is one reason why the adolescent/young adult is so popular as a character).  Becoming the king—from a farmboy, but also from a Crown Prince.

Then there are permanently liminal things—places, beings, times.  Crossroads, gates, ports, shores—mountains (between the land and air).  Borders between countries, localities, farms.  Dawn, sunset, midnight (sometimes even noon); New Year’s Day; solstices and equinoxes.

But liminal characters can be the most useful.  Hybrids of species.  The werewolf, both beast and man.  The vampire, both alive and dead. Centaurs, fauns, winged humans, other half/half creatures.

The stereotypical blind seer is both less and more than ordinary humans in ability.  A speaking tree is both intelligent and a plant; a talking dragon is both intelligent and a beast.  Encounters with them can be numinous, transformative—though all too often they’re just part of the local color.

One of my favorite liminal characters is Tiraneus.  A ghost, both alive and dead; a blind seer, so both seeing and not seeing; and he had been transformed to a woman and back, so both male and female.

So on that note, what sorts of liminality have you found most impressive in fiction?