Friday, July 15, 2011

Character Arcs, Choices and Consequences in Urban Fantasy

Long series of books following a single character are popular in the urban fantasy genre.  We get in on the ground floor with butt-kicking women like Rachel Morgan, Anita Blake, and Kate Daniels and we travel with them as they learn and grow.  Often, the places they end up are not the places they thought they'd be.  Sometimes, the places they end up are nowhere we wanted them to go.  As Meghan showed us, one of the most controversial character arcs in urban fantasy is that of Anita Blake.

Observations about character arcs, minor spoilers for the Anita Blake and Kate Daniels series and some NSFW language after the jump!

I got started with the urban fantasy genre when I picked up Guilty Pleasures in 2006. However, I thought the first three Anita Blake books were closer cousins to horror than to any other genre. Laurell K. Hamilton's early depictions of Jean-Claude were frightening because Anita knew he was a monster, something to be feared. There was an implication that the beautiful face he showed wasn't what he really looked like - and that we'd never, ever want to see what lay behind the mask. That went by the wayside around book four or five as the series became more urban fantasy and less horror. Obsidian Butterfly was a resurgence of horror in the series - and it was a damn fine book, definitely my favorite of the lot. When Narcissus in Chains came out, the story became the impetus for the sex, not the other way around. All plot lines revolved around Anita getting more and various strange - and some of it has been very strange indeed.

That said, I do not believe the Anita Blake series qualifies as paranormal romance. Fucking isn't romance. You can fuck six ways to Sunday with every kind of were-animal and every species of undead and still not make the leap to paranormal romance or even paranormal erotica. This is just a variation on the "powering up" that happens to urban fantasy protagonists. After the introduction of the ardeur, the series changed from "vampire hunter battles against becoming a monster worse than those she hunts" to "I have to fuck to live." Hamilton makes it clear that Anita is not making love in almost any situation, that the sex is not motivated by any particular feeling or even attraction. It's something she has to do to survive, like breathing or eating.  Instead of the nuanced morality of the previous books and the slow change of Anita as dictated by her own choices, she has been forcibly changed by an irresistible outside influence. She can't avoid becoming a monster; she is one.  The series is now all about how she deals with this forced change. Every story, every plot, every occurrence leads into feeding Anita and the way she feeds is through sex.

I don't object to the sex. I object to how boring this plot device has made the story in general and the character in particular. When Anita was defined by her actions and she had to make a choice about just how far down she wanted to go, the series was much more compelling. When the road to Hell stood before her, she had to weigh her options and choose carefully. Retaining her humanity was paramount for her, and yet... Do you let people die if you can save them by giving another piece of yourself? When do you say, "Enough and no more?" Can you? Should you? Who (or what) are you when there's nothing left of the person you used to be?  Especially when the only person you have to blame is yourself? That was the kicker. The device of the ardeur removed that conflict, and now while Anita still moans and bitches about her humanity, her choices - and her responsibility for those choices - have essentially been removed from her. Fuck or die. Never has so much well-written sex been so boring.

For a great example of a character owning the consequences of choice, take a look at the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. When we first meet her, Kate's a monster and she knows it.  She was fathered by a monster, raised by a monster, and she's okay with doing monstrous things. It's all in a day's work and is very normal to her. From the moment he stole her away and hid her, her foster father raised Kate to be the ultimate weapon, the coldest of killers, the hardest of warriors. That she's a fairly good person is almost by accident.  Kate's second foster father was the best of men, a Knight of the Order of Merciful Aid, and he steered her toward the straight and narrow when he could. His murder turns her down the path toward normalcy and humanity - and it's uncomfortable as hell for her.

Watching Kate learn simple things like loyalty, friendship, and love is heartbreaking. As the daughter of the most powerful blood mage/necromancer in the world, Roland, she is in constant danger of being discovered by her father. Roland does not suffer his children to live since his power is in their blood, and he wants no rivals. Any family reunion is going to be of the scorched earth variety. Every attachment Kate forms endangers not only her but the people around her. Any friend is a liability, any lover is a death waiting to happen. As she forms friendships, falls in love, and eventually adopts a foster daughter, she's terrified for them in a way she's never been terrified for herself. Her death at the hands of her father is an inevitability, but she's unable to accept the same fate for her loved ones.

Kate fears the power of her blood but she decides that she has to learn to use it. There's nothing making her do it, she chooses to do so to be able to perhaps survive her father's inevitable attack or at least last long enough to enable the people she loves to get away. She's terrified of losing herself to the power, of becoming her father all over again, but she accepts this risk. She chooses to become both a better person and a more dangerous monster, hoping that the former tempers the latter and knowing full well that it may not. This is the same conflict that Anita faced, only Kate's character arc is better and truer because Kate decided for herself and must struggle with the consequences of where those choices take her. Anita's choice was made for her.

All that said, Hamilton is one hell of a writer and I loved the scene in The Harlequin where Anita has to hunt down a penthouse full of vampires who were forced by their more powerful brethern to commit a series of murders. They are mere thralls, helpless against the will of their master, but they are legally culpable which means they must be executed. It's a terrifying hunt in the dark, and her SWAT team allies get torn to shreds. When one vampire begs for her life, it tears Anita apart to put her down, but she does it. It's her job. For a moment, all the sex and the accompanying hand-wringing of the last few books went away and I was back in the story. It reminded me of how good things used to be, like briefly seeing someone you once loved. It doesn't take long for the sex to come back to the forefront, however, and it made me lay the book down. I've never picked up another of that series and I doubt I will.

We want to see our heroes and heroines deal with the extraordinary circumstances they're experiencing and a large part of that is how their choices, and the consequences of those choices, impact them. When you remove an essential piece of that conflict by introducing an irresistable force that removes both the ability to choose and the responsibility for their actions, your story suffers and your character becomes much less interesting. Kate is compelling because she's willingly risking her identity, her soul, and everything she loves and the results are uncertain at best. Anita used to be that girl, but now she's just doing the all male revue.

I miss her.
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  1. Karen Marie Moning's "MacKayla Lane Novels" take place largely in Dublin and are an excellent Urban Fantasy story, shelved in the Romance section though they may be.

  2. Oops! Meant that comment for the map post! Gotta keep my tabs straight!

  3. Anna, I added your suggestion to the map!