It’s tempting to believe that the most engaging scenes in a fantasy novel (or any other novel, I suppose) will be the scenes of conflict, and that those scenes will grow more exciting as the bad-assedness of the competitors increases. It’s cool, in other words, to see two peasants womping on each other with sticks, cooler to witness two knights fighting with burning swords, and of ultimate coolness to watch Gandalf face down the Balrog on the bridge of Khazad-dûm.
A few months ago, however, my friend Oliver invited me by his place for a couple games of Stratego, and these got me thinking about the way we value conflict within narrative. For those of you who don’t know the game, it consists of a grid on which each player’s “army” is deployed. The army is made up of numbered soldiers (1-9) who face away from the opponent, so that he cannot see their value. The play unfolds as a series of encounters in which one player attacks one of his foe’s pieces with his own. These contests are blind (unless you remember the number of a particular piece from an earlier encounter) and result in the destruction of one or both pieces: whichever piece has the lower number emerges victorious while the other is removed from the board. If both numbers are the same, both pieces are killed.
As you can probably see, in Stratego the actual conflict isn’t all that exciting:
“My guy’s a three.”
“My guy’s a two. Sucker.”
And conflict between pieces of equal rank is the most anticlimactic of all; no showdown, no epic conflagration, no contest of superhuman wills. When the Number One Dude fights the other Number One Dude they just get pulled off the board.
So why’s it fun? Here, I think, lurks an interesting observation for the novelist: characters of indeterminate power are intriguing. If you’re a good Stratego player, you can chase your opponent all over the board with your most useless piece, bluffing the entire way. Much of the game, in fact, revolves around guessing and second-guessing. Just who the hell is that guy, you want to know, and what is he capable of? Fantasy writers are hip to this trick, of course, and the literature is replete with turnip farmers who turn out to be kings, or harlots who are actually fire goddesses, or whatever.
What you don’t see a lot of, on the other hand, are great bluffs. Rarely do you come across a character that you expect to dominate – a lean, steely-eyed, laconic ranger, for instance – only to discover much later that he actually doesn’t know his ass from his elbow. It’s common to find deadly assassins masquerading as hapless innkeepers, less so to discover hapless innkeepers masquerading as deadly assassins. In fact, it’s so uncommon that I’m not sure I’ve ever come across it. I’d be fascinated to hear if anyone can think of a character in fantasy who is actually quite weak and powerless, but who wields great power solely through a balls-to-the-wall kind of bluff. I suppose Petyr Baelish in A Song of Ice and Fire comes close, but he’s all I’ve got…
Of course, there will be a chorus of voices yelling that the whole point of fantasy is to read about awesome characters doing awesome things. If we wanted to follow the tale of a middling level chef with no particular talents, we’d be going to a different shelf in the book store. I’m not so sure. A few contemporary writers of fantasy seem to be gravitating away from globe-begirdling conflict between uber-characters and towards something a little more subtle. The question, I suppose, is, “Is this what readers want?”