31 May 2013

Travelling Fantasy Roundtable : Part 15 : Shades of Fantasy

Part 15 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, our roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature, is up at Deborah J Ross' blog. This month we're discussing the whole range of fantasy - from grim, to gritty. ;)

29 May 2013

Jill Bond

Ever done the character creation process in a roleplaying game?  It usually involves a distribution of points, sometimes combined with dice rolls.  Quite a few of the systems will give you more points to spend on positive traits and skills if you 'buy' negative attributes.  You have enough points to buy "Driving" and "Swords", but if in addition you want to know a martial art, be a skilled shot, and have some very handy medical skills, you have to balance those skills with something negative.
 
World of Darkness, the vampire-focused RPG by White Wolf, gives you extra experience (levelling-up points) if you pick a flaw and then role play it well during game play.  You can see from this handy list, that some of these flaws are considerably sexier than others.  "Lost Love" will give you a very different roleplaying experience compared to "Coward".  In some systems you can purchase multiple flaws, potentially creating yourself a one-eyed, mute, addicted, halitosis-inflicted astronaut-ninja-brain surgeon.
 
Occasionally you'll encounter a game deliberately weighted toward "ridiculous hero", where flaws aren't required, and skills are free.  They tend to be fun, over the top but not quite serious games.  Every contrivance of plot will be thrown against these characters, but they will overcome because of sheer weight of skill overload.
 
Most stories attempt to balance their characters similarly, if not so crudely.  A main character with some strengths, and some weaknesses, who is 'rounded' by possessing some trait which keeps them from being overly perfect.  Anyone who has read widely in the young adult genre will be familiar with the purchase of "clumsy".
 
But occasionally you want a hero, someone almost over the top with their number of skills and their lack of flaws.  You want James Bond.  Or Batman.  Near-infallible, except for a slight tendency to disobey orders, or angst darkly about dead parents.  Their faults are cool faults, they play a long game, plan ahead, go through hell, and are proved right in the end, overcome ambushes, fight long and hard to win, adjust smoothly, and land with a double-pike twist and a cheer from the crowd.
 
Now.  How often have you read a review stating something in the order of: "I couldn't get into this story because the main character was too perfect"?  What percentage of the main characters were female?
 
It's not that we don't have a host of stories featuring Jill Bond, where the kitchen sink is thrown at her and she backflips and kicks it over the goal.  But Jill's existence seems to bother many readers.  Too often I've seen a story with a Jill Bond, who succeeds and succeeds, and plays that long game, plans ahead, wins at the end…and I'm told that she is the author's darling.  Irritating.  Unrealistic.
 
Isn't that the point?
 
There's a lot of fun to be had with those characters overloaded with all the positive traits, romping through their over-the-top stories.  James is fun.  Jill is fun.
 
Jill's name is not Mary Sue.  There is room for the Jill Bonds of the fictional world.  Let's celebrate them.