This is a hybrid question/rant. Both halves of this hybrid are entirely legitimate; I really do want answers to the question, and I really am annoyed by the thing I’m asking about. If you want to skip my thoughts and just answer, feel free; and if you want to just read me spewing hate-words into the webbertubes, that’s fine, too.
The question, about which I shall rant hereafter: Why does it seem like so many urban fantasy stories insist on main characters with earth-shaking levels of power, interacting with (or being) characters who occupy unique and/or crucial positions within the fantasy subculture or the fabric of reality, fighting battles with world-shattering stakes hanging in the balance?
I understand that it is a good idea (if not mandatory) that there be something unique about your protagonist, either in terms of their nature or in terms of their situation; if they are an un-special person to whom nothing special happens, then there is likely no conflict and therefore no story. However, it seems like urban fantasy writers in particular are copying a narrative template I last saw in the heady Dark Age of comic books: using high power levels and Big Important Words and high-end mythological beings in place of actual diligence and detail, and leaning on weird MacGuffins and strange loopholes to get the main character from one cosmologically important plot point to the next.
Let’s establish some terms, as I used to do in my graduate courses. What do I mean by “high power level,” in a genre where supernatural powers are par for the course? I’m glad you asked, Assumed Reader of Essays! “High power level” refers here to characters (or objects utilized by characters) with powers that are constantly useful, completely reliable, and capable of solving a wide variety of tasks both magical and mundane. Classic “high power” abilities include the ability to easily, even off-handedly, kill the average threats present in the fiction’s universe; resistance to physical and/or magical harm bordering on invincibility; unaided, high-speed travel through space or, God forbid, time; the ability to raise the dead or undo apparently permanent damage; and the capacity for other significant, permanent alterations to reality. Bonus points if the powers in question can be activated with a second or less of warning (e.g., teleporting across the world with a snap of your fingers) or if they come with some weakness or limitation that does not appear to actually limit their use in any way (e.g., the power causes the user great pain, but not so great that they are reluctant to use it to solve any but the most trivial problems). In short, an “average” power level allows an urban fantasy character some amount of shortcuts around mundane problems; a “high” power level allows an urban fantasy character to ignore mundane problems and barely struggle with all but the most fantastic ones.
I also said some flippant things about Big Important Words, and that should be explained here as well. Fantasy, since the dawn of language, has loved to give characters, places, and things Names with Capital Letters, titles that convey mystery or importance. The Lady of the Lake, the City of Brass, the One Ring. Etc. Urban fantasy follows suit, giving us things like King Rat, the Black Friars, or the Room of Thirteen Doors. Both fantasy and its younger cousin also love made-up words for things: the various demon races in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Sandman Slim come to mind, or kything (admittedly based on an old Scottish word) in the A Wrinkle in Time series. Urban fantasy has a predilection fantasy doesn’t always share, however, for prescribing near- (or beyond-) deific uniqueness to characters, even beyond the whole Chosen One thing that has been popular for quite some time now (like all of it): I’m thinking more of Sandman Slim’s parentage in his novels, or the cosmogonic status of the Endless in The Sandman, or the strange propensity for “edgy” characters in urban fantasy to wind up meeting Jack the Ripper.
But wait, the Assumed Reader says; don’t many works you, Tyler, love feature some of these very things? The Doctor, with his Sontarans and Daleks and his ever-more-potent sonic screwdriver? The aforementioned Dream, he of the alternate dimension where he is god-king and the ability to appear almost anywhere he wants? Mike Carey’s Lucifer? Well…yes. They do have this stuff. But the way they handle it…well…
OK, let me give you an example of what I mean. A few years back, I read an urban fantasy novel that took place in an Otherworld version of a famous big city, where it’s always the middle of the night and all the monsters and miscreants like to hang out. Alright, so far so good; decent urban fantasy setting. Early on in the book, the main character figures out that someone is trying to kill him for investigating the things he is investigating; assassins from multiple timelines keep suddenly materializing in front of him. Sure, alright; again, a bit weird even for the genre, but go big or go home, I guess. As such, he hires three bodyguards. One I have forgotten entirely, except for the fact he is unkillable; the other is a pair of lovers, a mortal and a succubus, who are damned by definition but are so deeply in love that the good emotion keeps them out of Hell and damnation keeps them out of Heaven, so they, too, are immortal. Uh? The very first place they go to investigate anything, they get attacked by a bunch of wizards in three-piece suits, and the main character just hits the deck while the immortal bodyguards graphically murder all the minor antagonists (I hesitate to call them “bad guys”). Over the course of the book, the main character hangs out with a bartender who is occasionally possessed by an impressively Satanic rendition of Merlin, fights someone wielding a gun that speaks the Word of God backwards to erase its targets from existence, and discovers he is the son of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who has been unleashed into our world now and who becomes the antagonist for the entire series.
So what, you might say? So this: At no point does the main character resolve any conflict himself. Every conflict is presented in the same format: impossibly horrible, powerful, inexorable thing appears; main character tells us how screwed he is; some sort of deux ex machina, occasionally a literal one, steps up and fixes it, perhaps after the main character points out some mystical loophole in the problem that they can exploit, perhaps just via brute force and ignorance. And the characters are so flat they could get a job as a cardboard standee, with each of them having exactly as much personality as is lent to them by the archetype they embody and not a whit more. Even the main character, who is our first-person narrator to boot, is just a Central Casting noir detective with a quasi-tragic, quasi-mystical spin on his backstory that you just know will result in a pity party being thrown in the later books.
It’s the latter point that bothers me, and the point on which Doctor Who and The Sandman deviate from the cavalcade of sins I am mentioning here. These stories have shallow characterization and cliche plots, spiced up only by making everyone a godlike special snowflake and/or making sure the gore quotient is somewhere in the stratosphere. The stakes keep getting bigger, the amount of worlds and realities threatened larger, the consequences ever darker and dire; but these are tautological consequences, consequences that are only dire because we keep being told they’re dire, because the easiest way to make something look like a threat is to have it threaten everything. You don’t have to tell people how serious a threat to the world is, and you don’t have to work to make people worried about it.
And that is why this behavior among urban fantasy writers bothers me. Because it’s lazy. By going big, by going enormous and epic and scary, the writer can skimp on the harder parts of writing – character depth, relatable conflicts, emotionally moving…well…emotions. (Prose fail.) You can pave over your deficiencies by just having something else weird or gory or explosive happen and never have to go back to making your main character anything more than a cynical detective or a bewildered everyman; Chandler’s Law writ large. It’s the literary equivalent of a heavy metal garage band that covers up its lack of musical training by detonating explosives onstage, a loud distraction that will hit your primal side and draw attention away from the noisy deficiencies of the rest of the product.
The thing is, I can get behind that; not every single book needs to move me deeply. But I feel like urban fantasy in particular gets the lion’s share of this, and I don’t quite understand why, especially when there are plenty of examples of high-power characters in high-power settings who nevertheless are complex, conflicted, and interesting – the aforementioned Dream and the Doctor. I’m not quite certain why it is that urban fantasy falls victim to this so thoroughly (and I’ll admit, it’s even possible I’m wrong, and this is a problem across a wide swath of genres); is it just the easy access to godlike characters? What is it about urban fantasy that encourages fulfillment of a college-campus stereotype about speculative fiction? Is this actually an issue for anyone besides me? Am I just not OK with letting magic be…er…magical?
I don’t know, and it bothers me a lot. It’s to the point that I’m almost scared to write an action sequence, lest I be written off as yet more popcorn in a world overflowing with kernels. Luckily, and here is my conclusion, this gives me purpose: to recognize this apparent pitfall, and to avoid it; to keep the power levels of my settings low; to keep my characters deep; and to always remember that even if the rest of the world disagrees with me, the fact that I want to do those things in my stories is reason enough to do it.