Behind the mask
Behind the mask of ice that people wear, there beats a heart of fire – Paulo Coelho
The nature of the Web means that it's very easy to portray yourself as you would like to be perceived. Shy in real life can be outgoing and witty online. Those of us who don't want to show our faces can hide behind a series of masks: avatars, usernames, profiles that reveal as much or as little as we choose. On the internet, no-one knows you're a dog. But as a corollary of that, sometimes they forget you're even real.
We all know of people who have let their facade slip and allowed something through they shouldn't have. In the writing world, it's often an author who's reacted badly to a negative review or otherwise behaved in an unprofessional manner. The online community is entirely unforgiving of such things, and to a certain extent rightly so. One of the main benefits of being an author on the Web is surely that even if something hurts or upsets you, you can keep that information to yourself. Throwing an electronic tantrum because someone disagrees with you or doesn't like your work is hardly the best way to win friends – or readers.
Yet there's a flip side to this. All too often, author meltdowns are passed around amongst other writers with a kind of malicious glee. Rather than quietly note bad behaviour and take a personal lesson from it, we share it with our contacts like a bag of sweets. We point and laugh. We mock. Perhaps we're secretly glad it's not us, or – more significantly – perhaps we feel as though every writer who fails is making more space for us.
It's easy enough to view other writers as rivals. To pore over the negative reviews of their work and ignore the positive ones. To gossip about the misjudged comments they made on a forum or book site. To believe, somehow, that other people's mistakes make us better by comparison. It's nonsense, of course: our work, and our behaviour, stands or falls on its own merit. Maybe we're jealous. Maybe we're insecure. But whatever the reason, when someone messes up we turn into a mob of playground bullies – even (and this doesn't make it any better) if it's only in the privacy of our own minds.
All this is a shame. The individuals we interact with online are real people with real feelings, not just a bunch of pixels on a screen. There's fire behind each mask. And we all have the capacity to act unwisely, whether it's by having a public meltdown or by releasing a book full of basic mistakes. For that reason, a little more tolerance would do us good. After all, writers and readers aren't competitors in a skewed game of one-upmanship. We're colleagues, cooperators, a community brought together by a shared love of books. We should rejoice in each other's successes and empathise when things don't work out. And if we remember that the online people we deal with are just that – people, with the same hopes and fears as us – then maybe we can forgive their occasional blunders and work to support them instead of hanging them out to dry. Isn't that what we hope they'd do for us?
I have to admit that I'm a secret fan of this cliché.* You know how it goes: hero devotes his life to defeating bad guy. Hero finds out he's related to bad guy. Hero undergoes serious mental trauma as a result. It's one of the oldest and most venerable fantasy clichés, with roots steeped in mythology.** And yet it endures to the present day.
The appeal of this cliché is obvious. We like our protagonists to suffer, and what greater torment can there be than learning that you're closely related to the very thing you despise? That kind of discovery can only lead to self-examination, self-doubt and maybe even self-loathing – exactly the kind of internal battle we love a hero to struggle with. Not only that, but it's a battle we can relate to. We all have a sense of our own identity: a few fundamental characteristics that define us in our own eyes and underlie everything we do, like the pillars holding up a temple roof. Take one of those supports away and the whole edifice begins to crumble.
And, of course, there's still more to it than that. Deep down, I think we all fear that we'll turn into what we hate. Indeed, perhaps we hate certain things precisely because we have the sneaking suspicion that we could easily become them – because we know we have an affinity with the darkness. That's the undercurrent that flows between Skywalker and Vader. Between Holmes and Moriarty.*** It's the conflict between angel and devil that lurks in all of us. In that sense, the I Am Your Father cliché is successful because it speaks directly to our own fundamental anxieties.
This is a cliché that has a valid psychological rationale behind it, and for that reason I'm sure it's here to stay. But like all clichés, it has to be used with care. The straightforward implementation that's exemplified by Darth Vader would probably seem too much of an obvious plot device to a modern audience used to such things. Put your own spin on it, though, and it will be one cliché that still has a genuine impact on the reader.****
* Well, not that secret, or I wouldn't have mentioned it online.
** Probably Oedipus. It usually is.
*** OK, I'm not aware that Moriarty turned out to be Holmes' father, but you get the point.
**** Particularly if you can avoid using the line 'I am your father/mother/brother/great-great-aunt …'
You may be wondering what's wrong with that. Surely having a beard is part of the very definition of a dwarf, just as being tall and ethereally beautiful is part of what defines an elf. But what I'm getting at with 'all dwarfs have beards' is one of the more unrealistic and frankly dangerous fantasy clichés: the notion that the members of any non-human race may be principally characterised by their homogeneity.
In fact, it's not the physical details that worry me. Every species has certain key physical characteristics: humans walk on two legs, eagles fly, dragons breathe fire. So as far as I'm concerned, the dwarfs can keep their beards. But with these physical details tend to come a host of behavioural and psychological characteristics that are much harder to swallow when applied to the species as a whole: all dragons are wise, all elves are brilliant archers, all dwarfs love their beer. And fantasy writers don't stop there. Some even generalise about their own species (does 'all humans are short-sighted aggressive destroyers of the natural environment' sound familiar?).
Part of the problem seems to be a confusion between cultural and personality traits. Different human cultures have different traditions, beliefs and moral structures, so it's reasonable to assume that different sentient species would too. The framework through which a dragon views the world, for instance, is going to be very different from that of a human. But cultural standards are not the same as individual characteristics. The point about cultural standards is that the individuals who share them can examine them, question them and deviate from them to a greater or lesser extent. Giving an entire species a shared personality trait, on the other hand, assumes that everyone who is subject to the same cultural and environmental influences will end up the same kind of person – and that's where authors go wrong.
It's perfectly plausible that all members of a religion might salute the sun each evening to ensure it rises the next day. It's not so plausible that all those members would be identical in their level of belief in such a ritual. Successful worldbuilding requires a careful examination and understanding of which features of a race or species are cultural, and therefore may justifiably be applied across the entire group, and which are individual and therefore can't. As I said at the beginning, not doing this is dangerous. Why? Because it leads to lazy characterisation based on stereotyping and generalisation. And just as we wouldn't (or shouldn't) accept this for different human groups, we shouldn't accept it for different fantasy races.