This essay was originally going to be a review of The Mammoth Book of Sorcerers' Tales, edited by Mike Ashley, and published in late 2004. This recent addition to the serried ranks of Mammoth Books includes stories by contemporary writers (including some of my favourites) of the stature of Ursula Le Guin, Tom Holt and Mike Resnick, alongside historical curiosities and rarities such as Clark Ashton Smith's "The Double Shadow" and Michael Moorcock's "Master of Chaos". It should, I thought, have been an interesting read. But I couldn't finish it. I forced myself through about two-thirds of the stories and browsed the rest, hoping, vainly, for something to spark my interest. Nuthin'.
As a collection it was, in a word, boring.
After several months of soul-searching and some very rudimentary research, I have concluded that there are two possible reasons for this. On the one hand, it may be that, when it comes to taste in fantasy fiction, my universe simply does not align with Mr Ashley's. Alternatively, it could be that sorcerors and wizards, by their very nature, are just plain dull.
I have come down in favor of the second explanation on the grounds that: (a) it's much more likely to provoke a backlash from enraged Potterphiles, (b) it could explain what's really wrong with a great deal of mainstream fantasy fiction these days, and (c) the first reason doesn't make for much of an essay.
Could it be that what's wrong with fantasy writing today isn't a decline in editing standards among many of the major publishing houses, or the marketing imperative that measures the quality of a book by the inch-thickness of its spine and its potential for endless sequels? Could it be something more insidious? Embedded from the beginning in the classics of the genre, of which today's twenty-volume epics are but pale and prolix imitations?
Could this simple premise (wizards=boring) explain why, although I'm in awe of every word of science-fiction Ursula Le Guin has ever written, I yawned my way through the Earthsea trilogy? (Not quartet — I couldn't come at the fourth book.) Could it be the reason why I skimmed all the bits about Pug in Magician, the first fantasy epic I ever read, anxious to get back to Tomas and Arutha and all the other blokey-blokes up to their elbows in grime and gore? Could it be the real reason why, after a lifetime of fandom, starting with seeing the original instalment with my dad when I was five, I found the Star Wars prequels so crushingly disappointing?
"FOR GOD'S SAKE, MAN! PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER!" I hear the dieharder-than-I fans cry. "Why on Coruscant are you bringing up Star Wars in a discussion of high fantasy?
"Star Wars is science-fiction," they say. "The original, the ultimate, the apogee of space opera."
C.J. Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe is space opera; Star Wars is high fantasy in techno-drag.
Could it be that episodes I–III were mediocre not because George Lucas is "a piss-poor director of actors" (as one Australian critic so colorfully alleged) but because they're so full of Jedi? And Jedi, let me remind you, lest you accuse me of the self-indulgent bitterness of a disgruntled ex-fan, are wizards. There ain't nuthin' SFnal about the Force, folks, for all the belated effort to prop it up with technobabble in Episode I. (Dude, he's strong with the Force — who cares about his Mosquito-Chlorine count?)
I contend that episodes IV–VI were fun because they only featured three Jedi and the Jedi they did include were entertaining and engaging for every aspect of their characters other than the fact that they were wizards. Yoda was fun because he was small and cute and his words in the wrong order he spoke. Plus, he had someone's fist permanently shoved up his butt and that'd give anyone a spring in their step. Luke was interesting precisely because he wasn't a Jedi until Episode VI, at which point he instantly suffered an abrupt and absolute loss of charisma.
Coincidence? I think not.
And Obi Wan Kenobi wasn't the coolest dude of a pensioner ever to lead a small group of renegades to rescue the princess and save the galaxy because he was Obi Wan Kenobi. He was cool because he was Sir Alec Guinness. As soon as Ewan MacGregor stepped into the role (who, better-than-competent actor though he is, ain't Sir Alec) it was revealed for the straight jacket it really was.
But why are wizards so unengaging?
First: the sex. Or rather, the notable lack thereof. And yeah, I know, endless numbers of writers carry on about magical power being better than sex blah blah blah. But seriously: sex is a big part of what makes us the selfish, short-sighted, aggressively tribalistic hyper-primates that we are. Without sex, wizards are just thaumaturgic uber-nerds.
How many nerds, I ask you, don't want to see their heroes gettin' some?
And, let's face it, if you're reading this essay (let alone writing it) you are a nerd. Some writers try to give their wizards a love interest – Pug gets himself hitched, HP plays a bit of tonsil-hockey in the Quidditch off-season – but, really, while the characters go through the motions, you can tell their sorcerous hearts aren't in it. They'd much rather be locked in their bedrooms playing with their magic wands.
Not that I think wizards should get more butch, necessarily. A gay wizard trying to get by in a fantasy world ruled by the sexual ideology of Conan the Barbarian (kill de men, rape de horses, hear de lamentations of de vomen, etc) might, for example, be a character worth reading. No, it's the absence of any kind of gender from the characters of most wizards that's disheartening. One is always left with the sneaking suspicion that under their robes (to steal a line from Kevin Smith) they're as anatomically challenged as a Ken doll. Or (again, thank you Mr. Smith) an angel.
Which leads me to the second reason. Wizards often don't make interesting and sympathetic characters because they're too perfect. Like elves with beards. Too often, wizards are the Basil Exposition of the fantasy genre, barely-translucent ciphers for the story's author. They know everything that's going on, but only dole the information out to the other characters when the author wants the reader to know. They have a spell up their robe to deal with every situation – which is fun for a while, but wanes as quickly as having all the cheats for the latest Nintendo adventure. Consequently, if the wizard does happen to die, it is much more obviously a convenient plot device than genuine human drama.
Third reason: the names. While warriors get blessed with names like Conan, Arutha or Rhodry Maelwaedd, Eddard Stark or Aragorn-son-of-Arathorn, wizards get lumbered with hangers like Gandalf and Pug, Nevyn, Ged and Dumbledore. Credibility? Ha!
Reader identification? I think not.
Might as well call them all Slartibartfast and be done with it. Only hobbits and dwarves get shorter shrift (boom boom) in the naming department.
Evil wizards often fare somewhat better: Saruman. Sauron. Voldemort. Thulsa Doom.
The Witch King of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgul.
Gives you a chill, doesn't it?
But it ain't necessarily so: Count Dooku, anyone? Oin and Gloin would be more badass bad guy names than Dooku. JarJar Binks would be a more credible… okay, maybe not.
One might be tempted to argue that being Evil in itself adds a certain level of interest to a wizard's character. Being undead and evil is even better. Who, after all, are the great villains of high fantasy? Sauron? Voldemort? The aforementioned Witch King of etcetera? Au contraire. These are hardly characters at all. Like many of their Good counterparts, they're little (if anything) more than plot labels for a simplistic Manichean moral order. Hardly original. Or exciting.
(And don't get me started on that tedious business of Evil Wizards always investing their power in an artefact that is: (a) easily misplaced and (b) the Good Wizard knows how to destroy or use against them.)
I happened across a recent example a couple of weeks ago, which I won't do the author the disservice of naming, since it's their first novel. A stock young-peasant-lad-discovers-he's-the-chosen-one-and-saves-the-world fantasy story was ticking along nicely for the first two-thirds of volume one. It had offered up a couple of entertaining deviations from the norm, such as the chosen one being written as a cantankerous Yorkshireman. There was some nice interplay between the principle characters, a dash of political intrigue.
Then the Evil Wizard Lord turned up. Yawn.
To further overstate the point: which villainous character has the most depth, emotive range and capacity to engage the reader/viewer? Gollum? Grima Wormtongue? Or a giant flaming eye perched atop an unfeasibly tall phallic symbol? The great villains of fantasy aren't the one-dimensional Evil Wizard Lords, they're the tormented henchmen, the petty, venal, vicious little backstabbers. In short, the fallible and the fallen: the Gollums and the Grimas.
Okay, so if being evil (or even evil and undead) isn't enough to make a wizard interesting, what is?
I submit that incompetence goes a long way.
For me, the only really engaging story in the aforementioned Mammoth Book was Tom Holt's "The Infestation," in which a washed-up failure of a wizard is confronted by a demon that wants to devour his city. This wizard is all too human, his triumph by no means certain. The reader is engaged in his struggle because it seems genuine.
Gandalf provides another good example. As Gandalf the Grey, one has the strong impression he's a bit of a bumbler, perhaps a touch senile. A little too fond of the halflings' weed, one might suggest. So, when he stands up to the Balrog, one is halfway convinced that he really is suicidally overmatched. Of course the quality of the delivery helps, with that glorious moment of apparent victory, before the beast drags Gandalf down into the chasm after it. "Fly, you fools!" Exquisite.
Like a smack in the forehead with a hammer.
But then he turns up again as Gandalf the White. No more senility, no more bumbling. Suddenly, he's read all the way to the end of Part III and is channelling J.R.R. like the Prophet taking dictation from God. Suddenly, he's thrumming with power (which, of course, he hardly uses, except at points convenient to the plot). Suddenly, he's not nearly as much fun.
But is incompetence, alone, enough? Terry Pratchett's Rincewind is the ultimate incompetent wizard. But is he really an interesting character? Or is he only interesting because he hangs out with an orang-utan, homicidal Luggage and an elderly barbarian who's a lifetime in his own legend?
Glen Cook, in his Black Company novels, is one author who has discovered secret recipe for making wizards interesting. How? Because, for Cook, labels like good and evil are nominal. Whichever side they're on, his wizards are petty, venal, vicious, backstabbing, and moderately incompetent. Many of them are, if not actually undead, then at least risen from the grave. They have badass names like Soulcatcher, Moonbiter, The Howler, and The Hanged Man. They have human jealousies and human rivalries and moments of human frailty. They get laid and they get jilted and they leave their lovers buried alive for all eternity. They are all fallible.
And the final, vital ingredient? They are seriously weird, man.
One speaks every sentence with a different voice and spends several years carrying her head around in a box. Another appears to be a midget werewolf who lives in a pile of rags on top of a flying carpet. A third is an actual hanged man, complete with stretched neck and bloated face. A fourth gets hacked to pieces, devoured by magic and otherwise murdered so many times he's reduced to the undead-evil-wizard equivalent of Boxing Helena. At which point he cons some gullible natives into dressing him up as the Wicker Man and really starts to kick some ass.
But even the Cook Method isn't necessarily enough. Steven Eriksson has applied it pretty faithfully in his Malazan books, without managing to make his wizards interesting. (Possibly that's because if you're going to use, not just the first, but the first two inch-and-a-half thick volumes of your neverending epic essentially setting up your world, you should be able to devote some quality time to character development.) And, while you wouldn't accuse him of verbosity, Cook himself falls into the same trap of character building with an RPG stats-sheet in his Dread Empire series.
So, is there a Recipe for an Interesting Wizard? I think there is. And here it is:
- Don't ever let them speak with the voice of God.
- Let them be human.
- Let them be weird.
- Let them be incompetent.
- Let them not be built on a stats-sheet.
- Let them be anatomically correct and let them really enjoy having sex.
- At least think about letting them be undead.
- And let them have names that wouldn't be out of place in WWE.