Fantastic Suffering, or Why Are Protagonists Pummeled to a Pulp?

Busy reading Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy. I’m enjoying it, but I do wonder at the sheer amount of punishment that the she doles out to her hero, Fitz. Over the course of the three books, he’s been stabbed and beaten multiple times. And that’s just the brute force attacks—I shouldn’t forget the poisonings and the telepathic abuse!

Hobb hasn’t reached George R.R. Martin levels of dragging the plot out, but by the last book, the scenes of abuse have become tedious. It keeps happening, and I skip ahead to see who’s going to beat the crap out of Fitz next. “He just escaped from that set of psychopathic guards… Oh, he’s going to get captured and beat up by that nasty group of telepaths, isn’t he? For fuck’s sake, get to the dragons already!” (That should be my reading motto.)

I wonder if it’s a genre requirement for protagonists to experience pain and torture, over and over again.* I don’t know what to call it—the drama of the body? We anticipate the pain along with the protagonist, experience it in graphic detail, and “recover” alongside him or her. It certainly does get the reader to empathize with the protagonist. I also imagine that for many readers, extreme physical duress is an exotic experience, like handling a sword or singing as a bard. Maybe that’s why protagonists suffer such liberal amounts of agony.

Note that the aftermath is always handily fixed with herb paste or magic, and the poor sufferer is never injured in a way that makes him or her unattractive (unless they have done something truly nasty and need to expiate their sins through ugliness). No need for antibiotics or surgery, plastic or otherwise.

* The all-time champion must be the heroine of Sarah Micklem’s Firethorn books, who undergoes a whipping, a stabbing, a lightning strike, a drug withdrawal, and an honest-to-god snakebite poisoning, all in the course of a year or so.

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4 Comments

  1. This is something I find really tiresome about these hero-on-a-journey novels. You know the sky’s going to fall in on the hero regularly but you also know he’s going to come through. “With one bound he was free”. The special effects may have got more spectacular but it’s still the same old thing as in the silent movies when the hero was tied to the railway track with a locomotive speeding down the line. Never was one actually run over by the train.

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  2. I’d never thought about this in connection to fantasy, because “protagonist gets beat up regularly” is something I’ve always associated primarily with noir mysteries. There, I think it’s mostly a sign of how the protagonist is in over his head and can’t control the corrupt world around him (I can’t recall physical attacks happening to the rare female noir protagonist, they get more emotional and psychological abuse).

    It’s a really interesting contrast now that I think about it, because in fantasy it seems to be more connected to how the lead is a Chosen One (whether anyone states that or not), and so it’s a kind of a messianic “this protagonist is suffering for your sins” thing. Not actually a cynical statement about the world, whatever grimdark fantasy fans might say.

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    1. You’re right! Fitz is very clearly a chosen one, the heart of prophecies, etc. etc. I suppose all the beatings make his state of chosen-ness less insufferable?

      China Mieville and Joe Abercrombie do a better line in making their beat-up protagonists slightly less Jesus-like, although in Abercrombie’s case it’s mostly because he’s transplanting other genres into a fantasy setting. (Western with fantasy characters! Revenge plot with fantasy characters!)

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