Dynamic Duos of Fiction
Hi everyone, we hope you are enjoying the essay updates for this Kickstarter! We started with two by Howard Andrew Jones: "Defining Sword-and-Sorcery" and "Sword-and-Sorcery's Grandfather." Now we present an essay by Bill Ward. Over the course of this Kickstarter, these essays will provide insight into the kind of material that inspires us - and indirectly, our publishing filters. Let us get to the essay with alacrity before that pesky Skull interrupts us again...
Dynamic Duos of Fiction
By Bill Ward
The classic image of the adventuring hero is that of a lone individual battling man, nature, and possibly even the gods themselves, over everything from the fate of the world to the hand of a maiden. Sure, our hero might have the occasional sidekick, a Moonglum or a Short Round, but the hero’s own perspective is always central to the story, the star around which all other characters and concerns orbit. But what about those heroes that always come in twos, those dynamic duos of fiction? Whether they be Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, or Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, such pairings create unique narrative opportunities through contrast.
Contrast. Take two identical black T-shirts, leave one plain, but stick a white Tales from the Magician’s Skull logo on the other. The latter shirt will appear, thanks to the magic of contrast, to be darker than the first. The same is true of characters in fiction, the dissolute rogue is shown to be even more feckless when paired with the upright paladin, the brilliant mind shines brighter in the company of an average intelligence, and the barbarian is far tougher and stronger when contrasted with his good friend and constant companion, the librarian.
This use of contrasting characters as a foil for one another works in everything from a single scene to a saga of connected stories. Even or especially in cases of a larger cast of characters, the reader gets a better sense of who they are reading about when such characters find their foil. Tolkien’s hobbits didn’t really get a chance to shine until they found themselves paired off for their own separate adventures. And Legolas and Gimli may as well be the poster boys for the contrasting heroic duo – everything from physical appearance and attitude to weapon of choice and fighting style is at odds between the Mirkwood Elf and the Dwarf of the Lonely Mountain. But in contrasting these two characters, and chronicling their unlikely friendship, Tolkien communicates just as much or more about his elves and dwarves than he does through history, backstory, and song. So strong is this characterization that many writers laboring in Tolkien’s shadow populate their stories of elves and dwarves with versions of this classic, contrasting duo.
But such a pairing is a natural fit in short fiction as well. Indeed it offers quite a few tricks to the writer that one lone central figure cannot. The lone hero often has no one to talk to, for a start, and the opportunity to communicate story points through dialog gives a writer a powerful pacing tool, particularly where the real estate is lacking as in short fiction. When it comes to that old writer’s maxim of ‘show, don’t tell,’ the duo simply presents unlimited opportunities for ‘showing’ the nature of a character, because there is always another character around to act as an observer.
The lone character, if he is ever to truly surprise the reader, must keep some thoughts to himself, and the writer needs to play the limited omniscience game, sometimes sharing with us what the character is thinking, and sometimes not. For a pair of characters such limited information games are much easier: simply leaning on the point of view of one particular character can present the other’s actions with an air of mystery. Sherlock Holmes is much less interesting when he tells his own story; but when Dr. Watson details Holmes’ inscrutable actions over the course of an investigation and then shares with us his amazement at the great detective’s brilliant deductive conclusion, we readers find ourselves equally as impressed.
So the difference between that lone hero and the duo is far more than just having another swordarm along for the adventure, it creates a ready-made foil that opens up opportunities for everything from characterization to narrative surprise. That, and it sure beats having your hero forever talking to himself!