Fantasy’s obsession with kings

One of the reasons I started getting a little turned off fantasy (though I still do read it almost as often as SF) is that it’s almost always a monarchy. I don’t believe in monarchy. A part of me is always thinking in the back of my head that Aragorn might be great and all, but it’s implausible that none of his descendants will be tyrants, so should we really be cheering at his coronation? Wouldn’t it be so much better if the Gondorians ruled themselves?

Of course, monarchy works much better in fiction than in real life. You can give your fictional monarch whatever qualities they’ll need to be a good ruler. Or, if they’re a horrible tyrant, no real people are oppressed. No harm, no foul. Instead of centuries of precedent, the monarch’s powers are limited by whatever fresh-out-of-the-box system you give them. If you want to give them an ancient ruling council that can’t possibly be ignored, you can! It doesn’t matter that in reality the tyrant would have all their heads chopped off.

But it goes a lot deeper than that, I’m realizing. Kings just make for excellent storytelling. There’s a clear, instant goal. Save the king. Crown the king. Kill the king. Whatever you want to do to change the course of a nation, you can do it over the course of a single book, with half a dozen prominent characters.

A painting of Charlemagne, with a crown and sword

In a democracy, how the heck is your main character supposed to change the course of the world they live in? Doorknocking? Every time I’ve tried to write a change in the thinking of an entire people, it’s gotten boring pretty fast. In the last Expanse book I read, Babylon’s Ashes, Holden spends a chapter making videos to help teach people not to hate each other. This is probably a noble thing to do, but it was dry as toast to read about.

The great man theory of history says that the course of history is decided by a few special people who can push it in a new direction. Hari Seldon, in Asimov’s Foundation series, says that the course of history is fixed by sociological trends, and when the time is right for a certain kind of leader to arise, circumstances will force such a person forward. Each, I think, it a little bit true. Some of the peace between various nations we enjoy today is because of the diplomatic action of a few talented and virtuous people, but a heck of a lot of it is because both countries have a McDonalds and voters in both places are friends with each other on Facebook.

Fiction, however, trends heavily toward the former view. You can’t watch sociological trends (unless you read Foundation, which I still think you should). You can, however, watch Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star. Big change in fiction happens in single moments, and it’s driven by the choices of a single person. That’s not how it is in reality a lot of the time. That bugs me a little, because I want my writing to be true to life, both for art’s sake and because of the imagining power art has. I don’t really want to propagate a false view of the world . . . but I don’t want to write anything boring, either.

So I don’t think the appeal of monarchy is going to end any time soon. But it’s still plenty possible for single characters to change the shape of the society they live in, even in a democracy. They could, for instance, uncover a massive conspiracy that will quickly change everyone’s minds about what to do next. They could save the life of an influential person who isn’t a king: a president, a labor leader, a journalist, the child of an opposing leader whose loss could set off a war.

They can break a mind control device. They can set off a powerful magic spell. They can bring down an evil corporation or power-hungry president. They can deliver a vaccine to a place ravaged with plague.

Anything, really. Just please. Not a character giving a bunch of speeches about why folks are just folks and we should love each other. I’ve read it, I’ve written it, it’s boring as heck.