Rants from the kitchen #1: Why Tall = Stupid in fantasy literature?
I mean my own kitchen, not that I’m a writer who’s about to talk about writing. You just need to think about something while doing the dishes. Although it could also be meant metaphorically, I guess. Anyway.
So the most recent thought that crossed my mind, while scrubbing some particularly stubborn pots, was one about the short straw that tall characters in fantasy literature seem to have drawn. It might not sound like a discussion-worthy topic, but, considering my own size (1.98m/6` 5“), it’s also kind of personal.
I’m growing seriously tired of reading about tall but also “mentally challenged” characters (long live euphemisms)! Seriously, am I the only one who notices that 8 out of 10 guys with above average height seem to have the mental potential of a moderately bright dormouse? And that seems to hold true especially in the fantasy genre – in non-genre literature, the image of a tall, lanky intellectual is quite common. So why does my favorite genre treat my height-brethren in such a cruel manner?
I don’t think there’s one reason for that but in my mind it’s due to something I like to call “Character value index” or CVI. That’s right – my first novel isn’t even out yet but I’m already coming up with a personal terminology.
What is CVI then? Well, CVI shows how valuable/strong/adequate-for-the-story one character is. For example, we can say that Aragorn has 95% CVI while Gollum has 15% CVI (It took me hours to calculate those, don’t dare question them!). And the character’s CVI is important so that we know whether he/she fits his/her role in the story.
And with that I don’t mean that writers just sit and crunch numbers for several days before writing. But every writer, while creating a character, knows how to balance his/her characteristics so that he/she becomes right for the story. We all hate the Prince Charmings precisely because they are too perfect – 100% CVI. That’s why Aragorn works – he’s not too perfect, he has his issues: refusing to take responsibility, lack of confidence in himself and his people, he’s mortal, unlike the love of his life, etc, etc.
What the CVI of a particular character needs to be depends on the role he/she plays in the story. The protagonist is typically the one with the highest CVI. His/her closest companions have a slightly lower index; the secondary characters, lower still, and so on and so forth. In terms of negative characters, the same rule is still in place, only different values go into the calculation of their CVI – the antagonist has the highest CVI, his/her closest henchmen, a bit lower, etc. CVI doesn’t measure the objective “perfectness” of the character, only how “perfect” he/she is for the story. There are main characters who are downright evil/anti-hero-y (Clockwork orange), have serious issues (Forrest Gump) and so on.
So what’s CVI’s connection to the topic of tall characters in fantasy? Well, it’s very simple – since fantasy stories usually take place in a medieval/antic type of settings with lots of fights and battles, height usually contributes a lot to one’s CVI. Simply, because it usually comes with physical strength (again, in fantasy). And when you give one character too much height, respectively strength, you risk getting his CVI too close to the 90-100% levels (side note: extremely tall characters are rarely protagonists because the reader needs to be able to identify with them, and the average reader is more likely to be, well, average in height as).
So how do you lower the CVI of an overly-tall secondary character? You dumb him down as much as you can! The stupider he gets, the lower the CVI becomes and the more you can stress on the physical prowess. Like how he earned the nickname “The Mountain” and can crush human skulls with his bare hands. Hurray!
The examples for this are countless and the exceptions, annoyingly few. From single characters to whole races, it’s a stereotype most fantasy stories follow. How often have you read about intelligent trolls or giants? If the trolls in The Hobbit weren’t as dumb as the ponies they were eating, they would have had too high CVIs and the dwarves wouldn’t have stood a chance. And speaking of short fellas – what is the minus of Tyrion Lannister? His height! Well, sure, and the alcoholism, but those are the main two.
And while we’re in ASOIAF – how about Hodor? Over 6 feet 6 and with such incredible cognitive problems that he’s only able to pronounce one word. (Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t short either)
Another example from the same books – Brienne of Tarth. Exceptionally tall and … hmmm … she’s actually not stupid at all. But she’s a woman. A woman in a strongly patriarchal society and that’s a big enough drawback for her to be comfortably intelligent.
And on and on it goes. There are, of course, exceptions as well. The first that comes to my mind is the Wheel of Time books, which are filled with tall characters. Rand al’Thor is the main protagonist and if I’m not mistaken, he’s 6’6″ which is as tall as me! Of course, there are thousand of fantasy books out there and if we dig deep enough we’ll find more examples such as Rand. However, in most cases the rule is being kept – the taller a character is, the dumber or otherwise handicapped he/she should be. But mainly dumber, because that’s easier.
So I think that’s it. As I said in the beginning, not the most substantial subject, but quite the personal one – I read around 50-60 books per year and I still suffer from a severe shortage of nice, cool, relatively intelligent characters that I can identify with.
In fact, I think I might just go ahead and write one for myself … I’ll be right back.