Playtime with Urban Fantasy Heroines
(from The Comic Bible Magazine)
by Alice Liu
What the hell happened to network TV? Where is the epic storytelling? Where are the strong female archetypes?!?! Okay, I confess that a part of me is just grieving the loss of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Veronica Mars. Women need heroes too, and television has fallen far behind the publishing industry in providing smart, gutsy, and funny archetypal female characters. And nowhere are archetypes more important to world building than in genre fiction (Sci-Fi, fantasy, horror). The archetype defines a character's motivation and drives all of the subsequent behavior. When a character's archetype collides against cultural expectations of propriety, the result can often be funny in an organic and effortless way: They don't have to make jokes, they just have to be themselves.
Plucked from my personal library, here are some of my favorite examples of archetypes and Urban Fantasy heroines bringing on the funny just by being themselves.
In D.D. Barant's Bloodhound Files series, FBI profiler Jace Valchek finds herself in a parallel world populated by Vampires, Werewolves, and Golems. Humans constitute a mere 1% of the population. In this world, supernatural creatures don't suffer from mental illness, so when a serial killer strikes, they have to import the human expertise (Jace) from a different dimension. In Death Blows (Bloodhound Files book #2, St. Martin's Press), Jace dog sits Galahad, a Were dog-a dog that has acquired the lycanthropy (Werewolf) gene from an ancestor bitten by a Werewolf, and who turns into a human at night.
"…I throw on a robe and head for the kitchen to brew some coffee. To find it's already been made-by the large, naked man in my kitchen. "Coffee?" he says, in a voice that sounds more like he isn't sure it is coffee and is requesting confirmation."
"'Coffee.' I agree. My brain is refusing to properly process what is going on, so I pour myself some coffee and try it. It's strong enough to etch concrete, which is just about right. 'Good boy, Galahad,' I say.'"My God, I may just have to keep you.' He grins proudly and waggles his butt. 'But you're still going to have to wear pants.' He gives me that over-innocent look that dogs do so well, that What? Huh? I don't know that word look. 'Pants,' I say firmly, and he hangs his head and slinks into the living room."
Vampires have it bad in Jeri Smith-Ready's Wicked Game (WVMP Radio #1, Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster). Stuck in the era in which they were turned, they work as DJ's at a late night oldies radio station where grifter-cum-intern Ciara Griffin now works. Over time, old Vampires tend to "fade" as the world changes and moves on without them. Many develop Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (think Mr. Monk). When a detective discovers their identity, Ciara needs to stop Vampire Regina from killing him.
"Regina…reaches for the door. I open the credenza drawer and grab Franklin's box of sharpened pencils. I rip open the box and…fling the pencils, dozens of them, onto the floor. They spin and scatter across the rug and under the furniture. Regina freezes. She stares at the pencils, then at me, with more hostility than I thought a Canadian could possess. A strangled cry escapes her throat as she fights the compulsion. Her hand tightens on the doorknob, then lets it go with a jerk. She falls to her knees and crawls across the floor, gathering pencils and counting under her breath…Regina clutches the pencils so hard, most of them snap in two. 'Bugger all! Where was I? Twenty-seven or twenty-six' Her hands shake with rage as she drops the broken pencils and sifts through them again."
"I turn to the others. '"Listen...'"
"'Stop talking!' Regina is almost in tears. 'I can't concentrate.'"
In contrast, the Vampires in Kitty Steals the Show (Kitty Norville book #10 by Carrie Vaughn, TOR) are thriving so well that a Werewolf named Kitty Norville attends a Vampire consortium in hopes of preventing an all out catastrophic war known as the Long Game. She arrives to find a stack of naked, not-quite-dead human hors d'oeuvres. Nonplussed, the Vampires offer a crafty justification while never really abandoning their cleverly sadistic archetypes.
"'It's not like we kill anyone-civilized vampires don't,' said…a man with long brown hair, Mediterranean features, a floofy poet's shirt, loose tan pants, and knee high boots. 'Why kill mortals for their blood when they so obligingly make more?…Humans-a renewable resource…We recycle! We're green!'…Much laughter. Ha."
Of course, no one knows how important it is to maintain your archetype more than the characters themselves. Charley Davidson is the Grim Reaper. She shines so brightly that the dead are drawn to her and pass through her to get to the other side. The general rule of thumb, though, is that she won't tell someone that they're dead because it might traumatize them. They need to figure it out for themselves. In Fourth Grave Beneath My Feet (Charley Davidson book #4 by Darynda Jones, St. Martin's Press) Charley's Aunt Lillian stops by for her usual visit.
"'I'm not sure how to tell you this.' [Aunt Lillian's] breath hitched, and she bowed her blue head…She tucked her chin in sadness. 'I-I think I'm dead.' I blinked. Stared at her a moment. Then blinked again…'I know, I know.' She patted my shoulder in consolation. '"It's a lot to absorb.' Aunt Lillian died long before I was born, but I had no idea if she knew that or not. Many departed didn't. Because of this doubt, I'd never mentioned it. For years, I'd let her make me invisible coffee in the mornings or cook me invisible eggs."
In Anne Bishop's Written in Red (The Others book #1, ROC) Meg has fled the injustice of human society to find sanctuary with the Others, supernatural beings living in a territory where human law doesn't apply. Because Meg is extremely naïve and lacks the basic survival mechanisms of the average person, she buys a dog harness for the Alpha Werewolf's nephew because he is too afraid to go outside. She views it as a "safety harness for adventure buddies." The Weres, however, consider restraint by something meant for a "dog" as an insult as well as a killable offense. When the Were Nathan is sent to her place of work to guard her, Meg continues her folly by purchasing a dog bed and biscuits (which she calls "cookies") for his comfort. Nathan is, predictably, grumbly and growly.
"He moved forward cautiously. He circled it, sniffed it, whapped it with a paw. Then he found the product tag and stared at it for a moment. Turning toward her, he lifted a lip in something that might have been a sneer. '
"'I know it says it's a dog bed, but I'm sure a Wolf can use it,' Meg said.
"Nothing but grumbly sounds from the Wolf."
"'Fine. If you want to lie on a cold, hard floor instead of something comfy and warm just because Wolf is spelled d-o-g, you go right ahead.'"
Later, Alpha Wolf Simon arrives.
"'What is that?'"
"…[Mine], Nathan replied (in wolf telepathy)."
"'How did it get to be yours?'"
"[I am guarding, so it is mine.] Giving Simon a smug look, Nathan added, [I got cookies too.]"
Age differences offer lots of room for characters to digress into age-inappropriate humor. In Karen Marie Moning's Iced (Dani O'Malley book #1, Delacorte Press) Dani "Mega" O'Malley is a fourteen-year-old sidhe-seer. The Fae have taken over the world and humans are their favorite meal. Having a small amount of Fae blood in her family line, Dani is superfast and superstrong. She kills the Fae the same way she lives life, with complete and joyful abandon. Her excitement makes her a visual blur as she confers with Ryodan, a powerful member of the Dark Fae, and Lor, his heavy.
"'Stop. Vibrating.' Ryodan plucks a paper out of the air and slaps it back down on his desk."
"…'Can't help it,' I say around a mouthful of candy bar. I know what I look like: a smudge of black leather and hair. '"It happens when I get really excited. The more excited I get, the more I vibrate.'"
"'Now there's a thought,' Lor says."
"'If you mean what I think you mean, you want to shut the fuck up and never think it again,' Ryodan says."
"'Just saying, boss,' Lor says. 'You can't tell me you didn't think it too.'"
"…I never understand half of what these dudes are talking about…'You can touch me if you want to,' I say to Lor magnanimously. I'm so pumped on adrenaline and excitement that I'm feeling downright sociable. I poke one of my shoulders toward him. 'Check me out. It feels really cool.'…All heads swivel my way, then they look back at Ryodan…'He doesn't own my fucking shoulder. Why you looking at him?' Lor guffaws but doesn't reach for my shoulder. I don't know why I like touching myself when I'm vibrating like this. It vibrates me twice. If I was really cold and started to shiver, I'd be vibrating three times!"
Sometimes, a different surface appearance may lead one to forget the basic archetype of the person beneath the facade. In Linda Grimes' Quick Fix (In a Fix book #2, TOR), Ciel Halligan is watching over her boyfriend's ten-year-old sister, Molly. The early onset of Molly's chameleon abilities has turned her into the spitting image of the baby orangutan that she just touched. Ciel wonders how much of Molly is still inside the ape as they ride home in the car.
"….baby orangutans are remarkably slippery. She was out of my arms and climbing onto Billy before I could shout a warning…She held tight to his hair with one foot and bongoed his head with both long-fingered hands, sounds of distress spilling from her…I tried my best to disengage her. That only agitated her more. She launched herself from Billy onto Mark…she grabbed the wheel. And found the horn."
"'Crap,' I said. 'Molly, stop that!'"
"'She doesn't understand you,' Billy said. 'Molly, cut that out!'"
"'Oh, and she understands you?'"
"…Molly…hopped back over to Billy. She grabbed him by the shoulders, banged her head against his chest twice, and pointed to the window…Molly got very still, and I swear I saw green tinge her face. It didn't mix well with the orange. 'Uh-oh,' I said. 'I think she might be-'"
"She spewed all over Billy's chest."
"'-carsick,' I finished lamely."
Finally there is the game of fill-in-the-archetype. In (husband-wife writing duo) Ilona Andrew's Magic Bites (Kate Daniels book #1, ACE), mercenary Kate Daniels has a meeting with the Beast Lord, the Alpha Were, in a dangerous, dilapidated section of town known for magical beasties. Trained never to go into a situation unprepared, Kate makes some deductions:
"The Beast Lord…had to enforce his position as much by will as by physical force…it was unlikely that he turned into a wolf. A wolf would have little chance against a cat. Wolves hunted in packs…while cats were solitary killing machines, designed to murder swiftly and with deadly precision…the Beast Lord would have to be a cat."
At the rendezvous, the Beast Lord hides out of sight, leaving Kate vulnerable as she stands alone in the open.
"I knew he was watching me. Enjoying himself. Diplomacy was never my strong suit and my patience had run dry. I crouched and called out, 'Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.'"
And, of course, the Beast Lord had to reveal himself to express his displeasure.
Understanding and defining a character's archetype is essential to Urban Fantasy and to great television. The humor will not only flow from the archetype but the idiosyncrasies will be recognizable and relatable to a wide audience. No pushing for the joke is necessary.
An example of archetypes and humor in television: At first glance, many of the great female comedic actresses on television may appear to exhibit standard female weaknesses, whereas what is really happening is that they are fully immersing themselves into a strongly defined character archetype, allowing the archetype's behavior pattern to drive their humor:
Rosanne Conner (Roseanne) was Mother, Warrior, and Pauper as she raised an ornery family on a limited budget while defending them against bullies, creditors, and each other; Fran Fine (The Nanny) exemplified Goddess, Prostitute, and Destroyer as she seduced her sugar daddy, and threw a wrench in the blueblood status quo; Lucy Ricardo (I Love Lucy) gave her Clown archetype free rein to drive her antics but her exuberance was pure Child, which got her into lots of fun and trouble; and, the women of Desperate Housewives created weekly train wrecks of funny when their archetypes and their Stepford Wives façade collided. Compare these examples to The Office where the characters are stripped of their archetypes, and there is nothing left to drive the humor: If their jokes feel forced, it is because they are.
Alice Liu is the author of The Hunter: A Middle-Aged Urban Zen Fable, and The Mighty Gwin, supernatural television pilot script. She is a huge YA/Urban Fantasy fan and can often be found snatching new YA releases out of the hands of the guileless. Visit her at www.missingchunk.com.
**About "Ten Cents and a Dame": My grandfather published his life's work in the 1970's; a 1,554-page tome entitled Liu's Chinese-English Dictionary. Unfortunately, the lack of qualified editors at the time meant a number of errors made it to final print, including the Chinese word for "dime" translated to "ten cents or a dame." I first spied this as a young child and couldn't help but notice the irony of equating women to a mere ten percent of a dollar-a real underestimation, in my young opinion. This column is inspired by that serendipitous error, and will hopefully warn those who underestimate women that there are plenty of Urban Fantasy heroines out there who could kick their butts.