Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Danger! Danger!

A lot of urban fantasy imperils protagonists through violence. A vampire jumps them in the safety of their own home. A mastermind traps them in a cage with a werewolf just before the full moon. Someone at an "animal" research facility takes potshots as they're trying to gather incriminating evidence. They run into a blood bank heist only to discover it's demons, not vampires. The looming threat of the book, what's worked towards and is resolved in the climax, is also often violent—serial murders, hostages, kidnappings, curses, summonings.

Not that I'm complaining, exactly. Violence in plots means lots of action, lots of sleuthing, lots of heart-in-throat reading when we're not sure of a fight's outcome. It's fun. It's exciting. It's … easy and predictable. At least the way I'm thinking this week, it is.

See, there are ways to imperil, or at least stress out, protagonists that don't involve crime show-esque plot points, and I think those ways can be just as exciting and tense if done well. (Just like how fights can be boring if done poorly.) At the very least, looking further than crime-of-the-week ideas will spice up stories and make them fresher for readers. Of course, a number of these are going to be background to the crime of the week and won't constitute plot points on their own, but they'll add to the ambience and definitely make things harder for the protagonist.

  • natural disasters - We've seen a number in the news lately. Earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, floods, fires. Imagine having to cross the city but being unable to because of cracked asphalt and fallen buildings. Imagine learning about a clue-heavy office moments before its contents are strewn across three states. Imagine having constant smoke or ash in your lungs as you're trying to track a demon, not to mention lowered visibility. Imagine losing everything in a flood, tornado, or earthquake, but still getting up, leaving the Red Cross shelter, and finding the vampire. Imagine being in the Red Cross shelter with a vampire, or being contacted by the ghost of a disaster victim.
  • diseases - This can be something as mild as "MC has to solve the case—with food poisoning!", as dramatic as "MC has to solve the case—with cancer! or AIDS!", or as modern as, "MC has to solve a case in a city panicking over an epidemic." Everyone remember the swine flu and SARS scares? How everyone was worrying, and wearing masks on the streets, and causing vaccine shortages, and trapped in airports? (Or so the news had us believe.) If the disease is scary enough, a protagonist worrying whether they have it over the course of the novel, or a protagonist trying to avoid contracting it, could be very potent. Heck, it could be a magical disease and finding the cure could be the climax.
  • culture shock - People travel a lot these days, for work, for pleasure, for necessity. As a result, we occasionally find ourselves in communities that are vastly different from our own. A small town girl comes to the big city and struggles with the crowds and anonymity. A woman from Boston finds herself in Austin, surrounded by cowboys, rednecks, and Southern belles. A working class ex-con working as a bounty hunter has to find a renegade professor and spend time at a university. A young man from Mumbai moves to Berlin, or Chicago, or Johannesburg. A couple vacationing in Cancun get caught up in a plot to wake the Mayan gods, and are hit by how different life is outside of the tourist areas. You get the idea. It's scary, being out of place like that, not understanding the customs or the language.
  • racism - Also an unfortunately reality. I'd love to live in a world without stereotypes, where anyone of any culture and skin color could go anywhere and not have to worry about their safety, about attracting verbal abuse, about bias, about feeling second-class. But I don't. I can't speak from experience so much—I've felt sexism, not racism—but I know that hispanics, blacks, Jews, semitic Muslims, Chinese, Japanese, and other South-East Asians are all stereotyped in Western culture, as are a number of European nationalities. Germans are uptight and anal, for instance. The French are fond of sex and wine. Brits have bad teeth and can't cook. According to an Asian friend, there are some places in my own city where you don't want to go, if you've got brown skin and epicanthic folds—and this is Vancouver, where people of Asian decent outnumber Caucasians, and some Chinese families have been here for four or five generations. I don't think enough protagonists have to fight against racist attitudes. They should. We're all about reality in our fiction, right? (See also: sexism, able-ism, homophobia.)
  • debt - UF protagonists are perennially broke, or so the trope goes. Often the reasons given revolve around living expenses, weapons purchases, and home repairs. While those aren't bad reasons, the protagonists tend to accept them as facts of life. They're minor stressors, not major ones. But debt can be a major stressor. If you're fighting demons on a regular basis, you're going to have medical bills unless you know a guy or have magical healing powers. You've withdrawn nearly everything from your bank account to pay an informant or ransom a client, turn your back for five minutes in your own home, and wham, the money's gone! Your account could be frozen or depleted because of identity theft, which will also force you to wait for new credit cards. Your home could be slated for foreclosure.
  • relationship problems - I'm not going to delve into this one, because so much urban fantasy already uses this. Controlling boyfriends, controlling girlfriends, prolonged break-ups, divorces, stalker exes, interfering emotional hangups, jealousy… It's all there, and all wonderfully stressful.  
  • relatives - This one's not quite done so much, apart from the 'nagging parents' trope and the 'living up to expectations' trope. Also the 'sibling in danger' trope. But what about a protagonist with a chronically ill parent? A senile grandparent who lives with her? A brother who may have gotten a succubus pregnant? A mentally-challenged sister? An orphaned, preteen half-sibling? Any of these would take time and energy to look after, and because of proximity to the protagonist, they'd also be targets for the bad guys.
Have I missed anything? I'm sure I have. Tell me in the comments?


Tanith said...

Your main character could be a vampire who used to be a doctor or a nurse. When the epidemic hits, the MC can take care of the sick without risk of falling ill themselves.

If you go back in time, with few effective precautions against disease for medical practitioners, vampires, werewolves and other non-humans would be the only healers available. The epidemic and the healing could end up accepting the non-humans into human society.

Anassa said...

Oooh, neat idea! I hadn't considered the undead immunity issue when writing up my list. Makes sense, that they'd be healers—as long as they can hold off the bloodlust. :)

Tanith said...

If all the humans are poxy and pussy, resistance might be easier than expected. For a time.