Storytelling: crownless kings

In today’s post, I’ll look at another quite specific element in storytelling: characters or factions that are on the same level (at least prestige-wise) as royalty despite having no land or crown.

To clear things up, this isn’t about actual royalty that has, for one reason or another, lost their land or their claim on it (as that would be a separate topic and a different story element). This is specifically about characters that have no ties to royalty in the traditional sense and, likewise, no claims to land to call their own. Their position is often assured by different means – often some very specific power that requires equal footing and often neutrality towards existing royalty for this character or faction to be able to fulfill its purpose.

For that very reason, this approach is often used in Dragonrider fantasy. In many cases, dragon riders are recruited from across the land and their goal – to vanquish greater evil, wherever it comes from – requires them to put their former allegiances behind them. It also creates a point of potential conflict or a source of potential corruption if someone who is supposed to consider the greater good sides with a particular faction to further goals that don’t exactly align with their calling. Those wayward characters then often became antagonists (of varying magnitude, though typically in the upper parts of the food chain, their exact position depending on the execution of an individual story).

There are several scenarios that use this element in one way or another, and they can be used for both protagonists and antagonists. Some that come to my mind right now are:

Reluctant hero. This is an element often used for the main character in a coming-of-age story (and often in dragon rider books). Not only they need to get their bearings and master their newfound powers (often with very limited time) which is already taxing, but sooner or later, someone will notice the “fresh blood” and may try to sway the young hero to their side. This may have several possible backgrounds – the character requesting a young hero’s help may be a good king truly in need of help, a greedy monarch wanting to further his goals, and anything in between.

The point here often is to teach the hero that they need to consider the situation carefully and make sure they aren’t misused for the wrong reason. Even making up for the shortcomings of a struggling monarch – despite seemingly good intentions – may have negative results if it means the hero ignores the larger trouble because of his eagerness to help someone who may not need it as much. The damage caused by a wrong decision can be a source of regrets, which can be used as a character development tool.

Self-righteous villain. Another scenario often found in dragon fantasy, often for the main character, especially if it involves an extremely long lifespan. Such a villain may, over time, develop the feeling that they know better than anyone how the world should work (often under very strict control of the antagonist) and that anyone saying otherwise is fool who has no clue about the world and what it needs. In case this character prefers to scheme without being seen, corrupting a rightful ruler of an existing country can be a tool for them seizing control without making it obvious who the real mastermind is.

Balance of power. No matter what form it takes, their neutrality is often to prevent the world from going down a steep downhill spiral from misuse of rare power. In case of dragon fantasy, that’s often the terrific physical power of a dragon, often coupled with magical abilities. But it may simply be a person able to use magic in a world where this is a rare gift. When one person can become as powerful as an army, it doesn’t take much to disrupt the balance and plunge the world into chaos. Maintaining order in a world by the use of a rare power is a task that requires great responsibility and carefully set-up rules. For that reason, being on par with royalty (but not above them) is often the only way to prevent those with rare powers from taking over (or at least, not without resistance) but also to prevent the rulers of any country from taking control of those people for their own gain. However, this fragile balance can be difficult to maintain in times of peril, which can be used as another plot thread.

So, that’s it from me on this topic – but I’ll welcome your thoughts as well. Share your experiences – books that use this topic well or poorly or your own experience writing a story with this theme.