Every week, Fantasy Review Barn runs a feature where they seek out examples of fantasy tropes. Other bloggers are welcome to join in, finding their own books to match the given topic.
This weeks topic is Enforcers:
Some people are made to give orders; others are made to make sure they are carried out. Be it through muscle or guile there are just some people you don’t want to hear are looking for you.
It’s a common archetype – the thug standing just behind the mastermind, the warning voice in the shadows. Enforcers are the people who kidnap protagonists’ families, or burn cottages to the ground to intimidate. They break the hero’s little finger (on the left hand) to warn them to back off.
They aren’t the real villains, just another tool used by the main antagonist. They don’t make the plans, and they tend to fade out of importance as the narrative progresses – in the end, the boss is the one who matters, not the hired thug.
They’re everywhere, turning up in countless books. Almost any fantasy book you care to name will have a large goon being threatening in it somewhere. Because of their role, however, not that many of them are actually interesting characters in their own right. They get reduced to a silhouette, a grunted line of dialogue – “Mr. Chrysoprase is very upset”.
Sometimes though, an enforcer does get a bit more characterisation. They aren’t just an interchangeable slab of muscle, but a favoured minion – a dark apprentice, a witchking, a giant or a spaniard. They still aren’t the main event, but they are memorable and a significant challenge to the protagonist. In a game, they’d be a semiboss.
I’ve picked three that occurred to me – not the most typical, not the clearest examples, but three that I thought were interesting, and perhaps not quite so likely to have been picked by everyone else already.
- Berangias Sisters – Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora
The Berangias Sisters (my copy spells it “Berangias”, the internet seems to prefer “Berengias”) work for Barsavi – the head of the underworld. They’re fierce, deadly twins who fight with axes. The reader is initially introduced to them by being told that they aren’t at the shark fighting exhibition – if they were, it would apparently be even more awesome than shark fighting already is.
In a series that is mostly about lies and deception, slow cross upon double cross, they stand out from the crowd; everything they do seems fast and brutal. They play a pivotal role in the novel just by this violence – their actions at various points totally ruin and complicate the machinations of others. This is, admittedly, because they themselves are part of yet further machinations, but they do still take a more leading role than enforcers in other books. The plotting may be done by their true master, but the explosions of game-changing violence are all their own. They were, to me, a far more memorable presence than the ultimate antagonists.
In writing this, and getting confused about the spelling, I learnt that they have inspired a blend of tea. Tea which is presumably redolent of their personalities and tactics. I present this information without comment.
2. Detritus – Terry Pratchett, various books
Detritus is a troll, and trolls are stupid and good at hitting things. Detritus is widely considered a particularly stupid troll, and so naturally is highly prized for his skill at hitting. He spends a while in the Discworld as hired muscle, before finally joining the watch.
Now on the right side of the law, Detritus develops as a character, forming unlikely friendships with dwarves and revealing that he is not as stupid as first supposed. He even takes on important roles, both diplomatically and as an instructor for Watch recruits. Still, however, he remains an enforcer – his weapon of choice is a siege crossbow that destroys everything in its path.
Detritus is a rare example of an enforcer with depth and complexity – though his size and strength are still key, and he uses his muscle to carry out the plans of others, he is a nuanced, sometimes even tragic character. He is a model for all trolls and enforcers to look up to.
3. Eddard Stark – George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
Stark is an odd example – he doesn’t have to be an enforcer, no one really wants him to be one, being one is a terrible decision for him. And yet he chooses to be anyway. He forces himself into the role, even when that ruins everything.
He’s too loyal, that’s his issue. He tries to do the right thing in a world where everyone else is trying to do the practical thing. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, that nets you a world of pure imagination. In Westeros, they make you shorter by a head, and then try and kill your family as well. There is no Oompa-Loompa song for that eventuality.
An enforcer is someone who enforces another’s will – someone who acts as the hand of a guiding mind. Throughout A Game of Thrones, Stark refuses to plot, refuses to plan for himself. He makes himself a dead man’s enforcer, serving a cause that no longer has any hope. He is chained by honour, and then actually chained up.
That’s my three – all enforcers, hopefully interesting examples. In writing this, I realised that I am at least a book behind on every one of those authors – I need to pick them all up again.
The post on Fantasy Review Barn is here, and in addition to that list, there are links there to many other bloggers with their own take on the idea. Next week’s topic is Unique Flora.