“She is a thief. A thief is not an honest person.”– Theresa Klein
The following is the second in my “Justice in Fantasy” musings. In the first in the series, I talked about sex-offenders in fantasy and their character development (or lack of development). I think I’ve made it a point in this particular series of posts that I would focus mostly on how I see others molding criminals, their effective believably, and tropes.
In this post I want to confront the thief.
I think when most people think of the thief in fantasy settings their minds instantly go to the trope: plucky, devilish fellow with a heart of gold. The word thief by itself, within fantasy, conjures images of Robin Hood: noble, fast-taking, greased fingered men who pull one over on the rich for the greater good, the people. It isn’t hard to see why readers love the thief. He is the little guy. The every-man. He’s been stomped on by the establishment, and instead of revolting into revolution, he manipulates the system and robs the robber barons blind! Who wouldn’t love that? The thief represents justice! The little guy finally getting his!
Now, let’s break that down a bit. I’ve read dozens of stories with this kind of “anti-hero of the people” character set up. My problem with the trope of the noble thief is just that, he’s noble. In many tellings (not all), the thief has a good heart, makes very moral choices. His thievery is frankly justified by the wrongs that have been done to him, his family, his countrymen, or what have you. Because he is justified in his thievery, he really isn’t stealing. Like Robin Hood, he’s really just taking back what is rightfully his, or rightfully the people’s. Who doesn’t love a story about justice?
Now, here is my, most personal, opinion on the matter. A thief is not an honest person. They skulk around in shadows. They manipulate, detract, distract, confuse and subvert their marks. They take things that are not theirs, not by any legal means, but by pickpocket, burglary, extortion or heist. They bust heads, and sometimes even maim or kill witnesses in the pursuit of the coin. In a real psychological sense, if a man who is willing to do any of these things in fact had a heart of gold, he probably already pawned it to help pay down his gambling debts!
Many times in fantasy we romanticize the thief as the suave, fast-talking, cut-purse, but in a real psychological sense there is a very fine, gray line between the cut-purse and the cut-throat. They are quite often the same person. Within the archetype of the thief lies one of the few instances where I wish writers were grittier–more realistic with the character’s motivations.
Being an orphan doesn’t make a man a career criminal. Being pushed around by the man doesn’t either. A love for the common man doesn’t transform a nobleman into a pathologically lying pickpocket. While a character can in fact be an orphan, stepped on by the man, and a commoner loving thief, these aspects of his personality are not what makes him a thief. They are what helps him justify his own brand of crazy. It isn’t simply a set of circumstances that produces a thief. There are many people, in and out of, fiction that suffer the same set of circumstances and don’t end up turning to a life of crime to cope. To get a thief, psychologically, you need the right set of circumstances inflicted upon the right kind of person. There are heavy elements of anti-social personality disorder present in a man who likes to skulk around in shadows. There is a high presence of sociopathy, or narcissism, to get the fluid, and rampant lies and manipulation you see in the thief archetype. These aren’t people who live in a dark society and rise above it as thieving messiahs. They are people, from a dark society, that are one piece of the problem of their society…much like our own society.
I’ve been burglarized before. My house was pulled apart, and anything of value was torn up and taken away. They caught the guy. And, surprise! He wasn’t a gallant thief. He was a career criminal, seemingly with nothing else better to do but take from others. A repeat offender, possible with one or many of the diminished I.Q. behavioral disorders (sociopathy, narcissism, psychopathy, anti-social disorder etc. etc. )
That isn’t to say that thieves can’t be witty, or charming (narcissists and psychopaths often are very charismatic). The important part is the ability to take what is not yours with little to no conscience over it. These are selfish men and women. They don’t care about the greater good, the people–they might not even care for their fellow thieves (particularly if they are rivals). But what they do care about is the mark! The heist! The big score! They are thrill seekers. They do love a challenge. They do love to terrorize. They do love the control they have over others, and they love taking what is not theirs, whether it is to live it up on some another man’s coin, or just to take it because they can, and it makes them feel like big men to do it.
Before I end this post, I’d like to point out a book series I think has done the thief true justice. Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series is exactly the right kind of thief for me. The main character, Loche Lamora, is exactly what a thief should be, while retaining the gentlemanly charms that readers in the genre love about the thief archetype. Loche lives in a world that is ugly, and brutal, and unforgiving. Thus, he is ugly, and brutal, and unforgiving. Throughout the series there is great social injustice, political upheaval, and globally significant conflicts. But, what is Loche worried about? His next big score. The political, global conflicts are just a backdrop–that Loche doesn’t seem to want to be bothered with–to the grand heists he has planned. He is a psychopathic, chronic liar, who doesn’t care who he has to betray (except maybe his besty Jean…maybe) who he has to torture, or how many old ladies he has to punch in the face on his path to the next big score. He is a hoarder of wealth, barely using a fifth of what he steals. The woes of the world are more an annoyance, and only seem to matter to Loche when they interfere with his plans. Really in his opinion, the world can go get bent, and stay out of his way–in fact, he’ll gladly help it get bent by robbing as many innocent citizens as he pleases blind.
So why, in this series, do we tolerate such a character, and love him? Well, (spoiler alert) the series opens up with the hanging of children. Literally. Poor, hungry orphans are hung at the gallows for stealing bread. From that point on the reader can accept that a bastard like Loche came out of this society. From that point on you no longer care who he hurts, or who he robs, or how bad of a person he is, because they hang children! Punch an old rich lady once for me Loche!!!
Loche is a symptom of a dying society. A slick, devilishly clever, psychopathic symptom.
I’ll end with this quote from the first Gentleman Bastard’s book, The Lies of Loche Lamora. It pretty much sums up exactly what I was trying to convey about the thief archetype in one go–almost stealing the usefulness of my entire post:
“I only steal because my dear old family needs the money to live!” Locke Lamora made this proclamation with his wine glass held high; he and the other Gentleman Bastards were seated at the old witchwood table. . . . The others began to jeer.
“Liar!” they chorused
“I only steal because this wicked world won’t let me work an honest trade!” Calo cried, hoisting his own glass.
“I only steal,” said Jean, “because I’ve temporarily fallen in with bad company.”
At last the ritual came to Bug; the boy raised his glass a bit shakily and yelled, “I only steal because it’s heaps of fucking fun!”