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31 May 2009 @ 10:29 pm
Fantasy Thieves  

In real life, being stolen from is not fun.  Anyone who has been robbed will tell you how violated they felt.  I can still remember how I felt when my bike was stolen from me in high school – I got out of school and there was nothing but a cut chain dangling from the bike rack.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it until I wrote a story about an anti-theft device that had the bike blowing up in the thief’s face.

Yet in fantasy, thieves are often the heroes – and let’s admit it, they make some of our favorite heroes!  They can be quirky, likeable, and fun.  What is it that makes thieves so appealing in fantasy fiction (aside from the obvious fact that they’re not stealing from us)?

One element is their cleverness.  Fantasy thieves are usually presented as out-maneuvering, outwitting, and generally outsmarting all their opponents.  Eugenides, in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series, is a great example of this – in each book, he outwits not just his adversaries but his readers!  And it’s fun to watch, even when his adversaries are sympathetic characters. 

Another element is the “Robin Hood” paradigm.  Starting with Robin Hood himself, fantasy thieves are usually on the side of the underdog, stealing from the rich and distributing to the poor – or at the very least, being poor themselves.  Sarah Prineas uses this technique well in The Magic Thief; for the first couple of chapters, we are never allowed to forget that Conn is really hungry.  This certainly mitigates the impulse to condemn him for trying to steal so he won’t starve.

But does the fact that a thief is poor really make it okay?  One book that delves into such moral complexities is Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord, in which the main character is not completely taken in by the Thief Lord’s charisma. 

Last but not least, these thieves always have a heart of gold – and often end up being ex-thieves by the end of the book.  George Cooper, the compelling thief in Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness quartet, ends up reformed; and, like Eugenides, turns his signature cleverness to political maneuvering (for the greater good, of course)!

So what do you think?  What else is it about thieves that makes them such great characters?  What other fictional thieves have captured your hearts?  And finally, are there any female fantasy thieves out there – and if not, why not?

Leah Cypess
Deva: Medeva_fagan on June 1st, 2009 08:59 am (UTC)
Great post, Leah!

The things that appeal to me about thief-characters is that they tend to rely on cleverness and wit to achieve their goals. I love a good sword-swinging, butt-kicking hero or heroine too, but it's nice to see alternatives.

And if they walk the fine line between hero and villain, even better. Watching a character who could do evil, but chooses to do good instead, is more interesting to me than a character who is effortlessly saintly.
dawn_metcalfdawn_metcalf on June 1st, 2009 12:57 pm (UTC)
Great topic!

The first character I remembered was Stef from Mercedes Lackey's The Arrows of the Queen series and his antics throughout a number of her other books. That trickster character with the smirk, talent and charisma goes a long way to winning my heart as well as his humility (Bilbo Baggins, Phillipe the Mouse), nobility (Robin Hood, Zorro), sly cleverness (Hans, The Dodger) & boyish arrogance and fun (Locke Lamora, Aahz)! [Sci-fi references might include Cat, Zaphod and the Stainless Steel Rat.]

Female thieves are tougher to remember, but I'm sure there have been those (probably often dressed as boys) whose skills were with the lock pick and hook...unfortunately, all I can think of is my own character from an old WIP, Raven. How come I can't think of any girl sneak-thieves??
marissa_doylemarissa_doyle on June 1st, 2009 05:15 pm (UTC)
Very timely, since our Book Club book this month is Mairelon the Magician, which does indeed feature a thief-like character (she doesn't actually do any thievery on camera) who's skilled as a lockpicker...and disguised as a boy. :)
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on June 3rd, 2009 04:10 am (UTC)
Oh! I can't believe I forgot Stef. I read The Arrows of the Queen series so long ago that the plot is only a vague memory -- which means I get to go read them again, yay!
ellen_ohellen_oh on June 1st, 2009 06:54 pm (UTC)
You definitely named my 2 favorite thief characters - Eugenides and George Cooper. But they are also attractive personalities - dynamic, charismatic, and very likeable. It would be harder to root for a thief character who was more like Fagan. In general, the 2 thieves that were mentioned in this post work because even though they are thieves they are noble in their profession.

I wish I could think of a female thief. I know I've read of one but perhaps not anytime recently.

Great post!
gretchen_mcneil on June 1st, 2009 07:03 pm (UTC)
Great post, Leah!

I think the reader's sympathy for the thief goes a long way towards our acceptance of their "profession." Though not fantasy, Eleanor Updale's Montmorency series does an excellent job of building a sympathetic anti-hero whose thievery is really a result of harshness of his life. At his core, we believe him to be a honorable person, driven to a life of crime by circumstances beyond his control.

Of course, it helps that Montmorency moves away from stealing for his own benefit and takes a job as a spy for his king, thus using his special skill set for the greater good.
pjhooverpjhoover on June 1st, 2009 07:06 pm (UTC)
What a fun post! I've never really thought about how many thieves there are or that they really are appealing. Wow! I mean they are breaking the law, aren't they? But we still sympathize with them. How fun.
And I had my bike stolen in college, and you're right. It was a horrible feeling.
(Anonymous) on June 1st, 2009 08:20 pm (UTC)
Great Post!
As far as female thieves go, ones I've loved recently are Marion in the BBC (television) portrayal of Robin Hood, who moonlights in a Robin Hood esque save the people position, Liesel in the Book Thief (Markus Zusak) even though she's not like a real fantasy "thief" example, and there's another on the tip of my tongue that I can't think of.

But it's true that girls are totally under-represented in thievery! I've always really loved thieves, because you never really know what you're going to get, and they have both "good" and "bad" at odds within them already. And let's be honest, a little bit of deviousness is always fun.

Love this post!
AC Gaughen
bryngreenwood.wordpress.com on June 1st, 2009 09:45 pm (UTC)
Maybe our love of thieves is caused by our secret hatred for those who have more than us. After all, we prefer thieves who pull off magnificent heists (like Locke Lamora), not thieves who pilfer from poor, hungry people. A conversation like this once led a friend of mine to wonder why fantasy has so many thieves and warriors and wizards and so few cobblers. Which in turn led to me writing a fantasy story about a wetnurse.
(Anonymous) on June 1st, 2009 09:57 pm (UTC)
from Shevi Arnold
I think one of the things that make thieves in fantasy so appealing is that they've already broken society's rules, which leaves them free to create and follow their own rules for what is right and wrong. Hans Solo in the Star Wars series is a great example.
Jo Treggiarigio_t on June 1st, 2009 10:19 pm (UTC)
I think rogues are fun to read and fun to write. A murderer might be a hard sell in the young reader market (but for older people, Patricia Highsmith's Ripley is completely amoral and wonderful to read) but thieves can be non-violent and outside of society. There's a certain amount of freedom from living outside the law. I think of the Artful Dodger, Raffles and Robin Hood. Wish I could think of some cool female robbers but not one comes to mind.
anesbetanesbet on June 2nd, 2009 04:40 pm (UTC)
Sort of following on Shevi's comment about how thieves break the rules (which is, of course, useful in fantasy fiction), I'd add that a THIEF is someone who trickles sneakily from world to world and gets into places most people don't get to see: dark alleys, locked safes, hidden rooms, caves full of treasure, the insides of pockets . . . .

Sort of like a narrator, when you think about it!

So for a novelist, a thief becomes a very useful sort of character, helpful in getting us off the beaten track and into interesting situations.

(Thank you for starting this topic, Leah -- you really made me start to think about border-crossing characters this morning, so I'm grateful to you!)

sarah_prineas on June 3rd, 2009 11:19 am (UTC)
Thanks for mentioning The Magic Thief in your lineup of thieves.

The book got a funny review recently, very positive, *except*, as the
reviewer pointed out, that Conn is a "little crook" who was not a very
good example for young readers, and so parents should beware when
giving the book to their kids. I had a good laugh about that. It's
quite true.

One thing I was trying to do with Conn was to be sure his thieving
skills were useful to him even after he becomes a wizard. "A thief is
a lot like a wizard" is very true in these books.

My favorite thief is Eugenides. What a tricksy, wonderful character he is!

Jo Treggiarigio_t on June 3rd, 2009 04:42 pm (UTC)
Nicola Morgan's Bess from The Highwayman's Footsteps and The Highwayman's Curse is an adventurer and sometimes thief.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on June 4th, 2009 12:18 am (UTC)
Thanks! I'll have to look those up.
(Anonymous) on June 5th, 2009 06:31 pm (UTC)
I'll always have a soft spot for the character who is among the first thieves in all of English literature...and she's a woman.

Hats off to the grandmommy of them all: Moll Flanders.
racheldrydenracheldryden on June 8th, 2009 10:00 pm (UTC)
This is science fiction rather than fantasy, but I think it should still count: The Stainless Steel Rat books by Harry Harrison. He's the ultimate thief, in a good way. Full of wit and humor, I loved reading about his adventures as a kid, even though they were written for adults. He marries a reformed criminal, Angela, who is a very powerful woman that doesn't let the man do all the heavy lifting and is well-matched to him.