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Road Essays
Getting there: it's the road, stupid
In the upside-down: the hobo life in Oz
Re-Mapping the road narrative project
Sibling magic on and off road in the fantasy and horror road narrative
Small towns and out of the way places
Traveling party

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Traveling party: 05/31/18

image from Questions Asked
by Jostein Gaarder

The third piece of the road narrative project after the road and destination, there is the traveler, or travelers. If this were an adventure or role playing, we'd be talking about the party. However you want to talk about it, it's the people or creatures or anthropomorphic personifications who are going on the trip. I can't just say people and I can't just say sentient because all sorts of characters end up on these trips and sometimes their sentiency or value as people or the self actualization is part of the journey.

In 2017 while sojourning in an apartment for the summer I split apart my genres of travel and my types of characters traveling. Originally I had a the two blended together but the more I read and the more I thought about the ontology of the road narrative — or if you prefer, the aboutness — I began to see that there were three things in play: the road, the destination, the traveler.

My initial look at the road narrative character types was part of my deconstruction of The Greenglass House by Kate Milford. The colors I used were an attempt to link the characters to the genres I had categorized. If I am to take the road, destination, and character as three separate axes, then I need to rework the color scheme of these individual elements, to create a new road narrative palette.

The types of characters I've identified so far are:

  • the orphan: often a literal orphan, but sometimes a loaner by circumstances
  • the siblings: often a pair of siblings, sometimes twins, more rarely, more than two.
  • the privileged: usually a young, white, cis gendered, heterosexual man. Sometimes an older white woman of means.
  • the romantic couple: where romance is found on the road, or where the couple needs to reunite via a road trip.
  • scarecrows and minotaurs: scarecrows stand guard outside, minotaurs stand guard on the inside.
  • Marginalized travelers: woman, travelers of other ethnicities, foreigners. These are the travelers who risk the most.

When I first identified these types of travelers, I thought the privileged was at the top of the list — the person for whom a successful trip is most guaranteed. He's the hero. He gets things done. But further reading, especially in the horror and fantasy genres says that's not the case. The privileged gives the illusion of being the safest, most successful traveler because he takes the least amount of risk.

Instead, it's the orphan who ALWAYS makes it through the end and has the most success at being a hero. Being an orphan invokes "orphan magic" a term borrowed from Greenglass House. If there is a hidden passage, a dangerous route, no apparent escape, a life or death situation — the orphan will find the path, survive the journey, and do whatever it is that everyone else has failed at.

The next most successful set of travelers are the siblings. Siblings can temporarily invoke orphan magic if they are separated, or if one is seriously injured, or in extreme cases, if one sibling dies. If a sibling dies, often a part of the reward of wielding orphan magic is the ability to resurrect or heal the other sibling. The Winchester brothers in Supernatural are an extreme example of siblings repeatedly invoking orphan magic to save the day.

Scarecrows and minotaurs can either be features of the landscape, ie, part of the destination, or they can join the party. In that regard, they are the most unusual of the party members. Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz ends up traveling with one of each: a literal scarecrow who doesn't want to be stuck in the field he's been made to protect, and the cowardly lion who is supposed to be the monster of the forest but doesn't feel brave enough. There is also the Tin Woodsman who is a privileged traveler shown for his true nature — in that he doesn't have the heart for travel but goes along anyway when asked because Dorothy can keep his hingers well oiled.

Finally there are the marginalized travelers. In the worst, most lazily written (often by white, male writers) these travelers are included to show how dangerous the road can be. Any bad thing that can happen does happen. A prime example of this mindset is Mosquitoland by David Arnold.

When a road narrative is written by a marginalized person the marginalized characters usually recast into other character roles. Sometimes the danger of the road is still part of the narrative as racism and xenophobia is sadly a reality but the characters still get to be the hero of the story.

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