Friday, March 01, 2013

Clonans: Walking In Conan's Shadow

 Over at his blog Swords & Sorcery A Blog, my friend the Wasp was talking about Lin Carter's Conan clone Thongor. Now as long time blog readers know, I am a big fan of the often maligned Carter and I like Thongor, though I prefer Carter's short stories about the character to the novels. However I'll be the first to admit that as a character Thongor is pretty bland. And really so are most of the 'Clonans', characters designed basically to be Conan in everything but name. This would include John Jakes' Brak and Gardner Fox's Kothar.
   Now keep in mind, I'm saying this as someone who's written a couple of Clonans himself, and I'll be talking about that, but here's what I see as the biggest problem with Conan stand-ins. They generally don't work well because the fact that they are based on another character prevents their writers from developing much characterization for them. You can't take them too far from the character they're based on or they become something else, which isn't what they were intended to be. So they remain pale shadows of another writers creations. It's kind of a catch-22. If you make them too different they don't function in the role they were intended for but if you don't make them different at all you end up with a bland character.  So Thongor, Brak, and Kothar brawl and they drink, and they wench and they fight monsters and sorcerers but they are not driven by the dark and intense imagination of Robert E. Howard. They have the surface characteristics but not the guts, if you take my meaning.
   The sword and sorcery writers who followed Robert E. Howard that were the most successful did so, not by copying Howard's characters, but by writing stories set in a similar milieu but with original characters. C.L. Moore created the first female S&S hero, Jirel. Fritz Leiber came up with a pair of heroes, and though one of them was a barbarian, Fafhrd certainly isn't a Clonan. Later Michael Moorcock came up with his 'anti-conan' Elric, and Karl Edward Wagner created the immortal, amoral Kane, who was as physically imposing as Conan but nothing like him in terms of personality.
   A few years ago I decided I wanted to write some Conan stories, so I came up with a Clonan based on a character I'd invented for my home made comic books when I was twelve. Targo the Savage was my knock off of Roy Thomas's and John Buscema's Conan the Barbarian circa 1974, so I thought it would be fun to write some prose stories about the character. I started several stories but never finished any of them. The problem was, in trying to write my own version of Conan I felt hamstrung by trying to keep him close to the original model. He was very much a Thongor or Brak in the making, so I put him aside. (I do have an idea of how to use him again now, but more on that later.)
   My next Clonan was called Kharrn and him I was able to write, but only by setting him in situations that were nothing like Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. Kharrn travels in time and alternate realities and the 'fish out of water' nature of his adventures makes him different and fun to write. And truthfully he does have his own background and personality, though he remains very much a barbarian. The other thing about Kharrn is that I rarely enter his point of view, usually telling his stories from the viewpoint of another character because it helps him remain sort of an archetype. The reader doesn't get too close to him. (And if you're wondering, the character existed before my Lord of the Rings Online avatar of the same name was created.)
   Ultimately though, I think a writer is better off coming up with a character who may have echoes of a favorite hero but is different enough to serve as something other than a stand in. Conan the Cimmerian casts a big freaking shadow but it's best to stay in the sun.
   Of course tomorrow I'll come up with another idea for a Clonan...


Paul R. McNamee said...

Agreed. Clonans are really just training wheels. S&S characters really don't hit their stride until they find their own niche.

The other thing about the Clonans, as John Jakes pointed out - there wasn't enough Conan to go around in the hey day. Readers and publishers wanted more of the same, in some ways.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Very true, Paul. In fact, according to Michael Moorcock, it was editor Celia Goldsmith who requested that Jakes "Write me some Conan stories." She's also the lady who encouraged Fritz Leiber to go back to writing about Fafhrd and the Mouser. An unsung hero of S&S.

Anonymous said...

I agree as well. Don't have anything to add, unfortunately. I do think this is why some of the Clonan's made good stand-in's when Roy Thomas was adapting Clonan stories to CtB comics.

Kveto from Prague