I recently finished the anthology Rogues edited by George R R Martin. I think this might be my first time reading an anthology (outside of an English class), and I enjoyed the tapas-like structure. Some were great and I want to read more from the authors, and others were… less so. It was a nice variety of different kinds of stories. Each was actually so different I couldn’t read one right after another, I had to pause and start again the next day or so. While there were some fine stories, the premise of the anthology was stories about rogues, and that’s where I thought it stumbled a great deal. It did indeed feature con artists, rapscallions, liars, cheats and so on, but I think almost every story showed a fundamental misunderstanding about what makes a character a “Rogue”, as a literary character. Well, to the extent you can define these things, and to the extent those definitions are useful, anyway.
I think a Rogue as a character is not merely dashing, criminal or deceitful. There’s a predilection, across virtually every one of the 20+ authors represented, to conflate a trickster hero and a Rogue. It’s understandable, they share many similarities. Primarily, they both win through guile rather than strength, and tend to slide towards an ‘any means necessary’ sort of moral outlook. But trickster heroes are still heroes, and a core part of their appeal is in imagining them doing the things we mere mortals cannot do. Like, Achilles and Odysseus are very different characters, but their function as mythological characters overlaps: Achilles is really strong and hard to kill, wouldn’t that be cool? Odysseus is a super smart guy, wouldn’t it be cool to be that tricksy? Both accomplish superhuman feats and that’s a big part of their appeal. The difference is only in the nature of those feats.
But a Rogue isn’t just a trickster hero or basically good anti-hero. That’s the sort of “Disney Rogue“, like Aladdin: a petty thief, but who only steals to eat (once). Or Han Solo, who shoots first and is a bit snarky, but is still a saves-the-day hero. Those are all lovable rogues, and like a proper rogue, they’re transgressive to some degree. That’s a big part of what makes them appealing, they do things we couldn’t get away with in real life, like petty theft or smooching lots of
ladies people. But real Rogues transgress a bit further, and that is what is critically different about characters like Flashman or Cugel the Clever, who Martin specifically name checks for the book’s premise. I think what elevates a Rogue above a mere hero is that they are actually a bad person. Like, not a person we’d even want to know, let alone fantasize being. The best Rogues aren’t trickster heroes, they’re practically villain protagonists.
A recurring theme in Jack Vance’s stories of Cugel the Clever is that Cugel is the cause of his own misfortune. He is also not dashing, clever or good with the ladies (though he imagines these to be the case); he is instead vain, cowardly, stupid and lazy. Almost every story begins with a problem that would not occur if Cugel were not so greedy, would do an honest day’s work, or would keep his mouth shut for once. While Cugel is a threat to himself, he’s an even bigger threat to everyone around him, and he brings nothing but calamity to everyone he encounters. He steals, lies, cheats, rapes and kills, sometimes to people worse than himself, and sometimes to just innocent bystanders.
My favorite vignette of Cugel is where he encounters some strange clam people in the surf. He asks them for information pertinent to his current adventure. They don’t know anything useful though, and Vance repeatedly tells us how childlike and innocent these clam creatures are. As Cugel realizes they don’t know anything helpful he makes to leave, and they present him with a shirt of woven seawater, which they say will protect him from the elements and be useful. This is almost unremarkable, because Cugel accumulates magical doodads like this all the time. Here’s what follows:
“I thank you indeed,” said Cugel. “This is generosity beyond my expectation.” He wrapped himself in the garment, but at once it reverted to water and Cugel was drenched. The four in the shells shouted loud in mischievous glee, and as Cugel stepped wrathfully forward they snapped their shells shut.
Cugel kicked the shell of the creature which had tossed him the garment, bruising his foot and exacerbating his rage. He seized a heavy rock and dashed it down upon the shell, crushing it. Snatching forth the squealing creature, Cugel hurled it far up the beach, where it lay staring at him, head and small arms joined to pale entrails.
In a faint voice it asked, “Why did you treat me so? For a prank you have taken my life from me, and I have no other.”
“And thereby you will be prevented from further pranks,” declared Cugel. “Notice you have drenched me to the skin!”
Cugel here is victim to a harmless prank, and so in retaliation, murders the creature. Vance is going out of his way here to make it clear what sort of person Cugel is, he isn’t just an amoral trickster or something, he’s childish and cruel. And the “opponent” here is not someone worse than Cugel, or has done him wrong in some way, such that the reader could excuse Cugel’s behavior. While it definitely possesses some macabre humor, you can’t like Cugel in this scene. Rogues don’t just transgress against the values of the fictional worlds they inhabit. Importantly, they also transgress against the reader.
Harry Paget Flashman, in the novels by George Fraser, is much more likable than Cugel, but he’s no less a jerk. This is a man who, when a woman is clinging to him as their canoe is about to go over a huge waterfall, kicks her in the face in order to dislodge her and save himself (in Flashman on the March). And like Cugel, he too is often the cause of his own misery. Each Flashman story is structured in a similar way, and usually Flashman’s own cowardice, vanity or cruelty is the impetus of the plot. Flashman is genuinely good with the ladies (though notably in one instance, not above committing rape also), and his constant affairs are presented as somewhat justified since its suggested that his shotgun marriage’d wife Elspeth is also unfaithful herself. In Flashman’s Lady though, we see pages from Elspeth’s own diary (the frame story of the books is that they are Flashman’s memoirs), and they reveal that to the contrary, she is actually a loving wife, completely besotted with Harry. It’s a revelation that’s hard to read. You want to like Flashman but the book confronts you with his miserable qualities by showing you that his loving wife is just another of his victims.
We like Rogues when they’re causing trouble, committing crimes and being cads because such moral transgression is inherently cool. But the unlikable element is also absolutely critical to their character. If they commit their transgressive acts only against people worse than themselves (as all the heroes in Rogues do) their acts are justified to the reader. It makes what they do “okay”. Trickster-heroes like that can be immensely entertaining, but they’re not compelling characters. A Rogue should be someone we feel guilty about liking, that we like despite ourselves: “the dung beneath the rose bush”, as Fraser notes of Flashman. I love the mixed feelings and contradictory emotions that three-dimensional characters like that can create. But otherwise, if a “Rogue” does nothing the reader objects to, then they are nothing more than just yet another petty power fantasy.