Characters don’t belong on the page. They are living, breathing entities that are birthed from the minds of their creators* and they deserve the prestige that comes with that. That means if they are only words on a page, they are worthless. That means that if you just throw together a mage, a prince, and a (insert third character type here) then you aren’t giving your characters the attention they deserve.
All too often the case in fantasy is to stick to the same-old character types. This includes mages, princes, scholars, warriors, and that unlikely hero that is probably a peasant or servant or a trouble-maker (not to say that the previous character types cannot be heroes – they can and often are). How old are these characters? Usually not over thirty – at least the main character isn’t. Some of the supporting characters might be a little older, but often if there are any middle-aged or elderly characters, they are either non-central to the story or they are the villain. Too many of the protagonists have tragic backgrounds – they are orphans or neglected or abused or are being raised for sacrifice or some such non-sense. What is up with that??? Why do we** insist on sticking to the same character types with the same character histories?
Well, because that’s what we have to read, so we assume that’s what we’ve got to write. But lets look at our characters a little more closely. Couldn’t a farmer trying to support his*** family be just as heroic as a knight going to war for his king, or a prince defying his power-hungry father? Instead of a prince why don’t we get a sailor who discovers that his captain is actually dead and being controlled by a necromancer? Okay, I’m getting into plot a bit here, but that’s because the characters should be important to the plot. I think we all know that our characters have to be in the best possible position to act in the plot, but why does that mean prince/mage/knight/etc.? Why not the sailor?
The characters will influence the plot. If we try to come up with an enthralling plot without first creating our characters, they will be lifeless. Even world-focused† stories need compelling characters! When the characters don’t fit the plot, or the plot doesn’t fit the characters, you get a big ball of word-mush that leaves you feeling disheartened.
So how do we create characters that will breathe life into the plot? Know your characters. Consider our farmer. He’s just lost his wife and his three-year-old daughter. His older children are either going to live with their new families or trying to help him cope with his loss. And then a little girl shows up in his orchard and he takes her in – only to realize that she’s being hunted down for betraying the Temple of Fire to their enemies (though how she did so when she is so young could be trouble – or an interesting plot twist!). The farmer decides to smuggle her to the border and embarks on the adventure.
The farmer’s loss made him willing to help the girl – after all, she was someone’s daughter too. If a prince came across the girl in the forest, the story would be dependent on his character. Sure, it could work, but characters who do things because it is the right thing to do are far less interesting than those that do it because they have something to gain. What, you might ask, does the farmer have to gain? Closure, for one. For another, escape from his children that don’t understand what he has lost.
My point is that characters in fantasy novels all look the same to me. Sure, they might have this flaw or that virtue, but in the end they’re all princes and knights. Give me a farmer or a mother or baker or a sailor. Give them something worth writing about.
Stay tuned for more on Reclaiming Fantasy.††
Take care, fellow travelers.
*Yeah, I’ve got a little Athena/Zeus imagery there. I did notice.
**I say we because I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. Sure I think I’m putting my own spin on it – but am I really? Probably not.
***I use the male pronouns here because far too often fantasy circles around male characters – not because I think fantasy needs to be written about men. Stay tuned for my post on strong females in fantasy!
†The MICE Quotient
††I recognize that this particular post could be for any genre. But my point is that we have too many stereotypical characters in fantasy, and need to widen the playing field.