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Writing fantasy characters

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
I'm giving a writing workshop this fall and am working on it sporadically. So y'all are likely to see other topics from me between then and now. Viz.

Strong, interesting characters are key to all good stories. There are a ton of reference materials out there for that. Some are even good ones.

But I realized I can't think of a one that is about how to write a strong, interesting, fantasy character. I'm giving it some thought myself, but naturally my very first thought was to ask the Assembled Wisdom of the Scribes.

All comments welcome!

For this exercise, though, let's take off the table all character advice that is universal. We'll assume character with flaws, with goals, etc. Thoughts on secondary or tertiary fantasy characters are also welcome.
 
hmm. yes. not sure that a strong fantasy character has any special features in contrast to generally strong character building.

I suppose one aspect would be- in fantasy - a character often may have an extra-ordinary ability: And how to handle balancing the ability so that it does not overshadow the character. So that the character is not subsumed by their "power set." This is the danger in fantasy character building-

So perhaps a feature would be how to integrate extra-ordinary abilities without losing what is essential to them as an interesting character? so that is not an answer, rather a framing question I guess.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
So pretty loosely, with all the disclaimers about advice, something about the fantasy should be essential to making the character journey possible. Fantasy comes with a trade off. It's takes effort to relate to, it's harder to get a handle on. That's why we like all these silly familiar tropes, they make the fantasy easier to grasp. But regardless of the tropes, the fantasy has to do something for the story that's worth that trade off. You want to tell a story that's only possible because of the fantasy.

For example, there's a lot of stories about bullies. But in fantasy, we see stories where someone could effortlessly kill their bullies, and sometimes we get that moment of wish fulfillment where they stand up for themselves with terrifying power, and sometimes they kill the bully, or sometimes the story is about restraint (great power, great responsibility). But that fantasy element gets used to open the possibilities of how a story about being bullied will go.

Anyways that's where I'd start the discussion.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Starting from the known, I would identify the Farm Boy of Destiny as a fantasy character. Whether or not the individual has magic (though they often do), such a character is rare in other genres. There are a range of character types that have found their way into the mainstream from world of anime. I'm thinking of the warrior monk with supernatural powers, for example. The paladin as a type is peculiar to fantasy (Richard Boone notwithstanding).

Then there's the whole family of assassin types. Oh, and vampires--another family, but here there's often some tragic yet noble element or overtone to the character. I identify the prototype there as deriving from the Dracula comics of the 1970s.

Just setting these out I think I see at least one common theme: for each there's some sort of destiny or purpose or curse. Something laid upon the character. Not all fantasy characters are like that, of course, but it's a starting point.

One more aspect worth considering. At least for me! Teams. A good many fantasy stories have a group of heroes, and there's a kind of balancing that goes into these groups, both of skills and of types. It's rare to get a team of six dwarven ice mages. Some of that gets chalked up to story balance regardless of gender; after all, Danny Ocean didn't assemble a team of eleven explosive experts, right?
 
Farm Boy of Destiny is a Fantasy Archetype.. not sure its a character: and its based upon Tragedy- so Oedipus Rex, destined to kill his father and marry his mothers- which he then fulfills through his own flaws - becoming King then falling . Basically the original "farm boy"

So tragedy structure is your Hero/character having circumstances beyond their control thrust upon them. and how they deal, succeed or fail.. etc. Usually they do not have a strong specific drive of their own but are in opposition to a larger force (like Sauron, or Fate).

In opposition to this is the Comedy structure (there are many more but these are super common) where the character/hero does want something... and is trying to obtain/do a thing, but always some issues come up to frustrate or thwart them. So they get close but just can't quite get it.,. In a romcom for example this goes on until they "get it" (love or whatever) and then the story is 'over'.

Often the comedic character (not necessary for them to be "funny" but just a label for the structure of their arc) is more interesting as a person as they often have specific needs and internal motivations and more outstanding and complete failures.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Would you agree the others I mentioned would qualify as characters?

When I say character, I don't mean an individual character, but rather character types. Categories. If I'm going to talk about character in fantasy, how to write characters in a fantasy novel, I will try to address broad categories or types. It's from that angle that I mentioned a Farm Boy of Destiny. More broadly, it would just be Youth (regardless of gender) of Destiny. Very often it's found in epic fantasy, which doesn't necessarily have to be a tragedy.

But I take your point.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
In terms of the sorts of characters you've mentioned I would suggest that one defining trait of a fantasy character is the concept of fate or destiny as a driving force in their lives. They may be motivated to do certain things or behave in certain ways, and this can provide an interesting conflict with the demands of fate or destiny. Fate can lead to tragedy or comedy or even triumph, whereas destiny tends to lead to some form of reward. Whether the character appreciates (as in enjoys) their destiny or their triumph is another matter.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
I'd also suggest that there is a difference between characters in high fantasy and heroic fantasy, and those in low fantasy. Characters in low fantasy are often muchg less steered by destiny and more by the machinations of other characters, whereas in high fantasy the concepts of destiny and fate play a greater part.
 
I think the danger is how can you make a character that is not 'just' an archetype? Lkie "assassin" is an archetype.. not a character. Its a job.. like any other job. You can have very different characters that do the same job. which is to say your 'skills and types' are part of, but not the definition of the character - if you want them to be interesting and engaging anyway. So you could have six dwarven ice mages as long as they were all different characters. Tolkien has 13 axe wielding warrior dwarves.. worked out for him. - though of course many of them had little time in the spotlight
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Agreed, both on the destiny angle and on that belonging more to high fantasy. I'm interested in talking about all types, including those belonging to low fantasy.

Another type that comes to mind is the fish-out-of-water. Granted we can find such characters in other genres, but one sub-genre of fantasy employes the type regularly: portal fantasy. It's a useful device, as it lets the MC (and any portal companions) represent the reader. It's handy, too, because it lets the author get away with all kinds of explanations that might otherwise sound contrived. Portal characters--at least the ones I've read, which is few enough--tend to be either innocents abroad, or cynical and often more clever than the world into which they've been cast. Of the former, I think of the kids in Narnia; of the latter, I think of Hank Morgan in Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court or Burroughs' John Carter on Mars. Either way, the narrative aim is to let the character be in sharp contrast with the portal world. It doesn't always have to be an extreme contrast; here I think of Richard Mayhew in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. Another aspect of this kind of character is that they often serve as either explainers or commentators (or both) for the benefit of the reader.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>I think the danger is how can you make a character that is not 'just' an archetype?
There's nothing wrong with an archetype. There's only bad writing. It's ok to call that "just" an archetype--I think we're talking about the same thing.

It's entirely legitimate--I think I'm hearing this from at least couple of folks--to argue that there really aren't characters peculiar to fantasy. That it's all just character, then you figure out how they interact with setting, theme, etc. I may wind up at that position. For now, though, I'm seeing if the contrary is true, or at least worth considering as an author.
 
So are you looking to list the fantasy character archetypes? Or to write strong, compelling fantasy characters within the archetype?

Seems to me to be pretty straightforward: good character development in fantasy works the same way as good character development in any genre. Give the character a personality. Show their decisions and reactions in a way that's true to their personality. They're doing this in a fantasy context, sure, but their emotions and motivations are going to work the same way as in a non-fantasy context.

Let's say we've got a fantasy story about a hero on a quest for leprechaun gold. The premise is fantasy, but the way the hero will approach it is similar to how they'd approach a goal in the real world. It just wouldn't be fantasy if the hero's goal were a job promotion (which, in reality, can be as elusive as leprechaun's gold).

Good character development also shows how a character grows and changes through their experiences. A fantasy setting pretty well guarantees that growth promoting, life changing experiences will happen to the character. That makes me think of another aspect to the fish out of water archetype: often the fish out of water protagonist wasn't having such a good life in the real world, but their experiences on the other side of the portal brought out their real strengths and gave them a place. Richard Mayhew in Neverwhere is a prime example. And Harry Potter.

Children's stories may play it more innocent - Alice doesn't seem to have any particular troubles outside of Wonderland; the kids in the Narnia stories are, for the most part, doing okay at home - but the characters can still be transformed by their otherworld experience. Edmund and Eustace are the examples that come to mind from Narnia,
 
My contrarian mind saw "Farm boy of destiny" and for whatever reason went to the Walk the Line movie and Johnny Cash.

Is that one simply rags to riches? Or is the fantasy Farm Boy simply a subset of rags to riches?

Any number of real stories—I mean, biographies—would fall into that category. People rise from obscurity to have a major effect on those around them and maybe even the world.
 
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Ankari

Hero Breaker
Moderator
I'm giving a writing workshop this fall and am working on it sporadically. So y'all are likely to see other topics from me between then and now. Viz.

Strong, interesting characters are key to all good stories. There are a ton of reference materials out there for that. Some are even good ones.

But I realized I can't think of a one that is about how to write a strong, interesting, fantasy character. I'm giving it some thought myself, but naturally my very first thought was to ask the Assembled Wisdom of the Scribes.

All comments welcome!

For this exercise, though, let's take off the table all character advice that is universal. We'll assume character with flaws, with goals, etc. Thoughts on secondary or tertiary fantasy characters are also welcome.

Hello Skip. I've been thinking about your post since I first read it. As I turn over your question I'm becoming more convinced there isn't a difference writing a fantasy character from a non-fantasy character.

What makes a fantasy character unique? Magic? Swords? A new world?

All of those are just placeholders for what we know. Magic and swords? They are just an extension of agency. Something concrete and immediate, but still, agency.

A new world? All stories can incorporate this feature. Moving from one city to another is a microcosm of a new world. Moving to another country is a larger scale version of the city.

I guess what needs to be addressed before we discuss how to write a fantasy character is what differentiates a fantasy character from any nonfiction character?
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>what differentiates a fantasy character from any nonfiction character?
Exactly what I was asking. The one aspect that stands out to me is the role of destiny or prophecy. I readily grant that this is more in the province of high than of low fantasy, but it does seem to be missing from other forms of literature.

That said, the destiny angle feels more like plot than character. Any sort of character can be the Destined One. In fact, it's in choosing an unlikely sort that makes room for new bottling of the old wine.

I'm not sold on agency, though. That term is so broad and vague as to be not especially useful. Characters act. They are not utterly without action, which is all that agency means.

I'm not sure there is anything especially useful to say about writing a fantasy character. As for as running a workshop goes, even that is a useful thing to say. You are not, dear students, creating anything especially new; just make good characters according to the Good Character Creation Cookbook, and you'll have what your fantasy story needs.

I'm ok with that. But I'm still open to hear arguments that there really are such things as fantasy character types and therefore ways of writing same.
 
Or maybe what opportunities a fantasy brings to character exploration that cannot( or is much harder) to do in a non-fantasy setting. So what types of characters are best served by a fantasy setting? Its not that you can't have them in other areas- but perhaps there are areas where fantasy is the natural fit - and you can reach deeper or get to something you may not be able to in other genres.
 

S J Lee

Inkling
why do fantasy characters have to be "different" from characters in other genres, as such? It is the world they live in that is different, and they play by the rules of the world they live in, but they are not "different" - their morality may change, just as anyone's morality will change a bit depending on the tech available etc. But that is just a character with a different sense of morality. Ambition and the sense of destiny and conquering the world and mastering many skills and "going up levels" is hardly unique to "fantasy" - look at Julius Caesar or Alexander in real life, or eg Ganesh Gaitonde's rise to power in V Chandra's Sacred Games. If polygamy/slavery/duelling/resurrection magic/time travel/cloning / FTL travel/invisiblilty are available, all these things will change what is moral and immoral - what is regarded as moral by the community in which you live. If the climate gets hotter, people will wear fewer clothes - morals about partial nudity in public may change. If dead people can easily be restored from their last back up, and given a new cloned body, then murder is little more than a nasty prank. But this is not unique to fantasy. Any sci fi or magical realism or historical fiction has similar ideas....

Genghis Khan said he had a vision on a sacred mountain - great Tengri decreed one man should unite the world / conquer it - historical fiction with a GK style MC would not be that different from a fantasy character "chosen by gods/destiny"

A paladin is a character class in DnD, imho. Paksenarrion Dorthansdottir is a "fantasy character"

The nuts and bolts are still the same. A hard-boiled Mickey Spillane PI is still a character, as is a bored housewife coming to terms with her unhappy marriage when the kids fly the nest. One had a gun and twists arms, the other doesn't, but they are still characters.

If I were to give advice to anyone thinking of writing fantasy, it would not be "fantasy characters are different from all others, you must capture the essence of this difference before you can write a good fantasy tale" . . . but rather, don't put your world-building or magic system or new races first - these are only the scenery which gives your characters a context in which to make decisions. Start with someone who wants something they cannot get easily, and show me what they do to get it. Tyrion wants to bed whores and read books (short term) and to be loved despite being a dwarf (long term). Paksenarrion wants to NOT marry a local farmer, so she joins the army. She realises longer-term she wants to be a paladin, and do what is right. Aragorn wants the hobbits to trust him to take them to Rivendell (short term) and to marry Arwen and be king of Gondor (long term) (which requires beating Sauron) by the end of the tale. What would happen if he had to choose between Arwen and being king...(Aragorn! You can choose to be an elf, the Valar have decided, just like Tuor! Come with me to the West and marry me, isn't it wonderful...)? Ah, alas Tolkien didn't go there, it wasn't the tale he wanted to tell, which is fair enough.

So - motivation is what you must decide. It does not need to be on page one, in MY opinion - it can wait a while. Motivation is surely just, what does he want that he cannot yet have? An arc would be nice if you can come up with one. Give them a few weaknesses/imperfections. People who are smart, self-controlled, immortal, beautiful and invincible get boring fast. Has he learned anything / changed in any way by the end of the tale? Other than that, what more do you really need? All thoughts welcome!
 
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skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>why do fantasy characters have to be "different" from characters in other genres
I did not mean to propose that. I was only offering for discussion the possibility that there might be such a thing as a fantasy character and, if so, what that might be.

Here's another avenue of approach, supplemental to the discussion. Maybe humans in a fantasy setting are not "fantasy characters" ... but what about an elf? I choose elves, but you can substitute any fantasy character you wish, including unique ones. But I'll use elf as a stand-in for all.

We often, in discussion, say that an elf ought not just be a human with pointy ears. That they should be in some significant way different from humans. I certainly feel that way myself. So, if we grant that as a writerly goal, then surely that means we're dealing with a "fantasy character", right? It is somewhere between rare and non-existent in other genres. They recognizably belong in the fantasy genre. See one on a book cover, that's where it would get shelved.

So, grant for a moment that elves are fantasy characters, and grant as well that they differ from humans, this raises the question of what distinguishes that or any other fantasy type. Are their motivations different? Their moral compass? This does get explored in some novels, though certainly not in all.

I can see both sides. No they aren't different because they have to be enough like humans for readers to understand and relate to them. We can alter one or two aspects and explore the personal and social ramifications, but really we're just working changes on the human type. Or, to take the other angle, they are different in that if we introduced (the truly different) elf into a mainstream novel, their motivations, goals, morals, etc. would seem nonsensical. That's sort of the whole point of the fantasy genre, to explore the differences.

Do keep offerering comments!
 
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