Writing Character-Driven Fantasy

Raistlin Majere
Raistlin Majere

A key element of any successful novel is a cast of vivid, compelling characters.  I recently discussed the topic of character development with author Frank LaVoie, whose debut novel Firesoul has been praised for its colorful characters.  We also chatted about the special importance of characterization in the sub-genre of High Fantasy.

You are an unabashed fan of so-called “epic” or “high” fantasy. Can you elaborate on what sets this sub-genre apart from other forms of fantasy?

High Fantasy serves as the category’s best example in terms of defining the archetype. Typical structures might include the questing hero, a supportive band of allies, fantastical settings, magic as a vehicle for both good and evil, and a vast array of other fictional and far-fetched elements.

But the catcher for me is this: High Fantasy should have a goal of high literary quality. Do some fail in this attempt? Of course. But what I consider High Fantasy is well-written prose.

Another element might be age; High Fantasy is an adult-genre, much like other genres to include mystery, history, and the memoir. One won’t find High Fantasy at the bookstore on the kid or tween shelves, but in the fiction section. So, somewhere amidst the attempt to produce literature that might find its place among the greats, but meshed with the adherence to the literary standards of fantasy, one might find High Fantasy.

How did you discover this sub-genre, and why do you love it?

I fell in love with this type of fantasy the way many have, by discovering some of the masters when I was young. I read the Lord of the Rings series when I was about seven, and have been hooked ever since.

I followed that with a membership to a public library. I entered a summer reading program for kids. If I wrote a summary and review of books I read, the library had a supply of donated texts to give away as prizes. I submitted over a hundred that summer, and left with my own veritable library. Every book I selected as a reward was a fantasy novel – some good, some awful.

In the pile, and early in the process, I found a worn-out copy of the Dragonlance Chronicles, Volume 1. Something about that book toyed with my imagination and stole my interest away from other readings. My love of fantasy, something I had already flirted with, now became a full on romance.

I love High Fantasy because of the endless possibilities. But that exists in almost all literature. So what else? It is the nature of discovery. Most High Fantasy is character driven at its core, not too complex in plot or conflict. I found myself in those characters and their struggles became mine. I wanted to be them, to feel what they felt, and to know what they knew. As a well-read kid, I didn’t get this out of other genres.

You say that fantasy writing is character driven at its core.  I’m not sure how that differs from other forms of literature.  Can you elaborate on this?

Fantasy literature is more character-driven than some other genres. And, typically, the cast of characters is a bit more expanded. Mystery, for instance, usually relies heavily on plot and plot twists. Memoir writing focuses on imagery and theme. Historical accounts are typically dry and have the goal of informing readers. Generic fiction aims at sharing a story with a message. These are all stereotypes, of course.

Well, fantasy literature is steeped in stereotypes of its own. Character-driven plots and sub-plots are among these archetypes. I don’t see as colorful an array of pain-stakingly produced personages in other forms of literature that I see in fantasy fiction. An example is among my favorites. Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman created the Dragonlance series. Their stock cast of characters from the original trilogy are fairly typical in form and function, but their vivid personalities and starkly contrasting characters sets allow readers to see bits of themselves in each. We see this ‘band of heroes’ in Tolkien, Sanderson, Jordan, Brooks, Goodkind, and more. Each of these great authors then applies his own energy and style to the genre.

In my opinion, the King and Queen of characterization are Stephen King and J.K. Rowling; they both mastered the development of character. They have the art of ‘show don’t tell’ down to a science. We hear their characters in revealing dialogue and feel their characters in emotional moments. Seldom do these authors have to tell us anything. The best fantasy pieces do this, applying the technique to the vast and interesting character sets.

I’ve read across the genres and fallen in love with many characters, but none strike me as so…well…important…as those from my favorite fantasy selections. Frodo, Bilbo, and their lot. Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Gemmell’s Druss. Drizzt the dark elf. Vin and her companions from Mistborn. But who are the best among them all. Far from opinion, but rather steeped in decades of studying the genre, Raistlin Majere and Tasslehoff Burfoot are the two greatest characters in all of fantasy – and the Dragonlance series was among my first loves in reading.

Is there something about fantasy that inherently lends itself to rich characterization?

Like its literary cousin Science-Fiction, fantasy comes with the ability to create infinite races and cultures. Authors have few (if any) limits in world-building. As such, fantasy literature yields characters that have the propensity to be more unique than those in regular fiction. Like human characters, they will still encompass the plethora of possible emotions, but with new racial and cultural characteristics (odd ones at that), possibilities are limitless.

Also, Epic/High Fantasy is typically focused around a set of questing heroes and supporting casts. Reminiscent of Campbell’s “Hero’s Quest” archetype (perfect for studying his protégé George Lucas’s Star Wars), the questing heroes have to fill certain roles and accomplish specific goals. I love to see creative authors finding new ways to do this within the genre. The patterns in our genre are why readers love the genre. They yield a very basic blueprint for the telling of new tales.

For you as a reader, what makes for an interesting and memorable character?

The first component that comes to mind is the flaw. Characters, like real people, need to have flaws. Some authors forget this and readers end up with an idealized version of the hero. As a reader, I want a protagonist with internal conflict. I want that character to make mistakes, maybe even big ones. Maybe I won’t agree with everything that character does or says (from a moral standpoint), but then I end up liking the character even more for the obvious layers and complexities. Even in the genre of fantasy, authors can still attempt a certain realism in character development. When I’m reading, I tend to be drawn to a few types: the humble bad-ass, the morally ambiguous hero, and the comic relief.

As a writer, how do you make your characters come alive?

I inject them with (what I hope to be) just the right amount of realism. I harness memory and imbue my characters with bits and pieces of people that I have known, seen, or heard of. Like I mentioned before, I think it is important that characters have flaws. I try to keep my characters far removed from perfection. And, once I develop a personality, I try to think like that character and not write what I want in the narrative, but instead write what that character might actually do or say. I try to envision the reality of my character and let them exist as a real person.

Slowly, my characters reveal themselves. I get to know them, and then as the author, try to maintain their realistic nature. There are technical tricks that might work as well. Using varied syntax to mirror emotion or intellect is a start. Dialect and diction are also important; these aspects of language can give a realism to include culture, intelligence, and more.

Let’s talk for a while about your book, Firesoul.  How did you come up with your characters?

Some I created long ago and simply needed a home for them. Others, I had in my head while developing the ideas for Firesoul and the rest of the Empires of Magic series. The oldest characters (at least in terms of creation date) are Niema and Sateb; an oddly paired dark-skinned lady pirate and a overgrown white minotaur. I wrote a short story featuring the two characters (one that I lost) about a decade ago. They fit perfectly into the story, but their true origins and nature won’t be explored until later in the series.

Tristan, one of two main protagonists has been in my heart and head for a while. He’s partly based on the man that I would like to be. Map was my favorite character creation – a sarcastic and cocky color-changing dragon, his personality is a bit more like mine that I would perhaps like to admit.  Some characters were loosely based on good friends, but only in a trait or two. Yet others I discovered in story-telling like lost memories in a photo album. It was a great experience to watch those characters grow and then shift the plot in angles I didn’t expect.

The  worst is when I have to kill one of my characters off; I can see why authors might feel like a father or mother-figure to their characters. Playing god as I write is tough at times.

Do you follow any process or method when developing your characters?

Honestly, no.  Their personalities revealed themselves in writing.

I once read in Stephen King’s On Writing that story plotting, at least for him, was more like sculpture. Slowly, the artist would reveal his work with each shaping strike of the hammer on stone. I like to think that some of my characters are born this way. I get the seed of the idea and then the story shapes them. I appreciate the realism and honesty that comes from this method-less methodology.

As we’ve discussed, fantasy is full of archetypal characters. How do you keep your characters from becoming clichés?

I made a marked attempt at refraining from molding my party of heroes and villains after anything I knew. I’ve heard and read so many critiques that accused this author of copying Tolkien or that author of trying too hard to mimic the Star Wars mold. I made sure my set didn’t ‘fit’ anywhere else.

In terms of more acute character development, my attempt was to make each of my characters real with flaws and then let them reveal themselves. The process felt organic and right. If one of my inventions has the flavor of a cliché, so be it. There are clichés in fantasy literature that I absolutely love; these are the same patterns that draw readers to the genre.

What are some of the common mistakes that authors make when developing characters?

Some authors tend to make characters too perfect or invulnerable: this is boring and trite. Others, in an attempt to create flaws, juxtapose personality types that would only exist in the schizophrenic. Yet more authors simply don’t have fun with their creations – and the ennui flows. There is no right or wrong way to go about character creation, but (for me) when an author seems to force something for the sake of plot, that is the most damning mistake.

Finally, do you have any pearls of wisdom for new authors who are struggling to create interesting characters?

I would tell new authors to be honest – both with themselves and with their creations. A character should come from genuine spirit and not from a need to please, or a need to fit an archetype, or a need to ‘add’ more to a narrative. The process should feel natural.

And, regardless of genre, an author should make an attempt at realism. Don’t question how you would act, but how the character would. What would the character say?

Also, characters readers care about are typically in possession of emotional qualities with which readers can either empathize or sympathize. Make this a goal (within reason) as well, let characters speak. When we hear dialogue, we learn so much more as readers than direct description. This and other forms of characterization are the keys to the ‘show don’t tell’ method.

My last advice is somewhat unrelated. I would tell new authors to never be afraid to kill even their favorite creations. Martyrdom can lead to greatness.

To learn more about Frank LaVoie and his diverse writing projects, visit frank-lavoie.com.

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Anonymous contributor/Author
Anonymous contributor/Author
9 years ago

I disagree on 3 counts:
 First, most high fantasy (and its generic counterparts), are plot-driven, not character driven; despite what LaVoie believes. Too often I see characters puppet themselves through obstacles to further the plot along. Even more, I see the author interjecting his “authorial voice” to the point where these characters seem like a glorified ventriloquist’s dummy, (mouth pieces for the author).And I certainly wouldn’t classify Vin or Druss as especially well developed characters, (I could even point out how Sanderson and Gemmel disregarded character development for the sake of the plot). So I find it laughable that LaVoie claims most high fantasy is character driven, as that is the primary complaint from readers and editors alike.

Secondly, high fantasy is not exclusively an adult genre. There is no age demographic for the genre. Before the printing press was ever created there were fairy tales and legends (which are epic or fantastical in nature), and of course, comic books and children’s literature are great examples of high fantasy (including the “epic” story line), that were among the very first printed high fantasies. 

“Harry Potter” is a great example. It’s high fantasy and yet a young adult (childrens) story. “Percy Jackson” is another example or “Eragon” and countless others. So to say that it’s an adult genre is to disregard the legends, lore, and tales that have spawned countless children’s literature and paved the way for the high fantasy genre as we know it today. 

Finally, I completely disagree with the comment: 
“Generic fiction aims at sharing a story with a message.”

Morality tales add literary depth to a story, they don’t devalue a story. Besides, all stories have themes and with themes come moral messages hidden somewhere beneath all of the prose and dialogue. 

Generic fiction is fiction that regurgitates the same elements that have already been done time and again. Generic fiction is fiction without any literary depth…a story that is to be taken at face value, in other words. Literature is like figurative language. There are underlying implications and meanings hidden beneath the obvious…like a metaphor. Stories that lack this are generic.

I consider plenty of high fantasy to be generic fiction because a disturbingly large amount of it consists of low-quality “Tolkien” exploits. They follow the Tolkien formula with the traveling quests, the evil enchanted talisman, the obscure “big bad” villain, the moral ambiguity, the cardboard characterizations..etc. There’s no originality and no depth. It’s literally a byproduct of previous work already published. *That* is generic fantasy/fiction.

So, though I agree with LaVoie on the importance of characterization and the various ways authors lack in this area, I think he is enormously misinformed about the quality of high fantasy where character development is concerned, (which is baffling considering that he writes within that genre). Perhaps my expectations surpass his and so it’s a matter of different opinions. But most of us fantasy writers (along with editors), bemoan the lack of characterization in this genre more so than applaud it. So I have a concrete basis for my argument as far as I’m concerned. 

Otherwise, nice interview. 

Mike Combs
Mike Combs
9 years ago

I stumbled across George MacDonald quite by accident when looking for something to read in the Project Gutenberg Library. I will probably be finishing his Lilith, A Romance, this evening. Excellent literary quality and superb character building. 

As far as favorite characters, I have taught my children lessons using some of the same moral and ethical processes as Card’s Ender. 

Adina Harris
10 years ago

I can think of another great fantasy writer that should be read by every fantasy writer: George MacDonald.  I am amazed at how many people don’t even know who he is or what he wrote.  For those who don’t know, he is the man that C.S. Lewis referred to as his “master,” and J.R.R Tolkien himself was inspired by. I’m sorry if that’s off topic, but I had to mention him too.  This interview is very inspirational and loaded with useful information…so much so that I actually took notes!  Thank you.

Brian W
Brian W
10 years ago

I love this article. Obviously, characters are what make a book. Some authors (I won’t mention names) have great ideas for plot lines, but they forget about the relationships and characters. If I don’t care about a character, then why would I care if he/she dies? Why would I care if their best friend dies?

You hit it spot on, Frank.

10 years ago

Jenna –

A couple of things…

1. Please put down the keyboard and walk away. Come back and read the rest later; go immediately to your bookstore and invest in a few of King’s works and read. Do this now…this imperative mission could save lives.   🙂

2: Glad you liked the article. I agree with your Ender assessment for the SF genre. I liked Ender’s Game more than I thought I would when someone recommended it.

Thanks for reading the interview!

Jenna St. Hilaire
10 years ago

Excellent thoughts. Characters often make or break a book for me, and I love SFF for that. (Orson Scott Card’s Ender is one of my favorite characters in existence.) I’ve never read King or the Dragonlance series, but would also agree that Rowling is queen.

I guess I’ve always defined high fantasy as anything in which the world as we know it does not exist (or has not yet come to pass), but some form of magic does. Which means I’d classify, say, Shannon Hale’s young adult Books of Bayern as high fantasy. It’s not urban or paranormal, anyway. But then, her work is also quite literary in tone for non-contemporary YA fiction. I strongly agree that high/epic fantasy should strive for a literary voice.

“The process felt organic and right. If one of my inventions has the
flavor of a cliché, so be it. There are clichés in fantasy literature
that I absolutely love; these are the same patterns that draw readers to
the genre.”

That might just be my favorite thing you said. Great point. 🙂

10 years ago

Character is so key to me that I will create a core band of characters, using a character sheet by one of my old proffs, Leonard Chang (and a great writer by the way).  I write conversations in their histories that may never get into the book.  I do all of this before I have even much of an idea of the plot, because those characters will write the plot for me.

And, yes.  I agree with flaws.  When I was a kid I wrote some flaws into my characters, but always had the feeling the book was a platform for me.  But characters don’t agree with me all the time.  The world shouldn’t be Utopia.  

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from a writer, Victor Lavalle, was that good people do bad things.

Dante Sawyer
Dante Sawyer
10 years ago

As a hopeful fantasy author, I couldn’t agree more.  Characters in fantasy are everything.  They craft the very soul of the work, and they make the images come alive, but they all seem to work as one.  I think of famous examples such as: Frodo Baggins, Roland Deschain, and Vin Venture.  These three of my favorite protagonist in literature, yet who are they without a supporting cast?  Who is Frodo without Gandalf?  Who is Roland without Jake?  And who is Vin without Kelsier?  Sure they are interesting on their own, but the true depths of character a revealed when you add the element of these support characters.  The relationships that these characters share not only sculpt the character, but they morph the very world they live in.
I also agree with making characters flawed, but I think I might add something, if I may be so bold.  Don’t just make them good or evil.  Give them drive from other sources that, although sometimes aren’t that morally sound, give the character new depth.  Good vs Evil, that’s cliché and easy.  One Neutral vs Another, that’s something.  You do manage to do an excellent job of this in your novel.
Thanks for the interview man.  And thanks even more for Firesoul.  It’s truly a terrific read.

8 years ago

 You peaked my interest first when I saw Raist staring at me. The Dragonlance series started me on the road of reading and writing high fantasy.  You are spot on that Raistlin Majere and Tasslehoff are two of the best written characters in fantasy because of their complexity; one is the tragic anti-hero who finds redemption at the end, and the other is a comic relief with a depth of innocence, kindness, and heroism unmatched. Their dialogue is some of the best I have seen.  I do agree that high fantasy is very character-driven; it is the “band of heroes” that moves the plot along as they try to fulfill their “quest.” By the way, Joseph Campbell based much of his archetype work on what I like to think of as “original” high fantasy: medieval Arthurian literature.  Thank you for this informative article, especially your advice on character development.

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