Fantasy’s Core Attributes, Part 1: Interesting, Complex, Kickass Protagonists

Previously, I brought up the idea there are core attributes to any fantasy story. In this post, I’m going to examine the first of those attributes I listed: Interesting, complex, kickass protagonists.

The one element of this triad you may be able to do without is “kickass.” Fantasy is filled with more than its share of affable, slightly bumbling fools who turn out to be heroes in the end. They don’t kick ass so much as avoid dying, at least at first (the classic, overplayed apprentice). I suppose you could say that even if it’s by accident or in spite of the hero, ass will, at some point in a fantasy story, get kicked, and kicked good. If, for some reason, the ass kicker isn’t your protagonist, than it will be one or more of the protagonist’s allies. Personally, however, I like my protagonists to be competent.

Everyman need not apply

Fantasy is just not suited to an everyman protagonist. Everyman is boring and uninteresting and does not kick ass. Everyman’s complexity is banal and no different than our own. If there’s something special about the everyman to be revealed down the road, then he’s not an everyman, but still has the potential problem of being boring and uninteresting in the meantime.

Take good ol’ Bilbo Baggins, for instance. Bilbo may at first seem the quintessential fantasy everyman, no? But Bilbo is interesting to us because he’s amusing in his fastidiousness, and because of the internal conflict he suffers between respectability and having an adventure. Because of Bilbo’s ancestry, he is not an everyman (or in this case, an everyhobbit). He has a rather adventurous line of ancestors, for one thing, and for another he’s a hobbit, which means it’s in his nature to pull from surprising reserves of fortitude and bravery when the sticking point is reached. So, again, he’s not an everyman.

The closest thing to an honest everyman I’ve ever read that was a successful fantasy is Smoky Barnable in John Crowley’s Little, Big. However, that novel is unique and unconventional compared to nearly everything else ever published and classified as fantasy. Some wouldn’t even call it fantasy (I would). Crowley was very good at writing whatever the fuck he wanted to write and letting others worry about on what shelf to stock it in a bookstore. The original title of the book became an almost hidden subtitle: Little, Big: Or, the Faeries’ Parliament. You can’t tell me that title’s not fantasy. But by leaving off the second part, it made the book seem more literary.

Non-vanilla wish fulfillment

In fantasy, the protagonist is often someone we wish we could be. If the protagonist isn’t an admirable character, then she needs to be a character with whom we identify and empathize. But she still needs to be more interesting than the reader. Being a witch, wizard, warrior, royalty, thief, assassin, or even simply non-human qualifies. Being a different sexual orientation or gender identification qualifies. We want to read about characters that have abilities or perhaps even anatomy beyond our ken.

The standard fantasy protagonist has been for many years a heterosexual white male or a humanoid stand-in for the same (dwarf, elf, hobbit, faerie, etc.). Simply straying from this wide, paved path will make your fantasy story more diverse and different, but you could also dig deeper. For example, Kameron Hurley’s Mirror Empire has characters that change gender over time or who are not simply male or female in the binary way to which we’ve been socialized in our own lives. We now know that human sexuality exists along a spectrum, it’s not binary. What you “know” about gender and sexuality is only what you’ve been taught. Why would you copy something that is a learned behavior into a fantasy world as though it were axiomatic when it’s not?

This is so much more fun and interesting than copying all of the bullshit you once assumed is true about our own world onto your fantasy world, don’t you think?

Elves, schmelves

Another way to dig deeper is to have characters which are not human, but which also avoid the overused humanoid races such as elves or dwarves. In the fantasy MMO Guildwars 2 (which I play), players can be human but they can also choose from four other races which are not found in your typical fantasy story. The sylvari are probably the most unique of these races: they are plant people, who grow within a gigantic sentient god-like tree and are “born” fully grown by awakening from a common Dream. They have leaves for hair and plant-like features. Because they literally “fell off the tree” yesterday, they’re more like curious, impetuous children than clichéd elves as snotty, fastidious near-immortals.

Why go with the tried-and-true when that way is essentially a inescapable ditch of clichés? Why not make up your own races, your own biology? If you’ve put a lot of thought into the nature of your setting (which we’ll discuss in the next post), you might conceive the most perfectly-matched races for that setting, too, almost in the same vein as a science fiction author dreaming up an alien planet and its inhabitants.

Don’t forget the kickass part

An Everyman character is not admirably good at anything, which is another way for him to be boring and uninteresting. Being impossibly good at something is also boring, but to my thinking, it’s better to tone that down than to try to make a boring Everyman interesting. Is your protagonist a swordsman? Make him a bloody good one. Is she a magic user? Give her some really good magic genes or have her graduating at the top of her class in magic school—or, she would have, if it wasn’t for the villain sabotaging her academic career…

Even if your protagonist kicks ass in a way that’s expected, such as fighting or magic skills, you can make this more interesting by changing up how she feels about it, or how she acquired her skills, or what price she pays in other parts of her life for having such skills.

Especially don’t forget the complex and interesting part

This doesn’t mean make your character a “Mary Sue.” Protagonists still need flaws to balance out the stuff about them we admire. There needs to be dark, painful stuff that haunts them from both the past and the present, because some mistakes you just never stop paying for. Some mistakes are still yet to be made.

To become great, sacrifices must be made, which means a heavy price has been or is going to be paid. What is that price? Who else pays? When you’re connected to other people, your actions don’t exist in a vacuum. The tragic truth of life is that other people will pay for your mistakes, and you will pay for theirs. How does this manifest in your protagonist?

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy illustrates this in a heartbreaking manner. The hero doesn’t get the glory. The hero pays the price. You don’t necessarily have to be that grim. Your hero can have a little glory, too (perhaps in a swag bag as he leaves the after-party). But part of what makes for interesting and complex characters is that the price they pay in life shapes them, makes them who they are.

Next up

The next core attribute of fantasy stories after this one is a setting that inspires feelings of saudade. I’ll link to that article when I’ve published it (hopefully sooner rather than later). If you don’t want to miss the next one, be sure to follow this blog (use your WordPress toolbar above or put your email into the box in the right column) to get updates when new content is available.

 

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