More than any other genre, fantasy is a place where people like to build big plots. After all, the world is literally yours to make: everything from the mountains to the countries to the person living in that tiny house on that farm – it’s yours, built from scratch. We all want to impress people with the depth of our world and the complexity of our plot, so that’s what we spend most of our time – and research – learning what to do.
But we can’t forget about our characters. Because there’s another fact that tends to haunt fantasy fiction: it’s full of tropes. Arguably more than any other genre. The mage with the long beard, the grizzled warrior, the princess in the tower – and while tropes exist for a reason (they’re usually conducive to interesting plots), the worst fantasy puts too much focus on the setting and plot and doesn’t do much to establish interesting characters.
Characters are exceptionally important. If you’re writing prose, they’re the way the reader experiences your plot and setting. They sit first and foremost in the reader’s mind the whole way, so you really want the reader to be invested in them. Because when they put the book down and go to sleep, they don’t tend to wonder what part of the world they’ll see next. They think about the characters and what might happen to them.
Of course, there’s a lot more to say on this subject than I can cover in one blog post, so I’ve put a link to a great book on the subject at the end. I’ve referred to it over and over again over the years and every time I glean a new bit of useful information from it. Plus it has big names like Brandon Sanderson in it, so if that’s your jam, you’ll love it.
Before you go and look at that though, I want to share a couple of my own tips for writing good fantasy heroes. Obviously, no character should hit all of these (that would probably make an awful hero, actually), but as long as your hero hits some of them, you’re probably on the right lines. And it should go without saying, but: once you’ve finished your story, get it in front of people and ask them about the main character. Do you like them? How would you describe their personality? Stuff like that, so you can go back and tighten things up in the next round of edits.
- Make them ambitious. Make them want something and take active steps towards achieving it. Even if they fail, even if they make things worse, people like a protagonist who does things instead of just letting the plot happen to them.
- If they’re a bit tropey, try changing one or two things about their personality to make them unique. Maybe your grizzled, war-veteran warrior hero is an avid reader? Build the trait into their personality: don’t just stick it on at the end and mention it a few times. Have your beefy warrior man go to a library to research a monster, drawing funny looks from the scholars as he does so. Have him impress them with his knowledge of the Dewey Decimal system (or your world’s equivalent).
- Make them human. Consider their family, their upbringing, their weaknesses. They should think about them from time to time, if only to contemplate how different their life is now. It’ll make them more sympathetic to the reader than a sword-swinging automaton with no emotions.
- I’m gonna say it again because it’s so important, but makes sure that elaborate plot you’ve built has a couple of moments where the hero both fixes a problem through directly deciding to take action and, preferably, has no effect or makes things worse through their direct action. This gives them chance to have a Dark Night of the Soul moment and learn from their mistakes, making them seem more like a real person.
- Have a character arc! Make them change over the course of the story! Make them f*ck up, or make them see f*cked up things, and make them have thoughts and come to conclusions about these things. Then make them act on these conclusions.
For more on writing fantasy characters, I can’t recommend this book highly enough: