Who are these guys? A brief guide to epic fantasy characters.
When I started writing “A Cast of Stones,” my first real effort at epic fantasy, I knew I would have to create memorable characters within the expected conventions of the genre. The challenge is how to tell the story that has familiar themes and yet do it with characters that still seem fresh. For those of you who are still new of relatively new to the genre, the types fall into some fairly consistent patterns. The example of the most clearly delineated character types may be “The Belgariad” written by David Eddings back in the 1980’s. It’s a fun read and I would recommend it to anyone who wishes to make a study of what makes epic fantasy good and fun.
Now, on to the types.
The Hero or Heroine:
The main character and without a doubt the most important character. If you can’t make this character sympathetic, you’ve lost your audience. Even in tales that use an anti-hero, you have to give the reader something with which to empathize. A great example of this is Stephen R. Donaldson’s “Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.” His main character rapes a sixteen-year-old girl. The challenge of keeping the reader engage with the main character must have been considerable. Donaldson manages to pull it off.
The hero in my book is Errol. He’s been orphaned in a unique way and he’s a drunk. This wasn’t lightly done, but I felt I needed a very visual struggle with my protagonist to highlight the themes of the story.
The Father Figure: Sometimes this is the real father, but is more likely someone who steps into that role. There may be more than one. In my book the role is filled by Martin, which is kind of cool because he’s a priest. He’s already a “father,” get it? I crack myself up sometimes.
The Mentor: This personality is easy to spot in any epic fantasy because this is the person who teaches the protagonist how to fight. Think Sirius Black in “Harry Potter” or Lan in “The Wheel of Time.” In my book the role is most prominently filled by the farmer, Rale. A secondary mentor is a surprise because I chose a woman, Rokha, who is just a bit older than Errol himself.
The Love Interest:
Some books, fantasy or otherwise, have characters with several love interests. Rand Al’Thor has three in “The Wheel of Time” and Dancy has three in “Atlas Shrugged.” I enjoyed both books, but chose to stick to a single love interest because I really wanted to develop that relationship.
My character’s love interest is Adora. She’s the niece of the king and of course she’s totally unapproachable. It wouldn’t be a good fantasy if our hero’s love interest wasn’t hopeless in some way.
The Comic Relief:
Somebody’s got to break up the tension. Think Ron Weasely in the Harry Potter series or Pippin and Meriadoc in “The Lord of the Rings.” This character may be the toughest to write because they have to be funny without being so over the top that they become unrealistic. I chose Cruk to fill this role early in “A Cast of Stones” but also use my main character as well. I really enjoyed writing Cruk because he comes across as this sour, crusty kind of drill instructor type who always says what’s on his mind. Seriously, he cracks me up.
The badder the better, but we need to know what drives him. He may or may not be a point-of-view character and how much space he’s given varies widely. For example, Lord Voldemort romps across the pages of the entire Harry Potter series. However, Shaitan, the ultimate villain in the massive “Wheel of Time” (14 books of at least 800 pages each), is given relatively little in the way of word count.
In “A Cast of Stones” my villain is…well, we’ll have to hold out on that one, but he’s bad. Really.
There are other roles to fill, but these are the main ones. The trick is to find a way to make your characters special to the reader. I approached “The Staff and the Sword” with the desire to make my characters complicated and realistic. I received a nice compliment early on when a reader told me “you write like a woman.” It took a bit for me to understand. She went on to explain that my characters were more complex and developed than she was used to seeing from male authors.
I hope you’ll feel the same way.