Many people may first think of fantasy fiction in terms of enchanted worlds or magical creatures, but those worlds must be populated with engaging characters. Strong characters are important to fantasy fiction for many reasons:
- Fantasy often tells the story of events on a grand scale, and having characters the readers care about makes that grand scale seem more tangible.
- Fantasy often has an element of wish fulfillment about it, and so readers want characters they can identify with.
- Engaging characters can help readers feel more comfortable and grounded in an otherwise unfamiliar invented world.
The most popular fantasy fiction tells us that enduring characters influence how much readers love a work of fiction. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter and his friends Ron and Hermione, Tyrion Lannister from George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series and television’s Buffy Summers are all examples of iconic fantasy characters.
Several of the characters listed above are protagonists, but the characters that surround the protagonist must be engaging as well. No reader will feel suspense if the antagonist is unbelievable and cardboard-like. If the love interest is one-dimensional, readers aren’t likely to be interested in that subplot. A mentor adds gravity to the protagonist’s quest, and sidekicks make the protagonist more likeable by bringing in the possibility of humorous exchanges. This creates light and shade, giving a roundedness that a protagonist who is busy defeating evil throughout the book might otherwise not have the opportunity to show.
Characters are the heart of your fantasy novel. Without strong characters, the reader ultimately won’t care what happens on bloody battlefields, in magical chambers or behind closed doors where seats of power are held.
One way to create memorable characters is to begin with set types and then add depth. This may seem like a formulaic approach to developing characters, but fantasy character types are nothing more than a framework in the same way that a plot outline is. If you think about some of the characters listed above, there are several types.
Hermoine Granger is the smart girl, Harry Potter is the orphan boy with secret magical powers, Tyrion Lannister is the scheming survivor who sometimes displays vulnerability, and Bilbo Baggins is the reluctant adventurer. All of these are stock characters from literature and the fantasy genre in particular. Yet if you are familiar with these particular versions of these characters from your own reading, you know that this stock description only scratches the surface of who these characters turn out to be: it doesn’t fully convey their strengths, weaknesses and story arcs.
Here are five fantasy character types you can develop into strong, memorable figures for your readers:
Up to this point, we have mostly discussed the protagonist, but there is a reason for this. This is the most important character in your story. If the protagonist doesn’t work, it won’t matter how well-developed the other characters are.
You’ll need to consider a number of different aspects as you develop your protagonist. For example, the protagonist often starts out as a reluctant hero or heroine. Joseph Campbell even documented this tendency in his ‘Hero’s Journey’ plot structure, describing the protagonist’s initial refusal of a call to perform a daunting feat.
Here are a few points to consider as you develop your protagonist:
- Is your protagonist an ordinary person or possessed of extraordinary powers in some way that help her fulfill her destiny?
- Is your protagonist more of a traditional hero or is he or she an antihero? In other words, does your protagonist display typical qualities such as courage, loyalty and goodness, or does the protagonist have a dark side? Buffy and Harry Potter would be examples of straightforward heroes, while Tyrion Lannister is very much more the antihero.
- What are some of the defining characteristics of a protagonist? This may help you to envision an initial type that you can then develop into a more subtly realised character.
One error some writers make is creating an antagonist who is purely evil. Their reasoning may be that a more evil character is more likely to create suspense for the reader.
The problem with this approach is that the character may become so over-the-top evil that the reader disengages. A story is often more interesting when the antagonist has motives that are understandable, even if the logic or ethics behind their motives is wrong. For example, an antagonist may want to unite a kingdom or wholeheartedly believe that their nefarious actions are for the best.
Another approach to making your antagonist more human is giving the character a prior connection with the protagonist as is the case with Voldemort in Harry Potter or Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars universe. You could also experiment with having somewhat relatable characters who are carrying out the work of an evil power. In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is not relatably human, but Saruman was the mentor of the good wizard Gandalf, so when Saruman switches allegiance to Sauron, the betrayal increases a sense of threat and helps the reader understand the emotional toll this story is likely to take on its characters.
Buffy has her Watcher, Frodo Baggins has Bilbo and Gandalf, and Luke Skywalker has Obi-Wan Kenobi. Each of these mentors is invaluable to the protagonist’s development. The main function of a mentor is to educate or train the protagonist, but the mentor can bring a powerful emotional component to the story as well. Over the course of a fantasy novel, it is almost inevitable that at some point the mentor and protagonist must part. Whether this means the death of the mentor or simply the mentor’s departure, this is usually a profound emotional and dramatic turning point.
Here are some points to consider when developing the mentor:
- Does the mentor have any unusual abilities such as magical powers, or is their primary purpose to impart wisdom?
- What is the relationship between the protagonist and the mentor? Is it positive from the beginning, or is it initially a rocky one?
- How do the mentor and protagonist part? Is it sudden and tragic, or is it planned? How does the way the relationship ends affect the protagonist?
Protagonists can sometimes seem incredibly heroic, and sidekicks help to humanize them. Sometimes sidekicks may even start to overshadow the protagonist. This is not necessarily a failing on the part of the writer. In fantasy fiction, a protagonist often becomes so much larger than life that as the story continues it becomes increasingly difficult for the reader to relate. Meanwhile the sidekicks are often characters who are more ordinary and thus perhaps more similar to the reader. What is most important about the sidekick is that the writer remains in control. The story can feel less cohesive if the focus shifts to a sidekick in a way that makes the narrative seem excessively disjointed.
Sidekicks often offer wisdom, comic relief, or commentaries that match the reader’s perspective more closely than that of the protagonist. The robots R2D2 and C3PO in Star Wars or Ron and Hermoine in Harry Potter are examples of memorable sidekicks in fantasy. Sidekicks are frequently invaluable, and often a protagonist cannot succeed without them.
The Love Interest
Like the sidekick, the love interest also humanizes the protagonist. The love interest also provides additional opportunities for conflict and suspense. To create an effective love interest, writers should make this character multidimensional and not simply a perfect reflection of the protagonist’s — or the writer’s — desires.
The love interest might challenge the protagonist by seeing or doing things in a different way. The love interest may also raise the stakes for the protagonist. With a love interest, a protagonist might become more vulnerable or be even more committed to a cause.
One important point to keep in mind in developing both this character and the relationship is that creating a relationship in fantasy fiction should not be significantly different from doing so in any other type of fiction. Writers of fantasy fiction might find themselves tempted to overdo the love interest and try to convince the reader that this relationship in rooted in some great magic or destiny, but ultimately, the relationship will be most effective if it is also portrayed in ways that are real and concrete.
Protagonists, antagonists, sidekicks, mentors and love interests may seem like stock characters of fantasy fiction, but they are also the blueprints for well-developed, complex characters that readers will fall in love with and follow throughout quests, battles and potentially world-destroying conflicts. Taking each of these stock types and developing them into unique, well-rounded characters results in more engaging fiction. Readers are engaged and enthralled by characters as real as themselves and their loved ones.
If you are trying to come up with characters for your fantasy novel, use Now Novel’s character outlining tool to flesh out believable fantasy characters who will bring your story to life.