Have you ever noticed that certain characters in fantasy stories are similar to characters in other fantasy stories? It seems that they fit into categories and act within familiar roles and carry out similar duties.
Since fantasy stories are often idealistic, readers don’t seem to mind seeing “expected” characters who are “larger-than-life.” Yet, at the same time, readers want to see a new twist, an adaptation of the classic character sketches.
Here are some of the classic characters I have noticed, along with why they work so well in fantasy stories.
The Unlikely Hero – Have you noticed how simple, lost, and weak the fantasy protagonist often is at the start of the story? Take Frodo from LOTR, Lucy from Narnia, or Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. They seem to lack knowledge of the world around them, and they are inexperienced. Yet they are willing to do the impossible. Perhaps it is this naïve, simple faith that allows them to venture out into danger, because if they understood what lay before them, perhaps they wouldn’t dare take a step.
Fantasy readers tend to cheer for this kind of underdog character. He or she is usually pure and undefiled, yet sorely lacking in knowledge and skills—an easy person to like. There is little if any arrogance or pretense, just a desire to be and do something great. This parallels our own longing for a better world than our own, so the journey of the innocent lamb into the midst of the wolves, is captivating.
An Established Hero – Of course the unlikely hero needs help, someone who has been through the battles, who knows a lot more, and is ready to fight to the death for the unlikely hero. Aragorn, of course, comes to mind. In Narnia, we find a host of animal helpers, especially the ultimate hero, Aslan. In Star Wars, we have Han Solo. This hero protects and defends, but he usually doesn’t take the final step in the journey, the one that completes the final conflict and resolves the story. That is up to the unlikely hero.
As we travel our own journeys, sometimes feeling inadequate, we often gain exactly what we need when we need it, sometimes in the form of a strong helper. When we see that established hero in fantasy, it reminds us that there are helpers out there doing battle for us, perhaps angels we cannot see. This brings a feeling of comfort and strengthens our resolve.
A Trusted Friend – Where would Frodo be without Sam? Where would Lucy be without Peter or the beavers? Luke without Leia? A trusted friend who comes alongside us is a great comfort, even if he or she isn’t a great warrior or doesn’t know any more than we do–someone to lean on, to talk to, to provide a laugh in times of trouble. In fantasy literature, he is loyal to the very end. He doesn’t want the limelight. He just wants the unlikely hero to survive and succeed.
This unselfish, faithful friend is a great reminder of an ideal we all long for. Wouldn’t we all have an easier life with a Sam walking at our sides? My wife is such a friend to me. I wouldn’t be able to make my journey without her. So, seeing this classic fantasy character in a story resonates with me.
A Spiritual Guide – This is the person who guides the unlikely hero using wisdom, philosophy, and an understanding of a higher power. He might use a sword from time to time, but his greatest weapon and shield are found in spiritual guidance. He readily admits that the power is not his own, only that he is a channel. As with the established hero, he won’t be around when the unlikely hero has to take that final step. The step has to be taken using what he has already learned from the spiritual guide. Frodo lost the help of Gandalf and had to go on without him. Luke lost Obi-Wan and faced the Death Star with only a whispered voice in his mind.
There comes a time when we have to face our challenges using the wisdom we’ve learned, and no one will be around to guide us through each step. This is the face of maturity. Every unlikely hero, including you and me, has to step out of that naïve, simplistic person we once were and prove our maturity. We have the guide for a while, the training wheels on our cosmic bicycle ride, but someday we will have to ride alone, trusting in what we have learned. And perhaps we will become the spiritual guide for another unlikely hero that comes into our lives.
These characters, of course, aren’t in all fantasy literature, and there are other character types I’ve seen that I’m not mentioning in this post. Also, we don’t necessarily see these classic characters personified in individuals. Perhaps they are concepts or inanimate. For example, the spiritual guide could be a book, a prophecy, or a code of conduct. But I’ve seen these characters often enough to realize that they are helpful types for us to consider in our own works, because we love to read about them. We feel the warmth of their presence as we hope to have similar characters in our own lives.
If you decide to use these character types, the key to writing an effective fantasy story that doesn’t seem derived from others is to create a unique twist that puts your stamp of originality on these types. The bottom line is to consider the classic characterization path but in a unique way. That’s where imagination comes in.