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Believable Fantasy Character Design

Enter a man. He is tall, ruggedly handsome, a pinch over six foot, with eyes of swirling green and blue. His arms were toned and muscular, and there was a light shading of stubble about his cheeks.

ConanThis man stumbles across an armed gang of men in an alleyway, harassing a young woman, all legs and pencil-skirt, with long flowing flaxen hair, an ample chest, and a horrified look on her face. The man strides confidently into the alleyway, and without a word, sets upon the sixteen or so bandits with nothing but his regularly-moisturised fists. Despite any obvious lack of fighting experience, and a plethora of improvised weapons waving in his face, he manages to fend off each pierced, tattooed, facially disfigured, snarling, grimacing, ugly man, and dispatch them into unconsciousness. His good deeds done, he sweeps up aforementioned ample-chested woman, and whisks her into the sunset, whispering sweetly in her ear, “All in a day’s work.”

Sound familiar? I bloody hope not!

The characters of a book, main or supporting, hero or villain, are like the screws and nails of a house: without them to hold it together, even the greatest of books would sag like goat cheese under a hot grill. A builder would not replace his nails with chewing gum, or his screws with gaffer tape, so why should authors do the same?

When writing characters for a fantasy novel, the stereotypes are well and truly laid out already. Everybody knows an elf is tall and lithe. Everybody knows a dwarf is short, metal-obsessed, and fancies caves. Everybody knows that most orcs aren’t going to win a beauty contest any time soon. But, as I’m sure you avid readers are aware, book after book and series after series, these stereotypes start to make you sigh, as I demonstrated in the above example.

The key to successful and believable character design here then is twofold:

Twisting stereotypes and flawed nature.

Twisting Stereotypes

Leonidas by GENZOMANSomebody once argued to me that the Lord of the Rings wasn’t original. Shocker, but I almost have to agree. Tolkien took almost all of his LOTR lore from Nordic and Germanic mythology, which has been hanging around since the Roman Empire and before, which is where such stereotypical creatures as elves, dwarves, trolls, huldras, etc. stem from. What Tolkien did, however, was employ these well-established stereotypes to allow readers to connect immediately with his characters. Rather than needing an explanation that dwarves are short and elves are graceful, the reader, having grown up with such folklore, was already aware of this, giving free reign to Tolkien to elaborate and add his own idiosyncrasies on top. Tolkien then, took an established format, and went wild, and in doing so, he laid down the foundations of modern fantasy for generations.

But, LOTR was first published in the 1950s, and since then Tolkien’s all-so-familiar lore has been copied, recopied, tweaked and copied again, leaving us fantasy authors in the danger of ploughing some already well-furrowed fields.

These days characters stand out to me, when I see a bit of thought has gone into them. I like to see someone tweak the rules occasionally, and that makes for an interesting read. For example, magic systems such as Brandon Sanderson’s alomancy are fresh and exciting, and those of you familiar with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, will know that leprechauns and dwarves are in fact seven feet tall, not grumpy little bearded buggers swinging an axe. These are great examples of stereotype twisting in action.

However, people do connect with stereotypes. Stereotypical traits, such as a battle-scarred face, a chiseled chin, or the swollen forehead that Arthur Conan-Doyle ascribed to his evil genius Professor Moriarty, are useful for allowing readers to rapidly identify certain characters, such as heroes or villains. This can be easily seen in almost all early comic books. Over the years, we have grown accustomed and familiar with such stereotyping, and therefore we’re able to spot a potential villain or hero at a hundred yards.

However, by using such well-trodden traits an author runs the risk of unoriginality, and essentially boring a potential reader. Therefore, twisting these well-defined stereotypes can open the door for some original and cunning writing, some original characters, and in turn, pushes the boundaries of fantasy altogether.

Flawed Nature

Black Knight by sandaraHere’s a key fact: humans, invariably, are flawed. Imperfection exists in our DNA, from the shape of a nose, to a scar from a bicycle accident, to an irrational fear, an ingrown nail, to that useless exploding vestigial organ, the dreaded appendix; imperfection is part of human nature. We recognise it and we empathise with it.

I think then, if we are writing about human characters, we should write about human characters. When we come across a character with none of these imperfections, a person so blindingly flawless, our minds instantly reject it, and we lose all chance of connection with such a character. I’m sure as guilty as the next author, but from a reader’s perspective, I enjoy it when a human character is invariably, well, human.

I like it when a hero comes out of a fight missing a finger. Having endless fights where everybody except the hero gets hurt, or whirlwinds of kung-fu supremacy with no obvious back-story, makes me groan. I like it when my heroes have a hair out of place. I like to have my heroes bleed and cry, to be afraid and to look like nothing much. Maybe the hero should be the scarred, tattooed one, living in a cave. Hey, even superman was socially inept. Flawed characters, hero or villain, are the key to believability, and therefore a believable novel.

These two techniques can make an author think outside the well-defined box. Characters should be lovingly and carefully moulded, just like the world you put them in, as they, like the nails of a house, will hold everything together, and they better be good quality nails. Above all, they have to be believable, be they human, elf, dwarf, or dragon, because if they’re not, your readers won’t connect with them.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar Lor says:

    See, I do have a character in my current WIP, Sorley, who is blonde, blue-eyed, typically handsome, so fits the convention. He also has extreme paranoia issues, and believes everyone is out to kill him because he is so wonderful. It just felt right.

    I think the two methods you pointed out are perfect for creating characters; it makes them familiar enough that one doesn’t have to spend a whole page explaining the character, but as you’ve said allows us to mess with them just enough to make them interesting.

    Nice job!

  2. Avatar Gibson says:

    First off, great art work to supplement the article. I think stereotypes are really hard to use effectively, because it almost instantly paints a character as one-dimensional. Definitely agree on the flawed nature part. You can weed away a stereotype and give a character depth with a chip on his/her shoulder.

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