A Different Kind of Hero
The heroes in our novels come in all shapes and sizes. Their nature and actions are crafted at the whim of the author. Some heroes are larger than life, giant personalities with immense powers, while others are regular people thrust into grand events. Some are born great, chosen by destiny and circumstance, others make their own path. The type of hero we are given changes the whole nature of the story, it affects our expectations for the novel, the direction of the narrative, the themes of the book and how we as the reader relate to the work.
For all the diversity and depth the fantasy genre brings, the heroes in our books can be organised into three broad types based on their nature. There are the ordinary heroes, the extraordinary heroes, and the transitional heroes.
The Ordinary Hero
Ordinary is a relative term when applied to books in the fantasy genre, it can refer to a normal person on the street in a medieval city, a person from our world pulled into a fantasy setting, or even a blue skinned elf who farms crystals in an author designed secondary world. The important thing is that the elf farmer doesn’t have any special skills or magic powers that make him unique among all the other blue skinned inhabitants of their flying city. In the context of the world of the novel the character is ordinary with all the associated social and thematic baggage that entails.
Probably the most well-known example of the ordinary hero is Bilbo Baggins from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. In Middle Earth terms, with its wizards, monsters and dark lords, a hobbit is quite an ordinary creature and Bilbo’s rural home life does nothing to disprove that. And while he does journey on a great adventure, picking up a few magical items like Sting and the One Ring, growing in confidence and competence, he does not intrinsically change his nature. An ordinary hero may accomplish great things, and be affected by them, by they are still recognizably who they were at the start of the novel.
The ordinary hero exemplifies the fantasy theme that anyone can accomplish great things, that anyone can be special. An ordinary hero shows what a single person can accomplish even without hulking muscles or sorcerous powers. They show that in a fantastical world you can prevail with just your wits and a scrappy attitude as in the case of Lyra from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. A normal child in Pullman’s world (even if she does have her own daemon), her actions and resourcefulness have a considerable impact on truly epic events.
The stories of the ordinary hero may show a greater sense of wonder at the strange world they find themselves in, at situations as new for them as they are to the reader. They will often follow classic plot arcs like the reluctant hero and the story will be as much about their experience as any grand event going on in the wider world. The ordinary hero is a common choice for an adventure story; the type suits a tale of discovery and growth. As for how they engage with the reader, the ordinary hero is usually more relatable than some epic warrior of legend. Their specific lack of special abilities is what gives them their appeal. It’s easier for the reader to build a relationship with such a character and can serve to play on our support for the underdog in a world of great powers.
The Extraordinary Hero
The brave knight or prince of the realm, a powerful wizard tormented by visions of the future, the seventh son of a seventh son, these guys were never going to have normal lives. Fantasy is a genre of escapism and imagination, half the reason we read it is to see what incredible adventures this collection of unique and badass characters get up to. These are the characters that front the covers of novels, the brooding assassin who cuts a swathe through his enemies, or the chosen one wreathed in mystical energy. From the moment the reader is introduced to them, they know the character is something special, beyond the norm even of this strange fantasy world. The character in question does not actually require superhuman abilities, but they do need to be very good.
Locke from Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora is a poor fighter, barely competent with a sword, and has no magical skills, yet he is a master thief. Even among other thieves he is impressive, and the way he uses those skills is what makes the narrative exciting. Or you could look at Sebastian De Castell’s trio of travelling magistrates in Traitor’s Blade, there is Kest, the greatest swordsman in the world, the superb bowman Brasti and their cunning leader Falcio. Each individual is possessed of great skills, enough to make them stand out from the crowd. Of course in fantasy there is no need to hold back, there are books with actual gods stalking the pages, or the next best thing like Anomander Rake in Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon. This enigmatic figure has existed for millennia and his plans stymie the will of an entire empire.
Extraordinary heroes are characters so amazing and different that you want to read about them and find out everything you can. The reader loves when they pull off some incredible feat because that’s what they have come to expect. In contrast to the ordinary hero, it’s the fact that they’re different and have powers that we don’t which makes us want to read about them. Extraordinary heroes fulfil the promises of fantasy, of showing us something astounding, and maybe for just a little while, making us believe in heroes.
Such heroes are normally found in epic storylines, right at the heart of the action and influencing a whole series of events. Their stories might show themes about the responsibilities of power or duty, and will focus more on the impact they have on events, rather than getting lost in wonder at the world. The books will take them into new and dangerous situations, testing even their talents to the limit. It might be more difficult for the reader to relate to such an individual, but it won’t stop them being interested or even wishing they could be like them. Most authors make an effort to humanise larger than life characters, giving them flaws and such in order to help forge a link with the reader, but it can also be the distance between the reader and character which inspires such awe for them.
The Transitional Hero
Last are the heroes that begin as ordinary people but transform into an extraordinary hero. This can come about in a number of ways, it could be through rigorous training, finding a magic artefact, undergoing a trauma or even a literal transformation. It can happen in a single novel or over the course of several books, but the essence is that the character we met first should be substantially different to the end result, and who now possesses an extraordinary talent or skill. It is also important for this character that the reader witness the process of transformation.
The transitional hero is a staple of fantasy, he is the classic farm boy growing up to save the world from darkness. Perhaps he is actually a secret heir to the throne or perhaps it was just chance, but that goofy kid is going to be your king. Look over your fantasy bookshelf and pick a title at random, there’s an even chance the book has a transitional hero in it. Characters like Garion from David Eddings The Belgariad or Christopher Paolini’s Eragon both begin their stories in backwater farms yet grow to become heroes with great powers. The reader watches the transition as they learn new skills and test themselves against increasingly powerful foes. A less traditional example would be Azoth from Brent Weeks Night Angel trilogy who goes from street urchin to assassin to the avatar of retribution.
Transitional heroes show the potential for change and accomplishment, blending the previous two types. They draw on the relatable nature of the ordinary hero and develop them with new abilities. In their stories the journey of discovery and growth is almost as important as the greater plot, and they draw the reader along on their journey as they develop into a new persona. It can be fascinating to watch a character change through a book or series, with many of the stories having a coming of age theme. Equally the potential for development lends itself to damnation or redemption story arcs.
The reader is usually given the chance to bond with the character over a period of time, seeing them as a person before they begin to change, this provides a basis for a relationship as well as enhancing the depth of the reader’s engagement by letting them see the process of development. This means that when the character does something incredible it has more impact for the reader given their history. This can also evoke a sense of anticipation as the reader is eager to see the changes in the character and find out what they will accomplish.
Each of these types has its advantages and guides the story in different ways, but there is still a huge scope for variation. Some books can even have more than one type, blending story styles together. But an awareness of the nature of the hero in your book can give a better understanding of the story and help the narrative flow. It can help an author to connect with their readers, or serve as the starting point when subverting expectations. Whatever type of hero you choose, just make sure the writing is extraordinary.