H is for Humans in Fantasy

As I mentioned in an earlier post this month, fantasy is one of the few genres where basically anything goes. In a world where mythical creatures can frolic through your fields, and elves, witches, vampires, nymphs, and gods can occupy your cast, its hard to avoid the temptation to not include an every-day, mundane human to your line-up. After all, skills required by the quest probably take decades, if not centuries to master, and the industry seems to prefer the younger protagonists, which excludes most humans from being viable to a plot unless they’ve suddenly been gifted with a magical skill or item.

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However, the plight of a human in this world of magic and mayhem is perhaps the perfect grounds for suspense and tension for the reader–the hero can fail, and probably will, unless his wits can outsmart or outperform the opposition. I don’t think authors should be afraid to have a human protagonist who is already past his or her prime. I relish those stories, like The Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind or the Dragaera series by Steven Brust. While maybe these characters go against my first point (Vlad lives far longer than a human and has access to sorcery), there is something, to me, that is infinitely more charming about a world-traveled and well-weathered protag than one who has little to no knowledge to bring to the narrative before page one.

When a character is older, there are even more natural limitations that can be set upon them, like muscle aches and old wounds, a general cynicism or aloofness, or on the other end of the spectrum, perhaps a more believable optimism and sincerity. Older protagonists can also start their story with a love interest already established, if there is to be one, so you don’t have to waste pages building chemistry that could have just as easily already been there.

One of my favorite characters from my own cast started his story with me at 42 years old. He lived to be 72, and died a happy man, despite my abuse. Who are some of your older, human main characters?

*all images found at The Kuniyoshi Project.

Tomorrow: I is for Illustrious!

12 thoughts on “H is for Humans in Fantasy

  1. You make great points here, Alex. I’m not a fantasy writer, but I think all of our stories need a character who’s at least somewhat fallible. As a reader, I can relate to those characters on a much deeper level than I can to some flawless supernatural being.

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  2. A very well written post. I’ve never thought about the concept before. When I think fantasy it comes to mind that all of the main characters are supernatural in order to protect humans.

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  3. I prefer fantasy novels where the human is *allowed* to be human and have those aches and pains you mention. It gives me a place to relate and root for them more.

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  4. I couldn’t handle The Sword of Truth after Wizard’s First Rule. It was too much of a ripoff of Wheel of Time.

    So far, I’ve done a bit of age mixing, but most of the other projects I’m working on have full-blown adults.

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  5. Definitely some good points here!
    The project that I’m going to be working on next (I’ve actually been working on it for decade now, but I’m starting over as a series soon) has a lot of fantastical creatures and magic and the like, but it also has this one plain old human character. He’s been tasked with being the Guardian of the main character and often questions his ability to truly protect her because he is pretty much the only person in the story with no special powers or abilities. I love writing him because of that constant angst mixed with a desire to do well at his task. 🙂

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  6. Ah! Exactly! I feel like I make this point a lot in various ways, but not from the angle you have here. There seems to be this need for us to have a completely ignorant person as our protagonist, to give an excuse for the writer to explain the world to us. With the older character, who knows and understands the world, you have to present that sort of information very differently. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying it, right?

    I think that’s some of the appeal of the Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss… the character has already been through it all, is older (though perhaps not old?) and beat up, and knows it all. And he gets the opportunity to recount his tale to someone else.

    I guess it also applies to someone like Roland in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. He is old beyond measure (time having lost all meaning), and knows it all – more than just about anyone else left in his world. He gets to share this knowledge over time with the addition, and training, of his plain-old-human companions. Two of the eight books, though, are devoted almost entirely to Roland recounting tales from his youth.

    Great post! Really got me thinking!

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