by Erin Evans
Maybe you haven’t noticed, but we have a problem. It seems every time, I turn around, the same story is being uploaded to Wyvern’s. Or worse—published. Not only are these stories getting boring in their repetition, they’re making a bad name for fantasy writers everywhere. I for one, don’t think I should have to justify what I write with a lengthy explanation about how I write character-based fantasy with an active eye on clichés. Literary writers don’t have to do that. Why should we?
Because too many writers aren’t challenging themselves when they write fantasy. They’re taking the same plots that have been used already in great books and watering them down, taking out the drama and the conflict. They’re taking the same characters, stripping away their internal conflicts, their flaws, and their complexity. They’re watering down worlds into medieval knock-offs, with none of the injustice, suffering, or all-around griminess.
So the side-of-evil is planning on destroying/taking over the world. Only your ragtag band of characters (numbering between 1-12) can save the world for the side-of-good.
What is it with the side-of-good vs. side-of-evil? It’s one thing to imply it in a character’s mind, it’s another entirely to state it outright. Really, does this make much sense? Does anyone really walk around saying, “Oh yes! I’m sooo evil”? People usually think they’re doing the right thing, or at the very least the best thing for themselves, in which case I doubt they care/believe in evil and at any rate, are hardly going to call themselves the Dark Lord. And the side-of-good: Come on. Everyone has a few flaws—at least the interesting among us do.
And in this world of good vs. evil, why is everything a pseudo-feudal monarchy? The “good” guys are the ones who, in reality, would be oppressing scores of people! Where are all the serfs? Why does everyone who isn’t royalty live in a sturdy, clean thatched roof cottage made of stone, when in reality they would be living in hovels made of sticks and mud? Why does no one look past medieval Europe for inspiration?
When a magic user crops up, why are they always mysterious and distant? Why are they the ones to introduce the deep questions? Why are the magic users never cynical and jaded? Or hyperactive and optimistic?
Why does every freaking person carry a sword or bow and arrow?
Your character—a noticeably attractive and young person—is either royalty, or a hard worker in a farm of some sort. There is a slim possibility s/he is a rogue or thief. One day s/he discovers s/he has an incredible destiny, which quite probably involves discovering his/her magical powers or the father’s sword. Pursued by the dark side, s/he must find a person/thing to aid the fight. S/he probably falls in love with the plucky member of the opposite sex in the meantime. If she is a princess, he is a farm boy. If he is a farm boy, she’s a princess. This person widens the hero/ine’s view of the world, during a tender moment either riding or huddling around a fire in the woods. They do not have sex. In fact, your character is noticeably virginal as well (excepting if s/he is a rogue). When it comes to a fight, s/he is nervous at first, but kills at least one enemy (unless s/he is in a coma from the fantastic powers s/he has developed). When it comes to fighting the Dark Lord, your hero/ine shows little-to-no fear and saves the day. Then they will either decide to marry their love, or, if you’re a bit of a sadist, they will decide that they cannot be with that person for reasons that probably don’t make much sense. As for flaws, you character is one or more of the following: stubborn, naïve, inexperienced, insubordinate or slow to learn.
I have two guesses. One, you are copying a character you’ve already read. Two, your character is you, and rather than color yourself imperfect, you’re writing a thin and milquetoast—albeit stunningly brave/beautiful—character, who hardly develops, has no real flaws, and whose hardships all happen off stage.
Fact is, that’s incredibly uninteresting, and, you’ll come to realize, more than a little problematic to your story and your psyche. Whether you base your character on yourself, your best friend, your worst enemy or a guy you saw on the street, the sooner you realize real people have flaws, the better. No one is unflaggingly perfect. A hero whose flaw is his inexperience isn’t very interesting. Neither is a hero who is naïve (unless he is extraordinarily naïve—so naïve that he’ll believe the Dark Lord when he says “Let’s be friends” while holding a dagger behind his back…But that’s a tough story). Heroes with tempers, with prejudices, with addictions—these are characters with a more interesting story. Where is the depressed hero? The one with ADD? Why are the heroes always white? Why are they always straight? Why do they always have Victorian morals and, if men, are shocked by tough women? Make your heroes swear. Make them smoke. Make them sleep around. Make them believable people with problems and depth.
Watered Down Plots
When your flawed characters get into the story, give them a story to get into. Make things hard for them. Be mean! When they think things are going well, make them go bad. When things are bad, make them worse. Nothing will define your characters better than how they react under fire. When your heroine realizes she loves the hero, make him fall for someone else. Or make the heroine go mute. Or turn the hero evil. Or just kill him. If you drag us along for eighteen chapters, wanting us to feel the tension simply because she’s afraid of telling him, we’ll get bored five chapters in. The story is told because something happens. Not conversations. Not descriptions of fantastic cities. People die. Spectacularly destructive spells are wrought and then broken. Drama happens, and your characters grow and change because of it.
By the time we reach the epilogue and the band of merry adventurers has split up, your hero/ine had better have changed somehow—and I don’t just mean his beefy sword arm or her weird tattoo. Your main character ought to grow or change in some way. Realizing there’s more to life than raising kids on a farm is a decent start, but every hero or heroine seems to realize this. Go farther.
Fiction isn’t real—fantasy is less so—and we can all agree on that. But there is a certain amount of realism necessary to engage people. If your characters aren’t people they can relate to, your readers will have a hard time working past chapter one.
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