It’s Writing Fantasy Heroes week here so I thought I would chip in with my two cents worth about one of fantasy heroes I have worked on recently. I’m going to use Tyrion, one of the two main characters in my ongoing High Elf trilogy, as an example.
This process of developing Tyrion was a little different from creating a character from scratch, since Tyrion already exists as part of the Warhammer universe. What I’ll be talking about is how I put flesh on his bones and hopefully turned him into a well-rounded and complex character as well as a believable hero.
In epic fantasy, the word hero obviously has two meanings. There is the one that we apply universally, an individual who either possesses extraordinary courage or performs extraordinary deeds or both. Then there’s the meaning in the narrative sense, an individual who is the protagonist of the story. In more realistic fiction these two don’t necessarily go together but in this genre, they tend to.
As authors, it’s our job to make the hero believable and to a certain extent sympathetic. Being believable doesn’t mean you have to fill the reader in on every minute of the hero’s backstory, or show how he got to be how he is (although it does feel that way in a lot of modern fantasy). It just means the hero needs to be convincing when he walks on stage. If you want examples of what I mean by this take a look at David Gemmell’s Druss, Robert E Howard’s Conan or Michael Moorcock’s Elric. These are all fully formed when they walk on stage. They are convincing because of the way, they act.
Since the character is also the hero in the narrative sense, he is going to have to be somebody we can root for. Hopefully the audience can, and certainly the writer must. If you’re going to write a book or a series of books about a character, there has to be something that motivates you to do so. You’re going to be spending months or years in this character’s head and there needs to be something that keeps you going back there.
It helps if there’s something about the character you can like or admire, preferably both. My basic formula for fiction is create characters I like, admire and/or sympathise with then torture the bastards. By this I mean put them through the emotional and physical ringer. Threaten them. Cause them harm. I have built a decades-long career on this simple formula.
Anyway, let’s look at Tyrion. Tyrion is an elf prince of the line of Aenarion. He is arguably the greatest warrior of his people in the current age of the Warhammer world. He is honourable, courageous and heroic. Fair enough– but what I need to know is how did he get to be that way? There must be a reason for it. As I said above, normally I would not feel compelled to show the reader any of this. I just need to know it and be able to allude to it in the story. In this case though I was commissioned to write what was basically an origin story for the character so I will need to show the reader all of this stuff.
Physically, it’s easy enough. He is of the line of Aenarion, a descendant of the super-humanly powerful demigod who originally ruled the elves. This is already an established part of the background. Tyrion bears a resemblance to Aenarion and has quite obviously inherited some part of his power. He is more than mortally quick and strong, with a natural understanding of weapons and combat. That’s the upside. The downside is that all of the descendants of Aenarion may share his curse. It’s something that will make him suspected by his own people in the long run. There’s a point of attack when it comes to causing the character problems. When writing fiction this is invariably a good thing. The more trouble you can heap on a protagonist the better.
Psychologically we need to find out why he is the way he is. In part, it’s because of the culture he comes from. The High Elves of Ulthuan place a premium on things like nobility, keeping your word etc. They live the chivalric ideal. Even the worst of them pay lip service to it. The question is what makes Tyrion outshine the typical High Elf.
The place I chose to start looking was the logical one– his childhood. Tyrion was brought up far from the great cities of the elves, by his aloof widowed father, with only his sickly crippled brother and the servants for company. He grew up reading and believing all the great heroic epics of the elves, and dreamed of getting away from his dull home life and taking part in such things. He felt his father, a wizard, despised him for not being intellectual, scholarly and wizardly. He mistook his father’s protectiveness of his sickly twin as a preference for his brother who was, after all, more like his father. He actively sought an arena in which his gifts will allow him to shine. When his father’s old friend, the warrior Khorian Ironglaive, came along and offered him a chance to find a place in the world as a warrior, he jumped at it.
Tyrion’s childhood also provides another invaluable insight into his character. He is close to and protective of his sick brother. They were each other’s only real companions during a formative period of their lives. This gave Tyrion a genuine sympathy for the weak, unusual among elves who typically despise anything less than perfection. It also gives him another vulnerable spot. He is in the habit of sticking up for his brother, which often gets him into trouble. It’s a habit of behaviour that gets transferred to other people in need of protection. Emotionally, Tyrion is already programmed to defend the weak.It is one small keystone in the foundations of his heroism.
It has already been established that Tyrion is semi-immortal, handsome, charming, rich, brave, powerful. He is a perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy figure. There’s a major problem. As described, he is too sickeningly perfect. There’s nothing there that I can particularly identify with. There are no flaws. We all have them, and once we’re beyond a certain age we tend not to believe in characters who don’t have them. Even in the greatest of heroes there has to be some shadow to balance the light. Without it, you don’t have a real person.
Let’s take a look at his background again. Tyrion is an archetypal elf as portrayed in the Warhammer world. This means among other things he is arrogant and more than somewhat self-centred. These are not particularly attractive flaws but at least he has some to be going on with. They’ll do as a start. We’ll get back to them.
With heroes, there’s always the problem of motivation. Why do they put their lives on the line? In real life people usually become heroes in answer to circumstances. They rise to the occasion, often because they have no choice. In fantasy series, heroes put themselves on the line again and again. It’s always possible they do it for selfless and noble reasons. In fact, if they are heroes they ought to, but they ought to have other reasons as well, sometimes darker ones. The problem of motivation is compounded for Tyrion. He is an elvish prince. The chances are he will live for millennia in the greatest luxury his world has to offer if he does not put himself in harm’s way. We must ask ourselves what would motivate someone like him to do such a thing?
The easiest way to do this is not to give him a choice. He lives in the Warhammer world so enemies will always come looking for him. This is, in fact what happens in the first book. He has inherited not just some of Aenarion’s power but also one of his enemies as well, the mighty demon N’Kari. In addition, there are always the people he loves to threaten as well, friends, family, lovers; it’s a time-tested way of forcing action heroes into action.
That typical elvish arrogance can be used as the basis of a pride that will force Tyrion into action when called for. He is proud of his lineage. He feels the need not to let down the family name (if you want to see how powerful a motivator that can be, take a look at the Roman Republic which was built mostly by competing families of patricians seeking to enhance their family reputations. Since I was using the late Republic as a partial model for how the High Elves are depicted, bringing this in allowed me to tell the reader something about the society Tyrion comes from as well. That’s a bonus.)
He needs something more though, something darker, something less admirable, something to add real shadow to all that light. In Tyrion’s case this can be achieved by one simple change. He enjoys combat. He enjoys the thrill of triumph. But in particular he likes to kill. It’s the ultimate marker of victory. He takes a visceral pleasure in it.
In a way Tyrion is a monster behind a hero’s mask. And he sometimes feels himself to be so. He is not only a great warrior he is also very clever. He understands what he is. He understands too that it’s a huge disadvantage in the society in which he lives. He keeps himself on a leash and only let’s himself off it in circumstances that will do him some good.
He is also genuinely noble in his way. He is ashamed of what he is and he feels that this killing lust may be the way the curse on the bloodline of Aenarion manifests itself in him. He wants to be a hero but he feels it would be all too easy for him to become a villain. There is a war taking in place inside him between his better side and his worse side, and it makes him interesting to watch. Hopefully he has gone from being a cardboard cut-out to something more rounded and believable.
To finish up, I would just like to remind you that there is still a chance to win a copy of Jason Waltz’s very fine book Writing Fantasy Heroes. If you’d like to learn about how Steven Erikson writes his epic series or how Brandon Sanderson writes his compelling fight scenes, here’s your chance. Just read Jason’s post and leave a comment.