Utilizing Classic Roles to Enhance Your Fantasy Story
At the heart of every fantasy story are the characters who drive the narrative forward and keep us (the readers) enthralled. Fantasy is a genre the loves tropes, especially tropes done well or subtly subverted. So today, I’d like to explore four of the classic archetypes, the hero, the mentor, the sidekick and the villain.
The hero is the central figure of any fantasy narrative, often undertaking a quest and experiencing growth and transformation. A well-developed hero should be relatable, with strengths and flaws that make them compelling. Often, the hero is a reluctant figure, thrust into a situation that forces them to confront their fears and embrace their destiny. Most often, the hero is the protagonist, driving the plot forward. It’s also the character the readers connect with most strongly and the character that will pull them through the series, far more so than even the plot or the world.
Let’s take a look at four hero implementations and how they worked with this archetype:
Vin from Brandon Sanderson's "Mistborn": Vin leans into the typical hero’s journey. She grows both as a character and in terms of her power throughout the book and in the trilogy overall. Although Vin is a fairly typical fantasy hero (small-time start, learns magic, fights the bad guy), there is nothing boring about her, and she's pulled millions of readers through her journey and the plot of the books. Tropes used to connect the reader to Vin include her humble beginnings, strong sense of justice, and her journey of self-discovery.
Jill from Katherine Kerr's Deverry series: Jill both leans into and subverts the hero archetype. On the one hand, she goes from being a heartbroken girl when we meet her, to an excellent warrior, eventually transitioning to a mage. However, the concept of multiple lives and reincarnation in the Deverry series adds a unique twist to her journey. The reader connects with Jill not just in her current life, but in all the past lives. Every past life lets the reader see an aspect of Jill’s character where she has failed and that adds to the hope that in the present, she will succeed (at least it did for me, still one of my top fantasy series).
Phèdre from Jacqueline Carey's "Kushiel's Dart": Phèdre subverts the hero trope as she is not a typical fantasy hero. She is a courtesan and a spy, using her unique abilities to navigate the dangerous world of politics and intrigue. Her strength lies in her intelligence, resilience, and capacity for empathy, rather than physical prowess or magical powers. One could describe her as: A princess who likes being in distress. Readers connect with Phèdre through her vulnerability, her passionate nature, and her commitment to her friends and her country.
Harry Dresden from Jim Butcher's "The Dresden Files": Harry subverts the hero archetype in some ways, primarily because he is already a wizard when we first meet him. However, he leans into the trope as a fairly typical hero, fighting supernatural threats and struggling with his own moral dilemmas. Readers connect with Harry through his humor, his unwavering sense of justice, and his determination to protect the innocent.
In each case, the authors use specific tropes to connect the reader to the hero. By understanding these tropes and how they can be utilized or subverted, aspiring writers can create compelling heroes that resonate with readers and drive their stories forward.
The mentor is an essential character archetype, offering guidance, wisdom, and support to the hero. Since the mentor is going to have a massive impact on the hero, it is important to make them a character the reader wants to see as the guiding light to the hero. Mentors can often have tragic and compelling backstories, that make them richer characters in and of themselves.
Let’s take a look at four mentor implementations and how they worked with this archetype:
Nevyn from Katherin Kerr's Deverry series: Nevyn is a key mentor who, due to his tragic past, is on a path of atonement that spans lifetimes. The story is often told from his perspective, giving the reader a unique insight into the mentor’s frustration with the hero, who keeps failing life after life. The reader connects with Nevyn on his path to redemption and wants to see him succeed in making right the failures of his past lives. Nevyn's narrative role is that of a guide, healer, and a constant presence in the lives of the heroes throughout the series.
Anafiel Delaunay from Jacqueline Carey's "Kushiel's Dart": Delaunay is a mentor to Phèdre, shaping her into a skilled courtesan, diplomat, and spy. His motivations and goals gradually become Phèdre's own as she uncovers the truth about her mentor's past and the secrets he sought to uncover. Delaunay's narrative role is that of a catalyst, setting the stage for Phèdre's journey and instilling in her the values and skills she needs to navigate the dangerous world of politics. The reader connects with Delaunay through his dedication to his cause and his genuine care for Phèdre.
Kelsier from Brandon Sanderson's "Mistborn": Kelsier serves as a mentor to Vin, teaching her how to harness her newfound powers and inspiring her to fight against the oppressive regime. His charismatic and rebellious nature has a significant impact on Vin's development, and his death further solidifies her resolve to continue his mission. Kelsier's narrative role is that of a driving force, sparking the rebellion and setting the stage for the series' larger conflicts. The reader connects with Kelsier through his unwavering belief in the cause and his dedication to helping others find their strength.
Ebenezar McCoy from Jim Butcher's "The Dresden Files": Ebenezar is Harry Dresden's grandfather and magical mentor. He plays a crucial role in shaping Harry's understanding of magic and his moral compass. However, Harry learns about Ebenezar's darker past, which shakes his trust in his mentor. Ebenezar's narrative role is that of a protector and advisor, guiding Harry through the complexities of the magical world. The reader connects with Ebenezar through his love for Harry and his struggle to reconcile his past actions.
In each case, the mentor serves a distinct narrative role in the plot, impacting both the hero and the reader. When creating a mentor character, think about what impact they’ll have on the plot and character. Also, when does the hero grow past the mentor and what happens at that point? Is it due to the mentor’s death? Due to the mentor succeeding (ala Nevyn) or due to the mentor failing the hero in some way (ala Ebenezar)
The sidekick is a beloved character archetype that provides comic relief, support, and sometimes even a foil to the hero. They are loyal companions who accompany the hero on their journey, often possessing their own unique skills and abilities. A well developed side-kick can give the readers another character to connect with and they can come with their own character growth arc.
Let’s take a look at four sidekick implementations and how they worked with this archetype:
Joscelin Verreuil from Jacqueline Carey's "Kushiel's Legacy": A warrior monk sworn to protect the hero, Phèdre. He not only provides physical protection but also serves as a moral compass and confidant, balancing Phèdre's machinations with his own steadfast honor. Joscelin grows from a very uptight young man to a true companion to our hero, a safe haven when the plot’s storms are truly rough.
Bob the Skull from Jim Butcher's "The Dresden Files": Bob is a spirit of intellect who resides in a skull and serves as a source of magical knowledge and advice for Harry Dresden. He provides comic relief with his sarcastic and witty remarks. Bob's narrative role is that of an advisor, helping Harry solve magical mysteries and navigate the supernatural world. Although he doesn't have a traditional growth arc, Bob's personality and relationship with Harry evolve throughout the series. The reader connects with Bob through his humor and unique perspective, and his presence helps to lighten the darker moments of the story.
Rhodry from the first four Deverry books by Katherine Kerr: Rhodry begins as a proud and stubborn warrior, forced into exile and becoming a mercenary. As a sidekick to Jill, he provides both physical and emotional support. Rhodry's narrative role is that of a protector and companion, accompanying Jill on her journey of self-discovery. Throughout the series, Rhodry undergoes significant growth, learning humility, wisdom, and the importance of loyalty. The reader connects with Rhodry through his transformation and his dedication to those he cares for, making him a compelling and relatable character.
Sazed from Brandon Sanderson's "Mistborn": Sazed is a scholar and a servant who possesses vast knowledge about various religions, cultures, and magic systems. As a sidekick to Vin and the other members of the crew, he provides support through his wisdom and skills. Sazed's narrative role is that of a confidant and advisor, guiding the heroes in their battle against the Lord Ruler and later in their quest to save the world. Throughout the series, Sazed struggles with his own faith and purpose, ultimately realizing his crucial role in the story. The reader connects with Sazed through his introspection, empathy, and unwavering loyalty to his friends.
The trick to a sidekick is to know how they impact the hero. The sidekick can be a foil to the hero (Joscelin) or compliment the hero (Bob the Skull), but they must impact the hero in some way. Bonus points if the sidekick has their own growth arc.
Readers love relationships. If you can make them believe in the relationship between the hero and the sidekick, you have a winner.
The villain can make or break any fantasy narrative. A well-developed villain should have clear motivations, and their actions should be understandable, if not justifiable, from their perspective. Bonus points if you can make the reader conflicted about the villain losing without compromising the goodness of the hero!
Let’s take a look at four villain implementations and how they worked with this archetype:
Melisande from "Kushiel's Dart" and "Kushiel's Chosen": Cunning, manipulative and seductive, Melisande is a tour-de-force as a villain. Her actions are driven by ambition and a desire for power, making her a formidable foe. However, through the books, Melisande actually has her own growth arc and by the end of the trilogy, I wouldn’t call her redeemed exactly, but it’s pretty close. Melisande remains one of my favorite villains ever. I did a whole video about her growth arc, which you can check out here:
The Lord Ruler from "Mistborn": The Lord Ruler is a tyrannical ruler who has held power over the Final Empire for a thousand years. He presents an almost insurmountable challenge for the heroes to overcome, which drives the plot forward. As the story unfolds, the reader learns more about his complex motivations and tragic past, although he remains a godlike villain to defeat and one that requires a great deal of planning from the hero. Since the Lord Ruler already won once in the past, the reader is kept hoping it it’s not going to be a tragic end for the heroes.
In the "Dresden Files" by Jim Butcher, each book features a different villain, making the series episodic in nature. The strength of this approach lies in the variety of antagonists and the fresh challenges they present to the hero, Harry Dresden. However, the episodic nature can also be a pitfall, as it may be harder to build a consistent overarching narrative, and some villains may not be as memorable or well-developed as others. It’s basically the literary equivalent of a freak-of-the-week story. If you’re going to use this device, it's essential to find the right balance between standalone stories and an overarching plot to keep the reader engaged throughout the series.
In the first four Deverry novels by Katherine Kerr, the narrative is driven primarily by the characters' understandable but poor choices. The antagonists are often background forces rather than central plot drivers. This approach emphasizes character development and personal growth over direct conflict with a villain. This approach can create a more nuanced and realistic portrayal of human nature, with characters who are neither wholly good nor wholly evil. The pitfall, however, is that it may result in a less focused narrative and lower stakes for the reader. If you use this approach, it is crucial to maintain a compelling storyline and a clear sense of purpose in the characters' journeys.
Remember that a villain can often be a powerful force in driving the plot forward. If you make a memorable villain, with motivations that resonate with the reader, that will be another hook to take the reader deeper into your plot and keep them reading.
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