5 Tips for Writing Fantasy Characters – Desiree Villena
Most creative writing classes treat writing characters and writing fantasy characters as one and the same. They provide run-of-the-mill tips (create conflict, establish flaws, etc.) and you end up with run-of-the-mill characters — well-developed, but nothing out of the ordinary.
But what fantasy writers need are legendary characters — characters that stay with you for a lifetime, like those that occupy the worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin. Unfortunately, these writers haven’t exactly revealed all their secrets to the rest of us. But by working backwards, I’ve put together five top tips, exclusively for fantasy writers, that should help you think outside of the character-profile box.
1. Interview your characters to get to know them
Whether you adopt the tactics of a police interrogator or Oprah Winfrey, interviewing your characters is a great way to flesh out their motives, weaknesses, history, habits, and hobbies. Sure, the same advice is given to authors of all fiction genres, but when writing fantasy this exercise calls for more creative flair.
For instance, most questionnaires will ask your character about their career: What’s your dream job? What job would you never consider? When writing contemporary fiction, it’s easy to fall back on conventions: I want to become a writer, a football star, a successful entrepreneur. I’d never be a high-school teacher, a telemarketer, a pest control worker. Your fantasy characters, however, will need to produce answers that make sense in the context of their world.
Let’s take the Harry Potter series as an example. Some Hogwarts graduates will join the Aurors — an elite group of Dark Wizard catchers — others take soul-crushing jobs in magic middle management, and I imagine someone has to clean up the mess made by the post-office owls. These jobs are recognizable; we can place them in the real world, and even make assumptions about a character based on their magical nine-to-five. But at the same time, they place the character firmly in the unique world of the books, seamlessly weaving the two together and adorning the bigger picture with original details.
2. Don’t assume that your characters think like you
When a story takes place in a world that’s not our own, its characterizations should reflect that on a deeper level than just creative job titles and otherworldly hobbies. Everyone in your world, good or bad, leading lady or forgettable friend, will share a baseline set of assumptions informed by the world they inhabit, which means that their inherent ways of thinking won’t always resemble our own.
Let’s say your fantasy novel is set in a world where gods regularly show their faces to interfere in everyday life. Though atheism might be common here on Earth Prime, it would make no sense for anyone in that world to be an atheist. This doesn’t have to mean that everybody thinks and feels exactly the same way about the gods; some characters might fervently believe that they reward devotion and punish sin, while others might quietly think of them as meddling pranksters.
Setting up coherent belief systems and knowing where your characters stand on your world’s “big questions” will help you to build more complex relationships among your characters, and between your characters and their world.
3. Build diversity into your cast of characters
In general, creating some diversity in your cast of characters can be a really useful thing to do. Meaningfully different perspectives and experiences will add complexity to your world, and hopefully create intuitive conflict or tension among your characters.
If your world is divided into different regions, for example, then the people in each region might have vastly different cultures due to the influence of climate, landscape, or the way they’re ruled. Take A Song of Ice and Fire. The people in the North live, think, and dress very differently from the people in King’s Landing: the first being sparsely populated, harsh, and independently ruled while the other is crowded, coastal, and right under the thumb of the Iron Throne.
Even within distinct groups, one member doesn’t need to have the same mannerisms, views, and values as the next. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien has creatures that are familiar to fantasy readers, and certainly employs generic tropes. But his elves, dwarves, hobbits, and wizards are not carbon-copy fantasy races. Among the dwarves, for example, there are good and wicked, eloquent and crass, loyal and traitorous characters.
4. Revitalize common character tropes
Lots of fantasy writers love character archetypes — which is not necessarily a bad thing, because fantasy readers love them too. But if you rely too much on clichés, you might stray into overly predictable territory. There’s also no reason to get anywhere near that black hole when there are so many great ways to revitalize common character tropes. Here are a couple to get you thinking:
- Deconstruct it: Even if you adhere to its traditions, you can deconstruct a trope by shining a light on its implications and consequences. For example, Harry Potter may be the Chosen One — but only because the antagonist, Voldemort, decided to believe a prophecy and mark Harry out. The notion of the Chosen One only has as much power as Voldemort gives it.
- Defy expectations: When readers encounter an archetypal character they’ll bring certain expectations to the table (because that’s how archetypes work). But you can give your character a dose of originality by meeting enough of the required standards that make a trope recognizable, while defying other characteristics that are simply expected. For example, the White Witch of Narnia ticks all the boxes of an Evil Overlord, but she defies character conventions by being a woman shrouded in white, rather than a male character cloaked in darkness.
5. Keep the bigger picture in mind
You may have noticed that in fantasy writing, worldbuilding and character development often go hand-in-hand. And nowhere is this more evident (or more important) than in the mood and tone of your story. Whether you build your setting or your characters first, the general tenor of both elements should work together to create the perfect atmosphere.
The easiest way to think of this is to look at some more examples. In the Song of Ice and Fire books, where the dead stand up to fight and swords are forged with blood, even our favorite characters are flawed — Arya is obsessed with revenge, Tyrion is morally ambiguous, and Daenerys is proud and stubborn (and burns down a city). These gray characters meld perfectly with the grim and somber tone that shrouds this highly cynical series.
Meanwhile, the first few books in the Harry Potter series are full of wonder and whimsy. Its magical world features bat-bogey hexes, dodgy spell-checking quills, and wacky divination lessons. So it makes perfect sense that the protagonists be quirky teenagers who are always bickering, fumbling first crushes, and failing to get to grips with Muggle technology (I’m looking at you, Ron).
So take inspiration from fantasy legends JKR and GRRM. Don’t just fill in a character profile. Think about the emotional texture of your book and the kind of reaction you want from your readers. Then approach the task of character development with your mind on the bigger picture.