Friday 18 July 2014

The Generican Hero!

I'm here to talk about the leading man (or woman). Many fantasy books are anchored by a single main character, the lead who drives the plot or is driven by it, the person about who the story pivots.

We all talk about character. We all say we love interesting characters. But is it really true? Do we all love interesting characters, or just particular interesting characters? There's the danger. As soon as the writer moves away from the vanilla beloved of the masses, they will find that although some readers love the new flavor, some don't.

My thesis is that just as there are a great many readers for whom the plot of a story is far and away the most important component, there are readers who really just want a generican hero onto whom they can project themselves.

Those gamebooks that were very popular in the 80s before we had decent video games - the ones where you're the hero and make the choices. Do you:

i) drink the potion [go to page 80]
ii) throw the potion in Largo's face [go to page 142]
iii) dance the polka like there's no tomorrow [go to page 3]

Those were the ultimate in the concept. And now we run pixel heroes across high resolution landscapes at 60 fps.

The thing here is that you don't want:

i) you could drink the potion but as a recovering alcoholic you're loath to try any untested liquid.
ii) your amiable nature forbids you from throwing it at Largo
iii) but you've ALWAYS loved to dance [go to page 3]

The hero is a blank onto which you project yourself. And what's the nearest a book can get to that? It's having the hero be a vanilla good guy who does what we expect/hope for in most situations. Then it's like playing the gamebook and choosing the most popular choices.

For many readers a strong personality actually intrudes on the vicarious pleasure that they get from reading fantasy. If the character has some pronounced trait that differs radically from their own view/opinion/taste/experience it can kick them out of the illusion that's created as you ride along with a conveniently bland (yet brave, courageous, handsome) hero.

If you think about it it's likely that you can recall several fantasy book heroes who if you swapped one with the other, placing them into each other's situations and retaining only their character rather than their memories, would fill each other's role admirably.

What really is the character of many middle of the road fantasy heroes? Sure some may have a quirk or two attached, but 'hates cats' doesn't constitute a character. How many of them are unique and strong individuals who will react in unusual but consistent ways to new scenarios?

So yes - you can actually write an exciting, engaging, and above all popular book with a type 1A hero, good heart, low tolerance for evil, sharp sword at the ready, will defend the oppressed if he has to. A hero who's as interesting as a brick, but can still be used to build a very readable story.

If you go in the other direction and genuinely do create an interesting character there's a pitfall - namely, as soon as you get specific and start to create a real person, there's likely to be a good percentage of readers who just plain don't like them. Some won't like them because the person you've made is not the sort of person they like to spend time with. Some won't like them because you've messed up the blank canvas onto which they want to project themselves. But just as no book pleases everyone, no character is going to either.

Jorg, by Kim Kincaid.


  1. A hero who's as interesting as a brick, but can still be used to build a very readable story.

    I'd argue that uninteresting heroes are harder to sell into a story these days than in the past when you could cover up a lack of character with worldbuilding and plot.

    Avatar Fantasy still exists, but I'd argue its not quite as popular as it was in the 80's. But maybe I am completely wrong!

    1. As Mark hinted at, I think a lot of people have found that particular "avatar" itch scratched in video games.

  2. I'm still not sure I like Jorg, but he is a very interesting main character. I could see your argument about switching Richard from Sword of Truth with Rand from Wheel of Time and I doubt the stories would be much different. (However I don't think Abramm from Guardian Kings would transfer well to either story line.)

  3. "But just as no book pleases everyone, no character is going to either.", like you said, you can't please everyone.

    I think that the main character really depends on the story the author wants to tell. If it's a more character driven story (like I think The Broken Empire" is ) than an interesting character is better and it will make the tale fresher for the reader.
    In my case, I hated Jorg from the begging to the end, If I was in the book I wouldn't think twice before slitting his throath. But I loved him as character and a creation, he was a real person with his personality, way of thinking and agenda, and that made me read all the books to the end and enjoying them.

    But if a book is story driven, like Lord Of The Rings, I think the hero can be a generic one, or in this case, a group of generic ones (no offense to Tolkien, I loved those books). They are driving the story forward and taking the reader with them, and a generic hero is the best way to do it.

    So the characters must be adapted to the story the author wants to tell, and not what to the masses want (unless the author just wants to sell the book to the masses). If a story is well written, there will always be a niche that will want to read that book others to come. And pleasing a niche can be way better than pleasing the masses (the masses can abandon an author as soon as the spotlight fades, a niche probably won't).

    1. You make a good point. If as Mark said your story would still happen pretty much the same way with a different character in it, a destined hero fulfilling their heroic archetype, then it's more about the overall plot and world. The protagonist(s) is just a way for us to see that story unfold.

      On the other hand, if you want to tell a story about an interesting character and how they react to the world around them (whether they get caught up in a quest to save the world or not), then you are going to have a much more distinctive character, with flaws and quirks and a style that will turn away some readers. A good writer finds ways to keep people reading about a character they hate, of course.

  4. Writing is like politics. If you try to please everyone, you ultimately please no one.

  5. One of the hardest issues to get around in fantasy writing - or historical writing set in a pre-modern era - is the issue of the ever looming threat of sexual violence and the fact that warriors as a whole do not follow anything like the morality that we deal with today. Some authors like Goodkind deal with it absolutely terribly, making all the enemies rapists/perverts and all the heroes poster boys for middle American Christianity. Others like RR Martin manage much better, making us love the Jaime Lannisters. As a whole however it's dodged, Bernard Cornwell somehow manages to have his Uhtred be a warrior/raider/viking for 7 books without ever raping anyone which is essentially absurd (and mainly gotten around by beautiful women throwing themselves willings at him even when captured). I wonder how well an audience would respond to a fantasy hero revealing that in the past he'd done some raping - easier to get away with them having done some murdering, that's sufficiently far detached that we can still support Sand Dan Glokta or Jorg Ancrath.

  6. See I like Jorg and I absolutely love his character and I almost feel in love with him in Prince in which he's reading a book about in bed while sleeping with some whore and Makin walks in. He may not be the nicest of characters but I'd prefer him to any good two shoes good knight