Fantasy is my drug of choice. I love the escape it offers and world building has always held a certain type of magic for me. Unfortunately, it can sometimes get a bad reputation amongst the more serious of the literary community.
Common criticisms I’ve heard are that the scenery descriptions are too long, tropes are relied on too heavily, and that it's very male-centered. While these may be true too often, it’s important to remember that Fantasy authors… Create. Whole. New. Worlds. *mic drop*
So maybe we can cut them some slack?
As big of a fan as I am, I can tell you that quality character development is not something you find a lot of in Fantasy. Of course this is a generalization, but it unfortunately often holds true. When world building and plot take centre stage, it’s hard to find time to prioritize relationships, personality quirks, and emotional growth that characters need to become fully realized.
That being said, here are 7 things all writers can learn about character development from Fantasy authors who put this stereotype to shame:
1. Fully-fledged Secondary Character Development
A university English professor once told me that you only needed to fully develop 2 or 3 characters in a book and that the rest didn’t matter. I smiled, nodded, and promptly ignored him for the rest of the semester. Sure, you don’t have the time or the space to equally develop EVERY character in your story…but you should still try.
All authors I mention here do this really well, which is a big part of the reason they have carved a space for themselves in my heart of hearts. Meghan Lindholm wrote sixteen (16!) Realm of the Elderlings books under the pen name of Robin Hobb, and her secondary characters are the best part of each one. Each time you meet a new character, you can tell she knows the ins and outs of their history, even if she doesn’t share each and every detail with the reader.
2. Complex Relationships = Complex Characters
Robin Hobb also does a great job at reminding us that humans have complicated and complex relationships. I’m not just talking about romantic ones, some of her best character development comes from interactions between family members (Liveship Traders trilogy) and friends (Farseer trilogy).
Exploring characters through their relationships is essential to making them more well-rounded. A character can be described as empathetic to the reader, but when she talks with her sister she comes across as bratty, and with her friends seems gossipy. It’s important to show all sides of a character, and what better way than through their relationships with the people in their lives.
3. Being a Little Bit Broken
In the last 10 years, Patrick Rothfuss has taken Fantasy by storm, largely due to the quality of his prose which is arguably unparalleled in the genre. Because of this, I recommend his first book, The Name of the Wind, even to the most serious and fancy of literary people (along with everyone else I know as well).
But if you really want to learn about developing characters that readers will empathize with, pick up his novella, The Slow Regard of Silent Things.
The protagonist, Auri, is the only human we are introduced to in all 147 pages and she makes soap for 8 of them. Let me just say, you really have to make your readers fall in love with a character for them to willingly sit through 9 pages of them making soap. Auri is strange and a little broken. She makes friends with inanimate objects and sees the secret inner workings of the world.
Most people are not perfect and are painfully aware of this fact. Most people have lived through moments of suffering. Yet they walk through the world feeling very alone in their pain. Writing a character that has suffered, or is just a little bit broken will make them human. It will connect them to your reader through a shared experience, and maybe make someone feel a little less lonely or a little more seen.
4. First Person Narration
The Kingkiller Chronicles was written mostly in first person, something many authors find incredibly daunting. When asked about his choice in an interview, Rothfuss (yes, him again) explained that it’s the most natural form of storytelling.
When you write from a character's point of view, you have to explore their personality and what they experience so much more deeply. When done properly, this can lead to a really immersive experience for readers.
Even if first person narration isn’t the thing for your book right now, try writing a short story in first person around one of your characters as an exercise to really help you develop them more fully.
You officially have permission to make your characters (yes, even the brooding ones) hilarious. While it might not make sense in every context to have all your characters cracking jokes, humour is an important part of the real world and a story without it feels lackluster. I mean come on, even Mr. Darcy had his moments.
Terry Pratchet remains the king of Absurdist Fantasy and my favourite example is found in The Wee Free Men. The Nac Mac Feegles are supporting characters that help the main character on her quest. They are also tiny, blue, Sottish, kilt-wearing pixies. That description alone is enough for a good laugh but Pratchet also wrote their dialogue out phonetically, made them drunk more often than sober, and just so gloriously witty that they will have you laughing out loud and embarrassing yourself on public transit.
Magic and mystery go hand-in-hand so many Fantasy authors slay the secret keeping. When building an entire world from scratch, you can’t fit everything in so naturally there will be some things that the reader will be chewing on well after the story is over.
Robert Jordan did this throughout his entire 23 book series, The Wheel of Time, and even though he died before finishing his last book, Brandon Sanderson picked up his legacy and made sure to leave readers with more questions than answers. This is a big part of what makes fans read and re-read these books.
Put secrets in your story and resist the urge to answer them by the end. It will keep your story in the readers’ minds and will keep them eagerly awaiting your next one.
7. Break Away from Tropes
Fantasy is THE WORST for tropes. The inns, the quests, the leather, the stew….I could go on. I like to give authors the benefit of the doubt, because world building is hard, but it’s hard to feel like you’re starting a new book when everything from the male characters, Eurocentric atmosphere, and Celtic folklore is the same as the last.
Instead of witches, some of the side characters are djinn and their backgrounds are deeply interwoven in Middle Eastern folklore. All this to say: think about your character’s story. Has it been told through this lens before? How can you bring a different shape to your reader’s imagination with a fresh take on an old character?
**This is a guest post by Emma O’Connell.