I’ve taken a hiatus from the blog, and I wanted to thank those of you who have begun following me and reading past posts. Your support is appreciated.
Here’s a problem I’ve noticed lately in reading fantasy fiction and talking to other readers and writers in the genre. The best way I’ve come to phrase it is: what’s your character’s starting level?
In asking this question, I’m pulling a parallel between fantasy lit and roleplaying games. This should be fairly obvious if you’ve played tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons or computer RPGs like Skyrim, Dragon Age, or the Mass Effect series.
A character generally starts pretty low in character level, the ranks of personal power and ability that determine how much your character can affect the world around them, in terms of what enemies they can take on and usually access to more powerful magic and equipment. In a typical medieval European setting, this means you’re a fighter, rogue, or wizard with the most basic equipment and most basic combat or magical abilities. Your novice warrior might be able to take a few hits before dying or your wizard maybe able to throw around a few damaging spells before having to lie down for a while.
In fantasy fiction, whether the author realizes it or not, the characters’ starting level determines the scope of the entire story. Generally, you don’t want to throw *too much more* danger at your protagonist(s) than they can handle. The phrase I’ve emphasized is important. Your novice wizard can figure out that an evil wizard is using weather magic to damage a village’s crops or has put a curse on a local nobleman, after pooling her resources and thinking the problem through, once she has enough clues. Don’t throw the poor girl fresh from wizarding school to Cthulhu the first time out.
A great example is Jim Butcher‘s Dresden Files series. Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only practicing wizard, begins the series with his magical training done, though he still has a plenty to learn, of course (otherwise there wouldn’t be a story). The first book in the series, Storm Front, has him taking on a dark wizard who is behind a string of mysterious murders. He has run ins with the Chicago Police Department, local organized crime, and a powerful vampire–all of whom outrank him in their own way. He’s got mentors to turn to, clues to collect, witnesses to interview.
As the series progresses, he takes on challenges of greater and greater danger to himself and those around him. He starts off as a loner but gains companions and friends along the way as well as long-term enemies.
Which is another good related point: friends and allies have a multiplier effect on how much a character can accomplish–and how much the author should throw their way. It’s part of the hero’s journey. Plus, having sidekicks and allies helps cast the protagonist in a different light or see parts of herself that she’d rather not face.
If we put Dresden on one side of the power spectrum–let’s say he’s a level four wizard (okay the numbers probably matter more in proportion to the others I’ll use than their absolute value)–then we also have to consider characters who are in the middle and on the higher end.
In the middle, say level 10 or 12, I’d put Kvothe, the protagonist of The Name of the Wind and the subsequent volumes in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles. Like Dresden, Kvothe has learned a great deal surrounding things about which most mortal men have only a glancing understanding. The story begins in the middle, with Kvothe recounting his past adventures; he is old far before his time, having performed a string of fantastic deeds then gone into hiding. He’s a bit of a middle-range character, far above what most human beings could do but still not quite able to go toe to toe with anything truly horrifying, at least compared to higher ranked characters.
I’d also point to Rachel Aaron’s Eli Monpress series for a great many middle-ranged characters, including Eli himself, his swordsman companion Josef, and the spiritualist Miranda; and Kameron Hurley’s God’s War Apocrypha–the main protagonist Nyx is an experienced bounty hunter who is short on allies and starts with plenty of adversaries. In both of these series, it’s the interplay between characters who have been together a while before the story even begins that makes for tension and gives characters options for taking on the challenges that they confront.
Writing a character who has already achieved a great amount of power at the beginning of your story can be tricky, but it also immediately pulls out all the stops, allowing the author to avoid having to build up characters to where she wants wants to take them. A good example is Atticus O’Sullivan, the protagonist of Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series. Atticus is a millennia-old druid, so far as he knows the last druid, who is hiding out in southern Arizona. He’s got a lot going for him as a fantasy protagonist–he’s got an animal companion, the ability to speak with elemental spirits, and a variety of allies and adversaries. His major problems are long-standing ones, including a dispute with a Celtic god over a magical sword and the challenges of immortality–moving around before anyone notices he doesn’t seem to age, for starters.
The downside is that unlike Dresden or Eli let’s say, we don’t have the time invested as readers to see him develop and grow. His low and middle range challenges are behind him, and now he’s going toe to toe with the gods of more than one pantheon, in addition to high-level demons and powerful witches. He attracts even more attention as time goes on.
The take-away advice for fantasy writers is this: you need to consider what power level you’re starting your characters at, both the protagonists and antagonists, because this will determine what kinds of challenges the protagonists should be forced to overcome and how much they can affect their world, both intentionally and not.
I’ve given only a few examples. Please feel free to comment with your own favorites. I am reading the second volume in Aaron’s Eli Monpress series (The Spirit Rebellion) and the first volume of Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha (God’s War). I recommend both these series if you like strong characters of both genders, interesting team dynamics, and great worldbuilding. I’ll be reviewing both series soon, so stay tuned.