On Fantasy Characters

Till_We_Have_Faces(C.S_Lewis_book)_1st_edition_coverI don’t know if the protagonists in fantasy are particularly different from the protagonists in fiction at large. Maybe. There is some “hero” quality a fantasy reader may expect, but I’m not sure that readers of other fiction don’t want that as well.

Here are some thoughts about fantasy protagonists from The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature, edited by Philip Martin (The Writer Books):

The hero has a complex dual role to play: to be human and to be larger-than-life. In many ways, Harry Potter and Bilbo the hobbit are like us, their readers. They are shy, quiet, reluctant to take center stage, not seeking fame or heroic stature. Yet they also have special powers, and when called upon, draw on their inner strengths to perform feats of great courage and personal sacrifice.

p. 98

I started thinking about the fantasy heroes I have loved. There is Taran from The Book of Three and the other stories in the Chronicles of Prydain. He was a young pig-keeper—apparently not a particularly good one—who wanted to be a knight. He was “relatable”—”human” as the quote above terms it. But he became larger than life, in part because of his desires to be greater than he was, but more so because he learned what that meant, learned how incapable he was, and then he did the really heroic.

There was Fiver from Watership Downs, the weakest rabbit in the warren, but with amazing powers that ended up saving them all. He was “human” because of his weakness and his inner strength. What mattered wasn’t just the exterior—the vulnerable part. He was more.

An obvious one is Lucy from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She was the youngest of the four Pevensies, which put her at a disadvantage. But when she found Narnia and came back telling her brothers and sister, their disbelief made her a sympathetic figure—more human. She was right but misunderstood and disbelieved. She became heroic because her belief was a cornerstone to their relationship with Aslan.

Speaking of C. S. Lewis fantasy, there is Oruel from Till We Have Faces . She was the unloved and unlovely princess, save for the special place she had in her sister’s heart. She too was sympathetic because of her humanness—her weaknesses, disadvantage, frailty, and her longings, her hopes. She didn’t become heroic until the end, which I won’t mention because I don’t want to spoil it for any who haven’t read the book yet.

This leaves me with a question, however. If the hero doesn’t become heroic until the end, will readers lose their interest in him (or her)? I mean, Till We Have Faces is not a well-known or popular work of Lewis’s. Is Oruel, perhaps, too human, and not enough larger than life?

What about some of the contemporary Christian fantasy? Billy and Bonnie in Dragons in Our Midst, Susan Mitchell in The Swords of Lyric series, Abramm in Karen Hancock’s The Guardian-King series, Kale and Bardon in The DragonKeeper Chronicles, Aidan in The Door Within series or Aidan in The Bark of the Bog Owl. Your thoughts?

Re-posted from an earlier article here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction.

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4 Comments

  1. Personally, while I won’t say it *shouldn’t* be done, I think the farm-boy-becomes-a-warrior formula is a bit tired, but I have always had a bias towards the warrior-hero from my preschool years watching Batman cartoons. My favorite kinds of heroes fall into two categories–the mercenary and the guardian.

    The mercenaries include Indiana Jones, Han Solo, and the heroes of Louis L’Amour–they are adventurers that may or may not begin the story with pure motives, but they will make the heroic choice in the end. They’re skilled fighters, but it’s their quick thinking or even Divine intervention (as the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark) that gets them out of a jam, and more often than not they are way over their head in trouble.

    The guardians are more idealistic than the mercenary and often are cloaked in mystery. These are heroes like Aragorn, Batman, Solomon Kane, The Spider, The Shadow, the Musketeers–they hold to an honour code and sacrifice self to protect that which is in their charge. Their heroism often make them misunderstood and unpopular, but the guardian does not seek respect, just the satisfaction that good triumphed over evil and the innocent defended.

    Two of my favorite characters characters that resemble the farm-boy/apprentice growing to heroism formula incidentally deviate from the typical reluctant hero approach. In The Princess Bride, Wesley rises to the challenge of providing providing for the love of his life, Buttercup–and then demonstrates that there is no trial he will not undertake to defend her welfare. The other hero is Will Turner from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, but specifically I refer to the best of the series, Curse of the Black Pearl. He doesn’t just try to save the girl he loves–he also is seen drawing his sword in the defense of his community.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like Luke Skywalker and Frodo Baggins, but my favorites are almost always the warriors that help such rising heroes on their way, the ones that have weathered the storms before and weather the storms again.

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    • Andy, I really enjoy your thinking on heroic characters. I’d only add, when you say “the farm-boy-becomes-a-warrior formula is a bit tired,” I think it’s true if it conforms to a formula. But like most things in fiction, if it’s given a different spin, a new approach, a fresh take, it can work. In fact, the book CSFF is going to tour next week could fall into this boy version of Cinderella. Except the author didn’t let it follow a formula–at least, I didn’t think he did.

      Becky

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  2. Wow, I almost think I shouldn’t post since Till We Have Faces is my favorite novel EVER! But I will…

    I didn’t find Orual to be too sympathetic. I found her gritty, grumpy and loving. The way Lewis wrote this character she always seemed to expose the best and worst parts of me too. She’s not my favorite hero, but that doesn’t detract from this being my favorite book.

    There have been quite a few discussions about heroes lately. And it’s funny how some people can absolutely love one hero that would drive another person crazy.

    My favorite hero in literature is actually Samwise Gamgee. He’s a sidekick right up to the end of the LOTR, and he’s only quietly heroic until the end when he does what he needs to to save his friend and the world. Those heroes who rise to the occasion–those are my favorite. Recently I read The Captives by Jill Williamson and her character Mason definitely rises to the occasion.

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    • I love Till We Have Faces, too, Precious. But I know it’s not Lewis’s most popular novel, so I’ve wondered why. I came to this idea that maybe some people don’t connect with Orual. I did, for the same reasons you did. At times, she felt like me–or I felt the way she did. No, not heroic. More like, broken. But what an end! I just love that book.

      You make a great case for Samwise, and I wouldn’t argue. He’s a good one. But I still love Gandalf more. I’m a sucker for unassuming power, I guess. But then, that’s Samwise, isn’t it. Just a different kind of power.

      I like Mason as a character, too. But I like Shaylinn too–more towards the end than in the beginning.

      I love talking characters. 😀

      Becky

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