Jul 30, 2010

Friendly Friday - Michael Young

Michael Young is a graduate of Brigham Young University with a degree in German Teaching and a minor in Music. He lives in Utah with his wife, Jen, and his son Jarem. Michael enjoys writing fiction, acting in community theater, and spending time with his family. He played for several years with the handbell choir Bells on Temple Square and is now a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He is the author of the fantasy novel "The Canticle Kingdom."  You can visit him online at www.writermike.com

The Fantasy Character Toolbox 

When getting into the fantasy genre, I knew I had a tall order in front of me. Because it is such a popular genre, it has been heavily explored, and thus it has become more and more difficult to break new ground. I’m constantly amazed that some fantasy writers still manage to conjure up fresh stories time after time, while some writers churn out stories that give you déjà vu, and not in a good way. I admire the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, but I feel that some writers fall into the rut of using the same types of characters, themes and plot elements in their stories at the expense of creating something that is uniquely their own.
I would like to examine a few characters that can be pitfalls for the fantasy writer. They operate in certain patterns, and once you understand the patterns, you can experiment in deviating from them. As examples, I will draw from three well-known tales: The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Star Wars.

1. “The One”/Hero
Description: This person is the only hope. For one reason or another, they are the only person who can complete a great task, save the world, defeat the villain, etc. There is often a defining moment when they find out that they are “the One”, and their coming is often looked forward to, or prophesied. More often than not, they are reluctant, at least at first, to complete their all-important task.

Examples: Frodo, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker

Questions to ask yourself:
* Does the plot of my story lend itself to needing a character to be “The One”?
* Could this role be better played by a group of people?
* What makes this person “The One” and how are they going to respond to their call?
* Is your hero going to be the ultimate embodiment of good, or do they have flaws that balance their personality?

2. The Dark Lord
Description: They are the ultimate embodiment of evil-evil for evil itself. They wouldn’t think twice about stealing candy from a baby, burning down an orphanage, or cheating on their taxes. They are terrifying, often seen wearing black, have tons of subverted henchmen, and a face that inspires nightmares in everyone from the smallest child to the macho-est of heroes. There’s usually just one thing standing between them and world domination.

Examples: Sauron, Lord Voldemort, Darth Vader

Questions to ask yourself:

* Why did this person become a villain? Did he start out good and then turn to “the Dark Side?”
* Does this person have any redeeming qualities? Could he be persuaded to change?
* How does he justify his actions?
* What about him sets him at odds with the hero?
* What is the chink in his armor?

3. The Wizard
Description: Often seen with long beards, magic staffs, and the iconic pointy hat. They serve as a mentor for the hero, and set them on the path to fulfilling their destiny. They often die sometime during the story, leaving the hero to overcome their final challenges alone.

Examples: Gandalf, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan Kenobi

Questions to ask yourself:
* Why does your hero need a mentor?
* What qualifies this person to mentor the hero?
* What is this person’s motivation to help the hero?
* Does this character have to leave or die in order for the hero to grow and be successful?

4. The Sidekick
Description: Every hero needs friends, and these people pick up the slack when the hero falls short. As such, their personalities contrast with the hero as to provide contrast and so they are able to fill in for the hero’s weaknesses. Sometimes they even assume the role of the hero for a short time, but usually give up the mantle back before the ultimate victory.

Examples: Sam Gamgee, Ron/Hermione, Han Solo

Questions to ask yourself:
* What makes your sidekick a good support for the hero?
* How do the sidekicks share in the hero’s responsibility?
* Are the sidekicks indispensable, or will some be lost along the way?
* Will the sidekicks and the hero always get along, or will their personalities occasionally clash?

As evidenced by the successfulness of the examples I have named, there is nothing wrong with including these types of characters in your stories. They are tried and true and people have grown to accept and expect them. However, if your character is a short guy with hairy feet and a penchant for jewelry, your readers might start rolling their eyes. It is a great idea to read as much fantasy as you can, to see what has already been done, so that you can make sure that no one accuses you of taking a page from someone else’s book.

Twitter - @mdybyu
***I'd like to thank Michael for being my guest today. I've learned a lot from his post, as I'm sure have the rest of you. Make sure you pick up his book or you can click on the link below and purchase it at Amazon.com.  My guest next week will be Christine Thackeray.


  1. Thanks for helping me figure out that my antagonist is my contagonist and my contagonist is my antagonist! Great post!

  2. This is one of those intriguing and helpful posts that I want to save so I can do more than give it a cursory read-through. Thank you!

    Ann Best

  3. very helpful! thanks for sharing this with us michael!

  4. Great post, Michael. It's so important to make sure archetypal characters don't become stereotypical characters. I remember meeting you at the Book Academy conference at UVU last fall. We were both in line for the Brandon Sanderson signing. I'll definitely check out your book!

  5. Thanks for the info. Fantasy has been a fav of mine to read for a long time. Your book looks great!

  6. Thank you for all of your kind comments. It was a really fun post to write!