I've chosen a piece from my Masters exegesis Finding Fantasy in Fiction. This particular chapter is entitled Noble Princes and Damsels in Distress, modified for online use.
Genre fiction is one that relies on conventions to tell a story, and archetypal characters are an important part of this. However, in order to create unique, relatable characters, archetypes are tools to be used warily, because their overuse has meant that fantasy is a genre “plagued with delicate, frail vestal virgins chained in a dungeon somewhere, hoping beyond despair that her valiant knight will rescue her from harm” (Morris, 2002, p. 43-44). From fairy tale princesses like Rapunzel, who are awaiting rescue, to more the modern fantasy character of Edward in Meyer’s Twilight, who must rescue his ‘princess’ from harm at every page turn, archetypes have been well used.
Lauren Kate’s Luce, from Fallen, is stuck in a reincarnation curse, where she dies before her sixteenth birthday, and it is up to the angel Daniel, to save her each time. At the climax of the novel, again Daniel must do the rescuing: “Not dead then, but saved. By angels. Daniel had come for her”.
Tuttle (2005) says that archetypes needn’t be feared however, and says that when archetypal characters are handled well, “these familiar characters have a ring of truth about them, and seem both familiar and yet original” (p.26). It is this familiarity of characters in the fantasy genre that readers want to see, so a complete rejection of these archetypes is not possible. However, many authors have succeeded in creating characters based on these archetypes, while still ensuring that they are original.
Tamora Pierce is an author who has been hugely successful in using archetypes, while making them original, within the fantasy genre. In her novel, Alanna: The first adventure, the protagonist, Alanna, is anything but a timid girl, awaiting rescue. She disguises herself as a boy and begins training as a knight. She is in no need of rescuing at any time, and while Pierce keeps her believable, by showing Alanna’s physical struggles with keeping up with boys, and dealing with bullies, while giving Alanna the chance to dispatch her enemies on her own. “It had taken weeks of training in secret to beat Ralon. The long hours, the bruises and her constant exhaustion were fresh in her mind”. Hardy’s protagonist, Nya, from The pain merchants. The healing wars: Book one, is another female character in fantasy that manages to defy archetypes but remain within the fantasy genre. Nya is an orphan who must survive on her own wits to provide for herself and her sister. She struggles with stereotypes placed on her, due to her status as both a girl, and a poor orphan. “‘Filthy ‘Veg. Don’t you be bothering my customers.’ She swept me down the walk like dust and shoved me into the street”. However, in the climax of the novel, it is Nya, and Nya alone who ‘saves the day’ by using her powers to free herself and kill the enemy, Zertanik, therefore saving her sister and several others.
The key to these characters is their believability. Despite having elements that have been seen in characters since stories first began, they are all characters one could meet in their own life. Kelly (1991) suggests that a way to increase believability is to increase a character’s moral ambiguity. “Nobody takes seriously a story in which the good guys are all saints and the bad guys are the spawn of hell. Saints can have their bad days and even monsters love their moms” (p.39).
However, sometimes the antagonist can be completely evil, with very little moral ambiguity, but thrive in their ‘evilness’. Valentine, from Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series, is one example of this. He is openly cruel, leading Clary and Jace, the protagonists of the novel, to falsely believe they are brother and sister even though they are in love, and he murders without conscience. Clare offers the reader no moral ambiguity with this character, instead using Valentine as a character to contrast his “son”, Jace, who believes himself to have evil blood running through him, but is revealed on all occasions to be nothing like Valentine. This use of the evil sorcerer archetype is successful in this case.
Voldemort from Harry Potter, is another example of a purely evil character. Flashes of his childhood as an orphan are given, as a direct comparison to Harry Potter himself, but Rowling fails to create any sympathy for Voldemort, since Harry came out of a similar, and arguably even worse situation, without a psychopathic nature. It does not matter however, for Voldemort’s evil nature is what makes him so ultimately terrifying. That such a creature (for he is portrayed as more snake than human) might actually exist is reminiscent of nightmarish childhood memories of monsters under the bed, and creatures of the night. Rowling allows Voldemort to be pure evil, and lets the reader relish in it. Her character of Snape, on the other hand, is a character built on complexity. It is not even until the final book in the series that the reader is allowed to know whether Snape is actually good. However, even while Rowling misleads the reader into thinking Snape is Voldemort’s henchman, she succeeds in creating sympathy for him, by revealing both his love for Harry’s mother, and his hatred for Harry’s father .
Tuttle (2005) says that “in myths and folktales, characters tend to represent one particular facet of the self, and are not complex, many-sided individuals” and fairytales represent internal struggles by splitting the ‘self’ into multiple characters – an evil witch, a helpless maiden and a hero are all the same person, represented in parts (p.67). In novels today though, well-rounded characters are more believable, and have a stronger hold on the reader. And while flat characters might still be popular, it's characters who have several sides that are memorable and actually worth reading about.
Kelly, J. P. (1991). You and your characters. In G. Dozois, T. Lee, S. Schmidt, I. R. Strock & S. Williams (Eds.), Writing science fiction and fantasy. New York: St Martin’s Griffin.
Morris, T. (2002). How to make your characters real. In T. Dullemond & D. Park (Eds.), The complete guide to writing fantasy: Volume one ~ Alchemy with words. Calgary, Canada: Dragon Moon Press.
Tuttle, L. (2005). Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction (2nd. ed.). London, England: A & C Black Publishers Limited.
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