Today, I will kick off a collaborative series about the realism of fantasy literature. In this series a bunch of German bloggers and authors will discuss, how certain real life problems are presented and elaborated in fantasy novels. Often, fantasy novels are quite critical of society, politics and other realistic problems. And in a way, that topic fits perfectly with my page theme, so today I will start off with how I develop realistic characters.
People in magical worlds still dealt with real-life problems. They usually just had bigger ones on top of that. (Zitat aus „Far beyond Reality“)
Behind the magic
You’re writing fantasy? But that’s only fictional, isn’t it? Why don’t you write something real? That’s more or less the kind of response you’ll get, when you tell anyone you’re writing fantasy novels. All those fantastic worlds are just fictional, of course, and there’s no magic in reality or elves, dwarves and demons. But the stories behind it, the characters in it, they are as real as you and me.
The times, when Hercules mastered one great deed after the other without so much as a hick-up or when shining knights stood up for justice without the sliver of doubt are over. Today, people want to get more out of their favourite characters. As a reader we want to know about the challenges our heroes have to face. We want to read, how the characters grow with their experiences! We want to accompany him on his hero’s journey, be with him when he rises above his fears and insecurities and makes peace with his past. The epic battle over the world are just the special effects in our blockbuster.
The character as the result of his environment
When I develop my characters, they don’t appear in a vacuum. At first, there’s the society. What rights do men and women have? Which role does religion play? Is there a class system, racism or freedom of speech? All those decision I’ve made during world-building are vitally important for my character development. I can’t have a whole bunch of misogynistic characters, when their country has been practising gender equality for half a millennia.
Of course, there will always be exceptions: People that rebel against the system or assholes that have radicalised themselves. Revolution is nothing new in fantasy, often culminating in a violent rise against the system and subsequent modern development of the once medieval world. But what I find really exciting, is trying to build the characters within the system. Especially if the world’s value system does not resemble our modern values, you always have to ask the question: How would a character act, feel and think within this society?
When you’re done with the society part, you need to take the personal environment into account. This could be his or her family, friends or even the whole village. We all know that. Some of our values we adopted from our parents, some despite of them. Other values have been adapted by us after thinking about them for a long time. And thus, when we develop our character, we need to think about what values and experiences he or she grew up with. Of course, each individual will turn out differently.
My aim is to develop my figures in such a way, that each decision they will make in my story is an organic result of my prior decisions. And that’s the moment, when your characters take over and you mourn your carefully crafted plot 😉
The experimental lab of fantasy literature
Fantasy literature is an ideal way of experimenting with human nature. In this medium we can switch up the boundary conditions of our world. We can ask ourselves, how it would change a people when you live eternally like Tolkien’s elves. We could also explore how people would cope with nightly demon attacks as in Peter V. Brett’s ‘Painted Man’.
Within the fantasy genre we have this giant lab where we can push humans to their limit. How do you cope with the responsibility of being the chosen one – or the chosen one that will destroy the world? What do you pick, if duty and family are at odds with each other? And of course that very thought intensifies when we develop whole races that are different than ours.
In Insignia of Magic, my Urban Fantasy series, I have asked all these questions of my demons. They are entirely different from my humans. But it is not just their magical prowess. It’s their whole view of the world. My demons live for the absolute freedom with no thought about anyone else. They see our morals as something we’re shackling ourselves with. Wars against a group that is different than us, may that difference be religious, ethnological or just a different mind-set, are entirely beyond their comprehension. Only the individual is of notice. Having this mind-set as a base to experiment with while keeping the inner logic of the race, is a lot of fun. It also widens the horizon when looking at cultural differences in the real world.
The realistic inner life of fantasy characters
It’s no secret that my stories are very character-driven. My knight in shining armour in Ravenblood is not so intriguing because he is a lawfully good character and has a strong moral compass. The real crux is that he struggles with remaining lawful and good in a world that continues to worsen around him and how hard it can be to keep holding onto your principles. And doesn’t everyone agree that we are mostly fascinated by those deeply broken characters that battle with their inner demons?
I often like to take a step further. Often enough, fantasy literature tends to get over traumatic experiences surprisingly quick and unscarred. Mostly, you encounter that phenomenon while roleplaying. There, you get the former, deeply scarred sex slave who finds the love of his life within two weeks. Of course, the two of them practically live in the bed from then on. It’s a common trend that we love to develop dramatic background stories that remain entirely in the background.
I try to take a different approach. My hero in Ravenblood only manages to get over the traumatic event of his youth in the fourth and final book. When my characters go to war, some come back with PTS. Also, I like to give other mental health issues a spotlight. If you want to be more specific, you could say that it is quickly becoming part of my trademark to focus on such disabilities.
And these are the characters and stories that I want to read about in fantasy literatur as well. But…
What do you need to develop a realistic character
Even if your fantasy characters battle with supernatural problems, they often face the same challenges we do. Often the hero questions himself whether he is good enough. Just because their world is threatened doesn’t mean that they don’t also fight some internal struggles. Even the chosen one needs to deal with jealousy, a thirst for vengeance, insecurities and fears. And when those characters overcome their internal struggles, then we are often much more moved than when they are victorious over some dark mage.
It’s these weaknesses, these peeks into their inner soul that make us root for these characters. In the end this is what we identify with while at the same time we are entertained by the magic.
As the blog series is by German bloggers, there will be no more English posts other than my second entry about environmental agency in fantasy novels. If you liked this post, I might revisit this and other topics at a later time.