Late last month, right before I took my trip to Las Vegas, I hit a milestone in my life. I turned 30 years old.
I’ve never been someone who’s been that obsessed with my age. People generally think I’m older than I am – the copious amounts of gray hair might have something to do with it – and I’ve always been perfectly happy to let them.
Being young is no fun. Your opinions are dismissed and your experiences trivialized. You don’t get any discounts on stuff between the time you forfeit your student ID and the time you join AARP. Strangers think they can tell you what you should or should not be doing at your age, and give you unsolicited advice about a future that looks absolutely terrifying at the best of times (thanks, Baby Boomers).
I’ve always wanted to be a grown-up. I’ve always wanted to do grown-up things like buy small home appliances and have a reason to hand out business cards. My teenage years were tough, and my 20s were even tougher – I’m not that sorry to leave them behind.
One of the (many) reasons why I struggled with my youth was my absolute faith in institutions. I was raised to respect authority, which is a good thing, but I also read way, way too many Victorian-era novels that also made me afraid of it.
Pro tip: don’t let your seven-year-olds read abridged versions of Dickens unless you want them to grow up with an unshakable fear of getting caned for speaking out of turn.
Teachers and professors, doctors, bosses, older colleagues or peers, rules and regulations – they were all infallible. They all said and did things for a reason. A good reason. A reason that must have been thought about and examined and tested and passed down as the wisdom of the ages. And I, young and naïve and painfully sheltered, must be the one who was getting it wrong.
The world had a lot to teach me, but not in the way that I first thought. The more I learned about institutions and authorities and experts, the more I realized that the people in charge were winging it almost as much as I was.
Not all rules exist for a reason. Saying something with confidence doesn’t make it correct. Even if you read it on the internet, it may not actually be true.
That can be a pretty big shock to someone who used to plan out her birthday party schedules down to the minute and is still deeply uncomfortable with the idea that anyone would call a college professor by her first name.
I like order, and I like feeling as if things make sense. I like institutions, and evidence-based decision making, and I like data. I don’t like that the world is, fundamentally, an unstoppable whirlwind of pain, loneliness, confusion, and chaos. I’d rather believe that someone out there knows what they’re doing, and that there’s a possibility that I might be able to do the same thing.
The notion that things happen for a reason – or happen according to reason – is a comforting one. It gives us a sense of belonging and purpose, and cushions our shortcomings when something goes awry. A black and white existence is a simple one. Simple can be good.
And that’s where you start a fantasy novel. In a world that makes sense.
Whether it’s on the family homestead with your adolescent hero or in the halls of a king presiding over a golden age of peace, most stories start at the breaking point, when the good king dies and leaves his country without an heir, the princess realizes that her intended is a traitor, or the Sherriff’s men destroy the village and leave shattered innocence in their wake.
The beginning of a good story rips away those false foundations of false surety and throws the main character into an unfamiliar and dangerous world.
A good character is built on how he or she responds to that. And that is, fundamentally, what all stories boil down to. What do people do when faced with bad things?
I think we’ve all seen the charts that divide characters by the influence that they exert on the world. Chaotic neutral, lawful good, true neutral, lawful evil: this is a great way to codify how they impact the plot.
But it doesn’t specifically show why they act that way. What makes them believe that there is good in the world? That people are fundamentally bad? That there is a god(s), or that there isn’t? To do that, we have to move beyond the basics and take a deeper look at their response to the realization (or lack thereof) that the universe is a big, scary, chaotic, anarchic place.
So here are a few character archetypes I’ve come up with based on their response to chaos.
“Ignorance is bliss” would be the motto of these characters, if they even knew they were being ignorant. Children too young to form rational thoughts and spoiled pets are the only ones who can really fit into this category. Someone who has never experienced any sort of unpleasantness, conflict, or misfortune is rare, and usually unbelievable. Most characters who seem this innocent are either hiding something or willfully ignoring something, which tends to put them in one or both of the next two categories.
Faith is a powerful force for a whole lot of people. Entire societies are built on it. Entire eras have revolved around it, and it’s one of those basic tenets of pre-modern societies that play a major role in the fantasy world.
Faith-driven people believe that there is a greater force watching over them, guiding them, and laying out the rules. They may believe that there is chaos in the world, but it is often the work of a single great adversary (the devil or other dark spirit). Everything happens for a reason, but that reason is usually unknowable.
While this can be frustrating to those who think differently, it can be a great source of comfort to the faith-driven, who may look beyond the suffering of the mortal worlds towards the promises of a glorious afterlife.
Faith-driven people can often have a lot of experience with pain, poverty, grief, stunted freedom, and/or helplessness. Their choice to believe that there is a greater purpose – that happiness is achievable and the chaos can be conquered by their deity – is how they cope with that.
Law-driven characters also turn to an external concept to find comfort and make sense of their world. They may also have strong faith in a deity, but their primary god is duty and honor. They may be strongly attached to a monarch or other figure of authority, or they may make the abstract concept of “the law” or “the right thing to do” into their primary motivator.
They may believe in adhering to this code of ethics no matter what the consequences, and might think that they will be rewarded for loyalty and honor in the long run, even if it’s in the afterlife. On the flip side, they could be cowardly and blindly obedient, unable to reason for themselves.
They can be stubbornly rigid in their view of how things should be, which can make them unpopular, or they can be genuinely eager to make the world a better place. They believe in solutions of one kind or another, and they want to fix things according to their own notions of right and wrong.
A subset of the justifier archetype is the love-driven character. They may include elements of both the law-driven and faith-driven person, but their object of orientation is a romantic relationship.
This is where a lot of modern heroes and heroines live, I think, since moral ambiguity is all the rage these days.
The jaded are those who might see the chaos, recognize it exists, but just try to do their best to get on with their lives. They are neither strongly faith-driven nor overly concerned with adhering to the precepts of another person. They are not actively evil, but they are generally not spotlessly good, either. They might believe in right and wrong, but they can fall on either side of the line – or ignore the line all together.
They might rely strongly on luck, happenstance, or good fortune to explain why they haven’t been totally annihilated just yet.
Whether they’re soldiers of fortune, fallen angels, wandering samurai, or disgraced civil servants, these are people who have probably tried to follow the herd, but have failed to find fulfilment or success in a normal life.
They can be interesting characters, and they may claim that they hold no allegiance to anyone other than themselves, but at the end of the day, they have to make a choice or a sacrifice that sticks them on one side of the good/evil divide, and could determine the outcome of the story.
Those who don’t make the choice – or made the wrong one and want to lament about it for a few pages so your main character will learn from the mistake – might fall into this category. These are your hermits, your mad monks, your wandering wise women, and your myopic scientists. They might care about the chaos, but only because it’s statically significant.
Honestly, these characters aren’t really that interesting on their own. They may serve to give help, information, exposition, or insight to the main character, and they make great plot points but people who don’t make choices don’t have much of a reason to be a sustained player in the story. If you rely too heavily on these people to drive your plot or provide a running commentary, it’s going to end up pretty weak.
Now we get to the fun part. The bad guys. These are the people who know the world is going to hell in a handbasket and love every minute of it.
The puppeteers are primarily concerned with manipulating the chaos for their own selfish advantage. The scheming courtier; the traitorous servant; the lieutenant who will stop at nothing to drive the hero to madness. The one with the evil plan that may or may not get away from him. The second-in-command to the really big boss who hopes his nefarious activities will net him some coveted reward.
These are great supporting characters, but when it comes down to it, the puppeteers usually find that their own strings are being held by someone even worse than they are…
The masters of darkness
…like the pure evil of the master of darkness. Now you’ve got your dark wizards, your warlords, your Queens of the Underworld, and your dastardly masterminds. These are people to beat. They don’t just accept that there is misery and evil in the world – they want to set it free to consume all that is good and holy just because they like to watch things burn.
Adding nuance to these characters can sometimes seem difficult, especially since they often only exist just to give your hero something to do with his life. But if you think about them in terms of input in addition to output, you can create a backstory that is a little more elegant than just saying, “Well, someone has to be the bad guy.”
The agents of entropy
On the far end of the scale is the agent of entropy. These are not evil characters, exactly. They just exist to mess things up. The meddling mother-in-law, the trickster god, the unlucky peasant pushed out of the way of the prince’s runaway horse by the hapless heroine.
Sometimes these are quick encounters that serve only to move the plot forward. But other times they are a force to be reckoned with. A best friend with a penchant for getting in trouble after a night out isn’t just a one-and-done plot device. The whole story could be about the main character wrestling with the boundaries of friendship, or getting deeper into some kind of mess when trying to fix whatever their friend broke.
Entropy is required to drive the story forward to its crisis point, and these characters often cut across other archetypes as they move the plot along. I think these can actually be really interesting, especially as someone who doesn’t really understand people who love chaos for chaos’ sake.
As far as my own character type goes, I’d call myself a jaded but law-driven observer. I want things to make sense and to obey the rules; I want to try to make the world better, and I want everyone to be wonderful all the time, but I don’t necessarily think there is any surefire strategy people can use to ensure that they will get their happily ever after.
In any case, I hope that looking through this particular lens can help you view your characters in a different way. If you think I’ve left anyone out, or you just want to share what type of person you think you are, leave a comment!