How I realized my fantasy characters don't need to be likable

Sunday, June 07, 2020


Besides Ned Stark, the kindest soul this side of the wall, there is hardly a character in George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones that I liked at all points of the series. Part of that comes from the brevity of his character within the series, but I like to believe that it's because he has the purest conscience. 

The angelic aura of Ned Stark is amplified by the actions of every other character in the series. In a series of gruesome, power-hungry, unstable characters, there is one light that burns brighter in the darkness of everyone else. If there is one character that should be highlighted among the rest for their innocence or their kindness, they should be placed in a world of heathens and blood-shed. Think of Rue in The Hunger Games, encircled in a bed of flowers.

In contrast, main characters are best served messily. No reader will relate to a character who makes no mistakes, and no reader will be entertained by a character who does only good. I stand by the belief that, for a fantasy series that follows any exceptional length of time, almost every character in that series should pass through a phase of ultimate unlikeability. They may become the village drunk or become a child-king and reap the benefits of his privilege. Afterall, the villainry and the misfortunes are what drive a series. No one reads a story through to the end for the sake of a really kind character.

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas, without giving away any spoilers, isn't a renowned fan-favorite, but one thing any reader of the series can agree on is that first we hate the High Lord of the Night court, then we hate the High Lord of the Spring court. You can't learn to love the former without first loving the latter. Perhaps the reason we learn to love one and truly despise the other is that those emotions grew out of a feeling that so incredibly contrasted what preceded it. Demonstrating a change in character can be as simple as portraying the character first in a golden light then extinguishing it and vice versa.

I say this for fantasy series especially because in most of these series, the author is crafting their own world with its own rules and its own ways of life. In a contemporary romance, it is believable that the average character is generally good. I'm not reading Eleanor and Park expecting one of the characters to be a nasty, dirty liar and a homicide hobbyist. While that may be a suspenseful, though disturbing, twist, it's not plausible for the setting. In a world set in a medieval age or any brute-force-trumps-all era, it's almost expected.

I always held my characters in that sweet, golden light and never dared to take it away. When I finally decided to create a character who is quite literally a homicide hobbyist (yeah, I'm proud of my alliteration there), I was stunned by how much more exciting the story was even just for me to write. It made me want to go back into the story and weave a more complex web of brutal characters who better represent the result of their brutal world.

Characters, especially in a fantasy series, should be educated, be persuaded, be wrong, be wronged, and feel the growth of those changes throughout life as a person of our world does, whether that is for better or for worse.

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