“I wonder if its possible, to write a ripping good yarn with a hero, or heroine, who was ordinary in every way.”
A reader emailed and asked me this question a few days ago. It’s a good question. Why do fantasy novels tend to be about unusually skilled people in extraordinary circumstances? Why do they have tortured pasts? Why are they always better-than-average looking? What about middle-aged Jim Johnson, the married car salesman who lives on the corner? Why can’t he be a fantasy hero?
When I read a book, I want to be transported. I want to enter a world I can’t possibly find by driving my SUV across town. I want to share the experiences of people I could never, ever be. Heroes who discover they can perform magic, or are related to a fabled line of martial artists, or cause the weather to change just by staring at clouds long enough…those people are interesting. I want to be near them. I want to be along for the ride as they learn what they’re capable of, and overcome the dilemmas facing them. I want to root for them, and I want to turn the last page with a satisfied sigh that once again, the good guys succeeded in the face of overwhelming odds.
Does this mean I want to read stories about characters who are so magnificent they can do it all? Naah. That’s boring. An invincible hero is certainly nice to have around, but after he’s saved the busload of orphans from falling over the cliff and stopped the asteroid from smashing the town, I’ll probably wander off to find something else to do. He can’t be beaten, so why should I bother paying attention? That’s where that tortured past thing comes into play. We’re all slaves to the mistakes of our pasts, and a book’s characters shouldn’t be any different. An unbeatable character is dull, but a hero who’s afraid of snakes is fascinating. What if he has to wade through a snake pit to save his friend from certain death? Will he? The sword- warrior who can’t sleep because she has nightmares about the father who beat her will have to make a decision when he turns out to be the evil duke she’s been hired to guard. We want to read about their worries and triumphs, because in a way, they are ours as well.
I just finished reading a very good book called World’s End, by Mark Chadbourn. The main characters are ordinary people, living lives not unlike any of ours, when they are swept into the events that drive the story. Church is grieving a lost love, Ruth is worrying that she might lose her job. But when the ancient gods of Celtic myth start chasing them through the countryside, they have to become more than they are. They have to become heroes.
So there’s your answer. Even when a story begins with someone going about his boring old life, he has to change, to transform into someone who can solve the mystery, find the magic, save the world. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a story anyone would want to read.
And if they’re good-looking, too…well that just makes it more fun to imagine while I’m writing. 😀