This, too, touches on some things I’ve said before.
1) Keep your protagonist in balance with the other characters.
I’ve read so many fantasy books in which the author seemed to lavish all his or her care on the creation of the main character, or sometimes two main characters. The villains remained stock characters, and the minor characters might as well have been shadows.
This may be the best route to take with a self-centered protagonist, but few of the heroes in fantasy are supposed to be self-centered. In fact, in many cases the Authorial Voice From Above announces them as noble/compassionate/perceptive/intelligent, so readers are evidently meant to assume they are. Yet in many of those same cases, the “heroes” notice other people only as they relate to themselves. The secondary character sobs, and the hero asks what’s wrong, and it turns out that she’s mourning a lost love- just like the hero. Similarly, the other characters spend far too much time thinking about the heroes, or are portrayed as wrong for thinking about themselves, while the same thing is not a fault on the hero’s part.
I think fantasy in particular has this problem because so many times the heroes are supposed to be the center of the universe, or the local equivalent. Harping on and on it about it can easily give your readers hives, however. Try implying it rather than stating it outright, and if you do state it, have others react in realistic ways, such as envy or resentment or calculations as to what this will mean to their own status. (How would it feel to be the younger brother of someone who saved the world, for example?) On occasion, they can forget about the heroes entirely. It’s not their quest, after all.
Authors who do this well include Guy Gavriel Kay, George R. R. Martin, and Carol Berg.
2) Make your protagonists more than the sum of their destinies and their magic.
The heroine is the most beautiful, wonderful, powerful mage in the world, and she’s going to save it because of a destiny that only she possesses.
But what is she like under all that? What was she like before she learned about her destiny? What is she like in the areas of life that have nothing to do with magic or beauty or saving the universe- cooking, for example? Could she survive on her own in the middle of a snowstorm? If she was trapped in the middle of said snowstorm with other people, would she consider cannabalism?
If all the answers relate back to her abilities- for example, she would never consider cannabalism because she could just magic the snowstorm away- then this is a problematic character. Fictional characters shouldn’t be just a lump of magic any more than they should be just a lump of disaffected character traits. You may know what they can do, but do you know who they are? What would they do in a situation where they were helpless?
If they would do everything perfectly, and if there could never be a situation where the character is helpless, then there’s even more of a problem. Consider a greater distance, or…
3) “Murder your darlings.”
This phrase, spoken by Arthur Quiller-Couch, is in reference to words in stories that you love, but it can be applied with profit to characters, as well. Sometimes characters don’t suffer, or skip merrily away from the consequences of their actions, because the author cannot bear to let them suffer. Other times, the author “falls in love” with a character, and lets the character have more story time than necessary, achieve everything he or she dreamed of, and say all the snappy and clever things.
This can trigger almost all the other problems with characterization, especially in fantasy, where the character may already be more special than he or she would be elsewhere. The author creates no other character as deeply, doesn’t define any weaknesses or does so only to make the character look sympathetic, and sometimes self-identifies to the point that the character becomes Mary Sue/Marty Stu. The story ceases to be the story of the fantasy world, or of the main character’s relationships with the world and people around her, and becomes the Story of the Character. This can happen even with characters that are not major, as when the author becomes fascinated with a previously minor character and gives him or her far, far too much story-time.
In that case, you need to make the character suffer real consequences, have them make mistakes, characterize them as fallible people, and, yes, perhaps kill them. Unless it’s followed by a shiny and fake resurrection, nothing destroys the illusion of untouchability like death.
4) Characterize your protagonists in other ways than by internal monologue.
I love introspective fantasy characters, and I’ve written a lot of them. But a dollop of introspection goes a long way. Fantasy characters who sit around for large parts of the book meditating on their lives and the secrets of the universe eventually get boring. A large part of fantasy’s heritage, like it or not, is the great deed and the derring-do. If your book doesn’t have huge battles, then it needs other things to provide the action, like mysteries, political intrigues, or psychological tension. It takes a very good author to make a book only or even mostly about the character meditating, and it’s even harder to write a fantasy that way.
Even without this, the internal monologue can be a poor tool. If the character is essentially telling the reader everything the reader needs to know in extended flashbacks, along the lines of “She had been so lonely since her earthworm Flopsy died. She was alone all day long. She knew the whistles of the birds because there was no one else to play with her…” or continually holding long lectures in his or her thoughts, then it becomes an excuse to infodump. The only possible exception I can think of is first-person narration, and then it takes an interesting first-person narrator, one who also holds communication with other people beside herself, to keep the story moving.
Look hard at your character’s thoughts. Ask yourself if they really need to be there, and how many of them are focused on sheer “information” about the character and the world. Then cut, cut, cut.
5) Reduce the amount of the character’s life experiences and character traits that come from you.
I learned this the hard way. My first viewpoint character in my first completed trilogy included a lot of information from my own life, such as spraining an ankle and frustration with people who were hypocrites. But they didn’t fit very well in the story, and I soon found they were much less interesting than the parts in which I had to make things up, anyway.
This is the main problem with this kind of character creation. If the character does start changing in other directions, or if the story requires something else, you may not feel free to let it, because, after all, the character is based on you, or that really happened, and it has to be kept in there.
There are two kinds of necessity in writing a story, though: practical necessity, and story necessity. Cramming events that really happened in there just because they happened violates story necessity, the twists and turns of the plot and the world, for the sake of gratifying a self-indulgent practical necessity.
Of course, sometimes an incident may fit really well; I think I write well about the vertigo characters experience when looking from a height because I have experienced it. But ultimately, “Write what you know” is used too often as an excuse for creating pale characters or Mary Sues. People think they have to write about themselves, because they don’t know anyone else. But considering how much people change over their lives, and how easily we deceive ourselves, I’d say this is actually much less useful than most people think it is.
6) Listen to the protagonist.
You’ve probably felt it, that wonderful moment when the protagonist comes alive and controls the story. Then he or she moves beyond the character profile, lives and breathes and bounces up and down restlessly.
However, too often authors with living protagonists remain bound to those character profiles or plot notes. I can’t think of any other explanation for why a character changes during the course of the story, and yet at the end is forced into a marriage or a martyrhood or a place that no longer fits him or her. I suspect the author has planned developments early on (and perhaps feels that he or she needs them, like a marriage in a fantasy romance), and is more relucant to “risk” expanding the plot than to shoehorn a protagonist who’s grown into a too-small place.
If your character is “destined” for a particular person at the beginning of the story, ask yourself if that still applies at the end. Ask yourself what you have to lose if you come up with a marvelous and unexpected plot twist that means someone else saves the world instead of your hero. Working in limits is an art, like writing rhyming poetry, but so is knowing when to break the limits and listen to the character. And, of course, I think those last make the best stories.