There were two options with the same number of votes, so I chose the one I felt like working on more. I am so rebellious.
One more defining of terms (hello, been seeing you around here lately): I’m not talking here about protagonists who have to fulfill a duty but don’t want to, like becoming the heir to a kingdom against their wills. This leads to much “Woe is me! Woe, I say!” bitching and angsting. It’s only another variety of the reluctant protagonist, of which there are a dime a hundred. I’m talking here about people who really are dutiful, and writing them as the central character of a story.
Obviously that requires that a number of the usual assumptions be tossed out the window, among which are some that shape the plot of the story. This doesn’t mean nothing can be done with dutiful people in fantasy. It simply means that you have to think a different way, and who doesn’t want to do that? *Limyaael ignores the hands in the back of the room*
1) Play with the learning process.
If someone is cheerfully and happily ensconced in her duty, or even fulfilling it with grim pride, she’ll have to have learned some things. She’ll have to have learned rules, from rote ones to the flexible procedures that her position or organization might undertake in sticky situations. She’ll have learned to get along with people. She’ll have learned what her duty entails. She’ll be the kind of person who can learn from mistakes, even if that’s just to keep her mouth shut and her eyes down; otherwise, she would have been tossed when she continued to do the same stupid things over and over again.
And you get to write her learning them.
This is one of the few places where you’ll get to play with the pedagogical process in fantasy outside of a book set in a school or training camp. More, you’ll often be dealing with a character who’s an experienced novice or journeyman, if not a master, rather than the raw beginners more common in school stories. (If a character is young and just starting out in his duty, dollars to doughnuts that he’ll soon learn that there is Funny Business going on behind the organization’s scenes, and then he’ll end up becoming a maverick because no one listens to him).
So think about how your character learns. Think about relative speed—perhaps she got her ceremonial bow right the first time, but it took her days not to challenge people coming to see the king on legitimate business—about how well she performs certain tasks, how willingness plays into it, which parts she does honestly enjoy and why, what her least favorite part is and why, how she thinks of her fellow learners, and most of all…
2) Why is this duty important to your protagonist?
The dreaded question, because you have to come up with a good answer.
This is the one huge pitfall of writing a duty-bound protagonist, and the reason, I think, that there aren’t more fantasies with guard captains, rightful heirs who really are rightful heirs, and defenders of the status quo as the heroes. It is plausible that someone has never thought about her duty, that it’s become habit, that she’s slipped into the simple unthinking round of her days. However, if she stays that way, then you haven’t got much of a story, because the character has no reason to go hunting for transformation or conflict. If you launch an incendiary of an external conflict to wake her up, she must either abandon her duty and become a rebel (the course of most fantasy heroes) or start thinking about why she stays (the rarer course, which still involves you answering this question).
A character can be loyal because of blood, because this is her family, damnit, and she’s standing by them no matter what. Or she can have taken an oath. Or she can dislike the duty but know that no one else can do it half as well as she can, and if she steps away from it, the country/village/group/whatever goes down in flames: “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” Or she can be personally loyal to a certain leader or commander, although if that’s the case, she’d need a reason to stick around if that leader or commander snuffs it. Or she could have worked out careful, rational, logical reasons for why she likes this duty (whether or not they’re the real ones is something you can have fun with). Or the other side/s may have done something so reprehensible and vile as to force her into service, perhaps in the army or perhaps simply with the side that promises not to do anything like that. Then you need to work out the precepts of her moral code, of course.
I haven’t touched on all the reasons. I also, specifically, haven’t included reasons like, “Well, the pay’s nice” and “I’ve got nothing better to do.” That’s because I wouldn’t consider someone motivated by those things to be motivated by duty. The moment the pay got disrupted or she found something better to do, I bet you’d have another rebel protagonist—maybe just a passive one, but still not sticking around—on your hands. The duty should be important to this kind of character in and of itself.
3) “Want me gone? You’ll have to rip me out root and branch.”
Duty-bound protagonists share a certain advantage with characters who are married at the start of the story. They have preexisting relationships, and rather than spending a good chunk of the book on setting up romances or loyalties or cheesy situations that substitute for the both of them, the author can get running the moment she hits the ground. There will need to be demonstrations of why these people are entwined with the protagonist, of course, the same way that there will need to be some indication of why she’s steadfast in her duty. But that’s not a great hindrance, especially when the author isn’t dead-set on having the heroine turn maverick and work alone because she’s the only one who Knows the Truth.
If a duty-bound character acts alone, like a single court wizard protecting a throne, she’ll still have other people who depend on her fulfillment of that duty. In the case of the court wizard, she’ll have other ministers, the king himself, the court’s spies and guards, the courtiers and their spies and guards, and whatever magical backup she can call on. More to the point, if an outsider attacks the court wizard while she’s walking to her room some dark night, more than just a small personal cadre of friends are going to be up in arms about it. They’ll not only help her if she asks, but defend her, which is more than a lot of fantasy heroes can say.
Perhaps the duty-bound character is part of an organization (and man, would I like to see more of these people; much as I enjoy loner heroes, the anti-organization, anti-bureaucracy shtick sometimes gets smeared on too thickly). Soldiers would fall into this category, as would guards, policemen, mages on a council or in a school of wizards, and tribes or clans. Enemies will have even more of a fight on their hands than if they took on the court wizard, probably. Much as people in the organization might snarl and snap and snipe at each other, they’re there to do a certain duty. Someone attacking the guard captain for being the guard captain is aiming at them all, and at someone who, sheerly given the fact that she’s still there and at the top of their ranks, must be doing something that works. Personal grudges would have to get left behind at some point, or the organization would cease to function at all. The protagonist won’t need to act alone, gather knowledge alone, or spend pages and pages running from the people who should help her. They’ll be right behind her, and not always acting honestly, either. If the guard captain is too honorable to order the assassin who tried to kill her tortured, this doesn’t mean that he won’t be tripped on his way down to the cells, fed bad food, and “interrogated” rather a little too roughly.
I’d like to see more rooted people with a sense of community. Have I mentioned that?
4) Irresistible force, meet immoveable object.
This one goes back to rebels vs. defenders of the status quo. 99% of the time, a fantasist encourages the reader to sympathize with the rebels. Even if the rebel group itself is outrageous and violent, the maverick hero will set everything right. (There’s the anti-group prejudice run particularly deep). Individualists, people who can think for themselves, are honored, and if someone comes to a conclusion that agrees with the people already in power, ipso facto that person has not thought for herself. The rebels will bring down the corrupt, evil state of affairs and set up another one that will be better, often with the protagonist herself forced to take up the position that she spoke against at the beginning of the story. The author ends the book there, however, so that many rich opportunities for irony must go a-begging. Fantasy doesn’t have much time for conservative heroes, save possibly grizzled lieutenants on the wrong side who die noble deaths.
Make time for them. Inherent resistance to change is not inherent evil, nor is it always selfish fear for one’s own life and property and power. Sometimes, the people slobbering about freedom and justice for everyone but the “evil” people really are just wolves in sheep’s clothing. The fact that they’re talking about “evil,” while purporting to be against such judgments as the people in power make about the powerless, should be enough to give thoughtful observers pause.
Think about the means, too. A duty-bound heroine might agree with the rebels in principle, but be against the fact that they’re using murder to achieve those principles. Or a guard captain might let a prisoner arrested for solely political reasons walk out of his jail cell, but balk when the prisoner wants her to free the rapists. There are shades of gray, nuances, in the middle that aren’t allowed when the author simply decides to call rebels “good” and conservatives “evil.”
And then there are the consequences, also known as the difference between reformers and revolutionaries. What if a duty-bound woman agrees with the rebels, but foresees only civil war and blood in the streets if she supports their effort to sneak into the palace during the night and abduct the king? Surely the rebels don’t have all the visionaries. There is nothing that says someone who wants to prevent war is evil—in fact, many fantasies state so, but “just happen” to put all the pacifists on the rebel side.
Finally, consider this: Many people claim that the only just war is a defensive one. It’s hard to imagine a more defensive war than the one a duty-bound protagonist will fight.
5) “Beware the fury of a patient man.”
Fiery temper, a tendency to argue, and a desire to question orders are usually the kind of character traits that produce rebel or maverick heroes. If nothing else, most organizations in fantasy are not shown as flexible enough to cope with them. So a duty-bound protagonist might not have any of them.
The biggest mistake authors seem to make, when choosing a maverick protagonist unthinkingly, is that this means someone who’s calm and steadfast and patient is never dangerous or powerful.
Heh. They’ve never met any bulldogs, have they?
Feel free to write all the protagonists with death-defying magic that you want, though I really hope that that’s not the only reason that you decided to make them the heroes. But someone who waits a long time, learns all that he can about his enemies, sifts through and sets aside false information, asks other people about them, and gets quietly angrier and angrier about the atrocities they’re committing wastes a lot less energy. He might not launch as many fireballs. He’ll launch just one, right where it’s needed.
Anger that burns cold, calm refusals to stop pursuing one’s duty, a quiet stare when captured, and far-sighted planning are just as scary, written well, as screaming temper tantrums, defiant challenges, witty remarks, and brilliant improvisation. Under the right author’s hand, they’re scarier. A bulldog hanging off your throat and working its way higher and higher with its jaws cut your breath off, rather than tearing through you and then out the other side, has a cold charm all its own.
6) Think of them as plot points, not limits.
Most fantasy authors really, really don’t like anything that threatens to limit their protagonists. That’s why, I think, so many supposedly absolute rules about magic get knocked down so quickly. And it’s certainly the reason that so many heroes strike out on their own, away from organizations, rules—and laws. If they “respect” the law, they do it by means of technicalities and liberal interpretation.
If you’ve got a police officer protagonist, that’s not going to work. But that doesn’t mean that you need to defenestrate your protagonist. Work with her instead. Show how and why she respects the limits of the law, and what they allow her to accomplish that those less devoted to it, or devoted to working outside it, can’t. And when the laws do act as limits, show her working with determination inside that smaller space. The greatest test of talent may well be refining and sharpening it on what’s available, rather than growing a new talent every time a limit becomes inconvenient.
Also, you can have very pointed internal conflicts when you’ve got limits that the protagonist won’t toss over for a song. Show me someone who can have an honest internal debate about whether she would help a friend when that friend’s doing something illegal. It’s not a debate for most fantasy protagonists (although I think it would be for more ordinary people than authors sometimes think). It can be for a duty-bound one. And whether or not she sticks to her principles—someone can, you know, without being a total asshole—it will be a different sort of conflict than the ones where love and loyalty are expected to win without trouble. It takes skilled writing, though, and commitment to one’s protagonist as she is, rather than having her be a bendable plastic toy who takes on new configurations whenever the plot requires it of her.
I’ve written several of these protagonists, and some of my very favorite moments come when they get between a rock and a hard place that a maverick hero never would, because a maverick hero would never think to honor or obey the principles that got the duty-bound one trapped there. There’s great characterization to be had there, and great story.