I resent the primacy of mage and fighter heroes in fantasy, since I think it’s a) harder to do original things with them by now, b) too convenient that every single person who matters in a fantasy world is an astounding mage or an excellent fighter, and c) the writer tends to make them superpowered. However, I’ve already done rants on different occupations and changing the protagonists themselves. If someone does insist on writing a mage hero, there are ways to avoid the worst clichés.

1) Don’t make him clumsy.

Please don’t. Or I will find you and throw things at you.

By now, the student mage who trips over everything and breaks beakers and can’t cast spells to save his life is one of the default templates for a mage hero. The clumsiness is one of those things that writers just don’t think about, the way that they don’t think about referring to a character’s green eyes as “emerald.” It’s just there.

Do you know how boring it is to read about things that are just there to the author? The author plays the clumsiness for the “humor” that they seem to think young mages need to exhibit and that they are so poor at using. Oh look, he just tripped over his own feet, ho ho ho. He just messed up his master’s spell, isn’t that amusing? He tried to summon a demon and got a mouse, how cute!

Humor is harder to write than serious high fantasy, people, not easier. Put down the sharp sarcasm steak knife until you’ve learned how to spread butter with a dull one. And in this case, also consider the consequences:

  • If he’s that clumsy and the spells depend on delicate components and precise timing, he’s a danger to the other mages. Who did he sleep with to get into this school?
  • He shouldn’t be able to move fast in situations where his life is in danger, either. Does this hinder him when he does manage to summon a demon and has to run from it? Of course not.
  • The constant taunting from other people should probably make him a sullen and tense person, unless he’s also supernaturally cheery. He wouldn’t just not make friends until somebody sees his innate “specialness” and decides to train him.
  • If the clumsiness is a long-running problem, why is it still happening with such frequency? Why doesn’t he move more slowly, not do as many delicate tasks, volunteer for things where dropping a beaker or shattering glass isn’t an issue? People who have other minor bodily problems, like near sight or being so large they could hurt others, manage to adjust. Only the clumsy mage hero is forever condemned to be awkward until he somehow emerges at the end cured of his clumsiness.

Stupid. Not all teenage boys are gawky, and not all teenage boy mages should be.

2) Realize what the hardships he goes through are going to do to his magic materials.

Here is Standard Fantasy Mage 1. He reads spells out of a book, carries a staff, and uses spell components that mostly involve herbs and the occasional skull of a small animal. The components ride in pouches on his waist and shoulders. The book usually rides in his pack.

Standard Fantasy Mage is following Standard Fantasy Fighter on his quest. They accidentally cross their enemies and run from them to a cliff, where they will have to jump into the river to escape. (Hello, Standard Fantasy Drama). They back up, kill a few of their enemies, realize they have no choice, and doooown they go. They drift a few miles, angst about swallowing water, almost drown once or twice, and at last crawl out on a faraway bank, thoroughly soaked.

Why does Standard Fantasy Mage not ever open his pack and find his book a soggy mess? Why don’t his pouches, which are usually leather, ever split open, or for that matter get tugged off in the current? How can he swim while clutching the staff?

Now, it’s possible that the mage has enacted spells to protect them. The thing is, these spells need to be mentioned, and some detail needs to be given. Also, remember that a spell that you create specifically to protect that book or those spell components for one reason won’t work for others. If the mage has a waterproofing spell on his book, it won’t protect it if it’s thrown into the fire. Yes, you could create a “general damage spell,” but this really is cheating if you don’t mention it until after the river. Of course, you could always go your merry way and forget about it entirely, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

The staff is also not very useful in many of the conditions of adventuring, whether those are swimming, treading soggy ground in a marsh, or ducking through cramped tunnels. (I always wanted to see a scene where the heroes had to squeeze through narrow tunnels, and the mage realized his staff simply wouldn’t fit). Why is the mage carrying it? If he has to have his magic contained in something else, why not a wand, which is at least smaller and easier to hide somewhere? If the staff is just to show off, why not have him do things to show off that don’t involve a large, clumsy piece of wood or metal? Many staffs are like telepathic companions, there when the author wants them to be, gone when the author forgets about them, then conveniently summoned back once more, but they shouldn’t be.

Face it: Many of the pieces of equipment that Standard Fantasy Mage is carrying are more useful to the libraries and academies where he might have trained than to the wilds. Consider this and adapt the equipment.

3) Keep track of the magical system he’s in.

There are authors who build elaborate systems of magical theory and justification, to the point of taking you out of the story entirely while they lecture, and introduce checks and balances and costs and all the rest. And I read and say, “Whee!”

Then they get out of the city. And the magical systems go flying out of the window the first time the heroes confront a dragon, and suddenly the author is shattering the laws of her own world right and left, as if making the mage look good in the quest is oh so more important than keeping things consistent. The noise I make then is not “Whee.” It’s hard to render phonetically, but it would have a lot of r’s and spitting in it.

If you, as the author, say, “This is an absolute magical law, and even my hero obeys it,” you had better hold true to that. Saying 300 pages later, “Oh, yeah, there’s an exception to the law that I forgot to mention, and it applies to my hero ‘cause he’s cool like that” is the trick of a dirty rotten scumbag writer.

It does not matter if the hero looks good blasting a dragon out of the air with a lightning bolt, if you have earlier established that he has no ability to call lightning bolts. The explanation that comes later is always, well, late, and 90% of the time poorly contrived. It’s not the explanation that matters, anyway. It’s the author’s inability to let the magical system she spent so much time building rule, instead of the childish urge to say, “See what my character can do! Teehee!”

It’s not even always superpowers that violate the rules, although they’re the culprits most of the time; it’s the author’s relentless urge to make her hero an exception in some way. If you declare that your hero is a pacifist mage, and can only use his magic because he respects all plant and animal life, then you cannot have him violently kill the villain and insist he still has power. No. Doesn’t work that way, because you have said that it doesn’t work that way. Whether he just loses his magic or burns up in a violent agony of fire, you have to apply the consequences. The magical system does not revolve around your hero, the same way that gravity doesn’t hold back when someone steps off a cliff.

I’m always more impressed by cleverness within the rules, using magic that obeys the laws but in neat or tricky ways, rather than the author just shrugging and saying, “Oh, well, I’m doing this even though I’ve already said I wouldn’t.”

4) The “reluctant hero” mages and the “mercenary with a heart of gold” mages can also stop now.

This goes back to flaw-scrubbing. The mage who doesn’t want to save the world might have selfish or mercenary motives, but only until the middle of the book. Then suddenly he’s all caught up in the romance of it all, accepting his position as the chosen savior and the vector of the destiny virus.

Reluctant heroes are by now difficult to do well, because every other hero is reluctant. Same advice for them as for any cliché: Find a way to do it well. Don’t assume that he’s a person just because he’s reluctant and he has magic. Those are only two traits. Find a way to build him around them, if you must, but build him.

Mercenaries with a heart of gold are even scarier. Tell me, if this mage is really someone who would give up a good prospect of money and go haring off into the night with some teenager or random fighter, how does he manage to earn any living at all? Anything would be better-suited for him than the position of mercenary, which depends on good bargaining skills and brokering deals and some emotional distance from clients, not just the motive for money that the author usually assumes can be overturned. And saying that his magic’s calling to him, or that he’s the chosen one and therefore can’t be a mercenary, is right up there with having everyone in the story worship bunny rabbits. It makes any tension perish of cuteness.

The idea of mages who hire out their magic is a good one; surely not all of them can sit around in towers and blast people all the time. But let them make a living at it, hmmm?

5) There was only one Gandalf. Your mage is not him.

The general archetype of a wise old mentor to the hero is what fantasy authors are aiming for. Instead, they hit Gandalf. Every. Single. Time.

It amazes me how. He’s really not that big a target.

Some ideas:

  • He doesn’t have to be old. Why not have him be young, new to the position, since he just inherited it from his old master who died? That would be enough to shake things up a little.
  • He doesn’t have to be immortal or highly powered. Someone’s knowledge doesn’t really depend on that. He could just have happened to spend most of his life in libraries.
  • He doesn’t have to explain everything to everybody in a scene that stretches for pages and pages, whether they’re sitting in a library or plodding along on horseback. That scene is everywhere, and may be one of the few things it’s so hard to do well because it’s almost impossible to do well. Info-dumping for chapters isn’t generally acceptable. Yes, Gandalf did it with Frodo in “The Shadow of the Past.” Remember what I said about your mage not being Gandalf?
  • He doesn’t need to be perfectly right. He could be mistaken about some things, especially if he’s spent most of his life in libraries and not enough time out in the real world.
  • He really doesn’t have to play just the mentor. Make him kick some ass on his own. Once again, though, he doesn’t have to be immortal or the most powerful mage in the world—just a really, really good mage.

Oh, yes, have to hit that one, don’t I?

6) No more most powerful mages.

This is the mage hero’s version of boring invulnerability. We may not actually see him calling down firestorms. He may not be destined to defeat the Dark Lord. But if he’s the most powerful mage in the world, and nobody can challenge him, what’s the friggin’ point? Why is he going on this quest? We know that he’ll just mow down his enemies whether they’re by ones or by armies. Saying he’s bored and looking for a challenge doesn’t make sense, because you’ve already established that he’s not going to find it no matter how hard he looks.

Your character doesn’t have to be “the best _____________ in the world” to be interesting, or powerful, or clever, or kick-ass. With a mage, this is probably more important than the other possible examples, like a character being the best fighter or ninja in the world. A big reason to include magic in fantasy books is that it’s probably the best tool of slamming the fantasy world’s difference and sense of wonder in your face. Fill that up, declare that someone has already done everything with this power that can be done, and the sense of wonder declines but fast.

Fighter heroes next.