A Swinburne quote, since I haven’t done one in quite a while.

From “Tristram of Lyonesse,” Swinburne’s take on the Tristan and Isuelt story, and one of the few I like:

And the king waking saw beside his head
That face yet passion-coloured, amorous red
From lips not his, and all that strange hair shed
Across the tissued pillows, fold on fold,
Innumerable, incomparable, all gold,
To fire men’s eyes with wonder, and with love
Men’s hearts; so shone its flowering crown above
The brows enwound with that imperial wreath,
And framed with fragrant radiance round the face beneath.

I’ve heard some people say that a protagonist without incredibly powerful magic, dazzling good looks, or incomparably true love can’t be a good fantasy hero, since he’s “too ordinary.”

I say this is Not True, and there are plenty of ways to take an ordinary protagonist into the hero realm without making him either “special education” special or SPESHUL.

1) Showing, not telling, is your friend.

I skim, or just shut the book, when the author starts telling me all the hero’s traits. “And though he was young, he already had about him a wisdom beyond his years, and he moved with a fighter’s step, and he had the grace of mind that went with being a king.” Blah de freaking blah blah. Show me he’s wise, he’s good at fighting, he’s graceful or gracious. Just telling me is a cheap trick to get out of actually demonstrating it.

With an ordinary hero, the understated approach is best. Don’t tell me that he’s courageous; show him fighting his fear to rescue someone from a riptide. Don’t go on and on about his fear of drowning; make it clear that his fears center on the water by showing him panicking when a wave strikes him in the wrong way, or giving him the terror that almost prevents him from rescuing the other person in the first place. He doesn’t need to be fearless, the way that some Speshul heroes are, and he doesn’t need to use spectacular magic either. The scenes where the protagonist discovers his magic while rescuing someone else always feel like cheats to me, since it implies that he couldn’t have done it on his own. And isn’t it convenient that this magic shows up just when he needs it, and in a manner designed to gain him adulation? It’s got “Authorial Intervention” written all over it.

People in our world rescue others from drowning, and do it without magic. Consider that when sending your hero into action.

2) Tell the story from her eyes.

You don’t need to tell the whole thing that way, particularly if it’s an epic fantasy, but the kind of detached, omniscient description that I used above doesn’t just kill an ordinary hero story; it drags it out behind the barn and murders it with a pickaxe. Even assuming that a reader is normally intrigued by detached descriptions of heroines, why would he get all excited about, “Talimora was moderately tall, with light brown hair and eyes, and a tendency to question people about their motives and then get irritated with their responses?” Most fantasy authors sense instinctively that most readers won’t, so they go into Speshul descriptions instead.

My point is that you don’t need it. Big globs of description slow your story down, especially if they happen right near the beginning. Start out with action, dialogue, character introspection, not exposition or description.

Looking from within the heroine’s eyes, and not constantly praising her via the omniscient narrator, is a great way of showing the reader her qualities, both good and bad.

A neat segue (all right, a bit forced) to…

3) An ordinary hero’s faults should not be airbrushed.

I’ve read a lot of fantasy novels that start out detailing the faults of the characters, such as clumsiness, quick tempers, too much compassion, and so on, and then, as the story goes on, moving to more and more description of virtues instead. By the time the character gets to the end of the trilogy, he’s the best swordsman who ever lived, the handsomest thing on the planet, and practically voted into the king position. The faults seem to have taken the hint and quietly migrated away.

These authors are following a good piece of advice: Try introducing your heroes with unattractive qualities first (and your villain with attractive ones). It’s very effective. But they forget that those faults aren’t there just for show. If your heroine snaps at people who ask what she considers stupid questions, she shouldn’t stop doing it in the middle book of the trilogy and be perfectly kind and patient with everyone by trilogy’s end.

An ordinary person- a truly ordinary one- is much harder to do this with. They don’t have admiration or acclaim from everyone around them to make it seem as if they can do no wrong. They don’t escape the consequences of their actions by flinging around firestorms or being too powerful to tackle. They fail in some of their battles like everyone else, and get captured for more than dramatic effect. And, yes, they can mess up badly at any point in the story. They have far more depth and complexity than airbrushed fantasy heroes.

4) Beauty alone does not a character make.

The saying about beauty being only skin deep has never been more true. Too often, I get the feeling I’m expected to cheer for a heroine just because of what she looks like. “Well, she’s small, with pale skin and amazing dark eyes! You must appreciate her for that!” Or “He’s tall and dark and handsome! Who can dislike him?” This has its counterpart in a lot of fantasy villains being fat, balding, weak-chinned, pimpled, and so on.

I don’t find human beauty attractive in and of itself (sunsets and full moons are a different matter), and I don’t see why it should be allowed to substitute for characterization. Besides, go visual for a moment and picture one of those beautiful heroines who only expresses appropriate emotions. She cries, but her eyes never get red or puffy. Her hair never gets dirty. She never expresses unrighteous anger, or hatred, or lust. Imagine her face.

Wouldn’t it be boring?

Ordinary people don’t have the burden of impossible beauty to live up to, and they’re freed from another burden as well: many authors’ tendency to use gobs and gobs of horrible descriptive prose on the characters’ looks and costumes. A quick note is enough for people who aren’t expected to triumph in the reader’s heart on the basis of beauty alone. You can mention in one part of the book that the character’s eyes are blue, if you want, and in another that his hair is brown. But you don’t need to “justify” your person as a hero with summer sky eyes and hair like cornsilk.

5) Magic becomes, “Whee! I’m Cool! Look at me!” too often.

This applies especially if the character has a magic power that no one else has, and uses it all the time.. The other people stand around staring in awe. I yawn and shut the book, or, in the case of the hero’s underappreciative family falling down and groveling, introduce the book to the wall. Hard.

I’ve read fantasies where the author used the magic as a token effort at characterization. “She’s a fire mage. She has a quick temper. She’s just like everybody’s stereotype of a fire mage.” Booooring. Other times, the character becomes the key to the whole story not because of, gods forbid, qualities like being brave or clever or tough or able to survive, but because she’s the only one who can unlock the Secret Key of Whatever. (See: Destiny). Not a good reason for choosing a hero. Doesn’t magic ever choose someone who wouldn’t be perfect for such a role? Does it always pick the future heroes? Doesn’t make sense, especially with the blood inheritance laws a lot of magic runs on.

In worst case scenarios, the author actually forgets about the powers, she’s assigned so many. “If the character could open any lock, why was she stuck in the dungeon?” “…Oops.”

Ordinary people can be wondrous with small magical gifts, or nothing at all. With small magical gifts, the author has to think harder, and it’s wonderful to see what she comes up with. For example, suppose your mage just has the ability to make pebbles roll a few inches. But he could still provide a crucial distraction during an attack or a hunt. And with nothing at all, your characters have a great excuse to outthink their opponents instead of blasting them with a firestorm. To quote Ursula K. LeGuin, “The open soul can do wonders with nothing.”

6) An ordinary person makes a fascinating contrast to the typical fantasy world.

If you do have a society of all-powerful mages, what do they look like from the viewpoint of their scullery maids? (Not the ones who are secretly descended from royalty and have magic themselves, please). If those mages depend on ancient books for their spells, someone must be copying the spells and/or translating the books from ancient languages. Write from the point of view of a scribe or linguist.

Ordinary people can have wonderful, beautiful, fascinating jobs, since they’re not automatically locked into the fantasy world’s favored stereotypes of warrior and mage. To go back to Guy Gavriel Kay, an example I cherish, he has a character named Caius Crispus. No great and powerful magic; though magic comes along and touches him and makes him uncomfortable, he can’t wield it. Not a great swordsman; he has to hire a servant to defend him. Not a great intriguer; he doesn’t understand what’s going on around him all the time, and that costs his allies incredibly. But he’s a mosaicist, and he understands things about light and patterns of color that other characters never will. This helps him solve riddles, gives him an excuse to go adventuring, and gives him the ability to make great art. Wonderful, wonderful characterization.

If you think you’ll have to do research in order to give an ordinary person a fascinating job, what are you waiting for? Go research! If you really want to write a story with a scribe as your hero, you shouldn’t be restricted by the fantasy world’s fixation on magic and swordsmanship. Go research scribes.

I’ve become severely allergic to the “teenager who runs away from home and is mistreated by family is really the heir to the throne/the most powerful mage in the world/going to bond with an animal/stunningly beautiful” nonsense.