These all got lumped together because I wanted them to be.
Or, you can think of this way, if you want: All of these characters avoid fighting. What varies is their motivation. And since fantasy sometimes seems focused on making heroes out of people who can cause the most bloody carnage, I think focusing on people like these could be fun. Just adjust the points as needed for the motivation.
I’ve written a pacifist viewpoint character, and am currently writing one who wants to avoid fighting because that would go against everything he’s trying to do (which is care for the refugees of a city destroyed by a volcano, without dispossessing anyone else of land or needed food). I don’t know if I’ve done characters I would call cowards so much as “intensely pragmatic.” Thus I might be slightly more help on two of these character types than the third.
1) Seek and ye shall find authorial judgment.
First, of course, if you’re going to write a character like this seriously and not set him up for a fall, you have to strip out any tendencies the narrative has towards praising the violent characters and scorning the peaceful ones, or those whose skills and inclinations don’t lend themselves to fighting. This should be pretty simple…
Until you start actually looking at fantasy.
I can’t relate how many fantasy short stories I’ve read lately where the violent death of anyone other than the protagonist or one of the protagonist’s friends got ignored. Not gloated over, the way the destruction of a villain might be—ignored. A violent sea serpent strangles a sailor, and the protagonist later thinks that “at least no one died.” Huh? Or the protagonist feels guilty about letting his delicate maiden companion stub her toe, but not at all guilty for just watching as her companions got slaughtered by bandits, even though he had the battle skills necessary to help. I don’t understand this attitude. It smacks of authorial self-ignorance and not reading the story over again for basic contradictions at the least.
I think it smacks of more than that. Remember the really fucking irritating phenomenon of secondary characters not existing except as vessels, mirrors, and reassurances for the major character? Here’s another example. Violence against these characters is neither anger-inducing nor commendable. It’s just there. It happens. The protagonist cares nothing about the death, any more than she would about accidentally breaking a comb. Actually, the comb will get more attention, because it might be an angst-inducing present from a dead parent. Those people were just presents from the author.
And, of course, minor enemies get treated the same way. The protagonist slaughters ten guards. Who cares? They were in the employ of the major villain, so obviously they were Evil anyway. If he thinks about it at all, he feels a faint sense of satisfaction at all the blood covering him.
Someone who writes like this, who doesn’t really think violence matters at all most of the time and values it as a solution the rest, is not going to write a very good non-fighting character. No, not even if he’s a mage. After all, most of the time fantasy mages have destructive magic (unless they’re healers), and the author treats it like swordsmanship without having to do the research of all those icky details like how to take care of a sword. The attitude is still there.
Can you shed it enough to write about a coward as someone worth more than instant scorn and dismissal? Can you write a pacifist without making him sound loony, like a caricature of an anti-war protestor?
Show me you can, by showing that violence is worth more notice than a few lines.
2) Stubbornness, determination, patience, strength of will, a sense of duty, are great assets.
Even if the non-fighting character does not mope because she can’t be a warrior, and the author is careful not to make it sound like being a warrior is the Greatest Thing Evar, there will almost certainly be people around her who do use violence, who like it, and who favor that as a solution to problems. They may urge her to use violence herself. They may want to use it to protect her, or achieve goals that would also benefit her. They may argue with her that this is a war, damnit, and you have to use violence now because the other side used violence first! They started it!
A pacifist is in for a lot of challenges in a society/world like this. How does she balance? Where does she draw her lines? Is she always changing her principles because these are her friends? (In such a case, then I think the story is slipping back in the direction of justifying violence, unless you take care to present this as a flaw). How much power does she have to stop her friends and allies from using violence, how much responsibility, and how much of both is she willing to use?
I think a pacifist reluctant hero would be an unmitigated disaster, at least if his reluctance extended to actually using responsibility and power (which is true of most of them). So he tells his friends he’s not comfortable with violence, they argue for killing the sentry on the enemy camp instead of knocking him unconscious and binding him, and the “hero” gives in and lets them do it, because, after all, he couldn’t possibly exercise power! Never, ever! He doesn’t want power! Power corrupts!
That’s a really principled pacifist hero you’ve got there. Maybe he can turn his back while his friends conduct a massacre next! That’d be fun!
Besides, in a violent society, a pacifist heroine would have to be pretty damn proactive in the first place to make an impact. Sitting around and sniffling, “It’s wrong” while everyone around her does exactly as they please comforts only her. Standing up and getting in the way is harder. And then, of course, the author usually shows that the heroine was a fool to show mercy, because traveling with a prisoner is hard, and the prisoner always escapes, and the heroine who spared him gets scolded as softhearted. (I have heard Tolkien cited as a justification for this, because Gollum escaped from Mirkwood thanks to the Elves’ kindness, and that was obviously bad. Hello, person who made this justification to me, you are a moron. What do you think saved Middle-earth in the final fucking place?)
Of course, yes, traveling with a bound prisoner is hard. I am therefore sneakily segueing into Point 3 now.
3) Cleverness and practicality are assets, hello.
A fighter hero is often shown solving most problems with his blade (even, as noted in the above 2 points, when he doesn’t need to). A mage hero flings magic, even if he starts out reluctant to use it because it could get out of control, not that it ever does. So what is someone who’s neither fighter nor mage, or whose magic is healing or creative, to do?
Outthink the problem. Duh.
So. Bound prisoner. They have only one horse, which the bitchy tomboy princess wants to ride and which also carries their packs. They have to travel over rough country. They can make it on foot, but someone bound with chains will have more than a little difficulty and slow them down. What to do?
This one isn’t really very hard. Put the prisoner on the horse, arrange whatever packs can still be carried on the horse’s sides, shoulder the rest themselves, and put up with the bitchy tomboy princess’s whining. With careful planning and arranging, the weight won’t kill them. And, hey, so the princess whines. Who cares? If she crosses the line and tries to hurt someone or untie the prisoner—whom I personally would not leave her alone with—then she’ll deserve to be punished instead of put up with. Otherwise, you get through the rough country and keep everybody alive first, not try to make everybody perfectly happy. Not fighting and killing every enemy in sight does not make a character a pushover.
No, that doesn’t mean you automatically need to make a coward a genius. On the other hand, he’s survived thus far, and he has to have some set of skills. (More on this in point 4). I often think that fantasy authors don’t know what to do with heroes who aren’t fighters or mages, or some close variation of that, such as assassins. He probably wouldn’t even think of solutions that involve fighting skills that he doesn’t have, because, hey, he doesn’t have them. I can imagine him thinking wistfully that fighting or killing would be simpler, but then he has to go ahead and do the best he can without those talents.
4) Create a plot that plays to this character’s strengths.
Non-fighting characters, as I mentioned, are often seen as pushovers. They give in to other characters’ bitching. They yield their own principles at a moment’s pressure. They turn easily into traitors. They can do nothing when captured or challenged but squirm and look away.
Next to authorial attitudes, I think stupid plotting is the main reason for this. The author sticks too closely to a plot that favors one and only one character occupation, or insists that this character is the center of the story by default and has her sprout all the skills she needs to never make a mistake (Destiny-ridden hero/ines who just somehow manage to become awesome fighters and riders and mages and lovers are the prime examples of this). But you don’t have to have a quest or war or journey plot.
What about a novel set entirely in a temple or other religious complex? Of course, that would require the author to engage closely and deeply with the religion of her constructed world, which many also seem reluctant to do. But in such a complex, a non-fighting character wouldn’t necessarily be scorned—unless the author takes the route of cliché and makes them warrior monks or religious knights, who, of course, are always much better and more valued than other kinds of monks and knights—and might have the force of tradition and morality on his side. Also, he’s in a place where he can practice his trained skills. The fighter hero who scorns books and prayers and ritual is not going to be much help when the whole metaphysical structure of the world starts unraveling and the clue is hidden in the temple’s manuscript, is he?
What about a novel where the main character is a teacher? And yes, I did say and mean teacher, not student. And not someone who runs around in the wilderness training angsty Destiny-ridden heroes to use the sword, either. A teacher in an actual academy. I think she teaches history. Her name is Mauraslei. She has eyebrows like wings and a frown that’s her habitual expression. She wouldn’t know one end of a sword from the other, but she knows the histories of the fallen empires intricately, and she knows when a student is having trouble in her class, and how to coax them to come to her for help. She’s not that good with personal help, though, and tends to fumble around with it; she’s excellent with the academic side of things, like managing time and studying. And no, she wouldn’t be that much help if the school got besieged, but have her helping one child grow out of a severe brainwashing with a historical precedent and you’ll force her to both rely on her expertise and grow.
There are all sorts of wonderful plots running around, once you stop thinking of the Holy Trinity of War, Quest for an Object or Place (the rarer quest for self-knowledge can work very well), and Journey.
5) Find magic in the ordinary.
Another way that fantasy gets prejudiced towards fighter characters is to set up these stories where the whole pattern of the tale gets predicated on the ‘triumph or tragedy’ spectrum. The character either saves the world, or he fails and everyone gets damned. He wins the love of his life or he falls into despair forever. He goes on the hunt and he kills the beast that he needs to kill to become an adult, or he gets scorned for another year. There are extremes, and extremes only. There is no in-between. So of course your character is going to have to struggle like mad, even if he doesn’t fight with actual weapons, because how can he lose?!?
I’ve mentioned before that I dislike being made to cheer for a character only because of what will happen if he fails, right?
A non-fighter character would fit another pattern quite nicely. This is the pattern where he continues existing in his society, and doesn’t break away from it; where he wants what he wants, but doesn’t set himself on that or dying; where he suffers and is mistaken as often as other people, and his sufferings and mistakes matter as much as theirs, no more, no less; where the world lives on because it was never threatened with utter salvation or utter damnation. It’s the pattern of comedy instead of tragedy, in fact.
I seem to keep thinking of Ursula Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” lately, in which she points out how many stories are Hero stories, because that’s what we’ve been trained to expect, it’s exciting, and isn’t reading about killing just grand? “Go on, say I, wandering off towards the wild oats, with Oo Oo in the sling and little Oom carrying the basket. You just go on telling how the mammoth fell on Boob and how Cain fell on Abel and how the bomb fell on Nagasaki and how the burning jelly fell on the villagers and how the missiles will fall on the Evil Empire, and all the other steps in the Ascent of Man…I said it was hard to make a gripping tale of how we wrested the wild oats from their husks, I didn’t say it was impossible. Who ever said writing a novel was easy?” (151,153).
So as well as having violent heroes in violent stories and pacifist main characters in violent stories, you can have pacifist characters in pacifist stories, where a sword is not always the first answer. Neato.