Lines from Swinburne’s Ave atque Vale, for no real reason:

For, sparing of his sacred strength, not often
Among us darkling here the lord of light
Makes manifest his music and his might
In hearts that open and in lips that soften
With the soft flame and heat of songs that shine.
Thy lips indeed he touch’d with bitter wine,
And nourish’d them indeed with bitter bread;
Yet surely from his hand thy soul’s food came,
The fire that scarr’d thy spirit at his flame
Was lighted, and thine hungering heart he fed
Who feeds our hearts with fame.

This rambles, and complains, and is partially a product of the fact that I had to get up early this morning and walk to school through three-quarters of a mile of icy sidewalks. Be warned.

1) Try a new occupation.

Fantasy is filled with wandering warriors and mages, royals, and peasants (who half the time turn into wandering warriors or mages or royal heirs, and sometimes all three at once, so they might not even count). Rarely does a fantasy hero appear to hold any other job. The existence of warriors and mages and usually a church of some kind shows that the world is not only nobles and peasants. There must be places where the peasants sell their crops, where the nobles get their luxuries, where the laundry vanishes and then comes back clean and smelling nice.

It just isn’t the done thing for heroes to go there, apparently.

This doesn’t mean that you have to make your hero a servant, spy, or merchant (which often leads them right into being warriors, mages, or royal heirs anyway). For example, there should be more artist heroes in fantasy- entirely because I say so, of course. But it also gives a romantic edge that resembles a warrior, gives your character an excuse to wander and look for work, and involves research and personality traits that you aren’t likely to get if your hero is one of the traditional types. And there aren’t enough of them, or at least not enough that stay artists instead of heroes. The only true example I can think of is Guy Gavriel Kay’s Caius Crispus, his mosaicist hero in the Sarantine Mosaic duology.

Other choices that aren’t nearly as common as the first three I mentioned, or are usually only “first stops” before the character becomes royal or a warrior:

  • teacher
  • scholar
  • priest
  • innkeeper
  • weaver
  • “technician” (or the magical equivalent thereof)
  • glassblower
  • smith
  • cartographer
  • carpenter

2) Do not dump basic information about the hero’s occupation into monologues.

Say you have Talmin Laluten, an assassin’s middleman (a character I used in one novel). He’s been an assassin’s middleman for a thousand years now. He’s on his way to pick up the money due him for serving as the contact between an assassin and a squeamish nobleman.

There is no reason for him to be thinking, as he goes along the icy streets, “And assassin’s middlemen are feared and dangerous. And I have to be the one to kill the assassin if she takes the money and runs, and I have to be ready to kill this nobleman if he cheats. And, incidentally, I am not human, and I can tolerate the cold, and this, and that…”

This is infodumping. This is something that fantasy authors are all too prone to. This is something the fantasy author is even more prone to if she has an exotic occupation for the hero and wants to show it off.

This is Wrong.

There would be no reason for someone settled into a particular job for most of his life, or even just a few years, to be thinking constantly about the basic features of it (unless he has the kind of obsessive cataloging personality that brings up the same things again and again, in which case he should be doing it throughout the story and not only near the beginning). It’s an introduction to the occupation for your audience, but it’s a false and rushed one.

Much better to show Talmin doing his job, with perhaps one or two remarks to clear the way, and get the reader settled in. I think fantasy readers are often more patient than authors give them credit for. They wait hundreds of pages to find out the answers to prophecies and who the heir to the throne is, after all. Surely they can wait a few dozen pages for the hero’s occupation to come clear.

3) Resist the squeeing temptation.

This is the pride of invention. The fantasy author has just invented a brand new occupation for the character. She wants everybody to know how very fucking cool this is. So she makes the character perform to the very best of his ability. Whenever I read a novel that starts with the character coolly foiling some villain’s plan or earning a promotion, I can easily imagine the author standing in the background saying, “Squee! Look what I made!”

The problem is that the author usually lapses after this, either because she loses interest in the occupation per se or because she needs the character to perform his job less than perfectly for plot reasons. I have read many novels puzzled that the master fighter in the first few pages now apparently can’t handle two stumbling, stupid guards. If he can perform that well under pressure, surely his performance shouldn’t decline dramatically in a more relaxed situation.

Make sure that if your hero begins at the top of his game, he stays there. The coolness then becomes part of the plot and not a “Squee!” thing. If he lapses, have it be for good reasons- tiredness, betrayal by a good friend, or something else that causes his concentration to waver- rather than because the job is no longer cool enough to warrant your best writing.

Which reminds me.

4) Use the job as part of the plot.

This is the reason all those stories of farmers who find out they’re royal heirs fall flat for me. Why in the world would you make your hero a farmer if it has nothing to do with the plot? Why not just get him adopted by a noble family who lives a distance from the court? That way, he stands a greater chance of living to see his heirhood, not to mention knowing some of the noble customs and having a nicer life. He’s still distant enough from the court that the author can inject all those “funny” scenes of not knowing what knife to use at dinner, though.

Similarly, those characters who are only bards until they find out they can sing magical songs annoy me. The author could as easily have made them musical mages from the beginning, who find out they’ve gotten a sudden boost in talent for weird reasons.

Don’t inject an occupation that feels like a false start, or one that lapses because you start paying attention to other things. If you want the character to start out as something and then change dramatically, have her be bored and frustrated in her current job as a negotiator between the squabbling D’ken and Pa’link tribes. This gives her the impetus to change, and makes a much nicer plot than the character abandoning her responsibilities because she finds out she has super-duper magical powers.

5) Remember, or decide on, the limitations for the job.

I’ve snickered before at stories of exhausted heroes who somehow manage to fight a tenth battle on the same day, heavy armor and all. It doesn’t work like that. Even single swordfights usually only last a few minutes, because of the weight of the blades and armor. Melee battles won’t last very long, either, because the more frail and the more tired will be beaten down quickly. And your hero who’s just recovering from a wound or from exhaustion shouldn’t be able to stand up and fight like nothing’s happened.

Decide on recovery time for your hero’s occupation, whatever it is. That way, if you open with a daring “Squee!” sequence, then you can know how long he would have to rest before he went out and did it again. If you or the plot don’t give him a chance to rest, then don’t be surprised when your readers begin snorting- or snoring- at yet another daring chase sequence. No person should be able to run around non-stop, particularly not in the high-stress occupations typical of fantasy heroes, and not get wounded, tired, hungry, and desperately in need of emptying his bladder.

6) Cut down on the lonely maverick type.

The classic fantasy hero is used to working alone, “works best alone,” won’t take or will deliberately disobey orders, and always saves the day coolly and by himself. This is boring, as well as unrealistic. How many monarchs would employ a fighter who turned against them whenever he felt like it? A 100% chance says that they can find someone else just as good who isn’t eager to prove his independence by slitting their throats.

The maverick types are too common to be interesting, and most often occur in situations where it doesn’t make sense to work alone, such as soldiers in an army, spies, or assassins. If the spy doesn’t listen to other spy reports because he knows he’s better than they are, he shouldn’t be surprised when he walks into enemy arms. And an assassin who doesn’t employ any contacts to ferret out information about his target and his target’s weapons and defenses is a dead assassin. One of the few credible assassin characters I’ve ever seen, Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos, relies on contacts to tell him where his targets like to eat, what they wear, their common routes, and how nervous they are about the assassination as well as telling him about his commission in the first place. Many other assassins seem to work out of thin air, and aren’t nearly as credible.

Hmm. Think I complained about everything I wanted to complain about.