Thief heroes are an affront to good sense, good taste, good fantasy, and good writing…if done badly.

1) Spunky thieves are the spawn of bad writers.

You know the ones. These are the people right out of Oliver Twist, or rather a musical. You rather suspect they’re going to start singing and dancing any moment, or at least begging cutely.

This doesn’t make sense with the background that most writers give their heroes of this kind. Abuse, life on the streets, being harassed by the law and other thieves, learning in the school of hard knocks, are almost par for the course for fantasy thieves. Yet here you have the spunky teenager who, instead of growing past those tragedies or not talking about them, doesn’t seem to be affected by them at all. (I bet he’s clumsy, too).

With these backgrounds as with all tragedy: They don’t create a dark past for your character just because you’re slapping them on him. That’s black paint, and your character will still be cardboard, just black-painted cardboard. You have to consider him as a person first, and as a survivor of the streets second. Many, many people will react in many different ways to the things that your hero might have survived. Search and find the way he reacts. If you don’t plan to write the past into the story itself or have it come back to haunt him, at least work it out in your head, or in writing if that’s the way you prefer to do it—perhaps short snippets written from his POV at the time the traumas happened, so you know the way he thinks about them. That’s the way to see a shadow under the spunk. Otherwise, it’s all spunk, all the time, and I feel as if I’m watching the Pippi Longstocking channel.

2) Wherefore is there a Thieves’ Guild?

Well, all right, it’s probably inherited from D&D, as a lot of the stereotypes are. It doesn’t mean that the fantasy author needs to retain it without thinking, without questioning.

Think about it. The Thieves’ Guild is usually known to meet in a certain building, at a certain time, and sometimes certain members are actually part of the fantasy city’s government (the Guildmaster, for example). At any one time, there are a large number of criminals in this building. Why doesn’t the government ever mass up and take them out?

Most authors usually write a weak excuse about how the battle with the thieves would be too costly. Yet these are the same authors who don’t have a problem creating a mage who can fireball tons and tons of Orcs original evil fellows. If the city government is as corrupt and hostile to thievery as it’s usually portrayed, why don’t they just pay one of those mages to come in and destroy the Guild? The thieves aren’t usually that proficient in magic (though see point 3), and everyone else hates them and wants to destroy them. The barriers against their destruction are paper-thin.

Also, whyeth the fucketh do the thieves want or need a guild system? Guild systems exist to train up heirs to craft secrets and businesses, and also to insure that wealth and possession of a trade stay in certain families (so, say, if a particular guild member didn’t have a son, he might marry his daughter to his apprentice). Why exactly would thieves be interested in creating heirs for themselves? They don’t have businesses, and are usually possessive of the wealth they acquire, so they don’t want to share it. The “craft secrets” of thievery, like how to pick pockets well, are much more the sort of thing that someone either learns on his own, from scattered friends or gangs who might shelter him, or picks up from observation. The thieves who did train young thieves would be more likely to create competition for themselves than heirs, since most trades take a long time to learn but thievery can be picked up (and usually is, since the hero is oh so precocious) in less time.

The only thieves’ guild systems in all the fantasy I’ve read that make sense are Terry Pratchett’s—in which the Guild itself actually polices crime—and Steven Brust’s House of the Jhereg—which is more like the Mafia, and operates within a legal context where assassination and war are allowed and actually encouraged. That would be a better image to go with, rather than the guild system. What rules of your society would produce a guild-like organization (calling it a guild if it doesn’t follow guild rules is stupid) and why would thieves need it, and how would they keep their enemies from destroying them? Good things to keep in mind.

3) Cut it out on the magical items.

The thief usually doesn’t have magic himself, but he usually manages to steal a magical sword, or a magical bauble, or a magical map, or a magical…hell, just call them magical plot devices. That’s all they are.

Quite often, this doesn’t make any sense with the magical system the author has set up. For example, if magic can only work by manipulating living force, how can it make an item magical? If magic is elemental, what element is being used to create the magic in the plot device? (Talking swords, say, don’t seem to have any immediate connection to earth, air, water, or fire, the most common magical elements in fantasy). If magical items are rare and dangerous, why is the thief hero always just happening to stumble across people who carry them, and why does he try to keep the magical item instead of getting rid of it or selling it?

Oh, also, why in the world can the thief steal it if it’s magical? Why isn’t the device trapped or warded? Most fantasy authors claim that mages can do simple things like clean themselves off without water, yet they never seem to take the same care of their possessions that they do of their bodies, even when that possession is the reason for the quest and the cornerstone of the story.

Magical items are a cheat. The author often creates a thief hero, and then realizes, “Hey, he can’t fight with a broadsword and he can’t use magic. This sucks.” So the magical item gets into the thief’s possession, and suddenly he can use it and he’s the most important part of the story and everyone is chasing after him. There are better reasons to put him in the story. Why not just have him steal the party’s money, and get him involved that way?

4) With thieves as with mercenaries: not a practical one in the lot.

This connects to point 3. Standard Fantasy Thief looks at a traveling party. They carry a treasure chest, a sack full of gems, a sack full of money, jeweled swords, silver items that they use to kill werewolves, golden signet rings, and a tattered map.

Guess what he steals?

Right, the map. Got it in one.

If your thief makes a living by his stealing things, he had better be pretty damn practical. I’m sorry, but any thief who snatches a tattered and not-obviously-valuable item instead of money, precious metal, or jewels, assuming the risk is the same, should have died off long ago, or given it all up and gone to sit on a rock in the desert. Thieves might not be misers, if they have, say, an expensive drug habit and spend the money almost as soon as they acquire it, but they can’t afford to steal things on a whim.

All those thieves who do what they do solely for “a lark” or “fun” or “the challenge of it” can go sit on rocks in the desert, too. In that case, they have to have some other way to make a living. Not all their thefts are going to succeed, especially if they’re up against magical locks and vigilante justice. In a way, a fantasy thief is a hunter; he has to look for good prospects. Hunters can’t afford to just shoot all their arrows in the air and hope they hit a pigeon by some random coincidence. Thieves who live by their wits and hands first and foremost can’t afford to just skip in through random windows or pick random pockets. A bored son of the minor gentry probably could, but most fantasy heroes choose expert thieves, not bored sons of the minor gentry. If your expert continually wanders around and snitches things that can’t feed him, how did he survive to attain his expertise?

5) Why does he steal?

Given that most fantasy thieves seem to have at least one of the following list, and sometimes all of them in combination, I’m amazed that they really don’t go sit on rocks in the desert, or at least enlist in the army.

  • hearts of gold.
  • a fondness for the objects they steal which prevents them from fencing them.
  • skills that could as easily be put to some other use (for example, sleight of hand would well serve a traveling magician, and the ability to climb up walls could serve a mason).
  • no apparent ability to kill certain people, usually those pesky women and children again.
  • a code of honor.
  • a dislike for the people they share their lives with.
  • a dashing urbanity.

Fantasy thieves act like ducks out of water in the mental world they should be comfortable in. Notice that I said mental, not physical. Fantasy thieves are usually represented as knowing how to play the crowd, pick pockets without being seen, spot guards undercover, etc. But that doesn’t prevent then from agonizing about what they do, playing freakin’ Robin Hood, comparing other thieves to pond scum, and on and on and on. This is the other side of spunkiness: an extreme jadedness and sometimes even hatred for their profession, combined with no compelling reason to continue doing it. So why the hell are they still there?

Now, one could easily say, “That’s all he’s known.” Once again, doesn’t fit. Thieves are so damn urbane that they’re represented as easily able to pass themselves off as noblemen, most of the time, despite street origins. Okay. So why don’t they just buy a house with all their ill-gotten gains and retire? Or if they’re too well-known and too well-hunted to retire in the open, then why not vanish and travel to a place where no one knows their reputation, then retire there? It would certainly make more sense than continually having to do something they hate, and which no one is forcing them to do. Indeed, I think most people in the fantasy world would be quite relieved if they stopped.

6) Watch it with the accents and the cant.

I think only pirates in fantasy stories are worse victims of the author’s drive-by dialect attacks. Suddenly people are dropping g’s off words right and left, using terms like “pigeon” or “gull” in complete isolation, and, in the worst cases, actually saying, “Arr!” or some trademark phrase. The worst cases flip between the accent and normal dialogue as if they had schizophrenia. I think it’s more likely the author forgets about dialogue altogether sometimes.

When writing dialect, remember:

  • What are the origins? If your thief’s street-bred and born, then yes, he might talk like that, but so should other people. No giving the hero alone an accent to demonstrate how cool he is.
  • If the dialect is native to him, how is he able to overcome it in order to speak like a nobleman when the author wants him to? It takes serious training to get rid of accents and native vocabulary terms even in our society. Your thief hero shouldn’t just pick it up out of the air.
  • Consider how much work the dialect is to write for you, and how stupid it will actually sound to the reader. If either of those is more work than fun, drop it.

Once again: Humans first, gutter rats second.

Assassins next.