This means writing the characters who have to work to achieve things, rather than having things handed to them. The people with unearned magic, true love, destinies, and beauty have no place here. I’m talking about the second-in-commands who pick up after the nobles, the fighters who have actually trained for years to become good at what they do, the lovers who worked on their relationship or arranged marriage instead of just tumbling effortlessly into bed with each other due to hormones or shared danger, the parents who throw their whole heart into raising a child. People who have problems, and make mistakes, and struggle and fail and fall and stand up again.
1) Limitations are built-in.
This means that there are some things your character will never be able to accomplish, no matter what she or he might dream of. These can be physical. He might want to marry a certain girl, but never be able to, because she’s married to someone else and loves her husband. She might want to become an archer, but be unable to do so, because she’s not strong enough to bend a longbow.
Alter it a bit, and these are limitations of one’s time or station in life. He doesn’t have enough money to marry a lord’s daughter. She could be an archer if she had years to learn the craft, but she has to help take care of sick parents and a dozen younger siblings as well as attend the classes that will teach her to read and write and hopefully make a better life for herself; she’ll never be an expert.
And then there’s the limitations of temperament. He simply doesn’t have the gentleness and wisdom that she wants in a husband. She doesn’t have the patience to put up with all the mistakes and aches and pains that come from learning archery.
The first thing to remember when writing someone else is that he or she cannot do or win everything. Constraints that might get smoothed over if you were willing to ignore how many hours exist in a day, for example, or how long it actually takes to master a craft, bind her, because they exist and won’t go away just because she asks them to. In fact, one of the most important questions you’ll want to ask yourself, either right after “What can she do?” or even before it, is, “What can’t she do?”
2) What they do, they earn.
If you’re writing about someone who doesn’t have the automatic, built-in sinecures of royal birth, earth-shaking magic, stunning beauty, world-saving destiny, or help from the gods that so many fantasy protagonists get? Right away, she’s got an uphill struggle. She may have advantages that get her somewhere—for example, she may be the daughter of a petty lord, which secures her a position as a companion to the daughter of a greater lord—but they’re not cheats. They won’t vault her to the top of the line right away, as happens to so many others. If she’s a singer, she doesn’t make people stop dead, stare at her, and pay for her bard training right away. If she’s a beginning swordswoman, she doesn’t beat the master-at-arms first try. (“Age and cunning will beat youth and stupidity every time.”) If she’s got magic, she can’t do every spell in an ancient book by the time she’s seven, not if everyone else takes until they’re twenty-seven—and she particularly can’t do this if the book is written in a language she’s never learned to read. As you can see, this is not the realm of the genius child or teenager.
So how does she become a great bard, or a great swordswoman, or a great mage? She works. She works her little butt off, and she draws on qualities that other people possess but which she tries to develop—cleverness, patience, courage, honesty, a good memory, the ability to lie, keen eyesight—and she fails sometimes, and she gets there through process and progress, not through leapfrogging.
Does this mean the ordinary protagonist always has to be the hero/ine of a training story? Goodness, no. You can join them as adults. But even in fantasy stories with adult hero/ines, there seems to be this temptation to insist that they were the most talented/the best/the quickest singer or swordswoman or mage ever. That, you will need to give up.
3) “The only” syndrome has to go.
There are two varieties of this. One is literal. The heroine is the only survivor of her race, or the only one of her kind, or the only one possessed of her particular talent. This does not end well if you are going for an ordinary hero. (Take it too far, and you end up taking an express train to Canon Mary Sue Land. See: Cecilia Dart-Thornton, the Bitterbynde Trilogy, in which the heroine is “the only one of” an awful lot).
The second one is more common, and can also be more problematic, because the author thinks that it’s less problematic than the literal problem. This is the heroine being the only smart person out of a particular group, or the only good student in her class, or the only sibling who actually cares about her family, or the only compassionate person in a certain village. The signs of this are pretty damn obvious. Everyone around her treats her like dirt, except for maybe one or two caring friends who know her innate specialness—for some reason, they usually show up after the heroine has lamented having “no” friends—and their reasons are based in hatred and jealousy and fear of her powers. Because, of course, they know they are as dirt under her feet. (Also a short path to Canon Mary Sue Land. See: Elizabeth Haydon, the Rhapsody books).
Get over both of these, if you intend to write an ordinary person as your protagonist. There will be other people who are compassionate, intelligent, good at the particular skill she’s training in. The hardest test may be making these people exist and not be your protagonist’s friends. (See point 5). There will be people who are more special than she is, or as special. There will be times she makes mistakes and it isn’t the fault of a nasty teacher who downgraded her exams, or someone dislikes her and it’s not because they’re jealous. (Revenge of point 5). She’ll hurt others, even if not on purpose, because that is what living people do. (Point 5 comes back from the Black Lagoon).
Releasing your death grip on “the only” syndrome may be extremely hard, and even scary, given how many of fantasy’s plots tend to hinge on it, but I think it will produce more real people than any number of stories about heroes who are the last living descendants of King Arthur or the only competent mages in the Six Kingdoms.
4) Your ordinary hero can produce more, and more varied, emotional reactions.
A subtler manifestation of “the only” syndrome is when everyone, or one particular group, has a reaction to the protagonist that is not jealousy. However, the point is that it is still only one reaction. There are no nuances in it. Everyone loves her. Everyone reveres her. Everyone is in awe of her. And that love, or reverence, or awe, is equal in everyone. What will never exist is a person who is indifferent to her—unless that person is an uneducated plebe who must be disabused of his ignorance as quickly as possible, so that he, too, can cower. (Night of the living point 5).
But an ordinary hero? Some people won’t care. Her friends will love her, but for different reasons. Some would choose her over their siblings or families. Others wouldn’t. A mentor may have patience with her, but if she keeps to these stupid antics that are pulling the mentor’s own reputation down, she’ll chastise her harshly. Parents will love her but not understand her, or they’ll understand her better than she understands herself, and be right that running away from home to become a carnival freak wasn’t what she really wanted. (Point 5 vs. Jason). Her big sister will boss her around and never notice how much she hates it, because she’s never said so, thinking the inevitable fight more trouble than it’s worth. Her own child will give her fits, and she will realize, halfway through a yelling session, that she has become her mother.
This is so interesting that I’ve never understood the point of “the only” syndrome. Why make your protagonist universally beloved? Why make all her friends love her for the same reason? What is the point? Let her go forth into a big wide world. And then the other people get to be healthy, living characters with inner lives of their own, because the author is not forcing those inner lives to revolve around the protagonist.
5) Negative reactions to her will exist, and that will be okay.
She doesn’t win every argument, nor does she lose them only because her opponents are stubborn and stupid. People can disagree with her politely, and not be evil racist fuckwits or sheep who deny the self-evident truth. No, not even if they disagree with her about magic coming back and it is coming back. Just because she’s right doesn’t mean their reasons for disagreeing are bad ones.
In fact, she can, revolutionary concept, lose arguments because she is wrong. And no, this isn’t a Lesson Story where she’s about to get thwapped with a revelation that not all people of [insert group X] are bad, or magic is real. The opponent has no mystical or ultra-100% positive proof on his side. (If he did, why is this argument still ongoing in the book’s world?) She’s just wrong, that’s all. Ordinary protagonists can actually fail and make mistakes, you see, because the author is keeping limitations in mind. And she has the limitation of not having her perceptions line up accurately and truly with objective reality or secret history.
Now think about the characters who tend to be traditionally cast in opponent roles in fantasy—parents, bullies, people fighting for the opposite side, sometimes traitors or siblings. The parents do not need to have slapped her around. In fact, I would prefer they didn’t, thanks, since too many fantasy protagonists are supposedly “excused” by an abusive background. Nor do they have to have wanted her to behave better out of malicious motives like crushing her spirit; that suggests, once again, that their inner lives revolve around her, and they had nothing better to do, like farming or having sex. The revolutionary aspect, at this point, would be to give a protagonist a frustrating but loving relationship with her parents, rather than an abusive one or a sugar-coated one.
Bullies do not need to be obsessed with her, either. It’s rather pathetic when they are. If these really are the most popular kids in school, they probably spend some time hanging out with their friends. If they pick on everyone who looks weak, they’ll have other victims to pick on. Once again, the key is variation. Giving your hero/ine a constant nemesis which she did nothing to earn is another variation of “the only” syndrome.
Why do people on the opposite side need to hate the heroine personally to want her dead? She can annoy them all on her own. If she’s a competent second-in-command in the field, they’ll probably want her gone to lessen losses among their soldiers. If she gives good advice to the queen, someone in court could want to pick her off because they want to engineer the queen’s fall, not hers. You could go back to the first thing I suggested, and have people who believe passionately in their own ideals, as she believes in her own, and are willing to kill for them, as she is willing to kill for hers. There’s the best clash, if the hardest one to handle. (See also point 6).
And what about if she has real flaws, and fails, and makes mistakes? That will earn her negative reactions. Her employer was depending on her, and she failed him? It seems that she’ll have a pretty good reason to either fear him or work twice as hard to get his good regard back. She makes a mistake on the battlefield? It may have been an innocent mistake, but those soldiers are still dead, and no wonder others are wary to follow her. She can’t control her temper or her tongue and makes caustic remarks when it would be better to let sleeping dogs lie? Small wonder if she wakes up the next morning to find a bawdy song about her circulating around the city, especially if she annoyed a bard or a bard’s friend.
Make her the center of the story, by all means. Don’t make her the center of the universe, and suddenly other people are free from her shadow, free to do what they want—and some of that will be disliking her or being indifferent to her for motives other than jealousy.
6) They do not have to be islands.
Many fantasy heroes are lone mavericks because No One Can Understand Their Pain. Or their magic or their duty or their destiny separates them forcibly from other people, and then they can angst about How It Is Lonely At The Top. Or they do good things that everyone refuses to acknowledge, and then they are The Unsung Heroes.
It rarely seems to occur to these heroes to reach out, much less consider other people as people, rather than servants or shoulders to cry on.
Ordinary protagonists will inevitably be more connected, because they can’t accomplish everything on their own, and because they can have relationships with others that don’t embrace only the extreme emotions. They’ll need friends, coworkers, comrades, underlings, acquaintances, people who will do them a favor in return for a favor, attendants, advisors. They’ll have superiors, commanders, rulers, employers. They’ll have siblings, parents, lovers, spouses, and—another rare thing for most fantasy protagonists—children.
They won’t have perfect bonds with all of them. Some of them will destruct rather spectacularly. Some of them will never be more than shallow. Some of them will be intense but hard to explain to outsiders.
You know. Kind of like life.
7) Life is a matter of living.
Another thing typical fantasy heroes tend to waste their time on is not living. The heroine makes a vow never to trust men again because a man once betrayed her, and that means she deliberately shuts herself off from people who could be wonderful—until the one destined hero comes along who can melt her frozen heart, of course. Someone abused as a child never gets over it, not primarily because the wounds are deep but because he never makes an effort to heal, only chews his angst over and over again. Someone who loses his son to outlaws tracks down and kills all the outlaws, but never does anything like adopt a child or help a child in danger, until the destined royal orphan comes along whom he must be forced to guard. And authors usually present these as laudable, understandable reactions, not to be gotten over but to be wallowed in.
Ordinary protagonists are better able to live, I think, because the author keeps in mind that they’re connected to others, that they don’t produce just one emotional reaction—or feel one emotional reaction, for that matter—and aren’t “the only” anything. Also, if point 2 is kept in mind, what you have is someone who is used to earning some things for herself, not just having them handed to her on a silver platter, and used to making mistakes and getting up from them again, not letting one bad experience stop her dead in her tracks. So stories of healing, reconciliation, effort, and living become possible, not just tales of frozen psychology suddenly broken when the protagonist is needed to save the world.
One of my favorite books several years ago was Waylander, by David Gemmell, may he rest in peace. In many ways, it’s unremarkable, a very medieval-ish fantasy about a deadly assassin. But one reason I liked the main character so much was that he started struggling to overcome the emotional decay the death of his wife and son had plunged him into, and that his constant mourning was not presented as admirable—in fact, one of his best friends tells him to his face that he’s an idiot for doing that, and the “heroic” figures in the story, those who accomplish the mystic quests, are other people. He suffers other losses in stories after that one, but once he’s learned that lesson, he doesn’t need it repeated. He keeps living.
I wish there were more stories like that.
I think I like working within the limits lately; I’ve lost most of my taste for extreme magic, extreme beauty, extreme everything.