J. Michael Gonzalez

Ruminations on Character Expansion in Fantasy

While I was working through some issues with Secrets of Tevithic, I had a conversation with Elle, a friend of mine. I've been grappling with the way I wanted to present Demon -- essentially struggling to find her voice. The character is somewhat sheltered and a little naive, but nevertheless resourceful and completely capable in difficult circumstances. However, the journey that Demon experiences is extremely challenging, and I was debating how much this should be reflected in the writing. While I was discussing this with Elle (she was giving feedback on the first draft of my outline), she made a really interesting point (well, two points, really, but they sort of elide together). She first pointed out that as the story progresses, Demon gets progressively weaker, something she found very frustrating as someone that reads fantasy as an escape. To a degree this was intentional on my part, but sometimes it's hard to tell if I'm striking the right balance between the countervailing forces driving the story and the character's resultant development. I was going to classify her comment as "food for thought" and move on the next point I was seeking feedback for, when she made her second point [which was really a lengthier conversation which I'm distilling for convenience]: within the broader fantasy genre, characters predominantly expand -- become greater or deeper in their power, wisdom, or self-realization as the story progresses. They rarely go the other way -- as was the case with that early draft of the SoT outline.

At first I was skeptical, but as I cast about for counterexamples within mainstream fantasy, I was surprised to find a striking dearth; it's not universally true, but in broad strokes, counterexamples are heavily outnumbered. A couple of canonical examples: Lord of the Rings -- all of the hobbits expand through the course of the story, as do Aragorn and even Gandalf; Buffy gains wisdom and experience as her narrative arc continues, but she rarely contracts or weakens for lengthy periods of time -- her cohorts often experience moments of weakness or collapse (Willow is a great example of that sort of frailty), but Buffy rarely does. Elle subsequently pointed out the first two books of Paul Edwin Zimmer's Dark Border series, The Lost Prince and King Chondos' Ride, books which we'd both read many years ago, as counterexamples -- but even in those books, within the context of their gritty and darkly beautiful world, we see the fantasy hero expanding as one of the main protagonists, Istvan, grapples with his own demons.

I'm not 100% sure what the impact on SoT will be, but it's an interesting point that's making me reconsider whether I need to dwell on the character's growing weakness -- her contraction, if you will.