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Everlasting Characters
Nina Hess

A character in a series is a special sort of beast—he has to be that much more compelling, that much more daring and complicated and real, than a character created for standalone fiction. The more series I edit, the more I've been wondering if I can quantify that magic combination of vices and virtues that make up a great series character such as Drizzt or Harry Potter and the like. What exactly is it about these fictional people that makes us want to return to them again and again? Is it the universal problems they face? Their flawed but fascinating temperaments? Their fun friends and really cool stuff?

As I was pondering this, I could think of no one better to weigh in than Richard Lee Byers. Byers's The Masked Witches, Brotherhood of the Griffon Book IV comes out this month and features characters that he's been writing about in one form or another since Unclean (The Haunted Lands, Book I) released in 2007. I emailed to ask him if he might send me his thoughts that I could quote in this column. Richard, ever the writer, responded with an essay of his own.

Ever the editor, I threw up my hands and thought, why compete? Take it away, Richard:

The Changing vs. Unchanging Protagonist

When planning a series, the author must decide whether he's going to create a protagonist who never changes very much or one who will age and evolve. In the literature of fantastic adventure, Tarzan, Kull, Eric John Stark, and Northwest Smith are examples of the former. Conan, the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd, Harry Potter, and John Taylor are examples of the latter.

Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. The unchanging hero never risks losing the qualities that made him appealing in the first place, and he never arrives at a point where further adventures become illogical. But beyond a certain point, he and his exploits may seem stale and repetitive.

The hero who evolves holds our interest because he and his adventures aren't fundamentally the same every time. Moreover, because real people do age and change, such protagonists help the writer achieve deeper characterization and address a wider range of themes. The risk is that the character will change in a way that destroys his appeal or reach the logical endpoint of his saga.

To me, the latter approach is more interesting and more what contemporary readers expect, and it's the one I use in the Brotherhood of the Griffon books. The characters are changing over time. This is most obvious with Aoth, who's come a long way since his youth as a Thayan legionnaire. But his friends are changing, too.

Virtues vs. Weaknesses

However one approaches a series, a writer needs to invent protagonists who are interesting enough that readers will want to spend time with them repeatedly. In fantastic adventure fiction, this is often achieved by creating heroes who are powerful, brave, resourceful, witty, noble, and/or sexy. Sometimes the narrative even comes right out and proclaims them the Chosen Ones, favored children of destiny. Everyone would like to possess these qualities, and thus it's fun to identify with such characters.

But characters who only possess virtues and strengths risk seeming trite and shallow. It's also harder to make readers believe they've ended up in a spot so tough they might not make it out. Thus, it's often useful to give protagonists weaknesses to offset their finer qualities and show them making mistakes and bad choices.

Although the series where only a single hero continues from one story to the next can certainly work, a series with multiple protagonists presents advantages. It increases the odds that a given reader will become attached to somebody, and the evolving relationships among the heroes provide additional opportunities for characterization and human drama.

In fact, the characters' imperfections and relationships can provide long-running subplots that help draw readers back for story after story. From the start, the Brotherhood of the Griffon books have implicitly asked if Jhesrhi will ever get over her fear of being touched, and if she and Gaedynn will ever get together. More recently, the novels brought Aoth and Cera together but suggested his life as a wandering mercenary and her duty to her faith may soon pull them apart.

A character with a mysterious past can also help to keep the audience coming back. In the Brotherhood of the Griffon books, Khouryn the dwarf is essentially living a life in exile from his beloved wife and kin, but the series has yet to explain why. I hope readers are curious to find out.

Keeping a Series Ongoing

One potential problem with a series is that readers may assume nothing really awful and permanent can ever happen to the leads, and this diminishes suspense. One way to get around this is to introduce characters who aren't part of the core group but function as major protagonists in a particular story. In the Brotherhood of the Griffon novels based in Chessenta, Medrash and Balasar fill these roles.

When creating an open-ended series, the writer should also come up with a premise that can launch characters into adventure after adventure. The Brotherhood of the Griffon characters are mercenaries, and there will always be another commission and another war to keep the saga going.

As a final note, two issues arise when working with preexisting characters in a shared world that should be kept in mind:

The first is portraying them in a manner consistent with the way they've been depicted previously. The writer accomplishes this by doing his research.

The second is doing something with the characters that precludes other writers using them later on. It is sometimes possible to kill preexisting characters or otherwise take them out of play, but only after consultation with the guiding lights of the setting. In The Haunted Lands, I killed many of the established characters in Thay, but I had permission.

What do you all think? What are your favorite series characters and what is it about them that makes you want to return to them again and again?


Nina Hess
Nina Hess is the editor-in-chief of Wizards of the Coast/Dungeons & Dragons Novels and a hopeless read-a-holic. Before the days of ereaders, she had to resort to reading the hotel welcome packet if ever she was caught on vacation without enough to read. She was once almost kicked off a plane flight for sneaking out to buy a book on a layover.
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