Characterization in High Fantasy

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading a fantasy book titled Ombria in Shadow.  I have to admit I’m still in some confusion as to how I feel about it. It’s obvious that the author has a great grasp of language, imagery, and the craft of writing itself. What is less clear is whether she has a grasp on how to write a novel. 

The book is about a kingdom called Ombria and the crisis which occurs there when the king dies. He is survived by his very young son and heir, his bastard nephew, his low-born mistress and an ‘aunt,’ a strange woman who has been a shadow power behind the throne for longer than anyone can remember. Of course, a power struggle ensues between those who want to depose the heir and those who want to protect him.

The plot itself is nothing to write home about, though it could certainly be worse. Unlike a lot of literature that deals in politics (fantasy or otherwise), the plot of Ombria in Shadow lacks a certain richness and complexity. We are never in doubt as to who is bad and who is good, or who wants what.

In that same vein, the characters are also strangely lacking. Take, for instance, the mistress mentioned above. In the beginning of the novel she’s being thrown out on the streets, in all her regalia, by the domineering ‘aunt’ who has seized control in the last few days of the king’s terminal illness. The mistress flees back to her father’s inn, where she had worked and been picked up by the king years before.

In the following pages, nothing of her characterization convinces me that she was worth the love of a king who could, presumably, have anyone. She’s a passive character for most of the book and a bit of a wet blanket, to be honest.  And I had trouble with a lot of the other characters as well. They had underdeveloped backgrounds, made poorly explained choices, and often had moments of clarification that were not preceded by moments of actual discovery. Which just goes to show, I guess, that even if you can write, it doesn’t mean that your journey is over.

The character arc can be explored in numerous different ways, depending on how the author wishes to direct the story. For example, in Ombria, it was clear to me that the author was more interested in the world she had created than in the people who inhabited it. Therefore they often did things that altered the world and forwarded the plot, but made little sense in their own lines of development.

Properly understanding and motivating a character can push him or her far towards becoming more like a real person and less like a tool. Back when I was in high school, in order to flesh out my characters I made a 3-page character sheet detailing their physical features and abilities, their strengths and flaws, their phobias and their big psychological traumas. I haven’t looked at that sheet for years now, but it helped me think about different aspects of my characters so I can understand their motivation and what might get in their way.

When fantasy was just starting out as a genre (and even in the case of high fantasy up to the late ’90s and the Harry Potter era) I think it was easier to get away with less-developed characters. Now there’s so much competition out there that we fantasy authors have to make everything as good as we can. We shouldn’t try to focus on a good plot or good description to gloss over larger problems in our work.

Anybody have tips for making a well-rounded character?

9 thoughts on “Characterization in High Fantasy

  1. christinehaggerty says:

    At a writing conference I just attended, there was quite an argument for spending words on a character’s inner world, which you could do by showing what they are like alone or by writing what is in their heads. The challenge is not to make it boring.

    • forgingshadows says:

      Oho, interesting! I think the danger of writing in a character’s inner world is that we’ll often slip into exposition land, rather than explore the depths of that character.On the other hand, Terry Pratchett delves into the inner worlds of his characters all the time and he does an amazing job.

  2. […] Characterization in High Fantasy ( […]

  3. The better “inner world” commentaries usually have something to do with the story and plot and are discussed at relevant moments in the action (or just before or after). Otherwise it seems like pointless exposition.

    Thinking of it that way is a good way to build character, too, as you can give him/her issues relating to what they need to do, causing conflict.

    • forgingshadows says:

      Thank you for your comment. I think you have hit exactly upon what inner world commentaries should be about, but authors are often so wrapped up in our characters and worlds that we can’t always tell when we’re revealing too much or too little. Either transgression will annoy readers, so it’s a hard line to walk.

  4. Funny you should use this book as aan example. I read it in the French translation (I live in France and got it from the library) and found it extremely confused and confusing. It’s a sure sign that the writing is muddled if a good translator loses the plot. I couldn’t actually work out what happened in the end if I remember it rightly.
    I agree with what you say about the necessity of producing rounded, believable characters. It’s easy to write a story, then have your characters act it out willy nilly, much harder to invent the kind of characters who would naturally do what you need to advance the plot.
    I find myself asking what I would do in a given situation, then what somebody a bit braver, or kinder, or bitchier would do. If the plot hinges on someone going over a cliff, for example, don’t have your wimpiest character doing the pushing. Either make sure there’s somebody capable of murder on the spot, or have the character fall off the cliff.

    • forgingshadows says:

      Thank you for your comment. I love that you also read this book, your comment highlights pretty much exactly what I thought ‘Ombria in Shadow’ did. Very eloquently put!

  5. ramirezramon says:

    I have to agree with Christine Haggerty above. The most important thing for me when considering a character’s inner world is to see where I can surprise the reader. Adding interesting facts / experiences to the character’s thoughts is a great way to let your character grow and keep your readers’ attention. Another positive is that it often leads to other characters and/or events that can be a lifesaver when the old writer’s block kicks in.

    Hope this helps.


    • forgingshadows says:

      Thanks for your comment. I agree, Christine is awesome. Lots of things to consider when making full characters! Unfortunately I think it’s really easy to mark out when people do it wrong, but more difficult to figure out how to do it right for the individual author.

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