One of my favorite things about epic fantasy is that it tends to have lots of characters doing things, changing the overall situation at whim or by hard work, and generally being awesome. The Fellowship of the Ring consists of various characters of various species, all contributing to Frodo’s mission. (And don’t forget Eowyn, Theoden, and Faramir, none of whom are in the Fellowship). Harry Potter has Ron, Hermione, Neville, Dumbledore, Sirius, Lupin and even Snape (or does he?) on his side throughout his quest to destroy Voldemort.
Besides being a fantasy addict, I’m also a big sports fan, especially of American football. As I watch the Iron Bowl right now (Roll Tide!), I realize one of the things that good football teams have in common with good fantasy novels is that there are various playmakers involved in their victories. An exciting New Orleans Saints game, for instance, would have tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receivers Marques Colston and Devery Henderson, and running backs Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram all scoring touchdowns. Even quarterback Drew Brees might scamper in the endzone for a score. You’d also have defensive players making great plays, creating turnovers, and putting the ball back in the offense’s hands. A great offense can only win you so many games unless you have the defense helping you out on their side when they’re on the field instead of you.
YOU NEED MULTIPLE PLAYMAKERS AMONG YOUR CAST OF CHARACTERS
One thing I’ve learned while writing about Herezoth is that one way to keep myself interested in the novel I’m working on is not to throw everything on one character’s shoulders. That makes the story less believable. Even in fantasy you need some level of verisimilitude. You need a story that’s cohesive, and truly, there is only so much one person can handle emotionally and physically. By spreading the tasks and victories and challenges out among characters, you allow characters with different strengths to shine in their own proper venues. You allow characters to feasibly have weaknesses, which makes them more human. You prevent dumping too much on one person’s shoulders. And you create a situation where you, yourself, as well as your readers, have multiple people to love and cheer for and celebrate. That’s my favorite part of reading, for sure. I love stories where I care equally about numerous characters.
HARRY POTTER AND THE COLLECTION OF AWESOME HELPERS
Take Harry Potter, for instance. (SPOILER ALERT: no major plot points mentioned, but some general plot progressions are discussed below.) While I loved following Harry, Ron, and Hermione, to see Neville Longbottom come into his element made me so, so happy. Those moments where he really shines made me feel totally fulfilled and satisfied with Rowling’s universe. When Hagrid and Dobby do so much to help Harry shine in the first two tasks of the Triwizard Tournament, it becomes so clear that Harry owes so much to those around him. And my favorite character in Rowling’s books is Remus Lupin, the only real Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Harry ever has. The Patronus charm Harry learns from Lupin saves his life on multiple occasions.
Harry Potter might lend his name to each chapter of his series, but his victories are far from solely his own, and I love that. I love that Rowling gave me so many characters to follow and to care about throughout her seven books. So remember when you write:
- Heroic secondary characters remove some of the tension/obligation to act from your protagonist (Why should Harry EVER read “Hogwarts, A History” when Hermione Granger has it memorized cover to cover?)
- They allow your protagonist and others to display weaknesses, because no one character needs to surpass every obstacle if other people can take some of them out of his (or her) way.
- Who doesn’t love cheering on a team? You can feel part of a team. You can emotionally invest in a team. Consider how rabid fans of team sports can get!