Forty percent of this list is comprised of women. It actually would have been quite easy for it to be half, especially seeing how seriously we considered Arya Stark, but we didn’t want the characters from Westros overrunning the list, so with some real regret, we had to leave her off. However, we do have two characters from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and one of our favorite women this week. The two men may actually be the two characters in fantasy we have spent the most time discussing; two of the fictional characters we have discussed most, full stop, in fact. Whatever nitpicks we may have with Martin’s series, his place as a modern master of character has never been in doubt since we first picked up A Game of Thrones. His skill at vivid character description as well as his knack at building sympathy for the questionably moral are worth every writers’ time to study, whatever genre they write. As for the woman in this week’s installment, she is the touchstone we use whenever discussing female characters in fantasy. She is our byword for what a woman in epic fantasy ought to be.
7. Jaime Lannister
Whenever we talk about character POV, we almost always end up talking about characters from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. You think you know one of his characters, and then, almost invariably, when you get a chapter from that character’s POV, everything changes. Jaime is really the poster boy for this. He’s in an incestuous relationship with his sister, he’s widely despised for breaking his oath and killing the old king, and he pushes a little boy out a window the first time we meet him. He seems completely irredeemable—almost too villainous to be believed. But then you see the world from his perspective, and, while you don’t exactly forgive him, you understand him. You even start to sympathize with him. Someday when we get around to finishing Magnificent Kingdom, we’re going to be thinking a lot about Jaime and this wide contrast between the way he is seen and the way he sees himself. One of the main characters of Magnificent Kingdom is going to be a wizard, Kuhlbert, who becomes known to later history as a terrible villain. But even many of his enemies at the time recognize he was honestly always trying to do the right thing.
Writing female characters can be fraught with political booby-traps. Does she have agency? Does your novel pass the Bechdel test? Is she a damsel in distress, a man with boobs, a male fantasy? Sometimes it feels as though the hardest thing to do is leave all the potential cultural baggage at the door and just write a great character who happens to be female. We can’t track it down, but we both remember reading years ago an article discussing how lucky Tolkien was to be writing The Lord of the Rings before the feminist movement of the 1960s, because it allowed Eowyn to simply be, without stress of tackling what being a shield maiden says about equal pay and whatnot. However one puts it, there is a naturalness to the character, making Eowyn entirely female, entirely strong, and utterly fascinating. She also expresses a desire not often attributed to women, and yet felt by many—the desire to be tested physically. It is a trait at the heart of traditional masculinity, but to deny that many women also feel the urge to show physical courage is to miss an important impulse in many women. In fact, when discussing the similarities of the seemingly very different female POV characters in the Quartet, we often quote Eowyn’s most telling line:
“What do you fear, lady?” he (Aragorn) asked.
“A cage,” she (Eowyn) said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”
That’s an answer most people would associate with a man, and yet, it is imperative to remember that Eowyn is no man. And it is, in fact, the mission statement of both our female leads in the Quartet.
5. Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish
Littlefinger is one of the most intriguing characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, and he’s certainly the most interesting character to have never had a POV chapter. At one point in A Storm of Swords, he tells Sansa Stark, “Always keep your foes confused. If they are never certain who you are or what you want, they cannot know what you are like to do next. Sometimes the best way to baffle them is to make moves that have no purpose, or even seem to work against you.” And that is exactly why he is such a fascinating character. You’re never quite sure where he stands. You never know what deeper game he might be playing, but you’re positive he must be playing one. In fact, in spite of the fact that one of the things Martin does so well is to make you sympathize with a character by showing you that character’s POV, we actually hope we never get to see the world from Littlefinger’s perspective. It would spoil the mystery. If you saw the world through his eyes, you’d have to know what he was thinking and what he was planning. And what fun would that be? In our own writing, we have a rather Littlefinger-like character named Konrad. His role at the beginning of the Quartet is pretty ambiguous—is he on our heroes’ side or not? Later it becomes clearer that if he’s on anyone’s side, it’s his own. He makes several cameo appearances in My Private War, and he’s scheduled to show up in one of the upcoming Oleg Omdahl mysteries. But we’re probably never going to write from his point of view, simply because it’s so much more fun to keep the reader guessing about his motives.
Stay tuned for characters 4-2 next week!
J and S