And we’re back! If you’ve been following our blog, you were probably starting to think that we were really never going to continue our series on the 10 Best Fantasy Characters. But we just took a little detour, and now here we are again. And just in time, too, because July Camp NaNoWriMo starts this week! No doubt we will be posting soon about our NaNo projects, but first, we’ve got three more of our favorite characters.
This week, we’ve got numbers four, three, and two. And honestly, we’re at the point now where any of these characters could, on a given day, be ranked number one. If we happened to be rereading the books in which he appears, for example, we’d probably put our number three selection at the top. So this is where organizing the list got really difficult for us. But as you’ve doubtless noticed, we’ve had a number of weeks to change out minds, and we’re still happy with the order we came up with.
Next week, assuming that we’re not terribly busy with Camp NaNo, we will finally reveal our top pick, the very greatest Fantasy character of all time. But first, here we are, counting down to number two.
A great character is often defined by his arc. Kvothe in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles has one of the best through the first two books of the trilogy (The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear). Rothfuss doesn’t just take his reader on Kvothe’s journey, but structures the novel so as to introduce the reader to Kvothe at both ends of the arc from the beginning. What follows is the painful, hilarious, and mysterious explanation of how the transformation occurred.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Another layer is sure to come for Kvothe in the frame story. This represents more of Rothfuss’s genius that so many storytellers never bother with. Frame story Kvothe, the broken down bar owner named Kote who has already become the Kingkiller of legend, has a story of his own. The frame isn’t merely narrative conceit, but a narrative of its own. Kvothe struggles and grows with a plot that continues to unfold as he relates the tale of his life.
And what a life. The impoverished orphan who seizes the opportunity to learn magic isn’t exactly a fresh trope in fantasy, but in Rothfuss’s hands, Kvothe doesn’t read like a collection of character traits we’ve seen a million times before. My favorite subversion comes when Kvothe believes Professor Elodin wants him to jump off a roof as some sort of test, and that the professor will save him. Instead of rescue, Kvothe gets broken bones for his troubles.
There’s still at least one more installment to the tale of Kvothe, yet we feel good about his placement at number 4. But given the fact we don’t love Book 2 Kvothe (who suddenly becomes impossibly good at everything) as much as we do Book 1, this is our leap of faith. Perhaps Elodin will be so kind as to catch us.
Whatever the case, Rothfuss’s mastery of character development in the current timeline and flashbacks is something S will be keeping in mind as she takes another pass at The Queen’s Tower this coming Camp NaNoWriMo. Her flashbacks have become their own story, and she wants the timelines to more complement rather than need each other.
3. Samwise Gamgee
Sam is one of the great sidekicks of fantasy literature. He’s part Sancho Panza and part British army batman, but he’s more than just Frodo’s Robin. Plenty of people consider Sam the real hero of The Lord of the Rings (see here for the argument that one of those people was Tolkien himself). Sam is dogged, decent, and loyal. He has a wealth of practical skills (like knowing the three uses of potatoes) and good sense that repeatedly help his social betters out of a jam. Sam is the commonest of common men. In a story where the hobbits represent ordinary people against a backdrop of mythic heroes, Sam stands in the same relation to the other hobbits that the hobbits stand in relation to the rest of the Fellowship.
He’s not just a bumpkin, though. He’s unusually self-reflective. He draws inspiration from “the great stories,” and wonders what sort of story will be told about him and Frodo someday. He also has one of the most interesting character arcs in the story. He goes from being a young gardener with a vague desire to “go and see elves and all,” to basically saving the world. Yes, it’s Gollum’s greed and poor sense of balance that finally put the ring in Mt. Doom, but Sam does more than anyone—even Frodo—to actually get it close enough for the Eucatastrophe to happen. He also manages to shrug off the temptation of the ring—something no one else in the story manages to do, except Tom Bombadil (who may not even count, because it’s not clear the ring has any effect on Tom at all). And it’s Sam’s self-reflection and self-knowledge that save him, his “plain hobbit-sense”: “The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.” Sam does what we all wish we would do, if we were in his position, and that’s why we love him.
What do we learn from him as writers? Well, Sam, like Neville Longbottom, is the unexpected and unheralded hero. He’s the Ur-Neville, if you will. As we mentioned when we talked about Neville, we’ve got a character in the Quartet who grows and develops and ends up being promoted from secondary character to sidekick, and from sidekick to hero. And as we revise, we hope to give her that same sense of humble self-awareness that makes Sam such a great hero.
2. Sand dan Glokta
Glokta gets one of the best character introductions we’ve ever read in the first book of The First Law Trilogy. The reader meets this broken man as he curses the inventor of stairs. His gait is described as “Click, tap, pain,” as he hobbles along with his cane, stairs his greatest nemesis. But as twisted as Glokta’s body is, it has nothing on his sense of humor, and his narrative voice wins the reader over during the several pages it takes him to limp along to work. When he arrives, the reader is reminded that he was introduced as Inquisitor Glokta when he begins beating a man for information. It’s too late for the prisoner and too late for the reader. Joe Abercrombie has already made the reader sympathize with a man whose favorite interrogative technique involves a meat cleaver.
But Abercrombie owns his characters’ voices, and he is by no means done winning the reader over to Glokta. Contrary to that shambling introduction, this is not some old man, worn down by time. In fact, he is not terribly old, rather he was a prisoner of war for several years and this is how he returned. Before his capture, Glokta is the most dashing warrior in all the Union. Imagine all the Musketeers rolled together, and they aren’t as talented, stylish, and famous as Sand dan Glokta prior to the war. But when the previously most handsome and eligible bachelor in all the realm comes home missing every other tooth and barely able to walk, he is shunned. Inflicting the kind of torment he suffered on other people is the only option left open to him. So he takes it, never so completely cynical that he loses his desire to be good at something and respected for it.
The Best Fantasy Books forum poll that sparked the idea for this list ended with another Abercrombie character, Logen Nine Fingers, winning. The astute readers at that forum are not the first people to prefer Logen to the other characters of the First Law universe. But as much as we like Logen, because, say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say he’s a damned compelling character, we prefer Glokta’s black humor and utter self-awareness.
What is there to learn from Glokta? J has forbidden S from reading Abercrombie when she’s writing, because she finds his level of brilliance so unattainable she might as well give up writing. But J assures her that in proper perspective, Glokta is a fascinating study in creating character sympathy through mastery of voice.
So there we go. See you soon with the long-anticipated Top Number 1 Best Ever Fantasy Character of All Time.
J and S