Here we are, at long last, to finish our countdown of the ten best characters in fantasy. This coming week, we’ll be headed to Indianapolis for Gen Con 2015, so we wanted to make sure we got this written and posted before we get caught up in planning our road trip, and packing, and finishing up our projects for July Camp NaNoWriMo, and so on.
If you missed our earlier posts, check out the links at the top. But if you’ve been with us from the beginning, here’s a reminder of how things stand so far:
10 Vin, from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy.
She shows how to make a character sympathetic, even if she’s born with superhero powers.
9 Neville Longbottom, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
He’s a secondary character, but he’s still got a fantastic arc all his own.
8 Tiffany Aching, from Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series.
She’s “plucky done right”—an active heroine who feels believably smart for her age.
7 Jaime Lannister, from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
He seems like a terrible human being…until you get inside his head. Then you sympathize in spite of yourself.
6 Eowyn, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
She longs to prove herself, even though she’s a girl. And boy, does she end up proving herself.
5 Peter “Littlefinger” Baelish, from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
We have no idea what secret game he’s playing, and that’s what makes him fascinating.
4 Kvothe, from Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles.
We meet him at either end of his character arc, and he’s fascinating in both places.
3 Samwise Gamgee, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
He’s not just a sidekick; he’s the real hero of the books.
2 Sand dan Glokta, from Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law Trilogy.
He shows how a writer can create sympathy for even the most unpleasant character through mastery of voice.
And so, at long last, here’s the number one, very best fantasy character of all time:
We happily admit that we enjoy reading characters who are complex, flawed, and not always terribly heroic. And yet, sometimes you just want a character to do the right thing, for the right reasons. Sometimes you want to love a character unapologetically, and to even be more like that character. Lucy Pevensie in The Chronicles of Narnia is precisely that kind of character. Written flawlessly by CS Lewis, Lucy is not just a character we wish we could be, but a character we actually could be. She is heroic in ways a little girl can be; her defining trait her unalterable belief. She heals the sick and inspires the frightened, and she even forgives her brother Edmund when he betrays what she believes in so fiercely.
And yet, she is never the annoying, cloying, precocious child she could be. She is polite and decent, and frankly, you rather want to give her a hug, even if you aren’t normally one for children. Lewis makes you love her for her bravery and kindness, when it would have been so easy to make the reader roll his eyes and think, “No kid is this freaking good.” Through the Chronicles of Narnia, we get to watch her grow, and even once she is too old for Narnia, we know that she doesn’t lose her faith, that, instead, she inspires that same faith in others.
So, what do we learn from this amazing girl? Most importantly that depending on the tone and theme of the story, it is absolutely acceptable to write a truly heroic protagonist. The world is sometimes gray and evil and all of the things we read George RR Martin and Joe Abercrombie for. But it is also overflowing with decency and good people who believe in their hearts that doing right by other people is the only way to live life. Heroic characters don’t have to be boring or annoying. They can be interesting and aspirational and entirely real for all of that.
So what have we learned from this list?
First of all, execution is everything.
You can make a torturer sympathetic if you make him funny enough. You can give a character superhero powers if you show us how she struggles to learn how to use them. You can make your heroine a good little girl who does all the right things, and if you can make her charming enough, the reader will love her, rather than want to throttle her. Any of the characters on this list could have been insufferable in the hands of lesser writers. In many ways, though, Lucy is the trickiest of the lot, which is why she’s on top.
Second, everyone likes an unlikely hero.
Sure, Aragorn and Harry Potter are awesome, and if you were betting on who would win a fight, they would be the safe choices. But sometimes you need a character who becomes a hero more or less out of nowhere. It’s just so satisfying when Neville turns out to be awesome, or when Sam saves Frodo, or when Eowyn kills the Witch King, because we can remember, as readers, when they didn’t seem to have a lot going for them.
Third, even villains can be sympathetic.
It’s tempting as a writer to think of the antagonist as merely an obstacle for the hero. Somebody has to cause problems and setbacks, or the story is going to be both dull and short. But everyone is the hero of his own story, and Jaime Lannister and Glokta remind us that even the worst people need to have, from their point of view, some justification for what they do.
And finally, good trumps evil.
Yes, horrid characters can be horribly fascinating (we were both bummed when Hannibal was canceled). But there’s a limit to how much of that you can take. Even the best villainous antiheroes are, in the end, a bit like ice cream or whiskey: a little is great, but if you have too much, you end up feeling sick and slightly ashamed of yourself. That’s probably the main reason why Lucy Pevensie is at the top of this list, rather than Glokta. Lucy is the sort of person you wish you could be; Glokta just isn’t.
So there we are: our ten best list. Hopefully we’ll have more updates on our Camp NaNo projects. And if we’re really motivated, we might even have a post from Gen Con.