Writing 101: Character tropes
A cursory internet search of character tropes in speculative fiction offers many variations on basic themes. The challenge for an author is to find new ways to interpret character tropes so they appear different and original.
In this article I'm focussing on character tropes used in Role Playing Games (RPG) to bring greater definition to these broad categories. I'll include some of my favourite books to illustrate these characters.
In fantasy they might be a knight, in science fiction they're a soldier, these are the broad parameters of this role but character is found under the surface, where personality, motivation and background have chiselled and moulded the person you need in your story. This is a fighter, aggressive, skilled and often driven by a desire to seek violent means to any end. There are permutations:
The Knight may be honourable, in the employ of an aristocrat. Their code of honour might require them to protect others, nobly sacrificing their life if required. But this honour can be lost, leaving them to become villainous, greedy, ambitious.
The Barbarian is at the other end of the scale, using any means to defeat opponents. They have no code of honour, fighting is all about survival. Within this category is the Berserker who fights with such rage they lose all perspective - Logan Ninefingers is the ultimate character in this category (Joe Abercrombie's First Law series).
The Dark Knight/Warrior is a feature of several Grimdark stories - a character with a dark past which remains with them, shaping their anti-hero and nihilistic attitudes. I think of Richard Morgan's Ringil Eskieth in his Land Fit For Heroes novels here. For me, they make for a fascinating opportunity to explore their character (my first novel had such a battle-scarred character who'd turned inward, bitter but also possessed a touch of the Barbarian. What has turned them into such an unpleasant person? And how do you ensure they maintain the reader's sympathy?
There are variations: the samurai, the warlord, the cavalier, the swordmaster. They all share a readiness to fight, to seek out conflict, to solve problems via a fight. They are vital when it comes to maintaining suspense, building tension and introducing threats. Their belligerence invariably brings them into conflict with other characters too.
Don't write this trope off as only appearing in fantasy, magic is a broad topic. For instance, alien beings made possess talents/skills which qualify here. Let's qualify them as having abilities which are not normal, (paranormal and supernatural). They fall into these categories:
The Sorcerer: they perform without prior knowledge, magic is an innate ability. This may come at a cost to them (or others!). This lack of study may lead to a lack of discipline that makes them dangerous.
The Mage: whose magical ability is learned, they may be an academic. This can lead to a lack of preparedness in a younger character, experience appears in older characters who may be infirm or unable to cope with the demands of a quest or too many adventures. Or the character’s eccentricity is a source of danger, such as Nicholas Eames’ Moog. This role means magic may be summoned by spells, the writing of runes which can hinder immediate solutions - such as Peter Brett's Demon Cycle stories. Mages which cannot generate the same power as their counterparts also make for exciting protagonists, as with Patrick Samphire’s Nik Thorn.
The Necromancer: the user of 'death magic', which involves shedding blood frequently. This is never a heroic character's preference, normally the opposite! My good friend Lee Conley in his A Ritual of Bone uses this form to great effect in a story where the dead are brought back to life. However, as mentioned earlier, this idea appears in SF too! I recommend Peter Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy where the dead return to wreak havoc on the universe.
The Nature Magicians: I've read a number of wonderful books lately (in SPFBO5) where magic is sourced by nature. The Far Eastern philosophies are in play here - the elements of fire, water, air and earth generate the magic. Quite often accompanied with dragons. The two protagonists in Virginia McLean's 'Blade's Edge' is a wonderful example here, as is Levi Jacob's Beggar's Rebellion. Or you can get to work on the epic and wonderful Alera Codex series by Jim Butcher (all six books!).
Beyond these you have druids (Kevin Herne's amusing and exciting Iron Druid stories (10 of them!). There are shamens and illusionists (think Loki!) as well. Each form of magic comes with its own limitations, advantages and drawbacks and needs a great deal of thought when it comes to the 'science' of magic.
Where would a story be if it didn't have characters that let everybody else down, turned traitor, stole, deserted, and otherwise wrecked the plans of the protagonist? They come in two forms:
1. The morally ambiguous type who cannot be relied upon but isn't bad
2. The morally bankrupt type whose lack of conscience lets them commit bad deeds which bring them to book eventually. Killing others is possible here.
A crucial element for the author is extending the doubt surrounding this character for as long as possible. When will they do something wrong? Not a question of 'if' - it's all about what motivates them to commit to doing something wrong. They come in these forms:
The Assassin: invariably in my second category obviously! Though Brent Weeks' Night Angel trilogy breaks that rule beautifully with characters who deserve our sympathy! As Weeks’ characters show, sometimes assassination needs a complex context! The point here centres on the dilemma faced by these characters and how they deal with the ethical issues surrounding their work. Sadistic types will enjoy it (but motivation is vital here, sadism doesn't happen without background factors). Other assassins become morally grey characters the reader remains uncertain about for most of the story. (Read Steven McKinnon's Symphony of the Wind to see how his character of Damien is used as an assassin). Such a wonderful book - and its sequel!!
The Thief: this character has one foot in both my categories. Often they're not evil people but they are unreliable, driven by money, or greed - or both! I immediately think of Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora with this archetype. This story follows a gang of 'gentleman bastards', whose shared goal of robbing from the rich to give to the poor (sometimes!) is Robin Hood like. And that character is probably one that defines many thieves in speculative fiction - they must be charming, fast, agile and brave. They are ideal for maintaining suspense because of these qualities!
The Pirate: if you want a masterclass in piracy and the characters (both good and evil) in fantasy then read RJ Barker's 'Boneships' because it is all there. The rules established by RJ apply just as well to SF, just look at The Expanse for instance! There is violence and blood linked to this trope, pirates operate on the edge of survival quite often, their ships are manned by criminals and ne'er-do-wells that require brutal treatment. Like the Assassin, ethical issues abound here - with characters that struggle with this life. (As you'll see in the second of Scott Lynch's series (Red Seas Under Red Skies).
There are other criminal types: bandits, brigands, outlaws, burglars and gamblers.
They have a magical ability in the fantasy realm which is linked to healthcare whereas in SF their role is purely scientific - like McCoy in Star Trek!
The Healer: In fantasy magic comes from study and faith. They are often academic in nature but with religious overtones. A real favourite of such a character is Sira in Mike Shel's Iconoclasts series. She has the ability to heal and it is linked to her faith which also sustains her as she shares the adventures of the protagonist, Auric Monteo.
The Battle Priest: if you want an example of this character, look no further than Peter McLean's Priest of Bones and Tomas Piety. He is the epitome of a soldier who offers spiritual welfare in very limited ways. These people are soldiers first - and last!
The Templar: a role which combines the Assassin qualities, there is violence here but twinned with an element of faith which is almost medieval in its approach - like the Knights Templar in many ways. There is something intriguing here where a character hands out healing with one hand while killing with his other one. Belief and commitment to a cause make strange bedfellows! Dyrk Ashton’s Paternus series includes a wonderful example.
The Ranger - characters who are at home in the natural world, who find survival easy in the wilderness, are not regular types in stories but they have a purpose if your theme or message is environmental or ecological. They can be good hunters and useful in stories where searching for something/someone is important. They might possess natural magic as well. They are usually good fighters, sharing some of the Warrior identity.
The Bard - fans of The Witcher will be familiar with the humour this role can bring to a story. But they can also be roguish in their lack of dependability. If you want to read a story where a Bard is the central character then DP Woolliscroft's Wildfire Cycle is where you need to look - Mareth is well-rounded, engaging but also makes an original protagonist.
The Psychic - any character than can use the power of the mind offers lots of avenues to travel down. The ability to read minds is one thing, the ability to influence another person, to implant instructions is even better. Cameron Johnston's 'Aching God' is a superb example of this role. There is unpredictability that can be included, how reliable are they? Are they a variation of The Rogue? But there is also the unhinged dimension of how a psychic might suffer to consider here.
The Gunslinger - no, I have not suddenly diverted into the Western's genre. (Though Westworld combines it with SF!) But the idea of someone who is good at wielding a weapon (like a gun or a phaser!) is a variation of The Assassin. But, as with such characters in Westerns, these were professional hit men! They killed for cash and lived bloody and violent lives. There are plenty of films from the 40s and 50s that dealt with the consequences of such lives if you want to pursue this character.
I hope you find some inspiration in these tropes and the roles that exist within them.