From Good to Bad – Why Fantasy’s Heroes Are Changing For the Better

I came across two entirely separate comments recently that got me thinking about the heroes in modern fantasy. The first comment actually came from a reviewer of my novel who indicated that she was surprised that one of my bad guys had “kind of” redeemed himself. The second comment came from Mark Lawrence, the author of Prince of Thorns, whose series is being considered for a television show. The question was this: “Is Jorg too bad to be commercial as a lead”?

And so I got to thinking about the morality of fantasy heroes. James Sutter wrote a guest essay about this very topic a few years ago, and it contains many of the thoughts I considered putting down here: To summarize: fantasy has grown up. It is no longer a world where good and evil are easily identified as separate players on a chessboard.  

And that’s a good thing.

Why is moral ambiguity, the “graying” of characters, a good thing? Because when you read a work of fiction, it always works best when you can relate to a character. And most mature readers are going to relate to mature characters… and most mature characters are neither a Knightly Paragon of Virtue nor the Harbinger of Ultimate Evil. Most characters fall somewhere in between, and when as writers we can bring the realism of a character’s moral compass, that tendency to “sway into the gray,” then readers relate.

Sutter wrote about the success of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, and certainly there is plenty to like in Martin’s world. But Martin is just one of the modern fantasists helping to mature the characters in this genre. Joe Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers is a perfect example of a character you absolutely love, but who has a dark side a mile wide. The aforementioned Prince Jorg of Lawrence’s Broken Empire series is another such anti-hero. You both cheer for these characters and cringe at what they’re capable of doing.

And so too with my own characters. Even those readers would call “bad.” I didn’t necessarily want to write good characters or bad characters. I want to write characters who resemble real people. Characters with goals, loves, hates, ambitions, dreams. Those goals might be seen as worthy or reprehensible, but the important part is that those characters truly believe in what they’re doing. 

Perhaps more important than what these characters are capable of is how these characters feel afterwards. Logen is almost apologetic at what he accomplishes as The Bloody Nine. And anyone who’s ever seen or felt the passion related to an athlete saying “whatever it takes” can relate to Jorg. These characters don’t necessarily want to be bad, but they have to do bad things to achieve their goals. And those goals are typically things the reader recognizes as worthy.

What all of this means is that when you pick up a fantasy novel, don’t expect the typical cardboard cut out of a one-dimensional character. That knight in shining armor isn’t automatically a “good” guy, and that guy with the dark cloak and the pointed beard isn’t automatically a “bad” guy. 

Or maybe they are. But it’s also quite possible that that knight will do terrible things to achieve what you’d consider a “good” end. And that that “bad” guy with the pointed beard can redeem himself in the end by doing something amazing.