It doesn’t matter if your character is a blue goblin, a fae queen, or a disembodied spirit. If your readers can’t relate to your character, they will not be invested in your story.
Whether you consider yourself more of a plot-driven, world-driven, or character-driven writer, the fact remains that characters are what bring your story to life for your readers. I often find myself frustrated when fantasy characters aren’t believable. Obviously, I know that witches and fairies and werewolves aren’t real, but they need to feel real within the world you’ve built.
How can you ensure that even your half-dragon warrior bard feels realistic? The answer is not in their appearance or their magical abilities. It’s in the things that truly make us human.
Behind every great fictional character is one important thing: character motivation. What your character wants drives your plot, helps your character grow, and makes your character feel authentic.
In The Witcher, Yennefer’s motivation is to regain her choice to be a mother so she can leave a legacy. This drives every action of hers. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s motivation is to save Middle Earth by destroying the ring. Gollum’s motivation is to possess the ring, the only thing that has ever brought him any semblance of happiness.
We all have a motivation or motivations that drive us. Maybe you strive for financial stability, love, protecting your family, leaving a legacy, spiritual enlightenment, or making a difference in the world. It might not be epic-fantasy level, but we all want something at our core. We can understand characters who want something. When they don’t, the entire story crumbles around them.
Motivations don’t just apply to your main characters. Every character in your story should want something because motivations determine actions. Their motivation doesn’t have to be as fleshed out as your protagonist and antagonist’s, but you should still be mindful of what every character wants.
Story stakes are determined by motivation as well. What is standing in your character’s way, and what happens if they don’t achieve it?
Here are some great examples of character motivations from Bang2Write.
Confession: I hate Die Hard. I know, it’s an action movie, not fantasy, and it’s supposed to be campy (I think.) But the main reason I hate it is because John McClane is portrayed as having no real character flaws. Even his hinted penchant for extreme force as a cop is glossed over as acceptable because he’s basically a vigilante good guy. Sure, he has a little complex about his wife’s success, but not enough that it affects the plot.
Nobody’s perfect, and when characters are too perfect, they instantly become unrelatable—and even unlikeable!
Here are some common character flaws you can give your characters:
- judgmental attitude
- unreliable nature
Even when a character’s flaw is not one of ours, they become relatable because we all know someone with each negative trait. They become real through their imperfections.
Emotional Wounds and Secrets
One of the best ways to make your fantasy characters realistic is to give them some big secret or an emotional wound. I’m not suggesting that every person in the world has a major traumatic event in their past, but many people have some tragic, defining moment that affects who we are and how we act.
Emotional wounds or secrets help character motivations and personality flaws make sense. Does your Elf have a problem with authority and seek independence because of an abusive parent? Does your Fae prince have trouble opening up because the truth is he is an illegitimate heir and must guard that secret with his life?
If you aren’t sure where to start with emotional wounds and how they affect a character, check out The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide To Psychological Trauma by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It’s a great resource for deepening your character’s backstory.
Emotions and Emotional Responses
All of these other factors are great for writing believable and relatable fantasy characters, but if the reader cannot see how they feel and act as a result, that realism will be lost.
Even stoic characters like Geralt from The Witcher have emotions and emotional responses. Your character doesn’t have to wear their heart on their sleeve, but they need to express—internally or externally—their anger, fear, and happiness. Additionally, they need to react in a way that makes sense for that emotion.
Anger for a stoic dwarf might result in a flush of heat or a clenched jaw. For an emotive witch, it might involve lashing out verbally or physically. Sadness doesn’t have to mean crying; it could mean withdrawing from others or seeking relief through drink.
In every scene, ask yourself what your character is feeling to determine how to show that emotion.
Fantasy Characters Are Just Characters
You’ve probably noticed that all of these tips for writing realistic fantasy characters apply to every type of fictional character. That’s because at the end of the day, your fantasy cast are just fictional people with some extra abilities or strange appearances.
Don’t get so caught up in world-building differences that you forget to humanize your non-human characters.
Who is your favorite fantasy character? Let us know in the comments!