The First Part of this (that I wrote roughly two months ago) is located here.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Seeing his family brutally cut down in front of him by a group of malicious bandits, a young farmboy takes up his father’s old sword and- wait a minute, hold on, I thought he was a peasant? Why’s his Dad have a sword then? Swords are expensive, random peasant families don’t just have swords! Was he a Man-At-Arms? How’d he die so easily, then? Okay, sure, shielding his wife, but since these things apparently happen regularly in their world, why was she in a place where he needed to shield her? Oh, what, now young Pan Pitchfork here’s taken down three seasoned marauders with a weapon he’s never touched in his life, has he? Absurd!
Thus begins my discussion of how I’d like authors in general to make more of a habit out of opening with their heroes already knowing what they’re doing. You’re not creating narrative doubt by showing us the protagonist at an earlier point along the learning curve, because we’re still looking at the protagonist! And yes, I’ll grant the more common version of the snippet in the previous paragraph is that Peasant Hero #1,415 gets knocked unconscious or something. So why’s he still alive? The marauders didn’t even need a reason to kill his parents, and our farmboy actually attacked these feudal goons. The fact that they don’t stab him repeatedly and behead him for good measure once he’s down is a plot hole, isn’t it? And of course, the death of his family will now spur him on to a life of violence one way or the other, even though most historical peasants would just say, “Shame, this. Maybe his Lordship will see to it. No time for revenge, crops won’t plan themselves.”
After all, in a time of strife, most folks who are willing to fight will volunteer for the nearest army or mercenary unit. At the very least, they’ll go loot the sites of recent battles for anything of value. So if our kid farmer isn’t doing that, it’s because he’s a peaceful type, if not too afraid to go out and profit from the suffering of others. So why are we following this particular grimy oxen-botherer in a time of blood and iron? Because he’s an underdog, of course, a lone wolf, an up-and-comer who we would never expect… if it were the first time we’d seen this setup. It is not. Look, I know every author wants their training sequences and some ‘oh, well, this is how the world works’ moments. But these don’t necessarily stop once a character comprehends the fine art of knowing how not to die immediately. Actually, if a character stops training once he has a basic understanding of combat, that means we are looking at a dead man. Or at any rate, he would be if not for his mystical mastercrafted plot armor.
It’s commonly accepted in martial arts that even masters should still train in the basics, because there is almost no limit to the extent that we can refine even our most basic motor skills. If you doubt this, experiment with drinking your morning pick-me-up with quick, smooth motions of the hand. You will find it’s possible to move the mug quite fast without spilling its contents or even disturbing them all that much. Yes, even taking a drink can be done with grace. The serpentine power in the movements of an expert swordsman is just the natural result of doing those movements correctly hundreds of thousands of times. If you, as an author, have a character who prides themselves on their fighting skill, they will be practicing regularly no matter how long they’ve been at it. Come to think of it, there’s a repeatedly missed opportunity with melee-focused characters in Fantasy to show their skill growing over time. This actually isn’t too hard to figure out; you don’t even have to do primary research as such, just hop on Youtube and look up people training with the weapons you’re going to depict. After a little while, you should be able to pick up that some fighters are just more fluid and controlled in the way they move. Now you know what basic skill looks like, so you should be able to write about it.
My admonishments in mind, we now return to the Farmboy. He is an untrained kid with no meaningful combat experience. Having him kill the bandits is ridiculous, because they’re all full-grown men who are at least confident enough to attack a farm in full view of any Knights-Errant or constables of the local Lord. They should have at least some combat experience and competence; the odds of this trio being the one incompetent, green-as-spring-leaves group of bandits still alive in the entire region are extremely low. That, in turn, means that the Farmboy’s odds of survival go lower with every added wrinkle. The author will have to bend (preferred third-person gender pronoun here) into increasingly contorted poses in order to keep Farmboy alive. So, why bother with the Farmboy at all? And I know most authors don’t actually use Farmboys, but still, it’s often some sort of lower-class improbable hero who has no right doing any of this stuff.
Sounds classist? Welcome to Feudalism, where life is often short and never valuable, unless your distant ancestors conned everyone else into thinking their blood was somehow purer, in which case people will pay enough to feed hundreds of peasants for a year just to get you released from captivity. Authors who would rather not deal with these realities would be well advised to set their fantasy worlds further apart from them. After all, it’s fantasy! No one said everything had to be the same as it was historically, that would be counter-intuitive. So my advice to most authors is to simply pick a character at the start who has some solid grounding in whatever skills are intended to carry them through the story. This applies to everything, by the way, not just Fantasy. Regardless who they are or where, characters should already have some idea what they’re doing. There’s a legitimate argument to be made that a reader will identify more with a naive or unprepared character in the beginning because the reader doesn’t know any of the rules yet, but I’d counter that the character should know what’s going on so the reader can figure it out through them.
And again, the whole underdog thing only ever worked because it was unexpected. Well, it’s not anymore. Everyone has an underdog character now, which is an easy way to generate conflict, but a short-sighted one. Making the protagonist puny or even a total loser in a world with borderline endless room for ascending levels of skill and power is unnecessary. It just wastes everyone’s time while we wait for the protagonist to become relevant. Since they’re probably going to save the world anyway, it couldn’t hurt to pick someone who has a shot without divine intervention.
Now, before I forget, there is one situation in which you should absolutely pick an incompetent character: a story in which the main character’s incompetence is a core part of the narrative. Terry Pratchett wrote an entire series of Discworld novels about Rincewind, a wizard who is arguably the worst ever to have existed. The Discworld is a strange, comedic place, so this worked perfectly. Rincewind’s only ‘skill’ came in his ability to survive and his well-honed practice in running away really, really fast. No matter what he does at any point in one of the books about him, we as the readers know two things. Firstly, that Rincewind is never going to be impressive, secondly, that this is good because he’s supposed to be bumbling. But in that typically Pratchett way, he’ll still manage to do what needs to be done, often where more conventionally skilled people can’t. And that’s fine, because it’s intentional and generally hilarious.
You can have the Three Stooges as an adventuring party. You just need to realize the only hits they’ll get in are going to be on themselves.