Author Guest Post: Lev Grossman (‘The Magician King) Sets Us Straight — 20 Things Characters Should Do More Often!

Lev Grossman is the New York Times best-selling author of The Magicians and The Magician King, so he knows a thing or two about writing fantasy novels. He’s here to set us straight: TWENTY THINGS CHARACTERS IN FANTASY NOVELS SHOULD DO MORE OFTEN BUT DON’T

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F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the rich are different from you and me. That may or may not be true. But fantasy characters are definitely different from you and me. They don’t seem to have quite the same … travails as we do. This has always bothered me — I’ve always thought they should act more like people in real life. With that in mind, I’ve made a list of things they should do more often.

This is not a comprehensive list, by a long chalk. And it’s not a list of things that fantasy characters never do. I can think of a few counter-examples. But it’s a start.

1. Forget things, for no reason. ["Jesus, I told you we were gonna need the Netherhelm of Binding to seal the Fellgate." "I know, that's what's so weird! I put it on this morning. I could swear it. Or did I? Now I don't even know." "Well I guess we'll just have to seal the Fellgate tomorrow." "Well I guess so."]

2. Pee.

3. Read other fantasy novels. ["This is just like the time in The Wheel of Time when they get lost in the Ways? And they can hear that black wind thing that eats everything whispering at them? Remember that?" "Shut up! Shut up! It creeps me out just thinking about that thing."]

4. Worry about the economy.

5. Meet a woman who’s not a witch, a healer or a princess and not remark upon how extraordinary it is that she’s not a witch or a healer or a princess.

6. Meet a non-white person and not subsequently discover they’re from the Burning Lands Far to the South or something like that.

7. Suffer chafing issues

8. Change diapers.

9. Meet an orphan whose parents just turn out to be just as random and ordinary as his or her adoptive parents.

10. Drink non-alcoholic beverages.

11. Meet an orc who actually isn’t an asshole.

12. Hear ominous noises that then turn out to be nothing. ["That totally sounded like the howling of a lost soul trapped for all eternity inside a massive cursed ruby. Turned out it was just Dan's lost-soul-in-ruby ringtone! We gotta make him change that."]

13. Die of natural causes

14. Make accurate change at a bar rather than just fling down a handful of gold coins and walk away.

15. Sneeze at an awkward moment.

16. Have guard duty and not bicker with the other person who has guard duty.

17. Meet a dwarf who’s actually pretty good with a bow.

18. Meet a brusque yet kindly old man who doesn’t actually know anything more about what’s going on than anybody else does.

19. Discover a magic portal to a world that is pretty much the same deal as the world they came from.

20. Get eaten by a dragon. Come on, if dragons were real they would eat _everybody_.

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Thanks Lev! Interested in more? You can check him out at levgrossman.com, or follow him on twitter at @leverus.

Posted on by Lauren Zurchin



  • Kelsey

    Awesome list. Yeah, nobody ever really seems to go to the bathroom in fantasy novels. Pity.

    • nicz

      Martin’s characters have bowel movements all the time. Does not improve the quality of the story AT ALL.

  • Aiedail Risa

    Strangely enough, Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series actually fulfills a lot of these.

    • http://twitter.com/momztweet Abby

      Very true. His characters have far more personal issues than most and he’s even had Eragon pee occasionally.

    • Binyamin Weinreich

      Which might just provide the perfect counterargument that maybe it’s better that fantasy characters don’t do these things.

  • Hanna

    Trying to fit Discworld into these…Sometimes people pee in their pants?

  • Alysette

    Totally agree!  I would add to that list issues with health.  What about elves with bad eyes who need glasses?  Dwarves who suffer from arthritis?  Infant and maternal mortality?  How about women warriors getting their period?  Talk about realism! 
    As a side note, if you’ve never read it, you should find Diane Wynne Jones’ “The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.”  It’s an hysterical encyclopedia of fantasy tropes and a companion piece of sorts to her novel “Dark Lord of Derkhelm” in which an enchanted world is beset each year by tourists from our own who expect the full fantasy novel trappings.  Hysterical. 

    • http://twitter.com/momztweet Abby

      Definitely going to add to my “to read” list. Sounds like fun!

    • http://iblogalot.com/ J.R. LeMar

       I just found a copy on Amazon for .01 cent (plus $3.99 shipping), and ordered it!

  • http://foxessa-foxhome.blogspot.in/ Constance

    You can find all these included in series written by women — three at the very top of the long list are Katharine Kerr, Kate Elliott and Deborah Harkness.

  • http://www.facebook.com/PaulHThornton Paul Thornton

    If I ever try my hand at writing, and what fantasy fan hasn’t thought about once or twice, gonna tray for the whole list.

    • Scuba Steve

       You should probably “tray” for proper spelling first…

  • http://twitter.com/momztweet Abby

    Summer assignment. Write epic fantasy novel incorporating at least 12 of the suggestions listed above. I can’t wait to read it!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ZH5LQHHJPERMWNVHCR2Y5GRHHE Jose

    Seems like characters are always sneezing at awkward moments.  Maybe you meant fart?

  • Kirshy

    Very few characters are seen going to the bathroom in any type of novel.  I don’t want to read about the bowel movements of fictional characters.  I just want to get on with the story.  Unless the characters excretions are important to the plot/character development it shouldn’t be included. 

    Everything else on the list I can understand though.

    • guest

      You’re probably not a big fan of James Joyce then :P

  • Prncs_btrcp

     I’d take a look at both Name of the Wind and Theft of Swords to find a few of these (non magical women, peeing, forgetting things…

    • topcat51.C

      And of course Steven Erikson and the Malazan Book of the Fallen

  • http://twitter.com/PrinceJvstin Paul Weimer

    Re: #20, My friend Scott has a bumper sticker “Sometimes the Dragon Wins”

  • Jean Lamb

    If you want to meet some er, *very interesting* orcs, try reading GRUNTS by Mary Gentle. Perhaps offering them access to modern military technology was a bad, bad idea…

    And the cute little halfings…they’re not human, and people need to remember this .