Every author has had to tackle following question at some point, whether it be Shakespeare or J.K. Rowling: Are the heroes of my tale going to be of common stock or noble heritage? That is, will I create a lower class or upper class character? It has been a heated topic of debate since long before the Brothers Grimm ever picked up a pen, and it’s a debate that continues on to this day.
The debate as to which is better is multifaceted, and tropes from both ends of the spectrum have become commonplace.
Prince or Pauper?
Harry Potter is essentially wizarding royalty raised in humble surroundings. Luke Skywalker is unknowingly of noble birth, yet he grows up on a moisture farm which is situated on a backwater planet. There have even been indications that both Finn and Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens are of noble descent, despite their lowly upbringings as either soldiers or scavengers.
On the other hand, working-class peasant heroes are also popular in fiction: Tris from Divergent, Katniss from The Hunger Games, and Kelsier from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy all demonstrate the deep relatability and authenticity that having a common protagonist can lend to your story.
Which is the superior choice? I think that largely depends on how an author intends to relate to his or her audience. Let’s look at some of the pros and cons associated with choosing an upper class character over a commoner.
The Power of Nobility
The archetype of a noble raised in obscurity is oftentimes amongst the most beloved. In many ways, it’s a natural to desire to be the long-lost heir to some famous lineage. Thus, we enjoy heroes who are noble and have been raised in obscurity. In many ways, the notion also reinforces the idea that seemingly ordinary people can be as special as the heroes we grew to love as children.
This appeal, however, can also be a double-edged sword. Making your hero an upper class character can often make your character less relatable, since most of your audience will not secretly be of noble descent.
The Commoner’s Advantage
There is another option to consider however, since the noble archetype has become a bit trite as of late.
I believe that science fiction and fantasy stands to benefit from more common heroes. The concept of dashing princes saying the day is becoming cliched and predictable, and I believe working class heroes can bring a fresh perspective. Additionally, the notion that everyday people have the power to change and affect the world around them, is particularly empowering or endearing to readers. Moreover, to some the concept of birthright may also seem archaic and foreign.
The allure behind making your hero a commoner is that it reinforces the notion that all people have value. In many ways, it reminds us that strong societies are created through the blood, sweat, and tears of everyday people who choose to do what is best for the community, and not just what is best for themselves.
Does this mean, however, that “everyone’s a hero”? Certainly not. You see, despite being commoners these heroes are exceptional in their own right, due to the sacrifices they make and their choice to oftentimes go down the road less traveled.
A Hero Your Readers Will Love
Prince or pauper, whichever choice you make, be sure to communicate that choice clearly. Let your hero’s true nature shine through, and let that narrative shape how you relate to your audience. For in the end, regardless of the choice you make, remember that there’s always a way for your heroes to leave a mark on the world and empower your epic tale.
Are there other advantages to writing about a lower class or upper class character? Let us know in the comments.
Do you prefer to write about commoners or nobles? Today, challenge yourself to do the opposite. If you write about kings and queens in a high-fantasy saga, try your hand at telling a story from a commoner’s perspective. If you usually write stories about average Joes who have to buy groceries and pay the bills like the rest of us, tell us the story of someone in a more privileged space.