So let’s talk about heroes, because a lot of the character of Sword & Sorcery fiction comes through in the character of its heroes – or maybe “protagonists” is a better word, since a lot of the main characters in S&S are not heroes in the traditional sense – they don’t stand up for truth and justice in the traditional way. Sometimes they do it by accident, sometimes reluctantly. I would call them heroes because they are larger than life, and the classic ones are all of a definite stripe.
There is a tendency in modern fiction to make heroes more “relatable” - which is often meant that they are depicted as being much more like you and me. A lot of the leads of fantasy stories start out as much more Joe Average – or Jane Average – typical people with what are presumed to be more typical life experiences that the typical reader will have an easier time identifying with. I myself find this trend to be often carried too far. After all, if you try too hard to appeal to everyone, you end up appealing to no one. But the idea that a character must start out more “normal” and then become heroic as the story goes on is kind of ubiquitous.
Sword & Sorcery does not cast its heroes like that at all. S&S grew out of the pulp tradition, when heroes were almost if not actually superhuman. After all, the pulp heroes like Doc Savage and The Spider were just a small step between literary heroes and actual superheroes, and nobody complained that The Shadow was not relatable, he was just satisfying a very different need.
All the great S&S heroes of the old days – Conan, Elric, Kane, El Borak, Fafhrd and the Mouser – they all come to us more or less fully formed. When we meet them they are not broody teens or humble hoemen, they are adventurers already on the path with sword in hand. They are already good at the things they are supposed to be good at. We don’t see a Conan origin story, with him learning to fight and be tough, he is just there, already brawny and hard-edged. The movies do give us backstory, and I consider that one of the mistakes of the interpretations. Humanizing these kinds of characters adds little while removing what we liked about them.
Characters of this type have largely fallen out of fashion these days. The only modern characters who are of this same ilk are ones that hark back most strongly to the pulp tradition, like James Bond, Jack Reacher, or Bob Lee Swagger. These are all characters who come to us from some tough military background, and who’s major character trait is the ability to kick enormous amounts of ass. It is no mistake that characters like this don’t always adapt well to modern works and worlds, because they are conscious anachronisms.
So, my question is: do S&S characters have to be this way? Is this an element of the genre that cannot be dispensed with or changed? I would say no, and in fact I think it is the adherence to this style of pulp character that does a lot to make the genre seem dated and old-fashioned to new audiences. I am not saying these kinds of characters are bad, but I think the reflexive idea that Sword & Sorcery has to mean this kind of larger-than-life, unstoppable hero should be looked at closely.
What does a character need for a proper S&S story? They need to be capable of violence, they need to have a conflicted or morally compromised nature, they need to be willing and able to endure hardship, and they need to be interesting. They can be integral to the setting of the tale or they can be an outsider, as Howard’s characters often were. But the pulp standard of “The hero is awesome and will win because he is awesome” limits your options, and risks reducing the story to what Stephen King described as “characters who neither gain nor lose power but simply wield it.”
Sword & Sorcery is adventure fiction first, and fantasy second. It is less about the tropes of magic as a metaphor for power than about pitting desperate characters against harsh environments and harsher enemies. If drama is character under pressure, then S&S actually presents great opportunities for drama, as few genres place such emphasis on setting characters alone against terrible odds. With a series character your options are limited, as the hero must survive to the next story virtually unchanged, but when you free yourself from the constraints of status quo, then the real power of the genre can shine through.