Whenever a city turns up in a fantasy story, these people will be there. Either as background, battle fodder, or momentary obstacles, the guards are around in some fashion. We tend to overlook them unless we need some unexpected corpses or government corruption is part of the plot. Not much personality among these characters either, so what purpose do they serve?
Well, it really depends on the story. Many adventures begin with the hero getting involved with the guards to some extent. Some are arrested and others are members before the story takes them away from the city. This makes the concept of the guards a rather common jumping point. It isn’t that surprising too. For heroes that come from those ranks, it explains their training and certain aspects of their personality. They can either be out for justice or think the entire system is weak after being inside it. Characters who are born from a run-in with the law gain their reputation as outliers of society. Once this happens, people aren’t surprised when they do things that more noble heroes wouldn’t think of. All because they had an early encounter with the guards.
Aside from story, another purpose of guards is that they can fill a similar role to the goons and henchmen of villains. You have a small army of trained, faceless, nameless people that can be thrown into a situation. The villain wiping out the city guards while going after the hero is such a scenario where you demonstrate his/her power. Other times, they’ll chase the heroes out of the city and force them into the next act. Throughout this type of scene, you have guards getting knocked out or killed depending on the personalities of the heroes. One thing I have noticed is that most people don’t get that concerned when nameless guards are taken out. Many times we shrug it off or find it amusing since our focus is on the plot-central character involved.
If you do boil down the purpose of the guards, you get to a basic notion. To establish that a city or region is civilized, you need to demonstrate that they have laws. The existence of guards shows that such things are being enforced even if you don’t know what they specifically are. It’s this little bit of world-building that most of us can relate to because we immediately connect guards to police. I think we bring our own thoughts on law enforcement into this as well. Not only as readers, but as authors, which makes their use rather fluid. If you think the police aren’t that great then your guards might be rather bungling. If you think they’re bullies then they’re villains or obstacles.
So, what do you think about city guards in fiction? What about the heroes who stem from that life and become adventurers? How much of their old mentality do they tend to retain in your opinion?