The Importance of City Guards in Fantasy

Legend of Zelda (I think?)

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?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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35 Responses to The Importance of City Guards in Fantasy

  1. L. Marie says:

    Love the images of Link!

    Great post! You always come up with some interesting topics. I’m working on some city guards who are tertiary characters. They’re part of the Watch in one book. I think they’re necessary to show the organization of a city–the civilization, as you mentioned. It’s helpful to see the types of weapons they wield and what the uniforms they wear look like, which helps us gain a sense of the economics of a town or city. I don’t think of them as totally “red shirts”–nameless figures who re expendable for the sake of plot. Though sometimes, you need a few “red shirts.”

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    • I don’t know if that’s Link or a Hylian Royal Guard.

      You’re right that you need a few red shirts in fantasy. Although, it is fun to put some detail in what they look like and how they act even if they’re fodder. City guards can show certain aspects of a city such as level of discipline, weaponry, and technology.

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      • L. Marie says:

        It’s definitely Link.
        Yes, I agree that guards need details, especially if you’re writing a series, as you usually are. They can be recurring characters (like relatives of the main characters). But many usually wind up DOA.
        Terry Pratchett has a great City Watch series. It’s one of my favorites.

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      • I think I have one of the Pratchett books.

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      • Hi there, Charles! It’s definitely Link and it’s from Breath of the Wild! You can collect the full Hylian Royal Guard ensemble. I love LOZ ::wiggles her slightly pointed ears:: I haven’t been able to play Breath of the Wild on my own, but I had the pleasure of watching my oldest son play it. I enjoy reading your post. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Legend of Zelda is one of my favorites, but I never got a new system after Gamecube. Couldn’t afford it, so I’m so far behind that it’s rather sad.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Charlie, you poor dear! I hope that you can play LOZ again soon! I’m blessed to be the Dragon Geek Mom of three sons and I trained them well in all things nerdy, geeky, and spectacular! Lol. You can always take a peek on YouTube at people playing the game — if you’re really desperate. 🙂

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      • My son and I are working through Lego games. He hasn’t developed the patience and coordination for the more complicated games, but he’ll learn.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Where there are guards there is the possibility of intrigue. I like how you positioned the necessity of guards.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I kind of like how you defined them as a line in the sand, and that would work well. Where do your characters align vs that mark? Readers will get that without a lot of explanation.

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  4. Reblogged this on adaratrosclair and commented:
    This is an incredibly important post for writers of epic fantasy and the like!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this post from Charles Yallowitz on The Importance of City Guards in Fantasy

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  6. I don’t think I’d play the deaths of guardsmen off for laughs, too. We can see from the psychology of policemen today that they are a close-knit group and take any threats, injuries or fatalities very personally. Fantasy guards probably feel the same way. So if a villain killed any guardsmen the rest of them would become extremely intent on hunting him/her down. They might even be willing to ally with vigilante heroes who they otherwise would never tolerate.

    That reminds me of a funny story, though. Years ago, my son was playing Oblivion, and in that game if you commit murder the guardsmen will try to arrest you. He kept killing the guards who came after him, and the bounty got bigger and bigger, plus the guardsmen had a personal vendetta against him because he killed so many of their own. Pretty soon he couldn’t go anywhere, because every guard in every city ran out to meet him. Everyone else wanted the huge reward. His character became unplayable.

    He was 13 at the time, and it enraged him, but it was within the rules of the game. I think eventually he went back to an earlier saved game and avoided being caught for the first murder.

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    • The laughs really depend on the type of story. Fantasy comedies use death like that to show monsters and traps. You could also have a system where the guards are all jockeying for promotions and not that close. I heard about the Oblivion thing. Nice addition to keep a player in check.

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  7. Very interesting topic!
    I have had these guys as background characters in every book I have written and I’m now playing around with the idea of letting the city guards play a bigger role in the next one. I feel like they deserve names and backstories after all they have been put through by main characters in the past!

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  8. Good job Charles, keep up the good work.

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