I think this is another character type that gets overlooked or done with minor attention to anything other than the role. Any genres that touch on there being a military force will note that there are generals. Might not be much of a hierarchy beyond them, but you have military leaders. They typically fall into these categories:
- Evil general who is trying to turn the kingdom into a military state. Sometimes they’re being tricked into doing so by another villain. Other times, they simply think the leader is weak and strength is needed. We’re talking full authoritarian here.
- Loyal general who stands beside the leader through every event. They will act as adviser and many times sacrifice themselves over the course of the story. This is the total opposite of the first example.
- Mentor for the hero who either trains them at the start or does so at a midpoint. A general is seen as someone with experience and discipline, which is what they are passing on to the hero. This also establishes a neutral hero as having taken a side in some fashion and connects them to the ‘good’ kingdom.
- An arrogant adversary for the hero who will inevitably be killed in a battle. Again, we see a polar opposite of the mentor here.
- Fodder tossed onto the battle as either an ally or enemy. There’s nothing to them beyond being a superior warrior who the other soldiers listen to. Sometimes it’s not even clear they’re the general other than they’re giving orders.
Those are very broad, so you can say that any character could fall into those if you stretch things enough. The difference here is that generals tend to be thrown into these categories with nothing else given to them. Authors don’t typically give them depth unless they’re the main character, but that’s rare. So, they are relegated to these roles that are exclusively secondary and tertiary. Kind of a shame even though it makes senses.
The challenge with a general is that one doesn’t start out that way. You need to work your way up to that rank, which takes years. If that isn’t the main story then it’s going to be a slow and boring slog to the fun part. Even if you start with the hero having the rank, there’s a risk of boring. Generals are experienced and skilled, so they won’t be learning as they go like other heroes. They can handle most combat situations in a way that blocks tension from being fostered. You have a lower chance of mistakes or them facing a new situation. It’s why many authors gravitate towards novice warriors and inexperienced youths. These are characters that readers can relate to because they are learning about the world and how to grow as well.
Of course, you can always take a general who has lost his army and position. The former general is a common mentor and villain. Many times they’ve become bitter and depressed, so they join for a last bit of glory. Maybe the hero has a spark that they remember possessing and they want to see if they can keep it alive. I’m on the fence about this because it doesn’t really work off the general concept. It would be like any other previous career that brings in experience, skills, and history, but might not have the biggest story impact. Not when compared to a figure active in that role.
I’ll be touching on what I consider the 2 types of generals later this week. For now, I’m going to open the floor. What do people think of generals or any military leaders being used in fiction, especially fantasy?