The Evolution of Character: Malian of Night and the Heroic Tradition

Recently I was asked, ‘what makes Malian, your main character in The Heir of Night unique in epic fantasy? And what makes a hero, anyway?’ My initial response was ‘aargh, the pressure’—not just of an example, but of encapsulating what is often the slow delicate process of character evolution. And Malian of Night’s character did evolve over many years, from long before I first put pen to paper: sometimes in small increments, occasionally in giant leaps. I have spoken elsewhere of the similar emergence of the Wall of Night world: from around the age of 10 I had a vision of a rugged, shadowy, wind-blasted environment, and the concept of a youthful female protagonist within that world developed at much the same time.

Although both the world and the character have evolved considerably from those first principles, the notion that Malian should initially be a youthful protagonist has remained unchanged. In this first book—of four in the series—she is thirteen, while Kalan, the second protagonist, is fourteen. Although this may seem young to us, thirteen and fourteen year olds have been regarded as adult or near adult through much of history (Shakespeare’s Juliet, for example, is fourteen; marriageable age at that time.) The age of these two central characters, at the cusp between childhood and adult responsibility, is one where—although not yet independent agents—most of us are making choices:  about who we are, what beliefs and values we subscribe to, and whether we buy into the status quo or desire change. In the case of Malian and Kalan, these choices are not just personal but reflect the issues at stake in their wider society, known as the Derai—a people who believe they champion good, but are divided by prejudice, suspicion and fear.

A number of elements define Malian’s character. Firstly, she is not a rebel. Many epic heroes begin by either denying or being unaware of their leadership role (i.e, their destiny), whereas Malian has been born and raised as Heir of Night. Rather than rebelling against her responsibilities, or questioning why the hard yards should fall to her, Malian always accepts that they do. One of her primary character drivers, in fact, is her commitment and dedication to the Derai cause. Her rebellion, if you can call it that, arises because she believes the path the Derai are following, and expect her to follow too, no longer serves their cause. This dedication to a higher duty, and to service above self, is an important aspect of what makes a hero in fantasy. Often the hero comes to the moment of acceptance late in the story, rather than early, but there is almost always a point at which that choice is made—like Rek taking on the role of Earl of Bronze and the defence of Dros Delnoch in David Gemmell’s Legend.

In short, Malian’s acceptance of duty is simply the foundation of her character; the story lies in her refusal to blindly accept any or all of the baggage attached to it. Like many other fantasy heroes, she’s brave and powerful—but her superpower is that she is also clever and insightful. She does have mentors and advisers, many of them potent characters in their own right, but still makes her own decisions and is determined to act on events, not just be buffeted by them. The point about Malian is that she doesn’t act on them stupidly. This is a world in which the foolish die quickly, so she has to learn to weigh the odds and take risks—because this is also a world where playing it safe is not an option either.

Committed, responsible, brave, powerful, smart: Malian of Night is a character who stands in the mythic tradition of Beowulf and Mulan, the literary inheritance of Aragorn and Mara of the Acoma. Seen in those terms, perhaps she is not ‘unique’—but through the combined long evolution and ‘great leaps’ of character development, nonetheless speaks with an authentic and distinctive voice. Malian brings two further qualities to the character mix, which although present in the heroic tradition are not universal in epic fantasy. These qualities are a sense of justice and empathy for others. To decide for yourself where she might have learned them in the harsh and narrow Derai world, you may just have to take the plunge and immerse yourself in The Heir of Night.


Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and interviewer. Her latest novel, The Heir of Night, the first of THE WALL OF NIGHT quartet, is published in the USA and now the UK. Helen has twice won New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award, for Thornspell (Knopf) in 2009 and The Heir of Night in 2011—and The Heir of Night has again just been nominated for the Gemmell Awards, in both the Legend and Morningstar categories.

Helen posts every day on her ” … on Anything, Really” blog, on the 1st of every month on the Supernatural Underground, and occasionally on SF Signal. To read more about Helen and her writing, click here. You can also follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we