Last December, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey arrived in theaters, and being a Tolkien buff, I had to go see it at least twice. Though I liked Bilbo and Gollum, as expected, the real break-out character for me was Thorin, the dwarf prince. I found his tragic backstory, regal demeanor, and growing friendship with Bilbo compelling.
Then, this spring, I sat down to watch the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Naturally, I noticed Prince Zuko, the scarred firebending prince, who starts off pursuing the protagonists with Javert-like intensity, before slowly evolving into an anti-hero.
What do these very different characters have in common?
They are both fit he archetype I like to call "Banished Prince."
And what does that mean? Well, before I explain it, let's take a closer look at the characters.
Thorin's grandfather was once the dwarf King of Ereborn (aka the Lonely Mountain), until the dragon Smaug flew, burned the lands, and stole the treasure hoard for himself. Forced to abandon his home, Thorin has carved out a decent life for in other lands. But his long lost gold calls to him. He begins the principle quest to reclaim the long lost treasure, enlisting thirteen dwarves, a wizard, and one lucky hobbit.
Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation
Zuko is the son of Fire Lord Ozai, a bloodthirsty conqueror bent on world domination. When he innocently questioned his father's methods, Ozai scarred his son and banished him. Zuko's only chance of returning home is to capture (or kill) the elusive Avatar, a boy named Aang. Zuko pursues Aang and his friends relentlessly, convinced that this is the only way to restore his lost honor.
Both characters are born into prestige and wealth. They expect to continue their way of life, at the very least. Then, all of a sudden, everything they had, everything they hoped for is lost. They are ejected from their home, striped of power, and left to fend for themselves. But rather than sit and sulk, they decide to reclaim their birthright. The obstacles they face seem insurmountable--yet they plow into them headlong.
This is the "Banished Prince" in a nutshell.
As they start their quest for restoration and redemption, they start to exhibit similar characteristics. Qualities that they will help and hinder them on their quest.
When you start off as one of the privileged few, pride is a natural quality. But even if you take away all the titles, a residue of arrogance remains, a defense mechanism of sorts. If they didn't feel they deserved their former life, they wouldn't fight so hard to reclaim it. So they stick their noses in the air just a bit and are aloof if not rude to others. The universe, of course, does not allow such blatant pride to go unpunished. Expect lessons in humility to be thrust upon them. Whether or not they learn from them, is up to the character.
Their honor is what justifies their pride. It's what makes them princes. They have very high standards of behavior, which they hold themselves and others to. Like pride, this is one of the very few things salvaged from their former life. Unlike pride, honor tends to be a more positive trait. While the audience might cheer for the prince's loss of pride, they secretly want them to hold onto their honor. It's what makes them sympathetic, even admirable.
If you choose to pursue an impossible quest to regain your throne, you'd better be determined. On the positive side, determination usually goes hand in hand with persistence and these characters will stick to their quest, come hell or high water. On the negative side, stubbornness can also cause the character to fail to learn from his mistakes, to stick to bad decisions, and to fall into the same blind spots over and over. It may also grate on those trying to help him.
Haunted by the Past
This archetype comes standard-equipped with a tragic backstory. There is no way to happily lose your home. Though the character may or may not bring up the past, it is clearly important to him as it drives all his decisions. But can the past really be restored? And if it can, is it worth the years of pain and suffering? This can easily lead to an internal conflict. Will the character accept that some things can never fully be reclaimed?
On the surface, you'd think this character's ending would be simple: either he regains his throne or he doesn't. Either he fails or succeeds. But if you've read The Hobbit or seen Avatar you know that rarely is it so neat and tidy. The banished prince is a complex character. Depending on where his journey takes him and what lessons he learns, his story could end with:
Redemption: Hard work and sacrifice pays off. The prince restores his position, regains his honor, and possibly becomes king.
Epiphany: The prince realizes that he is seeking the wrong thing. He turns off his path and goes after a new goal.
Tragedy: The prince cannot let go of his past and/ or pride. By stubbornly clinging to it, he loses everything all over again.
Growth: The prince is able to adapt to his new situation. He is stronger, more humble, and/ or wiser for it.
From a writer's point of view, the banished prince hits the character development trifecta: an interesting background story, clear motivation, and internal conflict. Oddly enough, though, they are rarely the main character.
I have my own reasons for being fascinated with the banished prince archetype: I'm writing one myself. Not to give to much away, but his mother's the head of a crumbling regime and he anticipates losing his position soon. What actually happens, though, takes him by surprise.
In the end, though, the banished prince is more of a situation you put the character in. It does not and should not fully define the character himself. Who the character is and who they become depends on their choices and their personality.