Modern Fantasy: Mercenary Characters

One of the mercenary units from Warmachine: A band of Nyss whose homeland was destroyed by Everblight.

This post was brought on by my enjoyment of of the new edition of Shadowrun, which I played my second session of yesterday, the Mercenaries faction book for Warmachine, and a little bit of the old Jagged Alliance 2 game (with mods!). These are all games that are centered around the idea of people who do dangerous, often violent, things for money. Mercenaries are an interesting character type, and one that is showing up in Fantasy Fiction more and more often.

Simply put, Mercenaries are interesting. They are a very specific kind of lowlife that work for the elite of society. They fight for money, and most mercenaries are decidedly anti-heroic; after all you can’t spend it if you are dead, right?

The adventurers in most tabletop RPGs are at least partly motivated by financial gain, the treasure they can haul forth from dungeons and questing. Some games, like Shadowrun, codify this to the extent that the player characters are actually contracted to do a specific job and payment for successful completion of that task is the main reward. It adds an interesting feel to the game. We can all relate to being hired and making money, which helps players settle into the more fantastic elements of the game without having to situate themselves within a world that does not have these elements.

Mercenaries are common in Modern Fantasy. Glen Cook’s The Black Company is my favourite Fantasy Mercenary saga. It is grim and gritty, but has an excellent sense of humour and is not at all excessive. The structure of a mercenary company allows for a rotating cast of colourful characters while still maintaining a singular theme. Mercenary stories can be short, involving a single small job, like a pair of warriors hired to hunt down a vampire or truly epic in length following a grand company in the sweep of a great war. Conan is another favorite mercenary of mine, although of a different sort.

Here are a few specific reasons I think mercenaries are worth considering as protagonists.

  • Business, not Glory: Modern readers are not exceptionally warlike. Even our soldiers would prefer to be peace-keepers and peace-makers more often than not. It is harder for a writer to sell war as a heroic endeavor to such an audience, especially without throwing any sense of nuance out the window. Characters that fight for “good” or some other black and white ideology will seem unrealistic, larger than life, or heroic, which can be limiting. However treating war like a business instead of some grand crusade makes it more acceptable to those readers who view warfare with more jaded eyes. It simply fits better with the modern view of conflict.
  • Professionalism above Ideology: Mercenaries have a built-in reason for accepting dangerous, unpalatable work: it is what they do for a living. While a writer has to work hard to explain why the naive farmboy, turned swordsman has ended up storming a castle it is much easier to explain why a mercenary is involved in the fight, at least on the surface. The closest most mercenary characters get to ideology, other than a desire for freedom and money, is professionalism. A professional does the job they are hired to do well and takes pride in doing so. Perhaps, with the economy being what it is these days, professionalism is as enviable as it is desired. In addition, the commitment to the contract above all means that Mercenaries often work for the “evil” side, which opens up a whole new set of writing possibilities (and is also kind of relatable these days :D).
  • The Job Idea: Jobs are something most modern readers understand well. Being a Knight is not a job, and neither is a peasant. These are as much social classes as vocations, and are far more secure and unchanging than many of us can understand or relate to. A Mercenary is doing a job, and generally being paid for it. This is a very comfortable starting point for a modern reader, especially when the mercenary is either looking for a big payday, or trying to claw his or her way out of the gutter.
  • Freeks, Miscreants, Outcasts, and Rebels: Every mercenary has his or her own reasons for doing what they do. Their character can often be summed up nicely by answering a single question — why did they decide that the mercenary life is for them? Obviously greed and desperation are decent answers, but many are attracted to the idea of fighting for coin out of a lust for blood, a sense of adventure, or being unable to fit in anywhere else in society. Mercenaries are united by their desire to get the job done, survive and get paid, but beyond that they often highly individualistic. A writer can feel free to populate his mercenary company with all sorts of characters, including some who might be truly heroic. This chance to create a group of interesting people forced to work together really works well for games and stories, especially since most mercenaries are primarily self motivated instead of being dedicated to a grand cause, which helps create tension, conflict, and odd friendships. The diversity of talents helps create variety too.
  • The Glamour and the Horror: Mercenary stories often involve copious quantities of blood, mud, and dirty money. Mercenaries work for those who can afford their services. Few mercenary companies will fight for terrible wages, so that often limits the pool of potential employers to the very wealthy. A mercenary story thus often involves a glimpse of opulence and power: Emperors, Kings, and Merchant Lords who can afford the expense. This contrasts brilliantly with the grim way that most mercenaries engage in conflict, with an emphasis on ruthless efficiency over any other concerns. This offers the reader a unique bridge between the people who create and benefit from a conflict to those who fight in it. One can see both the spoils and the viciousness very well…

Mercenaries are a flexible character element that can be used for most modern fantasies, from gritty tales of deeply broken anti-heroes who seek wealth through violence to more redemptive stories of hidden idealism among the grim veterans of war.

If violence wasn’t your last resort, you failed to resort to enough of it.  The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries,  Howard Tayler


One comment on “Modern Fantasy: Mercenary Characters

  1. […] is a follow up to a previous post. In order to better illustrate the post I am going to create a fantasy mercenary company on the […]

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