I was looking over my latest Reading List post and I noticed that four out of the seven fiction titles I’ve recommended have a central character who is the last of something. DCI Thomas Nightingale (Midnight Riot) is the last traditional wizard in England, Atticus O’Sullivan (The Iron Druid Chronicles) is the last Druid on the planet, Aral Kingslayer (Fallen Blade) is the last Blade of Namara and Aleksander Ferdinand (Leviathan) is the last of his lineage. So I thought I might write a few words about why authors tend to use protagonists who are the last of something, and what that might mean for us as writers.
First, the why. Aleksander is actually the prime example of this, even though the others might feel more ‘important’ in some way. You see, being the last of something, much like being an orphan (both of which Aleksander is) serves to help the character gain sympathy from the audience. Sympathy is only a step from empathy, a powerful component of audience investment.
Everyone’s felt like the odd man out and what’s a more clear cut example of that than being the last example of something on Earth? Nothing, that’s what! So a character who’s the last of their kind can automatically win a degree of sympathy from most audiences, putting them one step down the road to solid investment. A character who’s the last of their kind also provokes investment in another way, namely it makes the audience curious.
After all, if you have the last of something (let’s call it Spoon) you can immediately gather two things:
- There used to be more Spoons.
- All of those other Spoons are gone now.
Now I know that probably feels like a no-brainer but consider all the questions that this simple, two point premise immediately provokes:
- What happened to all the other Spoons?
- Is the Last Spoon in danger of having the same happen to it?
- Can more Spoons be created to carry on the Spoony legacy?
- How was it the Last Spoon survived when all the other Spoons met their fate?
- What is the Last Spoon doing about its situation?
- How does the Last Spoon cope with its change in circumstances?
And this list is by no means exhaustive. The questions raised by the existence of the Last Spoon also serve to drive audience interest and keep them guessing. Better yet, there’s no one formula to how the questions might be answered.
We know pretty much everything about the fate of Aleksander’s family from the get-go, the only real question the story addresses is how he will survive. On the other hand, while we know that Nightingale is the last wizard because they decided it was time to stop training them there’s no clear reason for the decision given beyond vague references to a place called Ettersburg. And Nightingale outlived his peers and became the last of them because for some reason he stopped aging (and in fact aged backwards for a while). That part has never been explained and we know Nightingale himself doesn’t know why it happened.
Being the last of a kind is a powerful technique for gaining reader investment, both because of the immediate sympathy it provokes and the enormous curiosity it brings with it. And it’s flexible enough to tell any number of stories well in the right hands. While such advantages can be squandered if you’re not careful and measured in what you do casting the Last Spoon as a central character in your story can be a real asset. Try it and let me know how it goes!