Writing a paladin character includes internal struggle, discipline and courage. They fight for something bigger than themselves, fully committed to their cause in thought and action.
The paladin archetype as we know it today is basically just a Holy Knight—The Knights of the Round table, so to speak. Originally, the term comes from King Charlemagne’s elite knights. Being the king of France, Charlemagne found himself face-to-face with Islamic invaders who had already conquered the territory of Spain. Fending off the invaders, he was a hug figure in uniting Europe.
I’m not gonna fall into a whole history lesson here—I’m just a story guy.
But how does that translate to zombie-smiting warriors with glowing swords?
They are touched by the divine because they are pious observers of their given religion—like all the famous knights of Western Europe. In this way, the paladin is one of the most disciplined, devoted archetypes in modern fantasy literature. They live by a code, though the strictness they adhere to this code can vary.
Paladin stories can cover deep and personal topics—meaning, purpose, and what narratives build our worldview.
I’m not going to make an exhaustive list of paladin examples that are out there—they are as varied as people’s imaginations. But I do want to touch on a few archetypes I see that make interesting stories for this character and discuss how we can explore these ideas further as the story progresses.
The Law Keeper
Being somewhat of a cop, this paladin will be tested by the cruel world around them. They stand by their code of conduct, but what happens when things get complicated? What happens when they are forced to make a decision that might conflict with their code?
Let’s start with baseline good guy—the character most like an Arthurian knight. They use their station as an ambassador of their deity. They aren’t quick to battle but are more than capable of protecting themselves and others.
I like this character as a secondary character in a novel or as part of a party dynamic in an RPG campaign. It’s kind of cliché’ to make them the Chosen One main character, though it might be so cliché’ at this point that the rule has reversed again. I don’t know. They can be bullish and stubborn, but, at the same time, completely corny. The type of person to say darn it at their most furious.
Put this person in uncomfortable positions for a laugh—kind of like Hank from King of the Hill. In fact, Hank would make a fantastic paladin.
But on a more serious note, you can give this moral character trials that will test their limits. They need to consider if following rules as written is the same thing as morality. Or maybe they are facing a ruthless opponent who uses their code against them. Almost like a Batman villain.
Speaking of villains—it’s also possible that this paladin is evil. The ultimate enforcer of Lawful Evil. They almost need to be psychotic or power hungry to devote themselves to enforcing dark laws.
I sometimes question whether this just makes them a warlock? Like, what’s the difference? Heavy Armor?
This is your slayer paladin—the one who devotes their life to the all-mighty smite. Whether they focus their avenging wrath on undead or devilish entities, they are the hammer of righteous fury. They often utilize purifying fire and light in their attacks and follow gods of justice or even war.
I think this character is popular in RPGs because of the whole make-zombies-explode element. Can’t hate it. But let’s look at some deeper character elements we can use to make this character more than just a smiting machine.
This character works well with a sad backstory. Maybe they were orphaned by the undead minions of a power-hungry necromancer and have sworn their life to protect people from that threat. Naturally, the best defense is an overwhelming offense. If the threat doesn’t exist, then there is nothing to protect against. Or so this character believes.
That said, this is the perfect setup for a good-guy-gone-bad. Does your character get a little too hype to slay and fight? Are they serving justice or themselves?
And what about those who serve a god of war? Well, now you have a gray character who could absolutely turn evil. Or maybe the glory of slaying foes is how they worship—which could make for a cool mercenary.
But what if they learned the benefit of mercy and peace and turn against their god? What consequences would that create in the story? This is a nice segue to the next archetype I commonly see with paladins.
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The infamous oath breaker: this character has turned their back on what they once believed. Now they drift through a world where they must face loneliness. They still encounter horrors and monsters along the way they must deal with, but they don’t the have structure and support of the order to which they once belonged.
As far as protagonists go, this character has had it rough. Clearly, something turned them against their original beliefs, which should be explored in their backstory. If you are looking for a heroic character arch, you will need to figure out how this character will deal with this past. Have they moved toward a more truthful direction? Are they breaking rules by dipping into dark forms of magic to accomplish their purpose?
However, if this character is part of a party dynamic—something like an RPG party—learning the value of trust and loyalty can be a part of their character arch. You know, the whole friendship thing. They still need something higher than themselves to fight for, it may just change shape as the story progresses.
Sometimes, the whole good and evil thing gets overplayed, and people want to get creative. I think replacing this duality with order vs chaos is another great way to build a paladin. You still need to be devoted to something beyond yourself as a paladin, but you can tap into this element of balancing nature or cosmic forces.
This archetype works well with paladins who serve nature, the Fae, earth, steel, the forge, weather… the list goes on. All these elemental paladins deal with a balance. Steal needs the right balance of metals, carbon and heat; weather is a balance of temperature, moisture and gases; ecosystems are balances of all of these things plus communities of living organisms.
And it could all fall apart in an instant.
You could think of this character as a Jedi in the way they balance the force—all zen-like with a glowing sword.
They can fit a party dynamic by being the laid-back best friend of the group—generally a cool cat. Whatever elemental focus you choose to go with, your character has built their life around the lessons that live within their given element. Get creative with this worldview and find virtues within the elements worth exploring.
On the other hand, they could make interesting wanderers who bring a unique perspective to the problems they come across—something like a wandering sword hero.