My contemplations concern both male and female characters, but for the clarity of writing, I’m using only male nouns and pronouns.
In high fantasy, heroes are habitually princes (long-lost or deposed or otherwise beset by woes) or magicians or soldiers. Almost as often they are poor orphans or criminals: thieves and assassins. I don’t know any respectable shoemakers or tavern keepers who are heroes of high fantasy, unless their shop or farm is no more.
Conversely, in urban fantasy, which takes place in the alternative version of here and now, heroes most frequently belong to the middle class: bartenders and librarians, computer programmers and dressmakers. There are not many modern fantasy novels where a hero is a ‘prince’, e.g. a movie star or a corporate mogul. Not many poor orphans either, although some pop up occasionally, just like some criminals make their appearance in urban fantasy, but in latter case, they usually work for the government. A CIA assassin – how glamorous!
Why such a disparity in the heroes’ social standings? Fantasy writers have a rationale for their protagonists, just as fantasy tropes are tropes for a reason. Let’s first look at high fantasy, which usually happens in a quasi-medieval society.
Princes – they have education and money, before some villain causes them to flee for their lives, rally their scattered forces, and strike back at their enemy. Princes don’t have ties to the community; nobody depends on them for their livelihood. Pretty useless creatures, princes, at liberty to go anywhere, anytime. Nobody would miss them.
Magicians – they have power of their own, their magic. They can employ it in any city or society; they have no ties to the community or locality either. Quite the opposite, they are often recluses or under vows of chastity or some such. They’re free to roam at will.
Soldiers – they also have skills they can ply anywhere. They don’t have families or links to the community that depends on them. The same applies to thieves. What is common to all those types – they are independent in their income source and nobody needs them to survive.
Orphans don’t have an independent source of income, but their ties to a place or a community have been severed by irresistible forces. As a result, they’re rootless, blown by the winds of their misfortunes to look for a good life elsewhere.
What about middle class – a shopkeeper or a peasant? Unless his shop or homestead is destroyed and his loved ones killed, he is not free. He has family to support, children to feed, village to appease. Many people rely on him – he has roots and can’t just up and leave for a heroic adventure. It would be considered irresponsible. He must work hard from dawn to dusk, fix the roof after a church service, and pay the guild fee by Friday. He doesn’t have a choice. No food for a fantasy writer there.
Now let’s take a look at urban fantasy – at our society. Here the roles are reversed. Who has the widest choices? Our shop owners and farmers and middle-level employees. Millions of choices. They can switch careers, travel, attend university, go to movies every week, meet new people in bars, gyms, interest clubs, Internet, and so on. The possibilities for fantasy adventures are countless.
How about our soldiers? They’re so boxed in by army regulations that there is almost no room to maneuver for a fantasy writer.
What about our princes and magicians – the super-rich folks and pop icons? If they don’t want to lose their money, they work hard and then drink and do drugs to unwind. At least that is what the gossip pages tell us. Paparazzi follow them, so they’re not free to go anywhere. Can they switch career? Of course, in theory, but it happens so seldom, we never hear of it. Can they become members of a knitting club in a local community center? Yes, but they don’t. Have you heard of even one example? They’re extremely restricted by their names, money, and fame. That’s why they’re almost never heroes of modern fantasy.
Did I simplify in my musing? Yes. Are there exceptions to my conclusions? Definitely. Do you know novels that contradict my findings? Argue with me.