Thursday, June 9, 2011

Building Effective Heroes


Earlier in the week my FTLOW sister ReeVera did a post on identifying your hero, listing attributes that make a character a hero, as well as the traits that are often mistaken for those of a hero, but aren't.  Here, in a second part to that post, I'll explain how to create effective heroes your readers will want to read about again and again. Since I write fantasy, and some of the requirements for fantasy heroes are different than for other genres, most of my tips revolve around that, but many of them apply to other genres too.

Creating an effective story hero or heroine is as hard as creating any other main character, be it a protagonist, a villain, a love interest or a sidekick. In fact, if the hero happens to be the MC, it's harder, because they're the person the reader has to identify with and care about the most. Equal only to the villain at least in a fantasy, they also have to stand out the most in the reader's mind. It should be understood that while heroes are generally thought of as brave, bold, moral, and strong, this alone is no longer enough. Readers look for something deeper in their heroes than they did in the 80's, when characters were either good or bad, strong or weak. Such characters now come off as cliche, one dimensional, and even cheesy. So how do you create a hero who makes a lasting impression and is immediately likable to your reader? Here's some tips I've found.

Make your hero human

I'm not referring to race, here. If you write fantasy or sci-fi, you might want a hero who isn’t actually human. What I mean is, give them human qualities. Even if they are an angel from heaven, or even a god, don't make your hero perfect. Have them make mistakes, and pay the price, fall on their face, argue, or be temped by evil. If it fits the plot, perhaps even have them turn evil. Just make sure that when they do make mistakes, there are consequences, and they face them. And if they turn evil, have them come back from it in the end. Also, have your hero effected by loss, pain, injustice or evil. Make them feel sad when they lose a loved one, angry when the villain hurts someone, frustrated by major setbacks, strike out when someone beats them down. Strong heroes are great, but if they don't have moments of weakness or believable emotional reactions, they won't feel relatable. Machines don't feel pain or emotions, and God is perfect, but in stories, the reader should sometimes forget the cybernetic hero is a machine, and even gods mess up once in a while.

Give him/her a quirk

Oddities and unique attributes are a great way to make a character stand out. This can be something as simple as a habit of rubbing her temples when she's under stress, pinching his nose when he's frustrated, playing with the hair or a necklace when nervous. Or it can be something more complex, like an obsession with monkeys, or a strong dislike for a certain television show.  Aside from making the person unique from your other characters, when used correctly, these can help to identify the hero when he speaks without telling it in tags or descriptions, create interesting dialogue, enhance personality, and make them feel more real. Everyone has a quirk. So should a hero. 

Give your hero a dream/goal

Everyone who's been reading me for a while knows how much I love to pull tips from writer and literary agent Donald Maass, especially those from his book, Writing The Breakout Novel. One of the first things Maass tells us in his section on characterization of a hero is to make your hero want something. In any good story, in any genre, the main character has some sort of struggle they must overcome. There is something they want, so badly that they're willing to face impossible odds to obtain it. It's integral to a good plot to have your main character driven by some overwhelming need. This creates strong personal conflict, and either builds the foundation for the main conflict, or produces a secondary conflict that enhances and adds depth to the main one. Also, lack of ambition or personal stakes can make the most otherwise dynamic character seem flat and drain an otherwise great storyline of tension. The hero's goal or dream can be the need to cure a loved one, fly to a distant planet, save a pet, get a certain job, get revenge on a villain, or finally get the girl of his dreams to give him the time of day. Conflict or something at stake is what keeps readers wanting to see how things turn out. It creates the struggle that is at least part of the basis for your story, or sometimes it's entire focus. It's the reason the hero must get the girl, return home, get the job, or save someone they love. In some cases, it can also be an added motivation to stop the villain, on top of the moral need to set things right, because unless they complete the struggle, they can't reach their personal goal. Dreams do not have to be huge or lofty, but it should suit the hero and set the tone for the character. They should also be something the hero can't stand to lose.

Make your hero suffer.

What makes a hero's dream matter to the reader, and what makes them want to see the hero obtain that dream, isn't just that it's important to the hero, but that they must overcome constant obstacles to obtain the dream they're after. This is what makes readers root for the hero, want to see them win. If your hero has nothing driving them, nothing personally at stake, there is no struggle. If there is no struggle, the reader has no reason to want to see the hero win. Likewise, if everything comes too easy for them, readers lose interest. So give your hero a goal or dream, and then make sure you find ways to let them get only so close before it's pulled away from them until the end. The back and forth struggle will keep readers wanting to read on in order to see if the hero gets what he or she has been working for the whole novel to achieve.

Make your hero strong..but not too strong

Along with making your hero suffer, it's important to make them a strong, determined personality. They need to be someone who won't turn tail at the first hint of danger or whine about everything that goes wrong. This doesn't mean they don't feel fear. It means they keep going in spite of it. This doesn't mean they don't ever complain or that everything is roses all the time. It means they note their misgivings when necessary and then do something about it. It also means they defend what's right even when no one else will, even when it could, and sometimes does, cost them everything.In addition, where possible, if you can rob the hero of what he or she cares about the most without destroying the plot, do it. Just be sure they find a way to resolve the loss in the end. Creating suffering for the hero brings more obstacles to face, and the more your hero overcomes, the stronger and more heroic they will be to the reader.

Make your hero someone to look up to/Larger than Life

One of the fastest ways for readers to identify the hero in a story is that it's the person who always takes extraordinary actions to set things right. Every time something major happens that forwards the plot and brings the hero closer to the resolution, it should be an action on the part of the hero. Heroes need friends and should rarely get to the end of the journey on their own, but the most profound actions should be the hero's. It's ok if a hero is saved by others, but not all the time, and not without the hero trying to do it his or herself, taking actions that, without having done, the rescuer couldn't rescue them. Make your hero stand up and take actions no one else would. Make them proactive. Make them bold and defiant. This is a key factor in what makes us see them as heroes, what makes us want to be them.

Create a fear/weakness for your hero

While heroes should be brave and take on challenges others would never face, they should also be afraid of something. Fearless heroes are great in theory, but that's rarely to be taken literally. Your hero's fear doesn't have to be a phobia, though it can be. A fear can be that of losing a loved one, of a certain object or animal, a particular nightmare, or a fear that something horrible that happened before will happen again. If there is a fear or weakness that holds the hero back from resolving the conflict, it adds tension to the story, depth to the character, and provides ways to make their overall struggle more powerful. If it's placed right, it will also enhance the degree of suffering the hero must endure, thus evoking stronger emotions from the reader. I should note that, while it's fine if your hero's fear is paralyzing, the fear should be something that the hero eventually overcomes, especially in this case, and it shouldn't hold them back to the point where they won’t take action. Cowardice is not an admirable trait. Also, the hero's fear should be something that ties into the main plot and keeps them from the resolution in some way, even if it's only for part of the time. If it’s integral to the plot to have the hero held back from the goal by his or her fear until the end, that's fine, but make sure they always find another way around the fear and keep heading toward the goal. This will allow you to show the hero's fear and make it powerful without them coming off a coward, and it will make the hero's triumph over the fear in the end a stronger victory for the reader.

Make your hero weaker than the villain

I've heard people say that a hero should always be the villain's equal. In some ways this is true. The hero should be able to take the villain on, and in most cases, win in the end. But if the hero starts out as the villain's perfect match, the villain ceases to present a challenge (While you're here, check out this post on what makes villains memorable from Madelaine Bauman). In order to create conflict, it's essential that the hero have difficulty overcoming the major obstacles the villain presents. Whatever your villain's strengths and skills are, at least some of the hero's counterpart strengths and skills should be weaker. Much weaker at the start, and growing closer to equal as the story goes on, thus making it harder for the hero to defeat him, while at the same time, drawing the hero closer to their resolution.

Give your hero strong dialogue

Have you ever been in a situation where you had the perfect comeback right there, screaming to be said, but you didn't have the guts to say it until it was too late? Or, the perfect gem of a reply didn't come to you until long after the moment is lost? In real life, we rarely get a second chance to deliver our genius one liners until the bully is gone, or give that perfect pickup line until well after the guy or girl of our dreams has already walked away.  But in a book, you have that chance. You can pause and take time to consider what the hero will say when the villain puts him down, the abusive husband beats his wife, or the most popular girl is still standing there waiting for the hero to say something smooth. Is there something you have always wanted to say, but you didn't because you knew it would get you in trouble? Make the hero say it! Is there something you'd kill to tell the woman you've been mooning over for months, but you know you'd never be able to pull it off without going red or the words coming out bass ackwards? Make the hero say it! Like quirks, well thought out lines and unexpected zingers make memorable heroes that stand out from the crowd and make us fall for them every time.

Next to the villain, effective heroes are the hardest characters to create. It's difficult to strike the delicate balance between morality and temptation, humanity and larger than life traits, strength and weakness, fear and bravery. It's so easy to overdo one trait and end up with an unlikable or unrelatable personality. But if you imagine your hero as someone you and your readers can aspire to be, yet still identify with, if your hero faces and takes on challenges you only wish you could overcome, you'll build a hero readers will love and never forget.

So tell me who is your hero? Whether in a story or in real life, who do you look up to most and why? Share with us. One day, someone might name your character as their hero.

Until next time everyone, write on!

7 comments:

  1. Great post! This is information I can really use and am going to. It's good to know how to build a good hero...kinda hard to just throw something on paper without knowing if it's good or not. I think I've got the dialogue and human part..it's the quirk part I have most trouble with. Mainly because I give them too many. lol. Less is more. thanks Raven!

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  2. Thanks, Ree. Glad you found it helpful. This one was fun to write. We'll have to do another collaborative post sometime. :D.

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  3. This was very helpful to me. I've been struggling with heroes (especially mine) and how to make them stand out. Mine always seem to come out flat. Thanks for this, Raven.

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  4. Hey, Heff, thanks for reading. Super glad you found it helpful. I know, a lot of people have trouble creating strong hero characters. If you know anyone else who could benefit from this information, send them on over! :D.

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  5. This mini series was great! You guys should do more like it :) I like how the first one got the questions going and the second covered all the bases. Now, can there be multiple heroes in stories? How many is too many?

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  6. Thanks for reading Cherri. :D.

    Yes, there can be multiple heroes or MC's in a story, but how many depends on a lot of things. Romances usually have one or two mains, the MC and the love interest. I have seen four, but not as common as two. Epic fantasies usually have more. Shadowsword has four mains, and six secondary mains, all of which are considered heroes, but epics are the only ones that have that many. It's almost impossible to pull off an epic with less than three main characters, but not all have to be heroes. Generally, having a lot of characters in a first book is risky for a newbie, because it gets harder to write effectively the more you have. A lot of characters risks a scattered story with too many plot lines. But you should use only as many characters/heroes as you need, even in an epic. If romances, mysteries or other shorter novels have more than four, you should be careful that you don't have unnecessary characters, and rarely should all of them be heroes, because most stories only have one main plot, and too many characters distracts from that. Does that help?

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  7. Oops, a few corrections. Shadowsword has five mains. The fifth is the villain. Moreover, not all heroes have to be MC's. You can have minor characters as heroes, though they don't have to be as complex if they are minor. And I should be saying Children of the Dragon, the first book, not the series. LOL. It changes for the other books.

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