The Main Cast: Writing Heroes

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Luke Skywalker, Bilbo Baggins, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen. Heroes are the characters we look up to and admire. We elevate these individuals because they have found motivations to improve themselves. Well, unless they’re tragic heroes, more on that later. What can you, as a writer, do to makes a hero worthy of a reader’s time and love?

The Hero’s Purpose

In my last post, The Main Cast: Writing Villains, we started out with the writing adage:

A ______ is a ______ who wants ______ but ______ gets in the way. 

Let’s improve on the above statement and give it a little more depth:

A (character) is a (choose a flavor from below) hero who wants (insert goal/motivation) but (the antagonist) gets in the way and as a result of their journey (the plot), the hero changes.

Your homework is to use the above formula and sum up your current WIP. Not working on anything right now? Use one of the hero examples from the first sentence of this post and see if you can fill in the blanks. Feel free to leave your answers in the comments section to help the rest of the class. 

Now, let’s break this down a little further … 

The Hero’s Journey

Are you familiar with Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey? If not, it’s worth your time to see how it all works. Here’s a quick and dirty explanation

  • The hero leaves their known world/existence for a reason–whether they want to or not.
  • The hero enters an unknown world/existence and hits some serious speed bumps. They might meet/need some allies along the way to help them deal with their new challenges.
  • The shiznit gets crazy bad for the hero and they hit rock bottom.
  • The hero needs to do some serious mindfulness techniques in order to make renewed decisions to carry on (or not) with the information they now have at this time.
  • The hero returns home a new (hopefully, all wisened and such) person, and shares their knowledge with others.

Motivation and Goals

This is the entrée of your entire story. The great big why of your writing. Ask yourself, is the world I’ve built changing the hero or is the protagonist changing the world? These internal and external factors create multiple dimensions to your story. 

Whichever internal or external route you choose, nail down the motivation and/or goal to kick your hero out of their comfort zone. Once you do this, the decisions your character makes will demonstrate how they (not you) choose to move through the world you’ve created. This character decision-making process is known as character agency, another wonderful skill to have in your author toolbox.

What’s your Hero’s Flavor?

There are many different types of heroes. Identifying your hero’s flavor will help guide their journey because each type has its own set of wants, needs, desires, and weaknesses. Knowing these vital details ahead of time will help you create more intricate pitfalls, challenges, and revealing moments. When you craft your heroes backstory, consider these identifiers.

1. The Plucky Hero

I will fight for those in need! Runs towards a challenge with self-assuredness; known as brave.
Wants: To be in control, to be in the thick of danger.
Needs: Accolades, proof that they are doing the “right” thing.
Desires: To be hailed as justice incarnate.
Weaknesses: Often doesn’t weigh the risks before action; can be a hothead. 
Examples: Wonder Woman, Luke Skywalker, Thor

2. The Whiney Hero

But I don’t want to go and leave my comforts … Prefers comfort over danger. Understands the risks ahead of time. Knows there’s a call to action, but, wait! there’s also my nice couch.
Wants: To get this whole adventure over with.
Needs: To find their own inner strength, probably something they didn’t know they had.
Desires: Comfort.
Weaknesses: Their inability to act, or act quickly.
Examples: Any Hobbit, Jack Sparrow, Tyrion Lannister

3. The Loner Hero

I got this, step back and watch. Doesn’t need anyone’s help to achieve their goals.
Wants: To remain fiercely independent and self-reliant.
Needs: To seek the help of others, because no man is an island, Jack.
Desires: To be the one who got the job done–and, most importantly, they don’t need recognition for it, either.
Weaknesses: Doesn’t play well with others.
Examples: Indiana Jones, Batman, Katniss Everdeen, Han Solo

4. The Clueless Hero

Wait, I’m a hero? How did this happen? This is a wonderful case of the world shaping the character before the character shapes the world.
Wants: To get through an average day without a calamity.
Needs: To understand their importance and elevated role towards the greater good.
Desires: To understand what the hell is going on.
Weaknesses: Is often in the dark about so many aspects of their true nature.
Examples: Harry Potter, Neo from the Matrix, Emmet from The Lego Movie, Jon Snow

5. The Tragic Hero

If I could do it all over again, I would have made better choices and survived. This hero is shady. They start out a hero and then become a villain or the other way around. Good or bad, they undergo a profound change. This change (or pivotal, plural changes) hallmark their hero status.
Wants: To achieve their own goals outside the realm of humanity’s greater good.
Needs: To put their own ambitions above all others, no matter the cost.
Desires: To find a way out of the mess they have made.
Weaknesses: In the end, it is their innate humanity (their goodness) that shines through and allows them to be a hero, not a villain. Or, vice versa, their humanity becomes lost.
Examples: Darth Vader, Boromir from the film version of The Lord of the Rings, Walter from Breaking Bad, Jaime Lannister 

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 


About Author

Heather Rigney is a fiction writer, blogger, journalist, and art teacher based in Rhode Island. Author of The Merrow Trilogy--a dark, historical fantasy novel that deals with homicidal mermaids, the colonial suppression of women, and a present-day alcoholic funeral director trying to make sense of it all. Her writing has been featured in Motif Magazine and Stone Crowns Magazine. By day she teaches art at an all-girls Quaker school and at night she tries to be creative while avoiding too many sweets. You can read more about Ms. Rigney on her website:

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