No pressure or anything, but without a great hero, your story will fall flat. A hero is who the story is about, and no one wants to read 400 pages about a boring character. The question is, what makes a great hero? And how do you craft one?
Dissect the Greats
Think about the heroes in movies and books that you most connect with and ask why they are a worthy protagonist. Dissecting what you like will help you keep those traits in mind for your own heroes. As an example, I’m always attracted to “fish out of water” stories or ones about an everyday person who gets caught up in an extraordinary adventure. My mistake, with my own first novel, was not making my every woman special enough. When I looked at Regular Joe heroes that work—ones that people love—I saw what I was doing wrong.
Let’s take Anne of Green Gables. On paper, Anne is completely forgettable. She’s a redheaded orphan child. No money, no status, no home. She goes to live with an elderly couple in a small town. Anne doesn’t have superpowers. She isn’t secretly a princess. But Anne of Green Gables captures millions of hearts because of who she is. She’s special because of her wonderfully optimistic, earnest, open-hearted view of the world. She’s also spunky and freer thinking than many of the other people in town. Reflecting on Anne helped me see that an “average” person in literature, or movies, is actually rather “extra.”
Extraordinary Yet Flawed
We all want to follow the tale of someone extraordinary, in their own way. Yet, if a hero is perfect, they’re boring. Who wants to watch the handsome quarterback throw touchdown after touchdown? Who wants to see the knight save the princess again and again? Heroes need to have flaws because flaws make them human. The more human a hero seems, the more readers can connect with them.
Let’s take Batman, the classic flawed superhero. Batman is pretty awesome. He’s got the sweetest ride in Gotham, he can swing from skyscraper to skyscraper, his tech is top notch, he’s hot, and he’s a billionaire. Oh, and he’s literally a hero because he saves the city from bad guys. On paper, he’s got it all. People are intrigued by him, however, because of his prominent dark side. He’s still carrying the burden of his parents’ murder. He can’t get close to anyone because of his secret alter ego. In many ways, he has it quite rough, which is why his sacrifice to be Batman is all the more heroic.
“Regular” heroes need flaws too. Anne of Green Gables is short-tempered and given to dramatics. She’s not sunshine one-hundred percent of the time. Many of us are given to a small fuse like Anne or a little melancholy like Batman. Short-comings make these characters interesting, and often, they drive storyline and plot points too (hint-hint).
Heroes Have Values
Heroes believe in something. Heroes stand for something. Heroes have values. When the going gets tough, plot-wise, heroes let their values guide them. Sometimes they falter. Sometimes they’re tempted to let them go, but heroes stay strong. That’s why they’re heroes. Often these values are admirable traits, which helps with the whole heroic thing.
Batman believes in fighting crime and making Gotham a safer place for its citizens. After what happened with his own parents, Bruce Wayne doesn’t want to see that happen to anyone else. He knows firsthand what heartache it brings. And so, he sacrifices his own happiness to stop the bad guys.
Anne believes in her own independence. She’s a romantic, but she never actually lets anyone stand in her way of achieving her dreams. She loves books, and creates a life for herself where her values take precedence. That takes a good deal of heroism for the time and place in which she lives.
I think the best way to summarize is to say: a hero needs a point of view. A hero isn’t drifting through life or happening upon situations. A hero can be quiet, but not in her own mind. His point of view, values, and flaws guide his decision-making, allowing the hero to prove over and over again why she deserves top billing.