Being a Better Writer: The Building Blocks of a Hero

Hello again, everyone, and welcome back after that wonderful Easter weekend. I hope you enjoyed it. I know I certainly did!

Now, you may remember a few weeks ago when I wrote a post about whether or not our main character was a hero or a protagonist, and what the difference was. Well, today we’re going to continue in that vein of thought with one of the auxiliary questions that the post raised. We’ve discussed the differences between a protagonist and a hero, but what about setting out to build a hero? How do we do that? What steps must we take to give our readers—and ourselves—the hero we desire? Are there certain traits that our character must hold, or can we declare any protagonist with the right checklist a hero?

Today, we’ll talk about all these. We’re going to look into an almost Frankenstein level of creation, with one end-goal in mind: to build a hero for our stories.

Now, I want to make a few things clear before we get too far into this discussion. First of all, this will not be in any way shape or form the most complete discussion we could have of what goes into a hero, not by any means. What we’re going to discuss is what came to my mind as some of the most key elements of creating a hero, but not necessarily all of them. The heroic archetype is something that’s been discussed, revisited, and re-explored by millions of authors and thousands of scholars over hundreds of years. We’re talking about a basic principle of stories that stretches all the way back to the Greek period—and we’re really just stopping there because they were the first ones we have record of who codified it and made it a subject of study (note that they’re the first we have record of, this certainly existed before that and truly is a long-standing concept).

In fact, if you really want to dive into what makes a hero and what goes into building one, there are a number of avenues available to you. You could pick up a copy of The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, for instance, and dive into a thorough study of the heroic monomyth. You could sign up for any number of college courses on folklore and myth that will almost certainly delve deeply into a study of what makes a hero. Crud, you could even get a decent breakdown by tackling a well-researched radio program on super-hero comic books, since this is a genre that’s had to prove its literary chops in order to gain acceptance, and one of those chops is proving that they do offer heroes.

So, bearing that in mind, what I write here today is only scratching the surface. Heroes are complex, multi-faceted characters, be they real or imagined, that can rise from a myriad of scenarios, birthplaces, and backgrounds. This is why the term hero can be broad enough that it can be applied to everyone from Gandhi, a well-known proponent of non-violent opposition, to Ben Saloman, a regimental dental officer during WWII who sacrificed himself to hold off a vastly superior assault and protect the evacuation of the field hospital he was stationed at. A scholar could build their entire life around a study of what makes heroes who they are and act they way they do.

But we’re writers, which means our interest is in creating a few heroes of our own. So, with this in mind—along with the lengthy paragraphs above setting some context—where do we need to start when we set out to build our own hero?

Well, there’s one thing that stands out in my mind when it comes time to build a hero, and that’s that the hero has to stand for something good. Which can be tricky for some people today, especially younger writers who are just starting out, because it means that you need to decide what good is. And that’s a tall order. But setting aside the theological/philosophical ramifications of that question—better that those be left to someone like Sabra—there’s a core issue that we have to understand when it comes to our hero: They must have something good to stand for. Because part of the core DNA of a heroic character is, as we discussed a few weeks ago, that they engage in the act of self-sacrifice for the greater good.

Now, what that greater good is exactly can vary from time to time (as Frozone found in the Pixar classic The Incredibles), but the point is, a hero is an admission that there is a greater good. That there is something to aspire to, something that is correct, good, desirable and wholesome. Which also implies the inverse: That there is evil or wrong. In order for your story to have a hero, there must exist these two absolutes—good and evil, light and dark, whatever you want to codify them as. They must exist in order for a hero to be a hero. This, incidentally, is why stories that embrace moral relativism struggle and fail to produce heroes—a story that embraces the philosophy that there is no true right and wrong cannot, by definition, have a hero who stands for something the story itself does not acknowledge as existing.

Now, this does not mean that your hero needs to face a villain. Crud, you could quite easily write a heroic story that followed the heroes struggles with their own flaws while still having them champion a good cause (and indeed, this has been done in a variety of ways). But what it does mean is that you must have some form of good, and some form of evil. Right and wrong must be concepts that exist in your story. To use an analogy, if your story is an open field, there must be a fence in the middle that separate the ideas of right and wrong. And the hero must be on one side of this fence. If you decide not to do this? To not have a character who stands for something “good?” Well then, you don’t have a hero. Because as we discussed earlier, this is a core part of being a hero.

Now, I understand that this can make our writing difficult. After all, as the creators of our little world, this puts another weight of responsibility on us to decide what good and evil are. And while that is, again, a massive theological/philosophical discussion better left for another time and place, the point is that at some point you, the author, are going to have to decide for your world what good and evil will be. You’re going to have to build that fence in the field and decide where it falls, even if you don’t actually fully voice it in the work. You will have to draw the line in the sand. Where that line (or fence) lies is up to you, but it must exist.

Right. Now, once we’ve made this choice and established the lines, one thing we can’t forget is that our hero needs to know what they are as well. Now, whether or not they know them at the start, at some point our hero needs to arrive at an understanding of the matter before they can become a hero. After all, one of the core tenants of a hero is that they’re engaged in an act of self-sacrifice for the greater good, right? But part of the requirement for this is that they understand what they’re embarking in. Now, there can be varying levels of understanding here, so it’s not a hard rule that your character must be fully aware of everything that they’re doing.

But they must understand at least a bit of the why and have a belief in it. This is not only important to your character design process—after all, what makes our hero believe what they do? And why do they do it? But it also serves as a focal difference between a hero and another form of protagonist—like the anti-hero (which will we discuss in a later post). For instance, a hero will save a wounded person because it’s the right thing to do and they believe that, while someone else might save them not because they believe the individual is worth saving, but because they’re convinced they’ll receive a reward if they do.

In other words, part of your hero’s motivation must be a belief in what they do, rather than other benefits. If you want to see a good calling of attention to this (as well as a good flick), go watch The Avengers, where several of the characters initially call each other out on the business of why each of them does what they do, and how that makes some of them more or less heroic than the others due to their motivation and belief.

Now, one last thing on this particular topic before moving on. Your hero does not need to start out believing or understanding these things. Part of the enjoyment of stories that involve heroes often comes from watching someone ordinary, someone who isn’t a hero, but an everyday individual with the seeds of greatness in them, become great. But by the end of the story, and before they can be a hero, they must have recognized those seeds, and come to an understanding of the what and the why of their cause.

From there, we naturally move into another relevant area of the hero: They need challenges. What these challenges are can vary. They can be small, personal struggles. They can be large, grandiose rivals. They can even be straightforward, plot-based opposition. But your hero must face challenges in some form that make things difficult for them. If you’re familiar with a “try-fail” cycle, your hero should, in some fashion, be challenged by one. Not only because it adds to the drama and events of the story, but because it can often touch on another aspect of what makes a hero a hero: self-sacrifice.

Self-sacrifice is, as we’ve explored before, a key component of what makes a hero a hero. Heroes are the ones that put themselves at risk and are willing to give up of their own to help someone else. In order for that to happen, they must face challenges—challenges that require self-sacrifice on their part.

Case in point, let’s go with a very obvious and clear super-hero character: Spiderman. Part of the original appeal of the character, in fact one of the reasons credited with its swift rise in popularity, was because the character of Spiderman was a hero who still faced many of the problems that most ordinary people would—money, education, relationships, etc. Challenges that were all too real to readers. However, there was also a clear balance of self-sacrifice—a core theme of the Spiderman series that has been explored again and again in the series various variations is that the character of Peter Parker often has to choose between having something for himself … or sacrificing his own wants and needs in support of others. Invariably, like a hero, he chooses to sacrifice his own wants and needs—though the juggling act of when and why often can become a plot point as well. As a result, the character and story of Spiderman have survived for decades as one of Marvel’s more popular heroes.

Challenges—and how to deal with them—are an important part of any character’s makeup. With heroes, however, they become a vital part of our story and our character. For instance, one could write a story in which someone is challenged producing funds to procure lunch, which could be a small adventure in and of itself. It’s a character story. No heroism there. But if that same character produces the funds, but then chooses to grant them to another, thus sacrificing their own meal on behalf of someone else who might have truly needed it? We’ve added a bit of heroism to our character.

Now, there’s one last thing I want to go over, something that falls right in line with the whole concept of challenges and self-sacrifice. Flaws. Flaws are a part of any character’s makeup, we know this. But sometimes we can be tempted, perhaps persuaded by some part of our own psych, to keep our heroes from having flaws, from making them “weak.”

You don’t need to do this. Because here’s another little core feature of a hero: They’re flawed, yes, but they deal with those flaws or struggle to overcome them. We can have a hero who knows that in some respects they’re not the nicest person and in response, uses that knowledge to fuel their own desire to do as much good as possible. We can have heroes who struggle with their own weaknesses, but overcome them in some part due to the same personality traits that make them heroes. It is important that characters have flaws, yes, but in granting our heroes these same character flaws we give them additional avenues to explore what makes them heroes. After all, which is the more telling, personal story? The one in which a character who faces none of the challenges we do succeeds and lifts those around him, or the one who suffers the same affliction but overcomes it and helps others do the same?
So, looking back, if we want to have a hero, there are a few things we need to do. First, we need to make sure that they stand for something good, which means we’ll need to decide what good and not good are. Second, we need to know why. What do they believe? What motivates them to do these things? Are they motivated by goodness? Or some other reason?

Third, we need to give them challenges. Challenges that can bring to head their character and their heroism. Challenges that can give them question, or show what they, as a hero, value or prioritize. And lastly, just like any other character, we need to give our hero flaws, but then follow through by showing how they deal with those flaws as their methods should be, in some way, heroic if they are in fact a hero.

Like I said back at the beginning of this post, a full study of who and what heroes are can take a lifetime. Which, in a way, is why we as authors need to make sure that we get it right. Because what we write, the characters that we create? They can be the heroes that others think of and love, that serve as a source of inspiration and even motivation. A well-written hero can be the thing that helps set in the minds of readers what heroism is, perhaps even inspiring it in their own lives. And when a person who’s read one of your works comes to a conclusion on what it means to be a hero, well, as an author we should do our best to make sure that the impression they’re taking away, even without a lifetime of study, is the best possible impression we can give them.

So when we write heroes, let’s make sure that they’re really heroes. The kind of characters that can stand as representations long after we’ve moved on to our next project. The kind of heroes that readers can dig into, admire, and understand. Heroes that work and sacrifice towards a better situation, for the greater good.

Let’s make sure we’re providing the “greatest good” we can.

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