“Heroes aren’t always the ones who win,” she said. “They’re the ones who lose, sometimes. But they keep fighting, they keep coming back. They don’t give up. That’s what makes them heroes.”
(Cassandra Clare, City of Heavenly Fire)
For the last article in Heroes Fortnight, we’re going to think about what we have learnt from studying different heroes and heroines over the past two weeks and summarise here what makes a good hero and how to make your hero stand out.
Being a good person does not necessarily make a good character or hero. When we use the word ‘good’ here, we’re talking about a well-developed three-dimensional character. The following factors are what can help you make your hero strong in more than just the physical sense.
Make your hero flawed, it makes them feel human.
Looking back over our favourite heroes: Mulan (with her many insecurities), Buffy (who has experienced stress and depression), Adrienne (someone who shows that your character is allowed to be wrong), Thor (someone who has to earn their ‘worthiness’), the Doctor (worn down by guilt), they are all connected in that they are imperfect and flawed. And yet with that imperfection, they become that step closer to becoming more realistic and relatable.
It’s easier to route for the underdog than an almighty god-like figure. There’s also more at stake and things are more uncertain. This gives you more flexibility in terms of upping the tension and suspense when you have a character that is not indestructible. By being imperfect, the reader not only roots for your hero, but also when your characters are faced with a dangerous situation, readers want to read on to find out what happens. Being flawed means the pendulum can swing either way: your character may or may not make it out alive. This creates tension as the readers grip the books in their hands wondering what the fate of the hero will be. An almighty, indestructible hero wouldn’t build such a suspense. We want your readers to feel, to experience fear for the hero and keep on reading to see how and if they’ll get out of this sticky situation.
If you’re telling a series your character needs to change over time (Buffy) but even in a short stretch of time your character should develop. Mulan goes from an insecure girl trying to please her family, to a warrior who defends her country.
Your character will have flaws, they won’t be perfect. But their journey or quest will bring them closer to become better, wiser, stronger. Maybe they lack courage or confidence at the beginning, but with the help of their friends, family or a wise old teacher, they’ll find their way after a lot of floundering around to emerge as a better person. They’ll find the courage deep within themselves to overcome those obstacles.
It might help to start with a character profile and working out what are their worst qualities, what are their flaws? Then ask yourself how these aspects of their personality manifest into behaviour and habits, and what impact this has on the relationships your character has with those around them.
Also try to find a balance: what are their best qualities? What are their redeeming qualities? What aspects of their personality make them likeable enough so the reader will read about them, despite their flaws?
People can be plagued with insecurities and self-doubt and that’s no different for heroes. However, such flaws aren’t always so overt. Characters can adopt personas to hide how they truly feel, they can appear arrogant to compensate for their vulnerabilities, but it’s all a facade. Good characters should be as complex as real people, and so spend time developing your heroes.
Consider their relationship with their family and friends.
Your family and friends can have a huge impact in your life: in who you are as a person, in how you view the world and how you cope in different situations. The relationships that your character has with the people around them can reveal a lot about their personalities, and also help your readers understand how your character became the person they are at the start of the novel. The family dynamic can be a great source of conflict, but also a great source of support and stability for your hero. Their friends can help them along with their journey, or hinder them in Judas-like betrayal.
Mulan wants her family to be proud of her; Buffy has a deep relationship with her mum and daughter-father like relationship with her Watcher, Giles; Thor has a conflicting relationship with his ‘brother’ Loki; Jon Snow has a strong brotherly relationship with Arya Stark which is ongoing even when they haven’t seen each other in years. Buffy’s relationship with her friends, dubbed the ‘Scoobies’ is pinnacle to the series and sometimes it’s the strength of her relationship with them, that helps her defeat the villains . Adrienne’s relationship with Bedelia made her stronger. Jon Snow’s relationship with his direwolf, Ghost, Sam, Pip, Grenn and some of the other Nightwatch humanise him, his need to push his friends away in the more recent books/season is heartbreaking and has negative consequences and yet despite this, his relationship with Ghost stays strong.
Make them afraid.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” ~Ambrose Redmoon
Being brave isn’t due to the lack of fear, it’s from embracing the fear and not letting that stop you from doing what’s necessary. Your heroes are likely going to be facing grave and serious situations, and like most humans they don’t want to die. Allow your heroes to be afraid. This makes them human. Giving your characters fears at the start, also allow you to build up the suspense later on in the story when your characters are forced to face their fears and make a critical decision to determine whether they will succeed against the antagonist.
Buffy has been afraid again and again despite her powers. When she finds out she is destined to die in the first season, her response is to break down. “I’m 16 years old, I don’t want to die.”
Even despite his immortality and regeneration, the Doctor was terrified when he was dying, “I don’t want to go,” being a memorable moment as the 10th Doctor left us. Being an arrogant assassin doesn’t stop Celaena Sardothien from having fears, she is terrified of the King and nothing stops that fear, the best she can do is hide it.
Heroes with a moral code.
Celaena Sardothien does what she has to in order to survive, but when things push against her moral code (such as working for the King or buying slaves) she will disobey orders and even put her life at risk. Princess Adrienne has a strong moral code in that she will not stand for being treated any lesser due to her sex, she actively encourages Bedelia to be open about the fact she does all the smithing and not her father. It’s easier to relate to Adrienne when from the opening we have a girl being frustrated with the ‘plot hole’ of fairytales.
Even with his age and alien status, the Doctor has one rule he always abides by. He’ll never kill someone, even though sometimes he has to amend that rule to save hundreds.
Instead of preventing her father from fighting for his country, Mulan picks up his sword and goes to take his place, risking her life in the process. She knows that it’s important to protect her nation from the invasion of the Huns, and she knows that it would be seen as a terrible disgrace if someone did not step forward to represent her family in the army. When she embarked on this mission, she was doing what she thought was right without an expectation of any gains or rewards – she probably didn’t even expect to make it out of there alive. But that’s what makes us admire her character even more.
A hero’s moral code is what makes the difference between a hero and an anti-hero. An anti-hero although they have good intentions ultimately, they will cross any lines and go too far e.g. Dexter the serial killer.
Consider their motives.
The hero needs to make their own decision to go on their journey. It needs to be a conscious decision rather than pre-destiny in order to risk her/her life to save the innocent lives of others or to seek justice. It has to be voluntary rather than a duty – it’s goes beyond that.
But why does your hero want to save the city? Why do they want to save the girl? Why do they want to go on an epic quest? Why do they want to slay a dragon? The reasons are even more important than the quest.
At the beginning of the series Buffy rejects being the slayer and she’s constantly at odds with her ‘destiny’. Mulan is motivated by her desire to save her father but also a hidden desire to do more for herself.
It’s their motives that make all the difference. It is sometimes their motives not their actions that define them as a ‘hero’. While Kid Loki utilises the same tactics as his evil older self and his actions could never be considered good, it’s often his motives that are. He stops his own previous end of the world plans, by manipulating and sacrificing people but still at the end of the day he saves the world. He never does this for gratitude because he knows no one will believe that he did something good and he works in secret serving and helping the All Mother. Consider what makes your character tick, and why they want to help people.
Conflict is the central driver of a story. Conflict is essential to create tension between characters. It comprises your character’s goals and the obstacles that hinder your character’s journey. This may be inner conflict, as the character must deal with doubts/hatred/insecurities within himself, or external conflict: man vs man (e.g. villain), man vs society/environment (e.g oppressive system), man vs nature (e.g. hurricane).
Loki struggles with people’s perceptions of him. The Doctor is constantly haunted by his past. Jon has to fight to gain the trust of the Night’s Watch when he becomes Lead Commander and even then it’s an impossible task. Celaena and Buffy both reject their ‘destiny’, Celaena refuses to consider herself a hero and ignore her past, Buffy has on multiple occasions pulled away from being the Chosen One, sometimes refusing to fight but in one instance literally running away from her life and becoming someone else.
Make them memorable.
Give them something that is unique. It might be something they possess (Kell’s coat in A Darker Shade of Magic; Thor’s hammer; the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver; Jon Snow’s direwolf Ghost, Katniss and her iconic plaits, Dr House and his cane, Harry Potter and his lightning scar) or their identity, for example in Half Bad, Nathan is defined by and punished for who his father is; Kid Loki is haunted by his past actions; Adrienne is limited by her gender (although she uses that to make her stronger); as the Slayer Buffy has things expected of her. You want to have a memorable character, that has their own quirks that make them unique.
Think about your favourite book. Then think about your favourite character in that book. What made them so special to you? What did you like about their character? Was there anything you didn’t like?
In conclusion, the key to a good hero is realism. Your characters need to feel like real people, with the multi-dimensional facets that make up the thoughts, behaviours, and habits of humans. Avoid cliched characters and look for suggestions of the kind of heroes people would like to see more of. Allow room for your hero to go on a journey – emotionally, spiritually, physically and mentally so they emerge stronger on the other side.
–Elizabeth and Nadia