[Cover image by TylerWalpole on Deviantart]
“Heroes always win.” “Good always prevails.” You’ve probably heard this before, but have you given any thought as to why?
People love heroes. They love seeing them win, but they also love to see heroes fall, fail, lose, only to rise again and defeat the enemy. It’s in the very sense of the word: a hero is someone who is admired for their courage (bravery in the face of fear) or noble achievements. They are often idealized, and those who become heroes are held in high esteem—which is why it is all the more devastating when they fall short of expectations.
What Makes Someone a Hero?
As mentioned above, a hero is someone who acts nobly or courageously. They are admired or idealized for their achievements. Some examples in real life include war heroes, those who fight against oppression, even everyday good Samaritans. In literature, this can be even more diverse with the addition of powers or special abilities. They can also just be people with admirable qualities who overcome obstacles during the course of the story, and they are sorted into six main archetypes.
The bottom line is that heroes rise in the face of adversity, which is why they are so common in stories.
How can you apply this in your own writing?
Often, the protagonist of a story is pre-classified as a hero. This is even more common in fantasy novels because of the general heroic qualifications required from them. (For example, the lead of a contemporary Romance novel wouldn’t be considered a “hero” automatically.) If you think your story would qualify as one of those with a heroic lead, read on to learn how to make yours amazing.
Building a Hero
Choose what kind of hero you’re going to write: the Everyman Hero, the Classic Hero, the Epic Hero, the Tragic Hero, the Anti-hero, or the Byronic Hero (6 Types of Heroes in Literature).
Backstory is Key
Everyone has a backstory, and it’s especially important for making your hero and your villain (if you have one) compelling. If your characters have bland or cookie-cutter backstories, they won’t be interesting for your readers. This is the reason many characters you know have some unique quality, something that makes them just that much different from everyone else. (Not to say that your character must be entirely different from other people. If you lean too heavily on this—such as the Plain Jane girl that everyone falls in love with—it becomes annoying to readers.)
Keep in mind that you shouldn’t share every bit about your hero’s backstory with the reader, but for you to accurately and consistently write them, having a lot of information to rely upon is a good idea. You can always add more later as long as it’s compatible with the pre-existing information.
If your hero has flaws, what made them that way? Were they always treated with respect and praise as a child, and therefore become conceited (which they must overcome)? Do they feel abandoned or neglected by a friend or family member, and therefore act accordingly (either want no one to feel this way or want everyone to feel their pain)? This information ties into your hero’s motivations, which comes next.
The motivation of any character is directly derived from their backstory, but it also comes from their own personality. As you may know, personality is something that you are inherently born with, and it works together with your environment to dictate how you react to the world (nature and nurture together).
I’ve come to the conclusion that every character, hero, villain, and in between, is shaped by past “trauma” (a word I use in the most general sense). Everyone has it, whether miniscule or extreme. Maybe they’re an only child and therefore grew up somewhat lonely—or they have siblings and felt scorned by a lack of attention. No one can be raised perfectly. Pain is a part of life, and these experiences shape who we are. Personality is just how we react to it.
A child may be pressed by their parents’ expectations, perhaps to become a doctor or some other highly perceived career. Applying the exact same pressure, experiences, and praise/punishment, one child may feel determined to become a doctor and fulfill these expectations, while another may head in the total opposite direction and choose to rebel entirely against their parents. The child’s actions shape the parents’ own reactions, but this all stems back to individual personality.
What does your hero want?
Case Study: Percy Jackson heroes (contains SPOILERS)
In the world of Percy Jackson, all demigods are called heroes. This follows the ancient Greek stories, in which many of the legends’ “heroes” were children of the gods. In this sense, it can be used as an insult (by monsters) or as fact (by the gods). It’s more of a job description than anything, but with that job comes responsibilities.
Heroes are expected to complete quests and other tasks for the gods; they are expected to defeat monsters and win glory for their godly parent. Most (Greek) demigods die at a young age, hardly reaching their adult years, as they stay at Camp Half-Blood until they are about college age, then head out into the world with their training.
How does this differ from the generalized idea of heroes?
Some heroes in Percy Jackson actually do display the values of bravery, honour, and duty; others do not. Let us begin with Percy himself, who is every bit an example of a true hero.
Percy Jackson (the noble hero)
Percy was only twelve years old when he faced his first real monster (a fury). At first, he fought monsters to survive, not for glory or for a mission. Most of the time, his reasons for going on missions are not to earn glory or because he was asked to by one of the gods, but because he wants to do good, often by rescuing someone close to him. This goes against the description of “hero” in the eyes of the gods but fulfills every requirement for our general definition. Percy puts himself in danger, achieves greatness, and saves others because of his innate drive to help the people he loves. First, his mother, then Grover, then Annabeth, then the demigods of Camp Half-Blood, and finally the whole of the world.
This is because his fatal flaw, as delivered by Athena, goddess of wisdom, is Excessive Personal Loyalty. She tells him that he would sacrifice the world to save those he loves. However, she is wrong on one account. While the flaw would most certainly be Percy’s own downfall one day, he has always been able to save both the world and who he loves.
Going forward, despite his success Percy still battles with his own self-doubt and guilt at not being to save everyone. He also does not gain a big head for saving Olympus or any of his other accomplishments. He is jaded with the gods for not leaving him alone after everything he has done for them, but if his friends or loved ones are at stake, he will still do what needs to be done. This selflessness is what makes him a true hero.
Luke Castellan (the broken hero)
Luke is Percy’s foil in most ways. He, too, is the son of a god, but instead of being raised by a devoted mother, Luke’s mother was driven mad by the Oracle. Terrified by her episodes, Luke ran away when he was eight years old, and his hatred for the gods festered far earlier than any Percy may later feel. He was loyal to his friends, Thalia and Annabeth, but this loyalty (combined with his hatred) would be his downfall.
Luke, in another story, may have been a revolutionary. He saw the world for its flaws and wanted it to change for the better for demigods. He saw that they were only being used and discarded by the gods, so he turned to Kronos for change. Only too late did he realize that Kronos would make things worse.
To Percy, Luke is introduced as the epitome of a hero. He is good at almost everything, brave, strong, and something to be admired. This is why it is such a betrayal when he falls from grace. He takes actions that are unheroic by betraying his friends—Percy, Annabeth, Thalia, the other demigods—which he justifies by a greater good. He is a hero who falls, and by the end of the series, he rises again.
In his last moments, Luke proves himself a true hero, and he is redeemed. He was unsalvageable, unfortunately as he was in too deep, but he realized the error of his ways, and his sacrifice (not Percy’s) is what saves the day in the end. This action—sacrificing himself for the benefit/lives of others—is what made him a hero once again.
Writing Your Own Hero
When writing a hero, protagonist or otherwise, keep in mind that they must be liked by the reader, or at least understood. Heroes will always have some unique, admirable quality about them that makes them special, whether it means they have powers that they use for good, or they’re simply someone who never gives up.
Heroes can fall from grace, but they’re best when they’re initially good or want to do good. Someone who is only out for themselves doesn’t make a good hero in the fullest sense; though it’s possible, it may be vastly difficult to write.
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