Rounding your characters: the hero(ine)

One important thing to remember when creating your main character–which in most cases (though not all) turns out to be the hero–is that they need to be real. What I mean is creating a character that is believable, despite all of the amazing–if not fictional–acts and accomplishments they achieve over the course of the novel.

What does it take to make a character believable? Read on.

Strengths and Weaknesses

When creating your characters strengths, its ok to make the character stronger, faster, smarter, or heartier than a real person in real life. That’s one of the reasons people like to read, right? They want a break from the mundane, the ordinary, the reality of real life. So go ahead and make your hero be able to lift a truck to save a helpless child, or to have him wrestle bare-handed against a tiger…just don’t over do it.

Keep it “realistic” without being real: Have your mage be the strongest in his town – but not in the land. Let your alien species be immune to every bio-weapon known to man, but not in the universe. It’s ok to let the fight go on a little longer as simple punches don’t hurt your “superman,” but one person can not take on a room of eight bikers and walk away unscathed.

There needs to be checks and balances in everything, including your characters strengths and weaknesses. All of the great heros of the past had them: Achilles and his damn heel, Heracles and poison, Oedipus and hubris, Superman and kryptonite, Thor without his hammer, Othello’s overactive trust issues. The point is, each of these characters had something (a weakness) that would bring them to the ground; thus, they are NOT unstoppable, unsinkable, or immortal.

A talented author (I’ll input his name once I remember, as my mind is just not here at the moment) once made an excellent point when discussing the laws of magic: basically, that there must be consequences for the magic user, or the world in which the magic is used. For example, a wizard cannot be all-powerful, otherwise no one would be able to stop him and then what’s the point of any kind of plot? There wouldn’t be, as there’s nothing at stake for him. So, to keep the plot interesting, there needs to be a side-effect of each use of magic; such as having the magic-wielder age each time he casts a spell–so that in the end when he needs to cast a massive spell to save the town, it’s a much more difficult choice (and possible sacrifice) that the character is up against. Make sense so far?

Minor Flaws

Besides the obvious strength/weakness issue, there are other little details that can be added to your character that makes him/her draw the reader in, so that readers can understand and relate to them, bringing your hero “down to earth” and keeping them from becoming an iconic ass.

How do you accomplish this? Easy. One of our upcoming books, Damewood, has a female lead character who enjoys hunting and slaying demons–and is actually so comfortable around them that she’s seeing one. So what did the author do to round her character? Fear. Nadia, the main character, can slay demons and stand her ground at the sight of gallons of blood, but cannot stand to be in the same room as a spider. Doesn’t matter what kind or what size of spider, even if it’s dead, she flips out, lifts her imaginary skirt and cries for help from her guy-pals. It might sound funny in this short description, but it really makes the character believable in that–despite the demon slayings and boyish attitude–she is, after all, a girl, with real girl fears. (And no, not all girls are afraid of spiders, so before anyone gets all huffy and bitchy just follow me here.)

Another great example would be to have a character be an acclaimed space pilot–only to come out later that he’s afraid of the dark and can only navigate the ships because of interior lighting. Or, a heroine that will cross miles of open deserts and wastelands to save her sister’s kidnapped child, but will give up an hour of much-needed sleep at night in order to comb out her hair and meticulously clean her travel dust-covered gear because she can’t stand dirt.

It doesn’t really matter what you do, just give them personality quirks or characteristics that would make them stand out, and keeps them from being the “iconic,” or “perfect” character. Again, don’t overdo the flaws and make them unrealistically stupid, slow, afraid, or whatnot, just something to offset the “hero” image, and again, bring them “down to earth.”

Is the Hero Really a Hero?

You mean is your character a hero with all (or some) of the above-mentioned flaws? Of course. If anything, it REALLY makes them a hero because of the obstacles you’ve created that they must go up against. I mean, what would be so heroic about your character if there was nothing to stop him from walking in to a building and carrying out a crying infant? Nothing. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be more dramatic and climatic if the building was on fire, the infant trapped upstairs, and the man had asthma? See what I’m talking about now?

You need to build your character up (or down, whichever way you see it) in order to make the situation tense and intriguing. On the flip side, you need to write your character in a way that readers sympathize with them so that they actually give a damn whether or not he/she lives or dies, or saves the world, etc. Make readers care. Make them understand. Make your character “real.”


6 Responses

  1. Thanks for the advice, but Sickboy soon will be the greatest hero ever penned! Better than Odysseus. Better than Beowulf. Better than Holden Caulfiield or Billy Pilgrim.

    The Sickboy Chronicles – The Gift

  2. I’ve always sort of cringed at the word “hero,” in refrence to the main character of a story. I just feel like the hallmarks of a heroic character (incredible deeds, self-motivated, self-righteous, one big vulnerability and a few cutsey flaws thrown in for good measure,) get pretty boring and predictable.

    I guess it follows that most of my own characters are pretty non-heroic. The main character of my (in-progress. *sigh*) sci fi novel is especially so. He’s stubborn and resistant to change to the point that it’s usually the other characters who advance the plot, he just gets dragged between them. Poor guy, but I think it creates the most interesting angle on the events at hand.

    I think one should really consider if telling the story from the “cool guy”‘s point of view is the most interesting way to present the plot. Just for a quick example, I liked the epic poem Beowulf… but I really loved the novel Grendel. A simple observer, friend, or opponent of the hero may have more interesting things to say than the hero himself.

  3. NM-

    You make an excellent point, so let me elaborate…

    The term “hero” has been miscontrued for a while now in literature, and many writers don’t quite get what it means for a “hero” to be heroic–meaning that the character itself doesn’t have to be idealistic or iconic, but rather must show heroic traits in the face of an ominous force, dangerous feat, etc. No, you don’t need the blue and red outfit, or be able to fly or stop trains with one arm to be a hero, it simply means that the character will step out of themselves and go above and beyond what is normally expected of them (or any of the other characters for that matter) in order to prevail over whatever it is they’re up against.

    The point of this blog wasn’t to show writers how to create their hero–but rather give points on how to reign the characters in. A lot of writers tend to overdo it on describing how “terribly awesome!” their character is, and make them so unbelievable it makes editors want to just use their manuscript to line their birdcages…

    Heros are human too, with human strengths, weaknesses, wants, and desires. I mean, you can’t tell me Superman wasn’t tempted to use his special vision to look under every short skirt that passed by? Or that Spiderman didn’t have to force himself from hanging outside open windows to keep from being a peeping tom? The point is that so many writers are too focused on the abilities and positive attributes of their character, that the REAL character is left in the dark.

    Probably the best examples of what a heroic character should be written like are found in children’s books. Why? Well, because in young literature, the author will take an average or even picked-on kid–a kid that’s so realistic and down to earth–that young readers releate to and tend to love because the situations that the child-characters are put through are so similar to what real life kids go through. The characters are written to react as any other kid would; it’s ok to be scared of the dark, to not be able to cook your own dinner, or to cry after loosing your cat–the authors don’t create their characters to be too strong, or fast, or able–no, they model them off of real-life kids. Bullies, overbearing parents, a scary teacher, the big dog down around the corner–they might not sound like obstacles needing the help of a hero to overcome, but the characters are so REAL in very real situations, that the acts themselves that the characters perform make that character, in turn, a hero.

    Hope that helps to clarify….

  4. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Crest

  5. Another interesting topic. I agree the main character (hero) needs to be realistic and have flaws and weaknesses so the reader can identify with them. But I cite two examples of main characters (heros) that seem to be exceptions. Conan the Barbarian, at least in the movie version played by (can’t spell that last name so I’ll jst say) “Arnold”, didn’t seem to have any weaknesses. Yes he suffered as a child (losing parents), was enslaved, and then freed. But it seemed no-one was as strong, or could beat him no matter whether demon, god or man. Yet that story was tremendously successful. Maybe the actor’s ability to show exertion and suffering made up for it?

    The other example is something I am loathe to cite , possibly because of the great popularity of the books and movies. Also because I look up to J.K. Rawlings so much. She is an inspiration to me and so many writers with her Harry Potter series. However… It seemed to me from the first movie (I admit I haven’t read the books) something bothered me about “Harry”. Yes he was burdened with his adopted family of disfunctional “Muddles”, and yes his birthright had been stolen from him, and his parents had been murdered. That’s actually quite a bit come to think of it. So maybe it’s me, but it seemed that Harry, once he entered the realm of Magic could do no wrong. He always turned out to be right, and the teachers at the Magic School always seemed to be depicted as doddering fools compared to Harry. He broke rule after rule and never seemed to suffer any consequences, and his skills and mastery of magic seemed to just come naturally without effort and he never seemed to fail. He could eavesdrop on his elders and was never chastized, and if he was ever denied anything he wanted it seemed somehow a great wrong was being done to him. Alright there it is, the ultimate blasphemy by a nobody against a character whom everyone else loves and a critique of a writer I adore. I hope it is not a “dog in the manger” attitude that I am exhibiting here, because obviously the Potter series is wildly popular, and J.K. must have done something right, and besides, WTH do I know?

  6. Gary,

    No, what you feel about a know-it-all, unrestrained, and over-achiever type character is justified. I have my own opinions about the Potter character and Rowling’s reasoning behind his “status,” but one (of many) nice (not too many of these) theories is that the book was indeed written for children, and children do like to think amongst themselves as being above or special, separate from adults, and the child of course always has to win. Or, it could be some editing issues with Harry’s back story…

    As adults, readers are not satisfied by the all-around greater-than-thou character – unless of course you’re reading a romance where the exotic gardener is really a prince displaced from his kingdom, is handsome and smart, can beat up any man trying to take away his girl, is really a millionaire, and has the biggest… You get the point. It doesn’t work.

    Readers want drama, they want action, and they want the hero/heroine to suffer through it all to make them worthy of the outcome. It heightens the suspense, makes readers wonder if they’re really going to make it, and fleshes out the individual’s personality and story.

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