9 Tips for Creating a Heroic Protagonist
Chapter 5 “Characters” – Section 2.1 “Heroes
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"A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles."
Within the realm of Protagonists, the main characters who drive your plot forward, there is a type that stands out among the rest for its popularity and dramatic power. This protagonist is called the “hero,” and is probably the most popular type of main character that people use. Heroes are characters who actively fight on behalf of some ideal—whether justice, compassion, the safety of others, peace, or any other principal which they determine to be good. As such, not all heroes are the sorts that wear capes and spandex; many are everyday people like you.
What we'll focus on today are different methods to make your protagonist who fights for good, more heroic. Note that you don't have to follow all of the following tips in order to have a great heroic character. After all, some of the best heroes are those who are not always heroic; so you may actually want to do the opposite and make them spectacularly unheroic in certain regards. So think of the below tips as options and settings for adjusting the degree of heroism in your character.
Tip 1: Give your hero ideals that set them apart from the world.
The first thing that should set your hero apart from the world is not any sort of power or ability, but an ideal. After all, if all of the characters share your hero's ideal and drive to fight for it, then the audience can begin to think that perhaps that character is only fighting because it's the popular thing to do. For your hero's views and actions to rise above being popular, they must have ideals that challenge the standards of the world around them.
A temptation when trying to accomplish this is to make everyone else in the world stupid or evil. And this simply ends up making the hero's status appear to be artificially inflated. I advise you to make the standards and ideals of your world realistic, if not better than reality. Then give your hero a belief or standard that is unusual enough to conflict with that higher standard. This will make the hero seem more courageous for believing in a challenging ideal, as well as more interesting.
Tip 2: Create an unusual amount of determination in your hero.
As an alternative (or addition) to giving your hero a different ideal, you can make them more heroic by giving them an unusual degree of determination. In some modern stories, especially those in young adult literature, the heroic character is no smarter, stronger, or more idealistic than anybody around them. They stand apart because they lack the apathy which leads the world around them to tolerate certain forms of evil. In a certain way, these characters show an even higher degree of heroism because they struggle with the same human limitations as you or me. They're simply good people trying to do the best they can, and carry out their personal ideal in the most sincere way possible.
Tip 3: Consider whether your hero is a protagonistic or antagonistic force in the world.
In the realm of superheroes (and to a lesser degree other heroes), there are two major types. There are antagonistic superheroes and protagonistic superheroes. Antagonistic superheroes are those who want to keep the status quo. They are not trying to accomplish any sort of specific goal, only to prevent crime and disaster. Protagonistic superheroes seek to change the world around them, by their actions. They have a specific goal in mind and their actions reflect their desire for change.
Consider the power of heroes who go beyond mere defense of the status-quo. You increase the idealism and the heroism of a character when they go beyond opposition to negative elements in their world, when they fight to empower it and make it better. This can take the form political activism (though be careful that your story does not become preachy), societal improvement (like building hospitals), inspiring hope in the masses (by becoming a symbol), teaching (of sidekicks and those who need help), and probably many more act of protagonism. To accomplish this, you merely need to find a concrete goal which the hero seeks to accomplish through his or her deeds.
Tip 4: Give your hero identifiable human flaws.
As we've discussed, a hero is a protagonist that stands out for their determination and ideals. But the risk in that is making your hero unrelatable. If your hero has amazing powers or abilities, they are going to become even more difficult to empathize with and care about. Worse than that, they are going to seem unrealistic, as it is difficult for the reader to believe in any perfect person—real or fictitious. So if you want your readers to identify with your hero, you have to give them realistic flaws.
These flaws could include self-doubt, arrogance, cowardice, naivety, greed, lust, anger, prejudice, or many other negative traits. And these flaws will become all the more powerful when they become an obstacle to the hero's determination or ideals. But remember that if you want these flaws to be valid, they should cause genuine problems for the hero throughout the course of the story. Flaws should cause the hero to do things that are less than heroic.
When you give a hero flaws that don't actually cause them real problems, you're giving them a pseudo-flaw that is irrelevant to the story. Such a flaw might as well not even exist, because it's just going to make the hero seem as artificial as the irrelevant flaw they have tacked onto their attribute sheet. Don't make your hero fearful but always able to defy that fear, or just too nice for their own good. Give them negative traits that will lead us to feel genuinely disappointed in them at one point or another. This will make the audience feel all the more impressed when they are able to fight to overcome that flaw in the end.
Tip 5: Have your hero seek salvation, not destruction.
Few things feel as noble as a true benevolence towards others—including one's enemies. As such, a way to increase the heroism in your protagonist is to give them a genuine sense of compassion and altruism. Heroes with this attribute shouldn't want to destroy the antagonist, even if that eventually has to happen. If the hero does destroy or dominate others in order for these ideals to succeed, then they succumb to fascism—forcing others to conform to their own ideals. If you have them so believe in their ideal that it surpasses petty anger or disagreement, on the other hand, we will become impressed with their heroic sincerity even if we don't personally agree with the ideal itself.
Tip 6: Make your hero weaker than the villain.
Like with all types of protagonist, your hero becomes empowered in their role when facing something stronger than they are. If the hero is stronger than the villain, then I don't need to worry about the potential for them to lose in the end. Nor does the hero have to grow as a character in order to win. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that every villain has to be a kung-fu master with a machine gun and bulging muscles. It just means that in the context of the plot, and the challenges that the hero must overcome, that the villain has the upper hand.
So make your hero climb vertically (unless you are writing a Tragedy), not go for a horizontal walk through the park. A potent way to accomplish this feat is to allow your hero to lose. This doesn't mean that they have to fail at the end, but that there should be key points at which the villain triumphs over the hero. The more the hero loses to the villain, the more the odds will be against their success in the final battle. And if the odds are set against them, then they are perceived as being all the more heroic for pressing forward despite that.
Tip 7: Set fate/luck against your hero.
You may have heard of Deus Ex Machina. This is when luck, a god-like character, or fate save the hero from a sticky situation. And though things sometimes happen fortuitously in real life, it is infrequent enough to break a reader's sense of realism in a story. In regards to a hero, the idea of fate or luck playing into their favor makes their victory feel cheap and unearned. This is the very opposite of what we think of when imagining heroism. Allow your hero to triumph over evil based on their own merit and growth, not cheap writing gimmicks and writer-god intervention. In fact, if fate and luck work against your hero, it becomes yet another obstacle they must brave through. Like with all things, this can be overdone. But it is something to consider when trying to adjust how heroic your protagonist seems.
Tip 8: Let your hero stand on their own merit.
One of the most common cliches I see in heroes is that they piggy-back the symbolism of others. Most often, the heroes are adorned with obvious symbolism which is meant to compare them to the figure of Christ. Note that I am not criticizing the story of the passion, nor saying that your character cannot have similarities to that one. The problem is in trying to use that story to artificially make your hero look more heroic, instead of letting them stand on their own accord. This need to leech from the imagery of another story makes your hero seem more watered down and not sufficiently heroic to carry themselves through the story.
I advise making yourself familiar with the basic imagery associated with the Christian mythos. The most commonly used of these is the image of self-sacrifice with the arms stretched wide and accepting, often replicated in superhero movies. Another example is the classic scene of a hero looking down, with beams of light cascading from him. Just by observing the basic body postures and symbolic items in that story and abstaining from replicating them, you will help readers to identify your hero as unique.
Tip 9: Remember that there any many types of heroes
Like I said in the introduction, you do not necessarily want to create the most heroic hero ever. In fact, there are many types of heroes, all of which can be quite powerful in the right type of story. You can have gritty heroes who behave dishonorably in the pursuit of a higher goal. You can have a dark hero who wants to portray traits that make them seem like a villain. You can have a bumbling hero who is only heroic in that they are trying their very best. You can have a tragic hero who seems perfectly heroic, but who will ultimately fail and lose everything they ever cared about. And you can have misguided heroes who do their best but are ultimately acting towards a destructive or immoral end. These are all wonderful protagonists who should be used in storytelling. And you can use the above measurements to get an idea of how heroic or unheroic you want your hero to be.
Write-a-Novel Exercise 5.2.1
If you are creating a heroic character, in any degree of heroism, use the tips listed above to map out how heroic you want your character to be.
Click here to submit your exercise to the Greenbat Tutorials Gallery.
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The Adventures of Kineto is the book I'm writing (check out my gallery to read). The protagonist, Kineto, attains superhero status in the first book when he uses his powers to stop crime for the first time. Its message is mostly that the career you choose has consequences, and you must be prepared to deal with that. In the second book, he discovers that he's not the only one with superpowers -- he faces a supervillain and takes on a sidekick. The message here is that everyone is special in their own way, and some are special in the same way you are (not exactly, but very similar). The third book (spoilers; it's not out yet) finally introduces a supervillain who outclasses him in every way, yet is prone to anger and doesn't often think very clearly. It's intended to send the message that you can't fight all challenges the same way; some must be tackled in a different way.
There will be times later in the book where Kineto thinks he has gained a victory, but this victory has an unseen cost. For example, the school bully (yep, it's another teen superhero book) accidentally finds out about Kineto's powers, and demands an explanation. It apparently leads to a more healthy respect between the two, but this information will prove deadly later on. Then during a later supervillain encounter, when Kineto has more sidekicks and one of them disobeys a direct order leading to several deaths, he must step in and take on the twin villains himself -- but learns that the life of someone close to him was claimed in those deaths.
What I'm saying is, what do you think about the technique of letting a hero think he's gained a victory -- and maybe he has gained one -- but it has unforeseen consequences that turn it into a complete loss?
Imagine your characters first, I often do it based on some role or scenario needed for the plot, and suddenly I do find myself a hero. Whereas a pre-planned hero has often been the ill favour of a lack of creative prudence, and little good arises from such.
That could just be personal association, but what do you think normally comes first? The hero, or the human (relatively speaking of course, they may of course not be human)?
Before I go forward into my explanation, note that I find nothing wrong with designing the heroic character in the way you're describing. It's a perfectly valid method.
I think the matter first comes down to what type of story you want to tell. The cliched and overused quote goes that some are born to greatness and others have greatness thrown upon them. I think the same goes for heroes. If you have set up a story that requires a character of great heroism to move a very specific type of plot forward, then that is simply the type of hero you have to design from the beginning. In other circumstances, your plot will be crafted in a way to make a hero of someone who otherwise wouldn't be, sort of like what you were talking about. And there are advantages and disadvantages to both types of characters. For example, a converted hero can generally seem more real and organic but a designed hero generally has a higher ability to push along the plot from the very beginning, if the plot is very complex and intricate.
Also, note that I don't think you have to choose between humanity and heroism, just because you are designing a character to be your hero. These sorts of characters actually have their origins in real-life people, the altruistic sorts who live their lives in order to achieve some sense of good. Think those teachers who become such because they want to help kids like they were helped by their teachers, or those few doctors who go into the field for the sole purpose of saving lives and who take lower-paying jobs in remote regions to accomplish that. They're not the most common type of person, but they do exist and their inclusion into the story breaks no sense of realism. Heroism is encoded into their humanity. And so, for them, there is no matter of "what comes first, the hero or the human." It's all an ingrained part of the same being.
The next set of tips will have to do with mapping and timelines. Until then, we all have about another week to look give feedback on everyone else's intro work.