5 Tips On Heroes

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Sorry for the lapse.  Sort of.  I’m suffering from a rather debilitating case of writer’s block, and these stupid things are my therapy when I just have to write without having anything to write.  I’ve had a little luck in the last few weeks, hence the lapse.   Also, school is kind of weighing in, just a tad. On the plus side, my house is cleaner than it’s been in 3 years.

1.  If you lose the moral high ground, you are no longer writing a hero. Granted, morality has a broad definition, and most of the time whether your hero is doing “the right thing” depends on your audience.  Some red-blooded American crazy might see a pacifistic hero as a pansy, while a Bhuddist might find a blood-covered roaring hero reprehensible.  However, there are universal truths in morality, which is why stories that exemplify it have lasted the longest (Jesus or Siddhartha, anyone?).  The very definition of a hero is someone who sacrifices so others don’t have to; selflessness, generosity, compassion, and courage are safe moral high grounds.  But when a hero or the author writing him begins to see himself as “the good guy” despite kicking babies and killing defenseless people, you’ve lost said  high ground.  You’re writing an anti-hero or a villain protagonist, perhaps, and those guys have their place, but they don’t fit with the archetype of a traditional hero.  Joseph Campbell, mythologist extraordinare and author of The Hero With A Thousand Faces wrote at length about Germany’s rather swift about-face in regards to heroes after Hitler’s rise and fall.  Suffice it to say that Germany likes the quiet and humble heroes now, culturally speaking.  Eragon, my favorite punching bag, suffered what we over at TvTropes call a Moral Event Horizon: the point at which a hero performs an action that makes him fall from the reader’s grace.  Eragon chases
down a young terrified soldier of the Empire, who pleads for his life, citing that he is serving against his will and begs to go home to start a family.  Eragon, who up to this point has portrayed the abilities to both magically mindwipe someone and lay an inescapable geas on them, instead opts to strangle the guy to death.  Yeah.  Please keep in mind that if Eragon had felt
terrible, lasting remorse for his action, this might have not been his Moral Event Horizon.  But since we’ve seen him weep over bunnies and not this dude he just killed, it’s safe to say that Eragon’s priorities are a little skewed and we should all be a little afraid.  Heroes behave in morally sound and ethically correct ways, as best they can, always.  It’s what makes them heroes.  Period.
2.  A hero must have an inner journey and an outer journey. Unless you’re Indiana Jones or James Bond, then you don’t have to worry about that.  However, they are protagonists inhabiting a plot-driven novel, not a character-driven novel.  So if you’re writing action, go for it; you can skip this part.  But for those who like character, you need both kinds of journeys in order
to satisfy your reader.  The two journeys should parallel each other; the hero’s ability to overcome his inner obstacle should equip him with the ability to solve his outer problem.   As an example, Fiver from Watership Down makes the journey from a terrified, gibbering prophet to someone who gives himself over to the mysterious forces that invade him.  In doing so, he gives up a large part of himself and his sense of immediacy, but he saves his companions on numerous occasions (and in the climax, the paralytic effects of his visions terrify his enemies and ultimately end up saving Fiver himself.)  Perhaps a simpler example would be Kung Fu Panda, in which Po’s discovery of “Be Yourself!” and “Get Confident, Fatty!” allows him to confront Tai Lung on his own terms and win.  Heroes can have journeys that have nothing to do with each other, but that makes for a far less satisfying read.  Not to say it can’t be done, but well-woven plots almost always have it.  Readers like connective causation, the idea that everything in the story has something to do with some other element in the story, and the hero’s journey should be at the very center of all that.  If you can’t do that, you’re kind of missing the point of storytelling.
3. If your hero knew you were responsible for making him/her, and he’s/she’s happy about it, you’re not doing your job. A lot of people do this backwards.  Especially here on DA.  They give their protagonist’s black, bleeding-heart pasts that raise the question as to how anyone could survive it all and still qualify as a traditional hero.  But then, the story starts, and nothing happens.  In fact, all these terrible pasts mean is apparently the unmitigated right to complain, whine, and angst.  (Longcoats, piercings, and tattoos optional.)  Unfortunately, this is not story. Terrible things should happen to your protagonist during the course of the story, obstacles to teach him mettle, obstacle that should build to a climax where things are at their absolute worst.  This particular aspect is the bane of the Mary Sue writer, who likes to see things go perfectly for their bestest character evar.  Another popular behavior is to never have any of it bother the hero, which is neglecting the inner journey.  I’ve had several popular writers say this exact rule verbatim to me (Tim Powers did while hiding stray kittens in his hotel room).  I don’t necessarily mean that every hero has to have apocalyptically terrible things happen to him every five seconds (there is such a thing as overdoing this; holy crap, Deborah Chester’s Alien Chronicles drove me crazy with how much stuff the heroine went through and still manage a brave, winning smile.)  It’s just that you hero shouldn’t be happy about what he had to go through if he met you and knew you were the reason for it all.  “Wait a second, you made me half-blind with a hook for a hand!? You were the reason I was rejected by my village and cast out?  Granted, it made me famous ... but still!  You bastard!”
4.  A hero must have clear goals at all times. As most plot books will point out, story is the essence of a distilled formula: Hero+Goal+Obstacle to Goal = Story and Conflict.  It’s just that while a lot of writers are apparently able to grasp conflict and even a vague sense of hero motivation, they fail to let us know what the hero is attempting to do.  The hero wanders aimlessly about, footling here and there with a dragon or a damsel, and after too much of this the reader starts to ask “Where are we going and why is this happening?”  Goals should tie rather closely with a hero’s motivation, but the two don’t have to be one and the same.  The hero’s goal should be established early, and if it changes, a new goal needs to be put up.  Letting a hero’s goal fall by the wayside is destroying an integral part of the story; you will have nothing if you have no goal.  And man, does this happen a lot in comics here on DA!  If you’re wondering why people get about 10 or 20 pages in and then suddenly stop, it’s because they’ve finished that initial rush of creativity and looked around going, “Uh .. Now what?”  They’ve failed to even remotely map out how things are going to end, and when comics, which are hard work, appear as nothing but an endless cadre of pages, that’s a huge lack of motivation coming your way.  Seriously, look at a comic whose protagonists have a goal that can be identified by the reader versus those who don’t, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.  Incidentally, this rule applies to
villains as well.
5.  If your hero is not proactive, he’s not your protagonist. Do you get that?  You see where the “pro” in “protagonist” originates from?  Heroes do things.  The end.  If your hero is not taking steps to get closer to his goal, he’s not the protagonist.  In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby is the protagonist and hero, but he’s not telling the story.  The narrator, Nick, is.  Same goes for Ishmael in Moby Dick.  Ahab and ol’ Gatsby are the ones out there stabbing the whale and wooing the girl, respectively.  I see a lot of “heroes” who merely react to things that happen to them; they gawk at the dragon, cry when it burns their village down, and sulk in the forest.  None of these are proactivity, to say the least.  However, if the hero gaped at the dragon, cried when it burned down the village, and decided to pick a up a sword and go after it, that would be proactive.  Even better is if the hero attempted to warn the village, cried when it burned down, and took up the sword, because it shows a natural pattern of action, conflict and setback, contemplation of the inner journey, realization, and a new action based on that realization.   I can’t tell you the number of opening chapters I’ve read where stuff
happens and the hero literally just stands there, mouth agape, thinking about how this shocking thing is so very, very EVUL.  That’s stupid, and no one wants to read that, and if you wrote it you should feel bad for doing so.  Heroes take action to save themselves, their friends, and their world.  Anything less falls short of heroism.   Don’t mistake a time for action as time for rumination; all of that should have come before the hero takes action.
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FullmetalZergRush's avatar
Hmmmm....What if the character's an anti-hero/anti-heroine? You should probably write a 5 Tips on Anti-Heroes. :D