5 Tips On Heroes
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By Droemar   |   Watch
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Published: April 14, 2010
EDIT: If you like this journal entry, check out The Sarcastic Guide to Writing ebook www.amazon.com/The-Sarcastic-G… for exclusive content on world-building, character, and dialogue!

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.
Comments62
anonymous's avatar
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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
Nikaleles's avatar
NikalelesHobbyist Digital Artist
May I ask: do you consider all protagonists 'heroes'?

I have a story in the works where I consider the protagonist to be in a 'grey' area of sorts, morality-wise - but then most of the characters are morally 'grey', including the antagonist. At some point I had intended to raise questions as to whether the protagonist is actually morally inferior to the antagonist. He is the main character of the story - the one who actually does stuff - but I would not have considered him a 'hero' as much as a person in a rather special situation.

i.e. He is prone to doing somewhat selfish or immoral things, occasionally, but he is certainly not glorified for it. Would you find this acceptable in a protagonist?
Droemar's avatar
Of course. Not all protagonists are heroes. They are simply the ones we more or less "root for" in the story. (Lolita, anyone? That guy definitely wasn't a hero!) There are anti-heroes and Byronic heroes and so on, but protagonists don't have to fit the 'hero' mold at all. And what you're talking about is a trope called Grey and Grey Morality, where there is no defined good and evil (like in Black and White morality).
What I DO take issue with is when the author insists on labeling their protagonist as a hero, when in reality they're performing actions that are anything but. Like Eragon. I hate Informed Ability, and firmly believe that character should be allowed to be what they are, flaws and all. When authors define a character in such a way, they're usually cramming them into a box and not allowing the character any free will or even to breathe. And that shows on the page, when the characters act stilted and stupid. Like Eragon. It usually shows a lack of experience or even fear on the part of author, not wanting to admit the anything un-PC or morally incorrect, so they insist that their character is "in the right" even when they're punting orc babies.
Nikaleles's avatar
NikalelesHobbyist Digital Artist
While Eragon is a guilty pleasure of mine (DRAGONS.), I have to admit I'm seriously appalled at both the writing style and a few of the characters, Eragon included. I never managed to connect with him in the least, because he never made a speck of sense to me. And I was like 12 or something. Eragon just seems like a whiny, sociopathic, bratty Gary-Sue, and I hate that. I like my characters to be people, and as such I try to make them that way. (Of course, they never end up being what I 'make' them to be - they invariably end up going off and being whatever they want to be.)

I had a friend who wrote stories and I could rarely get interested in them. The plots were trite - I find that forgiveable, since it's virtually impossible to be wholly original anymore. (My own plots are trite. I figure it is the characters and the relationships between them that make a story work.) Unfortunately, the characters were also uninteresting. They all spoke exactly the same. One of his protagonists was an unapologetic, murderous sociopath who literally could not fathom emotion - I couldn't read him because not only was it absolutely impossible to care about him, he was a complete Mary-Sue and was in fact painted as the hero character. And his villains were all completely evil, basically, 'coz they felt like it'. No real motives or personality... I couldn't stomach it. (Not that I'm not guilty of that either lol)

I love these little tips of yours! They're so helpful. :'D I'm always looking for stuff like these.
Droemar's avatar
Hey, I friggin' LOVE that Zenith comic. Moar dolphins, plz.
Nikaleles's avatar
NikalelesHobbyist Digital Artist
I gave up on it, sadly. It stopped being fulfilling to work on. I just plain don't get along with the "dolphin community", which it attracted a lot of. Also the plot was so FUCKED UP by my own inexperience that I couldn't salvage it! I decided to go off on another direction... HERE'S HOPING IT WORKS.

Still, thanks for the support :'D
Droemar's avatar
I understand that. But for what it's worth, I was pretty envious of the improvements in your artwork as a result of the rigor. So take it as a learning experience, not something that was a waste of time or something to be ashamed of. (I say that because I sometimes feel that way about my older stuff.) Because it definitely wasn't. I want to do a dolphin Watership Down someday, seriously.
Weirdo fan communities aside. Dolphaboos?
Nikaleles's avatar
NikalelesHobbyist Digital Artist
Aw, thank you! I do consider it a learning experience. I value the project and what it did for me, and I feel it had POTENTIAL. But posting it online seems to have put me in a bad spot with some people.

I think the last kind of people I want hanging around me are dolphin people. They and I simply do not get along. A lot of them are obsessive and that makes me feel ... well, uncomfortable. They're very serious and cutthroat about it, too :O To be honest, I don't like associating with the majority of them. Not that they're bad people... I just don't mesh well with them.

But yes, that's one of the reasons I'm moving on to non-dolphin stuff. Maybe one day I will revisit Zenny, though :D I worked too hard on the story to let it rot forever.
Droemar's avatar
Just out of curiosity, obsessive how? Like "ZOMG DOLPHINS'R ALL DYEING AND IF U DON'T CAR THAN UR AN ASSHOLE!!"
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darkn2ght's avatar
hope ur writer's block is better now:)

and great tips, so once again, thanks!
akeli's avatar
akeli General Artist
I was originally going to say "You know half of me loves this - the other half of me finds your articles to be sort of plagiarizing, since I've read so many how-to-write books. As far as you are using terms coined by Joseph Campbell." When I started reading your articles, but since I got to this one and you mentioned him, I'm going to change my comment :XD:

Part of me gets miffed when I read these how-to-write-books on DA, since I spent many long hours and a lot of $$ purchasing the books that most of your info comes from so the writers responsible for these ideas could get their money's worth out of me. I've also spent long hours working on story, plot, ideas ect and honing my craft because I know that in the end, the thieves that steal from me (and man could I show you thief after thief) will never do as much research or come up with as long and concise a plot and characters as I have.

Guardians has been years in the making, and the plot is complex and the world is believable.

Another part of me then thinks - well at the very least, if people pay attention there will be a lot better graphic novels out there. And since I love to read them, that's good for me! :XD:
Droemar's avatar
Joseph Campbell is a god! His book The Power of Myth blew my freaking mind. The Hero's Journey is definitely a big part of my vocabulary (as are way too many tropes from TVTropes); based on some of the blank looks I get in my writer's group when I throw out a name for a particular point in a story, more people could stand to familiarize themselves with it.
Of course, I'd never compare any of these piddly little articles to the words of those like Stephen King, Campbell, and Noah Lukeman. Anyone putting that much stock in a DA article/journal needs ... help.
I wouldn't worry too much about thieves; enduring story is not a simple thing to capture. Twilight might be popular, but in ten years, it'll be the same kind of passing fad the Goosebumps or Sweet Valley High books were. Wheras Dracula will still be around.
lilirulu's avatar
Eragon strangled someone!? When did that happen!?


I've read all the books and I can't seem to remember where/when that occurred.
Droemar's avatar
The third book, Brisingr.
androidgirl's avatar
Regarding Rule 1, what if the hero is kicking a really evil baby? :B
Droemar's avatar
LOL, that reminds me of a Penny Arcade comic. "Yeah, in his defense, that baby was a prick."
Snaphance93's avatar
Snaphance93Student Digital Artist
Psst, that Discworld guy is called Terry Pratchett.

Excellent journal, as always :> I don't really like writing heroes, but this will be handy if I do someday.

I second the Love Interest next, or maybe one on the Heroine, who is full of feminist ideals and doesn't need menz around and always bitches and such. Like Romilly from the "Great" MZB's Hawkmistress!, complete with an exclamation mark and all (it's worse than Eragon - it really is.)

I actually stopped having female viewpoint characters after I read too many Bitchy Heroine-novels.

Gee, my mind's messy today x) Hope I made some sense.
Droemar's avatar
Holy crap, I read some of Hawkmistress, and you're right. It really ... comes close to Eragon. I was pretty amazed, especially since she wrote Mists of Avalon.
Hmmmm ... Love Interest, Heroines, and Romance? I've got plenty of subject matter, that's for sure.
Starhorse's avatar
StarhorseProfessional General Artist
Are 4. and 5. just fer me?
Droemar's avatar
They were admittedly on my mind, but take it as "I taught Droemar something!" Because it's true!
Starhorse's avatar
StarhorseProfessional General Artist
lol, no harm done mate! I did go see HTTYD again tod;ay though and had the points of heroes journey ticking off in my head.
Droemar's avatar
I'd be interested in your report. On my desk by 7PM, no later or you FAIL.
Starhorse's avatar
StarhorseProfessional General Artist
dang it, I already failed!
neilak20's avatar
neilak20Professional Digital Artist
Another extremely insightful journal! I've learned a lot, I'm glad to see I got my main character mostly right :D I think XD
anonymous's avatar
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