Last month, we talked about how to write epic villains. Naturally, it’s time to discuss the other side of the coin: Epic heroes. There will be some overlap with these two posts, because the traits of heroes and villains are often parallel to each other. But it’s important to understand both. And, as you’ll see, heroes have specific needs of their own.
All right, ready your sword and capes. It’s time to get heroic!
1. She should have a clear goal.
Just like the antagonist, the hero needs to have a clear goal; but in this case, it’s even more important. Without a clear goal, the entire story will lack direction. What does your character want more than anything? That goal should drive her every action.
Even if some scenes aren’t about the character’s main goal, she should still be pursuing something at all points in the story. She should never be passive; she should never let things happen to her. A hero gets up and makes things happen, even if she repeatedly fails in the process. Otherwise, she’ll simply become boring to read about.
2. She shouldn’t be completely good.
Because who can relate to that? Have you ever met someone who was completely, thoroughly perfect? I sure haven’t. Unfortunately, human nature is flawed, even for the best of us. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone does the wrong thing, sometimes. A character who doesn’t mess up will feel artificial. We won’t be able to connect with her. It will be hard even to sympathize with her.
3. He should be human.
In the case of villains, this is because they need to have complexities and emotions outside of their evilness. A villain needs to be a full, real person, not just a menacing shadow on the wall.
For heroes, it’s somewhat of the opposite situation. Similar to the previous point, they need to be flawed, but also down-to-earth. They need to have familiar imperfections, like bed head in the morning, or a habit of awkward social mistakes. These moments make them real.
4. He should be relatable.
The more a hero reminds us of ourselves, the more we come to care about him. This can be strengthened by emphasizing the hero’s universal emotions, such as his longings, his fears, his insecurities, or his love for his friends and family. Perhaps even more potently, a hero can be made relatable by highlighting his flaws and foibles, as explained in the previous point.
It is also surprisingly powerful to show a hero conducting simple, menial tasks, like taking out the trash. Whenever we can point to the hero and say, “I’ve done that!” or “That’s just like me!”, we forge a deeper bond with him.
5. She should be admirable.
Despite all the hero’s imperfections, there should be things about her that we can look up to. The best heroes inspire us, encourage us, and challenge us. Their admirable traits are made even stronger by their flaws, because we can relate to them more easily and say, “If she did it, so can I!” Heroes face adversities, and they fail many times, but after everything they come out stronger and more victorious. Reading about these kinds of heroes will embolden us to face our daily challenges with more grit and bravery.
6. She should be likable.
A great hero needs to be endearing, and if possible, amusing. We all love to laugh at Captain Jack Sparrow’s antics, and it’s hard not to love Malcolm Reynolds for his swagger and laid-back humor. It’s almost impossible to care about a character who’s annoying or dull, so make yours interesting. Give her a colorful, entertaining personality, and she will be sure to capture your readers’ heart.
7. He should have quirks.
Your character needs to be more than just a hero. Make him a well-rounded character by adding random, unique details to his personality. Maybe he loves building things. Maybe he enjoys classical music, or he bites his nails when he’s nervous, or he snorts when he laughs. These quirks may not have anything to do with the story, but they will make your hero feel more like a real person.
8. He should be original.
Protagonists often fall into the typical “hero type.” They are ENFJ, or something close. They are headstrong, bold, and naturally adventurous. They have no qualms with speaking their mind, they are terrible at listening to good advice, and they let their hearts lead them into all sorts of danger. Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, d’Artagnan, Achilles, and Eragon all come to mind.
The problem with this character is that he has been used again and again in epic stories throughout history. Part of the reason, of course, is that the “hero type” works very well. However, because he’s so familiar, he can be cliché and predictable. Not to mention, the “hero type” is hard to relate to for most people.
When heroes exist outside of this stereotype, it’s very refreshing. I think of Katniss Everdeen, with her quiet strength and love for her sister. I think of Bilbo Baggins, who begrudgingly faces adventure even when he’d rather curl up in his cozy Hobbit hole. Unique hero types make for more engaging characters, and for more variety in literature and film.
9. She should be complex.
Just like any good character, your hero should have multiple sides to her personality and character. Sometimes, these sides will appear to contradict each other. But that is just because no real person behaves the same way, all the time, in every situation. We are influenced by a myriad of different motivators, desires, and points of pressure. We change our minds, we grow, we adapt. We are not always predictable. Allow your hero to live and breath as a three-dimensional being, not a cardboard cutout.
10. She should have a special skill.
Protagonists with special abilities – in other words, abilities we do not have – are especially fun to watch or read about. They allow us to live vicariously through them. In a way, we get to experience their power for ourselves.
Note that your hero’s ability doesn’t have to be fighting skills or super powers. It could be resilience, resourcefulness, emotional strength, or the power to do what needs to be done without hesitation. So long it’s something that we don’t have, we will be drawn to her. We will long to walk in her shoes. And reading her story will allow us to do just that.
What are some of your favorite epic heroes? Do your own heroes have any of these traits? Which ones?