What makes a good hero in fiction?
This is a hard question to answer actually. If you ask someone what is a hero, most will answer, someone who puts the good of others before himself/herself and is willing to risk himself/herself to help others. However, when you’re reading a novel, what do you want to see in your heroes?
Everyone has their “white list” of attributes:
- Good fighter
However, these attributes alone makes a “perfect” person in essence, someone who is utterly boring when it comes to good fiction. Most people would agree, when reading fiction, an interesting hero is someone who has faults and rises above them to accomplish what is needed to save the day.
Heroes rarely wear white hats and flaunt their accomplishments for the world to see as the Lone Ranger did. Today’s heroes are usually the everyday kind of person that you could pass in the street and not even recognize as a hero, and no, I’m not talking about super hero secret identities.
There are also many types of heroes. Sometimes the best heroes are the accidental heroes that just happen to be in the right place at the right time and step up to the plate. When you’re talking about fiction though, is this the kind of hero that inspires you?
What about the bad guy (or anti-hero) who switches positions at the last minute and saves the day? Is this the kind of hero that creates a good story? It’s possible, if the bad guy shows enough good attributes to make his about face realistic. You need serious reader buy-in for this kind of turnabout to work well.
Some heroes are children such as Harry Potter or Pippi Longstocking. These characters usually grow into their hero roles as they learn who they are and how the world around them affects their decisions. With child heroes, you usually have someone with more knowledge who guides them along the way.
Then there is the sci-fi heroes, who have super powers of some sort and decide to use them for the better of the human race, Superman or Spiderman, anyone?
The type of hero you use also depends on the time period and geographic location you’re writing in. If you’re writing about 18th century England, the type of hero you depict will be very different from an 18th century American Western hero. As another example, a ninja warrior wouldn’t fit into 18th century English nobility, but a rascally second son of a lord who acts the rake but spies for his country does.
So going back to the original question, what makes a good hero in fiction? Beyond the original short list, I’ve come up with a few more attributes:
- An interesting personality that makes the reader want to learn more about them. Personally, I like smart-ass heroes, but that’s just my preference.
- Everybody wants a handsome/beautiful hero, but I would argue that everyday looking or even disfigured heroes can make great story characters.
- Courageous. I actually like heroes that show their fear, but still move forward to save the day.
- Perseverance. As a writer, I tend to put my heroes through hell. An average person would probably walk away from all the walls I put up in their way. A hero perseveres to reach the end of their journey.
- Has common sense. I actually put this above intelligence and bravery. The smartest person in the world can have absolutely no common sense and the bravest person always faces his fear, but the one with common sense gets the hell out of the way when a racing car is heading right for them.
- Has faults. I like heroes that make mistakes along the way. Nothing is more satisfying than a reader who calls my hero an idiot for some of their actions, but can’t stop reading the story to see if they succeed in the end.
- Is redeemable. This plays into the last one. Yes, every hero needs to have faults. However, they must also be redeemable for the users to buy into their heroic actions later.
- Sacrificial. This one doesn’t always mean giving up their life to save the day. Sometimes, the hero gives up something that means a lot to him or her. As a more humorous example, the confirmed bachelor lord in 18th century England who gives up his “freedom” and marries a lady in trouble. Some men may see this as giving up their life to save the day.
While this is my list of attributes, I’m sure there are many others that fit the bill and that there are others with opinions on what those most important attributes should be. Above all, have fun creating your hero, make him or her a character that the readers will identify with and you’ve won half the battle.
Until next time…