We writers have a habit of falling for our carefully crafted heroes. I mean, after spending 70,000 odd words with them, what can we expect? It’s only natural we lose the ability to be objective. It’s one of many reasons why editors are so important to our novels.
Protagonists are the subject of the story – it’s who the book is about.
A ‘hero’ in the purest form, is someone of extraordinary ability (although they don’t necessarily have magic powers) who does good things.
Typically, the protagonist is the one who learns and grows and changes the most throughout your story. They also take the biggest risks against the darkest evils and, despite those risks, they make the greatest sacrifices.
There are always exceptions to this, such as anti-heroes. They rarely change but instead either make better decisions or affect change in their environment.
There are four common mistakes you can easily avoid when creating your heroes.
The most common cockups for a hero are:
- A lack of objectivity
- No depth
- No growth
- Failure to connect
A lack of objectivity
Those scenes spilling aeons of family history, or the minute details of your hero’s pug-puppy stamp collection, really aren’t necessary.
Depth is somewhat objective. What one reader finds beautiful, another may hate. But there are some easy wins you can implement to help you create depth.
Don’t give your hero an overwhelmingly positive personality – heroes who are overly positive make your reader feel like they’re being accosted by a perky cheerleader at the crack of dawn when they haven’t had caffeine. It’s a bit much, even for the most tolerant reader. We all have off days; it makes us human and gives us depth. Your hero needs the occasional off day too.
Your hero must make mistakes – Likewise, we all make mistakes. It’s how we grow. A hero that never makes a mistake can come across as annoying, patronizing and make the reader feel inadequate. Let your hero mess up and learn lessons.
Your hero’s personality needs to be a consequence of his history – we are a product of our history. When a character isn’t, it can create an uneasy feeling in the reader. The reason Indiana Jones is scared of snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark, is because he fell into a pit of snakes as a kid. The audience knows this, so the fear makes sense. Connect the dots. Plant things in your hero’s past that become relevant in your story.
Actively drive the plot forward – your hero takes the risks and faces the greatest danger. It’s Harry that kills Voldemort, Neo that slays Agent Smith and Superman who defeats General Zod. It’s not Ron Weasley, or Trinity or Lois Lane. Sure, the side characters help along the way, but it’s your protagonist who must drive the action forward and more importantly, make the final blow defeating your villain.
At the core of any story is change. Your hero is the explanatory mechanism for that change. Now that doesn’t mean your hero specifically has to change. If you prefer, another word for change is growth. But something needs to change in your story.
It could be that instead of your hero changing, he affects change on the world around him. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games is a good example of that. She doesn’t change much during the story, but she leads a revolution that changes her world forever.
That said, it is usually your hero’s character arc that creates the change readers crave.
Your hero should start flawed and work their way through your story’s obstacles until they’re strong enough to overcome the flaw preventing them from defeating the villain.
Whatever the source of change, there needs to be some level of growth or change in your story. Why? Because your story hook creates a question, and change is the answer.
Failure to connect
A failure to connect can happen on two levels: disconnecting with the audience, or the hero disconnecting with the other characters and the story. The cause and cure are one and the same.
In the early 20th century, The Berlin School of Experimental Psychology posited a new philosophy of the mind and it’s changed my way of viewing stories forever.
The theory is the Gestalt Principle: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s what stories are and your hero is the vehicle that creates the gestalt effect. He is the manifestation of your story; the web that pulls all the elements together: flaw, theme, supporting characters, plot, obstacles, change arc etc. should all be linked. Let’s use Katniss again.
- The theme of The Hunger Games is sacrifice.
- Katniss sacrifices herself for others over and over again.
- The villain, President Snow, sacrifices others for the benefit of himself.
- The other characters are all variations on that theme: Rue, Peeta, Primrose, Haymitch, they all represent the concept of sacrifice in a different way.
- The games themselves (the story’s obstacles) are quite literally sacrificial fights to the death.
The entire story is connected, which is why it connected with readers.
Essentially, what you need to remember is this:
While your villain is the source of page-gripping tension, when the words are read and the dust has settled on your back cover, it’s the hero that your readers remember. The hero should connect every element of your story. He should grow and change and drive the plot forward all the while representing our ‘flawed’ human nature.
Let your hero make mistakes. That way, when your hero has the ‘ah-ha’ moment, your readers will too. Much as it makes me weep, eventually, villains are defeated. But heroes are like puppies. They’re forever, not just Christmas.
Are you prone to some of these mistakes when writing your protagonists? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Sacha Black is a bestselling and competition winning writer. She’s the author of the popular YA Fantasy ‘Eden East’ novels and a series of non-fiction books that are designed to help writers develop their craft. She lives in Hertfordshire, England, with her wife and son.
If you enjoyed the tips in this post, you can find more in my brand-new writing craft book: 10 Steps To Hero: How To Craft A Kickass Protagonist.
If you’d like a free 17-page cheat sheet, to help you quickly master your bad guy, you can find out more here.