Friday, July 28, 2017

Writing a Compelling Hero: 7 Tips With Examples

There is a serious lack of good good guys in books today. No, I didn't just accidentally type "good" twice. I just felt that "good guy" doesn't mean what it used to mean, so I have to add the extra good.

I'm not talking about "good guy" as in protagonist. As in main character. As in character-you're-supposed-to-root-for. Because these characters have recently taken on a darker tone: Protagonists are often no longer good people, main characters have lost their humanity, and I often find myself rooting for character-you're-supposed-to-root-for because he/she is slightly better than the antagonist.

Nope. I'm talking about the good guy. The upright hero. The character who you always know is going to try to do the right thing no matter what. I'm talking about Samwise the Brave, Captain America, Moana, Obi-Wan, Neville, Newt, Hiccup, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man (the Tom Holland one....The others don't qualify. At all).

Sure, I love anti-heroes. Crafting villains is one of my favorite pastimes. And dark stories? They're my jam.

But the world is a dark place and I think it's time we start reviving the light. We are always in need of a character we can look to and be inspired by. The type we can point to and say, "Yeah, I want to be like that!" The one that shows us we can be better, braver, stronger than we ever imagined.

Some say these character types are boring. I say that's because you're simply writing them wrong. Let's start with the basics:
Writing a Compelling Hero: 7 Tips With Examples - How to write characters that show us that we can be better, braver, stronger than we ever imagined.
1. Mix some interesting heroic traits. In this post, when I'm using the word "hero" I'm talking about goodness. Yes, your hero will be a good person. But what besides that? Is he extremely loyal? Does she have good manners? Is he selfless? Is she brave? Patient? Humble? Empathetic? Pick a few that you like. Then choose at least one other trait that can be positive, but may not be necessarily heroic (reckless, rule-breaker, sarcastic, etc). Write all of these chosen traits somewhere next to your hero's name. Refer to it whenever you're trying to decide how he/she will react to a situations.
  • Example: Obi-Wan. One of my personal favorite heroes. He, unlike me, is extremely cultured. He, unlike me, follows the rules. He, very much like me, is incredibly sarcastic. He is also very empathetic and loyal. He possesses many classic hero traits, but the sarcasm really brought it all together to make him both inspiring and relatable.
2. Decide what caused them to be good. Why are they so upright? Where did they gain their morals and why are they so determined to stick with them? No, the reason can't just be, "Naw, he was born that way." That's a good way to create a flat character.
  • Example: Spider-Man. He was raised by a loving Uncle and Aunt who worked hard to instill him with good morals. When his uncle died, he felt a responsibility to make his uncle proud and not stress out his aunt.
3. Decide why their goodness is important to the story. Like most overarching personality traits, it's a good idea for your character's heroic-ness to have a purpose to the plot. There needs to be at least one moment (hopefully multiple ones, though) where they come up against something difficult and their good qualities are what enable them to make it through. Show your readers that upright living is worth something. People like to know that the good guys do, in fact, win.
  • Example: Moana. She's brave, strong, and never gives up. She's willing to stand up for the little people (or, you know, baby turtles) and can see people for who they truly are. That's why the ocean chose her to take the heart back to Te Fiti. Her goodness is also a perfect foil to Maui, who's a bit rough, proud, and ready to give up. She keeps him going and thus keeps the story moving forward.
4. Decide why they think their goodness is important. Why are they so determined to stick to their morals? Why is it so important to them personally that they're never willing to budge when it comes to what they believe is right? It takes real courage and perseverance to be strong in who you are. Goodness doesn't come from nowhere, and it certainly doesn't stay without a person choosing to work hard to maintain it. Give your heroes a reason for fighting for their morals.
  • Example: Neville Longbottom.
    It was always important to him to be brave. Even if he was afraid, he always tried to do the right thing. And he was always loyal to his friends. Why? Because he knew that his parents had been brave. He knew that they had lost their minds rather than give up their friends. So, to him, loyalty and bravery were important because he wanted to uphold what he'd seen in his parents, who he was proud of.
5. Give them a struggle. Good people go through horrible things. It's a fact of life. An unfortunate one, yes. But there's nothing more inspiring than watching a good person come through a hard situation by sticking by who they are and what they believe.
  • Example: Wonder Woman. At first, she is eager to go to war. She wants to stop Ares and put an end to the world's suffering. But she soon learns that it's not that simple. She can't save everyone. In fact, some people refuse to be saved. She struggles with her frustration at the nature of humankind and finds her spirit crushed by experiencing the cruelty of the world. But, ultimately, she decides to continue to do what's right.
6. Give them a character arc. What, you think good characters can't have an arc? Don't be a dollophead. An arc doesn't always have to be a character fixing a negative trait (though yes, your hero can have flaws). The arc can be about how they deal with a conflict, how they interact with other characters, etc. But please, for the love of goodness, do not have their arc be how they slowly learn to let go of their morals. We have enough messed up characters in fiction (and enough bad people in the world). Show us the good guys and don't tear them down just for kicks.
  • Example: Captain America. I've heard some say Cap is a flat character. These people are wrong and I will fight them. Cap actually has several arcs. His first is deciding to go from "circus Cap" to "soldier Cap." His second is his struggle to figure out where he, the old-fashioned good guy, fits into the 21st century where Tony Starks and other such morally ambiguous "heroes" are beloved. His third is choosing between saving his friend Bucky over sticking with the rest of the Avengers. Three arcs, guys. Three. And there are more. Don't you try to tell me he has no depth.

7. Remember that they don't have to be the main character. People often think of "hero" with a capital h. But sometimes the best heroes are the ones that aren't front and center. They absolutely can be a main character, but they don't have to. In fact, a secondary character as the hero can be excellent if he/she is playing across from a less-upright main character. Secondary hero characters are also perfect for the darker stories that need a strong light to keep things from going into the land of Death and Despair.
  • Example: Samwise the Brave. Possibly my absolute favorite hero: Kind, compassionate, perserverant, strong, and a warrior to be reckoned with. He sticks by Frodo no matter what. His bravery saves his friends multiple times. His goodness inspires those around him and gives strength to Frodo when he needs it most. He's not technically the main character, but he's the hero. 
It's time for more heroes, people. We need good guys to cheer for. Characters that fill us with courage and inspiration and hope. Let's work hard to craft stories and characters that uphold heroic qualities and showcase the strength and beauty of integrity.

Who are some of your favorite heroes? Tell me a bit about the hero that you have in your book. If you don't have one, do you think your story would benefit from one? Why or why not? Let's discuss!

Related articles:
8 Different Kinds of Strengths to Give Your Characters
7 New and Improved Versions of the Chosen One Trope
The Do's and Don'ts of Writing Strong Female Characters

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28 comments:

  1. This is a great post, Hannah! I especially like the fact that good characters don't have to be the main protagonists. Sam is awesome! =)

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    1. YEEES. Sam is the best. =D Thanks for the comment, Elizabeth!

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  2. This was a lot of fun to read. As for my favorite hero, it would be Izuku Midoriya from the manga/anime My Hero Academia. I won't spoil anything in case you decide to check it out, but he reminds me a lot of Captain America and Spiderman in his determination to be a hero who can help people, no matter who they are. (He's also a massive geek)
    As for a hero in my current work-in-progress, that would have to be a side character by the name of Naia. Being born in a world of superpowers, she was unfortunately born with one that was extremely unstable and dangerous, the ability to control radiation on any level from microwave-nuclear. During a home invasion, her fear accidentally caused her powers to go haywire and kill every other living thing on the block other than herself. Terrified, she ran away and lived on the streets. One day, as she was on the verge of killing herself due to a distorted and twisted notion that everything would be fine if she did that, she was found by a Superhero who took her in. He then created a suit that would prevent her from accidentally hurting others until he could help her gain control of her powers. This led to Naia wanting to become a superhero herself, so that she could use her powers to help others instead of harming them. For her, showing kindness and compassion is important since she was shown it herself when she was drowning in despair. Her motto is "Everyone deserves another chance" and tries to solve problems with as little physical injury to her opponents as possible. However, despite her motto, she still struggles to forgive herself for all the people she hurt so long ago, which is part of her character arc. She easily flusters and is extremely gullible. In the end, her kindness and trust helps when she, the protagonist, and some others need to figure out where the antagonist is and what his plan is by asking one of his underlings she had unknowingly befriended during events earlier in the story.
    This ended up a little longer than I thought it would, but I have tendency to over explain things, sorry.

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    1. Oh my gosh! Thank you so so much! On a whim I checked out my hero academy and it's amazing. I'll unashamedly tell you that I watched the first season today and I'm starting the second season now. Best suggestion ever. Izuku is great. The whole character roster is. Well, except for maybe Mineta. But I never like those kinds of characters. Anyways, you're awesome. Period.

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    2. Now I really, really want to watch My Hero Academy. Thank you for the recommendations CChimera (and the reinforcement, Candace). =D

      Naia sounds awesome. I love that she, as a superhero, has had human struggles and is compassionate enough to help others who are going through what she went through. She sounds like a very good, complex character that I would love to death. Thank you for the awesome comment! Keep up the amazing work!

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  3. I've always thought Samwise got too little credit. Frodo would never have made it to Mordor, much less destroyed the ring, without Sam.

    Percy Jackson is a another "good guy". He messes up, he makes mistakes, he isn't always right, but he's loyal to his friends (to a fault). And he's determined not to follow the bitter path that others chose, even when he understands why they took it.

    Nice look at an important issue - I miss seeing the good guys in stories, too!

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    1. Agreed. I do think Frodo was an excellent character in his own right (though not always likable), but Sam was always the hero to me. And I thought his character was made all the greater by the way he interacted with both Frodo, Gollum, and the ring. He's the best. =D

      I'm actually not super familiar with the Percy Jackson books (*sheepish grin*), but I have heard a lot of people say he's a great character.

      I'm glad you enjoyed this post, Kay!

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  4. This is so helpful! I'm currently writing a protagonist who I want to be a "good good guy", but he is flawed and has a hard life both before and during the story (because I'm an evil author). He has to not despair and turn bitter despite everything that happens to him. I'll definitely keep these points in mind. Thanks!

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    1. Hi Fran! *waves* Go you, writing a good good guy! I think it's okay for him to despair at points in the novel, just as long as he doesn't turn permanently bitter. Even heroes have days when they want to curl up under the covers and not get out of bed all day. =D

      Also, high five to my fellow evil author! My characters have also been put through a bad time. But whatever makes for a good story, right? Thanks for the comment!

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  5. These are great points. I'm really tired of having anti-heroes because that seems like it has become overplayed. I always enjoy a good old fashioned hero, and I can't wait to write one of my own.

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    1. Yes, anti-heroes do seem to be the go-to these days. I enjoy them if they're well developed and end up having some kind of redemption, but often they fall flat. Just give me a plain ol' hero and I'll be happy. =D I applaud you and your plans to write one of your own!

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  6. This was excellent. I love Cap and Samwise. I think my favorite part of Samwise is when he says, "Remember the stories, Frodo? The hero doesn't give up, and we sat and listened and feared for them, but if they turned around then there wouldn't be a story. I wonder if some day they'll tell our story." I know that wasn't the exact quote, but it's the gest of what I remember. It's like we can't turn around just because the going gets bad.

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    1. YES. I LOVE that quote. Sam had a lot of really profound quotes, but that is one of my top favorites. =D

      Thanks for the cool comment, Kandi!

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  7. This post is what I needed. But I still have questions. What flaws can I give to my idealistic-but-not-ideal protagonists to make them not only likeable, but also relatable? I have a few ideas in mind, but I want to hear your thoughts.
    (Also, it's my first comment here and I just want to say you're awesome ^_^)

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    1. Great question! And hurrah for your first comment. Welcome!

      You have a lot of options. It sounds like you're looking for minor flaws (flaws that have both up and down sides). I'll list a few.

      Loyal to the point of being overly biased, adrenaline junkie, pessimistic, self-doubting, stubborn, too idealistic (gets pie-in-the-sky ideas that will probably never happen, but keeps going after them anyway, even if it's risky/stupid), undiplomatic/tactless, childish, rebellious, impatient, perfectionist, obsessive (can't let go of an idea or plan), cynical, poor communicator, unsocial, too protective, aggressive.

      If I'm going down the wrong road of thought here, just let me know and I can provide a different type of list.

      Thank you so much for the excellent question and sweet comment. Best of luck with your character-building!

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  8. I loved all of your examples of heroes! Captain America is the picture of a compelling hero to me. ^_^ I'll be bookmarking this one! <3

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    1. Thank you, Madeline! Captain America fans, unite! =D

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  9. Are you an angel? I was JUST thinking about my good-good guy this morning--and questioning whether I should keep him that way.

    "My other characters are more interesting," I said to myself, "full of self-deceit and self-loathing. And is the desire to 'become a strong man, just like his father' really a strong enough character-goal to drive his place in the story forward? Are cowardice and naivete really good enough inner-struggles to make him interesting? All my other characters wear masks and are almost two characters; but with Michael what you see is what you get: a really nice guy who just wants to do what's right but is often afraid to trust his own instincts."

    But while I was reading your article, I suddenly started remembering WHY I made Michael that way: I made him to be the one who takes off the other character's masks. He's the one who--just by his sheer goodness, and other's observing his own arc (as less-angsty as it may be)--helps them come out of their shells and be vulnerable so that the real healing can begin.
    I can probably do to add a splash of color to Michael's canvas, but that doesn't mean I have to take out the most important color of all!

    Maybe I could emphasize his superstitious and workaholic traits some more... o3o

    Anyway, thank you! This is exactly what I needed to read today. :D

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    1. I LOVE this comment, Donna! I'm so glad to hear that you're going to keep Michael's goodness intact. =D I'm sure emphasizing his superstition and workaholic trains wouldn't hurt, but it sounds like he already has some great goals and interesting struggles.

      There is a shortage of nice characters, so thank you for writing one! I'm glad this post helped you out!

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  10. I love Samwise. And Evan from the Lego Movie. He's a good guy who stays true to himself and his friends and that ultimately is what saves the day.

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    1. Ooooo! I hadn't thought about Evan, but he does seem to count. =D Good one!

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  11. This is such a good post...I was trying to think about how this might apply to the contemporary I'm writing, since most examples come from fantasy or sci-fi, and my initial reaction was "heroes don't exist in real life." But then I realized that's exactly how one of my protagonists sees the world, and I personally am still trying to hold onto the hope that there's good in this universe. My MC (Amie) has grown up surrounded by hypocrites, and at first glance she seems just like them, but with the difference that she actually believes what she claims to. Her character arc involves her holding tight to her goodness even while her innocence is being stripped away from her...and thank goodness for this post or even that might not have made it out.

    Thanks for being snarky and sarcastic. You are quite inspirational. :)

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    1. "Heroes don't exist in real life." This is EXACTLY what I thought when I was trying to come up with this list. And then I got frustrated because I couldn't decide whether I was: A) being too cynical or B) correct.

      I came to the conclusion that, in books, heroes can have flaws and are loved because of them. In real life, we have a more difficult time accepting other people's flaws and end up loving others in spite of (and not because of) them. So I think I have a higher standard when it comes to what real-life heroes look like vs what book heroes look like. I'm not sure if that makes any sense whatsoever...?

      Your MC sounds great: I love that type of character arc. I'm SO pleased to hear that this post helped you decide to let her keep her goodness.

      Thank you for the thoughtful, kind comment, Faith!

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  12. I love that more people are starting to say this. We need real heroes --- I would say "more today than ever", but I think every age could say that. But we aren't getting them. People seem to think fatally-flawed characters are what we need in a hero's place. Sometimes the grey-ish morality, pointing out the shades in things, is necessary. But in a day where we have enough of that already, I think we need more of the real heroes who have clear-cut morals, won't compromise their principles, that kind of thing --- to show us that "heroes do exist, and that villains are not a fanciful tale for children" (in the words of Pendragon's Heir) and that the good *will* win. I had a teacher (at college) last semester who tried to teach us that because stories neither necessarily teach anything, nor should they, we shouldn't bother with writing heroes people can look up to, because they're reading for entertainment and to see other people have it worse than they do, reading for escape from trouble, not to gain courage to fight back. I think *that* is the flawed premise that leads to all the "well, he's the good guy because he's not as bad as the villain" types we're seeing.

    https://ofdreamsandswords.wordpress.com

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  13. Neville is one of my favorite HP characters. He's actually tied with Hermione and Luna for the top spot. I know people like to speculate about what would have happened if Voldemort had attacked Neville's family instead of the Potters, but I really think that's beside the point. Neville's family was attacked by the Death Eaters, but not in a way that made history. Neville had to deal with a tragic and painful situation without the support of the entire wizarding world. He wasn't Chosen, but he joined the fight anyway because he believed in loyalty and bravery.
    I think my most heroic character is Marlena. She's definitely not the main character. She's hardly ever involved in the action. She spends most of her time cooking and cleaning up after the rest of them. She's a very perceptive person, and she often helps the others figure out what's the right thing to do in a tough situation. Her motivation to stick to her morals is her son. She lost her parents when she was very young, and she made some bad choices because she had no one to set a good example for her. It's very important to her that her son never sees her do something she wouldn't want him to do.

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  14. Such a great post!
    Sam is a great good good guy. I don't like Frodo personally, but I was always fascinated how Sam never gave it up with him.
    In my story, a have a good good guy, I think. He isn't a main character - he's a younger brother of my main hero. He was saved by his older brother when he was little from a fire, which caused his older brother to have scars on a half of his face and body. Because of those scars, he was sent away. With no contact for many years, they meet again. The older brother doesn't expect a warm welcome from his family, but my good guy - the younger brother - will accept him without a hesitation, since he never forgotten his brother's bravery. He wants to do good for people since (he's a prince and he have the money) his mother started it before she died (she wasn't human, but was fascinated by them, but that's another story). He doesn't like the violence and even as he was pushed to learn how to fight, he is still bad at it since he doesn't want to hurt anybody. He is viewed as a weak because of it. He wants to see the best in people, has a good manners and speach. He really lookes up to his older brother, to his honesty and straighforwardness. What he doesn't know is that my hero would like to be more like his little brother - considerete, kind and idealistic. My hero is the one who fights, so his younger brother wouldn't ever had to to pick up the weapon. I don't know if my good guy is a good good guy but I would like to think so. I'm still struggling a little, about what flaws he could have in order not to be "too good".
    But sure, today the heroes in the books that people are swooning over aren't usually the good guys. And you are right, with the things how they are in the world, I want to pick up a book and see that there is nothing wrong about goodness. I will deffinitelly root for such characters.

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  15. I do actually have a sort of dark hero in my story, but, as it is a series I am writing, his idea of good and evil improves until he becomes a likeable "good good guy." In the first book, his ideas are all based off of what an organization he was adopted into believes, and he was positive that they were correct (Until he meets two side characters who say otherwise.) Do you think I'm going the right way with him?

    This will be very, very helpful for later on in my series. Thank you for sharing this with us. God bless.

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  16. I LOVE this article! Just found you through a friend and will be back often!

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