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Other Ways to Write a Hero

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Here’s what I Iike the least about superhero movies: In order for the hero to be affirmed as heroic, and for justice to prevail and the plot to resolve, in the end there must be a fight.

Not just any fight, mind you, but a gigantic, loud and massively destructive battle.  You’re not truly a hero until you prove it, not with weapons but with your fists.  (Or perhaps energy bolts shooting from your upraised palms.)  That’s what a hero is.  Violent.  A fighter.  Same goes for female superheroes.

Is that what it takes to elevate a mere protagonist or main character to the level of hero?  Is that what makes heroes super?  No fists, no hero?

I’ve posted in this space before about writing heroes and heroines.  There’s a lot to say about that.  My thought on that topic today began with Porter Anderson’s recent post “Another Diversity”, a look at Richard V. Reeves’s book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What To Do About It.  Reeves’s book bemoans the condition of men today.  The post occasioned a slew of richly deserved, sneering, oh-boo-hoo comments from women, no wonder.

However, it was Keith Cronin’s string of impatient (with men) comments that started me thinking.  He wrote, “It’s time for boys to try harder and become better men” and “It’s time for them to find out what it REALLY means to ‘man up.’”  I immediately pumped my fist in the air, but then began to consider why our first idea of what it means to become a man is that it must be hard and can only happen with supreme effort.

Questions occurred to me.  In story construction, to become a hero must the hero necessarily start out as a louse?  Certainly, change is inspiring but when we wish to make a male character a hero, does that mean that being male is being, de facto, flawed, or that the status of hero cannot be awarded without some kind of personal correction?  More broadly, is heroism never innate and only earned?

Further questions.  In another way, is being a hero always about exhibiting the qualities traditionally associated with manliness: toughness, stoicism, action?  Is the only way to become a hero to go through a physical test, to fail, to be humbled, to face oneself squarely, and finally succeed?  What are a hero’s qualities, but more importantly what are a hero’s values?

To be sure, we can ponder similar questions in constructing heroines.  We can face the same presumptions that underlie our idea of what a heroine is or how she gets there.  In creating characters, we are subject to our cultural biases and swayed by literary traditions, no way around it, but I think it’s important that we can look critically and deeper into what raises characters to the highest status.

The Making of a Hero

A hero or heroine is someone with whom we don’t just identify, it’s someone for whom we cheer.  Heroes and heroines inspire us.  That’s their function.  That’s why they have long been part of literature, and not just popular fiction but enduring classics.  It’s how dark and tragic characters sometimes become iconic: not because they are suffering and supine but because they are struggling and seeking.  The very act of trying is heroic all by itself, and not only when there are impossible odds.

Trying is the action part.  The hidden component is the value which a heroic character stands for, defends or discovers.  Put those two things together—a high value and the action that demonstrates it—and you have the recipe for creating heroism.  It can be an innate quality or it can be earned but either way it is something that primarily exists not on the page but in the minds and hearts of readers.

So, here’s my point: Heroism isn’t an action, nor a value, but rather a feeling stirred in the observer, and we can capture that feeling in one simple word: admiration.

Now, there may be a small number of readers out there who admire men who hit on women in elevators, tell racist jokes, don’t leave tips, and cheat to get rich.  There may be readers out there who cheer for women who whine, manipulate men, make unreasonable demands, and belittle saleswomen behind cosmetics counters.  We’re not talking about outlaws, rogues or bad asses—or even our newly admirable “bitches”—we’re talking about plain old crummy human beings.  You don’t have to worry about them.   What you do want are for the decent human beings, who are the vast majority, to cheer for your main character as they read.

Practical Heroes

To make that a practical reality, I’ve created a list of qualities and values that heroic characters can exhibit.  My suggestion is to select any one thing from the list below and find one way for your protagonist to enact it.  Since I started out thinking about men, I have fashioned this list for male characters (borrowing a rhetorical device from Keith Cronin) but it might also apply to female or other-gendered characters.

This list is highly personal but I hope suggestive.  Here goes:

  • A real hero knows to quit when anyone is getting hurt.
  • For a wronged hero, an apology is good enough.  Restoring right is then up to both parties.
  • For a real hero, no game is zero sum.  When a real hero wins, everyone wins with him.
  • A real hero can be strong, and can also think, sing, dance and laugh.
  • A real hero may usually be right yet never assumes that others are wrong.
  • A real hero sees value in everyone.
  • A real hero knows that there’s a difference between fighting for what’s right and fighting to prove that you are tough.  He also knows that there’s more than one kind of fight.
  • A real hero understands the difference between leading and conquering.  He leans on his whole team.
  • A real hero is loyal but not when that loyalty isn’t deserved.
  • A romantic hero makes the object of his affection feel safe.  A Romeo only fakes it.
  • A real hero treats women with respect.  In fact, he treats everyone that way.
  • A real hero isn’t afraid to dress well, appreciate a poem, pay a compliment, show courtesy, express concern, or grieve the losses of others.
  • A real hero likes fine things but fine people even more.
  • A real hero stays clean, and not just by taking showers.
  • A real hero is honest with himself.  He knows his temptations.  He may not always get it right, but at the end of the day he does.
  • A real hero knows that courage means standing up for what is right, but also admitting what is wrong.
  • A real hero makes sure that accumulating wealth makes others richer too.
  • A real hero packs light, especially when the upcoming challenge is heavy.
  • A real hero tests himself, holds himself to high standards, and encourages others when they fall short.
  • A real hero is true to himself, but also allows himself to change.
  • A real hero speaks up, sees far, leads by example, and never gives up.

I think we could use more heroes in our fiction, don’t you?  Heck, we could use more in our world.  As I said, my list of what stirs admiration is a personal one.  Feel free to add to it.  Make your own list.  Whatever heroism is for you, your current novel is the place to demonstrate it.  When you do, we won’t devalue your writing.  We’ll cheer.

How are you making your protagonist a hero or heroine?  Who are some of your favorites in the works of others?

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