How to craft a “reluctant hero” for any genre: what to watch out for

1097790_silhouette_of_goddes_nike_with_swordThe topic of today’s post is character: in particular, epic, heroic characters. We most associate such characters with genre fiction: fantasy and sci-fi, but really, I define an epic character as an inspiring character, and that can be found in any genre.

The “hero” character is a type, for sure, which means writing a hero is always tricky to do in a way that comes off as fresh and original. One way to make a character type uniquely yours is to keep in mind how these characters generally evolve in stories.

Shakespeare wrote, “Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” I look at heroes in two categories:

  • Heroes ready, willing, and rearing–or at least who voluntarily choose–to get in the action and do great things (those who are born great/achieve greatness)
  • Heroes who have no choice but to “(wo)man up” and get the job done because all other options are taken away from them (greatness is thrust upon them)

GREATNESS THRUST UPON THEM

This second class of hero has been studied a lot in recent years because it is a modern/postmodern phenomenon in a lot of ways. (Can’t remember where in the world I first read that observation, but it’s astute. I think it came from Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”)

The reluctant hero is, in fact, relatively new to literature. Think of the commonly cited examples of the hero with greatness thrust upon him: Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, John McClain. They’re all from the 20th century.

I purposely adapted this type for my first fantasy novel, “The Crimson League.” My heroine, Kora Porteg, is thrust into the fight against a dictator more or less against her will and without understanding exactly what’s going on.

Kora is confused and frightened throughout most of the book…. Just taking things one day and one crisis at a time and trying to survive. While she technically could flee the kingdom, that would require abandoning her family, and that’s not something she’d ever consider.

WHY WE LOVE THIS KIND OF HERO

Readers love heroes who have greatness thrust upon in any genre because they are, at heart, ordinary people. They are like us, and we see ourselves in them.

Classic heroes like Achilles and Odysseus are fun to read about and they have fun adventures, but we can’t really imagine ourselves in their place. They’re superhuman in their way, even when they fall.

The everyman hero forced to confront a great danger or great challenge at overwhelming odds encourages us because we all, in our way, feel that our lives are filled with great challenges and sometimes doubt our ability to overcome them.

Be careful, though, when writing this kind of character, about the following.

  • THE CHARACTER’S EVOLUTION TO GREATNESS NEEDS TO BE REALISTIC. Meaning there should be moments of crisis and shock, moments of regression. These kind of characters, realistically, sometimes take two steps back before taking three forward.
  • THE EMO HERO. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” takes a lot of flack for this. A character, realistically, will have a visceral reaction of some type to being forced into awful circumstances. That’s natural and it makes sense. But it’s possible to take that too far. Readers don’t want dozens of pages of self-pity and anger: especially anger that’s misdirected. That could very well turn them against your hero.
  • LUCKY BREAKS CAN BE TOO LUCKY. This kind of hero certainly deserves–and can catch–a lucky break or two, within reason. What makes luck credible? Henry Ford once wrote, “Luck is what happens when preparedness meets opportunity.” When luck boils down to your characters knowing how to act or to take advantage of a situation because they are prepared, that’s powerful. (think of Dr. Who). When they catch a break just because a villain has a brain fart moment, that’s less so.

A character in any genre can have some form of greatness thrust upon him or her. Which means any of those characters can be subject to unrealistic development arcs, emo outbreaks, and lucky breaks that reek of authorial interference.

Tomorrow I want to talk more about heroes who freely choose greatness, but for now, who are your favorite reluctant heroes? What dangers or advantages do you see in adopting this character type?

If you found this post helpful, you might be interested in these other posts about characterization.

And don’t forget you can enter a giveaway for my upcoming writer’s handbook, “Writing for You,” at goodreads.com.

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46 responses to “How to craft a “reluctant hero” for any genre: what to watch out for

  1. Mrs. Frisby from Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh- Robert C. O’Brien. (Changed to Mrs. Brisby in the movie). Even though it’s a children’s book, I still love it. She was a great reluctant hero. That’s my two cents.
    I’m also a fan of the reluctant hero for all the reasons you mentioned. It’s easy to “live” the story when the hero is just a regular person. The danger somehow seems more dangerous.

    Great post, Victoria! πŸ™‚

    • glad you enjoyed it. I’m a big fan of children’s lit and YA lit myself: that’s the stuff that gets us hooked on books for life, after all πŸ™‚ I”ll have to check Mrs. Frisby out!

  2. I think my favourite hero is the anti-hero. The best-known example is probably Han Solo. The kind of hero who really doesn’t want to be a hero, is very sarcastic about it, but eventually gets caught doing something noble and then fervently denies it. πŸ™‚

  3. I have a hero in a current WIP who’s walking the emo line. He has to go through some really tough stuff (self-doubt, anger, betrayal, loneliness), so it’s hard to not let it get depressing. I hope that the fact that the other protagonist is growing in the opposite direction will offset that a bit, and the supporting cast will call him on it if he gets too depressing, but it’s still a really tough direction to take a (reluctant) hero!

    • Han Solo is a fantastic example of the anti-hero. My favorite anti-heroes are Royce Melborn and espeically Hadrian Blackwater from Michael J Sullivan’s “The Riyria Revelations.” Some adult themes in the books…. They’re a pair of rogues who end up saving their world. Royce is an incredibly deadly assassin. Wouldn’t want to get on his bad side!

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  5. Reblogged this on Christopher Flynn and commented:
    Interesting tips on writing this kind of character. I think I have one in my novel. No, I don’t just think so, he’s right in the middle of it all.

  6. My favorite reluctant hero is Spider-Man. His origin really sets the stage for his evolution. Also, the Emo Hero part reminds me of Spider-Man 3, which wasn’t pretty.

    I think I’ve been using the born to greatness heroes for my first series. One of them kind of stumbles into the action. This is odd because most of my future series have reluctant or accidental heroes. I’m wondering if I went this route because of how my world works and I wanted the heroes of my first series to be the inspirational legends for many of my future heroes.

    • hahahaha!!! I actually thought of Emo-Spidey when I was writing that part. Spiderman 3 is kind of awful (and not in a good way) but 2 is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. i LOVE the message. It’s ALL about sacrifice and love and the reluctant hero.

      You know, I also had your Luke in mind when I thought about the “born to greatness” hero…. I haven’t read your book yet but I’ve read your blurb and it’s great in that it makes that aspect of Luke’s character very clear…. he’s born into this family known for being these fantastic heroes…. that’s a real burden for anyone.

      That’s a fun, fun concept: using the fist heroes as legends to inspire the others. It rings very true to how life really works (how much are George Washington and Admiral Lord Nelson made into legends?). It feels like that tactic will add a lot of depth and shades of meaning to your world.

      • Luke is definitely a born to greatness hero and Nyx is kind of like that too. My books work a lot with destiny, so there is a bit of born to greatness in each hero. Yet those two have it the worst.

        Using my own characters for an example, I’ve noticed that when a main hero is born to greatness, he/she tends to be surrounded by secondary heroes that would fall into reluctant. Nimby, Fritz, and Aedyn weren’t born to be a hero, but they get caught up in Luke’s adventures. I’d go further into it, but those are spoilers. πŸ˜›

        Fingers are crossed on the depth. One of the major points of Legends of Windemere is to kickoff Windemere’s age of heroes. That’s why there are going to be so many wandering heroes and adventures going on over the course of a short period.

        • That’s a great concept: mixing up types of heroes within one work. A great way to make each hero unique and his or her own person and not “copies” of each other.

          Nimby is a fantastic name!

        • I can’t take full credit. The guy who played him in the D&D game created it. The name was a lot longer, so he had us call him Nimby. One of my favorite characters to use.

  7. Reblogged this on When I Became an Author and commented:
    This is so helpful! Victoria, you are brilliant!!!

  8. You make some great points, I’ve followed most of them without even realizing it, from greatness thrust upon, emo and lucky breaks. I have trouble with the last one, I’ll admit it, hopefully I’ll get better at it once I start editing.

    • Editing is almost always the key. I get very few things right in a first draft. At the very least there’s a bit of tweaking involved in every component of the story…. Editing can be a blast as much as it is a monster. Funny how that is!

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  10. Great article, in my Graphic Novel the main character is an anti hero, and well, every character is an anti hero some time in the story, and all can be considered as bad guys depending on the perspective.

    • That kind of story is always fun and very profound from a philosophical perspective… Sounds like fun! I’m glad you dropped by, and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Tomorrow’s post is about the antihero, so make sure you don’t miss that one! I’m sure you’ll have some insights to add to the discussion.

  11. I think the contrast between the public perception of a hero and the hero’s own perceptions of her- or himself is an important thing to keep in mind. Often what is perceived as heroic behavior is actually quite self-serving.

    My favorite example of this is the episode “Jaynestown” of the series Firefly. Jayne Cobb is an amoral thug, but something he does more or less by accident makes him a hero to an isolated community.

    I’ve tried to keep that dynamic in mind writing James in my own work–at one point he tells the female lead, “I didn’t save you–I saved myself. Saving you was just collateral damage.”

    • That is an AMAZING point, Misha. It’s our motives and our desires and our intents that truly define us, regardless of how we are perceived. And there can be moments when those two things don’t line up. Wow…. that is a great point. A fantastic point. Worthy of a post in itself, I’d say.

  12. Thanks again for the awesome, instructive post. Did you see on my book list comment, when I was asking readers for suggestions, that someone put your book on there? I thought that was cool! They highly recommended it.

  13. Awesome read. I’m currently crafting a reluctant hero within my druid/steam-punk fantasy!
    Cathan Radha is delivered a prophetic vision of a great war that will tear the continent into several pieces. In addition, he is told that his initiative, bloodline, and blessings from the Great Mother are the key to winning said war–without it, the continent of Falone is doomed to exist beneath a tyrant’s claret flag.
    It’s a very familiar structure, however, I plan on adding my own twists and turns along the way to give it a fresh spin.
    Anyway, the Radha name follows a long line of wild men dwelling in the woods practicing magic and ancient traditions. Their way of life is one of survival alongside nature–not of ingenuity amongst cogs and contraptions. Cathan knows of the power the enemy wields and doesn’t necessarily want to battle an entire army of technologically developed madmen in the west; he doesn’t even want to leave the forests of his nation; Cathan simply wants to be like any other beast wandering the woods. Once the stakes are considered, Cathan’s decision unveils his destiny–not an option.
    I find that your article on reluctant heroes is an interesting topic because it connects with readers on a personal level. As an introvert I can easily say that many share the pain of having to do something we didn’t really want to at some point. How many times have we all been forced to do something we were scare of? It’s terrifying, but we learn something along the way, and that experience is beautiful.
    The pitfalls of writing a reluctant hero are synonymous with individuals pressured in life–angst, depression, whining. These characteristics are seldom appreciated in the long-run! Regardless of how interesting a character’s background may be, to dwell is to bore–not to mention, waste time.
    A goal of mine is to reflect on my character, maybe even identify with him by asking myself what I’d do in his stead. That way, I believe I can avoid boring my reader by conjuring the angsty ghosts of high school’s past.
    Great article as always!

    • Thanks so much! I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I’m glad you weighed in. There is a lot of wisdom in what you say about “dwelling” and “carrying on” without making changes for the better or taking risks. We introverts are often uncomfortable taking risks and putting ourselves out there, but like you said: it’s always worth it, even if it doesn’t work as you wanted. You always learn something. You always gain confidence.

      You’re right, too, in that dwelling on a character’s current situation is boring and won’t engage a reader for any length of time.

      Lots of think about here.

  14. FitzChivalry Farseer in the Farseer and Tawny Man Trilogies by Robin Hobb. He’s reluctant to the point that as the reader you almost want to smack him and tell him to get a little ambition—but in a good way.

  15. I’m glad someone mentioned Mrs. Frisby. What a great book. I love the hobbits of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I’d say they’re my favorite reluctant heroes. They’re laughably unlikely, yet they were the ones needed to get the jobs done. I also love Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time.

  16. Pingback: Creative Writing and the Antihero | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  17. I love the reluctant hero, they really are more real feeling. I struggle with making sure that my hero doesn’t get too many lucky breaks, that’s just boring. And don’t we want to punch those people in the throat that always get things handed to them? Don’t want that to happen in my book. Yikes!

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  25. I am a big fan of the reluctant hero! Thx for this useful post πŸ™‚

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