The 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.