Creative Writing and Characterization: What Makes a “Willing Hero”?

815009_civil_war_statueYesterday I talked about two kinds of hero, and in particular, I broke down the type of the reluctant hero: maybe better described as the hero “with greatness thrust upon him.”

Today I’d like to touch on the opposite kind of hero: the hero who, even if he has misgivings or would rather not feel compelled to put himself out there, freely chooses to be heroic. What I mean by that is, the hero has other options. He has an escape route, and he can take it at some point but chooses to pass it over.


I mentioned yesterday how reluctant heroes–people forced with no way out into horrible situations they then must overcome–don’t have to exist solely in fantasy literature like I write (though they are common there.) They can exist in thrillers and action/adventure novels. They can exist in literary fiction.

The same is true for the “willing hero.” (And remember, a willing hero doesn’t have to be excited about what he’s doing. He simply has the choice not to do it.)

Willing heroes can exist in all kinds of novels. Take my two favorite novels as examples: Jean Valjean, in Les Misérables, rushing to the barricade to try to save Marius for the sake of Cosette is a willing hero. Don Quixote is a willing hero, rushing off to serve others as a knight-errant.

“Heroics” is also a flexible term. A hero doesn’t have to be at war, risking his life, fighting an evil enemy bent on world domination. A hero can be a guy at the office who takes the metaphorical bullet on a project that failed to protect a colleague.

My point here is: even if you don’t write fantasy or sci-fi, you shouldn’t discount the concept of the hero type or think it can’t influence/impact your writing and your stories.


A willing hero is generally “born great” or “achieves greatness,” as Shakespeare would say, as opposed to having greatness “thrust upon him.”

A gray area exists, for sure, between the willing and reluctant hero. What degree of choice must exist to make a character a willing hero? How attractive must the choice to walk away be for us to classify a character as “sacrificially willing” when he passes it up?

On some characters, you could argue either way: willing or reluctant. That’s not really all that important. I’m not meaning to delve into a debate about free will, coercion, and compulsion.

Despite the gray zone, some characters are clearly willing heroes, such as Vane Unsten from the last two installments of my Herezoth trilogy.

Vane is a young sorcerer raised (in part) in the peaceful kingdom of Traigland; the heroes of the first installment teach him magic. “The Magic Council” is as much a bildingsroman (or “coming of age story”) focused on Vane as it is anything else.

Vane has to choose whether to accept his birthright as a duke–the kingdom’s only sorcerer-duke–and return to Herezoth during a trying time in order to help the king. (Sorcerers, you see, are mistrusted to the point of living in a threatened state).

So Vane can return to Herezoth and take some risks to do what he feels is the right thing, or he can hole up in Traigland for years on end with no one the wiser: most of Herezoth thinks he died as a young child.

Vane is a clear “willing hero.” And he’s among my favorite characters in my novels, because while his heart is in the right place, he isn’t perfect. He often lacks confidence and he’s awkward (especially as a teenager).

Having written a “willing hero,” I’ve learned there are important qualities to keep in mind as you develop such a character.

  • WILLING CAN MEAN CONFIDENT. IT SHOULDN’T MEAN FOOLHARDY. Unless you specifically intend a character to be a crazy risk taker, to the point that he or she might have a bit of a death wish, be careful that your character isn’t taking unnecessary, ridiculous risks. Sometimes a new author might feel that’s a good way to show a character as courageous or adventurous. But true courage and adventure don’t usually mean seeking danger out.
  • A WILLING HERO DOESN’T HAVE TO BE ARROGANT, OR EVEN CONFIDENT. Vane is a great example of this. If anything, his self-esteem isn’t as high as it should be; he lives among “giants,” so to speak, and doesn’t feel that he measures up. Remember: a lack of confidence might even be a great temptation or a factor in your hero considering not being a hero (i.e., choosing not to act). The character doesn’t feel capable of meeting the challenge.
  • A WILLING HERO DOESN’T HAVE TO BE HAPPY TO BE DOING WHAT HE’S DOING. And that’s important. Remember, all “willing” means is that the character had other options, but chose to do what he feels is right, responsible, and/or somehow best. It doesn’t mean he can’t consider that option the lesser of two evils, or unfair, or otherwise horrible.
  • A WILLING HERO ISN’T A PERFECT SAINT. This is important to remember, because willing heroes tend to represent the best of humanity. They are selfless to a great degree, and willing to sacrifice for the good of others. It’s easy to make them too god-like, but they’re human at core, which means they have flaws. Every character needs flaws and faults of some kind (I wrote an entire post contrasting what I call character flaws and faults.)

I’m really curious to see what you guys think of this topic. Do you write willing heroes? Do you have a favorite willing hero among the books you’ve read? Let us know.

And for more thoughts on character development and other aspects of the writing process, keep an eye out for my upcoming writer’s handbook, “Writing for You,” which releases July 31. You can enter a giveaway to win a free paperback copy at the right!


36 responses to “Creative Writing and Characterization: What Makes a “Willing Hero”?

  1. Woot! Woot! The first comment. Told you I jump at the email posts. Anyways, great post. My story is still in its beginning stages and I’m just at the point where I need to know the partial direction of the character. Thanks for the helpful tips! =)

    • hahaha! 🙂 You sure do jump at the emails, yea!

      Glad you found the post helpful! Heroes do come in all shapes and sizes and head off in many different directions. I think most heroes have a few things in common at core, but there are also things that distinguish them from one another…. contemplating what makes a hero a hero can really help to bring such a character to life…. at least, I’m telling myself that, and I hope it’s true for my writing’s sake 🙂

  2. I’ve really enjoyed your series of posts about the nature of the Hero. Very well thought out, and in part reminds me of “Hero With A Thousand Faces,” (which you mentioned in an earlier post). I like the fresh take and personal insight you provide. Quite enjoyable. 🙂

    • glad you’re enjoying it! You’re right…. I think it is kind of like ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces.’ Read that years ago for an Arthurian legend seminar senior year of undergrad. It’s still at the back of my brain, apparently!

  3. I have recently read “Honor among Thieves” by Elaine Cunningham. The fairy Vishni is the crazy risk taker and seeks dangers out. She is the willing hero.

    But well, I guess your definition doesn’t really match – if I get it right: WILLING means: has other options but chooses to be the hero and RELUCTANT means: has no other choice.

    I guess Vishni has no other choice than to act that way. Her goal is to be involved in an epic adventure to be able to write “a fairy tale” about it, and by achieving this, being allowed back in the fairy-dimension from her exile.

    • Vishni sounds like an interesting character! I’m glad you outlined her motivation: to be allowed back from exile. Every hero needs some kind of motivation and purpose to what he’s doing…. and like Vishni’s it doesn’t have to be purely unselfish in nature, for sure. That’s a great example. “Honor among Thieves” sounds like a lot of fun.

      • It is. The best fantasy book I have read recently. I’m still in the middle of “The Crimson League” though 😉

        • hahaha! hope you’re enjoying it.

        • Actually I really loved the first half of it. But the beginning of book 2 is evolving a little bit to slow, for me.

          I will write a review.

          I planned to contrast it to the other two books I read at the same time: The Alchemist and A Monster Calls.

          All three books are so different and at the same time really awesome. What makes them great? was the question I would have tried to answer.

          But I have finished those many days ago, they are much shorter, I know. And before I forget the feeling of them, I will review the finished books together in one post (straight 7 out of 7, by the way) and yours separately.

        • oh wow, that sounds really cool, Dirk! What a great idea. I’ve read “The Alchemist” and found it very interesting. A different kind of novel than I usually pick up by choice 🙂

        • You think so … mh … maybe I should be patient, finish your book first and stick to the original plan.

        • I picked it up by coincidence either.

          When I put my elder son into bed, we have some ritual, that involves me waiting in front of his closed door for some minutes. On of our book shelves stands there, so I picked randomly some book: “The Alchemist”.

          My wife had read and recommended it, many years ago. Her book taste isn’t very compatible with mine … but I should have listened this time.

        • I’ve heard some people knock “The Alchemist,” and I understand why that is. I definitely don’t subscribe to the worldview it represents, but it was a beautiful and thought-provoking story.

        • I just skimmed some 1 star Amazon reviews. And well, what should I say. I guess those were expecting some truly deep thought through story, something enlightening and wonderfully written.

          I did expect nothing, and I liked the story and the writing a lot.

          I don’t take the content that serious, though. It’s one world view. It’s fiction. What the hell?

          If you aren’t able to appreciate a perspective outside your comfort zone, you shouldn’t read at all, I guess.

        • That’s a great point. Like I said, the book got me thinking about my own worldview, which I appreciate. It’s fiction.The twist at the end (if you want to call it that) is really quite nice and profound in its way.

        • I liked that ‘twist’ a lot too. Coelho left us wondering until the end, if there is something more in his world. It was really a nice wrap-up. And like you say, it felt natural.

  4. Trying to post again with my WordPress account…

    I’ve written short stories with both willing and reluctant heroes and enjoy them both, as writer and as reader.

    My debut fantasy novel WIP doesn’t feature either a wiling or a reluctant hero. My protagonist is instead a rather self-destructive anti-hero. He has a sense of right and wrong and wants to do what is right, but often what is right is at odds with some of his deepest desires. So sometimes he chooses to do what is right and sometimes he doesn’t. Then there are things happening that he has little or no control over, which push him down certain paths. If he were a hero, perhaps he’d be a mix of both willing and reluctant? Do the labels of willing and reluctant apply to anti-heroes?

    • I actually have a post scheduled to go live tomorrow about the anti-hero, so you’re ahead of the game 🙂 I would consider the antihero a subclass of hero, in that he or she can have willing or reluctant characteristics, or perhaps exist firmly in the gray zone. Sounds like your protagonist might be in the gray zone: which is always a lot of fun and extremely thought-provoking, at least for me. We aren’t generally comfortable with gray. It’s demanding and unsettling, and makes us question things we sometimes take for granted. Black and white is a lot easier to deal with.

  5. There are a couple of scenes in Luc Besson’s film “Leon” (also released as “The Professional”) in which Jean Reno’s character is faced with a clear choice to either get involved to save Natalie Portman or to simply let her die. It’s a very dark film, and the choice is presented less as a choice to be a hero than as a choice not to be a villain.

    As Valjean sings in Les Miz, “If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned.”

    • Ooh, that movie sounds nuts 😛 And “Les Miz”…. YES. Jean Valjean is one of my favorite characters of all time. That song always gets me, and that moment in the book…. just page after page of mental anguish, trying to justify not stepping up and realizing he’ll never be able to live with himself if he doesn’t…. really awesome stuff.

      Sometimes a tragic situation really does present no good answer…. Those situations provide for a lot of deep material (or material that a reader can contemplate in a profound manner if he or she wants to.)

  6. Well, I broke the first three rules of that list with Luke Callindor. He’s a risk-taking, confident, happy, blossoming hero. I think it depends on the story and character type. With spellcasters, I can see them being cautious and avoiding the risk-taking role because magic is deadly. Warriors tend to fall into that ‘death wish’ category more often. I think it’s because many authors have them come fresh out of training, so they don’t realize the importance of experience. The risk-taking is something to be phased out or tempered. Is it possible for a hero to evolve and still retain some of the risk-taking behavior?

    • It definitely does depend on the character and the story…. I hope that came out clear. Certain people just are risk-takers, and that’s great and makes perfect sense for a character with that personality, such as Luke. The trouble arrives is when the only reason for a character to be taking risks is that the author needs to advance the plot and it doesn’t really make sense that the character would act this way.

      I like your distinction between spell-casters and warriors. That question about evolving and maintaining the risk-taking behavior…. it’s a great one. I think the answer is yes. It all depends on the individual character and his personality, as well as the nature of the risks. Some risks, after all, are more severe than others. I think of the Doctor, for one, from Dr Who is a great character who is always taking risks. He’s constantly taking risks and seeking out situations where he needs to intervene in order to set the universe to rights.

      • I keep the risks of Luke to battle or when he’s impatient. I would say every hero has some level of risk-taker because one has to be brave to be a hero in the first place. The abilities and powers of a hero can determine the obviousness of a risk. For example, Superman standing in front of an approaching missile is different than Spider-Man doing it. Less personal risk to Superman, but it does take a level of risk-taker to do such a thing.

        I might be getting this and my hero post of today mixed up.

        • hahaha! I saw you had a hero post today too! 🙂 great minds think alike. Valid point about superman and spiderman…. Superman has always bored me just because his risk are very rarely genuine personal risks. He’s not human. He can’t be harmed.

        • I like Superman because he still holds a level of vulnerability in terms of mind and heart. A similar character that I have trouble getting behind is Thor. He’s a god, so I don’t see much risk and I rarely see him torn with decisions. Maybe they changed him since the movie, but I only remember him being ‘normal’ and raging pissed. Hulk had more range.

  7. I can’t help thinking of Beowulf as the willing hero. But my characters are too emotionally damaged and untrained. They’re all reluctant heroes.

    • I LOVED Beowulf in high school and college! I definitely need to read it again. It’s been way too long.

      Beowulf is a classic example of a willing hero, for sure. Even when he’s old and a bit feeble and not up for the challenge physically, he jumps at any chance to fight. He’s a great character study for the risk-taker class of heroic individual, for sure.

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  9. I never thought that the willing hero could be unhappy about it and/or they didn’t have to be confident. Hmmm… I like the idea that they could choose to do it even if they didn’t like it or they weren’t completely confident in their ability to get it done. I guess I just classified that as unwilling hero. This is opening up new ideas for me…. love it! Gotta whip out my notebook real quick!

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