Yesterday 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.
NO KIND OF HERO IS SPECIFIC TO FANTASY/ SCI-FI
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.
THE WILLING HERO
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!