Birthing a Hero

by limebirdkate

Recently, I critiqued a science fiction/thriller. The author wrote a great action-packed story with lots of intrigue and suspense. However, regardless of the fact the protagonist was running for his life from hired guns, I didn’t really care about him.

The author also sent me a two-page character sketch that he’d outlined as part of his research. He did a great job. He convincingly strategized how the unlikely protagonist could accidentally fall into a deadly web of intrigue. The author also understood how the hero would potentially handle pressure and why he would be able to foil professional assassins. But there was a vital chunk missing.

Inner story.

It is my belief that even in the most action-packed, plot-driven novels the protagonist needs to be more than just a man battling for his life or searching for truth. We need to worry if he’ll have the chops (either physically or emotionally) to save himself or a loved one. We need a protag whose actions inspire us. In order to create a bond between the reader and the protag, the author needs to give the reader a reason to care.

That’s how a hero is born.

The author in question rarely stepped into the protag’s head or heart. Aside from the obvious desire to stay alive, there were no moments where the protag reflected. The biggest change the character underwent was that he lost weight. (From all the running around trying to escape the killers.)

He didn’t have to make a choice. The assassins started chasing, so he ran. The assassins cornered him; he escaped. He was never confronted with a choice that would raise the stakes, make things worse. Without choice, there is little ground for internal change (losing pounds doesn’t count).

I really think that authors need to show a hero’s human side. We need to see that moment where to get out of a predicament, the hero has to make the tough choice. We need to see what is real about this hero. Take the reader inside the character’s heart and mind so that we can see what he is made of. That’s the truly heroic stuff.

Who is your favorite hero? Why?

27 Responses to “Birthing a Hero”

  1. You’re absolutely right. I think this is why The Hunger Games struck a chord… the plotline was captivating, but we also want to root for Katniss. She has all the odds stacked against her and keeps on going.

    Over my life, there have been countless heroes I’ve rooted for, and I agree that when I critique fellow writers’ work, one of the biggest things lacking when you don’t root for the character is a lack of internal story. We want to feel what the character is feeling and relate to it.

    Great post!

    • Hi Anne,
      I love Katniss, too. And I thought she could be difficult to like upon occasion–at least before the games began. Her anger made it hard for me. However, because I understood what she’d been through, and her devotion to her sister, I was able to relate to her and it didn’t take me long at all to put aside that edgy feeling I had and bond with her.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Wow, good point and I just decided to change part of a story I’ve been working on for a while. Even in a short story we need a reason to root for the hero!

    • Hi Neeks, oh boy, what have I done!? 🙂 I think short stories are the toughest to do this because you don’t get a lot of chances to connect reader and hero. But it’s still crucial for that bonding. Good luck with your change!

  3. Indeed, a story is only as good as its characters, and if the author really loves his/her characters, it will usually shine through and make the character live. Giving the character tough choices or inescapable choices is almost essential. A true hero always has to lose something in order to complete the heroic action. Frodo comes to mind. At the last minute, he couldn’t complete what he had to do and not only did he lose a finger for it, he lost his right to remain in his homeland and finish out his life. His response at the end show he is human, but it doesn’t make him less of a hero, because without totality of his actions, the world couldn’t have been saved. It only makes him a high example of the heroic capabilities of human nature.

    • Hi Lorinda,

      Frodo is a wonderful example of a hero making a tough choice. Yes, losing something is vital–thank you for bringing that up. In the best books, the hero loses something/someone in order to attain the thing/person he wants most. And that loss is without a doubt part of that choice he has to make. Thanks for chiming in!

  4. Great post, Kate.
    I love rooting for characters. Someone (sorry – can’t remember who it was) mentioned that you don’t have to root for the main character/”hero” of a story…they just have to be compelling. Meaning, you could just as much hate them, but so long as their story is engaging, it can work. I have mixed feelings about that…though the same idea of feeling for the character still applies, I guess. I wonder if genre plays a role in this conundrum…?

    I still like rooting for a hero, though. 🙂

    I’ve been told that a writer can be too much in a character’s head, and that’s a balancing act, too. But I think I’d rather be too much in a character’s – especially a hero’s – head than not enough.

    I love tough choices, too. They don’t always have to be earth-shattering choices, but they are important to watching the character grow.

    Thanks for posting!

    • Hi Mayumi,

      Hmm, that is a tough call–I’m trying to think of a book where I hated the protag but enjoyed the story anyway. I’m drawing a blank–I think I generally have to like the protag or at the very least, find something sympathetic about the protag for me to follow his/her story.

      Genre could play a role, and of course this makes me wonder about horror, assuming the protag is a serial killer or something like that. But I don’t read horror. The closest I came to horror was Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire. But even in that story, the hero was sympathetic, even if he was a vampire.

      Right, the choices do not have to be anything earth-shattering, as long as the choice means he will lose something important (as Lorinda had mentioned).

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. *like*

    Characters are human, and we humans have quirks, hurts, enjoy humour, and occasionally get ornery. I love writing this side of things.

    • Hi Nelle,

      I agree! It’s so much fun to write the character through the changes and growth and spiritual encounters. Thanks for chiming in!

  6. One of the things that I find helps me connect with a character is that moment of doubt. Everyone has times when they doubt that they’re up to task at hand, and to me, the higher the stakes, the greater the chances there will be that moment where they don’t know if they’re up to it, if they can make the right choice, where the sacrifice seems too great. It’s only human to doubt after all.

    • Mmm, Julie, absolutely! Doubt is a big one, and when you can get the reader to doubt if the character is up to task, even better! That’s what will keep the pages turning, will he or won’t he…?

      Thanks for stopping by!

  7. It’s one of the things I’m working on in my revisions. 🙂 It sounds like the writer you describe had some of the needed information in his head but didn’t bring it out in the story. I’d bet that’s a common mistake for newer writers (and I’ll include myself in that category). None of us is perfect—we all have flaws. And there are times we won’t react the way we should to be a hero. We have to write that into our characters, too.

    But for me it’s most difficult when the “hero” or main character is simply an ordinary person who finds himself in an extraordinary position, but the fate of the world doesn’t rest on his actions. Hopefully, I’ll get there. 🙂

    • Hey JM, you’re right, he did know it, but didn’t write it. Eventually, we worked through it 🙂

      I agree about the ordinary human in extraordinary circumstances dilemma. That’s when we need to show how this one person’s ‘world’ could fall apart and why that should matter to the reader. Yes, maybe one day I’ll get there too 🙂

  8. Yes, that’s why on a lot of the big action movies, they show quite a bit about the person’s home life, so that at those crucial life or death moments, you know he’s thinking that he has to make it back home for his kids, or that maybe his wife wouldn’t have left him if he’d been there more for her. Whatever it is, those glimpses into his personal life are a simple but effective way of showing you that this is a real person with feelings, and a life that we can relate to, and not just an action hero.

    I said “he” there, but of course the action hero can be female, it’s just that I had things like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon in my mind! I don’t know why, but when I think of action heroes, it tends to be the men that immediately spring to mind 😉

    • Hi Vanessa, Very true. I didn’t think about how it’s the same in movies, and probably even more so because we don’t get the narrator. Thanks for commenting.

  9. Yep! You want to see yourself in the her I think and we’d all like to think we’d save the day if we had to like them! I just re-watched the last HP film, Neville was a rest hero in that!

    • Hi Victoria, yes! Neville is a great example of a hero because he is so unlikely and yet so true. Thanks for chiming in.

  10. Thanks Kate, great post. It’s got me thinking about and whether I’ve been successful in giving Rochelle the depth that is required for the reader to develop some empathy towards them. I suspect not. Perhaps it’s the rushing I feel is necessary to get each chapter of the serial novel out there in reasonable time. I may not be spending enough of my limited time ensure it’s good enough.


    • Hi Richard, thank you for the link. I will be sure to check it out. In the meantime, asking yourself these kinds of questions is good because at least you’re thinking depth and breadth, which will come through for the reader. I can understand how rushing the job might impact unfavorably. Hopefully, you will be able to get some quality time to look back through it. Thanks for chiming in.

  11. David Hartwell once remarked that authors have worked so hard lately to make characters well-rounded that they have forgotten to make them sympathetic. We lose sight of the fact that sympathy is actually the key (and you can be sympathetic with an anti-hero–you just need to get invested in their struggle). One of my favorite scenes showing what you’re talking about–the link of the inner life and the outer–is Sam at Mount Doom in “The Return of the King” film. All he needs to say is “Rosie Cotton, dancing.” A woman he longed for, and never spoke to, whom he’s shown admiring early on–who is, in fact, the heart of what is at stake for him and his world though he hever speaks of this: that carefree beauty might be lost.
    It doesn’t take a boatload of inner monologue or emotional exposition to convey a character’s heart–it can happen in a few glimpses that show us what really matters.

    • Well put, E.C. The key is sympathy and yes, we can be sympathetic to the anti-hero based on his struggles. Love Sam! Sam is a wonderful hero who is easily neglected in after-thought. You’re right. As long as a moment, a scene, a chapter, is powerful, moving, and poignant, it’s all we need to connect to the character, to know what really matters, as you say.

      Thanks for commenting.

  12. Nice post! It’s got me thinking. Does the choice have to involve loss? Can it just be which path and dark unknown? Does the potential loss count? Maybe I’ve been reading too many “Choose Your Own Adventure” books with my son 🙂

    There’s something to be said for characters who RISK loss even if they don’t have the loss.

    Also, this has me wondering what we all mean (exactly) by “sympathetic.” One of my favorite things about Crime and Punishment was that it was the first book I read where the protagonist really wasn’t good, but I couldn’t help like him a bit anyway. Maybe we mean we have to relate to the character? (I think I just said I relate to a killer. brilliant!)

    • Hi Shannon,

      Good questions. Speaking only for myself, I feel like there has to be an actual loss. Now, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the one thing that the protag was fearful of losing, which could possibly help you out of the quandry. But I think a significant loss is important. Have you read all 3 installments of The Hunger Games? I don’t want to give away the ending for you or other readers of this post, but Katniss experiences loss at the end, and it was something that she wasn’t primarily afraid of losing at the beginning of the books. Does that help?

      Yes, I think you’re right about sympathetic. If we can’t connect on some level to an unlikeable protag, then we’re probably not going to finish the book. You can still relate to a killer without supporting him as a murderer if there is something about him that is human, understandable. It’s a tough trick to pull off, no doubt about it, but if you can pull it off then I think you’ll have a solid protag that creates conflict in the reader. Those are the best kind.

      • Kate, I have read all 3 books (you need to revisit my book reviews page). 🙂

        I would argue that you are wrong about Katniss’s loss (spoiler alert!). I think it was something she feared, just not what was in her face during most of the story.

        As illustration, imagine a kid is afraid of reading his report in front of the class. On his way to school that day, he is chased by angry dogs and then abducted by aliens. He’s still afraid of the speaking in public bit, but the story is not focusing on that (unless and until it loops back to reading the report). Does that make sense?

      • Hmm, I see your point, Shannon. I hadn’t considered the lottery portion–only the games portion of all the books. You’re right, there was that specific fear of loss in the beginning. But this is actually kind of what I was getting at in general, the protag does need to lose something. I don’t know if the books would have worked if she didn’t lose that one thing.

        Gosh, nothing like speaking in code, jeahoa lahoyunb ll pnwu! 🙂

        And yes, now you mention it, I recall your reviews–I hadn’t read your reviews because I hadn’t finished the series at the time. I must acquaint myself with them.

        Now, about the kid’s fear of speaking in public, are we still talking about ‘loss’ or ‘risk of loss’? (Great premise by the way, maybe you just came up with a new story? 🙂 )


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