January 22, 2012

Know Your Hero

hero (hir'o) n. pl. -roes. 1. In mythology and legend, a man, often of divine ancestry, who is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for his bold exploits, and favored by the gods. 2. A man noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, esp. one who has risked or sacrificed his life: a war hero. 3. A man noted for his special achievements in a  particular field: the heroes of medicine. 4. The principal male character in a novel, poem or dramatic presentation. 5. Slang. A large sandwich consisting of a roll that is split lengthwise and contains a variety of fillings, as lettuce, tomatoes, onions, meats and cheese. [Lat. heros < Gk. heros.]

Good news: Great heroes make great stories.
Bad news: Heroes are all the same yet nothing alike.

The good news goes without saying but the bad news wouldn't make sense without it. Stay with me for a minute here because this is something I just figured out this week. Everyone over the age of ten or so knows what a hero is but for every person you ask the question, you will receive a different answer. Then ask who their heroes are and you'll get an even broader spectrum of answers. Meditating on that this week (thank you Carolyn and Will) yielded this precept. Heroes in fiction are a two part equation and the writer only controls one side.

The scent of a good cologne will draw me in as strongly as a good read featuring a tortured hero. My favorite is Ralph Lauren's Romance while I don't particularly care for Stetson. Neither of those fragrance makers can do anything about how much I like or dislike their product in reality other than to attempt to influence and manipulate me through advertising. And even then, Romance will smell different on my husband than on the waiter at my favorite steakhouse because their individual body chemistry interacts with the fragrance in subtle but real ways.
Literary heroes = colognes

As a writer there are a lot of things you can do to give your hero as broad an appeal as possible and bring him to life with a strong, conflict driven character arc comprised of his inner and outer journey. The save the cat moments, and there are plenty of fantastic instructions on how to do this out there. A tip is to start in Seekerville like I did, way back before I even knew what a character arc was. But even with a firm grip on craft study and the elements of your hero firmly established, like a good cologne, not everyone will respond to your hero in the same way. This is where the publishing business starts making more sense to me. Suddenly the reason I have to know exactly who my target audience is, how firmly I'm in the center of the criteria of my genre, and my writer voice, style, and eventual "brand" all become important.

Books without a strong hero aren't high on my list to read and more important to the publishers, to buy. Even when the books are swimming in positive reviews, like Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. Peeta just doesn't do it for me and while I enjoyed the story, I didn't follow the series or become a fan. My taste in hero varies and even then is further varied by my genre preference. I like my heroes to start out as wrecked as possible and that usually is accompanied by some negative behavior even though they're goodness survives under the pain-hardened exterior, but their stories can be anything from a medieval era romance to a quest in a mythical land though historical remains my favorite. By the titles on my shelves, I know the authors whose books are my Ralph Lauren Romance. This is what I meant by the bad news that all heroes are the same and will still be all different. Mr. Darcy, Jason Bourne, Edward Cullen, and Luke Skywalker all struggle to overcome something in their past (internal) or someone in their present (external) endangering their future.

We know the conflicts:
  • Man versus Man
  • Man versus Nature
  • Man versus Self
  • Man versus God
The responsibility of the writer is to truly know the man. In regards to the hero, what defines him as the hero besides the fact he's generally the main character? For me, it's these elements, in order of importance:
  1. I must believe the hero could exist. (Even in fantasy or speculative work, the hero must be credible and authentic. Let me see his selfishness, jealousy, doubt or anger at God, inappropriate moments of physical attraction, etc. every now and then because if he's too perfect, I won't trust him or the author.)
  2. By the end of the journey, I will wish he really did exist or be comforted in the hope that somewhere, he does exist in the form of someone with his character. (The Captain Kirk, the Levi Grant, the Mr. Thornton, the Romeo, the Captain Wentworth)
  3. He must struggle to reach his goal and the goal must be good, even if the goal changes throughout the journey. (If there's no struggle, there's no story and if the goal is burn down the orphanage on Christmas Eve, that's not the hero.)
  4. When faced with a decision, he must make the right choice by my standards and when he doesn't, I need to understand why to be able to forgive him for it. (This is something I've honed in on that developed organically in my own writing. A rich, full-bodied character will make mistakes. When the mistakes come, great heroes penned by great authors have developed the hero's and provided his motivation either before, during, or after the bad choice so the reader understands it and is endeared to the hero even more because of the failure.
There is a little villain in every hero and a little hero in every villain. The author and the character as he matures will decide how much. Once you know and understand your hero, what makes him the hero and what motivates and hinders him, only then can you set out to give him an engaging and compelling plot that will endear him to the reader. How well an author does this determines where in the ranks that hero will fall for their reader but never forget that the reader has their own filter of preferences and life experiences that govern the hero-meter from their side. Create a compelling hero that's true to you as a writer and to the story you will put him in, and the best way to do that is to answer for yourself what makes the hero the hero.

The heroes in my stories are just that, my heroes, and boy do I love to put them through the ringer. Pressure makes diamonds, heat refines precious metals, and whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger. Is at any wonder I'm such a hero-girl, as a reader and a writer? Not at all. ;-)

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