Fiction writing smolders down to the basic concept of good versus evil. A good story will include a hero and a villain duking it out in a twisted plot designed to keep the reader on their toes. The really good stories—the ones we can’t put down—are home to unlikely and flawed heroes, i.e. the perfect hero. But how do we as writers and authors create the perfect hero? Is there a formula? Or do they just magically spring into existence on the page?
The (IM)perfect Hero
Think of your favorite person, and I mean really think of your favorite person. It doesn’t matter if they are real or fictional, dead or alive or your most loyal furry companion. Just think of them. Think about what makes them your all-time favorite and hold that thought.
Do you have it? Good. Hang onto it because we’ll circle ‘round to it in a minute.
As writers, we are the masters of our own little (or no so little) universes. We are the almighty creators of all good, all evil, and everything in between. We are gods, if you believe in such things; we are the endgame architects. And it’s an occupational hazard to get lost in creating a hero who’s larger than life. If we’re not careful, we can create the perfect hero when, in fact, we shouldn’t. We should be endeavoring to craft an imperfect one.
Your Favorite Person
So, who is your most favorite person of all time? Maybe you can take a minute to share it in the “Leave a Reply” segment found at the bottom of this blog. I know I’d really like to know who this person is and why they are your favorite. But since I’m writing this blog right now, I’ll just use my imagination.
Most of the time, we pick a favorite person based on how they make us feel. Maybe they helped turn our life around or gave us a much-needed second chance. Maybe they believed in us when no one else did. Or maybe they gave us the wake-up call we so desperately needed, but couldn’t find.
Then again, maybe they’re our favorite because of their quirks and shortcomings. Maybe they exude the kind of strength or determination we wish we had. Chances are they inspire us. And it’s their imperfections we find most alluring because they make us believe we can be like them.
Creating a believable hero or heroine is about making an imperfect person. It’s their flaws, their weaknesses, and their struggles that captivate readers. It’s their humanity that readers relate and connect to—even if the hero happens to be from another planet.
5 Exercises for Crafting a Hero
As Anita and I began searching for research material for this blog, we both ran into the same problem. If you google the term “creating the perfect hero,” you are met with a seemingly endless supply of advice centered on romance novels.
We get that romance novels are big business. Everybody loves a good love story, and most don’t mind a trashy one every now and then. I mean, just look at the hubbub surrounding 50 Shades of Grey. Whether you love it, hate it or couldn’t care less about it, it’s gotten a metric ton of attention.
But we don’t want to pigeonhole this blog into fashioning a romance novel’s hero or heroine. We want to hand you useful, actionable information. We want to hand you five exercises for crafting a hero in any genre:
1. Study Other Heroes
If the word “study” makes you cringe and mentally teleports you back to high school, don’t freak out. We’re not talking about the eye watering, late night cramming and boring reading associated with that kind of study. We’re talking about something much more fun: Studying other heroes.
A writer draws inspiration and source material from everything they see, read, and experience. So before you haphazardly throw together a hero with whatever is lying about in your head, take some time to study popular heroes. Analyze these characters to determine just what makes them so appealing.
We recommend getting started by checking out some of these unforgettable articles. They contain references to and information about many heroes worth studying:
- 50 of the Greatest Characters in Literature via FlavorWire
- The Top 10 Badasses of Classic Literature via Listverse
- 22 Strong Female Characters in Literature via BuzzFeed
- The 100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900 via InfoPlease
Earlier in this blog, we probably made you think longer and harder about your all-time favorite person than you have in a while. You mentally reviewed your observations when we prompted you to think of them. Your powers of observation are a huge factor in crafting believable heroes.
Here’s the thing: A hero doesn’t have to be anything specific. He or she can be quirky, classy, annoying, obsessive compulsive, sociopathic, psychotic—anything. What matters is believability. No matter how farfetched the character or their circumstances, can the reader believe in them, even if they only believe this irritating character is a red herring hero and will meet their doom by chapter six?
You can infuse believability by making your hero human. We all connect to core elements of life, like emotion and struggle. As the master creator of your universe, it’s up to you to observe and record…
- Real people
- Real actions
- Real reaction
…and then incorporate them into your hero’s character.
3. Go Crazy
It’s time to introduce you to an incredibly fun hero creation exercise. Anita and I both use it, and it’s funny because we both went out of our ways not to mention it to one another for fear of sounding like nutters.
So, without further ado (and in painstaking nakedness) we present to you the Go Crazy and Act It out Hero Creation Exercise. In order to complete this exercise successfully, you will need:
- An I-don’t-give-a-BEEP-about-what-people-think-of-me attitude
- A (preferably) private or semi-private space
- A vivid imagination (props are optional)
- A (if you’re really brave) recording device, but a means of jotting things down works just as well
Once you’ve assembled the necessities, the exercise itself is simple. You know how your kids (or kids you observe) play pretend? Well, it’s your turn! If you ever wanted to be an actor, now is your chance.
You can take this exercise in any direction, but the bottom line is to slide into your hero’s shoes. Be them, if only for a few minutes. Plant yourself squarely in one of their outlandish circumstances (hence the need for your vivid imagination) and go crazy!
See where spouting dialog leads. See what kind of gestures and body movements accompany it. Record it, and use it to flesh out your hero.
Some people sing in the shower. Some people (ahem) act in the shower. It’s your process. Don’t be afraid to be a little nutty!
4. Get a Visual
One of the most underestimated elements of fashioning a hero is visual. It’s easy to get swept away by the strong winds of a good brainstorm. Before we know it, we’re hurriedly writing scene after scene, describing our hero’s appearance and quirks. But somewhere during the creative process, our hero goes from dark and handsome to light haired and skinned.
A good editor (assuming you’re enlisting one) will spot these inconsistencies and help you correct them. But you can save everyone some work by getting a visual of your hero early on in the writing process.
You don’t need to be an artist extraordinaire to create a portrait of your main character. You don’t even need to know an artist. There’s this handy little tool called HeroMachine at your disposal.
HeroMachine is a point, click, and create tool. If you can imagine your hero, you can visually create them with this tool.
5. Get an Outside Opinion
Anita Lovett has previously discussed the usefulness of enlisting the assistance of a “wise reader.” The term comes from Orson Scott Card’s book, How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. In short, a wise reader is a trusted reader capable of providing constructive criticism. If you don’t already have one, find one.
Enlist the assistance of your wise reader when fashioning a hero. Get their opinion as an outsider, as someone with zero attachment to the project. Don’t tell them about the story or your plans. Instead, drop a sketch of the character in their hands. Hand them a written scene where your character is doing something only they would do. Let it show their signature [insert their “thing” here], and see if your wise reader’s reaction is the one you want.
The Final (Secret) Ingredient
The final ingredient we’re going to hand you in this perfect hero recipe is the most important. It’s the secret, must have ingredient. It’s like the eggs to the pie or the yeast your bread needs to rise. Are you ready?
Hey, do us a favor? Look over your shoulder. Make sure no one is watching. We don’t want this getting into the wrong hands.
Okay. All clear? Here it is:
Love: If you make a hero you love, readers will love your hero.
Writing a story people love is all about passion. It’s about writing something you love; something you want to read. It’s about creating a hero you love, a hero you are passionate about sharing. Do this, and you’ll nail creating the (im)perfect hero or heroine.
Every. Single. Time.
Additional Contributor: Anita Lovett
Feature Image Credit: alphaspirit via 123RF Stock Photo