Last week we were learning about how to create compelling story characters in general and how the best characters are those who are fully developed. This week I am introducing the main protagonist – the hero – and how a well-rounded and dynamic hero is of primary importance to your story. So read on and discover how to create a dynamic hero that will bring your story alive.
“What makes a hero? Courage, strength, morality, withstanding adversity? Are these the traits that truly show and create a hero? Is the light truly the source of darkness or vice versa? Is the soul a source of hope or despair? Who are these so-called heroes and where do they come from? Are their origins in obscurity or in plain sight?”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground
We all love heroes; whether it be in the pages of a book, on the silver screen, or in even in real life. We are thrilled by their incredible acts of bravery and great sacrifice. We admire those people who dare to shine like bright stars in a dark world. So when it comes to writing a story, the hero or the main protagonist is one of the most important narrative elements in the fictional world. It is the hero who allows the reader or viewer to primarily engages with the story. It is usually the hero who bring us back to our favorite book or inspires us to follow a film franchise.
“First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!”
Out of all the characters in the story world, it is the hero who allows a writer to explore and develop their story premise or controlling idea. All of the other characters revolve around the hero and his universe and are designed to function as a help or a hindrance to his journey.
Without the hero, the story world would fall apart. Now when I say hero, I am also including the all important female double, the heroine, but just to make it simpler, I will just use the patriarchal title – the hero.
To understand the hero’s narrative function, we need to understand the basic reoccurring characters types or archetypes that are unique to all meta-narratives. The great Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp studied a wide range of folk tales in the early to mid 20th century and consequently developed a model upon which all archetypal (original) character functions are based.
According to Vladimir Propp, all characters can be categorized as ‘spheres of action’ (Lacey 2000 p. 51) within a narrative structure and serve as stable, constant elements…” in a tale (Turner 1988, p. 69). These ‘spheres of action’ are separated into seven archetypal characters: villain, donor, helper, princess (and her father); dispatcher, the hero (seeker or victim); [and] false [or anti- hero]” (Lacey 2000, p. 51). As we are talking about the hero in this blog, we will disregard the other character types for now.
When we begin to write a story, it is the controlling idea or premise that tells the reader or viewer what the story is about. But it is the ‘who’ – the all-important hero who outworks this controlling idea. Right from the beginning, we follow the hero, we experience his struggles, his failures, and his victories.
In order to create a dynamic hero, we need to keep in mind some questions regarding a hero’s narrative function and specific characterization. Who is the hero in the story? What is his purpose? What are his goals? What inspires or drives him to embark upon his journey? What makes him unique from all the other characters?
The hero should be likable or at least invoke our sympathy. We must care about him and identify with him on some level. I am referring to human heroes here. Although, animal heroes can also be endowed with human-like qualities: see anthropomorphism.
A good hero will be fascinating and possess some quality that catches our attention. He will have an intriguing personality. He projects charisma. He is witty or brilliant. He shows great courage in the face of great adversity. For this example I will use a heroine – think of The Hunger Games protagonist – Katniss Everdeen.
A hero will have a strong desire and a primal need that connects him to his goal such as a desire for freedom, protection of loved ones, a love interest. The goal should be simple and tangible, but there should be a world of complexity that surrounds it.
The hero possesses a conscious need or desire that is connected to an underlying contradictory unconscious need that stems from a deep seated wound like rejection, exclusion, or betrayal. These hidden needs are a representation of the hero’s ego and also act as a metaphor for his search for identity and completeness. It is these two conflicting desires that the hero struggles with throughout the narrative and his attempt to reconcile them creates interest and intrigue.
Endowing your hero with flaws gives him the opportunity to grow, to learn, to develop through the ‘character arc’. As the hero begins his journey from a place of imperfection or a place of lack, he evolves into a well-rounded character with great psychological depth. At the end of the journey, the hero is ultimately rewarded with the restoration of that lack: he wins the object of his romantic affection or defeats his nemesis.
The hero must be active, proactive and be an agent of change. He may begin as a passive character, but at some point in the narrative, he must become active, and take back the control of his story. It is his story that we are telling, after all!
The latest Superman film, Man of Steel, is a great example of a hero’s transition from passive to active. For quite a substantial section of the movie, Clark Kent tries to hide from his destiny. Even his foster father tries to keep Clark from achieving his destiny as savior of the world or at least the city of Metropolis. But it is when his foster father dies, and his arch-nemesis, General Zod, hunts him down, he is kick-started into action and this is when he really begins to shine.
Like all good storybook heroes, Clark Kent/Superman is firstly defined by a small action (saving the children in the school bus), which acts as a foreshadowing of greater things to come – an immense action – kicking General Zod and his army of supervillain’s butts. Our hero should draw the reader or viewer in slowly, with a mix of internal and external conflicts, small and immense actions.
Above all the hero must undergo a metamorphosis or some sort of transformation. But before he can achieve this transformation, he needs to be faced with a personal loss or tragedy that he feels he cannot reconcile himself to: think Luke Skywalker and the death of his father, Darth Vader/Anakin, in The Return of the Jedi.
A hero’s tragedy or ‘dark night of the soul’ takes place in the final stages of a story and is considered to be the critical moment in the hero’s journey. It is this critical moment or final catalyst (although heartbreaking) that is designed as a necessary strategy to propel him forward towards his desired goal. Although the hero faces defeat (and it must appear to be total), it is only a temporary defeat that allows him to transition into a new state of being and become a stronger character.
Finally, there are two types of heroes: the gung-ho adventure type who has no qualms about jumping into the action. Then there is the unwilling hero or anti-hero who is full of self-doubt and needs a violent shove by some outside force into a rip-roaring adventure. Which hero type is your favorite? I’m a fan of the anti-hero.
Of course, there is so much more to be said about the hero. So, I encourage you to seek out books, websites, YouTube videos about creating a dynamic hero.
Creative Exercise: Create your own hero/protagonist.
Don’t forget to leave a comment. I would like to chat with you about your ideas for stories and characters.
Next week: The Villain – the heroes opponent.
Lacey, Nick 2000, Narrative, and Genre: Key Concepts in Media Studies, Houndmills: Macmillan
Turner, Graeme 1988, ‘Film narrative’, Film as Social Practice, Routledge, London
Voger, Christopher 1999, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters, Pan, London.