Friday, June 22, 2018

Characters Wanted; Heroes Need Not Apply


I am very fortunate that my life is surrounded with a Rogue’s Gallery of odd characters – power nerds and humble geniuses, street-savvy saints and white-collar gamblers, and enough cigar-smoking, smack-talking, dice-shooting troublemakers to fill the holding cell at 26th and California. So with all these characters orbiting about, one would think I could write a book for each one of these people. In some cases, yes. Most, however, don't make it. The main reason they are left out is no matter how flamboyant the heroic main character is, no matter how much they stand out on their own, a story does not emerge from a person’s character or their heroism. It starts with the story.

In the simplest sense, people like their heroes to be bigger-than-life representations. Superman should be super, Wonder Woman should be wonderful, Captain Marvel should be marvelous, and the more the better. But in writing a story, our hero – the main character – shouldn’t start out like that. The main character should be like us. They should be someone with flaws and doubts, with bad habits, phobias, and any other human fault we want to include. That’s when the opportunity to be the hero takes them on the adventure, often kicking and screaming.

We see this most clearly in the epic tales: In the Lord of the Rings saga, Frodo Baggins dreams about adventure, yet he has never left the Shire. Only when the Ring awakens and danger presents itself does Frodo head out, and reluctantly at that. He is the hero of the story, but he is hardly heroic at first. Rather, the story drives the character. The reader is drawn not by Frodo’s heroism, but how as the story moves him, he becomes the hero.

But this counts for any story. In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, our main character starts off by literally entering a whirlwind of conflict with her family, suitors, the church, and Russian society. We understand her more by witnessing her growth through these events. And even though this story is (spoiler alert) ultimately tragic, we are more impressed with the hero for how she took on the challenge.

Our main character becomes the most real and easiest to relate to when they go through change, especially when change is thrust upon them. Change is unsettling, and the closer that change hits to a character’s core, the better. If our hero is a career woman, the action starts when she gets laid off. A happily complacent family man becomes interesting when he experiences divorce or some other separation from his wife and kids. At that point, the character is adrift, and the adventure to reclaim some kind of life begins.

Of course, this can be flipped around, to where the hero is living a problematic life but has not addressed the surrounding troubles. In this case, the character develops as the increasingly troubled situation builds, and the reader hopes the hero can change in time to salvage everything. My favorite version of this is Humboldt’s Gift, where writer Charlie Citrine lives a well-to-do but increasingly empty life. The relationship with his mentor, Von Humboldt Fleisher, offers an opportunity for Charlie to find satisfaction in his career, but can he finally realize this?

So, when you create the hero for your story, start with the character. The story should prompt this character to grow and change, even if not for the better. The important part is how they fit into the story, how they are affected, and what they have become by the last page. If you want to write a story with a chain-smoking power nerd with a fondness for Russian poetry, so be it. But if none of those traits fit into the hero’s journey, just make them a supporting character who leaves after Chapter Eight. They won’t mind.

Next post: The Anti-Hero. Far more entertaining to write, but a very difficult beast to maintain.

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