Monday, February 22, 2010

Why is the Hero the Hero?

Why is the Hero the Hero?

superman-vs.harrypotter I’m going to interrupt my Scene Structure series to look a little bit at overall Character Development. In my previous post, I made this comment (slightly altered for clarity):

Why is this particular character the hero in this story? Why does he get to be the hero? It’s almost like I'm annoyed at the author's choice for the hero.

Now there are a lot of traditional explanations, things like:

  • The Hero has the most to gain/lose.
  • The Hero undergoes the largest transformation.
  • The Hero puts others before himself.

But the thing I’m really asking today is this:

Why does the Hero of any given story deserve to be the Hero?

Why is Harry Potter get to be all magical? Why Superman have all the kewl powers? But I’m not talking about those guys. Those questions are fairly easy to answer, but often I watch a movie or read a book and think, “why is this guy getting to be Hero? Why not this other guy? Why not me?” So some kid finds a magical rock and now he’s a Hero. No, it' doesn’t work that way.  A better question would be, “why does Peter Parker get bit by a radioactive spider and become Spiderman? Why him? Why not MJ or Harry Osborn?”

A lot of people believe in the “rags to riches” story format, where the Main Character starts out as an “Ordinary Person” and becomes a Hero. Here’s the thing. Ordinary People don’t become Heroes. Ordinary People fail, they sit at home and watch TV, they go through life doing the best they can, maybe with a few nice accomplishments but overall they just exist. They keep their noses clean, they don’t make a fuss, and they pay their taxes on time, and maybe they get a little something on the side.

Let me make one thing clear. Heroes are not ordinary people. They can have ordinary jobs. They can have normal lives, a wife & 2.5 kids, a dog, and a minivan. But there is something intrinsically different about a Hero.  Here are a few things that I think distinguish Heroes from Ordinary People.

  1. Heroes Act. They struggle. They fight. They want. They desire. They have needs. They make things happen no matter the consequences. They take risks.
  2. Heroes Care. They rail against injustices big and small. They love. They help. They give. They sacrifice.
  3. Heroes have Big Problems. They are NOT satisfied with the status quo. They want more for themselves and others. They identify the obstacles in their lives. They have emotional wounds that won’t heal. They see the world in black and white, right and wrong.
  4. Heroes Dream. This may be the most important one of all. They think about what can be, what should be, what will be. They have vision (and sometimes literally have visions), and see the world differently. They can see beyond the current crisis to the final resolution.

So take a look at your characters. Is there any particular reason they are the Hero? Or are they just in the right place at the right time? What makes them extraordinary? What makes them uniquely qualified to tackle the obstacles in the story and save the day? And look deeper than, “well, he has super-human strength,” because Superman’s not Superman because he’s stronger than a locomotive.  But going back to the Peter Parker case, why him? And I think it’s because of all the things in that list above. He’s a dreamer, he acts, he has issues he needs to resolve, and he cares. Even if he hadn’t been bitten, he’d probably been a Hero anyways. The spider powers are just a bonus.

Does your Hero deserve to be a Hero? What can you do to strengthen his case?


  1. Yes, he does. Although not in the classic sense. He's a likable, miserable preteen who has a lot of baggage to sort out so he can leave camp with only one bag filled with happy thoughts and new experiences.

    Can he be stronger? I'm sure. There's always room for improvement. Right?

  2. Fantastic comment, and oh-so-appropriate. You're right. I've never thought of it that way.

  3. I'd like to add that they don't give up. They get pushed back, pushed over and pushed to the edge but because they're heroes, they don't just shrug, go home and eat ice cream.

    I loved this post. Thanks for making me think about my heroes, in both my stories and in the real world too x

  4. @cat: One way is to show him perform one small act of heroism early one, sort of a hint of things to come.

    @Tami: Thanks!

    @Emma: This isn't so clear. There is the concept of "Refusal of the Call" in which some Heroes only act when the stakes get high enough. They've been burned before and have the scars to prove it. Kinda like "I could save the world, but who's going to watch the kids while I'm out?" Some actually do give up and go home and eat ice cream right at the end before things are resolved, but then the stakes are raised once more and they rise to the occasion. I don't think this contradicts point 1 up above, because in the end, they have to act.

  5. Love this post!! I really do. I've thought about this, but certainly in not such a well thought out manner!

    My MC totally deserves to be a hero, IMO. She's not a quitter and she rolls with the punches, I think that's evident right away. But when everything is dropped in her lap, she sees what's really important and ends up being the one to dole out said punches :) She's got a backbone, her life has forced her to grow one... and it really comes in handy. And she SO deserves an attempt at happiness

  6. Ah, this is kind of like, why is this character doing the narrating? To me, it's the same thing. They have the most to lose, they dream, they don't conform, or whatever.

    Great insight to the hero question!

  7. You're absolutely right. Heroes act, not react. (And when they do react, it's by doing something amazing.)

    This is a great post!

  8. I agree especially with #4 about the power of dream, especially when writing about a "hero" who is mostly just an average person. The vision the character has of what could be makes his/her journey far more compelling and worth telling.

    In an unrelated matter... When you get a moment, could you pop by my blog and let me know where you heard about the Whoops! Blogfest? I'd promised a prize to my best shout-out helper, but I can't figure out who to thank. Gracias!


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