How to Create a Realistic Hero When Writing Fiction
This article takes a look at some of the things writers of fiction need to consider when creating a character to be the "hero." In doing so, I will examine:
- What it means to create a "three-dimensional" person (as opposed to a one- or two-dimensional person).
- Giving your hero "details," including flaws.
- The heroic challenge.
- Making sure the hero is someone your readers can fall in love with.
As a writer of romantic fiction novels, I know that fiction is about forming a new reality; it’s about building another world, and then creating people to populate the world you’ve built. It is about manufacturing make-believe that can be seen and felt as truthfully as reality, to your readers. It’s about inviting readers to come along with you on an unquestionable journey to a certain destination, and it’s about providing them with a captivating, enthralling way to get there.
Who can be the hero in such a world? When you ask your readers to believe in the world you’ve created; to suspend their disbelief long enough to go with you on an unquestionable journey, who can be the hero that you give them, to lead them on this journey? He must be made real.
Your hero must be created, in your mind, as a real, live, breathing, grown-in-the-womb, living person who has a whole life. That means, like all real people, the hero you create must be someone a reader can imagine meeting and getting to know. And no matter how courageous or wonderful he will have to be in order to be hero of the world you’ve created, like a real person, he must have flaws.
Yes, the hero you create must be like any real person; he must have both weaknesses and strengths, loves and hates, and there must be things about him that are good and things that are bad (or not-so-good). He cannot, must not, should not be perfect, because no real person is perfect. He must have real flaws that annoy him and/or others, flaws that get in the way as he tries to live his life. Flaws that make him lovable, and real. And, he must have a struggle; something he is working hard to either overcome, or to learn how to accept, to manage, or, somehow, to live with.
How to Create a "Real" Hero
No one wants to read about a one- or a two-dimensional person who serves as a “prop” to be pulled out only to do good, to be good, and to solve every problem in his universe with his goodness. That is a comic book character, not a real person.
Real people are three-dimensional, like you, and like me. A real-life hero is just a person who sometimes does the right thing. He is a human being who has both courage and fears, needs and desires, ups and downs, joys and sadness, and all the things that exist in between these and other extremes.
A hero is a man. And as a man, there are things about him that are probably going to bother someone. For example, he has both pleasant and not-so-pleasant habits. Mostly rational, he is sometimes irrational, and he lives in pursuit of happiness, just like everyone else. Also, like everyone else, he has an attitude and quirks that sometimes reveal more about him than he intends to reveal, and he doesn’t always know exactly how to go about pursuing what he wants. Sometimes, he’s on top of his game, getting what he wants, kicking a--, and taking names. Other times, although he might not admit it to anyone, he’s dreadfully unsure about things, including how to relate to others. Like a real person, a hero has feelings and failings that he may or may not be completely in touch with, yet he forges on in his pursuit of happiness, ultimately wanting and always needing to be loved, to be understood.
---------Every Hero Has Flaws---------
In my first novel, Silver: Currents of Change, my hero is billionaire Harvey Evan Wilson. It's a romantic fiction novel, so I created a hero who is tall, dark, and devastatingly handsome. So much that, like some real-life devastatingly handsome men I’ve actually known, he can command attention from everyone in a room just by walking in. Oh yeah, Harvey Wilson is a powerful man with a powerful presence, much of it born out of the fact that he is one of only two billionaires in the state of Mississippi, where he lives, and was born and raised. Add to that the fact that the state's only other billionaire is his father, and its most promising billionaire-to-be, is Harvey's brother, Tyler. Complicating my hero's personality, with both his father and his brother marrying outside established racial boundaries, the super-rich family is looked upon by many as "unorthodox," to say the least. In addition, Harvey has his own flaws. Sometimes, he drinks too much (and it gets him in trouble), he works too much (distracting him from things he should be paying attention to), and he trusts too easily (nearly costing him the love of his life).
In some ways, this hero is a tragic figure. As a child, he suffered the worst tragedy that can happen in a child’s life—the loss of a parent. His mother died when he was only four years-old, and even though his father remarried a wonderful woman who he thinks of as his mother, as an adult, he still feels the loss. Not getting to know his biological mother created a hole in his soul, and, subconsciously, he tries to fill it by dating women who he thinks reminds him of her. In doing so, he innocently overlooks qualities these women possess that will never allow him to be happy. He's unpredictable, flawed, sometimes irrational, with a story of his own (he's not just a stick figure made to fit into the story I'm telling).
Harvey is a 3-D individual. He has a unique past, he's someone with purpose, a man who has dreams and goals. There are big things he wants in life that, even though he's a billionaire, seem to be out of his reach. And yet he keeps reaching for them; and so, he is human. He is real.
Realistic Details Add Interest to Make Heroes Real
To create a true-to-life three-dimensional, complex character, you will have to attend not just to the “big picture” of who he is, you must also add in his "details." How he looks is part of his big picture, it’s what’s visible to those he comes in contact with. But if his looks were all he had, he’d just be a paper doll, a "flat," paper-thin man with not enough substance to sustain a real person. That’s why he has to have “details” that make him real.
But, you have to be careful when mixing in his details with his big picture. If you add too much too soon, you will lose your readers through boredom. Why? Because you cannot just "dump" a lot of stuff about a character into your readers' laps, and expect them to keep on reading.You're telling them stuff, but you're not showing them anything. You're not telling them a story, not involving them in action, suspense, or mystery. In fact, you've slowed your story to a standstill, and you're making readers listen to you instead of making something happen on the journey you've invited them on.
Think about you, your "big picture" self, and your details. When you meet someone new, what they see, first, is your big picture. As they get to know you, they learn about your details, and if they like you, they'll accept the good and the bad, and they'll love you for the whole person, the rare gem, that you are. And that's how you go about adding details to the life of your hero, as the story develops, so does he. As Kate Bosworth's character, Rosalee, said to Josh Duhamel's character, Tad, in the movie Win a Date with Tad Hamilton, "You can't love someone for what they stand for or seem to be. You have to love them for their details, for the things that are true of them and only them."
He proposed, finally!
After sketching your hero, initially, using broad criteria that is based on an archetype (a perfect example), you will then need to create a more detailed profile of him, a biography of sorts. In fact, you should do this for your hero, and for all your major characters, before you write your story. You need to know everything about your hero as well as you know yourself. If you’re writing using a word processor, you might create a separate file to develop a “personality profile” for each character in your story. In this profile, you will include both physical traits and personality characteristics.
The profile you create will serve you well as you write your story, because it will help guide the character’s behavior as the story unfolds. Your character's details will help to make him “consistent” in his actions and reactions, based on his temperament, morals, values, likes/dislikes, fears, and so on.
Give Your Hero a Big Challenge
In order for a hero to be a hero, there has to be a big or important challenge he is faced with. There must be some type of extreme circumstance, such as a great obstacle, a seemingly insurmountable problem, or a happiness-defying dilemma, and it must be related to something with which everyone can identify: Love, happiness, success, revenge, social justice or injustice, freedom, etc.
And your hero must suffer. Yes, 'tis true. Sadly, every hero must suffer in some way in order to discover his ultimate truth. But that does not mean he has to be a “caped crusader” out to render right every wrong. In fact, he doesn’t even have to want to (or need to) go willingly into hero mode. Being human, your hero can have doubts about his ability to prevail over his challenge, but being either hopeful or helpful, he still becomes involved and gives it his best try. And the stakes must be high. If your hero fails, all will be lost. Nothing and no one else can triumph over the challenge, and, even though he can have help, ultimately no one besides the hero can get it done. That is what makes him a hero. If you take that away from him, then he is not your hero.
Remember the movie "It's a Wonderful Life"? In it, Jimmy Stewart played George Bailey, the hero, a man whose friends and family ended up having to bail him out of the biggest dilemma of his life: One that would have sent him to jail if they hadn't. Everyone came together to save George Baily, the hero who had remained in his hometown of Bedford Falls, reluctantly, all his life in order to help his friends and family—foregoing many opportunities to leave and to pursue the life he'd always dreamed of. He'd stayed, and he'd been there for anyone who needed him. So, in saving him, his friends and family were simply showing him that while always being there when they needed him, he'd made lifelong, loyal, dedicated, fiercely devoted friends and loved ones who would not abandon him in his time of need. Because of his proven love for and devotion to those he loved, those who loved him, they all came to his rescue in his greatest time of need, and he was still the hero.
Readers Want a Hero They Can Fall in Love With
I write novels that always have a great romance between a man and a woman as the primary focal point. Therefore, I had to learn how to create heroes that I believe my intended readers would have no choice but to fall in love with. That means, of course, that everything about his looks must be included, and I also consider everything else about the man—from the tone of his voice to the feel of his touch. And then I add in flaws and other details that bring my heroes, or any fictional character I create, to life, because the details are what makes them real and interesting.
My heroes, in all of my soon-to-be published "Color of Love" collection of books are always men of substance, men who experience great pain and who have great desires. When reading one of my novels, I want my readers to be able to see that the hero is a real man (even though fictional), that I, as the author, created and have also fallen madly in love with.
As the author who dreams up a hero—his archetype, his details, his internal conflict, his flaws, his world, and his challenges, you are creating a man who, like any real human being, has at least some personality traits that are unlovable. Still, because you created him, you know he is worth saving, no matter what flaws he has, and that means you are the first person who truly loves him. There is something about him that lets you know he's a keeper; that you can look beyond his faults and see and feel who he really is, and that's why you love him. And since you love him, there is a good chance that your readers will love him too.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD