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How to Create a Realistic Hero for Writing Fiction

Updated on April 14, 2013
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Dr. Middlebrook is a self-publishing expert, author (pen name Beax Rivers), online course developer, and former university professor.

Heroes are ordinary and extraordinary men who overcome a challenge, and rise to the occasion.
Heroes are ordinary and extraordinary men who overcome a challenge, and rise to the occasion. | Source

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.

Two-time Oscar winner, actor Denzel Washington, has portrayed many lovable heroic characters in a variety of motion pictures.
Two-time Oscar winner, actor Denzel Washington, has portrayed many lovable heroic characters in a variety of motion pictures. | Source

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.

Here legendary leading man, Humphrey Bogart, is with Ingrid Bergman in a romantic scene from the motion picture Casablanca.
Here legendary leading man, Humphrey Bogart, is with Ingrid Bergman in a romantic scene from the motion picture Casablanca. | Source

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.

More on this book at mybeaxrivers.com.

---------Every Hero Has Flaws---------

In my first Beax Rivers (my pen name) 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).

I imagine how all my characters look, and I create visuals of them to help make them "come alive." This visual demonstrates how I imagined Harvey Wilson, hero of Silver: Currents of Change.
I imagine how all my characters look, and I create visuals of them to help make them "come alive." This visual demonstrates how I imagined Harvey Wilson, hero of Silver: Currents of Change. | Source

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.

Actor Chris Noth was known for his looks and his flaws when he played the heroic role of "Mr. Big" on the HBO series "Sex and the City."
Actor Chris Noth was known for his looks and his flaws when he played the heroic role of "Mr. Big" on the HBO series "Sex and the City." | Source

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."

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.

How One Hero Loved His Woman

In the somewhat cheesy but effectively adorable movie "Win a Date with Tad Hamilton," actor Topher Grace played a somewhat "reluctant" hero, against Josh Duhamel's aggression as each man tried to win the heart of the same girl.
In the somewhat cheesy but effectively adorable movie "Win a Date with Tad Hamilton," actor Topher Grace played a somewhat "reluctant" hero, against Josh Duhamel's aggression as each man tried to win the heart of the same girl. | Source

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.

Scene from the motion picture "It's a Wonderful Life," starring Jimmy Stewart as the hero, and Donna Reed, as his love interest/wife.
Scene from the motion picture "It's a Wonderful Life," starring Jimmy Stewart as the hero, and Donna Reed, as his love interest/wife. | Source
Actor Will Smith has portrayed real, fictional but realistic, and also "comic book" style heroes.
Actor Will Smith has portrayed real, fictional but realistic, and also "comic book" style heroes. | Source

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 Beax Rivers Tales from the Quarters collection of books (Silver: Currents of Change, is Book One, and I'm now working to complete Book Two, Gold: The Heat of Refinement), 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.

© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD

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    • LupitaRonquillo profile image

      LupitaRonquillo 4 years ago

      Your article gave some useful reminders on what to think about in the characterization process. Heroes are humans, dimensional and full of flaws... I will certainly keep that in mind!

    • drmiddlebrook profile image
      Author

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 4 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thank you for reading and for commenting, LupitaRonquillo. It can be hard to give our beloved heroes flaws, but sadly, we must!

    • Johnjfernando profile image

      John Chandra 4 years ago

      This article really presents more than a definition as to what a hero is described as. Its points are hit dead on and I really have the same thoughts on the depiction as well as what to expect in a hero when we write them out on paper. I'm actually in the process of publishing a novel of my own and I also happen to be working on an article that, ironically, looks at structural aspects of making great villain by adding more depth to him/her rather than the commons of evil and sinister background that we tend to see many times over again. Great hub!

    • drmiddlebrook profile image
      Author

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 4 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thanks for reading Johnjfernando, and for the comments/compliments. I think the process for creating heroes and villain have some common elements. Just as all heroes have a few bad qualities (more good than bad), all villains have at least a few good qualities. They may be villains, but they're human too! Thanks again.

    • Johnjfernando profile image

      John Chandra 4 years ago

      Yes! Exactly what the villain in may novel has. He is simply human too! Except he has a narrow way of looking at this world with the feeling like he's the victim and everyone else is to blame for his failures or how things turned out to be.

    • drmiddlebrook profile image
      Author

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 4 years ago from Texas, USA

      Johnjfernando, sounds like you have a blueprint for a good villain. Many "misguided" people become villainous in their outlook based on feeling "victimized" in one way or another, by someone or by society in general. It is in their attempt to "set things right" or to "get revenge," that they become full-fledged villains. Good luck with your work. Sounds like you've done your homework, and I hope your work rewards you for doing that.

    • Johnjfernando profile image

      John Chandra 4 years ago

      Thanks drmiddlebrook!

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