Holding out for a hero?

What makes a hero?  What characteristics do we look for in those we admire?  How do we create a character that people will love?

These questions, among others, have entertained me for many an idle hour.  If I were to write about my perfect hero, what would he be like?  In the meantime, I seek heroes in the world around me, not usually in real life, but in books, TV, movies… I might make up stories about those heroes or just enjoy watching/reading about them, but while they have been wildly different in many ways, there’s usually a common thread, which makes me wonder if I can pick it out.  Such heroes are present in literature and on screen regularly, so it seems it’s not just a personal thing.

Young, male, good looking – all those are fairly standard, although it doesn’t have to be classic good looks.  For me a quick intelligence is far better than physical power.  Rich is useful, but not anywhere near as important as a really strong sense of integrity and nobility.  But there has to be a major flaw somewhere.  The best hero in the world means nothing if he has no weakness, and I’m not just talking kryptonite.  As well as that vulnerability, Superman also had the separation from his parents as a baby, the knowledge while growing up that he just didn’t fit in.  Spiderman had his love for his girlfriend, that he didn’t dare indulge for fear of opening her to harm.  Merlin has the knowledge that he’s different because of his magic powers, and the haunting feeling that he has to work to protect his best friend, while understanding that if his friend knew the truth he would be repulsed and possibly order him imprisoned or killed.  You get the idea.  Or maybe their vulnerability is in their personality; House drives people away from himself, as well as constantly suffering pain from his leg.  Rodney McKay is so focused on his science that he doesn’t notice the human and social needs of those around him.  But the bottom line is that all of them are fiercely loyal and will always come through when they need to.

To really make things work, though, there has to be at least one person, maybe a few, who know the secret and see those vulnerabilities, who watch the hero’s everyday life while understanding what life’s really like for him, how he struggles every day and how the appearance of normality is just that; who are prepared to get past the outer facade and deal with the real person inside, because they know that he’s worth the effort, and who become, even if just for a short while, part of the hero’s inner circle.

You see all these not only plain but magnified in fan fiction – the most popular type of fanfiction will torture the hero to an extreme degree either physically or mentally. In the genre of Stargate SG1 fiction, the phenomenon was known as Danny bashing, after the hero Daniel Jackson, whom writers just seemed to love to torture.  There is a whole style of fanfiction known as hurt/comfort, which follows this pattern.  Face it – we always hurt the ones we love!

This brings to mind a very strange, disjointed scene in a series a few years ago: they tried to do a remake of The Professionals, two men who formed a partnership in CI5, Criminal Intelligence 5.  Very early on in the first episode, we see one of the pair calling on the other, who is fast asleep and dreaming of his wedding day – which is broken up by a gunman gunning down his bride and all the guests, leading to him waking up obviously seriously distressed from a nightmare.  This was never explained or referred to again, from my memory, but set the character up as one with a hidden past full of tragedy, a classic trick for a writer wanting to give his hero a boost.  Christian Grey, the current hero of fashion, has his own tragic past, and the appeal of the books for many readers is the character and needing to know more about him.

I’m bearing all this in mind as I try to create my own hero.  You see, if I create my own I can adapt his story to be whatever I want.  No having to stick to the canon, as in fan-fiction, so the safety of the original structure is gone, but I can build my own structure, and play with it however I want.

I know a bit about my hero, but not enough yet.  I know roughly what he looks like, his name, but not his complete backstory.  That’s what I need to work on, but in order to have a complete picture of him I need to know his vulnerabilities and also his supporters, his sidekicks for want of a better phrase.

From what I know of psychology, though, I suspect most people have a hero inside them, whose vulnerabilities can sometimes make life difficult, and we also have a sidekick, because we can watch ourselves, understand what makes us vulnerable and support ourselves as best we can.  We can be our own best sidekicks and cheerleaders, if we can only figure out how to support ourselves instead of putting ourselves down all the time. And that, to my mind, is at the bottom of our fascination with this sort of hero.  Because when it comes down to it, we all want to believe that we are good and we are loveable, and that we have friends who are willing to see past our flaws and prepared to be there for us, whatever happens.


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1 Comment

  1. The depth of your planning not only makes me feel like I need to get on with my own writing ( I haven’t worked on my plot for months!) but also means you have at least one reader who is very ready to read your first novel!


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