You know what to do! Grab your pen and paper, computer, notebook, and/or whatever else you like to write with. For the month of May, we’ll be covering characters – heroes/heroines, villains, secondary characters, and minor characters. In this lesson, we’re going to discuss the different types and characteristics of heroes/heroines. In Lesson #20, we’ll discuss the differences between heroes and heroines, specifically, and how they are best written.
A Few Mandatory Characteristics
Before we get into the main categories of heroes and heroines, let’s take a moment and cover a few elements EVERY hero/heroine must have.
- Every hero/heroine must be flawed. If your character does not have distinguishable, understandable flaws, he/she will be flat. And you don’t want that! We’ll dive deeper into character flaws in another lesson. But for now, suffice it to say that character flaws are your friend. You can work with them to cultivate and sculpt both plot and setting.
- Likewise, every hero/heroine must be likable. Whether he/she is likeable to a head-over-heels degree, or if there is only one quality that keeps a reader intrigued… your hero and heroines must be likable in some way or another.
- Every hero/heroine must have both internal and external conflict. As mentioned in Lesson #17 and Lesson #18 on GMC, internal and external conflict drive the character (and thus the plot) forward. An example of internal conflict: Aragorn wants to take care of his people, but fears that he will make the same mistakes his ancestors made. An example of external conflict: Aragorn wants to reclaim the throne of Gondor, but Denethor and Sauron’s forces stand in the way.
- Every hero/heroine must have a personality. A personality includes quirks, decision making tendencies, attitude tendencies, etc. A great way to sculpt your characters personality is to give them an “actual” personality – we like to use the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator (MBTI) to apply to our characters. Check out the different personalities, with their tendencies and preferences, here: http://www.16personalities.com
- Every character must have a family tree. Your character’s family is very important. Trust me on this! Your character’s parents, grandparents, and siblings are the ones who shaped them growing up. So, even if they’re not a large part of the story, they have made an impression on it. (Note: a lack of family can also be a great twist.) Think of StarWars as an example… we know that The Force runs within the Skywalker family tree. Who does that effect? Anakin, Luke, Leia, Kylo Ren, (probably Rey)… How does that affect them? How does it affect the story? You may not have a thread as apparent as The Force to tie your family tree to the plot, but in any case, you must know about your character’s family tree. The more you know, the deeper your story will be.
- Every character must have a backstory. Backstory is an amazing element of any story. Without it, a story is bland and flat. (There is no foundation.) A chicken doesn’t just appear on a table; this chicken was baked in a pan and placed on the table by Grandma Sally, or this chicken jumped up onto the table after crawling through the dog door, or this chicken was thrown onto the table by a perturbed and retiring first-class-and-under-paid Clown, etc. Readers will thank you for telling them WHY the character does what he/she does, thinks the way he/she thinks, etc. That being said, it’s NEVER a good idea to give a backstory-information-dump. You must find artistic and clever ways to peel back the onions one layer at a time – let the characters expose one element at a time over the course of your story.
Well, there you have it! Now, let’s move on to the common categories of heroes and heroines.
As a general rule, great heroes and heroines fall into one of two categories: admirable or complex heroes/heroines. While not all heroes and heroines must fall within the guidelines listed below, there are certain elements of heroes/heroines that have stood the test of time and proven to be strong. I’d suggest being very cautious with your heroes and heroines – too little conflict and a character is flat; too little motivation and a character is unlikeable; too few realistic attributes and a character is unbelievable.
This first category of heroes/heroines we’ll discuss are admirable heroes/heroines. There are many different categories within that of admirable heroes/heroines – brave heroes/heroines, superhero heroes/heroines, legendary heroes/heroines, etc. We’ll discuss characters from these different categories in just a moment.
Of course, the first thing that probably comes to your mind when I say “heroes/heroines” are characters such as William Wallace, Elizabeth Bennet, Captain America, Lady Mary Crawley, Jack Ryan, Mary Poppins, Ethan Hunt, Laura Ingalls, etc. These are the main-main characters of a story, and the characters who we cheer on as the plot moves forward. However, there is more to an admirable hero/heroine than being the main character of a plot. A main character must be simultaneously flawed and likeable – however much you wish to tilt the balance is up to you, but the flaw must be strong enough for this character to be real to the readers and the likeable quality must be strong enough to make the reader care about this character’s journey. An admirable hero/heroine falls (in most cases) into one of the categories below:
- Intelligent heroes/heroines: these are characters such as Jack Ryan and Elizabeth Bennet. Their intelligence and/or wit are what draw/connect us to the character and make us care about their journey.
- Innocent heroes/heroines: these are characters such as Little Orphan Annie and August Rush. Their innocence is what draws/connect us to the character and makes us care about their journey.
- Brave heroes/heroines: these are characters such as Rey and William Wallace. Their bravery and heroic outlook are what draw/connect us to the character and make us care about their journey.
- Honorable heroes/heroines (heroes/heroines who fight for what is right): these are characters such as Captain America and Aragorn. Their sense of duty and honor is what draws/connects us to the character and makes us care about their journey.
- Spunky or quirky heroes/heroines: these are characters such as Anne Shirley, Mary Poppins, and Bilbo Baggins. Their optimism and/or drive is what draws/connects us to the character and makes us care about their journey.
Note: we use the word “complex” here to mean the heroes/heroines who are conflicted or otherwise battling, in a sense, darkness and light at the same time.
Not all characters have to be significantly heroic characters; many heroes appear more flawed than heroic or admirable. Below are listed just a few of what we call “complex” heroes and heroines.
- Conflicted heroes/heroines: these are characters such as Edmund Dantes and . These heroes/heroines are conflicted significantly with a villain-like drive which they must eventually overcome (or be overcome by). Their journey of overcoming a negative quality is what connect us to these characters.
- Mistaken heroes/heroines: these are characters such as Jason Bourne and Jean Valjean. These characters have walked away from a previous life in which they were viewed as villains; they may continue to be seen as evil characters by their peers even though, to the readers, they have many hero-like qualities which make them likeable.
- Misunderstood heroes/heroines: these are characters such as The Phantom of the Opera and “the Beast.” These characters have been harmed by the world, many times because of a physical defect, and have lived on the edge – not living as either “good” or “bad” (though, possibly believing they are bad), living in solitude. Their agony and eventual learning curve are what make these heroes/heroines attractive.
- Ugly heroes/heroines: these are characters such as The Ugly Duckling and Quasimodo. These characters long to be accepted by the world and to be loved. Their naïve and innocent qualities make these characters both sympathetic and likable.
- Suffering heroes/heroines: these are characters such as Victor Frankenstein. These characters deal with something they have created or brought about. Often, it is hard to distinguish antagonist and protagonist in these stories, because more than one party is pitiable, and our hero – though likable – is very flawed (or at least has made a terrible decision.) These heroes may or may not have a defining moment that makes them a “hero”; rather, these characters are heroes because their story is the one being told. In most, if not all, cases, these characters must be pitiable.
Now It’s Your Turn
Can you think of any more character categories?
How can you apply what you’ve learned in this lesson to your own writing? Look back on the bullet points and think about how this relates to your story, how you can use what you’ve learned to tweak your story, or how you can write your current manuscript to accommodate deep, believable, and intriguing heroes and heroines.
If you have any questions, feel free to email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
With pen to paper,