How Do You Make A Character In A Book Stand Out, Making Men Envious And Women Swoon?
Writing a book, one needs to develop many characters, hopefully interesting ones that your readers can identify with. In almost every book though, there are one or two main characters, the protagonists….the hero.
What goes into the making of a hero? How do you portray the heretofore unnamed character that you have thought up in your head, out of the blue, and written down on a piece of paper?
Everyone that has ever written anything knows that once you write that name down, they become real, at least to you. And we can only hope that we can portray them interestingly enough so that others may also find them real in their minds.
Put big shoulders on a man, a thin waist, and a Stetson. Give him snappy quips, a winning smile, and sparkling eyes. The ladies will swoon and the men turn in defeat when he enters the room.
Or for the women, how about a thin waist (a must), large…umm…breasts, and luxurious hair that flows over her shoulders. Add large (pick a color) eyes, a perky nose and a pouty mouth. Wrap her up in a skin-tight one-piece suit with a weapon on her hip. Men will drool when she comes on scene, and the lesser women of the story will bite their lip until blood is drawn.
There! A complete recipe for dressing up a hero of either sex.
But something is missing…hmm.
I know, let's give them a noble cause! That’s the ticket!
Ok, a mob of interplanetary ruffians lands on earth, demanding the world leaders bow down before them, or face certain annihilation. The governments of the world stand with their collective mouths agape and ajar. What ever shall they do?
“I know,” one enterprising world leader says aloud, (we all know which one he is), "We’ll call in Jim and Bridget!" (*Note* we gave our heroes unassuming names at the beginning of our story so as not to tip our hat. (There is a Stetson involved of course))
So Jim and Bridget are whisked away in black government SUV’s to the lair of the alien ruffians, where they make their way into the bowels of the ‘New World Power’ building (the alien ruffian’s are not very imaginative).
They stealthily get into the attic, making their way over the throne room, before they drop down through the ceiling in a hail of plaster dust and insulation. Quickly pulling their weapons, they make ready to kill the lead alien ruffian as Jim snappily quips, “Bite me you green haired bast….”
Ohhhhhh….they just got blasted by some kind of plasma thingy! If only Jim could have gotten his quip started a little earlier!
So, I guess the look and the noble cause could make a character a hero, but it’s really not enough. So what’s missing? What elusive characteristic should we put into our character to bring him or her around to truly being a hero?
Keep in mind that many real heroes don’t actually want to be heroes. They are an unassuming bunch that just wants to be left alone to go their own way, and only respond to a situation when it forced upon them. They may be homely, broke, or shy. No great costumes, no snappy quips, no big… (Sigh).
What makes a hero?
I don’t know.
I know, I know...so why have you been reading this stupid story if I don’t even have an answer?
Well….for one thing, when I started this, I thought I did have an answer. But working through this has led me to the belief that maybe there isn’t just one answer. After all, the mother that rushes into a burning building to save her baby has a totally different reasoning than the cop who pulls the unconscious mother from a burning car. Yet something stirred in both of them to make them act.
In the Green Lantern, it was said that one's will was the most powerful force in the universe; and that you could overcome any fear with your willpower (I loved the Green Lantern).
So yeah, one's will must have something to do with it, your will to live, the will to save your kids, the will to save someone that can’t help themselves.
But this is in extreme circumstances, life and death. The heroes of our stories need to pull babies out of fires, shoot the bad guy, and file papers at the office when needed. Fear is not a constant consideration in our story. So what makes the detective (for example) in our story, a hero? What hero-like qualities keep the reader glued to the pages of your book, while the hero is crawling through a dumpster or reading through a stack of files?
I’m thinking now that one of the key ingredients needs to be a sense of purpose, a sense of right and wrong. They know what’s right, and they know they need to get it done. Clive Cussler had a great quote in ‘The Silent Sea’: “Do the right thing; the consequences are easier to deal with, no matter what you think (at the time).”
Another ingredient, I believe, is that the hero needs to be comfortable with their own self; they need to fit into their skin, so to speak. Even more, they need to fit into their soul. This doesn’t mean they are always comfortable, or even always confident in a situation. A hero may stare into a gun barrel and not flinch, but stumbles over words when in the presence of a pretty girl.
Fitting into their soul means they know themselves, whether they accept all that that entails can be questionable, but they know what they can do. And, even if they don’t like it, they will do what’s right, because they have a purpose in life.
The final ingredient would be heart...for they care what happens, and they are not just robots blindly following some internal signal. They worry about things, they fall in love, and they get hurt, pretty much like the rest of the world does it.
So, these are my ingredients for a hero. A man (or woman): that has a purpose and knows right from wrong, who knows themselves and their limitations, and who has a heart and cares about what happens.
Is this the ultimate guideline for creating a hero?
Would it even be easy to inject all of these attributes into a character?
That I can answer!
Bringing a character to life is never easy, not a good one.
I will say that this is my take on what makes a heroic character and one that I will strive to fulfill as I progress in my writing.
One more thing, if your character continues on into other books, it will develop a history. Not just a history that you have created as a back story, but a history that you have lived along with your hero as your writing progresses through different stories. He or she will have good times and bad, but will overcome the diversity because of the attributes you instill in the character now.
However you see your hero, make sure it is something you can live with for a long time. They tend to end up leading a life of their own.
"I’ve had an unusual life...in the usual way."
Gabriel Celtic (from Gabriel’s Revenge)
Copyright J.T. Lewis