I wrote last week about the downsides of an “ordinary” protagonist, and about how I wanted to seek out an “extraordinary” protagonist. This means a character with history, with personality, with awareness and a pre-established identity.
This sort of character is rarer in the sort of genre (fantasy, mostly mainstream) that I enjoy, since the prophesied farm boy is far more common. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but I’m trying to step outside the familiar types.
And somehow, I kept coming up with antiheroes—those morally ambiguous (or downright immoral) characters that have become something of a zeitgeist in pop culture. Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, House of Cards, Boardwalk Empire, etc.—all popular TV shows with male antiheroes front and center, and all of the questionable morals of rooting for such a character that comes with it. You also see this trend in the popularity of villains, such as Loki from the Marvel franchise.
Antiheroes are great characters. They can be incredibly compelling, and I think more importantly, they can often be unpredictable, which leads to fresh and exciting storytelling. I would like to see more female antiheroes (or to see the ones there are be treated better), and I think some aspects of the fascination with these characters can be troubling… But overall, if you want to write an antihero, there’s never been a better time.
The problem is that I don’t want to write an antihero. They’re just not my favorite type of characters, and I’d rather leave them for the people who find them fascinating.
So why is this a problem? Because I’m struggling to come up with an “extraordinary” character who’s a hero.
Heroes are the quintessential character in many ways, but in the cynical modern era, they are actually quite difficult to pull off. Too often they end up cheesy or boring, and the audience would rather spend time with the villain.
How do you create an interesting hero? Here are a few things I’ve thought of:
Make them the best at something.
You have to be a bit careful with this one, because if it feels forced, unearned, or without any downsides, you’ll end up with a Mary Sue/Special Snowflake. But a lot of the great heroes are compelling because they’re really good at something.
Sherlock Holmes and his art of detection. The Doctor and his intelligence and experience. Both undoubtedly heroic characters, but we find them compelling because they are unique and talented. People are drawn to people who are talented, out of admiration and envy and a desire to be noticed by them and made special by association. Use that to make your hero more engaging.
Complicate their backstories.
This is something I mentioned in the post on heroic motivations, but it’s a technique that can be used to add a slight antihero flavor to what might be a fairly vanilla hero. By giving them a darker backstory, you add complexity to their goodness—and also add to the strength of their motivation.
Could your hero have once been bad? Are they atoning for something they did (or think they did)?
It doesn’t have to just be that they were once not so heroic. Maybe they have a romantic history that’s complicated and interesting—were they once in love with a criminal? Or maybe they have a friend or family member or classmate or mentor who is not so squeaky clean? Adding in a bit of sympathy for the devil will make them more complicated in their morality, and thus more compelling.
You can also use other various backstory tricks to make your hero interesting—but beware of “fridging” a character (mainly applied to killing off women in your hero’s past just to motivate him). The key here is that if your hero’s backstory is interesting, for whatever reason, they are that much more interesting themselves.
Give them someone to love.
This technique works wonders for an antihero, but it can also be used to increase interest in your hero as well. In this, I mean “love” as more than just romance, though that can of course work well; perhaps it’s a partnership, or brotherhood, or the bond of a manservant (always a bit romanticized, I’d wager).
When your hero has someone to protect, to care for, and to be cared for by, they are that much more interesting. This is even stronger if they are unique in some way, either in talent or in difficulty (any character who avoids people but has that one close relationship… what would Sherlock be without Watson?).
Add a personal goal.
Your hero may be a generic series-type hero who you plan to throw at every bad guy in the vicinity, or you might be building a single epic adventure around your protagonist. Either way, the fight with the villain can often get a bit procedural and mechanical, just moving through the motions. And if your hero’s just in it to “fight the good fight,” no matter how heroic that may be, it can sometimes fall a bit flat.
When you add a personal goal (or, in a similar vein, a personal reason for the generic goal), you increase our connection to that character. The Elric brothers (Fullmetal Alchemist) search for the Philosopher’s Stone to restore their bodies. The Winchester brothers (Supernatural) search for their father. Bruce Wayne/Batman seeks to avenge his parents with justice (or something like that). Each of these deepen what could be generic heroes into more compelling and individual characters.
Let them do the right thing.
Ultimately, a hero is compelling because they are heroic. Despite the popularity of antiheroes, I think we truly do admire a character who does the right thing. When they let the villain live, when they tell the truth in a difficult situation, or when they make the ultimate sacrifice, we can’t help but appreciate that character and want to be like them. That, in and of itself, can be compelling.
One way to make this less cheesy is to make it less easy. Have it be difficult for them to do the right thing, to make that choice—it will be that much more engaging to watch them still do the right thing. If we truly believe that this character may not make the “right” choice, perhaps because we aren’t even sure what the right choice is, it will feel like less of an obvious and silly outcome.
Creating an interesting hero can seem a bit of a challenge, but it can also be rewarding. An antihero may fascinate us—but a great hero can live in our hearts forever.