Note: When I say “hero,” I mean the protagonist of any gender.
Because I’ve decided I want a single protagonist (whether or not I go with a single POV), I have to develop a character that is at the center of the entire story. I mentioned in the last post that this means she has to have some sort of unique quality or ability that makes her the one able to end the story—unless it’s total coincidence, but that’s hard to plot an epic story around.
SPOILERS (old, mostly): Frodo had the One Ring. Harry was a horcrux. Luke Skywalker was Darth Vader’s son (and had some magic Force prophecy power, I think?).
Most of these unique qualities are established in the backstory—Frodo’s uncle found the Ring and handed it down to him (he has some unique ability to resist its pull, sort of, and maybe because he’s a hobbit?). Harry’s parents defied Voldemort, and his mother tried to save him (and was able to try because of Snape’s creepy deal). Luke just happened to have an evil dad. None of them are really accomplished by the hero; none of the heroes are truly random. Frodo is probably the most arbitrary and “average,” but even he is distinguished by the random “luck” of being born a Baggins.
So this is where all those tropes of the secretly awesome parents and prophesied farm boys come from. If your hero begins “average,” they need a reason to be the “one.” And if that reason has to come from backstory, then it has to come from secret backstory.
The other option is to have your hero be the “one” based on a skillset, on being the best at something. If it’s a random ability they just happen to be born with, then it falls into the category above. But if it’s something they worked at and developed (either before the story begins or during the course of the story), then it doesn’t quite fall into that trope. However, it’s tricky to develop a hero’s skillset that is so unique without pulling a few ability rabbits out of the backstory hat.
For example, Sherlock Holmes is the greatest detective ever (or at least in the area)—but did he earn that ability or was he just born extra smart? How is that different from the Mary Sue born with the super awesome unicorn power?
Now, someone like James Bond, established as a good agent from what I presume is previous training, can fall into a few camps. First, that they are somewhat randomly assigned to this epic mission, whether or not they are the absolute best for the job (they may rise to the occasion and/or develop personal motives for this particular mission). Second, that they are the best and they achieved this superiority through hard work and training (and probably a little extra special sauce, to make them extra best). Or third, that they do indeed have some level of magic backstory—a personal connection to the antagonist, a particular skillset for this particular mission—but their ability to resolve the mission is enhanced by their hard work and training.
This last version can be turned around so that someone with a personal connection or motive (or prophecy) is plucked from averageness and then trains to become able to take down the villain. It’s at least a little less egregious than having them randomly be good at something.
A hero can work hard to develop the skillset needed to defeat the villain—but what sets her apart from all the others developing that same skillset? She’s certainly not the only one trying to stop this villain—so why is she the one who manages it? Random luck and circumstance? Or magic backstory?
I would start by asking what does the hero need to stop this villain? Depending on the story, the answer can vary: motive (if your character either is the only one who wants to stop the villain, or if they have extra motivation to do so thus increasing their focus/drive/etc.); knowledge (if your character is the only one who knows how to stop them, or what they’re up to, or where they are, etc.); power/ability (if stopping them requires a certain skill or power, and your character is the only one who has it—they could have it randomly, could have found it, or could gain it in some unique way); or personal connection (your character is the only one the villain will talk to, or won’t kill, or knows the villain’s secret weakness from childhood, etc.).
As I look at these issues, I begin a see-saw strategy of development, moving from beginning to end. I look at where I want my character to start; I look at what she might need to be at the end, what arc she may follow; then I go back and see where she would need to start to make that arc. For example, if I know the hero has to have a personal connection to the villain, then I have to go back and figure out where and how they would have made that connection (if there’s potential to develop it within the story, that can work too). If I know that I want the character to start in a certain place, then I need to look ahead to see where she might possibly go, and how she could get to the end.
You may ask why your hero has to be unique, and for some stories, they don’t. But for an epic story with a larger-than-life villain that has multiple people (if not entire armies, etc.) looking to stop them, the question is why is your hero the one who is able to do it?
Figuring that out is tough, and at some point, you may have to accept some clichés. But it’s also essential in figuring out where your hero has to begin, and layering in that groundwork now will help in the long development process to come