Ten years ago I began writing a fantasy epic. I spent months building my own world, complete with fresh mythologies and exotic cultures. I had a great villain and an original plot. Everything appeared to be in place for me to write a first class novel. Sadly, a quarter of the way through a terrible realization hit me: my hero sucked.
My story’s hero was one dimensional and boring. Sure, he could swing a sword. But he wasn’t a man of any depth or character. Worst of all, he was passive instead of proactive. Things happened to him, and all that he did was react. At no point did he make a bold decision that moved the story forward. He didn’t possess the qualities of a hero, but rather those of a victim.
So what are the characteristics of a hero?
A hero is willing to face his fears, and meet them head on. He or she is willing to make hard decisions, even when the likely outcome is grim. He’s committed to a notion of what is right or just, and has the determination to keep pushing forward no matter what.
An example of a courageous hero is Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings. He’s determined to journey into the Dark Lord’s stronghold, because it’s the only way to save his homeland. Along the way he loses most of his companions, and things keep getting worse. Still, he keeps pushing forward, one painful step at a time, because it’s the right thing to do.
A hero is very good at something. He possesses an important skill which makes it possible to face overwhelming odds and have a chance of success.
Frodo is unusually skilled in languages and lore. Aragorn is a talented swordsman with the power to heal others. Harry Potter has uncanny prowess in riding a broom and learning the magical arts.
At some point in the story, the hero is willing to give up his life. In some cases this takes the form of a sacrificial death. In others, the hero is willing to face serious danger, which is likely to result in his own demise. In each instance, the odds of survival are slim, and the risk is taken for the well-being of others.
Frodo journeys to the heart of Mordor, knowing that the quest will claim his life. Aragorn leads a suicide mission to the Black Gates, trying to buy time for the ring bearer. Harry voluntarily surrenders himself to Voldemort, giving his life to save his friends.
There is something about the hero which makes him the right person to meet the challenge. He is destined to face the source of the danger, and is especially suited to do so. This could be due to heredity, history, prophecy or the will of God.
Harry Potter’s parents were slain by Voldemort, with whom he shares a psychic bond. Aragorn is the heir to the throne of Gondor, and must reclaim his kingdom. Frodo Baggins inherited the ring, and is told by Gandalf that providence meant for him to bear it.
Every hero has a wound. Like their villain counterparts, heroes are scarred in some significant way, either physically or emotionally. Often the wound takes the form of a fatal weakness, making the hero vulnerable and imperfect.
Aragorn is plagued by self-doubt, and blames himself for the fellowship’s misfortunes. Harry Potter is literally scarred by Voldemort as an infant. Frodo becomes enslaved to the power of the ring, which results in the disfigurement of his hand.
These characteristics are common among most heroes, and are a starting point for creating a heroic character. However, this list is not exhaustive. The are other qualities of a hero which I haven’t included.
Which characteristics of a hero would you add to this list?