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"What Makes A Great Hero?"

by Mark O'Bannon

What Makes A Great Hero
What Makes A Great Hero?
Great heroes are rare to find, while flat, uninteresting characters are all too common in stories. Why is this so?  Some tales have epic heroes while others contain lifeless, boring characters doing the same old things as a thousand average characters in other stories. 

Where do characters like Gandalf, Harry Potter, or Sam Spade come from?  What makes these characters so compelling, so interesting, so . . . heroic?  Are larger than life heroes made by accident?  Is it random happenstance?  Can you learn how to make the heroes of your own stories truly great?

Where Do Great Heroes Come From?
Epic heroes are created from a combination of things.  First of all, you need to think of your hero as someone that is as great as any other of the epic characters from famous stories.  Many authors never consider placing their characters besides such greats as Huck Finn, Frodo Baggins, Sherlock Holmes, Conan or Batman.  The first step in making a character great is to imagine it in your own mind.  When you do this, your subconscious will begin the process of constructing a character that’s larger than life.  Now, what techniques can be used to make a hero great?

Skills, Powers, Abilities
Give your hero a skill, power or ability that others lack.  Luke Skywalker could sense the force.  Sherlock Holmes had a keen mind and the powers of deductive reasoning.  Not all characters need to be a superhero, but your characters should have some unique ability that sets them apart from a normal person.  You could make your hero eloquent, aristocratic, or streetwise. 

The Mythic Hero vs. The Everyday Hero
The Greeks thought of a hero as a greater version of humanity.  Not a god, but greater than normal mortals, their heroes were capable of doing great things.  Aristotle called this kind of person a "Great Souled Man." Modern storytelling has featured the “everyday” man, the average person, caught up in a story.  These are simply two different styles.  If you’re writing a myth or if you’re combining a myth with another genre, you may want to think of your characters as someone that could sit besides one of the Greek heroes.  If you want to tell a more mundane tale, you can still make your hero great by giving them a powerful personality, by making them a visionary, or you could make them a person of passion, someone who believes strongly in things.   

What Makes A Character Interesting?
Character flaws make your hero fascinating to the reader.  What weakness does the hero have?  Every hero should have a character flaw, something that may be ruining their life.  For instance, your hero might be arrogant, or perhaps your hero is simply unsure of himself. 

When you create flawed characters, the audience immediately identifies with them (actually, the audience identifies with the need for the character to overcome their flaw).  When the hero’s weakness is a moral one – when the character flaw causes the hero to harm other people, then more of the audience will identify with them. 

Moral weaknesses are always better than average character flaws.  Imagine the difference between pride and arrogance or the difference between uncertainty and cowardice. 

One thing to be careful of when you’re creating your character flaws is to not give the hero a flaw that causes the audience to hate the hero.  If they exhibit a flaw, you should give them something admirable.  For instance, if your character is proud and arrogant, you could make them right about it (you could make them smarter or more capbale than others).    

Great characters have values.  Does your hero live by any standards?  Bravery, cynicism, friendship, generosity – these are the things people consider important.  When your characters have values, the story becomes a struggle against two people and their value systems.  Otherwise, it’s like watching a wrestling match.  One person will win the fight, but who cares?

Try to match an archetype to your hero.  Is the character a prince?  A hermit?  A magician?  A shadow?  Archetypes have been used in psychology to get a greater sense of a person.  An archetype can help you envision an entire range of things that will help you in creating the character.  Feel free to combine archetypes in your characters.  A good system of archetypes can be found in a Tarot deck. 

The Opponent
Characters are defined by their actions and by the other characters in the story.  Have you ever watched one of your favorite tv shows where they removed a character and then brought someone new in?  Stargate Atlantis is a good example.  When they brought in some of the characters from the original show (SG-1), they didn’t fit very well.  Something didn’t feel right about them being there.  This is because a character is defined by the way they interact with the other characters in the story.  The relationship between the main character and the antagonist is the best way to define your hero.  Your hero will only be as powerful as the opponent.  If the opponent is an epic character like Darth Vader, then it will make your hero greater. 

Action Steps
Here are some steps you can take to construct a great hero:

1. Can you imagine your hero sitting besides the other great heroes of other tales?

2. What unique skills, powers or abilities does your character have?

3. How can you immediately demonstrate this in the opening scenes of the story?

4. Is your hero passionate about something?

5. What is your hero’s greatest desire?

6. What is the main character flaw of your hero?

7. Does your hero have any moral flaws?

8. How do your character’s moral flaws harm other people?

9. What are your character’s values?

10 What archetypes will your hero embody during the story?

11. What kind of opponent is working against the hero?

12. How is the opponent more powerful than the hero?

Make Your Hero A Great Hero
Now that you understand some of the things that can make your hero great, sit down and write out the answers to the above questions.  Think of your main character as a great hero every time you sit down to write.  Your story will improve drastically when you make your hero great. 

- Mark O'Bannon


If you want to learn more about how to create great heroes, read the book, "The Anatomy of Story," by John Truby, or get his audio courses, "Masterpiece" and "Myth."



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