Sunday, February 10, 2008

What Makes A Hero, Part 1: Who Is He?

Okay, first. I'm sure a lot of you know already that author Caitlin R. Kiernan is having a bit of difficulty with her health these days, and could use some help. This livejournal post tells how you can help, and links to what's going on. So if you can, do.

Second. I want to reiterate (geez, I'm really nervous about this, I totally feel like I'm overstepping myself) that this post isn't intended to say how everyone should write heroes, or that my way is the only way or the best way or that this is a foolproof way. It's just my own feelings, how I do it, and what I've learned from several years of writing. (And several years of reading advice about writing.) So please, don't take my word as gospel--it's simply intended to A) Make you think about your own process; B) Help you distill that process; and C) Entertain.

Third, I should make clear that by "Hero" I mean Hero as he relates to heroine, not Hero as main character. I'm talking about romantic heroes and love interests, in any genre where there's a romantic plot or subplot. Of course these traits are gender-neutral and are generally found in main characters as well, but this is about building chemistry and romance in your books specifically.

So...what makes a man a hero? Who is a hero? How is he different from other characters?

Well. In a lot of ways he's no different. Obviously the reader will learn more about him than about secondary characters, because our heroine and thus we as readers and writers will likely be spending more time with him than with others.

But in some ways...he's worlds apart. So what separates him? Who is he, that he's so special? Why does the heroine--and (hopefully) especially the reader--fall for him? (Remember, this is the first post of several, so this is simply an overview. The next posts will cover how to express these traits, when to do so, and what makes a hero perfect for that particular heroine.)

1. He's smart. A hero cannot be stupid. We need to respect people in order to fall in love with them, plain and simple, and it's hard to respect people who we see doing dumb things. Making mistakes is okay. Everybody makes mistakes. But a hero's mistakes should never come from lack of forethought, whereas a secondary character's mistakes can come from anything.

(Example: Julian in Blood Will Tell keeps a secret from Cecelia, the woman he's falling in love with. It's a secret he knows could destroy everything he's trying to build with her, and he knows it's a mistake to keep it. But he does. Why? Because he's gambling on being able to fix it. This of course becomes more and more of a problem the longer he keeps it secret, until telling seems impossible. His mistake comes from his heart, not his head, and the heart is almost always a hero's downfall.)

2. He knows who he is. A hero is self-aware. He may see himself as less than he is (a hallmark of tortured heroes), but he never has delusions of grandeur. His faults may cause him pain or they may amuse him, but he knows they're there, just as clearly as he's aware of his strengths. And he'll generally admit to both, although he often won't admit his fears or insecurities until much later in the book because he's being manly and stoic and all that good stuff.

(Example: This is a snippet of dialogue from Personal Demons, between Greyson Dante and Megan Chase.

“One thing I’m not,” he said, in a voice cold enough to make her shiver, “is a liar.”

She stared at him. He relented. “Not about stuff like this, anyway.”)

3. He knows what he wants. And he'll generally do whatever it takes to get it. Whether it's money or power or love or a cause, or even a sandwich, a hero doesn't waffle. He sees, he wants, he takes. It may take him a while to get there, but he never wavers.

(Example: Julian in Blood Will Tell starts a war and kills someone he once saw as a father figure in order to save Cecelia's life.)

4. He is fearless. Or at least, he never lets his fears stand in his way. There is of course a class of heroes--usually in comedies or more lighthearted romances--who have hearty senses of self-preservation and can be afraid of all sorts of things (snakes, anyone?) But when it comes down to it, a hero will face those fears and work through them in order to accomplish his goal. Where secondary characters decide to head for home, a hero always gets the job done--even if it means sacrificing himself.

(Example: Gruffydd in Black Dragon is on a spying mission when the woman he loves is captured. Despite her begging him not to give himself up, he does, knowing full well he'll probably be killed--and more importantly, that his death will be meaningless, coming not in battle but by an executioner's axe. But protecting the woman he loves is his goal, so there's no choice to make.)

5. He's got a plan. Always. Even when he doesn't have a plan, or even when his plan is simply Get There, Kill Everybody, he's got a plan. He's got it covered. He's working something out in that head of his. The hero is always a half-step ahead.

(My best example here is spoilery, so I'm not posting it. But Gruffydd in Black Dragon has studied the enemy's movements and castles well enough to quickly formulate an escape plan. Julian in Blood Will Tell sets up an elaborate distraction on the highway to outrun the bad guys.)

6. He is observant. It's not just brains that make him capable of dealing with whatever life and the plot throw at him. The hero pays attention, above all else. He pays attention to the heroine (and I'll be covering this in a lot more depth later in the week, as I actually think this is one of the most important traits of a hero) and he pays attention to the villains, and to anyone else who pops up too. Because he knows himself so well, he's able to understand other people too, and this is always useful. He's also good at noticing details others miss (it's not an example from my work, but look at how observent Adrian Monk is.)

(Example from Personal Demons: Scene in a nightclub.

“Keep your voice down. Ugh, we can’t talk in here. Let’s go.” He slid out of the booth and stood, slipping on his jacket and nodding to Malleus, Maleficarum, and Spud, who sat in the booth next to theirs downing oceans of beer.
Was he going to fit her with some cement boots? “Maybe I don’t want to go.”
“Yes, you do. You hate these places.”
Damn it, was she that obvious? “Maybe tonight I like them.”)

7. He is complex/he has secrets. Obviously this is part of simply building good characters, no matter who they are or what their relation is to the protagonists or plot. One of the most noticeable amateur mistakes is to create characters who are all good or all bad (although I admit it doesn't bother me when villains are evil simply because they're evil; I don't always need them to have Big Motivations, although I'm happy when they do). We all know what a Mary Sue heroine is; the same can be said for Gary Sues, heroes so perfect, handsome and charming and rich and instantly in love with the heroine, that there's no conflict. These characters are difficult (at best) to identify with. They're essentially bland. And worst of all they provide no conflict, and conflict is what keeps a relationship and a story interesting. You can create secondary characters who are less complex, and that's fine. But for sparks to fly you need to make sure there's a lot under the surface of your characters. Secrets they want to keep, memories that shame them, insecurities they're aware of but do their best to hide. They may get defensive or prickly, or simply change the subject, but the reader feels that reaction, and both identifies with and becomes more curious about the character.

(Example, again from Personal Demons:
He glanced at her. “...We are who and what we are, Meg, and there’s no point wasting time wondering how it might be if things were different.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You were raised with demons. You were never different from everyone around you.”
“Don’t make assumptions. You should know better.”
“Sorry.” He was right, and worse, Megan hadn’t even thought of it. Without being able to read him, she didn’t know anything about what went on under his skin other than what he told her and what she learned by observation. “You’re so self-assured. Most people with your confidence had very nurturing upbringings. Overcompensators read more like arrogance. But you—”
“I’m not one of your patients. Please don’t analyze me.”
“I’m sorry,” she said again. His withdrawal upset her more than she would have thought. Sometimes it was hard to remember that just because she couldn’t read someone didn’t mean they didn’t have depths, or secrets to keep.)

8. He has faith in the heroine. First and foremost. He believes in her and her abilities to solve her own problems, however much he might like to solve them for her. He knows she's a great partner for him, and a partner is what he wants--even if he's a dyed-in-the-wool Dom, he wants a woman who can take care of herself too, who can stand up to him when it counts.

9. He is honorable. No matter what he is or what he does, whether he's a pastor or a hired killer, he has honor of some kind. He may kill, steal for a living, lie to get out of whatever problem there is, break into homes, hack computers, whatever he has to do, but a hero never cheats at cards. NEVER.

10. He is generous. Whether it's money or time, the hero will give, even begrudgingly (depending on him or the situation), once he's found his heroine. A man who forces his ladylove to count pennies while he takes expensive vacations is not a hero. A man who forces the heroine to beg for his attention or time is not a hero.

Okay. Notice there are several things I didn't mention there:
1. Looks. Yes, heroes tend to be handsome, but they don't have to be. The only thing they have to be is physically attractive to the heroine, and that can happen over time (again, we'll discuss chemistry later).

2. Wealth. Again, heroes tend to have money, but they don't have to. A poor artist can be just as clever, dominant, and appealing as a robber baron, if he's written properly.

3. Morality, as it differs from honor. This is a matter of personal taste. My heroes tend to be criminals, often fairly violent ones too. Usually they've killed people and it doesn't bother them. They often kill more people as the story goes on, and sleep just fine. Other people would never stomach a hero who didn't go to church every week, or who stole, or killed, or whatever. The only things a hero does NOT do, not ever, are hurting animals or babies and cheating at cards (see above). A hero who cheats at cards or kicks puppies or hits babies is irredeemable in my eyes. Any hero, no matter if he's a fireman or a rabbi or an international jewel thief, can be sexy and appealing if he's written properly.

What are your rules for heroes? What do you look for, and what is unimportant? Do the heroes you write or the heroes you like to read tend to have certain traits in common, and what are they? How many of those must-have traits do you think you could eliminate from a character and still have him be appealing to readers and your heroine?


Bernita said...

Wonderful post, December!
Agree on all points.

And here I've just put my hero in a situation where it looks like he's nor so bright.
I need to do some fancy dancing to retrieve him, because I strongly agree that a hero had to be as least as intelligent as the heroine.

Ms Menozzi said...

If nothing else, I can leave this post feeling reassured that I am doing well when it comes to creating my heroes! Yay!

You made a lot of good points, and I can't disagree with anything you've said here. Thanks for the validation! ;)

Anonymous said...

Uncanny -you've never met me yet you describe me to a "T". ;~)>

Demon Hunter said...

Great post, December. Thanks for posting this. It will really help me look at my characters a little more closely. :*)

BernardL said...

When a child wakes up crying in the night, the first voice within seconds, heard in the darkness, should be Dad’s. The hero may not be Rambo; but when the other characters in a book look around wildly in terror, they find a hero, someone to be counted on. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, D.

Robyn said...

Bernard, I think I just fell in like with you.

You hit the bullseye, December! And I am a fan of the not traditionally handsome heroes. I am reminded of something Elizabeth Hurley said after Austin Powers came out. Someone asked her how her character could grow attracted to Austin, who was so repulsive. She answered, "Because it's hard to resist someone who adores you that much." Great post!

Sarai said...

Great post December! I think that a hero should be strong both physically and emotionally. This is really going to help with some of those questions I get when writing the "perfect" hero! Thanks again

CaroleMcDonnell said...

A romantic hero should have amazing insight into the heroine. Even if he disagrees with her, he truly knows where she is coming from.

He should be a bit embattled on all sides. Not some minor diddly problem but good worthy issues. He should somehow change the world or the society he lives in.

He should have some inner issue he is struggling against. Not that he's insane or in a funk, but he should have some emotional issue that clouds his life that he conquers in the end.

He should be kind to animals, old folks, the mentally-infirmed, and children. I hate a guy who doesn't have an inate love for those who need protection in society.

He should have a sense of humor. Not particularly snarky or sarcastic, but he should make the heroine, himself, and the reader laugh. -C

December/Stacia said...

Thanks, Bernita! One of the absolutely hardest things, I think, is putting characters in jeopardy without making them stupid to get there.

Hi Ms. Menozzi! Thanks, I'm glad you're enjoying it so far!

I know, V95, I base them all on you. :-)

Thanks, Tyhitia, I'm glad you're finding it helpful (and hope it continues to be so).

*nods* That's it exactly, Bernard. Something about him stands out. And I was already in like, lol.

Me too, Robyn. Most of my men are handsome, but not movie-star handsome--I tend to dislike that. I prefer them to be interesting-looking. They attract attention, but they aren't heartthrobs as a rule.

Thanks Sarai! I agree. There's more than one kind of strength, and a hero should have both.

December/Stacia said...

Ah, Carole, you're jumping ahead of me, lol! I'm covering a lot of that in the rest of the series, particularly the insightful stuff which is, IMO, the #1 most important thing when creating chemistry and couples.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post!

Would you mind (credited to you of course) if I posted this under my guest blogger spot on Tues on my lj blog. We get lots of hopeful writers popping by during my TT on Thurday and they might find this useful :)

December/Stacia said...

Hi Moondancerdrake! Sure, please feel free to repost, thanks! (I am doing more with this Wednesday and Friday, and possibly Thursday if I feel on Wed. like it won't all fit.)

Anonymous said...

DQ, I stand firm on my assessment that you are, in fact, a bit of a genius.

I think internally I knew all these things, but the way you describe them brings it all into focus.

My heros tend to be of the blue collar sort (I realized that last year when you did your posts on moustaches), but they are always more honourable, intelligent and determined than the royalty that looks down their noses at him. He's hotter too. ;)


Anonymous said...

Oh, and the Wolverine pic...whew! Hot. Superheroes are so sexy...I'm having naughty thoughts about The Boy's Thor action figure....

December/Stacia said...

Oh yes, that's me, the genius. Lol. Thanks :-) *blushes*

Right! That's the point exactly. It doesn't matter what they do or what other traits they have. There are certain qualities I consider sexy/heroic, and I tend to write those in there.

Plus, and I'll focus on this more later, a hero has to be larger-than-life. So we look for larger-than-life characteristics for him, in abundance. You only have words to make readers fall in love with him.

Yep, Wolverine. The only short man I'd do in a second. Rowr!

Karen Erickson said...

This is a great post, you touched on a lot of good points. Like so good I'm tempted to print it out and keep it by my side when creating my heroes. :)

Gabriele C. said...

Looks like I do a lot of things right here though I don't have heroines to go with the heroes. :)

Can you cover the problem of writing an interesting and sympathetic female character as well? My interesting ones tend to out-bad Lady de Winter. ;)

December/Stacia said...

Lol thanks Karen! And happy birthday! Stick around, there's plenty more this week!

Thanks Gabriele! I may do heroines at some point, but the main thing, I think, for the problem you've described, is motivation. Give them a past that gives them a reason to be so evil. Create some sympathy for them. One of the reasons Rebecca was so awful was she felt nothing for anyone. Her entire existence was about power and getting over on people. But if you're trying to make a character like that the heroine instead of the villain...maybe she was badly hurt as a child and vowed no one would ever do that to her again? Maybe she was afraid people would see how afraid she was? That sort of thing. Just a thought.

Charles Gramlich said...

This is a very good list. Well thought out. I think my idea of a hero is very close to this, except in one way. I don't, or haven't, written about a hero who is by nature a criminal. So far I've never had an assassin hero, for example. Or a hero who is by profession a theif.

December/Stacia said...

It's all a matter of taste, Charles. :-) They don't have to be criminals, it's just most of mine are. But I tried to keep the list open enough that it doesn't look like that's a requirement.


kirsten saell said...

I love me some bad-boy, yet honorable hero. He might rob banks, but he wouldn't kick a puppy, cheat at cards, or justify downloading an illegal copy of an author's work that was otherwise legally available for sale.

Sorry. Spending too much time with the Bitches.

Sam said...

My hero would cheat at cards if it would help someone else. I think selflessness is another trait, just plain Nice is good too. Resourceful - imaginative...all those things are good.

December/Stacia said...

Lol, Kirsten, I totally agree with you about the illegal downloads! He may steal, but not from poor people or little old ladies or penniless writers. :-) That's it exactly. Honor, honor, honor.

Those are indeed all great traits, Sam! Especially imaginative. I forgot that one but it's really important.