Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What Makes A Hero, Part 2: Rounding him out

So on Monday I posted a short list of characteristics most of my heroes have, and which I've noticed in a lot of other heroes. Today I'll show how those basic characteristics (or whichever ones you like and feel comfortable with) can be modified and added to in order to create distinct characters.

To refresh, here are the Ten Basic Qualities I listed:

1. He's smart.
2. He knows who he is.
3. He knows what he wants.
4. He is fearless.
5. He's got a plan.
6. He is observant.
7. He is complex/he has secrets.
8. He has faith in the heroine.
9. He is honorable.
10. He is generous.

We'll call Hero #1 Trent Bacon, a name I just pulled out of my--um, head. Trent is CEO of a multi-national corporation, which he built from a small paper-manufacturing firm into the cash-cow behemoth it is today (1). He has a reputation for being absolutely ruthless both in business matters (3) and in his personal life. He spends weekends racing cars or skiing (4)--basically he's a thrill-seeker, and he's proud of his prowess in every area (2). What no one knows is that Trent is overcompensating for a poverty-stricken childhood (7), driven by haunting memories of hunger and dirt to remake himself as the man he always wanted to be.
When Trent meets attorney Amy Brown, he immediately knows that she's more than just an attractive woman with a law degree. As they discuss business over a meal, he surprises her by asking what good books she's read lately. Having noticed the paperback in her briefcase, and seeing how smart she is (6), he genuinely wants her recommendation (8).
But all is not well in corporate land. Trent--and by association, Amy--become targets of a killer bent on revenge (okay, it's a character outline, not a real book, so give me a break.) Trent and Amy are in danger, and Trent does whatever he can to keep her safe, including holing her up in an expensive resort (10). When Trent realizes one of his employees has been doing shady deals behind his back he sets out to put it right (9)--risking his own life and trusting Amy to get the documents to the police (5,8).

Hero #2, Mike Grant, is a fireman, a churchgoer and all-around nice guy (4,9,10). He decided to become a fireman after witnessing a tragic fire as a child, in which several people died (7--yes, I know, that's two childhood traumas in a row. Stay with me.) More than anything Mike wants to do whatever he can to keep other people safe, the way his loving parents always made him feel (3, 7, 9, 10.) He knows he's too obsessed with work (2), but he can't help it.
Mike spends two evenings a week teaching illiterate adults to read (1, 10). It's here he meets fellow volunteer teacher Debbie Barnes. Mike isn't really interested in a relationship, but Debbie makes him think differently, especially when he notices how kind she is when she thinks no one is looking, or how longingly she looks at the babies of the women in their classes (6). In her he sees someone he could spend his life with, and he sets out to make her his, talking for hours, cooking her romantic meals, taking her to amusement parks, whatever he can afford (3, 10). But along the way he discovers Debbie is on the City Council, and they're planning to cut funding for important fire-safety programs. Mike tries to convince Debbie how important the programs are, knowing that if she understands she'll be on his side and help him convince the Council not to cut the funding (5, 8). He needs her, in more ways than one, but he won't let innocent people die just so he can be in a relationship (4).

For #3 we have Viktor Rubenska, a wealthy vampire (7) and successful club owner(1). Viktor is getting lonely in his old age, after losing his "mate" (or whatever) years ago. He's a very private man (7) who knows exactly what he needs from a woman (2,3)--and usually gets it from a series of casual dates.
One night werewolves invade his nightclub and start slicing people up. Viktor and his friends attack (4), managing to defeat most of the weres, but a few escape.
One of the surviving victims is Abby Louis, an event planner there on a first date. Unfortunately, her date is dead. Feeling responsible, Viktor takes her back to his place (9,10), intending to use his vampire mojo to make her forget the awful events (5). But Abby charms him, and he finds he can't bring himself to erase her mind. He senses in her need to make every occasion special a woman who never had that kind of happiness in her youth (6). He also sees that ability as a gift (6,8), and realizes she makes him feel a warmth he thought his lonely, cold heart could never feel again (2,3,6,7,8).
Of course, Abby is kidnapped by Viktor's enemy, the wereprince (or whatever), and Viktor must risk everything to protect her (3,4,5). Knowing Abby will trust that he's coming for her and that she'll create a distraction when she sees him (8), he invades the were complex and kills his enemy (3,4,5 again). Together he and Abby fight their way free, knowing they will be together forever.

Last we have Leaf Tinselhead (oh come on. Remember, this is supposed to entertain too.) Leaf is a professional assassin known only as The Whisper, and he's the best in the Elf Kingdom. Leaf's trademark is an absolute coldness, a willingness to do whatever it takes to get a job done (1,3,4,5,6,7). Once he's accepted payment for a job, that's it--there is no going back (9). So when he slips into a private party with the intent to kill Lochinvar Greaseman, and ends up dancing with Greaseman's beautiful daughter Eubella, he's at war with his own ethics. He wants Eubella (3) more than he's ever wanted anything. Recognizing this emotional weakness in himself upsets him (2,7) as he's always been taught that to be a man means having no weaknesses, but he can't seem to stop. Meanwhile, Eubella simply thinks he's rather cold and strange, insisting that until he shows her he has true emotions she wants nothing to do with him, despite how he's encouraged her to finally leave her boring day job and become a nightclub singer like she always dreamed (8).
Figuring that if he turns the tables on the people who hired him to kill Lochinvar, he can win Eubella's heart and keep his reputation (4,5), Leaf goes undercover in a local school (don't ask. Hey, it's late here.) He realizes that working with children is fun--he can teach them all the self-defense techniques he wishes he's learned as a kid, and somehow, he feels less lonely when they're around (7).
In the process he also realizes he wants to save Lochinvar not just to make Eubella like him, but to make her happy (10). But when the people who hired Leaf decide to take matters into their own hands and come after Leaf, Lochinvar, and Eubella, Leaf and Eubella must work together (8) to save the day.

Okay, that last one got a little silly. But you see my point. None of these men are particularly similar in background or occupation. You can clearly see how differently they might react to anything from bad service at a restaurant to a gunfight breaking out on the street. Those qualities I listed don't make a character, they're simply aspects of a character. Even these basic sketches leave a lot of room for interpretation--is Mike the fireman shy and stuttering when he first meets Debbie, or is he funny and outgoing and casual her? Does Viktor think Abby is the bee's knees the minute he lays eyes on her, or does it happen after they talk for a while, or when he sees how kind she is to his cat (or something)? Do the men seduce with smooth moves and wicked grins, or with worshipful, shaking tenderness as if they can't believe their luck? Are they funny or serious? Do they like dogs or cats? Beer or wine? We don't necessarily know, just based on what's above. That all has to be filled in as you get deeper into your characters. It depends on you, yes; but it also depends on what kind of woman your heroine is.

(By the way, the plots above are deliberately straight romance plots, simply because those seemed the strongest way to showcase character above all else. Hopefully you'll see lots of other types of stories these characters could be in, keeping their same qualities.)

So taking the lists you (may or may not have) made in your head, how many different types of characters can you come up with using those same traits? Do you find yourself needing to add more? Is it hard to use all of them? Is there an important one you left out (like I forgot vulnerability, which I came close to covering in several of mine but never flat-out said)? And as I asked on Monday, how many of your "favorite" traits can you remove and still have a character you feel comfortable with? What would happen if you added a trait you've never found appealing to the mix--how would that challenge you, or would it?

I may do more tomorrow.


BernardL said...

Making heroes out of monsters creates complex problems; but if done right, a very unique character emerges, like 'Dexter'. Sometimes though, you end up with a cliché. Great post. I’m glad you didn’t kill off Lochinvar Greaseman. :)

December/Stacia said...

Lol thanks Bernard. Yeah, none of these characters as outlined are particularly unique--they're more archetypal than anything else. But hopefully they illustrate how many types of people can have the same qualities. :-) And you play from there and create someone really original and different.

Anonymous said...

Can a hero be an a-hole? I think so, al la John Wayne in Red River -sort of.

It's cool learning from you, December. You should teach a creative writing class. -V95

Anonymous said...

Please forgive the constant typos. I blame it on my new disability. :~)> -V95

December/Stacia said...

Lol. MOST of my heroes are assholes, V95! It's just a matter of what kind of asshole, and to whom.


Sarai said...

Mine are always stubborn to a fault and usually it takes a lot to admit their wrong. That being said when they do admit it the heroine is usually struck dumb for a moment. I love my men hard headed until it counts then I want them to be able to admit their wrong.
PS I also seem to write assholes and haven't figured out why???
PSS They might be assholes but I always redeem them in the end. ;)
Great post

December/Stacia said...

It's because assholes--of the right type--are dynamic. They fasconate us. And a hero must be dynamic--hell, most main characters in a book need to be dynamic. Plus, it's fun to write them, and fun to redeem them.

I like to walk a line with mine, and see just how assholey they can be without spilling over into dickhead.

Anonymous said...

"MOST of my heroes are assholes, V95!"

I forgot, you said you use me as your model. LOL

I make a joke about the limited use of my hand following the motorcycle accident. No biggie, life goes on. -V95

December/Stacia said...

Aaah. Doh. Sorry, I forgot.

Yep, you are my model, absolutely. :-) But I don't think you're an asshole. Or maybe I just dig assholes, which is entirely possible, let's face it.

Anonymous said...


Charles Gramlich said...

"Leaf" sounds cool. I always try to work in some relatively negative characteristic for any hero I have. And I have to fight to keep from cleaning that up as I work with the hero. It's just that, dammit, I want my hero to be perfect and I know I can't let him/her achieve that.

December/Stacia said...

Ooh, Charles, I have a hard time with that too! I can't let him suddenly be this perfect man, he has to still be who he is, even while doing heroic things.