What’s a hero to you?

Helga’s Post # 42 –


Our recent posts prompted a lot of stimulating dialogue. How much should writers make their protagonist suffer, torture even, to create a hero that earns readers’ sympathy and respect. We explored the context and different kinds of suffering that strengthens a hero, and conversely, what makes some protagonists come across merely as victims.

Great comments all around.

What else can we writers do to create memorable characters? What other elements beyond making our heroes suffer can we endow them with? What tools can we use to make them even more compelling?

An even more fundamental question: When does a protagonist become a hero, and what types of heroes do readers love most? I think the answer is somewhat subjective because we don’t all like the same books. But regardless of the type of hero we like best, some just earn more of our love and respect because we didn’t make it easy for them.

Let’s say as an example, our character is a young talented fellow, about to graduate from Harvard, top of the class, excelling in sports. He finds himself in a real pickle, the perfect vicious kind. Some goons armed with knives have taken his equally gifted, talented girlfriend, also top of the class. Naturally he wants to save her and get her back. He has to fight four armed thugs all by himself, with his bare hands, but hey, what’s the big deal? Been there, done that. He knows he can do it. His parents put him in martial arts training at the age of five. He’s the fastest, the strongest and smartest of his peers. A blue-blooded A-list kind of guy. He’s been working out every day in the gym, so he’s all muscle and well prepared. Having been trained by the best, he fears nothing.

A picture book hero. An extraordinary achiever. A Superman kind of guy.


Nobody is interested in such a character. How then can we make him more interesting, his dilemma and quest more compelling?

By challenging him in different ways. By creating him in a way that most readers can identify with. Make him LESS perfect, not more. Maybe change his background. Perhaps he wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He learned street fighting in back alleys. He built his strength by working out at home and by running and hiking. He holds two jobs to get himself through college. Something like that. And give him some flaws. Some inner conflicts and temptations he can’t always resist. Make him human.

Or make poster-boy special by the way the events of the story change him. How much more effective would it be if our Harvard fellow struggles to make his grades. He falls in love with a girl from a less privileged background. Maybe a cashier at the student cafeteria. His parents object. He starts to realize that everything has been given to him. He’s had to earn nothing by himself. Not the car, not the credit cards, not the generous allowance. His parents pay for his tuition, his haircuts, his private trainer. He realizes he needs to find his identity. No more unearned privileges. He ‘drops out’. He rebels. He turns into an anti-hero.

Admittedly, it’s a fine line to draw a character most readers will like. Authors can’t please every reader equally. We all have preferences and prejudices. There are however certain attributes that our best-loved protagonists demonstrate time and again. It comes down to one important rule: No stereotypes. No perfect heroes.

Give me Batman, not Superman. I love anti-heroes.

Anti-heroes are fascinating characters. Even if the main character isn’t the anti-hero, there should be one in every story. Let’s look at some attributes of heroes vs. anti-heroes to help determine which one is right for your story.


Sir Galahad, a hero of Arthurian legend, detail of a painting by George Frederic Watts

Classic Heroes: ‘Knights in Shining Armor’.

Tend to be idealistic. They have conventional moral values. They never waver. Can be complex, but usually not ambivalent. Everything they do is perfect. Everything they say is perfect. They always pick the right option, to the amazement of everyone. They will face conflict bravely.

Examples: Sherlock Holmes, Anne of Green Gables, Jamie Fraser (Outlander series)

Anti-Heroes: ‘Loveable Rogues’

They tend to be realistic. They want whatever they can get. They are mysterious, unpredictable and compelling.  Often rough, anti-social characters who come around. If the character is male, he can be a womanizer. They won’t commit to a relationship. They will try to get around conflict with devious tactics. They are often brash but have a streak of loyalty that is heroic and admirable. They appeal to our human side.

Examples: Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With the Wind), Lisbeth Salander (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Chili Palmer (Get Shorty), Don Draper (Mad Men), Tony Soprano, Hedda Gabler, and of course Macbeth.

Perhaps it can be summed up simply like this:

Classic heroes get our respect.

Anti-heroes get our love.

Now it’s your turn to speak: Which type of characters do YOU love best? And why ?

6 thoughts on “What’s a hero to you?

  1. I’d take issue with MacBeth – he’s not an anti-hero, he’s caught in forces beyond his control. He’s a good but ambitious, flawed and weak man who was pushed into doing what he knew was wrong, and events quickly grew beyond his ability to manipulate them. Anti-heros, for me, are people who, for one reason or another, usually an inner brokenness, have turned their back on normal human interactions. They distance themselves, pretend they don’t care about love, laws or right and wrong, when in actual fact, they do. That’s partly why they’re heroes – by reluctantly doing the right thing, they manage to resolve their inner brokenness, unintentionally. Which is why, to us, they’re heroes – they sacrifice their own isolation, they put themselves at risk, either physically or emotionally in order to benefit someone else. And isn’t that a pretty good definition of any hero? Real or fiction? Someone who sacrifices themselves, or puts themselves at risk, for someone else’s benefit?

    • Bev, thanks so much for your insightful comment. I spent a fair bit of time researching the topic of antiheroes and enjoyed the process. It’s a complex and fascinating topic and there is so much more to learn. I kind of expected I’d get some disagreement about Macbeth and should have left him off the list. You are right, he doesn’t fit the anti-hero mold for the reasons you outlined. Recalling my English-Lit courses at SFU (long ago), Macbeth was presented as a tragic hero, rather than anti-hero. A better example for this blog would be “The Maltese Falcon”, where the protagonist and star, Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, has spawned a new anti-hero sub-archetype, the grizzled, world-weary, working-class detective.

    • Flawless characters are predictable and offer little in the way of suspense unless they develop some flaws along the way. Also, one reason we identify with such characters is that they remind us of our own flaws.

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