What’s a hero to you?

Helga’s Post # 42 –

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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.

Yawn.

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.

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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 ?

But I liked the book so much better than the movie!

Paula’s Post #10

But I liked the book so much better than the movie!

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How often have we heard these words? How often have we turned to a friend, a spouse, a relative or colleague and admitted that we really liked the book ever so much more than the movie?

Maybe I should set the scene:

The credits roll, you shuffle your way up the aisle and search for the trash receptacle to jettison all that remains of something north of thirty bucks shelled out for two tickets, a couple of jumbo sized drinks and a tub of popcorn. The line up to the women’s restroom snakes out the door and you calculate the odds of arriving home in comfort without first making a visit to the inner sanctum.

You leave feeling flat, dissatisfied or even angry by Hollywood’s interpretation of your favourite book.

You’ve been left wanting.

Maybe the producers have changed the book in some way. Created some bizarre plot twist pulled from who knows where but certainly not from the pages of the novel we read. Certainly not from the pages of the novel we loved.

Seeing a character we’ve loved and rooted for transformed into something so far removed from the person you imagined is disturbing.

But why? Both are just ‘fiction’ after all. A bit of nonsense conjured out of nowhere by the storyteller.

Then why are we so disturbed?

In my humble opinion, the answer lies in the experience of reading. When we read a book, we crawl into the skin of a character and see the world through that character’s eyes. We live, if only for three or four hundred pages, a life so very different from our own.

In Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, first published in 1936, the characters came so vividly to life for Ms. Mitchell’s many readers, the topic of who should play Scarlett and Rhett overtook baseball as America’s favourite pastime.

In 1936, legendary producer David O. Selznick acquired the film rights for $50,000, (at the time, an unprecedented sum, particularly as he acquired the rights just months after the book’s initial publication, long before the commercial potential of the novel was fully appreciated).

But Selznick’s foresight paid off when in 1937, the book won the Pulitzer prize for fiction and became a best seller, with an initial 1.5 million copies sold. (Flash forward to the present and the sales figures skyrocket to an astounding 30 million copies).

By the time the film production was announced, readers of Ms. Mitchell’s novel were clamouring to have their favourite actors and actresses cast in the film. Selznick, of course, worried most about Scarlett and Rhett, Ms. Mitchell’s vivid, memorable lead characters.

Who would play Scarlett?

Who would play Rhett?

Selznick’s company, as an independent entity, generally ‘borrowed’ actors under contract to other major studios.

For his part, Selznick’s first choice for Rhett was the very popular Gary Cooper, while Warner Bros. offered up Errol Flynn, Olivia DeHavilland and Bette Davis as a package deal, mounting a strong campaign to have Bette Davis play Scarlett.

But the public had other ideas, and eventually Selznick agreed that Clark Gable, then Hollywood’s number one box office draw, was the only possible choice for Rhett. Selznick needed both Gable and MGM’s financial backing and in return for the loan of Gable, Louis B. Mayer demanded a piece of the film, securing half of the profits in exchange for covering half the production budget and lending out Gable to Selznick.

But what about Scarlett?

That was the question everyone was talking about. Selznick announced a nationwide search, seeking a young unknown to play the role of Scarlett (who, you might recall, was just 16 in the novel’s opening chapters). Months of scouring women’s colleges and amateur theatrical societies failed to locate Selznick’s vision for Scarlett. Reluctantly, he again turned to the dozen’s of established actresses fighting for the role of a lifetime, including then 36-year-old Tallulah Bankhead, (a bona fide Southerner from Huntsville Alabama), whom Selznick considered too old and who apparently did not photograph well in ‘Technicolor’. Katharine Hepburn made an appointment with Selznick and ‘demanded’ she be cast in the role, (Selznick apparently told her he could not picture Rhett Butler chasing her for 12 years, all over the south), even Lucille Ball fell under consideration.

But in the end, Selznick chose Vivien Leigh. Almost every film buff has heard the legendary story of how Ms. Leigh, the great Laurence Olivier’s young fiancee won over Selznick when he observed the young Englishwoman, a guest of his brother Myron, during the backlot ‘burning of Atlanta scenes’. But when Selznick eventually announced his choice, the public greeted her selection with dismay, convinced she was ‘too English’ to play Scarlett.

Eventually, Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett went on to earn the admiration of readers and filmgoers alike. Not so poor Leslie Howard, cast as long suffering Ashley Wilkes. Badgered into a role Howard had no desire to play, he felt that at 45, he was a too long in the tooth to play the romantic obsession of sixteen year old Scarlett. “I hate the damn part,” he famously complained, but Selznick was adamant on casting the middle aged Londoner as a 21 year old Georgian gentleman.

Why is this all so important? What does this have to do with writing.

Everything.

We writers sit alone in our rooms, writing. Characters are created, sometimes from our imagination, sometimes the fictionalized reincarnation of someone we know or have known. Sometimes our characters are semi-autobiographical, sometimes complete figments of our imagination. But to us, they often become, well, real. And in a very good book, real to the reader as well.

They live, they breathe, they speak. Anyone who has written fiction will know the strange sensation of having one’s character ‘hijack’ the dialogue. Our characters can and do blurt out the most outrageous things. Lines we were never conscious of thinking, but words that  instead seem to spring from the mouths of the characters we have created.

My point is that memorable characters live not only on the pages we write, but in the minds of our readers. Our readers see our characters, our readers feel their emotions and experience their struggles. And very often, they picture exactly what the character looks like in real life.

If we’ve done it right, we’ve made them care.

If you doubt how ‘memorable’ a character can be, picture Ronald Reagan as aloof, world weary anti-hero, Rick Blaine in Casablanca. Laughable, isn’t it? But legend has it he almost got the part.

So, my ‘post of the week’ is a plea for all of us to work hard on our characters, to make our characters matter, to make our readers care.

I’d love to see some comments from our followers with examples of films where they felt Hollywood got it right: maybe Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in the 2009 Swedish version of The Gril with The Dragon Tattoo:

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And how about, just for fun, where they think Hollywood got it wrong. Okay, I admit the film isn’t even out yet, and the trailers are apparently pretty good, but did anyone really picture diminutive Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, Lee Child’s iconic iconic, 6’5 anti-hero? Lee Child has more than 60 million copies of his novels in print, so we can predict a huge number of film-goers will weigh-in  on this one, starting with my 5writers colleague Joe, and our founder and still honorary member of our critique group, Sean Slater.

Let’s hear from you!

Oh, and a little show and tell about my progress to date:

Pie’s eaten this week: 0 – (just don’t ask about cheeseburgers or fish tacos).

Pages Written to Date: 41

Target Page Count: 400

Pages Short of Target: 359

Word Count: 11,358

Target Word Count: 100,000

Words short of Target: 88,642

That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

🙂