Heroes are intricate folks, no?
Think of all the weight your protagonist carries on his shoulders. He’s the focal point of the narrative. He drives the plot. He’s the one who saves the day (or fails, trying).
And so much more.
Even if you’re writing a multiple-viewpoint book, someone has to take the lead. While ensemble casts have been in vogue of late (I see a ton of this as a fiction editor), and that’s all fine and good, your tale still needs to be somebody’s story.
And while yes, all the secondary characters think the book is about them, and parts of it surely is, the main point of the story belongs to the protagonist.
So, what traits form a successful hero to your story? Let’s talk about 6 vital ones:
- First off, she has to be engaging.
Do your readers have to like her? It sure makes life simpler for you, the author, if they do. Then half your battle is done as you begin.
If you chose to have a not-so-likeable main character, she better have traits that intrigue your reader enough to stay hooked into the pages.
Because in essence, the protagonist is the person your reader signs up with to journey the course of the novel.
- Next, we meet him very early.
Page one is best, but if you use a Prologue, Chapter One works fine.
The first person your readers meet is a signal to them. Again, most often the protagonist is that person. Your reader thinks, okay, I’m hanging with John through this story.
If you deviate from this structure, just know that you’ve given your reader a confusing signal, and you’ll need to clear this up when the real hero arrives.
Often, we see Thrillers, Murder Mysteries, Mystery Suspense that begin with the bad guy. This is one example that isn’t confusing to readers, as they’re used to that structure. And, it’s apparent early on that we’re in the killer’s viewpoint to begin the book with a bang.
But usually, we begin the tale with the real life of our hero. Your reader meets him, gets used to things about him, and is all set to go full steam ahead.
- We spend most of our time in her viewpoint.
Of course, if this is a single-viewpoint book, that goes without saying.
But even if this is a multi-viewpoint tale, the good rule of thumb is to spend roughly 75% of the time in her head.
Writers often chaff at this. Perhaps you have too. I mean, so much is going on elsewhere, which affects our hero, even if she’s not in the scene, right?
Right. At least if the story is multidimensional.
But the thing is, always remember: She’s the one your reader signed on with to journey through the plot twists of this book. If you spend too much time away from her, the reader’s interest wanes. If a secondary character is more engaging than the protagonist, maybe you need to rethink whose story this is!
- Whenever she’s in the scene, we’re in her viewpoint.
This is another signal for your reader, especially early on. It’s her story, right? We’re with her most of the time.
And, we care most about what her perceptions are, not those of the clerk at the grocery story. Or usually, even her boyfriend’s.
Now, this is again a rule of thumb. You can break this rule, but do so intentionally, knowing you risk throwing your reader for a curve.
And while yes, we need to get others’ perceptions of her, the skilled writer does that while still in her viewpoint, through other characters’ actions, words, and expressions.
- The protagonist has the biggest effect on the story.
It’s his tale, right? Events aren’t just happening to him, he’s driving the plot, no?
So very often as a fiction editor, I see manuscripts where someone else saves the day. The damsel in distress is saved by the prince. Or the hero finds himself in a situation where his buddy, the cops, Deus ex Machina—someone or some thing—comes in and slays the beast, fixing it all.
Can you see why this is an issue? It’s our main character with whom we’ve been with all this time, watching him face trials and tribulations and master skills, etc.
If he doesn’t muster all of that to successfully turn the story, at precise plot points, and finally, at the climax, why the heck were we with him all this time? I’d rather be with the hero. Wouldn’t you?
Again, he can fail, as in a tragedy. Or, die trying, although in this scenario, he has reached the goal (think Gladiator, et al).
For a satisfying story, if not for the hero, the grail would not be reached, the wrong righted, the girl gotten, etc.
- And finally, the protagonist is the one who grows and changes the most.
She’s been through the wringer, no? All these events happened to her. She’s been chasing a lofty goal. She’s had to learn to new skills, master issues both internal and external.
It took all of the things she learned, for her to be able to fight the final battle, whatever that might be.
If she hasn’t learned through this process, she hasn’t had enough process to go through. If she hasn’t grown, then what was the point of the book?
Yes, heroes are tricky folks to write. And, they’re like the rest of us, but not exactly.
In real life, we want our heroes, but we want them to behave like everybody else. In a book, with such limited space, our hero needs that larger-than-life quality that sets him apart.
So go make your hero unforgettable!