Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed: “How to Write Heroes: An Incomplete Primer” • by Auston Habershaw

Previously: “How to Write a Good Bad Guy”

Okay, so the first thing to keep in mind here is that the idea of what makes a “hero” is enormous and varied and in most cases culturally and historically informed—defining the term is a much slipperier task than you think. So in the interest of brevity, let’s cut to the chase: for the purposes of this article, the hero of your story is the main character, and their task is to resolve the conflict. Everything else—whether they’re good people or bad people, whatever their shape/gender/race/sexuality, whether they’re powerful or weak—all that is subject to the kind of story you are trying to tell and it’s not my business to interfere. However, it is my objective to tell you how to write your heroes better, and by better I mean more interesting, more compelling, and more memorable. So, my rules:

#1: A Hero is Actively Engaged in Resolving the Conflict

The key here is actively. One of the core definitions of a hero is that they are just about always the protagonist of the work—the person who is forced to deal with the conflict created by the plot. A protagonist needs to deal with their problems somehow. They need to do things and make decisions. Katniss Everdeen volunteers as tribute—this is an heroic act. She chooses to engage in the conflict and she makes active decisions the entire time, thus driving the narrative forward even if she isn’t the most powerful person in her world.

A passive protagonist is someone who does not make decisions on their own and does not take actions that shift the narrative—they are basically along for the ride, victims of forces beyond their control. Such heroes are frequently less interesting to watch; they are passengers in their own stories.

#2: A Hero is Relatable

We need to be able to connect emotionally with the hero. There are literally innumerable ways to do this, but if we don’t do it, we rapidly cease to care about the action of the story, novel, or book. If Harry Potter were to be portrayed as Malfoy is, we would have a hard time connecting with the story, because screw that little jerk.

However it is also important to note that relatable is not the same as beloved. It is okay to dislike what the hero is doing, but we need to understand why they are doing it and understand or perhaps even sympathize. A great example of this is Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen—we don’t like that he is leaving the Earth to nuclear apocalypse, but as we learn more about what it is like to be him, we understand and even relate to his deep sense of alienation.

Now, relatability is not universal—not everyone can relate to every character—and that’s okay. I, for instance, cannot stand Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. I find him selfish, maudlin, irresponsible, and stupid. But that’s just me—I have specific personal reasons for rejecting his worldview—and many many other people have connected to him on a deep level.

#3: A Hero Possesses Admirable Characteristics
All heroes, even disreputable ones, possess a set of qualities that we admire somehow. Now, the list of these things is exhaustive and possibly infinite, but the point is that there needs to be something in the hero that makes them rise above the ordinary for us and makes them in some way ideal. This quality resonates even if they fail (and sometimes even because they do!). A prime example of this is Santiago in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Santiago is an elderly, unsuccessful fisherman who is poor, largely friendless, and being eclipsed by the modern world. He goes out, suffers and labors to bring in the world’s biggest fish, and then has it devoured by sharks before he even gets back to shore to show anyone. He loses. But his stoic resistance to pain, his perseverance against adversity, and his will to live are all inspiring.

This also goes for heroes we don’t especially like and would never, ever want to be. We don’t happen to like Henry Hill from Goodfellas, but nevertheless he does represent a kind of idealized masculinity—he provides for his family, he is loyal to his friends, and he doesn’t take lip from anybody. We might not do what he does, but we do admire much of what he represents (who wouldn’t want stacks of under-the-table cash, right?).

#4: A Hero Has Vulnerabilities
So, this is the part where you assume I’m going to talk about Superman and Kryptonite. But you’re wrong! You see, kryptonite is not Superman’s weakness. Superman’s weakness is his moral center.

Allow me to explain: a hero cannot be perfect. This is not because they need to be able to be harmed by the bad guys—granted that is a very common vulnerability—but rather a hero needs a vulnerability that enhances and draws attention to their heroic qualities. The best Superman conflicts are not kryptonite-centered—kryptonite is just a plot device. They are always, always based in his deep empathy for the human race and his desire to save everyone. This vulnerability is demonstrated when, in the first movie, Luthor launches missiles in opposite directions—one of which will kill Lois, and the other which will kill Miss Tessmacher’s mother (and everybody else in northern New Jersey). Superman promises to save Miss Tessmacher’s mother first, and that—his honesty, his basic goodness—is his primary vulnerability. That vulnerability enhances what makes him heroic to us, too! It all fits together!
Likewise, Iron Man’s vulnerability is his arrogance, Star Lord’s vulnerability is his immaturity, Wonder Woman’s vulnerability is her naiveté, and all those vulnerabilities reflect and complement what makes them heroic in the first place.

#5: A Hero Must Change
Last, and definitely not least, any satisfying story leaves the hero changed somehow. Heroes—protagonists—should be dynamic characters. Their efforts to resolve the conflict must have real effects on their personal, physical, or emotional status. If this doesn’t happen, then the conflict does not seem to have mattered. Heroic stories are not sitcoms, where everything goes back to the way it was before the next episode. In The Dark Knight, Batman is forced to sacrifice his heroic reputation in Gotham City in order to make it safer. Conversely, in Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker has fully embraced his role as a Jedi and resolved his feelings towards his father. These endings are satisfying to us because the hero has changed as a result of their struggles.
One way to consider why this shift in character circumstances is important is to analyze Star Trek movies. All the good Trek movies (The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country,  for instance) see Kirk—our hero—fundamentally changed from the person he was at the beginning of the film. All the bad ones (Star Trek the Motion Picture, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and Star Trek: Insurrection) end with the characters in pretty much the same place they were at the beginning, with the whole affair being stuffed in a closet and never mentioned again.

So, in the end, I advocate for writing active, relatable heroes who are a mixture of admirable traits and corresponding vulnerabilities who change as a result of their struggles to resolve the conflict. Past that, it’s all up to you, folks. Good luck!

On the day Auston Habershaw was born, Skylab fell from the heavens. This foretold two possible fates: supervillain or sci-fi / fantasy author. Fortunately he chose the latter, and spends his time imagining the could-be and never-was rather than disintegrating the moon with his volcano laser. He is a winner of the Writers of the Future Contest and has published short stories in F&SF, Analog, and Galaxy’s Edge, among other places. His fantasy series, The Saga of the Redeemed, is published through Harper Voyager—the final installment of which, The Far Far Better Thing, will be released in November of 2018. He lives and works in Boston, MA, and you can find him online at aahabershaw.com.

His first appearance in Stupefying Stories was “Thief of Hearts” in Stupefying Stories #7, and his next appearance will be “Upon the Blood-Dark Sea,” coming September 1st in Stupefying Stories #22