Why Investing In Your Hero Pays Off

As writers, we need to study and learn from those we admire. It’s the only way to discover what makes them successful. Earlier this year, I talked about this TEDtalks video with J.J. Abrams.

Around 12:20, Abrams advises us to invest in our characters. He says the focus of our own writing shouldn’t be on the big, flashy elements. On a similar note, we shouldn’t approach old ideas with the intent to give them a new twist. Rather, Abrams preaches that we rip off the characters. “Rip off the stuff that matters,” he says. “Look inside yourself and figure out what’s inside you.”

What draws us to a particular character is therefore a significant approach to story analysis. After all, it’s the qualities of a character that cause us to invest in their lives for 300+ pages, or countless hours of television.

Anatomy of a Hero

Everyone loves a hero, am I right? The story’s centerpiece. The person destined to save the world. The likable one. It’s easy to frame your hero as a stereotype. We all know the essence of what makes a hero, but we don’t always know how to give them a unique flair.

I suggest three main ingredients for creating a solid hero:

  • believability
  • conflict
  • morality

In the most far-fetched stories, believability still counts. If a character doesn’t feel real to me, I’ll move on to another story. Even in science fiction or fantasy, realism is relevant to a degree. Without it, we won’t relate to our hero.

Flawed Realism

Personally, I dig characters with deep flaws. The more the better, but the deepest the best. I want to see my hero struggle. Make mistakes. Refuse to learn from those mistakes. Then, fall harder.

I honestly don’t think I’d care whether or not they fail their goal as long as I can glimpse their souls in the process.

Basically, even with heroes, conflict is crucial. I don’t just mean arguments and obstacles impeding a hero’s journey. Inner conflict is just as spicy.

Mommy Issues

Two of my favourite examples of hero conflict showcase in Sydney Bristow (Alias) and Aeryn Sun (Farscape). Hear me out:

  • Both women grew up without their mother
  • As a result, each created her own beliefs and ideals about her mother
  • Both shaped their adult lives around those ideals, mimicking them
  • Both are destined to confront their mothers
  • Through this, their ideals are shattered by the truth
  • Both must now live with the knowledge that their mothers never wanted them

I’m sure neither J.J. Abrams nor Rockne O’Bannon traded notes on their prospective characters’ story arcs. However, this example alone illustrates Abrams’ point about ripping off what matters. Alias and Farscape are leagues away from being the same story. They aren’t even the same genre! But they are connected by a single relatable element—childhood delusion of the Perfect Parent.

The Final Touch

The last important element to great heroes is a sense of morality. Sure, the expression of morality (or lack thereof) in literature won’t please everyone. And we all have our own reservations or limitations on what to tolerate from media.

Personally, I’m all for literary realism. It’s important as a culture that we don’t shy away from sensitive subjects. We should embrace them. Discuss or debate, by all means. But do something. Literature is a portal through which to analyze our world, challenge our beliefs. And if we’re lucky, aim to better ourselves.

Human nature—nay, life—encompasses the grisly as much as the nurturing. As long as something is used to further a story or develop a character accordingly, use it. Don’t, however, include things just to have it there. Especially sensitive or taboo things.

Be true to your characters and your plot. But leave questions of morality in the hands of potential readers. Free will can govern them.

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