The lone gunslinger walking into town. The idealistic farmboy thrust into a world he doesn’t understand. The boy who swears vengeance after seeing his parents gunned down in a dark alley. The last survivor of a doomed world sent to protect Earth.
It’s all too easy to make the villain the more interesting character in a piece. After all, they are seen as more exciting and compelling than the “goody good” hero.
But a good hero is a work of art. A masterpiece of storytelling so compelling that we cannot turn away, no matter what. A skilled storyteller can create a hero so memorable that it defines the story and leaves a long-lasting mark on the audience.
So, what makes a great hero?
1: Humanity. A great hero has flaws and desires that we can relate to. It’s very easy to create a flawless protagonist who never suffers from doubt or makes mistakes, but that character gets boring very quickly. I don’t want to just see a hero who is flawed. I want to see a hero who can rise above those base elements of himself and triumph over not only the adversity inflicted upon him by others, but the adversity he brings upon himself.
2: Something to lose. I find protagonists who have no stake in the story the most boring of all. I quickly lose interest in such characters. Whether it be a loved one, a valued position at work, or a particular circle of friends, I want to know that the hero stands to lose something from his involvement in the story. A smart reader knows that the hero won’t die halfway through the story, because if the hero dies, the story ends. There needs to be something else, something greater, than the hero risks losing, in order for the story to have drama.
3: Loss. Going further, the hero needs to actually lose something in the course of the story. There needs to be some measure of sacrifice before the final victory. A loved one is killed. A relationship ends. A job is lost. If a hero escapes the final conflict unscathed, their victory is lessened by the last of sacrifice needed to achieve it.
4: Inspiration. The true mark of a hero is that they can lay bare their weaknesses and failings, and yet still stand tall and fight the good fight. They inspire us to be better people that those we are. Through them, we believe that a better way is possible, that we too can rise above our base desires and make a difference. Heroes make us want to better ourselves.
5: Victory. When it comes down to it, I’m a child who never grew up. When the hero’s made his sacrifices, watched the things he loves be threatened or lost, and stood against the tide because, dammit, that’s what heroes do, I want him to damn well win. Not some cheap trick where the villain is undercut at the last minute, but a proper throw-down, mentally, socially or physically, where the hero embraces his destiny, the music rises, and we know that this is the one person to can defeat the villain and bring victory for the greater good. It’s the Luke Skywalker moment, when only the hero can save the day. This is our reward, as readers or audience members, for suffering alongside the hero in his trials. This is the moment when our faith is rewarded.
So I leave you with this, and the question. What, to you, makes a hero?