Tuesday, July 3, 2012

What makes a hero?

So now I finally have a reliable Internet connection out here in the middle of nowhere, it's time to sweep the dust off the blog and get going again. Since I've just started a new book, I thought I'd chat about some of the things I've been thinking about lately (including the long-awaited topic of Beginnings which is up next!). 

Keeping in mind how long I've been offline, it's only fair I warn you it's a long one. Go get coffee!  

Today we're talking heroes. When I looked up the definition of the word at dictionary.com one of them was: 

A person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal.

 For me one of the key statements in there is "in the opinion of others" because, let's face it, we all have our own ideal. All a writer can do is tap into what are generally considered some of the key elements, expanding on the character with traits they personally consider heroic. The hope is that readers will agree, though that isn't always the case.With that in mind I'm going to list some of the things I like to think all my romance heroes have in common. Feel free to add to the list in the comments. I'll be fascinated to hear your thoughts! 
  • Code of Honor 
A hero will possess a strong set of values which even when tested will remain unshakable. By maintaining his integrity we'll know he's someone who can be relied on when things get tough. This is a man with strong personal beliefs who is prepared to stand up for them. If he bales at any point it's only because he thinks it's the right/honorable thing to do.
  • Inner Strength 
 As strong as he may be physically, it's a hero's inner strength which will carry him through the most difficult times. Even if the problem he's facing is something which will test him to his limit, he'll dig deep and tap into a reserve he might not have known was there. The obvious way to help create conflict is to introduce into the story the one thing which will demonstrate his weakness but the harder he has to fight for his reward, the more we'll want him to get it. 
  •  Determination
 This guy doesn't give up easily. When he makes up his mind he wants something he'll move heaven and earth to get it. In moments of weakness, or when he has doubts, determination (combined with the next trait) will give him the impetus to continue. Without it he might use his inner strength to hold his ground and defend his position, stopping the story from moving forward and making it impossible for the character to grow. 
  • Courage
 A hero has courage in the face of adversity. It's not just a case of stepping up to the plate, what makes him brave-and therefore heroic-is he sets his fears aside and is prepared to risk everything without any guarantee of success. If he doesn't succeed at the first attempt or keeps fighting when it seems all is lost it just makes us love him even more. 
  • Inspirational
Through his actions a hero will inspire others to mirror the traits they most admire; the aforementioned courage, determination and having the strength to keep going when things get tough being prime examples of universally aspirational qualities. The theory here is whoever ends up with our hero will be better off with him in their life. If they aren't then the ending of the story won't make for much of a Happily Ever After. 
  • Attractive
Biologically speaking we aren't typically drawn to mate with the weakest of the species, which for my money is a big part of the reason why alpha males are so prevalent as heroes in romance novels. But while there's no arguing some of the attraction is purely physical, a hero possesses a combination of elements which allow his relationship with the heroine to develop from 'infatuation' to 'consummate love' in psychology terms. The latter is a total package of passion, deep emotional intimacy and commitment. In order to get there the hero must be attractive on more than one level. This may well prove the subject of most debate (refer back to the above definition of a hero and the point made about an an 'ideal') but here I would list things like a sense of humor, intelligence, integrity, dependability, trustworthiness, etc..
  •  Flawed
Although it seems like a contradiction when compared to all the positive qualities I've listed, if a hero is too perfect it is difficult for us to connect to him. He may be arrogant, cocky, stubborn and intractable-he may even be ruthless, vengeful and have anger management issues (traits which we don't tend to admire)-but by having a rational explanation for these flaws we can forgive a lot, or at the very least understand why they are there. Make him succeed despite his flaws and he's still considered heroic, especially if he's become aware of them and made a effort to correct his behavior. 
  • Wounded
Every hero has been damaged at some point prior to the beginning of the story. Whether caused by a broken heart, a sense of loss, abandonment, betrayal or guilt (or any number of other things), the emotional scars run deep and cause him to erect a protective inner 'wall' to guard against further damage. This not only makes him human and garners empathy, it also provides one of the key elements for telling a story; an emotional journey. In a romance this begins when he meets someone he perceives as a threat to his defences, escalates the conflict when he tries to protect himself by pushing them away, heightens the risk when his protective walls are breached and ultimately allows him to become a more heroic figure when he battles through his issues to emerge victorious. By the end of this journey he will be emotionally healed, learned something from the experience and grown as a character. 

Of course all this holds as true for a heroine as it is does for a hero but having said that it's NOT a formula. Make the characters too similar and it's difficult to create conflict. Make them too dissimilar and there's a very good chance never the twain shall meet. In real life we tend to be drawn to like-minded people-and there's nothing wrong with that!-but mix with people who have different perspectives and we have a greater chance to grow. For that reason I like to aim for a happy medium with my fictional characters, or at the very least balance them out enough to 'fill in the gaps'. 

When I asked my friends on Twitter what they thought made a hero they brought up some interesting points. 

@CertainshadesL said: humility. Humor. Warmth. Smart. Not damaged in some cliche way.

Having said I'll add a flaw like arrogance to my hero it might seem like I disagree with him having humility but that's not true at all. If I have a hero who is arrogant, I like to think my heroine will teach him a little humility. At the same time I tend to make him humble about the things he should be proud of. It's that balance thing again-even if it's a little out of whack. Humor is high on my list, as people who know me are well aware! Warmth is another one we can play around with. Our hero may be cold at the beginning, but there will be a reason for it. When we get glimpses of warmth it makes us look at him differently and question why he can be so cold. Once we have an answer, we can begin to understand his conflict. Smart I think stems back to that 'mate with the strongest of the species' element of attraction. The hunter who could work out how to outwit his prey was more likely to provide for his family and no matter how far we've evolved, intelligence is still key to our survival. The last comment is so important it's worth a paragraph all of its own... 

When I first started my writing career my good friend Natasha Oakley and I used to joke about the body count in our books. She was particularly good at killing babies. My forte was, and remains to be, parents. But these days-and as CertainshadesL has just proved-readers expect more. Unpredictable has become the name of the game in romance writing. In New York's Finest Rebel my hero has PTSD and as a Marine Reserve who has just returned from a war zone the assumption is something happened to him when he was overseas. Not true but I'll not spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it yet. Avoiding cliches isn't easy, but finding a way of making something a tad different, unexpected or adding a new twist is something I think we should always try to do. Whether or not we always succeed in the eyes of a reader is another matter entirely.

 @baudyhallee  said: Heroes have a sense of purpose in life even if it's not all encompassing yet. They grow. They influence. Hope is involved.

I totally agree with all of this but want to focus on the last statement in particular. For me, this is one of the key elements of a story whether it's a romance or has romantic elements. Every one of us pick up a book with an expectation of what we'll get from it-it's the reason series romances are marketed in groups with a specific kind of cover to make it easier for readers to find them. When we're introduced to a hero and heroine in a romance the expectation is they'll end up together, so technically speaking there is a sense of hope from the beginning. But that's not what we're talking about here. I think what we're talking about is the hope for a future beyond the end of the story. If we see people battle their inner demons and overcome the odds it gives us hope we can do the same thing-which brings us back to the point of a hero inspiring others. From that point of view their influence stretches further than the fictional characters who inhabit the world they live in. What it means is they have connected with the reader. Manage that and the writer has done their job. 

If anyone has any questions or wants to expand on/disagree with anything I've said just leave me a comment. Same goes for any topics you'd like me to cover after the subject of Beginnings which I SWEAR is up next!


Janet said...

Great to see you back on your blog, Trish :)

"Avoiding cliches isn't easy, but finding a way of making something a tad different, unexpected or adding a new twist is something I think we should always try to do."

M&B editors seem to want different, but not too different! Getting it right is so difficult. I'd love to see a blog post on unpredictability and twists.
(I hadn't realised this unpredictabilty is needed in the character's back stories too. I usually give mine the cliched difficult childhood.)

Desere said...

Very insightful blog post Trish ,I loved it nicely done !

Trish Wylie said...

Hi Janet, it's great to be back! How are you?

Yes, it is a fine line sometimes but at the same time I think it's a very exciting time to be writing for them. Was thinking unpredictability might be a good topic to cover. Shall DEFINITELY cover it after the long awaited one on beginnings! And yes, anywhere you can put a slightly different spin on things is great. I think its a case of sticking with the tried and trusted elements readers love while at the same time taking a few chances. Shall go into more detail in the blog!

Trish Wylie said...

Thank you Desire and HELLO! Long time no *see*. :)

Maya said...

I agree with everything said here.

I also think heroes fundamentally believe in the good in others even if they start out damaged in some way.

Usually, it seems, even the most cynical heroes are trying to protect others from experiencing perhaps a pain they themselves felt?

For example,a seemingly embittered cop, or law enforcement person is still out there fighting the good fight no matter the front they put on for others.

I look at my favorite example, the superhero genre.

You have two very opposite types in Batman and Superman. Batman is a man who was damaged by events in his childhood and then spends his adult life trying to make sure nobody else suffers what he did. He believes in humanity because he's trying to save it.

Superman is the more hopeful hero (or was before DC's ill conceived reboot) who isn't fighting the types of demons Batman is yet has his own because he's so different. He's an alien with great power who could take over the world, yet it wouldn't cross his mind to abuse his power.

These to me are extremes of hero types. Yet what they have in common is their belief that they can make a difference and the world a better place.

They believe in something bigger than themselves. They also have a core of decency and respect toward those who deserve it. That to me is a hero.

Sorry for the ramble!

Trish Wylie said...

Ramble all you want honey! Some excellent (and very valid for the stories in my current series!) points made.

I totally agree and often draw from comic book heroes for traits in my romance heroes.

"Usually, it seems, even the most cynical heroes are trying to protect others from experiencing perhaps a pain they themselves felt?"

This is so true. I think they're also very keen to protect the people closest to them from feeling empathy-or even worse, sypathy-for the pain they carry. They see it as THEIR burden if that makes sense.

"I also think heroes fundamentally believe in the good in others even if they start out damaged in some way... For example,a seemingly embittered cop, or law enforcement person is still out there fighting the good fight no matter the front they put on for others."

Again SO TRUE and bang on for the series I'm currently wrapping up with this WIP. They may not see themselves as good guys but the very fact they're still out there fighting says otherwise. The stories very much focus on what doing that costs them. Should probably have put self-sacrificing on the list, shouldn't I?

Desere said...

Hello Trish ! Yes it has been a long time sorry about that work and LIFE has interfered with my INTERNET "stalking" but I will pop in again as soon as I can.

Trish Wylie said...

LOL Desere. Don't worry honey. I haven't been around much to stalk or BE stalked ;) We'll get caught up soon my friend.