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High Drama and Heroism

I’m no hero.  Not the kind who faces physical danger, anyway.  I don’t risk my life on a regular basis, unless you consider flying across the country in a commercial jetliner, seated in Business First, to be risking one’s life.  (If you do, hey.  I’m doing just that as I type this post.)

No, I’m no hero.  Under the right circumstances, I might be.  I like to think that I would.  We all like to imagine that we’d respond coolly in a crisis, put others ahead of ourselves, do the right thing and face danger without flinching.  Same with moral peril.  We’d like to speak truth, stand up, inspire others, take action when others shrink back.

Mostly we’re not called upon to do that.  Heroism falls to others.  Still, we’d like to be ready.  We are heroes inside.  We celebrate and thank those who’ve sacrificed and fought, either with weapons or with moral courage.  We hold them in the highest regard.  We organize parades, erect monuments, lay wreaths, salute, hashtag, retweet, and wipe away tears.

We need heroes, not to save us but to lift us.  To inspire.  To challenge and remind us to be our best selves.  To be brave.  That is why heroes endure in literature.  I don’t mean only gumshoes, sheriffs, military men and women, superheroes.  There was a thousand ways to face fear, and fears to face.

Fear is the key.  Facing it is what makes a hero or heroine.  That means that heroism can inspire us in any novel.  In yours.  The one you’re writing right now.  Does that sound impossible?  Does it sound over the top, pulp, unsuited to your story?  If so, I understand but let me ask you this: Don’t you think that right now the world needs more heroines and heroes?

Who is going to inspire the courage—the courage that we all want and need—if you do not?  Writing fiction is a realm in which showing courage does not fall to others.  It falls to you.


Let’s look at some ways to engineer heroism.  Recently I asked a workshop full of writers what their protagonists are most afraid of.  The answers fell into three categories: 1) Hurting or betraying loved ones.  2) Being emotionally hurt or betrayed oneself.  3) Doing the wrong thing, giving in, going to the dark side.

Interestingly, common fears that you might expect to arise quickly didn’t, such as physical injury, blindness, dying.  Perhaps those are hard to relate to?  Regardless, it is emotional peril that stirs the greatest fear.  Disappointing others.  Disappointing self.  Giving in, going down, selling out.  Failing.

Those fears are rooted in a powerful, primary emotion: experiencing shame.  Thus, building heroism starts with creating fear, and creating fear starts with shame.  So, considering your WIP and its world, what would most shame your protagonist?  What would be the worst possible humiliation?  Especially self-inflicted?

More: Whom does your protagonist least want to disappoint?  Who holds your protagonist in high regard?  Who depends upon him or her?  For whom must your protagonist be there, strong, supporting, dependable, always doing right?  You can also give your protagonists boosters and believers—perhaps one in particular—who have faith in him or her.  Strengthen those bonds.  Express that admiration or hero worship.  Have your protagonist make a promise, one important to keep.  You can also give your protagonist a code, principle, or rule to live by to which he or she steadfastly adheres.

No doubt you see what to do with those elements.  Break the bond.  Let that person down.  Make your protagonist do—once, when it counts—what is low, contemptible, cowardly, false, avoidant, weak or selfish.  In what way can your protagonist betray another?  How can she or he fail to uphold the all-important code, principle or rule?  How can your protagonist let down not only others but, worse, herself or himself?

In other words, establish what constitutes shame for your protagonist.  Then, cross that boundary.  When your protagonist goes down, we will know fear.  We will understand that anyone—you or I—can succumb.  We can also work our way back to the right side, of course, and it is that return to goodness, grace, honesty, integrity, right and self-sacrifice that stirs us, your readers, to courage.

Put simply, when your protagonist overcomes the worst possible shame then we know that we can all be heroic.


BTW, to engineer situations in which your protagonists can enact heroism, consider creating a villain.  Now, antagonists are nice to have around.  They work against your protagonists and do ill, yet generally speaking we understand antagonists.  Villains, by contrast, defy understanding.  We are (for now) unable to explain their malign actions.  Unexplained ill leaves us with only one word to describe it: evil.  You can invoke a sense of evil as villains tempt, taunt, torment and box your protagonist into dilemmas or plights.

(To review, a dilemma is a terrible choice.  A plight makes that worse by adding an unavoidable cost: Do what is right and I will take away something precious to you; do as I bid and you will gain what you most desire.  To trap your protagonist into a dilemma or plight, you must first give a villain absolute authority.  Villains rule—if only the situation.  Villains are able to impose conditions, countdowns and deadlines to increase your protagonist’s peril.)


A different kind of shame occurs when a protagonist is emotionally hurt.  To heighten that, look to your protagonist’s back story to discover the way in which your protagonist is most vulnerable.  What shamed him or her in childhood?  What memento, token, person, place or situation renews that shame?  How has your protagonist resolved, I will not let that happen again!  What defenses are in place?  How can the present-day plot problem put your protagonist in an analogous situation?  It’s happening all over again!

You know what to do with that.  Hurt your protagonist.  Later, she or he will overcome it, which takes courage.  It is noble to rise above, forgive, move on.


Succumbing to temptation or going to the dark side is the most credible when it is rooted in your protagonist’s envy.  What do others have that your protagonist wants?  What grinds that desire into your protagonist’s eyeballs, injects it under your protagonist’s skin?  Giving in to envy is the greatest defeat, especially when it happens in front of others.  Sinning in private bears little cost.  Succumbing to envy in a visible public way—think getting caught—will cause readers to squirm.  We can all imagine ourselves giving in to temptation and making mistakes because, frankly, we all are prone to envy.


What I’m talking about today may feel uncomfortable.  You may think that your protagonist isn’t that kind of hero.  I say, why not?  We love heroes and heroines in classic novels.  We’re inspired when other authors create them.  What prevents you from doing that?  Nothing.  Doing so can increase your story’s drama, maybe even create high drama.  Nothing wrong with that, either.

I believe that there is a hero or heroine in your WIP.  There can be, anyway, if allow it and own it.  You have the means.  You have a story.  Your story raises fear.  And where there is fear there can be heroines and heroes.

And the good thing about creating them–?  No special courage is required.  All you need is the intention to lift us up.

How can you create high drama in your WIP?  How might you make your protagonist not just a protagonist, but a heroine or hero?

About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].