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The Making of a Hero or Heroine

By now, it’s pretty obvious that the days when the fiction shelves were dominated by straight white males are long, long over.  Women authors may feel that reviewers review them differently, or literary awards are unfairly distributed, but there’s no question that women authors are more than holding their own in sales in every bookstore fiction section there is.  Even better, multi-cultural and marginalized voices are being published as never before.

Name a cultural background, gender identity, disability, or condition and there is a novel the protagonist of which represents that.  Homeless?  Abused?  Foster care?  Immigrant?  Refugee?  Undocumented?  Poor?  Overweight?  Anorexic?  Scared?  Deformed?  Ugly?  Dwarfism?  Deaf?  Mute?  Autistic?  Asperger’s?  Brain damage?  Illiterate?  Impulse control?  Phobias?  Depression?  OCD?  PTSD?  Addiction?  Suicidal?  Terminal illness?  MS?  Cerebral palsy?  Clubfoot?  Amputee?  Stutter?  Narcolepsy?  Photo-sensitivity?  Shooting survivor?  Hate crime?  Trans-racial?  Prisoner?  Ex con?  Dead?

Yep, there’s a protagonist for that.

But good as that is, for fiction writers it raises, or ought to raise, a question: Is being represented as protagonist the same as being a hero or heroine?  Is “represented” enough?  Is it all that’s needed?  Don’t all protagonists deserve more?  I think they do.  All protagonists deserve a promotion.  All deserve a place in the pantheon of literary heroes and heroines, but they won’t attain that stature unless fiction writers know how make it happen on the page.

When last I wrote of heroes and heroines [1] in our multi-cultural, inclusive literary era, I suggested that heroism in stories has its basis not in heroic actions, in the traditional sense, but in self-awareness, overcoming self-doubt, hidden goodness, and the ability of a hero or heroine to rise.  Those are durable and utile traits, I think.  They explain certain craft puzzles.  Self-awareness, for instance, explains what makes it okay for us to like dark protagonists.

More recently, though, I’ve come to believe that what makes a hero a hero, or a heroine a heroine, is founded not exactly in what they do, but in what we feel about them.  If you think about it, characters do not assign themselves the label of “hero” or “heroine”.  We do that.  They may earn the role, but we award them the title.

When we think of heroes and heroines, we tend to imagine that those roles belong to warriors and martyrs.  Lone champions who journey outward to quest, slay and save are heroes.  Suffering victims who journey inward to face wounds or injustice or misunderstanding, overcome those and achieve wholeness are heroic.  True enough, yet it’s also true that not every warrior makes us cheer nor does every martyr fire in us compassion and resolve.

Heroic actions are by themselves not enough to earn from us a rousing huzzah, nor is slaying inner demons sufficient to yank from us a sob of relief.  Those responses do not arise from quest, courage or the ultimate victory.  They are feelings in us, as readers, which begin with hope, grow with fear, and finally explode in joy because prior to that our hopes felt impossible, our fears were very real, and the possibility of joy was nonexistent.

A New Understanding of Story

We sort stories into genres.  It’s convenient and helpful.  Story templates and patterns are useful too.  However, when we use the heavily loaded words “hero” and “heroine”, we may secretly suspect that certain story types have an advantage.  The Hero’s Journey, in particular, may seem inherently superior to other story types.  The journey toward wholeness may also have higher status.  Give us a thriller hero who saves the world, or a women’s fiction heroine who saves herself.  Anything less is…less.

Actually, it is not a genre or story pattern that provokes in us the feeling that a character is a hero or heroine.  Our high admiration or heartfelt ache arises for different reasons.  To understand how, it’s first useful to re-frame our understanding of story types and how protagonists operate within them.  Forget for a moment genres and templates.  For now, let’s break all fiction into two broad categories, stories of Fate and stories of Destiny.

Fate and Destiny might seem like synonyms.  The thesaurus implies that they are, but for our purposes they describe radically different story patterns.  Stories of Fate are about what befalls a protagonist.  Bad things happen to a protagonist; a protagonist must cope.  Stories of Destiny are about a call to action or adventure; a protagonist is summoned forth to act upon others or to alter the world.  One type is about missiles incoming; the other is about lances outgoing.  Characters in each story type journey differently, according to different needs and for different ends.

Stories of Fate push protagonists toward the hardest thing to face.  Stories of Destiny push protagonists toward the hardest thing to do.  Stories of Fate are about finding strength.  Stories of Destiny are about finding courage.  Stories of Fate inexorably send protagonists inward, on an inner journey to heal what is wounded and relieve what burdens them.  Stories of destiny propel protagonists outward, there to defeat what is threatening and to discover themselves.  Stories of Fate settle the past and reassure us that the future is safe.  Stories of Destiny awaken us to a cause, inspire us to action, and assure us we each can make a difference.

Obviously, these story types can blend as they do, for instance, in WU’s own Barbara O’Neal’s most recent release, When We Believed in Mermaids.  California ER doctor Kit Bianci is shocked when she sees in a TV news segment from New Zealand, fleetingly, in the background, the face of her sister Josie whom she has believed dead for the last sixteen years.  Kit must journey to Auckland to find her.  However, the sisters are burdened with back story wounds and burdens, which must be brought to the surface if they are to reconcile and if Kit is to thaw her frozen heart.  Thus, there is both a quest and a healing, an outer journey and an inner journey, a Destiny and a Fate.

Certainly, it would be a mistake to believe that stories of Destiny are mostly made of slaying outer dragons, or that stories of Fate are mostly made of slaying inner demons.  Not so, or not entirely.  Stories of Fate, when strong, give protagonists something big to do.  Stories of Destiny, when strong, give protagonists something big to discover about themselves.  Fate protagonists who only wallow and whine may reach a resolution, but they will not finally feel worthy.  Destiny protagonists who only shout and swing swords may win the day, but will wind up feeling one-dimensional.  No matter what the story type, both an outer and an inner journey help.

How Heroes and Heroine are Really Made

The feeling that a protagonist is a hero or heroine, though, as I said does not come from finding strength or summoning courage.  It comes from the fear that the protagonist might not.  The hero or heroine effect is built not through action, but in laying the groundwork.  In particular, it is planting in the reader’s mind an expectation and hope, and then deliberately causing the reader to fear that said expectation won’t the met and said hope will be dashed.

When they’re not…hooray!  Ladies and gentlemen, we have a hero or a heroine!  Cheering.  Tears.  That would be nice, right?

Our focus, then, is not on what a protagonist might do or face, but what a protagonist might not do or face.  The method is to establish the harrowing task to accomplish, or tough truth to accept, or both, and then create a myriad of reasons why a protagonist can’t, or won’t, and doesn’t (not yet) slay the dragon or the demon.  Courage is lacking.  Resolve is weak.  Failure is going to happen, but then a catalyst will release what’s needed.

Most of all, the storyteller’s job is to make the reader hope, then make the reader fear.  A protagonist must.  A protagonist can’t.  A protagonist fails.  A protagonist finds strength.  Finds courage.  Rises—and acts.  A hero or heroine is born.  Joy.

Okay, let’s make this practical.  Here are some questions to get you going:

Stories of Destiny

To what task is protagonist called?  How?  Who appoints him or her?  Why is your protagonist the one—the only one—who can do what needs to be done?

What is the biggest thing your protagonist will have to do at the story’s end?  What will make that difficult?  More, what will make it impossible?  What does your protagonist lack?

In preparing, what shortcoming of your protagonist becomes obvious?  How is that shown?  Who besides your protagonist has doubts about his or her ability?  Who has steadfast faith?  What must your protagonist learn, and why is it the one thing your protagonist never learned before and can’t learn now?

Along the way, how does your protagonist screw up?  How does that prove what he or she lacks, or what he or she has failed to learn?

At the critical moment or last chance, how does your protagonist utterly fail?  Who else is crushed?  How humiliating can you make it?  How public a defeat?

What crisis or catharsis or overwhelming loss leaves your protagonist both wrecked yet also free to change because there is nothing left to lose?  What does he or she discover about self that he or she wasn’t able to see before?  What does he or she learn?  How can he or she now change?

How symbolically does he or she let go of the original goal but, at the same time, find a new one?  What is the better path, the better way?  What works?  How does your protagonist win after all?

Stories of Fate

What disaster befalls your protagonist?  Why is it a calamity, the worst thing that could happen?  What will be wrecked?  How does it undermine your protagonist’s safe, ordered world?  What steps does he or she immediately take, and how do they fail or even make the problem worse?

What unhealed emotional wound does your protagonist have?  What burden of guilt does he or she carry?  What is its source?  How has your protagonist suppressed and avoided what hurts?  How and why is he or she “perfectly fine” (until now).

In what way is your protagonist weak?  How does he or she cover up or compensate?  What is the scariest thing for your protagonist?  How does he or she avoid that at all costs?  How do we see that in action?

What is the first test of your protagonist?  The second?  The third?  How does he or she fail, or win a false success?  What does he or she fail to see about himself or herself?  What is he or she powerless to change?

How is your protagonist finally forced to go up against the situation?  Who is behind him or her?  Who is betting against him or her?  How does your protagonist ultimately fail?  How does that prove that your protagonist’s weakness is permanent?

What crisis or catharsis or overwhelming loss leaves your protagonist empty, yet also able to face what is broken or burdened inside?  What does he or she discover about self that was missing before?  How does he or she face the past, it’s perpetrator(s) or whom he or she has wronged, and show that he or she is no longer afraid?  Who backs down or apologizes?  Who shows understanding and forgives?  How are the demons vanquished?

How does your protagonist now re-frame the calamity and approach it in a new way?  Why does that work?  What is the most symbolic way in which he or she can win after all?

As you can see, making heroes and heroines is possible in any kind of story.  It isn’t about who they are or what they do, but what they aren’t and what they can’t.  It’s about slaying dragons and demons, sure, but first of all failing and then, through struggle and loss, finding the strength and courage to succeed.

It’s not only about winning, it’s also about losing—and change.  That’s how heroes and heroines are made.

How are you building a hero or heroine?  Who are the heroes or heroines you’ve met in your recent reading?

About Donald Maass [2]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [3]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [4], The Fire in Fiction [5], Writing the Breakout Novel [6]and The Career Novelist [7].