WHY WE NEED HEROES. Throughout history, the world has never been a safe place. Sabertooth tigers, grizzly bears, mountain lions, tsetse flies, Nazis, KKK, rooftop snipers, muggers – well, you get the idea. Danger begets fear, and fear begets the need to feel safe. The need to feel safe from danger, to feel protected, to feel that someone’s got your back is a universal need that begins before birth. For babies, it’s a necessity for survival. For adults, it results in herds, society, safety in numbers. Out of the need to be safe arises the concept of the hero.
WHAT'S A HERO? The word ‘hero’ suggests that an individual who falls into that category is something special or different from ‘regular’ people. The truth is, heroes come in all shapes and sizes and colors and personalities and walks of life. Soldiers, cops, firemen and insurance salesmen ... teachers, daycare workers, and grocery store clerks. Heroes are everyday men and women, boys and girls, even cats and dogs – who step up and help others when the need arises. They take a chance, face danger, and do the right thing. Maybe it is something within their constitution that is different, and maybe not. Maybe it’s circumstance that makes most heroes.
What defines a heroic act? Just because you pay your bills on time, that doesn’t make you a hero. The common definition of a hero is someone who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal in society – meaning someone others want to emulate or admire for their bravery or courage. Bravery and courage cannot usually be demonstrated in everyday activities, so then extraordinary circumstances are required for the heroic person to perform a deed that is considered heroic. And it is everyday people that step up to perform these heroic deeds that are considered exemplary. By association then, the person is regarded as a hero.
THE SUPERHERO. But sometimes one-at-a-time on-the-spot everyday heroes are not enough. Sometimes danger – evil – is so big and scary, an extraordinary hero is needed. And that’s where the imagination steps in. Throughout time, storytellers have invented beings more powerful than everyday folks to handle the ‘little extras’ life throws at us. These come in every variety literally imaginable – gods, superheroes, magical beings, supernatural creatures, even manufactured entities. Some are good and some not so good, but in the hands of the right storyteller, even bad boys can be very, very good once in a while.
BUILDING A STORY FOR YOUR HERO. A story is the product of the writer’s imagination. Does that mean the writer can literally make up anything, and it will be acceptable – the more incredible, the better? Yes – sort of. Whatever your favorite flavor of hero, whether it be regular human or superhero – vampire, werewolf, enhanced crime-fighter, alien, robot, angel, demon, warlock, fairy, ghost, or something not even thought of yet – each must come with his or her or its own set of rules ... rules borrowed from previous incarnations or modified to fit new needs. Within the confines of the story, the hero must adhere to the rules that govern his behavior and his special powers, if he has any. Rules can be broken, of course, but only under very specific circumstances. For instance, if your heroine is telepathic, you will probably need to decide within what range of distance this telepathy works, at the far end of which it doesn’t work – if distance is a factor in the reach of the power.
Also, the rules of regular abilities and superpowers should create an equal and opposite force to counteract the opponent or evil the hero is intended to fight – with the caveat that your story contains a believable chance of doubt that the hero is going to vanquish his opponent. And maybe, if you’re working with a series, the hero only partially wins, or suffers a setback that makes him have to reevaluate his plan to vanquish his foe.
CHARACTER FLAWS. To accomplish this give-and-take between the hero and the villain, writers often design their characters with flaws. For instance, you can have a supervillain who’s loaded with dough and seems to have everything all sewed up, but some flaw – pride perhaps – will help lead to his downfall. Otherwise, how can anyone or anything beat this foe? Likewise, your hero (or heroine) needs to have foibles and weaknesses so that he or she isn’t simply perfect all the time. Perfect can get old really fast. (Just think of your high school senior prom king and queen, and you’ll know what I mean.) Anyway, your hero needs to be real and approachable with believable human faults so your audience can identify with and even sympathize with him, no matter how competent or overpowering he may be.
BELIEVE! Believability is the key here. People love a good fight – as long as they’re not personally taking the punches. They like to rally for their favorite and cheer him on despite obstacles and setbacks. And the more uncertain the outcome of the fight or contest, the sweeter the victory when at last it comes. That’s what a good story should do for a hero and for the audience. When you write your next hero and villain, and make sure your audience has as much fun reading your story as you have writing it.
Pat, Penumbra Publishing