Let Your Heroes be Heroic
For those who don't know, when I'm not doing my own writing I spend a lot of my time editing for other writers. It's a fun job most of the time, and I'm very proud to see a lot of manuscripts out there which I had a hand in. That said, it also means I have a chance to see a lot of things which people do that really hurt their manuscripts and often make for big rewrites. So, I figure it would be helpful to talk about some of these on the blog in the hopes it will help folks when they're early on in the manuscript process. It's a good reminder for me too!
So today, let's talk about letting your heroes (or heroines!) be heroic. This is an issue I've seen a lot in speculative fiction, but it can rear it's head anywhere and is ESPECIALLY prevalent in the early or first books of a series. The basic problem is that the writer has set up a great plot in a great world and peppered it with great characters including a main character who everything revolves around. Pretty typical upto this point. However, even with a great set up then the main character doesn't DO anything. They are reactive instead of proactive and when there is something to be done the secondary characters do it and relate the information back which then drives the plot and whatever comes next, often while the main character undergoes emotional angst at the price being paid by his/her friends in order to help them.
When this happens it's a disservice to your main character. It makes them boring and hard to relate to. When we're reading a book we want to be in the middle of the action with the main character, with our HERO and when he sits off to the side then readers start looking for someone else to connect to, and you get a lot of reviews of books that say "Well, the secondary characters were a lot better than the main character." This is because the main character doesn't have a satisfactory character arc and isn't showing growth.
When I point this issue out in editing, often the writerly response is along the lines of: "Well, I don't want him to be too heroic now because I to save that for the big bad in book three. So I'm saving the moment." I understand this urge, but it's one that does a disservice to your main character and your reader who may not give you until book three to bring on the cool.
So what do I suggest to address the issue? I think it comes down to creating what we call in role playing games 'level appropriate challenges'. The author needs to look at where the hero is now and what things they can take on which are lesser than the big bad of book three, but show the hero is capable, exciting, and growing. Then ramp up the challenges as the series goes on.
An example of this from pop culture: Luke Skywalker, our hero, does not try to take on Darth Vader in Episode IV. He, in fact, spends a lot of time running away when you look at the movie as a whole. However, we, the audience, see the potential in him because of the things he does do. He starts training to become a Jedi. He creates and pursues the plan to Princess Leia. He shoots down Tie Fighters. He ultimately volunteers to fly a space ship and makes the same run pilots before him did, but with the help of the Force and a scoundrel makes the shot to win the day. He's a hero, even if he is not the most powerful among the heroes, and he doesn't solve ALL the problems in the first movie (book), but we're attached and willing to go with Skywalker into the rest of the movies to see where his arc leads him.
This is what you want to create as an author.
Heroes need to try, they need successes and failures, but they need to be active because THEY are the person the book is about, and the person the reader needs to connect to. If everyone around them is more active, more interesting, even more heroic than they are, then the story ceases to be about the main character. As a writer, if you can't find a way to make that character more heroic or active, then you have to consider the idea that you've got the wrong MC, or the right MC in the wrong story. Either way there's work to be done so you can catch your readers and keep them reading all the way to the big battle in book three and beyond.