Nature abhors perfection– and so does the novel.
Fiction, like nature, is all about change. So in a novel, heroism requires more than being perfectly heroic, even more than committing heroic acts. It also requires the ability to change under pressure, to grow into someone better even if it hurts, to overcome a flaw.
In the same way, creating a heroic character requires more of the author than merely creating a perfectly brave protagonist and inventing exciting events to showcase those powers and skills. It requires providing the protagonist the need to change, the courage to change, the opportunity to change, and the motivation to change.
Aristotle understood this 2500 years ago. (Aristotle understood almost everything about fiction!) He said that it’s the peripety or reversal of fortune that causes dramatic tension, by changing the rules and forcing the protagonist to choose a new course. The purpose of the plot, in fact, is to challenge the protagonist to change, to become something new.
The imperfect protagonist makes the three-dimensional story possible. The character moving through the external plot is a story of only two dimensions. The internal journey, the process towards psychological or emotional or life change, provides the depth that takes this story into three dimensions.
But just any old imperfection won’t do. Too many authors give protagonists flaws that have little to do with the plot– a fear of heights, a tendency towards parsimony. But everything in your story should contribute to the plot, especially something as central as the protagonist’s “room to grow” element. The imperfection should be something causes her to have trouble immediately resolving the external problem. That is, her internal conflict gets in the way of fixing the external conflict. Only by learning to deal with that internal conflict can she successfully tackle whatever the external plot throws at her.
Now what can really make this process of conflict-resolving exciting is to make this flaw a heroic flaw – the flipside of the protagonist’s greatest strength. That’s right out of Aristotle: That which makes him great brings him down.
This is elegant, and complex, and… sadistic. It means the quality that provides the greatest power poses the greatest danger. It means that what is most central to the identity is most in need of changing.
Now that’s going to create some conflict, don’t you think? No longer will it seem easy to grow and change and become a fully realized person. Now it sounds like you’re going to have to give something up. Something important. Something that is essential to the you you love.
We want our heroic characters to have the potential for heroism, from the very start of the book. Identifying a heroic strength focuses attention right away on power, force, and action– essential ingredients in a protagonist. And we don’t want our protagonists to end the book by giving up what’s best about them. We don’t want the generous, loving heroine to become selfish and suspicious. But people so often go to extremes. We emphasize our strengths to the point that we get overbalanced and don’t develop other qualities (“You’re generous, but you have no judgment”). In a novel, the heroic journey challenges the protagonist to choose another path, to invent another strength, to add to the heroic arsenal– without ever losing that central strength.
So here’s a way to add dimension to your plot using the heroic strength, heroic flaw, and heroic journey:
- Identify a central strength and show this strength in action in the early stages of the plot.
- Define the problems and issues– or the heroic flaw– that comes along with this strength.
- Show some problem of this flaw in an early scene (like: She’s independent, so she refuses help to board up her windows before the hurricane).
- Generate conflict from these issues arising in events (especially in the middle of the story). The heroic flaw can get in the way of solving the external conflict or achieving the goal.
- Show the protagonist changing in response to the rising conflict, and developing a new strength to supplement the old strength. (The dark moment is a good place to force this change.)
- In the ending, show how the protagonist has integrated the strength and overcome the weakness that comes with it.
- Use the process to chart a journey of psychological or emotional or life change for the protagonist.
Being, Doing, Becoming: The Heroic Strength, the Heroic Flaw, the Heroic Journey
c. 2016 by Alicia Rasley