c. 2019 by Alicia Rasley
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.
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.
That’s going to hurt– a lot.
Let’s say I’m your best friend, and, like most best friends, I know exactly what your central strength is– your generosity. But I’m also well aware of the problems that strength creates for you, having witnessed this in action. Maybe I say to you, “Sometimes, though, you’re too generous. Really. Your first impulse is always to help, and so you’re always letting people take advantage of you. As your friend, I hate to see you be so giving and loving to people who don’t deserve it. You’re going to have to learn to be less trusting.”
I’m telling you that the very thing that you value most about yourself, your kindness, your generosity, your openness to others, is what is going to get you hurt.
And worse, you suspect I’m right.
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.
• 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.)
• Use the process to chart a journey of psychological or emotional or life change for the protagonist.
Here’s an example from a television show that’s a favorite with romance writers for its epic themes and star-crossed love stories– Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy demonstrates that heroines too can have traditional heroic strengths, and embark on dangerous heroic journeys. Buffy’s journey is a long one, as it’s played out over seven seasons of TV episodes. But at every point, her struggle is unique because it reflects the force and conflict of her central strength/heroic flaw.
Identify the Strength and Initiate Action
We always lead with our strength. Makes sense, right? So whenever the situation calls for the character to do something, look to the central strength to define the default action– the character’s instinctive first step in dealing with any situation.
For example, a curious person will investigate.
A recklessly courageous person will plunge in.
A caretaking person will look around for someone to help.
An ambitious person will take advantage of the situation to further her goals.
Buffy’s central strength is literally strength– she is the Chosen One, the one with the super powers that make her strong enough to rid the world of vampires and demons. She can slice and dice the bad guys with her superb reflexes, powerful punches and kicks, and super-fast healing ability. Her strength is shown immediately and often– in every show, she dispatches at least a few demons with a flurry of violence and sarcasm.
Buffy’s default action is always to take over, charge in, and hit things. Her Watcher constantly stresses research and preparation, but Buffy generally resorts to physical action. Only when punching and kicking don’t work does she try something else, and she’s convinced she’s no good at it. “I suck at undercover,” she mutters, when someone sees through her less-than-convincing disguise. When she finds herself drawn to the sexy vampire Spike, she’s not one to puzzle through the complexities of cross-species love and her own addiction to the dark side. She just tries to slay him.
Define Issues/Heroic Flaw to Create Conflict
The character will use the default action until it’s clear it’s no longer the best course. It’s the author’s job to quickly produce situations where the default action not only doesn’t work, but also causes some of the “heroic flaw” problems associated with this strength.
So what’s associated with super-strength? Super-responsibility. Buffy quite literally takes responsibility, over and over, for saving the world– and she’s just a teenager. This responsibility limits her life considerably. Early on, she tries out for cheerleading, and her mentor, the Watcher Giles, castigates her for wasting her time on “a cult” when she should be out killing demons. Whenever she has a bit of teenaged fun, she’s called away to save the world again. Getting grounded by her mom doesn’t just damage her social life; it could cause the end of the world as we know it.
Super-strength also gets in the way of romance. Normal guys just can’t handle a girl who can break them to pieces. One boyfriend feels so emasculated, he starts a regimen of steroids and other power-drugs, increasing his strength but destroying his health. She ends up with a vampire lover, because only a vampire is strong enough to be her mate– even though Spike is her sworn enemy, and has already killed two Slayers.
But super-power makes her super-reckless. She’s so used to being the strongest one around, she charges into ever more dangerous situations, even as Spike warns her that all it will take to kill her is for a vampire like him to have “one good day”.
Most important, super-strength alienates her from her friends and family. They try to help her in her mission, but she’s isolated by her own power and what it makes her do. “Death is my art,” she says, and she metes it out daily, at a cost to her psyche she can’t confide even to her loved ones. Only Spike, with the deaths of hundreds on his vestigial conscience, can begin to understand– but identifying with him is too dangerous, as he tempts her towards the darkness he has chosen as his world.
She has become so alienated, in fact, she verges on bully-hood. Spike is the only one who can survive the most heedless violence from her, and she abuses that privilege, even after he has fallen in love with her and won’t fight back. She eventually becomes so frightened by her brutality that she rejects his love– the love that could heal her and redeem him.
The responsibility becomes ever more oppressive, so that when she is forced to choose between saving the world and saving her sister, she sacrifices her own life– in the process, freeing herself (she thinks forever) from the terrible choices brought by her role as the Chosen One. But her alienation from her friends keeps them from understanding how much she craves the peace of death, and against her will, they bring her back to life.
Evolve a New Strength and Map a Journey
Heroic characters are heroic because they can change. Once it’s clear that the central strength is causing problems, and the default action is causing even more conflict, the heroic character regroups, analyzes, and modifies. It’s not easy– modifying what’s best about you is much harder than giving up what’s bad about you– but given sufficient motivation, a hero or heroine will moderate the central strength and build up new strengths to meet a changed situation. This is where the author can use the strength and its associated problems to map a journey towards change.
Buffy’s journey from isolated power to true leadership is mapped by the process of evolving the new strength of delegation – the ability to identify and use the strengths of others. But she comes to this realization through pain. In her dark moment, her little army rejects her as a leader because she refuses to reach out to them. Only Spike stands with her, and from his unquestioning loyalty, she understands that she has survived longer than any other vampire slayer because she has never had to fight alone. She decides to trust the powers of her allies– a friend’s magic, her Watcher’s wisdom, Spike’s absolute devotion.
The end of her journey is a sharing of the power in a literal way: She orders the witch Willow to give Slayer-like powers to other girls in her ragtag army and throughout the world. She also learns to share the cosmic responsibility, though it breaks her heart. When faced with the final apocalypse, she accepts the necessity of Spike sacrificing himself in her place– for the first time, trusting someone else to save the world, and in the process completing Spike’s own journey from sin to redemption.
Your Own Journey
Here are some questions to help you chart your character’s heroic journey. The examples are from the classic film Casablanca.
1) What is the character’s central strength, and why is this interesting?
Rick’s central strength is detachment. Two observations of interest about this strength:
A) It is a new strength for him, created in the previous year to protect him against the pain of losing his lover Ilsa. Before the fall of Paris to the Nazis (when she left him), he actually had romanticism/idealism as a central strength– so he’s veered to the opposite extreme.
B) Most of us wouldn’t think of detachment as a positive. But Rick does. It’s the force that keeps him from falling apart, that protects him through his encounters with others. The author and the reader don’t have to consider the strength a good thing, as long as the character gets some kind of power from it.
2) How is the central strength set up early, within the first couple times we see the character?
In an early Casablanca scene, Ugarte, a con man and something of a pal, confess that he has murdered two German couriers and wants Rick to hold some extremely valuable “letters of transit” that will allow the bearer to leave Nazi-occupied Casablanca. Rick doesn’t object to the murder or even Ugarte’s practice of selling exit visas to desperate refugees. Even the corrupt Ugarte calls Rick a cynic, though another a-moral friend, the French police captain Renault, diagnoses him more precisely as a disappointed romantic.
3) What event shows this to be a strength, something that benefits the character?
Under informal Gestapo interrogation, detachment allows Rick to stay cool and unintimidated. He doesn’t care enough to worry, and he doesn’t reveal anything he doesn’t want to reveal.
4) What are some problems and issues associated with this character’s strength, and what events show them causing conflict to rise in the story?
Rick is detached. This creates the heroic flaw of alienation. His friends admire him but don’t feel close to him. When his girlfriend Yvonne demands more intimacy, he rejects her, driving her into the arms of a Nazi. He does not show his emotions; in fact, he tries hard not to feel his emotions. He tries to stay neutral at a moment (just before Pearl Harbor) when evil is taking over Europe, because caring about the world now would mean he would have to feel horror and despair. He cuts himself off from people of conscience and associates mostly with rogues who won’t challenge his cynicism. While he is generally a man of action, his detachment has made him passive, because taking action would mean taking a stand.
5) What is the default action arising from this strength? What action or event first shows the default action?
Rick’s default action is backing away. When Renault tells Rick that he’s going to arrest Ugarte, Rick starts to protest, knowing that the little con-man will be executed. But then he stops himself. “I stick my neck out for no man,” he declares. That’s his new motto. Notice that he does hesitate before asserting his detachment. It’s often effective to show the character realizing he has a choice, and then making the choice to go with the default action. This lets the reader know he’s not a robot and is capable of change, given sufficient motivation.
6) When does the situation change and challenge the central strength and make the default action unworkable?
Sufficient motivation for change arrives in the shape of Ilsa, his former lover, and her Resistance-hero husband Victor Laslo. Rick doesn’t know that Ilsa left him in Paris only because the supposedly dead Victor turned up alive, ill, and pursued by the Gestapo. Seeing her again, and with the idealistic hero Laslo, challenges his detachment. Rick can’t deny he still wants Ilsa, though he tells himself he wants her out of revenge, or just for sex. He finds himself unable to resist feeling– he gets angry when Sam, his piano player, plays “their song”, he gets drunk when he realizes she is now Laslo’s woman, and he vindictively insults her. His detachment is no armor at all against his pain, at least when she is around. His detachment is also threatened when he watches as Laslo rallies the entire bar to sing La Marseillaise, drowning out the Nazis singing their national anthem, and sees firsthand how Laslo’s passion and idealism cause others to find courage to defy evil. Detachment does not seem so cool and brave after that.
7) What is the first pivotal moment that leads to a new action – not just a reaction, but a proactive step towards change? And what new strength does this action reflect?
When a young Bulgarian refugee asks him if she should sleep with Captain Renault to get exit visas for her and her new husband, Rick at first tells her to go ahead, that Renault can be trusted. But the girl, worried that in trying to save her husband, she will have to betray him, asks, “If a woman loved you so much that she would do something bad for you, would you be able to forgive her?” Rick responds in a tight voice, “No one ever loved me that much.” This is the pivotal moment, when he recognizes the source of his pain. Immediately, he tries to put the girl off– but then he arranges for her husband to win enough at roulette to buy the visas. His detachment is diminishing, and the strength of empathy– the ability to feel what others feel– is increasing.
8) Look at the dark moment. How does the central strength come back into play there?
In the dark moment, Ilsa comes to beg him for the letters of transit that will save her and Laslo to continue their fight against the Nazis. Rick angrily refuses, and she pulls out a gun. His despair is so great that the old protection of detachment is all he has, only this time it leads to suicidal behavior. He walks up to her and demands that she shoot him. She cannot, and breaks down into tears. For the first time, he lets himself feel her feelings, her terror and sorrow, and takes her in his arms– not to seduce her, but to comfort her. Only when he offers her this empathy can she tell him the whole truth about why she left him in Paris, that she did it to protect him as well as Laslo, and that she never stopped loving him.
9) What decision, combining the new and old strengths, arises out of this dark moment and how is it put into effect in the climactic scene?
Ilsa tells him she cannot know anymore what is right, and that she trusts him to decide what is best “for both of us… for all of us.” You can actually see the expression on his face change when she amends “both” to “all”– when she charges him with responsibility for Laslo’s well-being too. He decides to make it appear he is going to run off with Ilsa, because he knows that the Gestapo will be glad for them to abandon Laslo. In fact, he sets it up so that she and Laszlo escape. This combines his empathy for Ilsa and Laslo with the power of his detachment. Now he is no longer detached from other people, but from his own pain and anger. His detachment allows him to see the big picture: “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” And his empathy draws him back into the fight against evil– he and Renault (redeemed by Rick’s example) decide to join the Resistance.
Heroism isn’t a simple matter of being heroic, of walking around being strong and brave and big-shouldered. Heroism is in the doing and the becoming, in the action and the journey. Our protagonists become heroes by their actions and reactions, manifested in the events of the plot, but most of all, because they go beyond what they are, and risk their identities to become something more.
All great truths are paradoxes, Jung would say. So I’d like to add a corollary to Aristotle’s paradox: What makes us great brings us down– and in risking what is greatest about ourselves, we are challenged to achieve a new greatness.