How to Write Believable Heroes


(subtitle) The Rotten Hero
On Saturday, Edmund posted about a StellarCon panel. >>Faith and Ed appear together on the panel about making your hero as rotten as you can get away with>>  The post was followed by a request to *expand on that*. Here at MW, we’ve talked a bit about the antihero, the weak hero, and the flawed hero (not always the same thing), but I thought I’d add a bit of post-con thoughts. Yep, here I am, expanding. (Beat you to it, Ed!)

Nothing is so boring as, well, fully realized, mature, kind, perfect heroes. They have nowhere to grow or go or expand. They are always going to do to the right thing and enjoy doing it because they are so wonderful. They will never be snarky, sarcastic, or tempted. Excuse me while I blow a raspberry. Thubububububububph. Dull, dull, dull, our heroes are dull. Cartoon Dudley Dorights.

Because the protags (MCs) are dull and totally predictable, our plots will have no internal conflict, no adrenaline jolt, no wild ride with an explosive ending. But give the heroes weaknesses, and they become interesting—and yes I mean weaknesses more important than just Superman’s kryptonite. I mean we should make them tempted. Blind to something important. Perhaps even with hidden evil sides. Broken souls. Physical limitations. That gives them something to grow through, and growth equals character development.

Our panel discussed how bad we can make them. Do we draw on the antihero mythos? In case some of our readers aren’t sure what an antihero is, I did a little research and here is a manga/anime/needlepoint site link that might help. Yeah. Interesting juxtaposition of themes.

Wiki will list antiheroes as far back as ancient Greece, if you want to do a fast research project. TV’s Dexter is a perfect (and perfectly horrible) psycho, serial killer, one who tortures and kills *people who deserve it.* Hmmm. I say that as if I think it is bad, and from a law-abiding citizen standpoint, I do. But my MC , Jane Yellowrock, kills vamps (who were/are) people, (sorta) even if blood-sucking killers are the only ones she kills, and only if they fall under the provision in the Vampira Carta that makes it legal to do so. I should not be one to talk. That never stopped me.  😈   The difference between Dexter and Jane is the level of sadistic joy the characters derive from the act of killing. Psychos (Dexter) revel in the death and draw it out. Jane doesn’t. So at her worst, Jane is a flawed hero, not an antihero.

At the con, Edmund and I were on the *rotten hero* panel with author Larry Correia, who brought up the antihero, Mike Harmon, as written by John Ringo in Ghost. Nearly as evil as Dexter (but not quite) Mike, nevertheless, has the mindset of a sadistic serial rapist, who is one breath away from succumbing to his darker side. Ghost is deeply disturbing and painful to read. I cannot recommend the book, which is why there is no link here, but the book exists. Yes, I read it, cover to cover, and others like it back when I was researching in the antihero vein, to see how an author took a subject matter that I find painful and made it work. It takes skill and talent and an ability to see into the mind of darkness and out the other side. Unlike Dexter, Mike doesn’t act upon his base desires and rape, in Ghost, but he is dark. Very dark. And, sadly, for my peace of mind, I don’t think I learned any new writing techniques from the read. Anne Rice’s Belinda was another book that took subject matter I find disturbing and made it work, a story about a love affair between an older man (much older) and a young teenager. In that case, the writer gave poetry to the relationship. Again, I don’t recommend these books, (which is why no links) but list them only as examples.

The weak hero is different from the antihero. The weak hero is one with a character flaw: the PI with a bottle in his desk drawer and a prostitute on speed dial. The vampire killer who *must* sleep with any man or woman she meets, even while on the job, yet saves lives every moment. The retired US soldier who lives off the grid and solves crimes for people in trouble. The hired *fixer* who takes on evil people and the dark of the supernatural and *repairs things* but can’t live in society … Well, you get the idea. I’m talking about Sam Spade (and his look-alikes), Anita Blake, Jack Reacher, and Repairman Jack. They are all MC (s) with problems (weaknesses) that manifest themselves in unique ways, but the characters struggle through and get the job (whatever that job might be) done. Characters with weaknesses are great for series, because they give a writer a character who can easily grow and evolve through the series, with any amount of falling-off-the-wagon that the writer desires and which the series plot arcs demand.

Flawed heroes are (in my opinion) easier to love. I tend to write them, and mentioned Jane Yellowrock, who has so many flaws it’s hard to keep them straight. She has only fractured memories of her own past. She accidentally did black magic and stole the soul and body of a mountain lion. Now she has to co-exist with that soul and it’s not her best pal. She has a bad attitude and as the series progresses, she tends to put her best friends and loved ones in danger. She would rather kill first and ask questions later. TV’s Jethro Gibbs is a man who murdered the killer of his wife and daughter, who drinks alone in his basement, building and finishing a full sized wooden boat by hand. Which might make him a little unhinged, but he’s so fabulous no one cares. Miles Vorkosigan is a physically challenged dwarf in a society that despises physical deformity of any kind, but his mind is brilliant and acting skills outstanding, so he not only survives, but succeeds. A police detective in a wheelchair—quadriplegic Lincoln Rhyme—solves crimes because of his brilliance. The list goes on.

Does your character have a weakness, a flaw, or is he/she an antihero? Where do we as writers draw the line? How do we decide how far to go with weaknesses before our hero (MC) becomes the arch enemy, the antagonist, BBU?


21 comments to How to Write Believable Heroes

  • I wish had been able to be at that panel! Great stuff. I think another reason anti-heroes can be appealing is that they make it “safe” to enjoy things we shouldn’t. We know ruthless killing is wrong, but when Conan the Barbarian or Mad Max or Michael Corleone does it, it’s okay because it’s been established that character is the hero. So, we are able to put ourselves into the heroes shoes because the story has made it okay to be that person for awhile. It’s safe to indulge our darker side while in the confines of the story. I think that’s why Ghost or, more famously, Lolita, are so tough to read. They are anti-heroes in the literal sense — the MC is the opposite of heroic — but the author doesn’t give us many ways to feel “safe” about the bad things these characters do.

  • Great post!

    Heroes tend to need to be both identifiable as ‘real’ and simultaneously larger than life. (Sort of the same conundrum as dialogue needs to sound natural but not include all fluff a real conversation includes.) Real people have flaws and they struggle with them. A good hero tends to have even more devastating flaws and their choices have even more on line.

    Also, I think it is important to remember every character is the hero of their own story from their point of view. Very few people act just to be evil–most do things to accomplish something they see as justifiable. The biggest difference between the good guy and the bad might be who the author chooses to identify with and between the anti-hero and a bad guy might be if the author can sell the character’s motivations.

    Hypothetical story concept: science can cure disease and make humanity completely immune to cancer, aids, and any other deadly illness, but to do it an engineered virus that is predicted to kill one out of every three people must be released into the general population. Killing off 1/3 of humanity is a huge cost, and would be mass murder on a grand scale. The likely point of view would be of a hero trying to stop the scientist, but could a writer sell the scientist as the hero? If the character is properly motivated, and if the writer has enough skill to make the reader identify with the character, it is possible. Wanting to make 2/3rds of the world immune to disease at the cost of 1/3rd would probably not be enough to move the character from over-ambitious-mad-scientist-playing-God to a hero with a damned hard choice to make. But, give the scientist a lover, or a child, with a terminal illness. Let him try to find a way to alter or contain the virus, but he’s running out of time and he knows that the tests show that if the child survives, she will continue creating anti-bodies for the rest of her life which will spread to anyone she comes in contact with and infect them. Make the character struggle, and if the writer can emotionally invest the reader, the reader might be right there with the character as he commits genocide.

    Flaws and choices with two bad alternatives make the character and the plot interesting, but keeping the character sympathetic and giving them redeeming qualities can define the line between a believable but deeply broken hero and villain whose slimy thoughts we’ve been dropped into.

  • Stuart, that panel was a lot of fun! And yes, the antihero is the lowest common denominator of human psyche made appealing. Sad, in a way, which is what frightens me about characters who prey on the innocent–or might prey–like the rapist antihero character. A rapist made appealing.

    Kalayna, we had such fun at the last two cons! And you said it perfectly: Flaws and choices with two bad alternatives make the character and the plot interesting, but keeping the characters sympathetic and giving them redeeming qualities can define the line between a believable but deeply broken hero and villain whose slimy thoughts we’ve been dropped into.

  • I’d say something nice about your post, but you stole it from me! ;-p

    It was an interesting panel, for sure. It’s the “as you can get away with” part of “Making your heroes as rotten as you can get away with” that’s challenging. Making them rotten is no great feat. Rotten but still likeable/interesting/compelling/sympathetic is a whole other story.

  • Unicorn

    Nothing can make me throw a book across the room quicker than an MC I detest. The hero(ine) can be typical, predictable, boring… so long as (s)he isn’t despicable. I can’t stand horrible heroes.
    I also can’t stand flawless heroes, and unfortunately my current MC is pretty flawless. In the whole story, he never makes the wrong or evil choice. He’s concientuous, hardworking, courageous, generous, humble, honest and kind. He flinches at breaking rules. The hardest part of being a knight, for him, is killing something. He hates it. He goes to pieces sometimes, but always after killing whatever it is that he’s supposed to be killing. I suppose that makes him a bit of a wuss. Does it make him unlikeable?
    This hatred of killing – gentleness, you could say – gives him something to grow through, though, as well as his physical limitations; but I’m still not sure he’s flawed enough.
    The other heroine, his horse, with whom he has a deep friendship, is often portrayed as flawless; she occasionally loses her temper or can be very cheeky (also quite reckless), but she never does anything really *wrong*. Is this acceptable, seeing as from the hero’s point of view, she’s perfect and in his eyes she can do no wrong?
    You know, interesting subject matter for a new post could be making villians as nice as you can get away with – I suppose you don’t want readers weeping over the death of the bad guy, but (s)he does need some redeemable feature?
    Thanks for a really good post. I so love the good guys (or girls). Lovable good people, that is. Dreamy sigh…

  • Very interesting discussion.

    I love reading about flawed characters because they are more capable of making mistakes, change, redemption, what have you. They are your average Joe but with a little more “oomph.” It’s not surprising that’s what I like to write about as well.

    Other than a couple of Anita Blake novels, I haven’t read the other weak character series you mentioned. The one that immediately sprang to my mind was Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. I started out loving Stephanie, but after about 10 books, she made me want to scream, but I kept reading a couple more after that because I loved all the other characters.

    Antiheroes are scary. They whole-heartedly embrace the worst of what it means to be human. But they make excellent characters in books and movies. I prefer them as secondary characters myself. I haven’t yet written any myself, but I have a character I’m working on now that seems to be heading that way.

    My teenage daughter is very curious and interested in antiheroes as main characters. I’m sometimes at a loss at what to say when she asks me questions. Thanks for the link which has a good explanation (she probably won’t understand the older movie references, etc., but I’ll help with that) and examples from manga and anime (which she loves).

  • The heroes (male and female) of my first series were boring as you can imagine. They were so nice (imagine me saying the word as if it tasted like rotten eggs) that by the end of the series I really wanted to kill them off. Slowly. Painfully. And so I wrote the Forelands series and gave the starring role to a horrible young man who constantly did and said the most selfish, immature, thoughtless things imaginable. He grew, of course, and by the end of the series was far more likable. But I enjoyed writing him from the start. It was far more interesting to be in his head, than to be in the head of the “good” ones. Ethan Kaille, the MC for Thieftaker, is moody and prickly; he has a dark past and has lost his faith in God and in humanity. And yet he perseveres. Yes, the flawed, scarred characters are the fun ones to write, and to read, in my opinion. Fun post. Sorry I missed the panel.

  • Great post, Faith. You’ve really got me thinking about this.

    I find myself trying to think about what makes my MC flawed.

    She fits the “reluctant princess” trope, because she thinks that since her country believes her dead, she can get away with doing what she wants and not with what she should do.

    She doesn’t want to help her country by going back and doing the right thing (i.e. becoming their rightful queen), yet she drives herself to exhaustion using her healing powers. Unconscious guilt?

    And as my husband pointed out, she’s very stuck up. She expects a certain amount of respectful treatment because she’s a healer, and she thinks of any noble/royal people she meets by their first name and not their titles in her head.

    She denies feeling things. She refers to her traveling companions as that – companions, but refuses to think of them as friends when they’ve become that.

    I don’t know if this is “flawed enough”, though.

  • Faith to Edmund: Thubububububububph. 🙂

    Unicorn, I think it depends on the world you have built. If the people are all vegetarians, then killing could be awful and difficult to learn. But (and I’m just speculating here) if you are using a standard middleages Earth-type world, where people eat meat, then killing would be something young squires would be expected to experience from an early age. I’d guess that they were forced to kill dinner so the sight of blood and the screams of the prey (or the caged) would be a common thing. I’d think that emotinal reactions to death and killing would be difficult to pull off. Maybe somone else might have different thought on that though. Anyone?

    Perhaps as you do rewrites, you can think of an additional way to humanize your character, ie: make him/her flawed, so he has a way to grow forward into something even better. It dosen’t have to be much. It could be something as simple as being born left handed in a right handed culture, and learning to fight right handed, hiding his ability to use the other hand in fighting until he is forced to do so in battle. And that ability allows him to save the day for his side. Thant kind of thing.

    As to the horse, destriers were also trained in the art of killing. They often wore special shoes and armor that would wound, and many were taught to bite and kick out at a touch. However, in a hero’s eyes, a horse with the attributes you described would be perfect!

  • EK, I too have a problem with the antihero. I want to *like* my characters! I want to root for them to succeed, not cringe and hope that they resist!

    I loved the odd antihero/needlepoint site, too. I know nothing about the manga/anime stuff, but thought it might help our younger readers. Glad I made an okay choice!

  • David, that was the best thing about Ethan in Thieftaker. He was flawed, human, made mistakes. I adored him.

    Laura, I think she sounds flawed. In fact, I think you have to be careful that she doesn’t become unloveable to the reader. Don’t make the mistake I did! When I first wrote the Jane Yellowrock character, I begged Kim Harrison’s hubby, Guy, to read the partial, about 100 pages. He said (paraphrasing) She is too hard, too cold, too unfeeling. She needs a softer side. She needs to love something. Guy was dead-on. I did a *major* character revamp (pun intended) and Jane became the conflicted character she is today. She makes mistakes, she goes to mush when her god-child smiles, she is someone I can like. Even when she kills things.

  • I don’t agree that anti-heroes embrace the worst in humanity or that they necessarily kill recklessly.

    It’s my understanding that an anti-hero is somebody who lacks certain redeeming qualities. They are often self-centered or selfish in some extreme way, either thinking others beneath them and showing various forms of prejudice, or satisfying their own needs over the needs of others.

    Where the hero does good for the sake of good, the anti-hero does it for money, personal satisfaction, revenge, or some other need fulfillment.

    In Faith’s example, Dexter and Jane Yellowrock are slaying bad guys. That Dexter enjoys it, which is wrong, or that he is satisfying his own personal bloodlust or psychotic desires, makes him an anti-hero. If he killed bad people because he was legally empowered to do so, such as in Judge Dread, then he’d be a hero.

    That said, anti-heroes can be as dark as some of the examples above, and compared to the everyday person, can look evil by comparison.

  • Kalayna> I think your story idea sounds cool. I think you could make it viable, from my pov, but you’d have to do one of two things, either it would have to ultimately be a “1/3 dies now or 3/3 die later” so that now is better, or in the end, they’d have to die. That death could be redemptive (that whole dying to save the child/lover and have safe antibodies, yay!) Basically, I think that sort of thing works if the story is a tragedy.

    Faith> I had.have that problem with Mary, my mc. Lots of men (not the women, which is interesting) found her to be a bit cold and uncaring, even bitchy. So, I had to soften her a bit–or rather show her softer side earlier on, so that they knew it was there.

    NewGuyDave> I think you make an interesting point. I think of Philip Marlowe as a kind of anti-hero in “The Big Sleep.” He drinks too much, is prejudiced in about 50 different ways (against women, jews, gays…) though some of those are products of the moment (not excusing them, but putting them in context). But at the beginning of TBS he looks up and see a stained glass window with a knight untying a naked woman. The knight is “fiddling with the knots and not getting anywhere” and Marlowe decides that if he lived there that he (Marlowe) “would have to go up and help because the knight didn’t really seem to be trying.” The knight motif runs through the whole story, and Marlowe tries to be a knight. At one point he’s playing chess, uses the knight, but changes his mind because “this isn’t a game for knigts.” In the end, he can’t be. He tells us on the last page “I’m part of the nastiness now … but the General doesn’t have to be.” He sacrifices the hero role, essentially to allow someone else to stay untainted. It is really kind of cool. He wants to be a hero, but can’t be, not in the hard-bolied LA world…

  • Faith>> I was actually just writing a post in my blog, and I mentioned one of my flawed characters because the panel the other day illuminated exactly why I hadn’t taken a certain beta-reader’s suggestion. The character was a flawed character, and the suggestion the reader had given would have pushed him into the role of antihero…and that was not the character I wanted to write.

    Antiheroes are difficult, and I think the main reason they’re so difficult is because they’re so hard to sympathize with. What sets the bad apart from the despicable, in my opinion, is what they’re trying to accomplish, and/or how much they struggle with what they do to accomplish it.

    Were Snape the protagonist of the Harry Potter books, he’d be an antihero. He’s selfish and petty and cruel, but we can still like him as a character because he’s vulnerable, because he’s been abused and hurt, and because he ultimately does the right thing for the sake of love. It doesn’t mean he’s not horrible to Harry, Ron, and Hermione along the way, and it doesn’t mean he doesn’t do terrible things to prove his “loyalty” to Voldemort (such as watching a fellow Hogwarts teacher die, or murdering Dumbledore). What it does mean, is that there’s some humanity left to hold on to. We’ve all been bullied. We’ve all loved. We all understand the petty desire to strike out at people who don’t deserve it, just because they have what we wanted (*ahem* Misty’s post from yesterday?).

  • Razziecat

    Oh, thanks Faith! I would love to have been at that panel! I always find “perfect” characters annoying and uninteresting. Our flaws are what make us human; and there is nothing more beautiful and exciting in a story than that moment when the weak/flawed character overcomes his/her weakness, flaws, etc., and does what needs to be done, no matter how hard it is. These moments are what make me keep turning the pages.

    One of the best antiheroes I’ve ever come across is in Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinth series–Felix Harrowgate. Vain, selfish, cruel at times, and yet vulnerable. The abuse he suffered in his past (and in the story) explains a lot of it, in my opinion, and yet many reviewers couldn’t stand him. I found him fascinating.

  • Thanks, Faith. I think that she’s gotten better. My first version of her had her downright unlovable, and a friend pointed out that it was hard to like her. This time, she feels remorseful about what happens when her “help” leads to some very bad things she didn’t intend. And I have her warm up to the other members in her party a bit more, sooner. I’ve ramped up the romantic tension (though she tries to avoid it) and about two thirds of the way through, she learns things about herself that help show that she *is* capable of feeling.

    Thanks for the advice. I’ll check how you’ve handled it when I get to the Jane Yellowrock part of my TBR shelf. (Xmas bookstore gift cards = lots and lots of books. 😀 )

  • NGDave. Exactly. Not every antihero will be psychotic. But every psychotic MC will be an antihero.

    Pea Emily — I think that is smart. The cold hero or heroine needs to have a gentle side. Readers really *want* to get inside the head of a protag.

    L “Scribe”, I agree. For an antihero to work, we have to know early on that there is something for us to root for, something that lets us empathize with. And I think they are too hard to write — which says something about my own lack of ability, I suppose!

  • Razzie, I suppose this is confession time. I don’t think I can stand the awful reviews if I should write a MC as an antihero character. Controversy can sell books. It can also hurt, no matter fascinating he may be to write.

    Laura, that solution sounds like it would work. Perfect! And … lots of books? (looks around) Yep. I understand that one!

  • Unicorn

    Thanks, Faith. I am dithering over that whole *I don’t wanna kill anything* rant of his. Would this work as a character flaw – if this made him an outcast, so that others see him as a weakling? But because he’s being tracked down by a dreadful beast, he knows he can choose between avoiding the beast, and killing it, bringing peace to the rest of his family. Then, in the end, he can decide to kill the beast and make the right choices and shut the emotional reactions out of his head, thereby saving his family and the kingdom. Would that work?
    LScribeHarris – The first time I read the Harry Potter series, I detested Snape. The second time I liked him. I even wished that he’d survived, though my writer self knew that it wouldn’t have worked out, my reader self wanted to burst into tears. Weird. But Rowling did write him extremely well. A touch that I really liked was that Harry named his son after Snape in the end. Weepy moment again. 😀

  • Unicorn, it always helps if a character is an outcast. 🙂 And it helps if he has to do the *right* thing though it is against his own moral code. And ultimately this is *your* book. So if it feels right and it feels painful enough for you, then you *must* go with that!

  • Razziecat

    Faith, I know what you mean, but the reviews I read weren’t the professional ones, they were readers who posted on Amazon and fan sites. Sorry, I should have made that clear! As far as I know, Monette got a number of very good reviews on the series. For me, if a reviewer said my book was well written but they didn’t like my MC, I wouldn’t mind so much…I think I’d feel worse if they liked the characters but thought the rest sucked!