So many protagonists today start out as ordinary Joe’s or Jane’s. We’re introduced to these characters in the midst of their normal life, then some inciting incident is introduced. The Conflict develops, perhaps snowballs, and the protagonist is forced to leap over each obstacle placed before them as a 100-meter hurdler. We readers are asked to root for these characters as they try to solve their problem and/or grab their want. But too often we see stories that build to enormous heroic actions at the end, but what about the beginning?
Protagonists are the stars of the shows, but are they heroes or heroines?
Qualities of a Hero
What are the qualities of a hero? I’d say: Sacrifice and Selflessness, Determination and Dedication, Courage and Loyalty, perhaps Faith. What would you include? Jot them down.
When I look at my novel manuscript, these are qualities I want to imbue in my character, but I’m not entirely sure it happens. What am I sure about is this, if it does happen, it happens late. The question becomes, why? Why don’t I demonstrate those special qualities early?
And here’s the rub. Is there enough about my character early to make people care? I’m not sure.
In “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), we’re introduced to one of the most famous heroes in American cinema, George Bailey. If you had to pick one heroic quality for him, it would have to be selflessness. Now, we’re given a glimpse of George Bailey early, but we’re almost immediately shown George being selfless. He rescues his kid brother Harry from drowning, then we’re shown a series of events where he puts family and friends before himself. As the movie approaches its climax, we’ve seen his character develop throughout his life, so when he’s ready to throw away his life, we’re all the more moved by it. But it works so well, in part, because George is showing off his selfless quality from the get-go.
Here’s the first appearance of my protagonist in my novel-draft:
A light rain drizzled Adam’s face. He stared off toward the night’s horizon and knew the hard stuff approached. He closed his eyes as the drops slid over the stubble on his cheeks and darkness enveloped him.
Adam struggled against a cold force that wrenched him. He could feel someone’s—or something’s—presence trying to kill him, or swallow him, or end him…somehow. It was unlike anything he had ever struggled against before.
He saw flashes of light—of faces. A woman, or a girl, he wasn’t sure. One moment she was lying silently on a stone slab, after a blink she was screaming for his hand. She was completely still. Blink. She writhed in pain. Blink. A man swung a sword at him. Adam dodged, but was forced against a cold wall and pinned away from the woman.
Just before the attacker’s blade plunged through Adam’s chest, his sight blinked to an old man. The man looked so ancient that he would crumple dead with the next breath. Ashen skin and a white beard, the man’s ice-blue eyes bored into Adam’s. He whispered indistinctly. Blink. The old man was replaced by the woman, dead-still again on the stone slab.
Her face rolled toward Adam. Her eyes opened—pale, lifeless. Her lips parted. She stared at him, then, she screamed. Every muscle in her once lifeless body tensed. Adam’s entire being shook.
“Wake me up!”
The cry careened off the walls and through Adam’s consciousness. He wasn’t sure if it was the woman’s cry or his own.
Adam Anderson opened his eyes.
In my revised opinion, this introduction is not particularly moving. It’s a dream-sequence, and that’s cliched at this point. If I want my protagonist to become a hero, I need to introduce those heroic qualities immediately. My character needs to demonstrate those qualities, even if in a small way, in his first scene.
In his book Writing the Breakout Novel, agent and writer Donald Mass says: “Great characters are the key to great fiction.”
He goes on to say that characters need to be larger-than-life. George Bailey certainly fits the bill there. He also says: “Conflict is the first principle of plot construction, and it is also the underlying secret of great characters.”
In Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Maass discusses Heroic Qualities and notes:
Actually, ask most people what heroic attributes they admire and you will get a list of qualities any of us might have: belief in others, the ability to overcome one’s flaws, conviction in the face of opposition, acting in spite of misgivings, steadfast love, moral integrity, tenacity, generosity, a sense of plentitude, unconditional love, and so on…The actions that reveal them can be quite small. Adding such an action to the introduction of your protagonist will have a huge impact on reader identification.
With the rewrite of my novel-draft, I’m going to demonstrate at least one of those special qualities in my character, so that my protagonist can become a Hero from the onset. What are you going to do?