Well, what Aretha Franklin and I are looking for are two very different things. What she’s looking for is verification, proof that a man loves you so. To answer her question, no it isn’t in his eyes, it’s in his kiss. Now that we have that out the way, what I’m looking for has a bit more to do with writing.
The question I ask now is: what is it that makes a hero a hero? Is there a licensing procedure that has to be complete, tests to be taken? Are they born that way or chiseled over time out of granite? How can we know for sure that our heroes are truly heroic?
I love storytelling, it’s the most fascinating part of writing, in my opinion—and yes, they are two different things. You could have the world’s greatest vocabulary and read a hundred books a month, write with a feathery quill that inks out deliciously delicate words that sing the song of the human condition … but without a story, you might as well be writing down your mom’s ingredients for meatloaf.
Hemingway was the father of the “less is more” concept of writing. He would preach the idea that stories need not be measured by word count, but by the story those words told. He was once challenged to write a story in six words, something that was previously deemed impossible.
Ernest accepted the challenge with a nicotine stained smile. I’m not so sure how long it took him to pen his shortest “masterpiece”, but the story itself is easy to remember(it’s only six words long, after all). It went: For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Such a morbid story, huh? For sale: baby shoes, never worn. It brings to mind a small casket, rain pelting down on it as a woeful mother cries over her infant’s eternal crib; a gravedigger off in the background, smoking a cigarette as he impatiently waits, wondering when exactly it was that he lost his empathy.
And all that came from six words!
But I’m straying from my original post’s idea. I could go on and on about the inspirational yet convoluted life of Papa Hemingway. But let’s get back to heroes and what it is that makes them so lovable.
I was flipping through a copy of James N. Frey’s The Key, a great book for any who haven’t read it. In it he discusses the different ways we can use myths and their power to tell a more relevant story. The biggest part of it all, of course, is the hero.
Heroes have to be likable … that’s a definite. Even an antihero has to abide by a certain predetermined standard of what makes a hero a hero. It’s a standard that has been indoctrinated over centuries of myths and fables and fireside tales; there’s no getting around this deeply set foundation of storytelling.
So, what makes a hero a hero? Well, let’s take a hero to dissect as an example. I was going to use Indiana Jones, but that would be too easy. Instead I will use a hero more familiar to me, one that I watched on a weekly basis as a child: MacGyver.
According to James N. Frey, a hero has certain qualities.
- The hero has courage: Is there any doubt that MacGyver was courageous? How many times did he run into fiery buildings, or disarm bombs while would-be victims sit, chained and helpless to a bomb? Courage? Check.
- The hero is clever and resourceful: It was like watching Mr. Wizard each week, but with good acting and a plot. If I were in a dangerous situation and MacGyver started rambling on, giving a science lesson, I think all I could do is nod and mutter affirmations. Check.
- The hero has a “special” talent: Hello!?!? I can sum it up in five words … paper clips and rubber bands. He could do anything with a bit of string and an empty paper towel roll. How dumb did those villains have to feel after leaving a man of his caliber in a room that was better stocked than a school’s supply closet? “You’re going to die here, Mr. MacGyver … it’s only you and this bomb in this room … and a mason jar filled with baking powder, a box of thumbtacks, a five pound bag of potatoes, and sulfuric acid.” Check.
- The hero is an “outlaw”, living by his or her own rules: This one is a bit of a stretch for MacGyver. He wasn’t one that broke rules left and right, but there were episodes where he would let a “criminal” go free, because he deemed they were more innocent than guilty. Check.
- The hero is good at what they do for a living: The Phoenix Foundation couldn’t last without Mac … they very, literally couldn’t go a week without him; there were episodes where they came looking for him after he had “quit”. Check.
- The hero is a protagonist, leads the cause or action: Everyone followed MacGyver around, he always took the lead. Check.
- The hero is wounded(maimed, disgraced, grieving for a lost loved one, etc.): This one is very important. The hero must, must, must suffer. In MacGyver’s case, he lives a very lonely life, never seeing his family, and is always losing loved ones. He leaves a trail of dead girlfriends that Hansel and Gretel could follow out of the mythic woods. Check.
- The hero is motivated by idealism: MacGyver was a secret agent that believed in the American way of life and refused to use a gun! Check.
- And finally, the hero is sexually potent: Just ask all the women that were glued to ABC back in the mid to late 80’s. They all cared more about his revolving door of a personal life then they did the explosions. Check.
Remember that these are qualities that James N. Frey says a hero must always have. There’s other qualities that are regularly linked to heroes but aren’t entirely necessary, like being egotistical, stoic, loyal, physically superior, cynical, being mouthy; having a special birthright or destiny, a special symbol(mark, tattoo or scar, etc.).
Keep in mind, though, that this last list is of things that you could include in your hero dynamic. They are not musts. Characters are built like a great meal is prepared, there is always a recipe. Have you ever had dinner at a friend’s house, just after they discovered the existence of spices? Where was Hemingway for that one with his “less is more” speech?
In the end it’s important to be creative when creating your characters. Have fun with your heroes and build them carefully, a sprinkle of this … a dash of that. Always remember that it’s important to have fun while writing. Nothing’s worth doing, unless you love it.