When it comes to creating characters, you want readers to love your protagonist or, at the very least, empathize with him or her.
Having an unattractive hero - as in psychologically unattractive - can be a surefire death warrant for a novel. Even having a protagonist with a shallow or undeveloped personality can be enough to make publishers think twice about accepting your magnum opus.
So - what to do?
Coming up with someone 'heroic' to carry your story is not always about creating a superhero with special powers. Indeed, even special powers alone won't cut it.
No, you need a set of characteristics that say to your reader that your protagonist is special, if not identifiably 'unique'.
In Hollywood, this problem is easily solved. Just get a famous star to play the role, someone physically attractive usually, an actor with screen presence...
But how do you affect 'presence' in prose?
Passion is the key.
Your lead characters need to be passionate about their stories - they need to be fully involved in their agendas, find their lives and motivations fascinating and commit to seeing through their goals without hesitation.
In this sense heroes are always larger than life. We all have goals we commit to and often morals we adhere to - but in a novel, a lead character must put their principles on the line and live by the choices those principles dictate, and go wherever the resulting decisions may lead them.
More often than not, fictional heroes are very good at something. It could be fly-fishing or rock climbing or, most commonly these days, some sort of forensic pathology. And that specialty will usually drive the plot, at least at the beginning - and end - of a story.
Of course, making a hero good-looking and irresistible to the opposite sex can't hurt - as long as it comes across as sincere and believable.
But there are many heroic types that are not necessarily godlike to behold - but can still become irresistible in their own way.
Usually this is to do with their value system. We all like heroes that, whether they are impulsive, seemingly irrational or even reckless, have personalities that seek truth, justice and work for the good in a way that we find aspirational.
This is the trick - to create characters your reader would like to be.
Clearly heroes that are petty minded, self absorbed or manically depressed will find it harder to fulfill this function, although not necessarily.
As fiction writers we should all be familiar with the idea of a hero's fatal flaw - his Achilles' heel. The personality trait that might undo the protagonist's best intentions.
Flaws are very human. And humanity is essential to a reader's appreciation of a hero. It's not enough just to have a hero that's good at everything - they make for dull reading. There must be some sense in which your hero is not perfect before he/she is fully believable.
Whether they have some kind of toxic addiction or a more fundamental personality disorder is up to you, the writer. But the importance of a serious flaw in the context of an overriding heroic stance should not be underestimated.
Strong physical and emotional endurance is also the mark of a hero - although you should not confuse the ability to suffer with the more important adherence to the value system that facilitates that endurance.
And if you find that you have a hero who is compelling but not necessarily 'attractive' in the sense that his or her thought process may be cold and perhaps alienating, then you can do what authors have always done to get around this problem.
That is, tell your story from the point of view of a close observer of the hero. This way, you get the best of both worlds - the genius of the hero plus the humanity of the observer.
But still you have the problem of making your hero somehow unique. The last thing you want is a cardboard cutout - analogous to a movie star with a good look but no role to play.
Uniqueness comes from you, my dear reader. And your best hero should, I think, be you - in disguise. The person, you too, would aspire to become.
Fiction, unlike life, is always about growth and change - becoming stronger and better as people through experience.
Life has no real endings, no obvious denouements and no credit rolls. That's why we need heroes and their stories - to teach us the lessons that are often absent in real life.
Nobody wants to read stories about ordinary people and mundane events that tell us nothing we didn't already know.
Heroes represent the best that is human in us.
And part of your job as a fiction writer is to present the world with heroic figures and their deeds who manage to transcend the sometimes ugly human condition and provide hope for the humanity of the future.
(Apologies for the blatant William Shatner moment there!)
Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Easy Way to Write
“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.”