Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Building a Hero

By Anna Kathryn Lanier

This is not so much 'Western' in subject, but I think all readers enjoy the book so much better when the writer has given them a good hero. So, here is a list of what makes a good hero.  What qualities do you most like in a hero?

Building a Hero

James Frey in THE KEY tells how to build a hero.  He lists the time-tested qualities a hero should have and suggests that leaving out a few of these qualities is a kin to leaving out a few spark plugs when you do a tune-up on your car.  On the other hand, there is more to a hero than mythological motifs and heroic qualities.

A hero must also be “three-dimensional, interesting, passionate and dramatically driven.”

Frey’s list of myth-based heroic qualities are listed on pages 46-47 of his book, followed by a brief explanation.  I’m going to make the explanations even briefer, but based on what Frey wrote.

A hero must be or  possess:

1)     Courage – readers are repelled by a hero who lacks courage.
2)     Cleaver and Resourceful – he does not need special knowledge. “In fact, it often helps the story if your clever and resourceful hero is lacking in the specific skills required by the situation.” A fish-out-of-water sort of thing.
3)     Special Talent – it does not necessarily have to be used in the course of her mission. Examples, according to Frey: photographic memory, psychic powers, tossing horseshoe ringers, picking winners at the track, growing prize winning flowers, shooting an arrow with amazing accuracy, talents of deduction to solve a crime.
4)     Is an “outlaw” – he plays by his own rules, not society’s.  Examples: Colombo, Scrooge, Michael Corleone, McMurphy (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).  If you don’t want an extreme ‘outlaw,’ he only needs to be rebellious.
5)      Good at what she does for a living – Scarlett O’Hara’s job at the beginning of Gone With The Wind is to attract beaus and she uses her charm to achieve her goal.
6)     The hero is the Protagonist – he takes the lead in the story.
7)     Has been wounded – the would can be physical, psychological, spiritual, or social.  She is maimed, disgraced, or lost a loved one, for example.  Anything to cause suffering…the hero needs to suffer.
8)    Motivated by Idealism – He “is not motivated by selfish reasons, but sacrifices himself for the good of others.”
9)     Sexually Potent – Yeah, need I say more?

The above are qualities every hero should possess.  Below is a list of qualities he may possess, but doesn’t necessarily have to possess:

1)      Having Hubris – a big head (conceited)
2)     Stoical
3)     Loyal
4)     Sexually appealing
5)     Physically superior
6)     A special birth
7)     Have a special destiny
8)    Special brand—tattoo, birthmark, scar
9)     Sometimes cynical
10) Mouthy or sharp-tongued
11)  A Flaw – though if he has a wound, a flaw isn’t really needed.
Resource: THE KEY: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth
By James N. Frey ISBN 0-312-30052-2

Anna Kathryn Lanier is a multi-published short story and novella writer in both contemporary and historical Westerns. 

Anna Kathryn Lanier


  1. Very interesting. I'll have to look for Frey's book as I am very interested in the power of mythology and stories.

  2. A very interesting assembly of hero must-haves. I like a hero with flaws and special skills. But mostly, I like a hero who is funny and self-deprecating. A real hero may be exasperated by a feisty heroine who wants to do things her own way, but he will always give her what she really needs because he really, truly knows her better than anyone else.
    I enjoyed this blog. It's a good reminder to keep our heroes interesting, tough and lovable.

  3. Very concise. My favorite kind of hero to write is one who is flawed and must overcome that flaw, or one who has done something in the past that haunts him...and so he can only overcome this by redemption. I just love to redeem a villain or a flawed hero.
    Big head? Nope, not for me. I have read novels in which the hero truly did have a big head, but somehow the author got us readers to overlook that and love him anyway.
    Gosh, I could go on and on...but must go into town. I'd much rather stay here in my warm home.
    Thanks Anna--this is a keeper.

  4. Hi, Alison, Sarah and Celia. Thanks for stopping by. I like to look this over from time to time, too. Frey's book is great! I've referenced it often. Celia, I'm with you, I don't like heroes with big heads. If they are really conceited, it's a big turn off.


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