How do you write a hero who stands out?
How do you write a hero who is unique, unforgettable, and so addicting your readers will beg for more?
There is no "one formula" for writing truly incredible characters, but once you've seen the main writing techniques, crafting your heroes becomes easier and ridiculously fun.
This guide will show you how to immediately create more interesting heroes and protagonists. Let me show you how:
If you were to stop reading this blog in the next 10 seconds...then at least read this:
There are only three questions you must answer to flesh out your hero:
That's it. That's all that your readers actually care about.
In the rest of this post, we're going to see how the best authors answer these questions, but if you want to get started writing your hero now...
Get the answers to those questions and your readers will be glued to the page.
I don’t care if it's a hot pocket from the break room…
...or if it’s a meat pie made by Volcano-dwelling monks who cook only in the toxic, sulfuric gas that rises from an active Caldera…
Your hero must have a powerful motivation. The right motivation will:
That last one is important for readers. We’ve all felt desire. Most of us have wanted something so badly, we took a risk in going after it.
While desire leads to risk, it's also an empowering feeling. Heroes with strong motivations are addicting to read about - even if their goals aren't "noble and good."
Problem: your hero feels too "one dimensional."
Here's a trick that will turn her into a complex person (I say trick, but really this is a healthy strategy for writing any main character)...
Give your hero multiple motivations with varying degrees of importance and immediacy. These goals can do many things:
For example, Frodo seeks to destroy the ring…
...but along his journey, he may also wish for a soft bed, and a fresh-cooked meal to warm his hobbit belly.
How does this make Frodo a more engaging hero? Everyone wants to save Middle Earth.
But Frodo, despite his small and hobbity ways, is the only one who actually steps up to the challenge. The strength of his motivation reveals the golden core of his character by showing us what other desires he’s willing to sacrifice.
I recently read a novel called The Goblin Emperor (which you will adore if you enjoy courts and intrigue, dangerous power plays, and a good person turning into a great leader).
First chapter spoilers ahead.
Maia is an inconsequential heir to the throne, trapped by circumstance. childhood is overshadowed by a man who is supposed to be his friend and mentor but instead takes every opportunity to torment Maia...
...that is until Maia finds himself suddenly thrust into a position of power.
Now, his old “mentor” must beg Maia to be admitted into the court.
Our hero has two choices:
Conflicting desires like this demand attention. They force your reader to ask questions, and therefore, remain gripped by the story:
It’s like throwing a gallon of gasoline on the fire. Motivations that conflict create a drastic amount of internal tension that cut quickly to the core of your hero. These are opportunities for you to show how noble (or ignoble) your hero is.
Here's a MUCH more in-depth guide on writing characters with multiple motivations.
Your villain should be as developed as your hero.
To write deeply complex and engaging villains, remember the three questions:
One nice thing about writing villains:
They don’t have to be bound by heroism. Villains can range from “heroes on the other side...” to misguided souls trying to do the right thing… or they can be outright vile.
In most cases, your villain should stand in the way of your Hero. A compelling villain not only keeps us grounded in the story, it also gives us another character to get addicted to.
Most importantly, your villain’s actions will work to expose the flaws and shortcomings of your hero in the most targeted way.
Certain villains actually help your hero grow… by hitting them where it hurts most.
...a hero without obstacles is no hero at all.
Use your world and it’s various denizens to keep your hero from getting what they want. The obstacles that naturally arise will sharpen your hero, and prove to your readers how dedicated your hero is to their main goal.
Unless you’re writing a tragic hero… then the obstacles should erode them or shatter their goals.
Does the world happen to your hero?
Or does your hero happen to it?
Once a hero knows what they want, they act on it. High-agency heroes are far more engaging than characters who sit around and wish while the world wanders moves on.
Captain Kirk from Star Trek and Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation are both extremely active characters.
Both heroes always...
Sometimes, they lose hope. Their agency drops... they realize trying is hopeless. But here is the key moment where we fall in love with them: they don't do hopeless. Neither Leslie nor Kirk every stay down.
This gives us something to cheer for. It gives us hope, and it keeps us turning the pages to find out will they figure something out?
Speaking of things readers love...
Not every hero must be sympathetic…
However, if you want your readers to fall in love with your Heros, give them some likable traits. Yes, even the grimmest, gloomiest anti-heroes should have redeeming qualities.
Check out these 26 ways to create instant sympathy with your hero.
That list includes actions like...
Where did your hero start?
Under the stairs, in a broom cupboard...
Tied to a wooden post in the middle of a thunderstorm...
In a medical laboratory, bitten by a radioactive spider...
Without a backstory, you are asking your characters to appear, fully formed, from the aether. Forgive the crude analogy - that’s like telling someone to give birth to themself.
This is a two-part answer.
As the writer, you only need to know enough to tell the emotional core of your story. That’s it.
You can (and probably should) write more, but don’t get infected by worldbuilder’s disease. That’s where you get stuck writing backstory forever, and never actually write your story.
Don’t include all of the hero’s backstory in one book.
In fact, I would show hardly any of it.
To write an amazing backstory for your hero, you must only show just the tip of the iceberg.
By dropping hints and leaving references to your characters past, you can hint at a much larger (and fuller) history… without having to plant infodumps all over your story.
Don’t explain every detail of the iceberg. Show them the tip, and let them imagine that massive, creaking mountain of ice lurking below the water.
What are the most emotional moments in your hero’s life?
We call these “defining moments,” because they define the way your Hero interacts with the world.
Defining moments are the scars or the precious memories they keep secret from everyone else.
Here are some questions to get you started:
If nothing else, understanding a handful of your hero’s defining moments will allow you to get closer to the character, and figure out what makes them tick.
This is one of the most frustrating things I see from amateur writers - and even a fair number of bestselling authors.
Your characters should not sound like clones of each other.
Is your character’s voice unique?
It’s especially important to have a unique, engaging voice for your protagonist, because we’re probably going to hear them the most.
Writing tip: this might sound crazy, but... sometimes you need to find a quiet place to sit down and have a conversation with your character. This article explains how your character's voice is expressed in two main ways:
Character voice get really interesting when we watch their feelings, lies, and motivations transform over the course of your story…
Every story is a journey. Sometimes, the destination changes. Sometimes, the hero never makes it to the destination at all.
No matter what, your hero should also make a personal journey - one that involves a deep, resounding, internal change.
What kind of changes will they make? What should happen to your heroes?
Let’s start with your hero’s imperfections:
No character is perfect...
...and if they are, your readers probably hate them.
Flaws are critical for creating a believable (and empathetic) hero. Without flaws, your character has no ability to grow.
Heroes who can recognize their flaws - and attempt to overcome or compensate for them - are extremely attractive. Why? Because everyone knows they need to improve themselves. Doing it is the hard part. So when we see someone (even a fictional character) finding ways to improve, we feel inspired.
You can break down character flaws into three main categories:
Note: Ideological flaws tend to be the most difficult to overcome. Anti-heroes are often embroiled in a conflict because of their ideological flaws.
Another note: Physical flaws are one of the easiest ways to get readers fall in love with your character, because everybody loves an underdog.
Character arcs are a massive topic because there are so many directions you can go. While I will try my my best to guide you in this small section, I want to strongly suggest you check out K. M. Weiland’s book, Creating Character Arcs. Or, check out her Character Arc article here.
Both are excellent resources that will help you internalize the “Arc-ing” process until you can start creating your own arcs from scratch.
OK, here’s the quick overview:
Your hero will likely dip into all of these arcs at some point in your story, but the determining factor is where their arc ends.
I usually start by looking at my character’s motivation:
Most characters (and pretty much every living person) are in a state of ignorance - or denial - about something they need.
Generally, a changing arc will revolve around that character discovering… or refusing to accept what really matters.
Example: Scrooge from A Christmas Carol thinks he only cares about money. It takes several nights of near-death hallucinations to help him realize there is something far more important than money...
Relationships are never a static entity. Every relationship should go through it’s own arc (though you don’t need to explicitly write it down).
Instead, as your Hero progresses through their journey…
As they learn, and grow…
Remember to let their personal changes affect the ones closest to them.
When Frodo returns to the Shire, he realizes he can no longer live in the carefree world of the Hobbits. He has to leave his old life, and Samwise, behind.
As your character progresses through their arc, the relationships with their friends, allies, and enemies should change.
Relationships are ripe with conflict, unexpected dialogue, and emotionally charged moments.
If your hero is also your protagonist, then her relationships - and especially the change in her relationships - will keep your readers glued to your story.
Want to get your audience addicted?
Create an enthralling hero.
You don’t need a master’s degree in creative writing to write an addicting hero. There are only a few things you need to get right…
With these questions, you will be able to craft the kind of hero (or anti-hero) that will inspire your readers...
...and make them beg you for sequels.
What is your process for writing heroes? Do you have any tips or tricks that I didn’t mention in this post?