What's in a Hero?

Starting Sunday, we here at Vaguely Circular will be talking about superheroes and supervillians with the people who write about them. But what makes a hero different from the people who surround him? And I’m not speaking about powers– powers can be used or misused as the individual sees fit. Why is a hero called a hero? What does it mean to be heroic?

Hero-material-grapheneFirst, realize “hero” is not a one-size-fits-all term. Heroes can be pure and uncorrupted in their ideals, or they can be reluctant, or they can be jaded, or anything in between. I’d like to propose that what’s important about a hero is not the strength of their convictions, but the way they choose to act.

As a good for instance, I’m sure most of you have read at least the first book of Supervillain of the Day. Floyd’s only real conviction is that supervillains must be killed– but because of the way he acts in carrying out that conviction, he saves thousands of lives at enormous cost to himself. That’s the mark of a hero: someone who is willing to give something up if it means saving others.

But this isn’t all that makes a hero. It may sound callous, but a hero has to be successful in order to be considered such in the eyes of society. Now, as far as I’m concerned, the simple attempt to save others is sufficient to merit hero status (and if that statement inspires you to write a story where the hero fails, awesome! You’re the kind of writer we like to see around here.), but for the media and society at large to toast your hero, they have to succeed. Eventually. [insert sinister author laughter here]

The third element of a hero may well be the largest: internal conflict. Even heroes with the purest of motives and beliefs have to struggle at times with the enormity of the burden they’ve shouldered, and the means they have use to achieve their goals. For some heroes, this leads to a duality of mind (or schizophrenia for you more abusive authors out there). For others, it may lead them to reject their previous high ideals in favor of more… simplistic and easily applied ones. For still others, they may be led to cling more tightly to their high ideals (in which case they can become obsessive or sociopathic, or both, yay!). Internal conflict is a bit less devastating to the reluctant or anti- heroes, but there’s still plenty for them to agonize over.

The point of internal conflict is not so much to inflict pain upon your characters and readers [heh], but to humanize what is otherwise unapproachable. A (spoiler-free) example: Coulson is a good guy, and a hero in many senses of the word. But he struggles with managing his agents, which may involve hiding things from them. And because he’s a good guy, that’s hard to do. But it humanizes him, it shows us that he’s not a total paragon of goodness (though he’s still determined to do the best he can by his people), and it helps us relate. Good and evil aren’t always black and white, and that struggle needs to be reflected in your heroes and the approach they take to handling their powers/responsibilities.

So there you go. Keep these three big elements in mind while building a hero, and you’ll have something recognizable within the archetype (and hopefully not a stereotype). Which of the three do you think is the most important, and why? Which do you think is least important? Let us know in the comments below, and stay tuned for Superhero Week starting this Sunday!

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