3 Things Not To Do To Your Heroes

When you write your story, you enter the mind of someone else—someone fictional, but I assure you, they feel more real than some of the people around you. Describing that person and putting their thoughts onto a page invites a reader to join you in this experience. That being said, if you want your reader to continue with your story and not chuck it across the room, there are a few ‘guidelines’ you are going to want to follow if your reader is supposed to root for your hero.

RW Hague
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When you write your story, you enter the mind of someone else—someone fictional, but I assure you, they feel more real than some of the people around you. Describing that person and putting their thoughts onto a page invites a reader to join you in this experience. That being said, if you want your reader to continue with your story and not chuck it across the room, there are a few ‘guidelines’ you are going to want to follow if your reader is supposed to root for your hero.


Unforgivable Sins
Readers can forgive many sins of your characters. In fact, flawless characters are rarely interesting. Even murder can be forgiven by your readers if done right. There are, however, some unforgiveable sins. Hurting animals is one. And I don’t mean Old Yeller style or To Kill a Mocking Bird style where the dog has rabies or some irreversible illness and needs to be put down. I mean killing a dog for the sake of killing it, or hurting animals in general. This is something that your villain might do—and your audience will hate them all the more. But if your hero is the perpetrator, that’s a sin many of your readers will not forgive.
Another unforgivable sin is the hurting of children. If your protagonist strikes a child, forget it. Credibility to their good nature is completely lost. Now, there have been incidents where a child is killed, but it has to be in the heat of the moment or by accident. Think about a war scene where a soldier is clearing houses and accidently shoots a child. Usually, this memory haunts them for the duration of the story as they live with remorse for what they did. If they intentionally kill or strike a child, however, they are not your hero. They are you villain.
Did you know that in the original mythology, Hercules kills his wife and children in a rage? How do you feel about him now? Yeah, that’s how your readers will feel about your character. Don’t do it.


Personality Changes
I was watching the TV show Ratched the other night on Netflix, and was captivated by the main character. Mildred Ratched is deliciously evil, but ***Spoiler Alert*** halfway through the season, she has a massive personality shift. Suddenly, she’s not the anti-hero, but the victim and the sympathetic protagonist. I finished the season, but I won’t pick up season 2.
Now, the writers tried to back-pedal and say that she was just trying to save her brother, and therefore did all of those evil things. Here’s the thing, though: Mildred performed a craniotomy on an innocent person, practically turning him into a vegetable. That’s an unforgivable sin. But nonetheless, they try to explain it all away with a sympathetic story and proceeded to tell the story as if she is now the hero instead of the anti-hero. Sorry, but I’m not biting. You took an interesting character and killed her. Thank you and good night.


Put Protagonist on the Backburner
Imagine if halfway through the hunger games, Peeta shoved Katniss to the side, took her bow and arrows, and killed all the baddies? Katniss would no longer be the heroine we know and love. If you have read my previous posts concerning POV, you will see why most agents/publisher’s prefer 3rd person limited view. It helps keep your protagonist in the center of the action.
A good protagonist is not a passive part of the story, but an active part. This means he/she is making decisions to push the plot forward. Think of Katniss volunteering as tribute. She makes that choice. She chooses to pull out the berries. She is an active participant in the novel, not just a passive pawn that is moved across the board.

10 Comments

Nenad

I’ve read the blog and I feel I agree with most of the things stated here.

However, I do have to state out and explain things I disagree with and I do have to explain one part where I felt a bit of aggression from you xD

Hercules/Heracles
Welcome to Greek mythology. We have superheroes, anti-heroes, villains… we have stories from which other stories came to be. Hercules is superman before superman. He is Hulk before Hulk was cool.
Modern takes on these stories do not come close to understanding what the real deal was (A dark and grimdark fantasy world based on the reality of that brutal time filled with war, suffering, unforgiving gods etc.).
This brings me to your topic of him killing his wife and children and that people should not like Hercules because of that. [colR]Spoiler for the story and myth of Heracles.[/col]
Did you know Hera was Zeus’ wife? And a jealous type? When she heard Zeus made son called Hercules with another woman, and human at that, she was furious and cursed Hercules. Hercules’ first wife (he had many), Megara obeyed the will of Hera. She poisoned, drugged, and waited until Hercules was drunk, then dressed her kids as monsters to go and play with their dad, knowing full well he killed monsters as a hero of Greece. And because Hercules was under such strong hallucinations from all she did to him, he saw them as real monsters and killed them on the spot.
He didn’t want to kill them. He was tricked into killing them. Hence why he wanted to REDEEM himself. And all because some god was jealous of her husband.

This brings me back to the second thing I want to talk about.

Grimdark
Now you prob heard of this genre. I will use my favorite book called “The Prince of Thorns” to talk about this since this is grimdark fantasy (some would argue that the other two books are better, but this book started it all for me :3 ).
Ehm. [colR]SPOILERS[/col]!
In this book, the guy (MC) lusts for his stepsister, kills people for fun, and talks about the city he had burned to ashes as it was nothing. He takes a rock and tosses it, saying how it used to be someone’s wife, and then tosses another rock, saying it was someone’s child.
This guy is a villain. And the grimdark genre is, well, dark, brutal, and sometimes unforgiving. Most of the things you stated up above do not apply in this genre. “Heroes” here are twisted because the world around them is the same.

Another example I can think of is Ned Start from “The Game of Thrones”.
Again, [colR]Spoilers[/col].
Ned killed his daughter’s pet puppy when it bit the price. Does that make him unlikeable? Not at all. The genre (dark fantasy) sets a different tone to the whole “Hero” and “Villain” thing.

And the last topic I want to address is:
If you want them to like your hero, just let him save a cat. If you want them to hate your character, just let him kill a dog.
This is a well-known statement in the world of writing, and this is something most easily applied to our characters in order for readers to understand what they are like. You’ve talked about this, and yes, this is indeed a thing.
But again, what if someone is talking about a str8 out villain and he kills a puppy in the first chapter?
You put a book down? But I picked a book because I wanted to read about a villain who is evil to their core. I am tired of these good guys always winning. Or now I want this guy to be stopped at all cost by some hero.
(This is just how you picked a TV show because the MC captivated you as an anti-hero.)

Crime and punishment
[colR]Spoilers[/col]
Raskoljnikov kills a helpless grandma, trying to justify himself how no one will miss her, and how he chose her specifically because of that. Yet… later he admits that he killed her because he wanted to see if he was capable of killing another human being.
Wow, this guy sucks.
Then… why is this book so popular and a must-read in my school, and prob across the world o.O
Others can answer that question.

So again, this blog sets up a lot of interesting and good points, but you have to keep in mind: what kind of character(s) you are writing (which is very well explained in your “personality changes”, and explains well how we should be careful with our characters and who they appeal to), what genre you are writing, and who your audience is.

I hope this helps a tad bit :3
Nenad p/

Jun-30 at 08:33

Wendyg

An interesting set of guidelines. I think it is more that you can do anything to your hero or have your hero do anything, but you have to be able to justify it in regards to their backstory and if they do something really horrible then you have to do it really well.

Plus, personal preference is a tricky thing - there will always be people who look for different things. It might also depend on changing cultures over time e.g. fairy tales used to be terribly dark and now they go for happy endings.

And lastly, there are times when your characters just take off and do their own thing, even though you tell them not to. Trying to write them as ‘you’ want them and not as ‘they want themselves’ to be just doesn’t work sometimes.

A good topic for discussion though :slight_smile:

Jun-30 at 09:07

Jamkafka

I complete agree with what you said about Nurse Ratched… totally personality change. And how is the character here supposed to end up as the same character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

I think it totally lost its way trying to be edgy

Jul-04 at 08:25

Chduffy

I agree that the reader must know the reason your hero does an evil thing in order to eventually “forgive” him. In my story their is a soldier that was an orphan at four years old and was seduced with sweets into relationship with an evil man and woman who were pedophiles. He is eventually adopted by the man and becomes his page until he is sent to be trained for the man’s army. Once he gets away from the man while in the army, he begins to question everything. But while he is in this journey to redemption, he does some evil things. About a third of the way into the novel, he saves a little girl from kidnappers. But still after that he does some evil things because he believes he must serve the man that raised him. Then he sees the light and will contribute profoundly to the downfall of the evil man and woman. He is complicated.
~Chris

Jul-05 at 07:47

Paulpowell

Generally agree with most of the post.

I hung on through points #1 and point #2 (although I hope you’re not implying that someone has made …what, a cable TV series of Ken Kesey’s book/ Milos Foreman’s film? Groan)

As for ‘Peeta’ and ‘Katniss’ I have no idea what these are, so point #3 was entirely lost on me.

Jul-06 at 03:40

Leglessme

Those are all exceptions to the rule about children. If someone wrote a story about an assassin sent through time to murder the child named Adolf Hitler (I’ve read two stories like this from two different authors) we don’t see it as unheroic.

I think a hero is not an anti-hero but different genres call for one or the other. I may have a faulty memory right now due to getting my second Covid shot this week but I don’t remember a single story that had both.

Jul-09 at 07:58

49ernava

I would like to say that Nenad addressed literally all of the thoughts I had in in my mind, so thank you for that. I believe the writer of this blog set a perfectly decent generalization of writing for beginners. If you want a purely decent beginning novel I would say to stick to these guidelines. The deconstruction of these exact tropes makes a story go from good to great. Watching Walter White murder dozens of people and accept that he did it all for selfish reasons is what made breaking Bad so great. How do we as a viewer accept that someone we have grown to love and justify, is not truly a good person. How do we make peace in our heads with how he ruined his whole family? What makes humans evil? Are they still evil afterwards? Are you still a good person when you do bad things for selfish reasons? Stories that make you reflect and wonder as opposed to the known or the cliche is what sets apart beautiful writing from well written but done before. Thank you for this Blog and the thoughts that came with.

Jul-09 at 20:26

Maree

I wonder to what extent we really consider hurting animals worse than hurting adult humans, and how much of it is just a shorthand that current media developed to tell us “this is the bad guy” in a single scene, without forcing action heros to be pacifists. Maybe I’m odd, but I feel at least as bad about a random human guard dying, as about a guard dog dying, and it annoys me that the first is perfectly acceptable in books, while the second is a great deal.
I think if done carefully both hurting animals and children could be forgivable… if the author does not ask the reader to do so. The worst dissonance happens when a hero (or rather antihero) commits some heinous act, and the author tries to explain it away with a sob story, essentially telling us that we should like them and what they did is fine. I’d rather have the author distance themselves from the character, letting us know this was not an excusable behaviour by:

  • showing consequences of immoral actions
  • having another character chastise the POV
  • having the POV admit that they’re a monster without showing regret
    This way, the reader is free to follow the “hero” with a guilty pleasure, without feeling that they condone their actions.

Jul-10 at 14:44

Leglessme

I’m not sure if you mean hurting or killing animals by accident in fiction/media or not. I am responding on the assumption you mean the character doing the harm/murder of an animal is shown doing so to make them a villain immediately in the audiences’/readers’ eyes. Also, this is aside from hunting for food, a veterinarian having to put an animal down in the course of the duty, or killing the animal before it kills you or because it’s a maneater terrorizing an area, like, say, a tiger.

A person killing an animal is so proven a key indicator to FBI profilers and law enforcement the perpetrator will become a killer of humans it is tracked now, when possible, and they keep an eye on these individuals. Obviously, they cannot charge the person with murder of a human until they do it, there are still laws to follow and this isn’t Minority Report. When a new serial killer starts their spree and they do not have a profile, the FBI makes one in a hurry. The find, invariably, the person has killed animals first.

I don’t exactly think of it as a cheap way to get a reader/viewer to know “this is the bad guy.” I would think that of anyone who did things that were unreasonably terrible to good people, regardless of physical harm. There are other ways to show a character is the villain that must be stopped. However, that’s not the focus of this topic, as that could be a thread on its own.

Jul-10 at 16:03

Dougp

Let’s also remember that not every story has a single hero. I can think of three cases: ensemble casts, series that focus on a new character for each book, and epics that span generations. In those cases, various protagonists move to the forefront during their time to shine. One rule still makes sense though - a character’s personality shouldn’t change, even if the protagonist for the story does. A good example is Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, where Kelsier is the protagonist for most of book 1, but switches to Vin near the end (who becomes the protagonist for book 2). The plot drives this change, and we accept Vin when it becomes her turn.

Jul-31 at 01:50
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