Okay, first. I’m sure a lot of you know already that author Caitlin R. Kiernan is having a bit of difficulty with her health these days, and could use some help. This livejournal post tells how you can help, and links to what’s going on. So if you can, do.
Second. I want to reiterate (geez, I’m really nervous about this, I totally feel like I’m overstepping myself) that this post isn’t intended to say how everyone should write heroes, or that my way is the only way or the best way or that this is a foolproof way. It’s just my own feelings, how I do it, and what I’ve learned from several years of writing. (And several years of reading advice about writing.) So please, don’t take my word as gospel–it’s simply intended to A) Make you think about your own process; B) Help you distill that process; and C) Entertain.
Third, I should make clear that by “Hero” I mean Hero as he relates to heroine, not Hero as main character. I’m talking about romantic heroes and love interests, in any genre where there’s a romantic plot or subplot. Of course these traits are gender-neutral and are generally found in main characters as well, but this is about building chemistry and romance in your books specifically.
So…what makes a man a hero? Who is a hero? How is he different from other characters?
Well. In a lot of ways he’s no different. Obviously the reader will learn more about him than about secondary characters, because our heroine and thus we as readers and writers will likely be spending more time with him than with others.
But in some ways…he’s worlds apart. So what separates him? Who is he, that he’s so special? Why does the heroine–and (hopefully) especially the reader–fall for him? (Remember, this is the first post of several, so this is simply an overview. The next posts will cover how to express these traits, when to do so, and what makes a hero perfect for that particular heroine.)
1. He’s smart. A hero cannot be stupid. We need to respect people in order to fall in love with them, plain and simple, and it’s hard to respect people who we see doing dumb things. Making mistakes is okay. Everybody makes mistakes. But a hero’s mistakes should never come from lack of forethought, whereas a secondary character’s mistakes can come from anything.
(Example: Julian in Blood Will Tell keeps a secret from Cecelia, the woman he’s falling in love with. It’s a secret he knows could destroy everything he’s trying to build with her, and he knows it’s a mistake to keep it. But he does. Why? Because he’s gambling on being able to fix it. This of course becomes more and more of a problem the longer he keeps it secret, until telling seems impossible. His mistake comes from his heart, not his head, and the heart is almost always a hero’s downfall.)
2. He knows who he is. A hero is self-aware. He may see himself as less than he is (a hallmark of tortured heroes), but he never has delusions of grandeur. His faults may cause him pain or they may amuse him, but he knows they’re there, just as clearly as he’s aware of his strengths. And he’ll generally admit to both, although he often won’t admit his fears or insecurities until much later in the book because he’s being manly and stoic and all that good stuff.
(Example: This is a snippet of dialogue from Personal Demons, between Greyson Dante and Megan Chase.
“One thing I’m not,” he said, in a voice cold enough to make her shiver, “is a liar.”
She stared at him. He relented. “Not about stuff like this, anyway.”)
3. He knows what he wants. And he’ll generally do whatever it takes to get it. Whether it’s money or power or love or a cause, or even a sandwich, a hero doesn’t waffle. He sees, he wants, he takes. It may take him a while to get there, but he never wavers.
(Example: Julian in Blood Will Tell starts a war and kills someone he once saw as a father figure in order to save Cecelia’s life.)
4. He is fearless. Or at least, he never lets his fears stand in his way. There is of course a class of heroes–usually in comedies or more lighthearted romances–who have hearty senses of self-preservation and can be afraid of all sorts of things (snakes, anyone?) But when it comes down to it, a hero will face those fears and work through them in order to accomplish his goal. Where secondary characters decide to head for home, a hero always gets the job done–even if it means sacrificing himself.
(Example: Gruffydd in Black Dragon is on a spying mission when the woman he loves is captured. Despite her begging him not to give himself up, he does, knowing full well he’ll probably be killed–and more importantly, that his death will be meaningless, coming not in battle but by an executioner’s axe. But protecting the woman he loves is his goal, so there’s no choice to make.)
5. He’s got a plan. Always. Even when he doesn’t have a plan, or even when his plan is simply Get There, Kill Everybody, he’s got a plan. He’s got it covered. He’s working something out in that head of his. The hero is always a half-step ahead.
(My best example here is spoilery, so I’m not posting it. But Gruffydd in Black Dragon has studied the enemy’s movements and castles well enough to quickly formulate an escape plan. Julian in Blood Will Tell sets up an elaborate distraction on the highway to outrun the bad guys.)
6. He is observant. It’s not just brains that make him capable of dealing with whatever life and the plot throw at him. The hero pays attention, above all else. He pays attention to the heroine (and I’ll be covering this in a lot more depth later in the week, as I actually think this is one of the most important traits of a hero) and he pays attention to the villains, and to anyone else who pops up too. Because he knows himself so well, he’s able to understand other people too, and this is always useful. He’s also good at noticing details others miss (it’s not an example from my work, but look at how observent Adrian Monk is.)
(Example from Personal Demons: Scene in a nightclub.
“Keep your voice down. Ugh, we can’t talk in here. Let’s go.” He slid out of the booth and stood, slipping on his jacket and nodding to Malleus, Maleficarum, and Spud, who sat in the booth next to theirs downing oceans of beer.
Was he going to fit her with some cement boots? “Maybe I don’t want to go.”
“Yes, you do. You hate these places.”
Damn it, was she that obvious? “Maybe tonight I like them.”)
7. He is complex/he has secrets. Obviously this is part of simply building good characters, no matter who they are or what their relation is to the protagonists or plot. One of the most noticeable amateur mistakes is to create characters who are all good or all bad (although I admit it doesn’t bother me when villains are evil simply because they’re evil; I don’t always need them to have Big Motivations, although I’m happy when they do). We all know what a Mary Sue heroine is; the same can be said for Gary Sues, heroes so perfect, handsome and charming and rich and instantly in love with the heroine, that there’s no conflict. These characters are difficult (at best) to identify with. They’re essentially bland. And worst of all they provide no conflict, and conflict is what keeps a relationship and a story interesting. You can create secondary characters who are less complex, and that’s fine. But for sparks to fly you need to make sure there’s a lot under the surface of your characters. Secrets they want to keep, memories that shame them, insecurities they’re aware of but do their best to hide. They may get defensive or prickly, or simply change the subject, but the reader feels that reaction, and both identifies with and becomes more curious about the character.
(Example, again from Personal Demons:
He glanced at her. “…We are who and what we are, Meg, and there’s no point wasting time wondering how it might be if things were different.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You were raised with demons. You were never different from everyone around you.”
“Don’t make assumptions. You should know better.”
“Sorry.” He was right, and worse, Megan hadn’t even thought of it. Without being able to read him, she didn’t know anything about what went on under his skin other than what he told her and what she learned by observation. “You’re so self-assured. Most people with your confidence had very nurturing upbringings. Overcompensators read more like arrogance. But you—”
“I’m not one of your patients. Please don’t analyze me.”
“I’m sorry,” she said again. His withdrawal upset her more than she would have thought. Sometimes it was hard to remember that just because she couldn’t read someone didn’t mean they didn’t have depths, or secrets to keep.)
8. He has faith in the heroine. First and foremost. He believes in her and her abilities to solve her own problems, however much he might like to solve them for her. He knows she’s a great partner for him, and a partner is what he wants–even if he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Dom, he wants a woman who can take care of herself too, who can stand up to him when it counts.
9. He is honorable. No matter what he is or what he does, whether he’s a pastor or a hired killer, he has honor of some kind. He may kill, steal for a living, lie to get out of whatever problem there is, break into homes, hack computers, whatever he has to do, but a hero never cheats at cards. NEVER.
10. He is generous. Whether it’s money or time, the hero will give, even begrudgingly (depending on him or the situation), once he’s found his heroine. A man who forces his ladylove to count pennies while he takes expensive vacations is not a hero. A man who forces the heroine to beg for his attention or time is not a hero.
Okay. Notice there are several things I didn’t mention there:
1. Looks. Yes, heroes tend to be handsome, but they don’t have to be. The only thing they have to be is physically attractive to the heroine, and that can happen over time (again, we’ll discuss chemistry later).
2. Wealth. Again, heroes tend to have money, but they don’t have to. A poor artist can be just as clever, dominant, and appealing as a robber baron, if he’s written properly.
3. Morality, as it differs from honor. This is a matter of personal taste. My heroes tend to be criminals, often fairly violent ones too. Usually they’ve killed people and it doesn’t bother them. They often kill more people as the story goes on, and sleep just fine. Other people would never stomach a hero who didn’t go to church every week, or who stole, or killed, or whatever. The only things a hero does NOT do, not ever, are hurting animals or babies and cheating at cards (see above). A hero who cheats at cards or kicks puppies or hits babies is irredeemable in my eyes. Any hero, no matter if he’s a fireman or a rabbi or an international jewel thief, can be sexy and appealing if he’s written properly.
What are your rules for heroes? What do you look for, and what is unimportant? Do the heroes you write or the heroes you like to read tend to have certain traits in common, and what are they? How many of those must-have traits do you think you could eliminate from a character and still have him be appealing to readers and your heroine?