Excerpted from “Hero” is a Four-Letter Word
The Hero Breaks Down!
Groucho Marx once said, “You’re headed for a nervous breakdown. Why don’t you pull yourself to pieces?” That, in fact, is what we’re going to do to our hero.
Now many writers focus on a hero and a villain as the primary characters in their stories. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But as we are about to discover, there are so many more options for creative character construction.
Take the average hero. What qualities might we expect to find in the fellow? In fact, there are four principal attributes.
For one thing, the traditional hero is always the Protagonist. By that we mean he or she is the Prime Mover in the effort to achieve the story goal. This doesn’t presuppose the hero is a willing leader of that effort. For all we know he might accept that charge kicking and screaming. Nonetheless, once stuck in the situation, the hero provides the push to achieve the goal.
Another quality of a stereotypical hero is that he is also the Main Character. By this we mean that the hero is constructed so that the audience stands in his shoes, or at least right behind his shoulder. In other words, the audience identifies with the hero and sees the story as centering around him.
The third quality of the most usual hero configuration is being a “Good Guy.” Simply, he intends to do the right thing. Of course, he might be misguided or inept, but he wants to do good, and he does try.
And finally, let us note that heroes are usually the Central Character, meaning that they get more “media real estate” (pages, screen time, lines of dialog) than any other character.
Listing these four qualities we get:
2. Main Character.
3. Good Guy.
4. Central Character
Getting right to the point, the first two items in the list are structural in nature, while the last two are storytelling. Protagonist describes the character’s function from the Objective View described earlier. Main Character positions the audience in that particular character’s spot through the Main Character View. In contrast, being a Good Guy is a matter of personality, and Central Character is determined by the attention given to that character by the author’s storytelling.
You are probably familiar with the terms Protagonist, Main Character, and Central Character. But you’ve probably also noticed that I’ve used them here in very specific ways. In actual practice, most authors bandy these terms about more or less interchangeably. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for structural purposes it’s not very precise. That’s why you’ll see me being something of a stickler in its use of terms and their definitions: it’s the only way to be clear.
In fact, it is not really important which words you use to describe the four attributes of the hero. What is important is to recognize each of these qualities and to understand what they are.