Today we’re finishing up with the third kind of character introduction, introducing the genuine hero.
The convention is that a genuine hero has a dangerous job such as police officer, soldier, firefighter, first responder, or spy. He or she is capable, brave, well-trained, and exactly the person we want next to us when things go horribly wrong. The genuine hero category isn’t restricted to humans. It includes paranormal and superheroes with special powers.
The myth is that the introduction for this kind of hero should start with an action opening in order to build rapport. The reader needs to see how hard the character’s job is and how brave they are. This fails to work because, at the beginning of a story, characters are ciphers and readers have no way to connect to them.
The reality is that readers bond to humanity, even in superhuman characters. They want to see the real person behind the badge, the medals, or the powers.
Avoid cutesy or trite: the decorated soldier who faints when he gets a flu shot, or the police negotiator who talks potential suicides off bridges, but makes a cock-up of talking to her kid’s second-grade class isn’t going to cut it. Go for real bravery, something no one else sees.
The situation should be a life-changing event, something that takes time and effort to resolve, something that causes the character to change who they are or how they view themselves. Bonus points if that change puts their hero status in jeopardy.
- He’s estranged from his father, who is dying. He makes one last attempt at reconciliation, only to have his father reject him again.
- Her gambling addiction is out of control and the bank is about to foreclose on her house, putting her and her kids on the street.
- He’s just learned that someone close to him has a terminal diagnosis, or that his wife’s ultrasound is abnormal and they have to decide whether to carry the pregnancy to term.
- Her fifteen year old daughter has just been arrested on a prostitution charge.
The difference between us and the hero is that the hero has to balance handling both things at once. We might think our job can’t do without us, but for genuine heroes that assessment is real. Imagine Batman not responding to the bat-signal because of a family crisis.
The nice thing about using a life-changing situation to introduce a character is that it becomes a thread that can run through the entire book. The outer threat (saving the world, or their corner of it) and the inner threat (that life-changing event) can be brought together at the end so that the hero emerges as a stronger, more flexible person.
Next Tuesday, April 29th, on Write the Novel: Threading the Character Loom – we know a lot of stuff about our characters. How do we translate that into starting a book?
I also hope you’ll also come back Thursday, April 24 for Level Thinking: Why Mysteries Run on a Closed Track or how to answer that inevitable question, “Why do you write mysteries?”