Thursday, November 8, 2007

13 Considerations for Constructing a Mythic Hero

OK, as writers and readers we all know our heroes have to be more than stick figures, but how do we flesh them out?
Once we’ve invented a character’s past, charted his or her motivations and aspirations, and perhaps jotted down a physical appearance, what should we think about?
Jack Bickham in “Writing Novels That Sell,” says: “Good characters are not real people. They are exaggerated -- they’re bigger than life -- broadly exaggerated in many respect so that the reader, viewing the character as through a smoked glass, can easily detect the most salient characteristics.”
So we go back and add to their habits, appearance and personality quirks.
Bickham also says, heroes “are more goal-oriented.” They desire something fervently and they take action to get it.
Many writing experts echo this admonition. In “The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing,” Evan Marshall advises, “Define your lead’s goal.” After you do, your hero should be ready to go. Right?
But what if you’re writing more of a mythic adventure story? How do you construct a hero that draws a reader into your adventurous tale?
James N. Frey, in “The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth,” says that “the hero of a myth-based fiction has certain qualities that attract a reader and will not have other qualities that readers find repellant. These [positive] qualities are time-tested .... and heroic qualities have been proven over several millennia of testing to attract readers like honey attracts bear.”
So what are some of those heroic qualities? Glad you asked. Frey devotes a whole chapter to these Mythic Hero Must-Haves.

Thirteen Things about Frey’s Suggestions in Constructing a Hero

Here are 13 of Frey’s Suggestions in Constructing a Hero.
1) Courage. Readers can’t identify with a coward.
2) The hero is clever and resourceful. (As a reader, I know I want my heroes to be competent and skillful.)
3) The hero lives by his own rules and may not quite fit into society. He may be a James Dean, or a Holden Caulfield type or he might be a Fox Mulder, who is different because of his belief in the supernatural. Or a Ray Kinsella, the Iowa farmer who decides to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield. (If you build it, they will come!) He doesn’t conform and he’s not reluctant to carve out his own path.
4) The hero has a special talent. James N. Frey says this quality helps interest the reader in the main character. This talent makes the character special. For example, in “Willow,” Willow Ufgood does sleight of hand tricks. Later, he’s able to save the princess, Elora Danan, using one of his tricks.
5) The hero is good at his job.
6) The hero is a protagonist. At some point in the story, he takes charge after making plans to affect the story’s outcome.
7) The hero is wounded, hurt in some way. Frey says that this wound, whether physical, spiritual or psychological, makes the hero human so that we as readers can relate to him.
8) The hero is motivated by idealism or altruism. It’s hard to respect, or to get involved, with a selfish hero.
9) The hero is attractive. Friends of mine who advocate that the hero be a hunk are right, according to Frey.
10) The hero is loyal.
11) The hero may be able to deal with pain and hardship stoically.
12) The hero may think a lot of himself -- after all, he’s a hero.
13) The hero may be a wise guy. He may crack jokes like Spiderman.

Frey has other hero considerations and a wealth of other helpful advice in his book, “The Key,” but since this is a Thursday Thirteen, I’m going to stop and ask you what other qualities you think a hero should have? And for those who enjoy playing the devil’s advocate, can you name heroes who don’t share at least some of these qualities?
I’ll be happy to hear from you.


The purpose of the meme is to get to know everyone who participates a little bit better every Thursday. Visiting fellow Thirteeners is encouraged! If you participate, leave the link to your Thirteen in others comments. It’s easy and fun! Trackbacks, pings, comment links accepted!


  1. Willow was NOT handsome. Nope. Sorry. That was Mad Martigan's job, which he did beautifully.

    So there. Some Devil's Advocacy for you.

    Of course, my hero Trevor Wolff isn't handsome, either. But apparently, according to many of my groupies, that's part of his appeal. Go figure.

    Happy TT!

  2. Susan, You're right. I thought Willow was cute though and I like little, cute men. Happy TT!

  3. I loved reading this! great TT

  4. Happy TT - my head is spinning, LOL - everyone has a different opinion on how it should be done.

  5. Gosh, this is a great list! I do love James Frey. With so many people writing books this month, the information is very timly as well!

    Happy TT!

  6. Yeah, I have to agree on Mad Martigan. Hotness!

  7. Nice Thursday post! I love Thursdays because Earl, the Office, Greys Anatomy, and ER are all on! That means no laundry after 7:30! I have posted my thursday blog come on over and visit!


  8. Wow! Great list! Happy Thursday!

  9. to me heroes have to have several admirable qualities and 1 flaw so theyare human:>

  10. Hi! Thanks for stopping by my blog -- it was great stopping by to read yours! I think what makes a great hero too is that he has some flaw that he tries to overcome. It pulls us in to identify with him, and then I'm a goner!!
    Great TT!

  11. I think one hero that don't go with some of those qualities is Oedipe(I don't know if you call him like that in english!)

  12. Great hero list. Mine alwasy tend to have a sense of duty and integrity as well. Thanks for visiting my site! Vic

  13. Love the list! I think flaws make heroes sexy, and I actually think redeemed villains are a lot of fun. St. Vincent in Lisa Kleypas's "Devil In Winter" is a great example. And I always like heroes with a sense of humor. Nice job!

  14. Hello Kid,
    I haven’t dropped in for a while, some maniac named Persephone NaNoWriMo addicted me to a crazy idea of writing a novel in 30 days and I sit bleary eyed over my computer at night to get another 100 or so words in before the night is through. Unfortunately, this means I can not sleep for thinking about the scene to come.
    This does not help my day job or home life, especially since my husband took the week off to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and he has woken up every night this week to find his beloved (me) hunkering over the keyboard in our bedroom fingers splayed across the keyboard, poached eggs for eyes, slamming down coffee. This morning found his beloved (me) hanging from the ceiling fan in fright after he, ripping off his sleep Apnea mask bellowed “What the Hell are you doing?” Our darling seven year old who has taken up sleeping spread-eagle in my spot on the bed, opened one eye and in a clear high pitched tone stated “NANOWRIMO.” As if chanting a poem by Rudyard Kipling.
    So, bring me a large coffee please, and last months newspapers.

  15. Dear Brenda!
    Hello! I am delighted to find such a well rounded, well written account of Our Hero! The perfect example of the Noble Hero is Jane Austin’s Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice.) Not surprisingly he fits your requirements to a T!
    My own list of ROMANTIC HERO requirements are reflections of our own desires for ourselves, that is, as women, we must be able to cast ourselves in the Heroine’s role for the Hero to be a hero. We have to identify with Elizabeth Bennett, for Fitzwilliam Darcy to be a hero. We have to be able to put ourselves in Fiona’s place for Shrek to be a hero.
    Requirements for a Romantic Hero alter a bit therefore, from the ones you mention. I’ll bare mine here for the world to see:
    1) The hero is a quiet type – not necessarily shy, but thoughtful. When he speaks, we must sit up and take note.
    2) He puts others above himself – manners, rules of society, gentlemanly behaviors. He must be willing to keep his heartfelt desire under wraps, not letting you know, until you almost slip tearfully from his grasp to marry another.
    3) The Hero has a higher calling – a task to perform, a dragon to fight, before he can be happy – and that dragon must almost be the thing which undoes the love affair. Luke Skywalker had to revenge his Aunt and Uncle’s (fathers, mother’s cousins, sisters, whatever) death and therefore he had to fly in to battle regardless of his desire to remain at Leia’s side. (World War II bomber pilots were some of the most romantic guys to the girls of that era, BECAUSE they had to leave – wrench your guts and then come back safe and sound after being shot down in the middle of Berlin during a book burning, manage to hide under Hitler’s girlfriend’s skirts and be smuggled out by priests after much pain, torture and near death, calling your name In the throws of a raging fever) Bullet wounds are highly acceptable
    4) His rules must be the very best of our rules – something that brings us up to a better state of being mentally and physically – If he loved me I would ____ (you fill in the blanks.) This does not have to do with money or riches. In City of Joy, Patrick Swayze played a hero we would run away to live in poverty with – to gain a place at this side, tending the sick, improving life for the people we have come to know in India.
    5) He must have the possibility of a long life. In Blade Runner, one of the last things Harrison Ford says of his beloved is “How long will she live? No one knows.” Meaning that she does not have a set termination date. We have the impression that they ride off into the sunset to grow old together.
    6) The Hero must never stray in his affections. Truthfully, Mr. Darcy may blush regularly having to prompt his wife to do and say the right thing in society. Chances are slogging about in muddy sties will never come into mode. We must believe he will forever adore Elizabeth when she comes into the hallowed halls of Pemberly Mansion covered with mud.
    7) Likewise, we must believe we could fit in to his life style and it would improve our essential being – living with Patrick Swayze I’d loose those last 20 pounds (OK, 50) – living with Mr. Darcy I’d pay off those credit cards in nothing flat – living with Abraham in the desert, I would be closer to God.
    8) The Hero must not have a past unless his former wife is dead. If this is his unhappiness, the past wife must have been flawed (Mad woman in the attic) or happened so long ago it matters little. No contact may be made between the past and the present. Mad woman in the attic must have killed the love the hero had for her in the past, and must die before he is free to love again. The exception is of course time travel, where the past wife turns out to be not great aunt Elise McKenna, but yourself blasted into the past – walking through he stone circle on a full moon putting on the dress you will wear on your(past) wedding day – usually through some device of the time loop.
    9) The hero must do something to get my attention immediately upon meeting. Darcy insulted Elizabeth at the dance –
    10) …and in turn the end must be a “who would have known…” ending. Who would have guessed that Elizabeth would so bewitch the man who said she was not good enough?
    11) The hero must be worth rescuing from himself because he does have the rules he lives by so stanchly (see Number4) How many of us wanted to fling out of the house along with the boy and shout for Shane to come back? The rules might actually be his down fall if there is no romantic lead to rescue him from his own rules.
    12) The Hero must be bigger than life, and gloss over petty details like toilets and snoring because they are what we find most unattractive and illusion breaking in our own lives. We need to see Darcy bathing prior to being bodily close to Elizabeth. We don’t want to remember that the algae in the pond probably make him reek like a dead fish, or that the WWII hero chain smokes and hadn’t been able to brush his teeth in six weeks. We want to turn blind eyes to our leg hair and limp hair, wrinkles and fat over-arms. Our creation of a hero also reflectively creates us with perfection as well.

    I have written these from a woman’s point of view – ‘cos I am one – however, I believe they hold true from the opposite view point as well. See you next time I go for water!

    I know this is petty, but I haven’t really seen any guy hero that is shorter than the lady hero, so I agree with your assessment of hunk. I think hero’s have to be from another place and or time for me. They have to be pretty unlikely to be “safe” enough not to interfere with real life. I hear that Authors fall in love with the hero they create. Like Dorothy Sayers.

  17. chinameli,
    Great story! Press on. You're one of the best writers I know. And isn't it exciting to have a mission like NaNoWriMo?

  18. Hey desiree,
    Thank you for that insightful list. You really know your heroes. :) Come back soon. I'll put in a good word for you, see about getting you job here, if you want.