Monday, April 15, 2013

What Makes a Great Hero?

I recently finished the second book in Michael R. Hick's IN HER NAME series, CONFEDERATION, and as expected, I loved it. It was better than the first and it did deliver on the promise it made in the first few pages. But over the course of reading the story, it transformed into something more than just a good read. I became deeply and sympathetically connected to the hero, Reza Gard.

I even tweeted that I hadn't found such a compelling hero since Sgt. Terry Myell, who is the hero of one of my favorite SFR novels of all time, Sandra McDonald's THE OUTBACK STARS and sequels THE STARS DOWN UNDER and THE STARS BLUE YONDER.

But these heroes are two very different people.

Sgt. Terry Myell is just your everyday working soldier who gets caught in extraordinary circumstances. He's not a superhuman, he's just your rank and file G.I. Joe. He's not even sure he wants to continue in the military. Falsely accused of rape, bullied by several of his peers, and looked upon with suspicion by his superiors, his career has become a living hell. And his growing feelings for his new commanding officer -- a huge taboo -- only takes his life from bad to worse.

But when Terry becomes caught up in the deadly conspiracy that haunts the woman he loves -- facing the same fate that destroyed her last vessel along with most of its crew -- he proves he is anything but an ordinary soldier.

Reza Gard is a very different hero. Kidnapped by an alien culture that is systematically wiping out the human race, he's been transformed into something that may be more than human. He is, in fact, the only human being that has ever survived at the hands of the deadly Kreelan and his sudden appearance in a remote human outpost is something no one--including Reza--can explain. To those in power, this presents a dilemma. Reza Gard is either an unique opportunity who should be protected or a dangerous enigma who must be destroyed.

At the heart of Reza's dilemma is a profound contradiction--in his heart he will always love and serve the Kreelan Empire, but he refuses to take part in killing his own kind--and this contradiction has banished him forever from the home--and the one--he loves.

In time, Reza builds a new life as part of human society and returns to what he has been trained to be--a formidable warrior. He enlists as a Marine. Eventually promoted to captain, he gains both a loyal group of friends and the contempt of a deadly enemy who believe the only safe Reza is a dead Reza.

But being the product of two civilizations who are on a collision course ultimately will require him to make an impossible choice.

So these two extraordinary characters got me pondering....what makes up a great hero? Why did these two stand out in my mind moreso than the heroes of other stories I've read? What did they have in common that hooked me? What was it at the very core of their characters that spoke to me? This is what I came up with.

A Great Hero Must...

Have Honor
Neither of the referenced heroes are perfect. Terry is a down-on-his-luck grunt who is sometimes a little too accepting of his fate. Reza can be stubborn and uncooperative to a fault. Yet at the heart of each of these men is a strong sense of honor and duty, a loyalty to certain principles that define their lives. I think this applies to any hero, no matter his vocation. Even thieves and pirates live by a code of honor.

Go Above and Beyond (But Never Walk with a Swagger)
A great hero always rises to a challenge but he doesn't see it as an act of heroism. He simply does what needs to be done, no matter the personal cost. He never boasts about what a great job he did, and never gets cocky about how well he performed his duty.

Endure Torture
A great hero must be tempered by personal loss and trial by fire. He must maintain. He must survive. He must overcome disappointment, despair and hopelessness and dig deep for courage even when he's left twisting in the wind. He may be tempted to give up or give in, he may even spend a few moments standing on that proverbial narrow ledge. But he will not jump.

Have Something He Desperately Wants But Can't Have
A hero must strive. He must always stretch for that golden ring that he knows is just out of his reach, and endlessly stagger through the burning sands toward the cool oasis only to have it disappear before his eyes. How he deals with his inner and/or out struggle is what defines his true quality and makes him worth cheering for.

Not everyone is going to agree with my list of qualities and that's totally okay. Characters are not one size fits all. Different heroes appeal--or don't appeal--to those mystical elements that strike a chord in each of us.

So now it's your turn. Tell me what makes a compelling hero in your universe? Who is your favorite hero (or heroes) in fiction?


  1. I am very much in agreement with your assessment of what makes a Hero and would put Reza at the top of my list along with Miles Vorkosigan and Michael O'Neal. All three are the kind of Heroes who stayed with me long after I had finished the book.
    I am going to be looking for those Sandra McDonald books as soon as money allows - I can always find room for another Hero on my list :D


  2. I agree on the honour, and definitely on the tortured (oh, how I love my tortured characters!). For me, they have to care about something, or someone, more than themselves and be willing to die for it.

  3. I'm with the others - a hero must have honor, even if it's a bit twisted. But they also have to have integrity, to be true to their ideals no matter what. They don't change their ideals when a new hot babe entices them. Too many tv show heroes do that and it drives me batty. There's also the moral code. I prefer a hero who honors the woman he loves by not seducing her every chance he gets. But then, I am a bit of a moral prude. I prefer my romances to be PG and more about the romance than the sex.

  4. @ilona Thanks for your thoughts. Aha, I've found another Reza fan. :) The Outback books are out of print--which is a shame--but you can still find them via Amazon's used book dealers or on eBay. The first of the series was definitely my favorite of the three. I didn't like the heroine as much in the later two, though I still loved Terry's character.

    @Pippa Great point. Every hero has to have the virtue of selflessness, too. And yes, you're an honorary member of the Evil Authors Guild with what you put your characters through.

    @Jaleta I'm usually much more intrigued with the developing romance than the sex, too--though a story where the sexual tension is ramped up gradually until it results in a tumultuous love scene is ooh la la! I totally agree with you that a hero's respect for the heroine and his moral code are very important for his character.

  5. Ah, heroes! How we love 'em! I'm especially enamored of those with an epic quality, having fallen in love at the age of maybe five with Robin Hood (the Errol Flynn version, of course!). Jim Kirk and Aragorn, son of Arathorn, followed in my teens, and I still haven't gotten over those three top favorites. I might add Jamie McKenzie (from THE OUTLANDER series) now, too.

    They all share certain qualities I think are essential in a hero: ethical as well as physical courage (that sense of honor others have mentioned); compassion; resourcefulness; and an indefinable ability to command, which might be called leadership. The best heroes have that last quality even if they don't command a ship or a band of merry men and even if they at first refuse the role of leader (as Aragorn did). It just comes out when the going gets tough and he is needed.

    Lastly, all my favorite heroes have a healthy dose of self-doubt or vulnerability. It makes them human, and it makes both the heroines and the audience love them.

  6. I'm a sucker for a great hero. I take great care with crafting mine. Above all they must be a man of honor and integrity, who treats the heroine as his most cherished, treasured possession. Not only does he own her, but she owns him. That's part of why I enjoy The League series so much, and now Gena Showalter.

    I have the world's best dad. I know, unfortunately from experience, exactly what he will do to make sure I'm safe. He cherishes my mom, and me and my sister. He's by no means perfect, but other men have a lot to live up to when I compare them to him.

    Yesterday I started the journey of writing my first anti-hero, and it's going to be a very fun challenge. There's a side of himself he's never met, that the heroine is going to pull out of him. A side of honor and integrity he doesn't think he's capable of.

    I too am a sucker for a tortured hero. Makes him so much better!

  7. @ Donna Ah, yes. Command Presence. I need to blog about that. Not all heroes are born with it, but they eventually find it--or it finds them.

    @ Rachel I've never written an anti-hero, though I do have one secondary character who has anti-hero qualities. (Some of my former CPs wanted me to rewrite the novel to make him the hero!) I'm sure it will be fun to write.

  8. Laurie, that's what I'm doing! This anti-hero was a secondary in #2 and I fell in love with him and his tragic past. I want to redeem him and turn him into the hero I know he can be. So I am.


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