As you sit down at your laptop or typewriter (yes, some authors prefer the feel of an old fashion machine), are you considering how to create a worthy hero for your story? It’s a lot of pressure, I know. Your protagonist must be someone readers will want to learn more about.
With a memoir, you’ll have the honor of taking on this role. You need to own the fact that you are indeed the hero of your book. With a fictional piece, you will need to mold him or her from scratch using only your imagination. Do it well and correctly and this will be a main character your readers will root for throughout the novel.
The flaw in the perfection
When you think of a hero, Superman might come to mind. This man had very few problems and no real character flaws (except that he was too perfect). Maybe one of his flaws was that he was drop dead handsome? Nah. Although we love stories about superheroes, they aren’t exactly relatable to us mere mortals. After all, humans often have major issues. Some of our problems will make us cringe years later. Am I right? When you create your heroes for a novel or memoir, they shouldn’t emulate Superman. Make them more relatable.
If you think about the books and movies that you’ve absorbed over the last few years, you’ll discover that the main character is probably riddled with problems (internal and external). Especially in the beginning of the story, the hero will be far from perfect.
In Nomadland, the main character Fern is forced from her home and hometown. Her solution is to live in a van and travel as a nomad. Most of the people in her life disagree with this decision and try to “help” her with other solutions, but she is determined. She is in poverty and must work at menial jobs to make ends meet. She spends many meals eating low-budget cuisine, and we wonder if she will truly survive to the end of the story.
Fern isn’t a superhero. However, most readers like her and can relate to her. And I know that I rooted for her to make it. Jessica Bruder definitely created a worthy hero in Fern.
In contrast, Harry Potter might be classified as a superhero. I mean he takes on the worst villain in the series head on multiple times. However, unlike Superman, Harry has flaws. In the beginning he doesn’t seem to understand his worth and rarely stands up for himself. He allows himself to be bullied constantly and often resembles a human punching bag. Then as he learns how to be a wizard, he has his ups and downs, mostly self-created. He sneaks around a lot putting himself and his friends in danger. He’s also quite moody (with good reason) and isn’t always kind.
There are many examples of imperfect heroes who start their adventures with many flaws. These are just two that came to mind. Both protagonists are very different, of course, but they are both likeable and popular characters. Why? I think it has something to do with their not being perfect, pristine people leading boring lives.
An imperfect life
After introducing a flawed character to the reader, you’ll notice that the good authors won’t typically jump to solve their protagonists’ problems. No, things tend to go in the opposite direction. It’s part of the process of creating a worthy hero. This can be difficult if you like the fictional people you’ve created.
If you’re anything like me when I first started writing, you might think it is cruel to put your heroes in unpleasant situations. After all, would you sit by as a good friend wallowed around, making a mess of their lives? It took me a while to realize that it is necessary to put your heroes through the wringer for good storytelling. They need a healthy dose of conflict.
Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables would be the first to tell you that she is far too stubborn for her own good. She spends most of the first novel getting into trouble. She drags her friends along for the ride and continues to be her spunky self. What would be the fun if she were always perfectly behaved and never stepped out of line? It would be a boring read. She is who she is, and we love her for it. Flaws and all. And she needs to get into a lot of trouble for the story to work.
In another example, Emma, the heroine of Emma, spends a lot of time avoiding her own life and chooses instead to meddle in her friend’s love life. The messes she makes escalate to a fevered pitch as the novel progresses, causing chaos for all around her. It could be argued that Emma is a sweet girl with good intentions, but her actions are harmful to her friends.
Now, as I mentioned before, I was hesitant to put my protagonists into harm’s way when I started my first novel. I wanted to help them quickly and minimize the damage they caused. Looking back, I suppose I felt a bit like their mother, wanting to save them from agony and misery at all costs. However, a good mother allows her children to get a few scrapes and bruises along the way. They need to learn their own lessons and live their own life when they hit adulthood. Our protagonists also need to learn their own lessons. Once I’d penned a few hundred thousand words, I learned that conflict is key, and if I truly wish to create a worthy hero, I needed to provide plenty of obstacles throughout my novels.
All’s well that ends well
If you’re worried about the fate of your main characters, know that they should wind up in a different place by the end of your book (or series of books). Their journey will include some kind of transformation or change. Those flaws will be worked on and probably resolved in some way.
I hesitate to analyze the stories that I’ve mentioned in this article, because I wouldn’t want to spoil their endings for you. However, if you are familiar with these books or movies, you’ll know that each character learned a variety of lessons and came out the other end a better person. There, no spoiler alerts needed.
The reason we cheer for the heroes at the end is that they came from a flawed beginning. They each rose up through the experiences of the book to arrive at a better place in the final pages. Your heroes transformed like butterflies from a cocoon, blossoming into the best versions of themselves (or at least an improved version). This triumphant victory will cause a flood of emotion in your readers.
Let’s talk about you
If you’re writing a memoir, you will be delving into your life story. You are the hero of the book, and you are the one who will need to undergo a transformation. If you present yourself as perfection personified, there’s nowhere for you to go but along a flat course. That’s rather boring and will probably be less than factual. You need to create a worthy hero and that worthy hero needs to be you!
When searching for the story to write, you need to be OK with revealing your personal flaws. Without those issues, you won’t have anything to improve and your story will flatline. Without personal dragons to slay, you can’t be a good protagonist, because there won’t be a journey to embark upon. There will be no mountain to climb. The story will be boring. This happened, then this, and then that. The end. Nope, no one will want to read that book.
Now I’m not saying that you must reveal all your flaws and secrets. You’re the author. That means that you get to pick what details to share. However, you do need to be real with your readers. Share what you can and show improvement. By the end of your memoir people will forgive and forget your initial imperfections.
So remember as an author you need to create a worthy hero by starting with an imperfect protagonist who is riddled with flaws, problems, and issues. Give them tons of obstacles, create conflict, and make their lives unhappy for some time before you allow them to learn their life lesson so they can make the improvements they need to make. I know this isn’t easy, but it’s all part of the job of being a master storyteller. Have fun with it!
Check out these additional resources if you’d like to learn more about writing a novel or memoir: