Q&A: hero

Dear Ms. Tang,

I've read a lot of your articles on writing, trying to shape my idea into a better novel. I've found that one tip I'm finding a hard time following is this...

As soon as you can in the story, commit the character to their goal for the book. There shouldn't be any easy way out or turning back. Once the character decides on a course of action, he can't stall, run, or quit--there should be something logical, believable and powerful preventing him. The character should irrevocably decide to fight whatever danger threatens him.

I don't have an apathetic/unmotivated main character, but I do consider his most identifying personality trait to be the opposite of such heroes as Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, etc. as he does not yearn for adventure. He is full of self-doubt and lacks confidence, despite being the one destined to save everyone else and having the most potential/power to do so. My idea was to make his biggest enemy himself, needing to overcome his mental weakness. He has the motivation to fight, but not the guts to do so. In contrast to many headstrong, cocky heroes of literature, mine would appeal to young readers who don't have confidence in themselves, and could learn the moral by the end, that you need to believe in yourself, and step up to the plate, so you can be what you're truly destined to be.

So in conclusion, my actual question is if my character contradicts your advice?

Camy here: Your character doesn't actually contradict my advice. Most heroes in today's literature and movies have some type of inner flaw that they also have to resolve by the end of the book.

Having self-doubt is actually a good thing because the reader can relate to a hero with self-doubt. Most modern readers have a harder time relating to a hero who's perfect. While in the past, heroes have been almost god-like, these days, readers want flawed heroes they can relate to.

But internal doubts does not mean the hero doesn't have an external goal. He could be scared of his goal but still determined to do the right thing.

In OXYGEN by Randy Ingermanson and John Olson, the hero, Bob, is actually quite insecure. He's a rather geeky guy, he's not a "heroic" type of character. He doesn't trust one of his team members--a woman of faith--because he had been burned by a woman of faith before. Understandable, right? Yet he's determined to do his job and get the shuttle to Mars, and that involves trusting his team member, up to the point where she has to put him in a coma so the shuttle can arrive safely. He overcomes his doubts (his internal flaws) for the good of the mission (his external goal).

In TRY DYING by James Scott Bell, the main character is overly ambitious and self-centered. Not your typical hero. Then his fiancee is murdered and he tries to find out who killed her. In the process of doing something selfless, he becomes a better person. But he still has that external goal of finding his fiancee's murderer, DESPITE his internal flaws.

You say your character is not apathetic or unmotivated. Well then, what is he motivated to do? What does he want that he pursues for the entire book?

A hero is not necessarily a "hero" in the "heroic" sense of the word, but the protagonist of your story. A protagonist needs some kind of goal for the story, a proactive thread for the reader to follow throughout the novel.

He also doesn't necessarily have to achieve his goal--in fact, many books have the hero not achieving his goal at all, but sacrificing it at the end for the greater good.

But there still needs to be that action by the protagonist--that desire, that forward movement, that proactive movement so he's not simply a reactive character.

Sleeping Beauty is completely reactive. She's in the woods, she falls in love, she pricks her finger, she falls asleep. The prince, on the other hand, actively searches for her, fights the dragon, etc. He is proactive.

You need your hero to be proactive on at least some level. He can be scared and doubting, but he's still acting. He can be reluctant, he might be prodded by others, but he still makes the decisions himself to take those small steps, to act at each crossroad.


  1. YOur advice on external goals and motivation have been SO helpful to me. Thanks for posting this. ;-)

  2. Thanks, Jessica! I'm glad this was helpful to you.


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