Genuine Heroes and Heroines : Part 3

by Marylee MacDonald in Characters

What makes us care about a heroine or hero? Why do readers make the emotional investment in one protagonist and not another? In previous posts I’ve talked about flawed or dark main characters and protagonists who are average Joes or Janes. In this post, I’m going to talk about heroes and heroines whose heroic qualities we recognize right off the bat.

Who are these genuine heroes and heroines? Well, they’re probably not you and me. Genuine heroes and heroines are those whose role in life puts them in harm’s way. They’re firefighters, Marines, trauma nurses, and what we now call “first-responders.” They’re the ones who show up on the accident scene. Lives depend on them deploying their skills quickly and effectively. In short, they have made career choices that place them in situations of inherent high danger.

911: President George W. Bush Visits New York, 09/14/2001.

Firefighters and other first responders put themselves in harm’s way. If our protagonists have this role in life, we must find a way to ensure readers can identify with these heroic figures.
Image from Flickr via The U.S. National Archives

Is It a Good Thing to Give Our Characters Heroic Qualities?

Sure, it’s great. In real life we depend on folks like this. However, writing about heroic protagonists is another matter entirely.

Heroic characters are hard to identify with. They’re better than you and me. We feel a little ashamed of ourselves when we meet characters like that. We will tend to pull back. Maybe there’s even a subconscious shame or humility on our part. Those emotions get in the way of the all-important, reader-character bond.

For the purposes of the story-to-come, readers do need to know that the protagonist is a Navy Seal or physician with Doctors Without Borders, but you know what? You, the author, must also show that your protagonist is a regular person. You must make the reader think, “Hey, I could talk to them.”

What you’re looking for is some situation where the protagonist lets readers make a judgment of whether s/he is good and worthy of their attention. You would think that there’s no need to create that sense of worthiness, but there is.

Right from the get-go, genuine heroines and heroes must demonstrate their humanity.

How Can You Make Your Character Human?

There are lots of way for us to be human. What makes you human? How does this character look at him or herself, the way any of us look at ourselves?

Here’s where giving the reader a glimpse of the protagonist’s thoughts really helps.

  • “What dress should I wear?”
  • “Does my hair look okay?”
  • “Should I wear a tie, or is this going to be informal enough that I can unbutton my shirt?”

These kinds of thoughts reveal that the protagonist has the same kinds of ordinary social insecurities we all have. That wobble of insecurity helps create a bond. That’s because we ordinary mortals want to walk out the door thinking we look good.

Yes, you might say, but if this is a firefighter, shouldn’t I show that person in action?

With genuine heroic characters, it’s probably better not to start with a chase scene or action sequence. With genuine heroic figures, drama and high stakes will reveal themselves soon enough.

Low Drama, High “Character-Reveal” Scenes Can Work in Your Favor

Try to show the protagonist’s human quality as soon as readers meet your main character. Yes, it’s always good to start in the middle of the action–en medias res. But the action doesn’t have to involve showing your character in a heroic role.

In the case of a firefighter, you might show that person cooking a meal for those in the firehouse. Maybe show them worrying that the other firefighters won’t like the recipe. Or, show a group going grocery shopping and one of them, your protagonist, concerned that the others aren’t looking for bargains. Or, show your protagonist in the laundry room, unsure about whether to fold the clothes of a fellow firefighter or leave them on top of the dryer. See what I mean? These are not necessarily the most dramatic ways in which to start a story, but they’re absolutely necessary. Before we can admire the hero or heroine, we must know that, down deep, that person shares qualities we, too, have. These qualities could include the following:

  • Compassion
  • A desire to be helpful
  • Insecurity about some aspect of themselves
  • Love of family
  • Financial worries
  • Love of family

Genuinely Heroic or Reluctantly Heroic

Genuinely heroic characters are quite different from characters who gets dragged into danger. I wrote about average Joes and Janes in this post.

In some ways, if you’re writing about a reluctant hero or heroine, you have an easier job. Readers identify with your protagonist because they themselves would be reluctant to rush toward the burning building or swim out into the waves and save someone bitten by a shark.

Genuine heroines and heroes have special training that helps them overcome the own “self-preservation” response. In the case of heroic figures with jobs in the military, readers know that protagonist has gone through advanced hand-to-hand combat training to get them where they are. Instinctively, most readers know we would never even make it through boot camp. We will never become Green Berets or fighter pilots or physicians working for Doctors Without Borders.

And, yet, we love to read about those characters because we know “something is going to happen” that will be interesting.

When you’re revising the beginning of your novel, try to get a sense of whether your protagonist is an average person, a dark or brooding protagonist, or a genuinely heroic figure. Each “character type” requires you to write in such a way that readers will identify with that person. Your goal is to inspire the reader to keep turning the pages.


  • Marylee MacDonald

    Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, BODY LANGUAGE, and THE BIG BOOK OF SMALL PRESSES AND INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers' Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, a Wishing Shelf Book Award, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.

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One Response to “Genuine Heroes and Heroines : Part 3”

  1. Clyde Darden says:

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