I’m going to tell you a story. It’s the story of the first actual lesson I ever learned after I began seriously writing.
And it had to do with a hero of mine. Bluntly, I wrote him wrong.
Which is to say, I wrote him too right.
What is a hero? Someone we look up to and admire, right? Well, I wanted to write one. The epitome of all I admired (also, incidentally, the epitome of all I lacked) and the picture of courage, responsibility, and strength. He was going to inspire so many people, and everyone was going to love him.
That particular little fantasy of mine lasted only as long as it took me to get the first few pages of feedback on his story.
I will just say, when the reader’s reaction to the hero passing out from pain and loss of blood in the middle of the book is ‘YES! FINALLY!’… you may have a problem.
There is such a thing as a character that is too strong; too perfect.
Why is that? I mean, aren’t heroes supposed to be that way? Aren’t they supposed to be role models; people who inspire us to look higher and try harder?
And a perfect hero is not inspiring.
This is true for two reasons.
1. It’s Unrelatable
The strength of every story lies in the reader’s ability to empathize with the characters and learn from their victories and mistakes. If the hero never makes mistakes— has no flaws, no weaknesses, and never stumbles— he becomes something the reader cannot empathize with. He becomes more than human, and thus, less than real. He becomes something to be worshipped, not learned from.
Empathy is key, and empathy is a result of recognition and comradeship. All your readers are pretty much guaranteed to be humans. (Unless you live on Mars… in which case, do you have something you’d like to share with the rest of us?)
Human readers want human heroes. Instead of giving them some impossible ideal of perfection to worship, it shows them that great things can be accomplished by ordinary people.
And frankly, I find that thought far and away more inspiring.
2. A Perfect Hero Gives a False Definition of Strength
The way I wrote my hero, he was invincible in every way. Physically, emotionally… morally. I mean, come on. He was the hero. He saved the world. That’s gotta take a lot of strength, right?
Maybe so… but my perspective on strength was wrong.
I thought ‘strong’ meant ‘faultless’.
Fact check: false.
Your character may be morally strong, but he will never be morally invincible. Strength is not the absence of weakness. Just the courage to fight it long enough that you finally win.
Maybe you do have a strong hero— that’s okay.
Maybe he does save the world— that’s wonderful; go for it, and kudos to him! Maybe he does have it all together (though that’s highly unlikely). That’s also fine. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But that only means he’s got a higher level of courage and perseverance than the rest of us— the courage to face his own human weaknesses, and the perseverance to overcome them.
No one is born strong. Achieving strength is a battle that lasts from your first breath to your last. So if you want to write a strong hero… show us his battle scars.
It’s the only way you’ll make us believe he’s worth looking up to.
What do you think makes a compelling hero? Who are some of your favorite strong heroes in fiction, and why?