Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Creating Heroes We Care About

Today I welcome Veronika Walker to my blog! Veronika is a writing consultant and freelance editor, and can be found at her website, Inkwork Literary Services, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

Veronika's here to share some tips on how to create heroes we care about. Take it away, Veronika!

Some people call it the "pet-the-dog" scene. Whatever you call it, your story has to have it or your MC will be pretty shallow and forgettable.

It's the scene that makes your MC a hero, a pure, unadulterated hero that your readers will fall in love with in that instant. This is the scene that makes an assassin a man with a heart, a scarred man not a monster, a convict a guy you actually want to escape from Alcatraz.

It's the moment that shows the "nice-guy" side of your character.

How, exactly, do you succeed in doing this with your main character? I have one simple bullet point:
  • It's in the little things.
Honestly, it's that simple.

Why do we really like Rocky? It's not just because he's a down-and-out boxer with an unattainable goal; it's because he protects Adrienne and cares for her more than anything. Why do we root for Robert Stroud in "Birdman of Alcatraz" even though he's a two-time murderer? It's because he holds that little wet sparrow in his brusk and deadly hands so, so gently.

The reason we like them is simple: they show their nice-guy side. Readers want to see your main character's softer, caring side - even if only for a moment - because it makes them more human, more realistic.

Here are some ideas for "nice-guy" moments you can apply to your draft now. Have your MC:
  • Not just help a homeless person, but bond with them by giving them his/her own bed, taking them to the hospital if they're hurt, or sharing a quiet, personal moment about a traumatic experience.
  • Tell the antagonist or obstacle character that they forgive them.
  • Cry when they think about having to kill the bad guy and/or when they actually do.
  • Remember a special moment where their abusive parent took them out for ice cream and a movie, or held them during a frightening thunder storm.
  • Share a personal story with their lover or close friend/work partner/teammate that they've never told anyone before.
  • "Stop and smell the roses," perhaps literally. Find something in nature or some work of art that takes his breath away and makes him feel alive and full of purpose.
  • In taking care of a sick member of the family, feel the angst of not being able to take away their pain.
And there are plenty of other options, but the point is to make your MC fully human by not just showing off what makes him big and bad and extraordinary...but what makes him a feeling person, what makes tears come to his eyes, what makes him stop and stare and say, "That's beautiful."

Now, there's a trick to this. If you overlook it, these small, comfy scenes won't work at all. In fact, they'll make you look like you're trying too hard to make readers like the MC, and you don't want them to figure that out for sure.

The major trick is to take this small scene or scenes and make them drive the character. Let me show you how I did it in one of my short stories recently.

Cal's little sister is sick. He can't do anything to stop her disease from spreading or make her feel any better. His big brother protective beast is coming out...and it's the main trait that develops throughout the story. When Cal gets into a fight with the bully that's been tormenting him all year, he's not fighting because he hates the bully; he's fighting because he's angry about feeling powerless to help his little sister, and the bully just happened to get in the way and must now suffer all the anger built up in Cal's big brother heart. Later Cal gets infuriated at his parents for not doing something more to help his sister, even though he knows it's not really their fault; still, he has too much anger over his sister's pain to think rationally.

This one little scene, where Cal tucks his little sister in bed and does his best to be brave for her, is a window into Cal's soul, into what is actually making him tick as a human being.

And that is what makes him a hero that we care about.

Thanks, Veronika! Writers, have you created a hero? Can you share your tips with the rest of us?

And please feel free to visit Veronika's blog today, where I guest posted about Applying Writing Lessons Learned. Stop by and share how you put into practice what you've learned from craft books.


  1. What a great post! Thanks for sharing these bits...I've been thinking about this, lately, just HOW to make my MC a little more sensitive (she's supposed to be growing up). This post was well-timed :D

  2. The nice guy moments are needed. "Save the Cat' covered that as well.

  3. I'm still working on my hero, but these are great tips. Thanks for posting on this subject.

  4. Wonderful post! Thanks for the great tips.

  5. Love this. It's in those little things that true character is revealed.

  6. This is a great point. It's in those little human moments that we CONNECT to the character, instead of just being wowed by their heroism.

  7. Veronika Walker is trying desperately to comment on this post, but Blogger is giving her a heck of a time. Sorry, Veronika! I know you're not the only one who has had problems with this.

  8. Thanks Veronika for this great post. I loved the tips. I was currently trying to make my MC (a 10 year old girl) a bit of a good girl (she is a complete prankster). This post will be immensely helpful.

  9. Since Veronika can't post her comments, I'll do it for her. Here goes:

    "Thanks, everyone, for reading and commenting. Sorry I'm having such trouble getting to you all..."

    "Barbara's comment got me thinking: Can you all, after reading this post, picture your MC 'doing' something similar? It should pretty much jump right out at you, the one thing your MC could or should do to solidify"

    "Their pet-the-dog/save-the-cat moment. What came to mind as soon as you finished reading the post?"

    "Rachna: Absolutely! Like Barbara previously, who is also working with a young female MC, you do need to find the nice girl in her...or she'll wind up being like Bella. (Yes, I just totally burned Twilight. :D ) If you yourself are having trouble with her, then I guarantee your readers will. You have to be able to enjoy her character and personality before your readers can.

    Thanks for the comments!"

    (And I'll second that...thanks so much for the comments, guys!)

  10. Great concept and techniques Veronika. A lot of times the details can be far stronger than the overt pieces but the 'pet-the-dog' can take any aspect to the next level. Driving the 1:1 connection is always the best approach. Great post!

  11. Awesome guest post!! Great tips. I think a hero is someone who is flawed but does the right thing anyway. Or maybe the wrong thing for the right reasons.

  12. More thoughts from Veronika Walker:

    "P.W.: Thanks! I agree; any kind of one-to-one connection you can make for your readers is super beneficial to the MC. It will make him/her real and full-bodied and, most importantly, memorable in the minds of your readers."

    "Lisa: The classic definition of a hero IS someone who is flawed through and through. I would agree, any fictional hero has to have great qualities about them as a person, even if they're skewed because of the situation. Or, on the flip side, a hero can also be an MC who's actually a "bad dude" but who eventually has his one GOOD trait brought out of him. Both are great ways to sculpt those characters."

    Don't forget, gang, to go check out Julie's article too!

  13. Great advice from Veronika. So true, it really is in the little things! Thank you both for this excellent guest post.

  14. Great post! But I would add that if you made them a good guy you also have to make them a bad guy. We all have a mix of evil and good, so for the character to be 3 dimensional we need to see save the cat and kick the dog, I guess. Although I would stop reading a book if the hero kicked a dog. Other person, fine...dog? no. But you get the idea.

  15. Terrific post. I do think our characters reveal themselves in those little moments - great advice!

  16. Awesome post, I love it! I really needed this because I'm struggling to make my MC sympathetic - she's an assassin so it's not easy.

  17. This is great because I am having a seriously bad moment with my MC. He's hell bent on revenge so much so that I've lost the ability to love him. Thanks for this!

  18. Wow! This post is just awesome and so helpful! I was just trying to figure this out for my new wip, and now I see ways to make it happen! Thanks to both of you:)

  19. Thanks, guys. It's a tricky thing to balance, right? I've struggled with it myself.

  20. Julie and Veronika... fabulous post. Thank you both. It never gets old remembering how to pet the dog, and the more examples we get... the better. Thank you for helping make my writing stronger.

  21. I love well developed characters with strong motivations. :) Those save the cat scenes are important too, but I agree, hard to do well.

  22. Thanks for breaking this down, Veronika. Everyone says to do this, but no one really tells you how. And thanks, Julie, for hosting!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  23. Thank YOU everyone for visiting!

    From Veronika Walker:

    ""I'm so glad you all found the post helpful! That just made my day. :) Keep going forward; find a way to make yourself fall in love with your character all over again. Trust me, the answer's there...somewhere.
    Thanks again for having me, Julie!"

    Thank you, Veronika!

  24. Such a great post. Thanks Julie and Veronika. Wonderful tips that you've made clear and concise.

  25. Ha! I never thought of that, crying or feeling bad when the MC gets to kill off the bad guy. That's very interesting! Now I have to go ponder whether I have any pet-the-dog-type scenes for my current MC...and if they happen soon enough in the story to generate that sympathy. Thanks for the information, Veronica (and thanks Julie)!!

  26. Hi, guys. Blogger is still wonky and won't let Veronika comment :( Here are more of her thoughts:

    "Carol: Sometimes your PTD scene doesn't have to be in the beginning; there are times when it can occur in the middle or even climax of the story. Basically, whenever your character needs a little rounding out. Good luck with finding yours!"

    "Cynthia: Thanks for commenting! I appreciate the support from an expert. :)"

  27. What a great post with wonderful examples. Thanks so much!

  28. These are great tips, thanks so much for sharing!

  29. This is such great advice. I love her examples. Thanks for this!

  30. Really interesting post- thanks for sharing.

  31. Thanks so much -- this is really helpful to me, as I've been missing this key element and have thus suffered a great deal of stagnation in my writing. Keep them coming!