Since the beginning of time, man has enjoyed stories of adventure and daring and in almost all of these tales there has been, of course, the hero. These stories were initially handed down through the generations in the oral tradition, eventually to be written down by scribes as man evolved. Because of this, the memories of some of these heroes have survived to the present day, heroes such as Hercules and Achilles.
Many of the earliest heroes had superhuman abilities, capable of defeating horrible monsters and the most wicked of villains with little to no regard to their personal well-being. In fact, in some of the more tragic tales, the hero selflessly gave up his own life for the good of others. For centuries this formula held true.
But, eventually, as with all things, even the role of the hero had to change, to perhaps, mature. In medieval times the most fierce and bold of heroes begin to modify their behavior, giving in to the rules of courtly love. From the Knights of the Round Table to Robinhood of Sherwood, the romancing of the damsel in distress took on a significant role, further defining how true heroes were supposed to act.
The next significant change came from the pens of Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, taking the hero to the next evolutionary stage of not only being brave and strong, but of being quite cerebral. At last, the detective was born! C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes kept us captivated as they flawlessly unraveled mysteries impossible to the common man. Thus the combination of brain and brawn became the standard, and has, for the most part, continued to this day.
Today's heroes come in all shapes, sizes, and genders. Female heroes are common, as it should be. And, heroes continue to dominate the literature and art we create. The Man of Steel can still save the day and people pack into theatres to watch. Why? Because we somehow need to imagine that there are people like that somewhere who are able to do amazing things and overcome their fears and trepidation to do so. We can't help but admire a character like that.
So, with all of that in mind, how do we, as writers, go about defining our hero? In order to keep readers of the 21st century focused on our books, what should our heroes be like? Are they simply cut from the same cloth as their predecessors, or have things changed yet again? The good news is that they can be what we want them to be, any gender, size or age. But still, they must subscribe to certain traits that make them a hero, that makes them someone we can cheer for.
The hero of my novels is definitely NOT a man of steel, but he is interesting. His name is James MacBridan, a detective who works for The Hawthorne Group, a very elite and influential law firm. He's an earthy guy with a keen wit and wisdom born from years of chasing bad guys and catching them. In my stories, MacBridan runs up against supernatural forces, and he's not even sure that he believes in such things. His response is part of what make the stories work. In spite of his shock, he has to act, and act he does.
But unfortunately for me, MacBridan didn't just show up on the page in one day. I had to create him for the first novel in the series, and that's not as easy as you might think. I knew the kind of stories that I wanted to write, and I knew that I'd need to create a hero who could realistically step up to the challenges he'd be facing in a believable way.
The key word there is realistic, not someone with a big red S on their chest. So I started thinking of the heroes I liked, both fictional and in real life. After giving them a great deal of thought, I was a little surprised to find that, with very few exceptions, there are a few basic traits our heroes share in common:
Heroes are someone we like.
In many ways our heroes are like us. They have their flaws, but overall try to do the right thing whenever possible. They are that unique individual we'd like to know, that we'd like to hang out with, the kind of person we are comfortable being around. No pretenses, no false modesty, just down to earth, straight from the shoulder. One of my readers told me that MacBridan was the kind of guy he'd like to have a beer with. I agree.
Heroes are someone we can relate to.
While we still enjoy super heroes, the most believable of heroes are those we can relate to. In all my novels there are times when MacBridan comes face to face with some pretty terrifying situations. These are situations that, without a second thought, would motivate my legs to quickly relocate me to somewhere far away. However, during those times, does MacBridan fearlessly face these challenges with grim resolve? Yes and no. He hangs in there, true, but there's more. MacBridan does know fear, there are times he doubts himself, and he's not always sure he's taken the right course of action. In short, he's human. That's a quality I and my readers can relate to. It is this humanity that draws me nearer to him; he's just like the rest of us.
Heroes are someone we admire.
It is the very nature of MacBridan's job that puts him in danger. Usually, by the time he is sent in to help a client, things have escalated beyond the normal. But once MacBridan has committed, he does not back down. MacBridan is that rare commodity in that he is a man of his word. I admire that. It is a trait all of us admire, and hopefully, aspire to. Starting with my father, to various mentors I've known, I've had the privilege of learning from men who truly were as good as their word. They strongly influenced my writing and the personality traits I ended up giving to MacBridan. He is not flawless, and he's nowhere near being a straight laced, milk and cookies sort of guy. He will do whatever it takes to get the job done. Although he is a little rough around the edges, he is strong and loyal, the kind of person you want on your side when things get rough. Plus, he's pretty sarcastic at times, my personal favorite.
So, in the making of a hero, what did I ultimately come up with? I wrote about someone I knew I would like and admire, about a man with faults and weaknesses that I can relate to, and about a person who has the strength of personal integrity that I aspire to. Although my novels are fiction, the traits I've given my hero came from the real life heroes I've been blessed to know.