One of the concepts I’ve found myself exploring through my writing is heroism. What makes a hero heroic? What makes a hero believable? What makes him (or her) interesting, charismatic, courageous, or just stubborn?
I don’t mean just a protagonist in the literary sense. A protagonist can be a hero, an anti-hero, or anything in between. I enjoy reading about all kinds of characters, but I find myself drawn to the heroes… the ones who do something truly great, even when it costs them everything.
So what makes a hero heroic?
Courage? Love? Self-sacrifice?
It’s hard to imagine a hero without at least some physical courage. A hero doesn’t have to pick up a sword to be heroic, but they do need to be willing to take a stand, even when it costs something. This doesn’t mean much without moral courage, though. Bad guys can be physically brave, and they don’t draw me the way the good guys do. They can be interesting, even sympathetic, but they can’t be truly heroic.
I think this is the most important. Moral courage makes physical courage worth more than just blood and guts. Standing up for what is right (or at least what you genuinely believe to be right) can be a terrifying thing. Even though characters aren’t perfect (and they shouldn’t be!) and make the wrong decisions sometimes, for me to see a character as a hero, they have to be at least trying to do the right thing.
Is this a component of moral courage? Maybe… what do you think? Love is a choice, an action, but for some characters it’s just an overwhelming feeling. Is love as heroic when you can’t help but love, even when given every reason not to? Or is it more heroic when you don’t feel it but choose to act in love anyway?
There’s always some aspect of self-sacrifice in heroism, but it doesn’t have to be physical. A soldier dying for his country is heroic. But so is a man who cares for his wife with Alzheimers, year after year, slowly giving up pieces of his own life and freedom because he wants to be with her, care for her, and serve her as long as possible. What about a woman who gives up a great career to stay home with her newborn, because she truly believes it’s important for her child? Sure, there are emotional benefits to the mom too, but there is definitely self-sacrifice. Is that heroic? Is it brave? Do we not notice the heroism because we see it more often than the big dramatic acts?
The heroes in my books aren’t perfect, but I do want them to be heroes… heroes you can believe in, even though they’re flawed. If you look through my posts of characters I love, you’ll find a preponderance of heroes. Sure, there are some less-than-stellar characters in there, but most of them are pretty heroic in one way or another. They’re not all the main characters of the story, but there’s something heroic that makes me want to hug them, just for a minute, for being fantastic and brave and gutsy and choosing to do something magnificent when it really mattered.