Your hero has been chosen to carry out a risky, important task. Lives depend on their ability to get the job done. They will face countless obstacles enduring sleepless nights in the cold at the mercy of nature. There is a chance they will die carrying out this quest.
How do they react to all this?
Heroes shouldn’t embark on these quests feeling no apprehension for what’s at stake. It depends on the character’s personality, of course—a hero who’s been raised expecting this sort of thing will experience less fear than a peasant offered as a sacrifice to the dragon. Some characters can and should be fearless in the face of this challenge.
Sometimes, though, writers get so anxious to finish the book that we’re tempted to skip a crucial step in making our protagonist react realistically. This is a horrible mistake: heroes need to be relatable, and if they’re not, there should at least be good reasons for why they’re so fearless.
REACTING TO THE HERO’S JOURNEY
Many books feature a Chosen One, and he often knows from childhood the ordeal he’ll be put through as a hero.
A character who’s lived with this knowledge will probably make all his choices before that ordeal keeping in mind he may die early—he’ll avoid attachments or long-term commitment, he’ll train for this event all his life. He may come off as cold or unfeeling.
Not all characters will be like this. Like in all cases, it depends on their upbringing—on what kind of parents they had, if they were revered or mocked at school for being ‘condemned’ to this quest. The point is, a character who knows what he’s going to face will live acting like it.
Even if he dreads it and is in denial, that denial is sign that he knows he’s been chosen. There’s no escaping the emotional effects of an assignment with this magnitude.
Now look at the unfortunate peasant plucked off the streets and chosen to fight the dragon. If he manages to slay the beast, he may be promised riches and the princess’s hand—luxuries he never dreamed could be his.
But he hasn’t lived anticipating something like this. He’s going to be scared. He’s going to fight it, at least for a while. He’s going to question at some point whether the mission is worth it.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
What I’m getting at is this: The way a person is raised determines how they react to giant plot twists. The knight raised from childhood is more likely to be cocky and fearless than the peasant who’s been mocked all his life.
Too often, books do not notice the difference. Perhaps the peasant has had passing thoughts of a glorious quest to improve his life, but he hasn’t been living it; he probably hasn’t taken those thoughts seriously. They’ve always just been daydreams.
When facing this possibly fatal quest, he’s likelier to get cold feet than the knight raised from childhood.
Realistic humans don’t switch to hero mode in one night. Storytellers, make sure you explain why the peasant accepts this challenge so quickly, or why the hero doubts his mission.
Characters need to feel human.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
Heroes who don’t hesitate at logical moments can be annoying. There needs to be a reason for them to change directions. If our characters behave in ways that contradict their personalities, it may seem that we don’t truly know them.
Or worse yet, readers get the impression we think they’re too stupid to notice.
Stories are about people. If readers can’t sympathize with the people—or at least understand them—the story will fall flat. Few people in real life would jump with excitement if told they’d be sacrificed to a dragon.
Peasants do not become brave knights in the span of five pages. Few books would be able to pull it off; we don’t want to risk writing a story that won’t touch the heart!
Of course, we shouldn’t cling to stereotypes! What I’m saying is to aim for realistic protagonists, people with reactions so strong and human that it hits readers right in the heart. We want readers to think, This is how I would react. I’m living through them.
If the peasant goes on this journey despite his fear, slays the dragon, and improves his situation, readers will know even they can get past any obstacle to reach a better place. If the brave knight does it, readers learn the value of bravery, of preparing oneself for the worst but believing they can win.
These five-page heroes need to stop. Stories are about people, and if they can’t resonate in a reader’s heart, they lack in the most important magic of all. We cannot settle for two-dimensional characters who will only mock human emotions.
Humanity—even when fearful, unstable, or wrong—is still precious. Make sure your characters behave according to human emotions, because your readers are human; there is no better way to write a story they won’t forget!
Are you a storyteller? Let us know how you ensure your characters act realistically!