One important thing to remember when creating your main character–which in most cases (though not all) turns out to be the hero–is that they need to be real. What I mean by that is creating a character that is believable, despite all of the amazing–if not fictional–acts and accomplishments they achieve over the course of the novel.
What does it take to make a character believable? Read on.
Strengths and Weaknesses
When creating your character’s strengths, it’s OK to make the character stronger, faster, smarter, or heartier than a real person in real life. That’s one of the reasons people like to read, right? They want a break from the mundane, the ordinary, the reality of real life. So go ahead and make your hero be able to lift a truck to save a helpless child, or to have him wrestle bare-handed against a tiger…just don’t overdo it.
Keep it “realistic” without being real: Have your wizard be the strongest in his town – but not in the land. Let your alien species be immune to every bio-weapon known to man, but not in the universe. It’s fine to let the fight go on a little longer as simple punches don’t hurt your “superman,” but one person can not take on a room of eight ultra-tough fighters and walk away unscathed.
There needs to be checks and balances in everything, including your character’s strengths and weaknesses. All of the great heroes of the past had them: Achilles and his damn heel, Heracles and poison, Oedipus and hubris, Superman and kryptonite, Thor without his hammer, and Othello’s overactive trust issues. The point is, each of these characters had something (a weakness) that would bring them to the ground; thus, they are NOT unstoppable, unsinkable, or immortal.
Well-known fantasy author Terry Brooks once made an excellent point when discussing the laws of magic: basically, there must be consequences for the magic user, or the world in which the magic is used. For example, a wizard cannot be all-powerful, otherwise, no one would be able to stop him, and then what’s the point of any kind of plot? There wouldn’t be, as there’s nothing at stake for him. So, to keep the plot interesting, there needs to be a side-effect of each use of magic; such as having the magic-wielder age each time he casts a spell–so that in the end when he needs to cast a massive spell to save the town, it’s a much more difficult choice (and possible sacrifice) that the character is up against. Make sense so far?
Besides the obvious strength/weakness issue, there are other little details that can be added to your character that make him/her draw the reader in so that readers can understand and relate to them, bringing your hero “down to earth” and keeping them from becoming an iconic ass.
Perfect people are incredibly boring. A perfect angel of a hero will always do the right thing without a second thought, doesn’t waste water, would never dream of hurting animals, and will always turn the other cheek. In other words, the perfect hero is someone to who readers cannot measure up – and thus readers are not able to connect and relate with them.
Readers do not want to read about boring people. Readers of fiction want to be transported to another world and relate to a character that is just a touch above reality so that they can step outside of their own lives and experience new adventures through the lives of the characters. In order to do that you need to make them interesting – but at the same time realistic enough for people to relate.
Yet is your hero really a hero with some of the above-mentioned flaws?
Of course. If anything, it REALLY makes them a hero because of the obstacles you’ve created that they must go up against. What would be so heroic about your character if there was nothing to stop him from walking into a building and carrying out a crying infant? Nothing. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be more dramatic and climatic if the building was on fire, the infant trapped upstairs, and the man had asthma? See what I’m talking about now?
You need to build your character up (or down, whichever way you see it) in order to make the situation tense and intriguing. On the flip side, you need to write your character in a way that readers sympathize with them so that they actually give a damn whether or not they live, die, or save the world.
Make readers care. Make them understand.
Make your character “real.”