The Hero’s Cage

Those among you who are writers are well aware of the processes involved in character creation. Of course, you need a name and an appearance to build your character around. That’s what your audience will consciously relate to throughout the story. But every character must have quirks, traits, mannerisms, accents, all of which will serve to bring him or her to life for the reader. These must be consistent. If your character begins the story as a painfully shy introvert, it simply won’t do to have him singing Bob Seager in a karaoke bar in chapter twelve. So, good record-keeping is a must.

Readers and writers both know as well that these quirks and traits run the gamut from here to… well, anything you can think of. A sidekick can be as goofy as Mayberry’s Deputy Fife, as corny as Batman’s Robin, or as deadpan serious as Tonto. Minions and henchmen can be over-the-top nasty, often doing the dirty work so that the primary villain doesn’t have to get his hands dirty. Or bloody, as the case may be. The main villain himself can be as outrageous as Lethal Weapon’s Gary Busey, as sinister as Die Hard’s Alan Rickman, or even make you question whether he really is a villain, as with Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo.

But the hero has no such leeway. Ask any author why writing the villain is so much fun, or an actor why he’d much rather play one, and the word freedom is likely to appear in the reply. That’s because before all else, the hero must live within the four-wall confines of a cage. That’s what I’m here to examine today, and before I go on, I should warn you that reading this may ruin heroes for you forever.

Still with me? Here we go, then.

The first wall is that of simply being good. Call it honor if you like, or virtue, or morality; every true hero is a goody-two-shoes at heart, and I considered not even including this, as it’s so obvious. But, I needed four walls to construct a cage, and this makes a good one, being on the whole, unbreakable. The hero knows right from wrong and is only comfortable when he’s on the side of right. He’s no saint, and may often be tempted, but he recognizes temptation when he sees it, and if he succumbs to it, will go to great pains to make amends.

One thing to note here is that the hero or heroine of a horror story is often unlike the policeman, soldier, astronaut, reporter, or adventurer of nearly every other genre. From Cape Fear to The Blob, he often begins as ‘everyman’ with the horror coming to him unbidden. Aid is often unavailable to him as the police, the military, the doctors and lawyers, all often believe he is lying or deranged when he describes the horror, whatever form it takes.

The second wall of the hero is courage. It isn’t enough to know right from wrong. If the hero isn’t prepared to take whatever action is necessary to defeat the horror, then he isn’t the hero. If you write a hero who spends the whole story in the library researching a mythical monster, then gives that information to the character who has been his sidekick the whole time, who then goes out to beard the wolf in his den, then the person you intended to be the sidekick is the hero. The hero doesn’t have to win, but he has to make the attempt. That’s what defines him as the hero, his heroism. The hero faces the monster, period, full stop. In horror, unlike most other genres, he doesn’t have to be courageous every minute. He can be as scared as everybody else, hide from the horror, hide from his responsibility, hide from the confrontation, but at the end of the story, it’s him and the monster in the same place at the same time, and he must rise to the occasion. A simple example: Without Giles and his vast knowledge of legend and myth, Buffy is nothing more than a random vigilante, but she remains very much the hero, not Giles.

The last two are more optional, though you’ll be digging a hole for yourself if you choose to omit them. Number three is competence. You have a moral person who is going to have the courage to confront some kind of horror. He’d better have the skills he needs to at least put up a good fight. The soccer mom who drops her kid at school and heads off to her secretary job is going to be a hard sell when her child is abducted and she has to make the rescue herself. If, on the other hand, she takes two hours of Brazilian jujitsu three times a week, she comes off as a little more believable. If you make your hero incompetent, you are writing slapstick. Beverly Hills Ninja is a fine example of this. John Cleese made a career of it, but it takes a deft hand to write, and you don’t have to miss the mark by much for it to just fall apart on you.

The fourth wall is attractiveness. Poor word, maybe. Not physically attractive, but someone you can like. If he picks his nose at the banquet, farts in the airlock, or sticks his gum on the bottom of the doorknob, the reader isn’t going to identify with this guy. The particular traits I’ve listed are moderately gross and mark the character as a jackass frat-boy, but leaving out likability creates an antihero along the line of Paul Newman’s Hombre. This is a guy who only takes or avoids taking an action because it benefits him personally. It takes courage, for example, to confront a bully, and the antihero will do it if the bully is picking on him, but couldn’t care less if he’s picking on the person next to him. The antihero does whatever is good for himself in the moment, and the only thing that makes him remotely heroic is if his actions benefit someone else by chance. They are tricky to write and appeal to a very niche audience, and I’d recommend that you steer away from them. If you have a talent for making them work, you have a ready-made audience waiting for you, but tread carefully.

And that’s how you build a hero or heroine, simultaneously the most necessary and most vanilla character in your story. It’s always a struggle to create color for this character, to set them apart from the crowd of similar heroes that weave like a golden thread through all literature since the first storytellers plied their trade around the campfires of our ancestors. How do you make yours stand out from the crowd? Let’s talk…

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