This week, Senior Editor Jamie West, gave some wonderful insight into creating characters. Today, I want to take that a step further. I’m focusing on the hero, but the concept applies to heroines as well.
I see a great number of manuscripts where the author wants her hero to be highly flawed at the beginning of the story, and redeemed by the end (Whether he’s Christian all the way through the story or becomes a Christian partway through). Nothing wrong with that. It’s basically every Christian’s faith journey. But, oftentimes, in an author’s zeal to flaw a hero, she makes him un-heroic in the process. Heroes cannot be un-heroic; it's an oxymoron of gargantuan proportions.
The key is to make our hero flawed without having him make any un-heroic decisions. Let’s take a look at some examples of how to tweak a plot or character action so that we convey the flawed nature without putting the reader off our hero.
Here’s a common tale as a setting: The hero is a ruthless business man—a real estate developer, let’s say. He’s notorious for buying up old apartment buildings, putting the tenants out on the street, and then building high-rise office complexes that have made him a millionaire. He has no regard for the human person and looks only at the business side of every deal. We want him to meet the heroine, learn the error of his ways, find Christ, and to live happily-ever-after. He’s not a Christian at the opening of our tale, so it doesn’t really matter what he does because, he’s not bound by Christian morality...
Wrong! It does matter. Let’s see why.
We open our story (a story I will preface with the disclaimer that it’s a first-draft, off-the-top-of-my-head example and should not be taken as an example of a saleable piece of fiction :) …We open our story with the hero on the telephone telling his foreman to arrange for the eviction of a little old lady who lives on a pension, along with a single mother who has two small children and who works two jobs just to pay the rent-controlled rent each month, and an ex-con who we find out was wrongly-convicted and is just trying to put the pieces of his life back together. Joe Hero is ruthless. He’s mean. He’s screaming over the phone as the heroine stands at the threshold to his office waiting for him to sign some important documents that she’s couriered over for her employer. ..
Jane froze in the doorway. She’d heard of Joe Hero’s reputation—he didn’t care one whit about anything unless it came printed in green and featured a dead president’s picture. She hadn’t wanted to believe the rumours she’d heard. She’d had a crush on him ever since she’d seen his expose in Cityscape Magazine two years ago, and she didn’t want to believe anyone so beautiful on the outside could be so hideous on the inside. But as she listened to him on the phone, she had to believe.
“I don’t care about anyone’s sob story,” Joe Hero said into the phone. “They’ve all had two weeks to find somewhere else to live. Send the sheriff, if you have to.” He glanced up at her and rolled his eyes. “I don’t care how old she is. I don’t care if she has to live in the carpet bag with 'everything she owns.' Get her out of there. As for the other woman, if she can’t afford to keep her kids, maybe she shouldn’t have had them in the first place. Give her the number to that adoption agency on High Street.” He slammed down the receiver and waved her in.
Reluctantly, she approached the desk and handed him the papers.
He shook his head as he signed them. “I don’t understand people today. It’s not my fault these people can’t hold down a decent job or have such lousy credit they can’t let an apartment. Everyone expects a hand-out.”
“Maybe they can’t help it,” she offered, unsure why she’d even spoken.
“Sure they can’t. I’ve worked my entire life for what I have. If others would do the same, they’d ‘have’ also.” He smiled. “Guess they know who’s boss now, huh?”…
She stood there stunned, unable to reply. How could she? She was devastated. How could he? He actually liked kicking people when they were down. The rumours were true…
So, what we have here is a flawed hero. He’s going to learn the error of his ways--at least that's the author's plan, But, we’ve just seen him evict some people without any regard—and, he enjoyed it. Readers are not going to want this man to be the hero. It doesn’t matter if he’s redeemed by the end of the book. Most readers won’t get that far because after an opening like this, they are rooting against him. It doesn't matter what he does. In the reader's mind, he's a villain, not a hero.
Now, let’s take the same premise—same scene, even—and change it a little.
“Tell them they have until the end of the week, but that’s all I can do.” Joe Hero sighed and thought about the million-dollar deal that meant his company wouldn’t have to claim bankruptcy. JH Construction might have been the commercial builder of the year fourteen years running, but the economy had hit them hard. He had to get that building down and the new complex up. It wasn’t his fault the tenants hadn’t been able to find new homes. Surely Henry knew that. “No,” he told his foreman again. “This week. We have to break ground next week or it’s going to cost us a hundred K a day.”
He looked up to see a woman standing in the doorway to his office. He shot her an apologetic smile and rolled his eyes, pointing to the phone. She gave him a tentative smile back.
“Kids or no, Henry, they have to go.” He sighed again. He hated being the bad guy, but someone had to make the tough decisions, and since he had the reputation for being ruthless, the bad guy was usually him.
With no more protests coming from his foreman, Joe hung up the phone and waved in the petite brunette who still adorned his threshold. He didn’t think his doorway had ever looked so good.
She walked to the desk and handed him an envelope from Peter Jacobs & Sons. The papers he’d been waiting for. He smiled at her and motioned to the phone with a tilt of his head. “Sorry about that. I wouldn’t have been off sooner, but some people won’t take no for an answer.”
“Trouble, huh?” she mumbled as if she wasn’t sure she should speak.
He got that a lot. Most people were afraid of him. It irritated him a little, but he supposed he could understand it. There had been a time when he was so ruthless he would have put his own mother out on the street if it meant a lucrative build. But then Carla had happened, and he'd learned a few lessons about ruthlessness that had opened his eyes.
"Just some tenants who can’t find a new place and want me to postpone knocking down a building. Can’t bow to every request, though, or projects would never get finished.” He sounded so cold, but he wasn’t about to go into detail about why his timeline was so critical—with anyone, let alone a letter courier he’d never met, even if she did have the most compelling eyes he’d ever seen. Something about her actually made him want to tell her things she had no business knowing….
Now, we have ruthless Joe Hero. He’s still evicting those people, and from the limited info he’s told Jane Heroine, she can go away thinking he’s ruthless (thus keeping part of our conflict intact). But, we have a sympathetic hero. He’s misunderstood. Oh, he was actually ruthless in the past, and that “habit” is sure to pull him back at times throughout the story—that’s how we’ll show his redemption process. He’ll get angry or frustrated and say something he doesn’t really mean, but because the reader is already rooting for him to succeed—because he hasn’t actually done anything, or told someone else to do something, wrong (acted un-heroically), and because he's misunderstood—the reader will forgive him and he’ll still be hero material.
The key to creating a hero who is flawed but remains heroic is to make his un-heroic acts either backstory to where when the story opens, he’s already on the path to redemption; “force” his hand by some believable conflict he can’t get out of, but make him immediately remorseful and on the path to trying to reverse the effects of his ill decision; or to make his un-heroism something that is completely misunderstood by the other characters in the story, and well-known to the reader to be a misunderstanding. If the reader thinks for one minute that Joe Hero is actually un-heroic, then he can’t be the hero. Period.
So, keep your hero’s mind out of the gutter, his heart on unselfish acts, and his actions towards the heroine always gentlemanly. Any un-heroism has to be “off-camera” so that all we see of Joe Hero on the page is an actual hero—albeit a “hero in progress.”