I've built a lot of heroes.
Twenty-plus years of role-playing has spawned countless characters, many of whom went on to be heroes in some way. This doesn't make me an expert, as I'll explain, but it does make me experienced. Not every character I've created is a hero, and some that I thought were promising turned out to be utter failures.
But there have been a few, and some of them were unexpected. See, the problem with building a hero is that you really can't build one. It just sort of happens. Whether you are creating a character for D&D, or writing the next great fantasy novel, you can't force a character to be a hero. You can try to nudge them in the right direction, but when it's really time to lay the cards down and step up and do something truly heroic, you have to stand back and let it happen, and either the character will pull through and make you proud, or they will fail and fall apart.
Most of the time they fail.
What really defines a character as a hero is not something you can write down. There are feelings involved, and that creates gray areas that can be quite vast at times. It's easier to tell you what a hero is not, which might help you more than trying to create a road map.
Heroes aren't always good.
It's true. There are countless examples of characters who started out bad and ended up doing very heroic things. Comic book character Spawn is a prime example. An assassin who was killed and recruited into hell's army, only to turn against his creator. His story is a sad one, but very heroic.
One of my favorite characters of all time started out as a bad guy. He's the topic of an upcoming novel of mine, where I get to tell his story in its entirety for the first time. I won't spoil the book for you, but he ended up taking a bad situation and making it very good for himself. In the end, though he would tell you otherwise, his actions saved a lot of lives, and brought justice down on some very bad people.
They aren't always strong.
Bilbo Baggins was a mild-mannered hobbit who never went on any adventures, until of course a wizard came calling. If you know the story of The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien, you know that this one tiny hobbit performed some amazingly heroic feats. He didn't need a lot of muscle to do it. Just some quick thinking, a little intuition, and a lot of luck.
They don't always know what they're doing.
A favorite of mine is Jaxom from Anne McCaffrey's The White Dragon. He saved one runt egg, and impressed a dragon who was unique amongst all dragons on Pern. All Jaxom saw was the injustice of what was happening. He wasn't trying to be a hero. But his actions eventually brought an end to a major political crisis, and he made some important discoveries about the planet's past.
Many of them never wanted to be a hero.
My character Seth, from The Time Weaver, grew up on Earth and had no idea who he was or where he came from. When he was taken to Galadir for the first time, he was taken by force. If he'd had the choice, he wouldn't have gone. There are a great many characters like this, who start out reluctant and grow into their hero role. These are the ones who would rather stay in bed and never venture out of their hobbit holes.
They rarely do it alone.
With a few minor exceptions, heroes almost always have help with their heroic deeds. In fact, I would argue that one of the defining characteristics of a hero is their choice in who to surround themselves with. Sometimes it just takes the right person to shove them into a heroic role so that they can fulfill their destiny.
So what is the one defining characteristic that makes a character a hero?
There isn't one.
No magical weapon, super power, secret sauce or mystical prophecy can make a character into a hero. In the end, it's a lot about personality, timing, a little courage, and a lot of luck.
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