What Makes A Character Heroic?
by Maggie Lynch
February 15, 2022
Over the next two weeks we’ve been asked to share some of the struggles that impact and change our characters. I like this questions because it speaks to why novels are so loved or hated. A good novel is filled with struggle of some kind. Without it, the book is boring. A novel with too much conflict can be seen as too dense, not believable, or the bane of an author’s existence–an unrelatable character. Even a character who is green, propels itself like a snail, and is looking for love on a planet with no snails needs readers (humans) to find a way to relate to it. I haven’t written that book yet, but it might be a good short story.
Every book I’ve written, from SF and fantasy to romance, suspense, and women’s fiction have characters that I want readers to say: “I can relate to that person.” Even children’s stories need characters with lots of challenges–preferably challenges that make them grow and learn and become a better person in the end. In many ways, even my nonfiction books for writers are challenging readers to be heroic, to put aside fear and charge forward with their career. Whether fictional or real, life is full of fears that stop us from doing what is best for ourselves or others we care about.
Like many authors I do create external conflict like fleeing from bad guys or dealing with difficult physical, technological, or world changes. But my favorite thing to write about is internal conflict. The conflict of the soul is the most messy and, in my mind, the most interesting. Whenever people ask me what kind of novels I write, I don’t always list the genres. Instead I use my tagline: people making heroic choices one messy moment at a time. It took me a little over five years and seven books to finally come up with that. It what ties all of them together. It is the challenge of life for all of us.
Heroic choices doesn’t necessarily mean one must choose whether to rush into a burning building to save the child or not. It is equally heroic to decide to stay and try to save a marriage instead of getting divorced. It is heroic to do the hard thing–stand up for yourself, stand up for someone else, voice your concerns–when you know people may mock you or tell you off, or perhaps even bully you in social media. It is heroic to find a way to live with the grief of losing someone you love and yet be able to open yourself to a new relationship sometime in the future. It is heroic to accept you will never be perfect and find a way to love yourself anyway.
Every decision we make has the potential for being heroic. I believe if more people thought of that as they go about their day, they might make different decisions. What makes them heroic is how hard these decisions are. Often they must be made without knowing all of the consequences; and with accepting the possibility of failure. It would be helpful to have a crystal ball to give up thumbs up or down. I haven’t found one that is any more reliable than my magic eight ball in high school. Yet, decisions need to be made every day and often several times each day. Though any one decision may seem inconsequential, together they do add up and may be of more consequence than I ever imagined. This is why I bury my fictional characters in lots of decisions as well–some go well, others do not. But in the end they learn, just like I do.
I tend to write in series, and the series stories tend to have similar themes explored but with different characters coming to the problem from a different experience. For example, in my Sweetwater Canyon romantic women’s fiction series, one of the themes in each book is how women protagonists manage to enter into romantic relationships when they’ve had failed relationships in the past. This is a common theme in romance, but I wanted to delve into the challenges of sex when it’s not easy, how friends and family support us, and how decisions are ultimately made not on attraction but on true compatibility on the level of ethics and values.
In my YA fantasy series, The Forest People, my themes are much larger challenges. In those books, the fate of both the world of humans and the world of magical beings are intertwined and the young protagonist is caught in the middle. Though there is magic and adventure and a type of war between factions, what I really wanted to explore is the larger question of good and evil and how it’s not as black and white as fairy tales may portray. Good and evil lie on a continuum, and I chose a fifteen year old girl to have to figure out what that continuum is and where she reluctantly chooses to stand. She is a reluctant hero, as I believe most of us are. Most of us would rather look away from difficult situations and hope it just fixes itself. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. Someone or many someone’s need to step into the breech and support each other in being heroic and doing what is right.
The series I’m working on right now is for children aged ten to thirteen. As with every book I write, there are many themes and many complications both external and internal. But in this series, my overriding theme is the experience of finding family and identity through the eyes of foster children. Every child enters foster care for different reasons. There may be some similarities, but each situation is unique to that child’s experience and understanding. Every child comes with their own trauma and backstory–whether they are a toddler or a teen–that must play into their growth or failure to thrive in a changed world. The one thing they all have in common is determining how much to invest in this new environment. There is no one way to make that decision, and the unfamiliarity of the environment itself can make it more difficult.
It is heroic to even consider opening oneself up to making friends or considering being part of a family that is nothing like your past. Yet, that experience speaks to children and adults alike. We are all, ultimately, trying to find how we fit in to new situations. As an adult, I’ve lived in five different states. I’ve held nine different jobs. Each time I moved or changed jobs it was like starting over–different people, different cultural norms, different climate. In many ways, those moves were forcing me to find friends and find family again–even though I had a stable family somewhere else. There is the family we are born into and the “family” we adopt that is close to us and a part of our everyday lives. We are all constantly weighing the pros and cons of letting a stranger into our life and even more into our heart.
In the end, this is why I write novels. When I read a book, even if I’m looking for adventure and escape, I want to identify with the character in some way. It gives me a way to make choices vicariously and learn a lesson without having to make some of those mistakes myself. It gives me a sense of learning consequences without having to live through it myself. Every time I read a good book, I’m awed at the ability of the protagonist to grow and thrive no matter what is thrown at her. When I write a book I learn, along with my characters, about the heroic choices people in these specific circumstances may face. I’m often researching specific situations, talking to people who have faced those challenges, if I haven’t faced them myself, and trying to work toward an ending where the character has an opportunity to thrive if only she’ll take it. Once again, I’ve learned something and I hope my readers do too. I’m always searching for something about perseverance, faith, love, and doing the hard things even when I’m scared.
Maggie Lynch is the author of 26 published books. Her fiction tells stories of people making heroic choices one messy moment at a time. Her nonfiction provides authors with information and tools for self-publishing from the basics of creating a professional package to getting books distributed around the world, and finally marketing options. You can check out her personal website at maggielynch.com