We can go to town on defining our villain early – we’re not going to get into his head until later in the story, and he’s not going to change all that much by the end. That’s kind of why he’s a villain – rigidity of thought. Defining him early can help us during plotting, when we are choosing whether to make Mr. Villain either relatable or deplorable.
But the hero? We have a really long time to draw out his insecurities and ambitions. I feel like if I define too many things now I’ll just change my mind. Leaving him a little fluid will let me add flaws and backstory on the fly during the plotting phase. So I’ll set down a few must-haves now and fill in the blanks later.
In the beginning, the hero can’t be heroic yet. He has hints of the person he will become. He will become heroic as the story progresses. Then when he wins the magical MacGuffin, we get to feel that progress along with him.
Case study: Aether’s hero
So, what are my must-haves?
I know that I don’t want to mess with any of that first boyfriend/girlfriend nonsense, so let’s put him in his early 20s. College-age works great – he’ll have a touch of maturity, but plenty of inexperience so that even when he does make a good decision he can still get rewarded with a horrible outcome. Most of us have been there and understand how that feels.
How about a few personality flaws?
I want a hero that people want to be around, but there are lots of potential reasons why. There’s the happy hero, the powerful one .. and then there’s the one that I think I’m most interested in: the hero that people use. The fixer. The provider. He’s a person who knows that he’s being used, but does it anyway out of his own sense of right and wrong. He will embody Rule 303: if you have the ability, you have the responsibility.
So he puts on his happy face and fills his role, like so many of us do. People don’t ask why. They don’t really care about the problems he’s running away from. What problems? Punt that decision until we get into the plotting.
Now that I have a clearer picture of this imperfect hero – this responsible provider that epitomizes traditional manhood – I want to make one last change. Our hero is now a girl.
Why did I wait so long to decide that? Because it shouldn’t matter. I hate – hate – stories where we find out that the character is a girl because she giggles. A lot. Stuff that.
There are times when we want that stereotype for one reason or another. Fine, I think, but not in a protagonist. If we can’t gender swap the main character I feel like they risk being a flatter, more two-dimensional caricature of their true potential.
Now we can mix and bake at 350 for 45 minutes. You’ll know you’re done when the edges have a light, golden crust, but the insides are still liquid garbage. We want that squishy center because the hero really takes shape during the next phase of story development: PLOTTING!