Want The Perfect Hero? Don't Make These 2 Mistakes

Perfect heroEverybody wants to create the perfect hero. I know I do. But creating the perfect hero means more than just perfection. It means imperfection.

I like examples, I like learning from examples and I just happen to have read another book (Independent Study (The Testing Trilogy Book 2)), so I am going to use the hero from that to explain how not to create the perfect hero.

Ultimately, a hero needs to save the day. But how they actually save the day is just as important if not more so than the fact they actually save it. And here in lies the problem when creating a hero.

The book I just finished: Independent Study (The Testing Trilogy Book 2, is the second book in the testing series. I have talked about the testing briefly before: 4 Tactics to Create Your Perfect Last Line. It is a trilogy, YA (I swear I’ll read something else soon!) and a dystopian novel. Set in a world destroyed by war and in order to help rejuvenate the society, students go through ‘the testing’ in order to get into university. The testing of course, is barbaric. But our hero succeeds and this book is set at the start of university.

Perfection For The Sake of Winning

If your hero is going to win, they need to be good. They need to be smart, or at least have street smarts. Unless your hero is a total loner they also need a team or support of some kind around them so that ultimately, they can beat your villain.

How good is good enough but, more importantly, how good is too good?

If you make your hero good at everything, then there’s no battle, no need for the struggle against evil and no grit to the conflict. They no longer have anything to overcome.

In Indepdent Study, Cia is frighteningly intelligent. So much so, that she never actually makes a mistake. Not once throughout the entire book. I waited and waited for the moment where she would show some humanity and capability for error. But she didn’t. She worked out all the answers to problems, faster than anyone else, with virtually no outside input. She read her team mates, predicted their betrayals and knew how to beat them.

An example… when she is working on an assignment from the president:

“If anyone questions Raffe’s assistance, I can say I was only doing the same. But then I realise I don’t need to.” Independent Testing, Joelle Charbonneau.

This realisation leads to her understanding that the work she is being given is just another test.

I actually did a search in the book, and counted 19 uses of the phrase: ‘I realise’. NINETEEN?? the books only 368 pages, that one use every 19 pages. Who the hell edited this thing?

Now don’t get me wrong. There are barriers for Cia to overcome, but most of them are physical or external barriers – i.e. The testing ground and hostile environment.

Physical and external barriers are good, but only as additions. The heroes flaw should be the hardest thing for them to overcome, all the additions, the nasty villains, the hostile environments, these things should just make it harder for the hero to overcome his flaw. They need to make it seem impossible for them to succeed.

These external barriers shouldn’t ‘be’ the thing your hero has to beat. No one cares if they have to jump a ravine to chase the villain down. Readers care about personal torment and self sacrifice.

External barriers as a cover for perfect heroes just ain’t good enough. The heroes flaw has to be internal.

Cowardly For The Sake of Fallibility

We spend much of the book, and in fact, much of the first two books, with Cia as the hero; a strong female who’s driven, determined intelligent and utterly fearless.

Then, (and I made a note of this) at 84% of the way through the book, she has a change of heart… Yes, you can raise an eyebrow. I did. 84% of the way through a book is not the time for a 180 degree change of heart. Let me explain, she realises she has to do something, a task, (that actually she doesn’t even end up doing) that would put her life in danger.

“I cannot deliberately make a choice that could end my life. I am not a leader. I am a coward.” Independent Testing Joelle Charbonneau

Up to this point she has thrown herself in the way of danger without a second breath. But at 84% she decides she’s a coward and basically hides in her room for a day. Precisely 1% later, at 85% she changes her mind again:

“And I realise – the walls are constructed of my terror. To escape, I will have to not only face, but defeat, my fear… The safety is just an illusion. no matter how careful I am or how good my grades are, I will never be free of the threat Dr Barnes and his system present.” Independent Testing Joelle Charbonneau

*foreheadslap* (another realisation…)

I actually can’t believe a 1% kong change of heart got through the edits to be honest. It was so jarring, I actually had to re read sections to check she was being serious.

Character flaws are good. Yes. Essential even. BUT…

If you want a flaw in your character to be believable and authentic, you need to show that flaw the ENTIRE way through the book or at least allude to it. That is the purpose of flaws. To show the protagonist growing, developing and overcoming that flaw as the book progresses. NOT to slap one in towards the end, because either you forgot or couldn’t be arsed to weave it in earlier. That’s just poor authorship and makes the character seem trite as well as unbelievable.

***

Unfortunately, the book has been widely criticised for being too similar to the Hunger Games and whilst I can see the links and, given it was published five years after HG’s, was probably influenced by it. However, it is a different story, based in a different setting and with different characters, so I think people who liked the Hunger Games, generally speaking would like this book too.

Whilst I have picked out two distinct lessons on what not to do with a hero, I did actually like this book. It was a little slow for my taste, and as a result I didn’t feel it advanced the plot much on the first book. But perhaps that was because the first book was so pacey. I suspect, like many trilogies, this second book was just a filler.

I would genuinely recommend this series to any YA dystopian fan, I will certainly be reading the final book, despite this middle one. The characters are full of depth, and Cia has a clear and wonderful voice full of angst and emotion. Exactly what you’d want and expect from a YA book.

Independent Study is the second in the Testing Trilogy, Amazon says this about it:

Independent StudyCia Vale is now seventeen and has everything she ever dreamed of: a boy she loves, a place at the University and a future as one of the leaders of the UnitedCommonwealth. The Testing should be nothing more than a blank space in her mind; an achievement to be celebrated, and then forgotten. 
But Cia remembers. As further evidence of the government’s murderous programmes comes to light, Cia must choose whether to stay silent and protect herself and her loved ones, or expose The Testing for what it is. Above all, the University is a dangerous place, and Cia must remember the advice her father gave her: TRUST NO ONE.

If you are interested in the first book check it out here.

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81 comments

  1. That is interesting. I never thought what actually makes a hero a hero. A real hero is one of us. The difference is, that he/she has a strong will, has a goal to go for, believes in themselves or something, and/or doesn’t give up!

    1. I agree that having a goal and not giving up is essential but I’m not sure that’s what gives a hero the edge. I think it has to do with overcoming a difficulty there’s that phrase – over coming the odds – I think if you have a goal and you achieve it that’s a success, but if you have to battle against all odds and in the face of failure STILL come out on top then you’re a hero… ?

      1. Yes, that is right, not giving up no matter what comes in the way. Or also getting motivated or provoked by something that happened which makes the person develop that hero skills! I think there are many ways. But a real hero is someone who appears “normal” but grows over him/herself.

      1. You’re welcome, Sacha. Something in your post set me off thinking about a character I’m writing in the prequel. Thinking about that led me to checking my books on Amazon and found out the last of the trilogy, Living in the Shadows is on a Monthly Deal! So thank you.jx

  2. Excellent advice. I was actually thinking about this yesterday because of one of my characters. Thought they were getting too perfect. Then I edited a chapter where I was reminded that they have a big personality flaw. The strange thing is that we seem to see ‘perfection’ in heroes solely as intelligence and physical strength. Keep forgetting to look at the social side of things. Something to be said for a hero who is smart and strong, but can’t talk their way out of a paper bag without angering everyone in the room or coming off like a child.

    1. Yes exactly – and that’s even more prevalent in YA Fiction because their emotional intelligence is still developing so they never think before they speak. Flaws can come in all kinds of forms I guess the important thing is that they have one. But, more than that, it has to present enough of a challenge that it’s difficult for them to overcome it.

      1. I’m reminded about Eragon, which I never made it through. A friend argued that he was flawed because he was arrogant. Apparently that off-set the dragon, master swordsman, and natural spellcasting thing that he had going. The problem is that it never seemed to be an issue that caused trouble. So as you said, one can’t just put a flaw on a character and call it a day. That flaw has to put in some work hours.

        1. That is a cracking example. EXACTLY. It’s all about the flaw working for your plot. I mean damn, teachers rave about conflict, conflict, conflict. Don’t matter if its internal but there does have to be a struggle somewhere.

          1. Many times it’s more than one conflict too. I can think of a lot of stories where you have the big outside opponent (monster, other person, natural disaster, etc.) and then an internal (doubt, cowardice, regret, etc.). This brings a lot more depth to characters and the story.

          2. I agree. I actually think you NEED more than one conflict, one external AND one internal, the internal one sort of gives the story its edge, with the external one being the big baddie. Sounds like we agree anyway 😀 hows your writing going?

          3. Writing is still in editing stages. My son has a week off from school starting on the 15th. So I’m hoping to finish the book I’m editing now and the next one before that. This way I can write a new one when he goes back. I’m trying to work everything around his breaks, but the opening for this year is just a headache. At least the next release is ready to go around the 12th. Just need the cover art and my new series can see the light of publishing.

          4. I actually can’t keep up with you. What’s your daily word count average? It must be THOUSANDS of words. I am in awe of your speed. At the rate I am going I’ll be lucky to get a book out this century!!

          5. I actually don’t keep track of word counts. Pages or chapter sections usually. That can range from 10-20 pages or 1-1.5 chapters. It really depends on what’s going on around here. Like with editing, I get through maybe 3 chapters on a good day, which is 50 pages. This is barring any major rewrites and other delays like holidays or upcoming sporting events.

    2. Charles, I’m really glad you said that: “or coming off like a child.” When I was writing during my MFA, a couple guys kept saying my protagonist needs a psychiatrist, not a Hero’s Journey. It was really hard to hear because at that point, she was a lot like me. 😉
      I am now going back to write the prequel, and likely, the prequel to that. I am glad to know I wasn’t wrong to make my protagonist confused by people and taken aback when someone reads her kindness wrong.
      Sacha, I really thought the novel you describes didn’t even have any editors. But then you said it was traditionally published. Makes me that much happier that I went the self-publishing route!
      Peace, love & great editing to all,
      Sherrie
      Sherrie Miranda’s historically based, coming of age, Adventure novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” is about an American girl in war-torn El Salvador:
      http://tinyurl.com/klxbt4y
      Her husband made a video for her novel. He wrote the song too:

  3. I’ve heard traditional publishers don’t do much developmental editing anymore. Maybe they’ve stopped doing line editing too. But coming to your main point, yes the hero does need to be heroic but it only feels good if they have to overcome great internal hurdles to become that. The heroic part should be towards the end of the story, after they’ve conquered the inner demons. The 4 stages of a good hero: Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Martyr.

    1. Yeah that’s a great way to put it those four stages – is that a theory someone’s made??

      I didn’t know that, that trad publishers aren’t doing much by way of developmental editing anymore, I guess it’s cause the competition is so high they don’t need to any more. Shame really. Means crap can filter through the net.

      1. Yeah it’s someone’s theory. I don’t remember the name but I read it in the book Story Engineering by Larry Brooks of Storyfix.com. I’m a planner and an ex-engineer so this book made total sense to me.

        About the editing thing I read on Alan Rinzler’s blog http://alanrinzler.com/bio/ He’s an editor who edited The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison among other things. He says that publishers now expect you to work with an editor on your own before submitting the manuscript to them. Maybe because self publishing means that the market can sort out writers for them and they can offer deals to those who’ve already proven success in the market. Helping a new writer develop their manuscript isn’t economically viable anymore.

        1. Ah ok, I am a pantser sort of, kind of a hybrid if I am honest. but I am also obsessed with writing process, and totally willing to try anything so off I trot to investigate this. Engineer makes sense now, given your comments on the Flat Earth theory. I haven’t forgotten I need to reply to you either. I have a full hours interview to transcribe, and life crazy atm.

          I am really disappointed to hear that comment from the editor, although I am not surprised at all. It makes total sense given the market saturation. Sigh… just makes the mountain even higher to climb, hopefully, maybe…. possibly one day I will get there… :s

  4. Eh. I need to read through this again. I liked this series but agree she was a bit too… Something. She was supposed to be uber-intelligent but that doesn’t mean she can’t make mistakes. I think you’ll find this a lot in YA. I loved Katniss. Flawed, strong, weak, smart, making stupid decisions, complex, conflicted… You know. ?

    1. I was wondering what you would make of this cause you have read the book. I’m curious if you agree or not.

      I agree that you find a lot of smart kids in YA, but I don’t think I’ve found a hero who is TOO perfect…??

      1. She doesn’t have some of the conflict and complexities other YA heroes/heroines do. I liked the series. But, again, I like most YA series (esp. dystopian). The book I’m reading now is the last in a trilogy by Lauren Oliver. Her Delirium series. The MC is pretty “perfect” as they all are (except Katniss…sorry, just love her) but has her moments of doubt and makes stupid errors in judgement. It does seem, now that you really make me think back, that the MC of the Testing doesn’t do that much. At least not as much as others in YA. As far as growing, developing…you’re right there, too. I am SO curious to see how you like the ending (if you read the third one). P.S. I hate when books are compared to other books: “The next Harry Potter!” Um. No. “The next Hunger Games!” Um. No. Just no.

        1. No she doesn’t you got that right. But actually, like you I have enjoyed the series so far too. and I will be reading the last. Well I won’t be having a perfect hero, thats for sure!! Every time you mention Katniss, I feel a stab of shame!! I am feeling pressure now, I am going to have to make my main character a right nightmare!!

    1. Thanks Diana. I agree although it’s harder to do for me than I’d like I have to read consciously which I never used to. Still, it doesn’t take the enjoyment out and I learn something so double win!! ??

        1. Ahh gosh, I know what you mean, I have to say I feel like that too. Training yourself to read consciously might teach you lots but I guess you do lose that whole ‘losing yourself in a book’ thing. Shame really. But maybe when I have learnt more and am a better writer I can try and not do it all the time… Or maybe I’m deluding myself maybe I have trained myself to do it so much I’ll never go back…. Oh god I hope not! Nothing better than losing yourself in a book!

      1. Trouble is we’re supposed to be having a dry February – what with wedding anniversary and a few other celebrations ‘ Dry January’ passed us by. S’pose we could have a dry March .. oh no … can’t in March. Er… April then … Hmm! Sure I’ll think of something in April.Jxx

  5. I felt like I had that problem a little with my bounty hunter. In the first book in the series, Grey is just so lovely, and sure he gets beaten up, and almost hung, he’s still a good guy who’s a crack shot, a strong rider, and quite principled. I think even he realised that so when I wrote book two he confided that he’s petrified of the dark, and he makes bad decisions when he panics. I feel it makes him a bit more human – and thus more interesting.

    1. Ahh, I had it too for a while, I liked my character so much I didn’t want to torture them! then I realised I had to or the story wasn’t going to work! Now I’m like an evil bitch writer!! pahaha. Hope things are looking brighter for you, and your PhD is going well. How many books are in your Grey series?

  6. Chocolate – yes, could do chocolate. But then I’d whinge about being fat (ter). Yeah, you’re right, January comes every year. I’ll wait! Now… where’s that wine. Cheers!!. Thanks Sacha. Jx #StartingAgainFrom … sometime

  7. That flaw in the hero is critical – and I prefer it not just jump up without warning in the middle or towards the end. It’s much nicer at the end if you can think back and go “Ah, there was a little hint of it way back here and it squirmed around almost undetected until it made a difference. But I like things tied together and constructed and always do a bit of analysis at the end of reading (It’s a disease, I know. Can’t help it. deconstructing stories is interesting)

    1. Glad you agree that the hero flaw is critical. 😀 I have to say thats a really fair point. It IS essential not to dump the ‘ah ha’ on people. Otherwise, what was the point.

      Haha well clearly I have the same disease as you! I LOVE deconstructing books! I learn so much from it

  8. Such characters are called Mary Sue’s. Nothing worse than a Mary Sue. Most insufferable type of protagonist or character to encounter Mostly because at the end you see no change in the character. There were perfect so they didn’t need to change. The story can of course be good. but it becomes the equivalent of cotton candy. Insubstantial and gone before you can even swallow

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