We all know what “compelling hero” means. It can be the difference between a so-so manuscript and a potential bestseller. It seems like a deliciously layered character can almost hypnotize readers into devouring a whole series of books, and significantly increase chances of a long-dreamed-of movie deal for the author. Let’s consider Harry Potter. In the first installment, Harry was an average bookish, lonely, and misunderstood kid. But by the end of the series he had blossomed into a powerful young wizard, willing to take risks and wrestle with fate. The depth he gained came not only from the experiences we watched him go through, but more essentially from the ambivalent psychological texture of his changing motives.
To be plain, sometimes the good things people do come from a dark place.
Boring heroes never teeter on the edge. We never wonder what they’re going to do next, because we already know. Of course they’ll do the right thing. When this element of wonder is low, so is our urge to turn the next page. We followed Harry Potter’s adventures so doggedly because we all knew that he always had it in him to go dark side.
And we wanted to see if he actually would.
You also can craft your hero in such a way that the narrative of their journey inspires rabid devotion from their fans. To take personal story to the level of compelling mythology, dig deep into the dark muck of your character’s psyche.
If it came down to a deal with the devil, what would the devil offer your hero in exchange for their soul? Remember, the devil can see into your hero’s darkest secret heart—what’s the desire hiding in there that can’t be passed up? The devil rarely conjures up anything so easily won these days as money or fame. Think about people your hero has lost, deeds that can’t be undone. Regrets that haunt them in the middle of the night. Every character has their price, it’s just a matter of finding out how high.
No one remains unscathed by life, so what does your hero have to be cynical about? Were they part of a political movement that didn’t work out? Or did someone break their heart and turn them off love for good? Even if they’re the most optimistic character in the world, they still have at least one tiny area that’s been poisoned by an awful past experience. Dig up that little poison spot and expose it to the light. How does it affect your hero’s present-day actions?
This isn’t just any old weakness your hero might struggle against, it’s the weakness. The flaw that could bring them down entirely. It might be uncovered when using deal-with-the-devil temptation, or when turning over the stones of cynical bitterness, but be prepared for heavy duty excavation with this one. You’ll probably go back through childhood memories, and maybe even all the way back through a character’s ancestry to find the weakest link. The intense archaeological dig will be well worth it though. Once you find the Achilles Heel of your hero, you pretty much hold the key to everything.
Using any of these methods is going to make your hero uncomfortable, no doubt about it. It might even make you a little uncomfortable, since our heroes are usually reflections of ourselves. But you can use intuitive character development and your own natural artistic empathy to pull that kind of charged emotion out of the depths. And when you bring it to the surface your story will start rippling with beautiful interesting texture. Every ripple sends another chain-of-reaction outward, building those interconnected circles and layers of narrative.
To find the layers of your story, dig down into your hero. Dig as deep as you can go.
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