Kay: The 10 Essential Elements of a Great Escapist Hero

The SuperHeroStuff official company logo by Brian Welch

The SuperHeroStuff official company logo by Brian Welch

I’ve been reading Julie Ann Long’s Pennyroyal Green series on the advice of Jilly, and they’re terrific books, even reading them out of order, which is what I’m doing. Currently I’m on The Legend of Lyon Redmond, which is the last book in the series. I had to put it down recently when the heroine and hero got into an argument, because their pain and anger made me too sad and upset to go on.

I wish I could write emotion like that. My critique partner has a completely justified and yet irritating habit of noting “more emotion!” at the end of way too many paragraphs, and I’ve been trying to improve my execution in this area. I’m working on my hero, an alpha male (of course) who wants to get the heroine more involved in his life, which she’s resisting. I’ve been trying to figure out not just what he feels but what he does—and how his actions reflect his feelings—to get what he wants. Basically, I want to write someone who’s bigger than life, the way Lyon Redmond is.

Charlie Jane Anders has described the 10 essential elements of a great escapist hero. These qualities apply more to action heroes, but I’m looking to this advice to see if I can make it work for my own guy.

1) He’s unique in some way
Some quality or skill makes him stand out. He doesn’t need super powers—he doesn’t have to be Spiderman or The Incredible Hulk. He just needs something extra.

2) He has beliefs, which get tested
A real hero believes in something. Readers respect someone who fights for those beliefs. Without principles, your heroine is just another random combatant.

3) He has a line he won’t cross
Whatever it is, seeing what the hero won’t do is just as important as seeing what he can do. He won’t take the easy way out. Even seeing the hero almost cross a line is interesting.

4) He has a goal or mission
A hero without a goal is, by definition, reactive. The hero’s goal must be positive and concrete, not something vague like “get girlfriend.”

5) He’s loyal
An anti-hero might double-cross his friends, but a real hero won’t. Readers admire someone who is loyal, and they want to fantasize that if this hero existed, he’d be loyal to you.

6) He’s an underdog, or outgunned
To make your readers root for your hero, have him face impossible odds. Think the Mission: Impossible and 24 franchises or the Vorkosigan family.

7) He’s compassionate
Heroes save lives, especially the lives of ordinary people, and caring about vulnerable folks is part of what makes him a hero. Seeing that compassion helps readers invest in the character.

8) He has fun
If your hero doesn’t have fun kicking ass and taking prisoners, it’s hard for readers to enjoy his exploits vicariously. And it feels natural that he celebrates that.

9) He’s got cool gear or abilities
A great escapist hero embodies our fantasy of doing great things or having great stuff. James Bond is the epitome of a hero with great gear (my guy has neat cars).

10) He hangs with a fascinating sidekick or posse
A hero without interesting backup is less memorable. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Those fun sidekicks rely on Buffy’s strength, and in turn, they challenge Buffy and make her deeper and more interesting.

My hero isn’t an action hero like Spiderman or James Bond, but he faces big and dangerous challenges—not the least of which is getting the heroine to see things his way. I’m working on it. How about you?

6 thoughts on “Kay: The 10 Essential Elements of a Great Escapist Hero

  1. Wow, number two rang a bell with me. “Of course he has beliefs,” I thought to myself. But then I thought about the testing . . . .

    I’m taking a break from writing this weekend, but I’m sure that’ll be kicking around in the back of my head. How can my characters have their beliefs tested in this story?

    • I know what you mean—the testing can come in a lot of ways, I think, but working through how to do it takes some effort. I’m having trouble with all 10, but I also think I probably don’t have to show them all. At least I hope not!

  2. I’m so glad you’re enjoying Pennyroyal Green, Kay! I agree that Julie Anne Long is particularly good at writing emotion. It’s a powerful skill, especially for a romance writer. Like you, it’s one I’m working on.

    I like the hero checklist. I think I’m hitting most of the points in my current WIP, though I *may* have to beef up my hero’s goal and give him better superpowers to match the heroine. Not sure yet.

    The list made me think of Loretta Chase, another writer who does a masterly job with emotion, and particularly Alistair Carsington, hero of Miss Wonderful. He needs to get approval for an infrastructure project which is crucial to the financial wellbeing of his best friend. The heroine (with whom he falls desperately in love, and vice versa) is implacably opposed, for good reasons. He can win the project, and lose the girl. Give up the project, win the girl, and condemn his best friend. Or…I love what he decides to do, the lines he won’t cross, and the choices he makes. Hm. More food for thought. Thank you!

    • One of the things I need to think about is how “superhero” qualities apply to mere mortals—folks who don’t fly or crush cars with a single hand. For people who fly, heroic qualities are a dime a dozen. But superheroes can be made with everyday decisions, too—and it’s finding ways to show that that’s challenging me right now.

      I read Mr. Wonderful a long time ago, and I think it’s time I read it again. Loretta Chase is always worth the time!

  3. I think I’m actually good with this hero on 9 out of the 10 qualities–wow! And I don’t think he really needs cool gear–he has blue training collars for the dogs-in-training, and that’s enough.

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