Friday, January 29, 2016

WYNM, Victory 3: Your Hero


Continuing with our walkthrough miniseries on Jeff Gerke's Write Your Novel in a Month,* today, we are looking at Victory 3 which focuses on choosing a hero for your novel. All opinions are my own.

Last time, we looked at Gerke's methods (and reasons) for selecting a genre before you even start writing.

Let's delve into what he has to say about heroes.

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Right out of the gate, Gerke emphasizes that "[g]ood fiction is about someone. Some-one" (p. 31).
He goes on to discuss the fact that you may be writing a multi-POV novel, or that you might have double protagonists, or that your novel may treat all characters with equal weight and importance (though, in my opinion, this isn't likely). No matter how many characters your novel has, though, readers are going to be looking for what Gerke calls the "keyhole character" or the character with whom the reader identifies with/relates to the most.

Gerke says that readers most often look for these "surrogate characters" in fiction because they are seeking a way to live vicariously though the events of the story. This idea of a surrogate/keyhole character really resonates with me as I make finishing touches on the first draft of WIP; I am forced to analyze how realistic (and thus relatable) my characters are.

Even if you are like George R. R. Martin and write a novel that has tens of POVs and hundreds of characters, your readers are going to identify more so with one specific character, so it is important that all of your characters are realistic. You never know with which character your future readers will connect.

Who is Your Hero?

At this part of Victory 3, Gerke suggests you go back to that long sentence you made during brainstorming (the one I suggested you pin near your workspace or tape to your laptop for inspiration).  To get a good picture of whom your hero should be, Gerke suggests the following:
"As you think about [your core] idea, who do you see right in the middle of it all?" (p. 32)

While considering who your hero should be, be sure to take a look at that page or so of notes you wrote about your idea. If you can see a vague, fuzzy outline of your hero already, just from looking at your core idea and notes, great! If you haven't a clue, don't worry; Gerke has some suggestions for you.

Plot First vs. Character First

Gerke is of the opinion that there are two types of authors: those authors who focus on the plot first, and those authors who focus on characters first. He even has a whole book on this theory entitled Plot Versus Character.

His idea about the two types of authors runs like this:

Plot-first authors can rock the story idea, cranking out pages of general ideas and neat details about the story they want to tell (an evil force that tries to diminish the good in the world a la Tolkien's Lord of the Rings).

Character-first authors tend to think about a character, and that characters looks/job/hobbies, and that characters love interest, and the things that make that character tick, and . . . well, you get the idea here.

As Gerke points out, neither type of author is "good" or "bad;" but it is important to understand which type of author you are so you can take the most advantage out of Victory 3.

Who Your Hero Needs to Be

Whether you already have your hero's entire life story mapped out or you are struggling to find one soul upon which to pin the weight of your awesomely-crafted story idea, keep in mind that readers are going to connect with some-one. Even if your novel is fairly bursting with characters, you need to have your sights set on one person.

Gerke suggests choosing the character that is going to be "on the front lines of all the action," so to speak. You also want your hero to be the person who undergoes the most change throughout the story (moral/ethical/mental changes more so than physical) because readers are going to be expecting a dynamic hero versus a static one.

Straight from Majesta: Now, you may be wanting to craft a tale like GRRM, in which there are many POVs and arguably many "heroes." That is all well and good (and it is what I am doing in my WIP, by the way), but really focus on what Gerke is covering in this Victory. Chances are, you will find it very helpful.

Connect Your Reader with Your Hero

Readers pick up books want to fall in love with the story, true, but they are more concerned with falling in love with the characters in the story. As Gerke says, "[a] reader who can't connect with the hero in a novel is a reader about to put that novel down and never pick it up again" (p. 35).

It is at this point that Gerke spends some time talking about why your hero needs to be dynamic; or, in other words, it is okay if your hero goes from being a scumbag to the character whom your readers most adore. Transformative characters (or dynamic characters) are those readers connect with the most because such characters have realistic – sometimes downright horrible – flaws while still maintaining and even nurturing goodness deep within them. Think "rogue with a heart of gold" anti-hero types here. Not sure what an anti-hero is? Check out this post on heroes, villains, and anti-heroes.

As a useful guide to creating likable heroes, Gerke provides readers of WYNM with five strategies:

#1. The Selfless Hero

To explain this hero type to readers, Gerke points out first the prevalence of selflessness as a virtue in modern culture. And he is completely right. Every day, we see the "selfless hero" working service positions like that of a firefighter or police officer, those people who put others above themselves as part of their jobs. But, as Gerke makes clear, we also have examples of the "everyday" selfless hero, such the man in the office who lets someone else take credit for his work, or the single mother who works 60 hours a week but still makes time for her children.

Such heroes appeal to readers because of their innate goodness and willingness to sacrifice themselves and their own well-beings for that of others.

Gerke provides us with five versions of the selfless hero:
The Heroic Hero 
This type of hero is courageous, often for the benefit of another character, and stands up to adversity and challenge. Creating this type of hero can automatically endear readers to your character because you have made it evident that this character is the "good guy." 
Caveat from Majesta: Don't beat your reader over the head with the hero's goodness and good deeds lest your reader think the character is "too good to be true." 
The Compassionate Hero 
We all appreciate people who are able to sympathize or at least empathize with our situations. Gerke suggests this selfless hero type because many people see compassion as a virtue. As an example of the compassionate hero, Gerke points to Aladdin, the "street rat" who goes through a bit of mischief and danger to steal a crust of bread only to give it to someone less fortunate. 
The Generous Hero 
A bighearted giver, the generous hero is well known for subtly providing some means of support – often financial – to the less fortunate. Gerke gives us examples of the person who leaves a big tip for a waitress or who drops a hundred into a street musicians tip jar. 
Caveat from Majesta: If creating this type of hero, especially if you intend on the character being wealthy, be sure to write him/her in such a way that readers cannot take the generosity shown as pretentiousness or snobbery. 
The Kind and Gentle Hero 
This one is pretty straight forward; this character is kind and gentle no matter the circumstances or who is watching. 
The Humble Hero 
This type of selfless hero, like the kind and gentle hero, commits acts of goodness with no intention of being praised or lauded for his/her efforts. The humble hero does not expect payment or acknowledgement for his/her deeds, and readers will expect this type of selfless hero to keep such deeds "under the hat" and not brag about doing them.
#2. The Charming Hero

Stepping away from the selfless hero types, Gerke continues on with his second strategy for creating a likeable hero: the crafting of the charming hero.

This hero type is a character that is, at his/her core, a likable person. Other characters enjoy being around this type of hero and find him/her humorous in a classy way. While many readers enjoy such "plucky" characters, Gerke issues a caution reminding readers of WYNM that humor is difficult to write. I agree; better to choose a different angle for your hero than to write poor humor.

#3. The Principled Hero

Honesty. Integrity. These are two words that may be perfectly applied to this type of hero. No matter what the circumstances or the potential dangers may be, the principled hero will be truthful. Guided by a set of internalized principles, this hero will always strive to do the right thing. 

Note from Majesta: I would LOVE to read a book where the hero lives by a strict set of principles that s/he thinks are moral and just only for readers to find out later that this "hero" is really a villain. Someone write that book.

#4. The Smart Hero

This character is the MacGyver of heroes, always resourceful and always employing his/her intelligence and wit to solve problems. When I think of the smart hero, I think of characters like Velma or Fred from the cartoon Scooby Doo; no matter what the situation is or how limited resources may seem, the smart hero uses the materials at hand and his/her intelligence to find a solution. As Gerke points out, readers relate to this character type because most people appreciate and respect intelligence, saying "[w]e treasure the Aha! moment and those who can bring it to us" (p. 39).

If you are employing this hero type, Gerke suggests subtly inserting your character's resourcefulness early on in the novel to attract readers to your hero's abilities.

#5. The Sympathetic Hero

When talking about this hero type, Gerke says: "[i]n a sense, the chief aim of any effort to engage your reader with your hero is to cause the reader to feel sympathy. We pull for the home team and the underdog and the orphan. We hate suffering, especially in those with whom we have a connection" (p. 41).

To create this type of character and suck your readers in to the hero's world, Gerke suggests having some tragedy happen to your hero (like the loss of one or both parents) or having your hero be the "loner." Doing so will make readers want to "be there" for your character, to take an interest in your hero and devote emotions to him/her. Readers want to connect with characters, and giving readers something with which to sympathize is a sure way to ensure this connection takes place.

Caveat from Gerke: "Don't make your hero so sympathetic that she's actually pathetic . . . if you show us a sad sack loser, we'll be repulsed, not engaged" (ibid).

Unlikable Heroes that Somehow Still Work

Gerke spends quite a bit of time harping on the whys and the hows of likeable heroes. Next, he spends some time emphasizing the fact that unlikable heroes, if crafted well, still work for readers.
Your hero may be contemptible or even downright repulsive, but as long as you are crafting a decent story, your hero could still be engaging. As Gerke contends, "a movie – or even a novel – that succeeds despite a truly unlikeable main character succeeds only because of other, outside factors" (p. 42). Here, Gerke means factors outside of the novel itself, pointing to things like an author's known use of a gruff but eventually loveable hero or a director's use of a sour but comedic actor (like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day).

Gerke cautions against creating such characters unless you are writing a historical novel or another instillation in a series; otherwise, "the reader will have no pre-existing fondness for [your character]" (p. 42), meaning that your reader will have zero reason to see past this unlikable character's dysfunction to peck at the kinda, sorta, maybe a little bit good underneath.

Conclusion

In the conclusion of Victory 3, Gerke reaffirms the necessity of a likable hero for your novels. He also allays any "how-to" fears readers of WYNM may be having, saying:

"Even if you don't know how you're going to make your hero likeable, just decide here and now that you're going to make your hero likeable. Your reader needs it." (p. 43)

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Stay tuned for our next walkthrough installment on Write Your Novel in a Month, in which we look at Gerke's suggestions for creating your hero's character and personality.

Excited about Write Your Novel in a Month yet? Snag a copy of Jeff Gerke's phenomenal how-to book here.*

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