This article first appeared on the Writers Fun Zone.
A writer I know recently asked for song ideas to build her writing playlist—the music she’d play while she worked on her latest WIP, a fantasy adventure tale. She wanted songs that would speak to the acts of the book—her heroine on a mission, in trouble, fighting her way out, and resolving her issues. I thought of “I Need a Hero,” sung by Bonnie Tyler, who asks for a street-wise Hercules. “He’s gotta be strong and he’s gotta be fast, and he’s gotta be fresh from the fight,” she sings. She’s looking for a “superman to sweep her off her feet.”
A fantasy adventure tale needs a hero (or a heroine) like that. Someone who inspires not just the other characters, but readers as well. Someone who’s bigger than life, because without that, your adventure tale is just another travelogue. Charlie Jane Anders has described the 10 essential elements of a great escapist hero. As you work on your own book, see if these qualities describe your hero.
1) He’s unique in some way
Some quality or skill has to make this person stand out. He doesn’t have to be Spiderman or The Incredible Hulk. He doesn’t need super powers. He just needs something going for himself. Perhaps your hero is the youngest captain ever to command a starship, or the only human who can do something remarkable. Maybe he’s just the smartest guy in the room. But he needs something extra.
2) She has beliefs, which get tested
A real hero or heroine believes in something. Readers—or viewers—respect someone who stands up for what they believe in, who fight for those beliefs. Without principles, your heroine is just another random combatant.
3) He has a line he won’t cross
Maybe your hero won’t kill, or sell guns to both sides, or spread the viral contamination. Whatever it is, seeing what the hero won’t do is just as important as seeing what he or she can do. These heroes won’t take the easy way out, which fascinates readers. Even seeing the hero almost cross a line, or dance up to it, is interesting.
4) She has a goal or mission
A heroine without a goal is, by definition, reactive. Until the villains do something to further their own agenda, the heroine is just metaphorically sitting by the pool drinking appletinis. The heroine’s goal must be positive and concrete, not something like “find adventure” or “don’t get sucked into appletini drama.”
5) He’s loyal
An anti-hero might double-cross his friends, but a real hero won’t. Readers have an easier time admiring someone who is loyal, and they want to fantasize that if this hero existed, he’d be loyal to them.
6) She’s an underdog, or outgunned
To make your readers root for your heroine, have her 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 those vulnerable folks is part of what makes your guy a hero. Seeing that compassion is part of your hero’s motivation for taking action helps readers invest in the character.
8) She has fun
If your heroine doesn’t have fun kicking ass and taking prisoners, it’s hard for readers to enjoy her exploits vicariously. Also, she’s probably thrilled if she kicks ass and takes prisoners, and it feels natural that she 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, but flying without an airplane is also pretty cool.
10) She hangs with a fascinating sidekick or posse
A fighter for justice and truth (or against vampires) who doesn’t have 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, too.
So how about it? Does your protagonist meet most of these criteria? If so, you’re well on your way to building a great escapist hero.