A Hero is as Hero Does

Beware of your thoughts, they become your words.

Beware of your words, they become your actions.

Beware of your actions, they become your habits.

Beware of your habits, they become your character.

Beware of your character, it becomes your destiny.

- Unknown

One of the greatest advantages to writing over other storytelling media is the author’s ability to put the reader behind the character’s eyes and into their shoes.  The reader can be privy to thoughts and motivations, providing an unparalleled opportunity for audience sympathy when compared to theater, video games or film.  For me, heroism has been remarkably difficult to do well.  Eventually, I received simple advice.  A hero is as a hero does.

Though simple enough on the surface, there is more to being a hero than saving kittens from trees and pulling orphans from burning buildings.  If you want your character to seem trustworthy, for example, have him follow through on commitments when no one is looking and it would be easier to just ignore the promise.  Small actions, especially those that come off as habitual or automatic, speak volumes.  As always, the key I have found has been provide the seed for your reader to imply and invest and the room to let those opinions to grow.

What a character notices when he walks into a room is as telling to me as action.  A violently paranoid individual will make note of the people, exits and possible weapons in any room he enters.  A protagonist with a crush may pay special attention to the red lipstick that his interest is wearing.  Someone who has recently lost a loved one or undergone a breakup may have a abnormally strong reaction to something small and every day, such as a particular song coming on the radio or a flower.  The most important thing that I’ve noticed in my own writing is the balance between being subtle and overt.  For the technique to be most effective, I have found that I need to draw attention to the action or reaction and provide enough background for the reader to figure it out, but not extrapolate and avoid a monologue at all costs.  If the reader has to work to make the characterization, then it will be more real to them.

I firmly believe that protagonists should be active in driving the story forward and that any prose should multitask.  It seems natural, then, that your characters’ actions would serve double duty as well – driving the plot forward and characterizing simultaneously.  Actions, after all, speak louder than words.

Beginning the Discussion: Think of someone who you admire a great deal.  What actions won you over?


2 Responses

  1. Jess B says:

    I immediately think of my former boss, who was a wonderful internist. Time and time again I would see her sacrifice good portions of her life for her patients, including staying ridiculously late hours, spending an hour with each one, promptly following the patient to the ER in order to make sure the admission went smoothly. She was warm, personable, and a relentless advocate for those she cared for, whether she liked them personally or not.

    • Nathan Barra says:

      It’s a good point to remember. Sometimes the hero is the man who puts his coat around the lost child’s shoulders and convinces him that the world isn’t ending. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. And professions. 🙂

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