A Hero Shouldn’t Be Perfect

I’ve been seeing the pictures a lot on the internet as of late. Batman taking down every challenge with all ease and no sweat, or Goku and Vegeta of DBZ fame strolling towards the entire Marvel line-up with the feel of two friends taking a walk in the park.

More interesting yet is that I’ve seen such attitudes leak into writing, with characters facing nary anything to make them wonder whether a battle is winnable. This brings me to something that every writer must consider.

Don’t make your hero perfect. Don’t make them emotionally flawless, and certainly don’t overpower them.

I count Indiana Jones as probably my favorite fictional character ever. What’s not to love about the guy? He’s a gentlemen and a scoundrel both, he can fly off the handle at times and get in over his head, he throws Nazis under trucks, you name it. However, if you were to ask me who would win in a fight between Indiana Jones and Superman, I would probably plant myself in Team Kent. I love doctor Jones, but he can’t win all the time.

Indiana Jones is a flawed character. His hot head can get him into trouble, he often needs other people to save him, and by the time each movie is done, he’s hardly in the best shape. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that final image though of his bruised and broken body coming off his latest adventure is one of the things that makes him so lovable, because it reminds us of the insurmountable odds that he was able to overcome.

The main purpose of a hero in fiction is to create a character that takes your audience on a journey. In order for a character to do that, they need to be relatable for your audience.

It’s true that some heroes are less figures to relate to, and more for the audience to look up to. Part of the appeal of the Goku character is that he basically has the powers of a god, but also has the naive innocence of a child. The character is still challenged by equal opposing forces. However, having a hero that is overpowered can be a great risk because it can send a bad message. When you see a hero go continuously unchallenged or beat their adversaries with special powers the reader does not have, it can make them feel as if those powers are the only way to solve their real life woes.

In Lord of the Rings, the hero wasn’t the immensely powerful Gandalf, but the tiny Frodo Baggins. This worked so well since like Frodo, the reader was often in awe at the characters that filled with world, and could at times feel unable to measure up. Frodo didn’t really have any special powers or skills to get him through the day, and in the end he needed to make it on power of sheer will. It was a will that failed him at times, but in the end he was still the most important character of all. It was something that was very inspiring for the reader, in particular those among us who often feel small.

If Frodo could go Super Sayan, how would that message have been affected?

That’s not the only way a hero can be sunk, though. One equally dangerous way to deliver a hero is to make them perfect morally.

I’m a fan of the movie Krull, the 1983 cult classic about aliens invading a fantasy world. It has a certain endearing charm that makes it impossible to hate, in spite of its incredibly poor screenplay. Its main weakness is its writing, both in the story and characters. The character that suffers most is the hero, Colwyn.

Colwyn is a Disney Prince. He’s polite and charming, chivalrous, and never does anything selfish or self serving. That’s part of his problem. He doesn’t learn to be a better or braver man since he is already that way at the start of the journey. He just goes from point A to B, and that’s not what a story should be.

Going back to Indiana Jones, he does some morally questionable things often. He cuts off a man’s finger and threatens to murder a helpless woman in Temple of Doom, shows poor judgement in character when picking his guides in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and allows himself to be fooled by a seductive Nazi in Last Crusade. These mistakes and flaws leave opportunity for him to grow, which is just what a character should do. He goes from threatening women to saving enslaved children, goes from picking scoundrels to surrounding himself with friends, and overcomes his lust to see what lies beneath false beauty.

An overpowered or otherwise flawless character is something I think about often. It can be tempting to do this to your hero, because your hero is a character you love, and you don’t want to hurt your baby. Take my advice though, hurt them. Hurt them bad and hurt them often, because there is something inspiring about it.

There’s something more inspiring about seeing John McClane run across a glass covered floor than there is watching Superman fly across the world in a flash. There’s something more endearing about seeing a frightened Ellen Ripley journey into an alien nest than seeing King Arthur go to take on a dragon without dropping so much as a bead of sweat. This is because these characters are us.

The best characters are always us.

Outlined Writing vs. Free Writing

Writing is a very interesting art form. Like any art, there are any number of ways to complete it, longhand r typing, improvised or planned, as fiction or non-fiction and so forth. The biggest distinction I make when it comes to writing is whether it is outlined or done freely.

An outline is a writing tool, similar to a bullet point, where you map out your story and/or points from beginning to end, so you know precisely what goes where in your work before you even begin. This streamlines the writing process in many ways in that it becomes a journey of getting from point A, to B, to C and so forth.It is a tried and true method that helps keep your thoughts organized during the creative process.

Free writing is a different thing altogether. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Sitting down and just letting it all go without any organization or restraint. There are many great things about free writing, better improvisation, it helps with brainstorming, and generally is more energetic for the artist than outlined writing.

So, which process is better?

I’m not going to lie, but like so many things there is no clear black and white answer Different styles work better for different writers. Rowling for example had each of the Harry Potter books carefully planned by the time the first book hit the presses. Each plot point was carefully set up and foreshadowed in advance. Sometimes though, this planning comes at the expense of spontaneity, and the process of writing may suffer.

An outline can be a terrific road map for someone who is nervous about filling in that blank page, so that is personally the method I prefer. When the points are out before you, it allows you to keep things better organized in your head. When that happens, you can do a good deal of writing without ever stroking the keyboard.

Writing is mostly thinking, because there can be no words without a clear cohesive thought. I’m a very visual thinking person, and the organization of the outline makes it much easier to remember. With that tool, you can contemplate and elaborate on each point one at a time. By the time you do sit down, you’re overflowing with ideas that you can’t wait to put into words.

In spite of my love for the outline, there is a risk. Sometimes it prevents you from thinking outside of the box. My outlines are very specific, so when it comes time to sit down and actually write, I sometimes forget that venturing beyond them is also an option. In simpler terms, it can unintentionally put you in a box. In your outline you may have your hero rush into a burning building to save someone, so you may forget to consider what may happen if they don’t.

Free writing doesn’t have that unintentional effect. You just sit down and let it all go. I’ve taken part in free writing, mainly as an exercise, and it is surprising just how quickly the ideas and inspiration come sometimes. The spontaneity is quite refreshing after the sometimes dry  process of outlining. It’s also a very exciting process since you don’t know just what is coming next half the time. Writing free of an outline frees both you and your characters, and allows them to wow you in a variety of interesting ways.

The casualty of this spontaneity is organization. Good stories are, for the most part, very well structured. You look at classics from the Shakespeare plays to the Indiana Jones movies, and all of them have that certain organic flow that makes them work as cohesive narratives. Work like that requires a lot of careful planning, writing and re-writing, and time off to let your work fester.

There is no black and white answer as to which one is better overall. Perhaps it depends on what mood you’re in. Some days the planning may be the most effective way to get your creative juices flowing, while other days it may be best to just do a jiggy on the keyboard without any planning or foresight. Maybe outlining is a good place to get started and free writing is a good way to finish, or maybe it’s best to free write a first draft and structure it into a cohesive narrative later on.

I read so many articles saying one way is right and the other is wrong, but take my advice as someone who has done both. Ignore those. Nothing in the world is black and white, and this is especially true for art.

I’m personally more of an outliner because the stories I make are complex with a lot of layers and plot points that need to be sorted out, but I also enjoy the freedom that free writing has to offer. Find the one that works best for you, and should the day come that you find yourself stuck, consider trying the other way, if only to get yourself started.

Just keep writing: believe in the story, believe in yourself

I was fortunate enough to be one of the authors featured on blogger Timothy Pike’s series about overcoming doubts in writing. Be sure to check out his blog and see his content as well as many other talented up and coming authors.

What Inspires Your Writing?

Today we meet Eric Hanson, and hear about what inspires him to keep writing in the face of severe depression. Many thanks to Eric for passing along his wisdom. If you’ve got some inspiring advice to share, please send it in!

My name is Eric Hanson, and I’m a 27-year-old writer living in Los Angeles. I’ve been suffering from severe depression, and it has affected my personal and professional life. It most often manifests itself in a persistent and overly critical voice that ridicules every misstep I make, even in my work.

Writing is something I love as it is the one practical skill I believe I possess, so I feel very pressured to turn out quality work. This makes me write a lot. This last year I wrote a full-length novel, three feature scripts, three short scripts and two short stories, along with untold essays and blog entries…

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My First Script Review

Today I got an unexpected treat in the world of writing, and an opportunity to test one of my long held beliefs when it comes to criticism.

Some weeks ago, I submitted one of my scripts, the horror tale Abyssus to a screenwriting festival dealing in the horror genre. I don’t know what I was expecting back, though I certainly wasn’t expecting a rave.

Abyssus is a script that, in its current form, I’m very happy with. A tale of oil rig workers pitted against a malevolent sea monster, it’s a love letter to some of my favorite films in the horror genre, most notably both versions of The Thing and the 1979 classic, Alien.

Today I got a review back. The review said the script was okay.

For most, that would be a slap in the face, but not to me. This was the first time I ever submitted a script and I was expecting much harsher treatment to be honest. I read the review carefully, finding myself agreeing with the valid points my critic put forward. The good news is the critic felt the horror elements worked splendidly. The script was complimented on the pace at which the story moved, and the creative and unexpected scares.

The criticism was more towards the characters, which my critic felt were too underdeveloped. They listed specific examples where this could be strengthened, and offered many wonderful and informative thoughts on how to improve it.

I also learned, once again, that I’m terrible at self editing. Typos abound, my friends. This is the last time I’ll be making that mistake.

The ending consensus was the script was an overall good read, but these few elements stopped it from being a great one. That is a much better review than most get on a first outing, and I couldn’t be happier.

I take it as a challenge. Abyssus, even in its current form, I’m most happy with and list it among my favorite achievements. The idea of it getting even better makes me most enthusiastic, and that is my challenge. It will be better, so next time I submit it, it will do better.

On this blog, I’ve spoken many times about how you shouldn’t shy away from the critics as bullies tearing apart your dreams. Instead, take their words as a challenge to take something you made and that you love, and make it even better so you can love it even more. It is these words and thoughts that can take an okay story and make it into a great one.

For all interested parties, you can read the first act of the current, though flawed incarnation of Abyssus at this link. Expect to see an updates version later this year once work on Never Heroes cools down again.

SCRIPT – Abyssus Act 1

Thank you for reading and I’ll get back to you soon.