Hero, heroine, anti-hero... whichever approach you're taking, you're molding a story around someone your readers will learn to love, admire - maybe even envy.
But no matter whether your protagonist is an underdog, an overlord, or an everyman, there's one element to their character every protagonist needs: Strength.
I've done a previous post about strength - about how strength shouldn't be defined purely as physical, or a fearless desire to kick a$$, especially in female characters. Strength in a character can be demonstrated through intellect, moral nobility, a willingness to sacrifice for others, problem solving, perserverance in the face of extreme danger or opposition... the list is endless.
But in my opinion, there's one aspect of building a strong hero that's easy to overlook - yet, without it your book risks disappointing readers:
No One Looks Strong When the Opposition is Weak
I'm about to over-simplify to make the point. But go with me...
Your hero is a grown man, physically strong and mentally adept. If you pit him against the average weedy teenager in an arm-wrestling competition, there's little tension. The way the world works, the man is expected to win - and in fact, if he took too much pleasure in beating a young guy, he'd look like a jerk.
So, in order for the grown man's success to be cheer-worthy, he has to win an arm-wrestling competition over someone who, at the very least, is evenly matched in strength and skill.
And yet... so many villains I read (especially in early drafts of manuscripts, or novice stories) are dim-witted, weak or easily defeated in comparison to the hero / heroine. They make stupid decisions, put themselves into situations that make it easy for the hero to thwart them, and reveal their plans without being asked. And that's a huge, huge problem. Because as a reader I want to admire the hero! I want to feel satisfied by his / her win. I want to feel like we diced with death to achieve it.
I don't want to walk into a conflict thinking "can we just get this over with...?"
But in one published book I read, that's exactly what happened. I'll lay this out for you as an example:
Fantasy hero in medieval-esque world finds himself faced with a supernatural being which has a physical body, but doesn't appear to be restrained by simple things like physics. It can move like lightening, slip through tiny holes, kill a human with it's bare hands easily, and has zero conscience. It also can't be touched by the supernatural power used by some characters in the book.
In fact, on a physical level, this thing appears to significantly outweigh our admirable and amusing hero.
The hero can't use the power. His weapons are a long spear he uses as a quarterstaff, an innate and extremely accurate ability to throw knives, general athletic ability and speed, along with a deep-seated survival instinct. He is also in possession of an medallion that, when it touches the fantasy creature, burns its skin.
Now... over the course of THREE BOOKS this thing has hunted our hero. It's shown up at the most inopportune moments, demonstrated incredible power and stealth, and always been turned away at the last possible moment, the hero only surviving by the a miniscule thread of luck and skill.
This thing has vowed to kill our hero -- is under the instruction of the darkest power in the land -- and has recently revealed that he knows about the hero's secret wife and adopted son and vowed to kill them too.
So you can imagine after THREE BOOKS and tremendous forshadowing, not to mention several close calls in the last few chapters, the final confrontation between this thing and the hero is a highly anticipated read.
But you know what happened?
After three books of threats, dozens of secondary murders, and a relentless hunt drawing ever closer to the hero, the creature takes one look at a weapon the hero produces, whines "HOW?!" and runs - right in the direction the hero wants him to go: Right into a room where the hero has arranged for a power-drawn precipice.
Hero gives a couple pithy comments, then tips the creature over the edge into an endless nothing.
I waded through THREE BOOKS of encounters to watch this thing go all wide-eyed and shaky at the end?
No! No, no, no, no. I did NOT.
I waded through three books to watch this thing go mental. I waded through three books to watch it almost win, then be defeated by the narrowest margin possible - with the hero almost dying in the process. I waded through three books to watch A REAL, FRIGGIN' FIGHT TO THE DEATH.
I waded through three books to be convinced that all was lost, the hero would lose, his much loved wife and son would be killed too -- and then to jump for joy when the hero pulled it all out of the hat in a way I could never anticipate.
I did NOT wade this far to watch this apparently indestructable, undefeatable, undeniably evil thing turn into a trembling coward of dubious intelligence.
I. Did. Not.
So, dear writer friends, take this advice from my reader self: If you want me to admire your hero, make sure he / she is facing off with a truly frightening villain who puts everything they have into winning. Because unless I feel like victory is hard won, frankly, it doesn't feel like victory at all.
Your Turn: Have you ever been disappointed by a villian's villainy? Or have you read a truly TERRIBLE villain who provided the perfect foil to an admirable hero?
Note: This post previously appeared in January 2012