Writing Excuses 4.2: Heroism

If you want to write a good, heroic hero, this is the podcast for you. We’re not necessarily talking about the archetypical, classically-defined, capital-H “Hero” in this podcast, though. We’re talking about what makes readers stand up and cheer.

And yes, this can be applied to the archetype, but let’s not digress.

We talk about perseverance, sacrifice, hard work, fear-facing, and a bunch of other attributes that we find inherently heroic.

Audiobook Plug: The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

Writing Prompt: Write a scene in which a character makes a noble sacrifice and is not rewarded.

Mystery Soundbite! We have no idea who those gents with mouthfuls of marshmallows were, but Jordo caught them on tape…

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50 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.2: Heroism”

  1. I’m slightly interested as to the fact that Dan threw out the “don’t reward the protagonist” bit for the writing prompt, but it didn’t get discussed in the podcast. I assume this is going along the same vein as the “don’t remove costs from heroism” point- where if there’s a reward for heroism that’s too cliché, or simply too generous, it either bumps us out of the story, (and of COURSE he gets the girl, for instance) or just cheapens the experience too much.

  2. Ha! I’m already ahead of the writing prompt. I recently wrote a fairy tale in which the queen-heroine banished her love interest in order to save his life, AND THEY NEVER END UP TOGETHER! Bwa ha ha!

  3. I’m trying to decide if giving a book title that’s a great example of the writing prompt would be a spoiler. :)

  4. I think it might be an interesting twist if the heroic man who rescues the rich man’s daughter turns out not to be a nice guy. As soon as he realizes the girl he saved is the daughter of a rich man, he kidnaps her and holds her for ransom. Later of course after SWAT rescues the girl and arrests the heroic kidnapper, the rich man informs the kidnapper as he is being put in a police car that he would have given him twice as much money as a reward for saving his daughter as he had demanded in ransom.

  5. Yea! Podcast worked on the first download. Whatever codex problems were going on last week are banished. Now, to get off to work and revel in all the podcasty goodness.

    As for the writing prompt, I have a story in the works where the hero winds up sacrificing himself to save his friends and the girl he is coming to love, leaving her alone and guilt ridden. I’m still debating about the ending as it has that wonderful heroic sacrifice, but leaves everyone else in utter sadness. I could easily twist it a bit and have the hero saved, but for some reason I keep wanting to end it badly.

  6. @WEKM

    I think it would be more interesting to allow the hero to sacrifice himself to show that even a selfless act such as giving your life to save the life of other’s has consequences.

  7. I’m writing a story in which I know I’m killing off my favorite character (boohoo) through out the book he has been selfless and giving and generally a likable guy. however he is being cheated of a heroic death, he wont be dying to save the princess, his death wont turn the tide in the battle, It will just be fates cruel hand at work. yet he is a heroic character, in his life not his death, and I plan on using the pointlessness of his death and a catalyst to the main characters growth and eventual heroisism (is heroisim even a word?)

  8. *Spoiler Alert*

    You’re right, killing off characters is one good example of heroism. I haven’t read far enough into Schlock Mercenary to know what Dan was talking about, but Kelsier, Lightsong, and Hrathen come to mind from Brandon’s Books. They were all heroic and they were all expendable. But you can’t just kill off anyone you feel like. You need to decide at the beginning of your book/series who lives and who dies and then foreshadow the events correctly. Otherwise, the deaths will be more confusing than heroic.

  9. @ Lisa; Fermentation lecture at 0800? I would say you could plead early morning intoxication.

    @Jim; Yes, but how will people think of him when it turns out he could have made it out with everyone else, but chose to take out the bad guy partly to keep him from ever hurting his friends again and partly out of vengeance. Is it really a selfless sacrifice at that point?

  10. @WEKM I’d say its still a heroic act if not completely selfless, but heck, it makes it a lot more realistic. We’re not perfect people, and we never do anything for just one reason.
    It would add huge depth to the character. I think a believable character is always better than a perfect character.
    (also fermentation is an awesome class, who wouldn’t love to make moonshine in school!)

  11. I really love this topic. I liked the bit about the fourth wall at the end. And the notion of sacrifice. The more I think about this, the more I see the character has to stand up when others don’t. The whole idea of the individual making a difference was great. They have to do it alone. I also thought it was useful to frame it in reader response—“what makes readers want to cheer?”

    The brilliant insight about the decision at the end or the beginning, two different forms, is making think. I’m wondering about it in conjuction with the Horatio Alger comments. I question if this is “heroic.” Maybe that’s a dumb semantic quibble. But it seems like those kinds of stories really rely on reader sympathy, on deservingness to power them–the rooting effect. We want the innocent and good and noble to be rewarded. We want evil, bad, negative to be punished. But that’s the force that drives ALL rooting in every kind of story. It does make us cheer when they’re finally, finally rewarded. It’s like what Rothfuss did in NAME OF THE WIND. But is it a heroic moment?

    I don’t know. Maybe there’s a large overlap. Or it’s a subset. I’ll have to think on it. Could it be that heroism is tied more into gratitude? Of course, it generates the same feel of deservingness. But there’s gratitude involved. The, yes, that guy stood up for me! That guy risked all to save my child! Yes, that gal did the right thing, laid her career on the line, to save others!

    Isn’t that different from, that dude worked like a mule under all sorts of pressure to quit, but he made it? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a different kind of heroism.

    Finally, I think the notion of “willing suspension of disbelief” is actually wrong in that we don’t willingly suspend anything. There’s no conscious decision involved. In fact, I think if there is, that’s a sign the narrative has failed. I think what’s going on is the working memory limitation I mentioned during one of podcasts I was on.

    Our minds can only focus on a few things at a time. And so when we’re reading, our working memory, if the writer has done a good job, is filled with the immediate events on the current page the reader’s on.

    As readers, we do not pull back and say, “Oh, I know the hero doesn’t die because this is in first person” because we CAN’T—the events on the page are sucking up all our working memory attention. We’re living the story in the moment with the characters. Real time. No conscious decision involved.

    We don’t pull back and say, “but of course this is only episode 2 and so I know he won’t die” because we just don’t have the bandwidth to do it. We don’t do that unless something on the page bumps us out, makes us focus on something other than the current experience.

    At least, those are my thoughts.

  12. @WEKM; You raise a good point. But is that not what makes an ordinary guy a hero? He’s the guy that has to make the hard choices. Does he escape with his friends leaving the bad guy alive to endanger them yet again or does he take out the bad guy once and for all knowing that he might die in the act? Vengeance under the right circumstances can be a good motivator, and if the bad guy dies along with the hero it is still a valid sacrifice, as to being “selfless”… where human beings are involved is anything truly selfless?

    @John Brown; Thank you, I always enjoy your insightful thoughts.

  13. Psst? I’m sure that Brandon would have told us about this, but over here http://www.superstarswritingseminars.com/ there’s going to be a Writing Seminar on March 19-21, 2010 in the Pasadena Convention Center in Los Angeles — starring Brandon Sanderson, Kevin J. Anderson, David Farland, Rebecca Moesta, and Eric Flint. Sign up by Jan. 31 for the best savings!

  14. @John Brown; Excellent point. I know that when I read, I am totally absorbed. It does take something majorly wrong to “kick me out” of the story. Hence the reason I set alarms before I start reading. If the book itself kicks me out, I tend to be out for good.

  15. Excellent podcast, and great comments. Lots to think about.

    I love a good hero in a book. It’s one of the reasons I read: to be inspired, awed, amazed by what the hero can do.

    I appreciate the part of the podcast speaking about the need to carefully set up the heroic moment. And for me, I’d add that it’s equally important to avoid the over-used setup techniques (for example: in the final showdown, hero loses his sword and villain gloats, then strikes. Hero dodges, takes villain’s sword, and kills villain with it). Can be a powerful scene, but it’s been overused so there is no surprise, and therefore the heroic moment is tarnished.

  16. I disagree mr.brown. i always have it in the back of my mind that i know that the hero will survive this, so for me its more about the how not the if.

  17. Heroism — the larger than life sort — is about the only thing that gets me into a theater these days. I also need this in my fiction, usually. Count me as one of the ones who is tired of the current ‘realism’ trend in fiction — especially SF and F — where all the heroes have to be freighted with problems, flaws, and are sometimes so conflicted as to make them seem less appealing than the bad guys. Which is not to say I don’t like complexity, I just think there is a lot of overboardedness happening in this regard lately.

    Anyway, for me, the best heroes are usually the everyman characters who become heroic through their sacrifice and choices of genuine sacrifice or decency in the face of overwhelming struggle or tempotation. War movies tend to depend on these kinds of heroes to a great extent, and I also tend to believe that real heroes are often precisely that: everymen (and women!) who are in a certain spot at a certain time, and make a choice or perform an act that saves the day.

    On the flip side you have the more mythic heroes: larger-than-life people who are obviously destined for their role as saviors. I tend to enjoy these on a different level, compared to the everyman hero. Still fun, but these stories tickle a younger side of my fiction consumer self, which likes a more black-and-white, legendary approach to heroism. Wherein you never, ever have to wonder if the Good will stop being Good. You only have to wonder if the Evil are going to be made so Evil that the Good cannot defeat them.

  18. I disagree mr.brown. i always have it in the back of my mind that i know that the hero will survive this, so for me its more about the how not the if.

    It’s true that we sometimes rise up out of the reading zone and think of these things. But if this is true for you at all times, then I don’t know how you can ever experience a full measure of suspense.

    Curiosity, yes. Wonder and awe, sure. And that may be your sweet spot. The experience you like best. But true anxiety for a character requires real doubt about the outcome. If we’re never really worried about the character’s welfare, then all we’re left with is the curiosity, as you said, of seeing how it will come together. And not having felt any depths of worry, it makes it hard to feel cheering triumph when the hero does survive.

    If we move it to the sports arena, this same dynamic occurs. We can be thrilled watching a fabulous play. Be in awe of a team. Cheer for them as they smash the opposition. But we can’t feel the dark moment when we think they’ve lost nor the euphoria when win. Not if we already know the final score and keep telling ourselves, oh, yeah, it’s not that bad, they win in the end. Which is why so many people will kill you if you tell them the score of the game they’re recording. :)

    I’m not saying you personally can’t be reading and holding that in your mind. I’m just saying that if you are, I doubt it’s possible to feel a full jolt of the “oh, crap” moment and the triumph later.

    But even then, you’re not willingly suspending disbelief. You either believe the story or you don’t. There’s no choice to it.

  19. I admit that i rarely feel anxious about the main character because of mentioned reasons but that feeling i get with the supporting cast, where you cant be so sure if they make it.For example i knew that vin wouldnt die in in the first two books but what about breeze ham etc, or what about your book i knew that talen wouldnt die (and doubt that he will in book 2) but that wasnt so sure for nettle etc.

  20. Re: Willing suspension of disbelief. This may be more of a semantic quibble, but I’m going to make it anyway. ;)

    I fully agree with the observation that if the reader has to make a conscious decision to accept the events in the story, immersion has been fatally broken. And if immersion is one of your goals as a writer (and it is one of mine), that does mean that you’ve failed at least for that reader.

    However, I would be more inclined to describe that as “Unwilling suspension of disbelief.” The reader is going along with the exercise of accepting what you have written to see where it gets him, but he is no longer on your side.

    I have always taken “willing suspension of disbelief” to refer to the attitude a receptive reader has when she first picks up your book. It is the agreement to accept the big lie that your story is something that “really happened,” based on the trust that you support that lie with truths about how people think, feel, and act and how the world works.

    So really, we’re agreeing on how successful fiction works. I’m just disagreeing about which attitude a particular name gets attached to. (Pedantic nitpicking FTW :D )

  21. What about the reluctant hero or the hero with unheroic motivations? I don’t recall you bringing those up specifically….

  22. I should point out that it’s totally possible to write a story in which a protagonist that the reader thought was the main character dies before the last volume.

    It might be a kick in the stomach, but it’s possible. :)

  23. @ Rhsok, I think your observation is a good one. In some stories you don’t expect the main character to die, but if you can make the reader fear he might lose something incredibly valuable besides his life–a relationship, friend, etc. You can still worry for him. But I do know that sometimes I pop out of a story and say to myself, wait, that’s the MC, he can’t die. Unless your GRR Martin, and then all bets are off. But even if it’s not Martin, I don’t know if that’s always a failure in the narrative either.

    I wonder if sometimes it’s a reader defense mechanism. My sister will do that. I remember watching Willow in the theater with her, and when the two witches are battling, she gripped my arm, totally stressed, and said, “She couldn’t do that, could she. She couldn’t.” She was so intensely invovled and stressed that she pulled herself out. When she was reading my book, she did the same. Her kids had to tell her things didn’t go all bad. Only then could she continue. I wonder if that’s what some people who find they must read the end first are doing–they simply cannot stand the anxiety of what happens.

    But I’ve been thinking about your post. I have some movies I’ve rewatched a number of times. It’s obvious that there are a whole set of emotional payoffs that readers love that don’t depend on suspense.

    @Raimy, I hear what you’re saying about the receptive attitude. However, I’m still on the side of it not being conscious. When it’s working, there’s no agreement (implying conscious choice), no decision to give the story the benefit of the doubt. It happens or doesn’t. Just like any other emotion. But I think that’s what you’re saying, isn’t it. Semantics are so dumb sometimes :)

    What about the reluctant hero or the hero with unheroic motivations? I don’t recall you bringing those up specifically….

    I’m assuming that’s a direct question for the WE Guys. But I’ll give you my 2 cents since I’m in the shop shooting bull anyway. I think they were talking not about heroes in particular, but when any character has a heroic moment, a moment that makes us want to cheer for them.

    And so that moment is the point in time when a person stands up to the overwhelming enemy when others won’t. It’s when that character risks all or sacrifices huge things for the good of others or the good cause. It’s when they do the right thing at huge cost/risk to themselves. And usually they’re doing it on their own, alone. It’s the individual making the choice that engenders gratitude and some admiration.

    And so a reluctant hero can have that moment when he suddenly isn’t reluctant anymore. When he sees the need and steps forward, laying his life or his precious thing on the line. Same with the protagonist who is not heroic for most of the book. He can have that same moment. Think about Doc Oct in Spiderman 2. He has something of that kind of moment at the end when he comes to his senses–I will not die a monster. So the villain had one in that case.

  24. On the subject of disbelief, and specifically the suspense created by wondering if the main character will die: I knew that was going to be an issue when I started writing horror, so I set two goals for myself.

    1. Find other ways to shock the reader and make the environment seem dangerous: kill important characters, reveal spooky things, and do things the audience doesn’t expect. These create an atmosphere of suspense because they tell they reader that the book is not as predictable as they think–or at least, that’s the hope.

    2. Create an alternate “fail condition” that doesn’t rely on the hero’s death. In the John Cleaver books, the suspense is not “will John live” but “will John do something horrible.” The reader isn’t really sure (even when I point this out, you’re still not sure), which creates suspense even though we know the main character is going to live.

  25. @Dan hm, that’s an interesting point. Why do so many assume Death of the MC is what has to be on the line to create tension (I fall for this too). Loss of status, loss of home, death of friends and family, and many other things can create plenty of dramatic tension. How often do MCs die in Romance, after all ;-)

  26. @dan.wells.
    I enjoyed the tension you build with cleaver doing something horrible or not the most enjoyable of the book.as a matter of fact i hope he will kill someone near the end of book 2 because it would make for great drama in book3 and break the expectations somewhat. a few years ago i would have found this possibility impossible but nowadays with chars like dexter around the main charakter doesnt have to be the perfect good guy anymore.

    btw i find it kinda annyoing how you always talk about the serial killer book”S” when only one is available for the mean masses :) at this moment.

  27. Unless your GRR Martin, and then all bets are off. But even if it’s not Martin, I don’t know if that’s always a failure in the narrative either.

    I was trying to see if someone would get the hint and mention GRR Martin. Thanks! :D

    To be fair, I think he manages to kill characters we thought about as the “main characters” because he picked a main character nobody expected him to, and not just because he is an incredibly (and fascinatingly) brutal author. :) But that is a good example of how genre-bending lets good authors break what appear to be hard rules, and do things like kill off heroes.

  28. About the writing prompt. Is it even possible for a character to make a noble sacrifice to do something heroic and not be rewarded?

    Assuming that the character succeeds, doesn’t their success turn out to be their reward? It might not be a monetary or immediately physical reward, but I posit that if a hero loses something of value to himself to save the day, and even if it goes unnoticed, then his reward and conciliation is the knowledge that he or she saved the day/did the right thing. Sacrifice without purpose seems pointless. If one sacrifices something nobly to achieve a purpose, then achieving that purpose constitutes it’s own reward.

  29. Random thought, it would be interesting to write a series of books where at the end of every book the main character dies and another character becomes the main character… I think it would bring a very unique flavor to each part of the story.

  30. Yes, Lisa, And I would cry at the end of every book. Though, personally I normally go for the mysterious side characters myself. That helps too I think, when causing tension. Do something to a side character that is scary (He’s a side character so he can very possibly die) then go back to your main Character and put him in danger. Readers minds will already be focused on what happened to this other guy they are already in the mood to stress out and worry.

  31. @Lisa: Interesting idea, though I might put a slight twist on it. At the end of every book the current MC has something happen to them that takes them out of the future books as anything more than a spectator. Death, turned into a vegetable, imprisoned, etc. So while people will know SOMETHING happens to the MC, they’ll be left wondering what.

    And for an odd twist, have one give up whatever because they find twue wuv. That’ll really keep ’em guessing ;)

  32. I’m the kind of sad guy who watches “How we made this” bits on DVD’s of shows I like.
    I was checking out the Lost season 1 features, and apparantly the producers toyed with the idea of all through the pilot focusing on Jack and then killing him at the end of that episode. So you got really invested in this guy who appeared to be the main hero and then -WHAM- the Island just kills him.
    Of course they chose not to do that, but it would have been an excellent way to give a big up-front sense of just how dangerous the environment is on that island – rather than offing an almost-dead-anyhow pilot.

  33. @Lisa. The short story (actually stories) I have been working on have a main character ‘disappear’ at the end of a story and another character which was in the story becomes the MC in the next story. In the final story, the original MC will return.

  34. I know this is pretty late, but we were talking about Hero’s who don’t get rewarded and I found a really good example, so I will post it here just because.

    I recently watched Batman Forever. Near the middle of the movie Twoface sets a bomb in the circus tent and demands the identity of Batman or everyone gets blown up. Well, Bruce starts fighting these bad guys off, but doesn’t have his batman gadgets to stop the bomb. So, because the superhero is busy right now, Robin’s family tries to stop evil themselves. Robin eventually makes it, stops the bomb and saves the day, then looks back to find that his entire family had been killed in the process of saving complete strangers.

  35. Piers Anthony does something similar to what @Lisa was talking about. His Xanth “trilogy” (currently numbering somewhere in the 30s) has main characters that step up, have their book (or two or sometimes three), and then (for the MOST part) fade into the background of future books. They come up, are mentioned, still feature into the landscape of Xanth, but they’ve had their figurative fifteen minutes.

    Also, addressing the exact thought @Lisa had: After the first time an author did that to me (killed off the main character), I would then expect it, and it would become either a reason NOT to continue reading his works (“Why bother? He’s just going to kill off the character I like.”) or it would become its own gimmick.

    As I recall, Terry Pratchett does the same thing in his Discworld books. The characters sometimes appear as “background” characters in books where the main character is someone else. (I’ve only read about six of the books, so my sample size is small.)

  36. I read some fiction like that, There were three books. One for this girl, her friend, then her brother. But The girl’s brother gets kidnapped in the first one, he’s almost not at all in the second, then his story is in the third. This made the second one really hard for me to read. I wanted to find out what happened to him, not this girl I hardly knew and only saw occasionally in the first book.

  37. Oh great ! Is anyone can leave a comment ? Really ?
    I am just discovering this website (thanks to Brandon) and I think that it is so great because helpfull for writers… Something like this doesn’t exist in France (yes, I have to tell : I’m french and I assume) ! However, and pardon my awfull english if you can, I’m very intersting on “what is heroism” definition. All opinion that I heard and read are pleasants because some are very differents of my idea and others are totally like mine. In fact, I adore the idea of sacrifice, the heroism perfection to me is this absolute necessity of the main character’s lost. By lost I mean many things like life, love, family, friendships, but it have to be significant for help the readers identify themselves to characters and be concerned by their fate.
    I perfectly understand when John Brown says that all character type’s heroism is expressed in the audible Podcast because in a story, if the heroism is only for the main character it is boring, no ?
    I am working on a fantasy story with many characters and I want that everyone has his part of heroism…

  38. Yes, Clémentine, anyone can leave a comment! Yours got stuck in the spam-trap for a bit, but it’s free now.

    I was contemplating “everyone has his part of heroism” yesterday as I watched the 2008 Doctor Who Christmas Special “The Next Doctor.” I think the writers screwed it up. The Doctor defeats the Cybermen, yes, and he has help, yes. But there was a particular moment of triumph in which The Next Doctor realized his son was about to die on a scaffolding.

    The Doctor jumped in and saved the boy heroically, but this would have been ever so much better if The Next Doctor had done the deed. Let The Doctor get credit for the big wins (the Cybermen, the Daleks, etc) but let the little guy have the little wins — especially if they’re that personal, and that intensely important.

  39. Thank you, Howard.

    And I agree with the idea that every type of character can have his own heroism part, no matter if he has just a little role in the story.

  40. The topic felt kind of dry and overly stereotypical.
    I recently watched 3 movies under the title Berserk: The Golden Age Arc.
    And at the third movie one of the main characters turned evil and the hero character lost almost everything.
    I found the movie really satisfying, more than the typical American hero movies.

    One could argue, that in further movies the plot will change and that this was just the first twist in the series. But my point is that seeing a hero lose could be a very satisfying.
    And frankly a lot of people, including me are a little bored of the typical movie plot and it’s very refreshing to see something new. +1 for Japan.

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