All bibliophiles have different tastes when it comes to heroes and how they prefer them to act. What makes them great, and what makes them our favorite, are often highly individual.
The following list of ten characteristics is my opinion on which elements make the best hero. I haven't caught all of them, certainly, and not every hero will have all of these characteristics. But each character will catch at least one or two of them, and they're a broad sample of what I've found in my readings that makes a favorite.
1. Heroes give up something so that other people can stay the same.
This is often what you'll find in the most epic of adventure stories--the ones that leave you needing recovery time afterwards. In those stories, the stakes of evil and good are so high that only sacrifice can open a fitting door to a new, whole world. Whether that's Frodo (Lord of the Rings), or Chris Redston (K.M. Weiland's Dreamlander), or Sidney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities), all these heroes chose that they would give up comfort and give up their chance of leading a normal life so that someone else would not have to suffer. They suffered instead. And in many instances, heroes who do this are mirrors of Jesus' ultimate death and sacrifice for us.
These heroes not only give up their comfort throughout the story. But they give up something that draws the most tears from us--they give up their happily-ever-after. Oh yes, every author worth their salt will bring contentment through the sacrifice. But heroes who give up happy normalcy so that others can have instead it will always bear scars.
And we see the scars as trophies, honoring them as great.
2. Heroes overcome their own weaknesses.
From Errol Stone's forays into the ale barrel to Axel Lidenbrock's (Journey to the Center of the Earth) comfortable bookish laziness, every hero has some character fault, whether serious or loveable, to overcome in order to conquer the problem they're up against. Even with heroes that don't have serious character deficiencies, every hero has weaknesses to overcome. Pip (Great Expectations) cared more for being a rich gentleman than for loving the home folks. Martin Chuzzlewit (Martin Chuzzlewit) wanted to control his grandson's life and keep him on a tether. Character flaws always make the adventure more challenging, and sometimes hurt other characters in the process, but the heroes must overcome. Perhaps the best example of this is the knight Redcrosse in Edmund Spenser's Book 1 of the Faerie Queene.
The key with weaknesses is that they are relateable and not repulsive. They can be serious ones and even quite sinful and still be relatable. But they need to have hope of resolution, and the character should do some serious work throughout the story towards remedying them, which requires hard work and self-denial.
But good heroes don't have to be perfect; they can have weaknesses to contend with, and we often love them for their faults as well as their virtues. Just as long as their faults don't encourage us to become complacent in ours.
3. Heroes rely on good sidekicks to help them out.
What makes a good sidekick will be next week on Tuesday. I've been collecting my favorite sidekicks this week, and that should be a fun article. But a hero realizes that he cannot do everything himself; that he is fallible, that he isn't a god-figure, and therefore, needs a backup to keep him accountable and catch his mistakes. Heroes will seek out people around them to help them. William Wilberforce had his Clapham Circle, and even Sherlock Holmes asked Watson to pull him up now and then when he needed it.
4. The very best heroes rely on, or come to rely on, Jesus Christ
Davis Bunn writes pop fiction and I find him my guilty pleasure; but I have to give him credit for writing a good Christian protagonist. It was quietly and carefully written--but not weak. Marc Royce (Strait of Hormuz) prayed in the midst of his adventures and it was perfectly natural. He asked other characters to pray with him, and it wasn't awkward. He's a hero whose faith is modest, but clear-cut and unapologetic. An even better example from the classics is Malcolm MacPhail (The Fisherman's Lady). He loves God and speaks and thinks of him everywhere. He isn't afraid to speak to countesses of what the Bible really says, and yet he values the opinions of humble fisher-folk just as much as the aristocracy. He lives and breathes his relationship with God, and that's what makes him a hero.
Every ultimate hero relies on Christ, or becomes an even better hero as they learn to rely on Him throughout the story.
5. Heroes are as faithful in real life as they are in adventures.
Some characters are heroes because they are faithful in everyday work. Laddie works out his heroism plowing fields in front of the Princess. Daniel Howitt keeps sheep and teaches Sammy "how to be a lady". Jamie MacFarlane gives his name to a disgraced young woman because he thinks he won't be alive much longer, and she might as well have it. Only one of these men saw the battlefield--but all of them found their fulfillment in taking dominion of family and home, making their bread and butter, and teaching others basic life skills.
Real heroes are just as faithful in the things that never get awarded the Victoria Cross--the gentle touch, the playing with a child, the going to work and bringing home the paycheck so that their families can be fed. And though we rarely think to mention them, they are well worth noting.
6. Heroes value women and children
I think I've always loved G.A. Henty primarily for the way his heroes interact with women. In the midst of all the fighting, the heads rolling at the guillotine, and the Scottish highlanders rallying around their leader, there's always room for a weaker vessel--a stout-hearted but soft-spoken woman. And Henty's heroes treat them with all gallantry and respect.
A main character cannot be a hero if he constantly belittles and despises the very people he is protecting. I love a hero who speaks kindly of the other sex, considers them important to befriend, and worthy of his time and attention, and who will do anything to see that he puts women and children first.
7. Heroes have strong patriotism
Richard Hannay (The 39 Steps) is my favorite example of this. He's an Englishman bored to tears and wants to do something adventurous. When that adventurous thing happens to be helping out his country, he throws himself into it heart and soul throughout the entire series. Unhesitating, and quick thinker, and a tenacious fighter, Britian is first and foremost, and Hannay knows that losing isn't an option when he needs to save his mother country. Even more recently, I met Aiken from The Shield Ring as he leads his little band to defend their secret stronghold. He's another one who loves his country above all else, and will do what it takes to see her defended.
Good books have heroes who will instantly sacrifice for their mother country. Men who battle year after year after year and never give up. Men who give themselves only one choice: we win, for right must hold strong. Men like that gave us America. And men like that are well-worth lauding as heroes.
8. Heroes do whatever it takes
Heroes keep on through tragedy, personal inconvenience, and threat to their lives. One of our favorite heroes, the Scarlet Pimpernel, is a perennial favorite because he takes on a challenge no matter the odds. Even if it requires his own imprisonment, even on occasion his own humiliation, he'll never turn down an opportunity to snatch women and children from the guillotine.
Every hero worth their salt doesn't turn back when their own life is at stake. Whether it's Myles Falworth (Men of Iron) fighting for his father's honor or Aragorn attacking the Black Gates for Frodo's sake, heroes value other's lives above all else, but they count their own life and future cheaply for the sake of good.
And though we wonder how they ever had the strength and self-denial, we cheer them on and read of their deeds again and again.
9. Heroes struggle just like the rest of us.
While this ties in somewhat with character flaws, it's worthy of its own point. Many good heroes are strong, and even perfect on occasion--but most of them aren't. And that doesn't mean they have to be sinful in their imperfections. It simply means that to be a good character they must be real. They must struggle between their desire to follow their wants and to follow their calling like the rest of us do. They must face evil, disappointments, difficulties, and set-backs.
There are struggles character flaws and then there are other weaknesses. Some characters have backstory that gives them difficulties. Hans Brinker (The Silver Skates) had a father unable to provide for the family due to illness. Some heroes struggle due to others people's weaknesses. Bonhoeffer struggled with a compromising church. (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy) Nat Bowditch struggled because his family was poor and he was indentured out. (Carry On, Mr. Bowditch) Bob Cornuke struggled against pre-conceived notions about the Bible when he was looking for real biblical artifacts.(Relic Quest) Countless men who worked reform in science and astronomy and medicine struggled against the accepted knowledge of experts who refused to listen to them. (Exploring Planet Earth: History of Medicine).
Heroes fight through obstacles, prejudices, and lack of resources, just like we do.
10. Heroes choose what's right over what's convenient.
Whether it's Charles Darnay (A Tale of Two Cities) choosing to go back to France to see that his servants are taken care of, to Ralph Percy choosing to remain faithful to his wife in spite of royal interests in her, heroes always stick to what they know to be right over what might give them comfort. No situational ethics (unless that's part of the weakness they must overcome) but a simple and steady adherence to good. Wulf and Godwin (The Brethren) remain faithful in their relationship with each other, even though they both want Rosamund. Laddie (Laddie: A True Blue Story)chooses to stick to his life calling even when it might mean losing the Princess.
Heroes realize that sometimes choosing right means giving up their right to earthly honor or happiness or freedom. But they do it without a second thought, because that's what makes a hero great.
So these are my qualifications for what makes a good hero. But I would love to hear your input as well. :) Who are your favorite heroes, and what makes them great to you?
P.S. I've reviewed many of the book titles in parentheses. There are too many to link to them all, but you can find them indexed by author under the Book Reviews tab!