I've been teaching some Character construction elements...and here's November's contribution.
Character 201 - Three Good Traits of an Action Hero/Heroine
We begin the second tier of Character development by looking at more specific types of heroic characters. We will assume knowledge and familiarity with the six points Character 101 and may reference them regularly. We start with the Action hero/heroine.
I first must define the Action hero/heroine, NOT as the protagonist of the Action genre, but by the character-derived label and redefine the character as such:
The Action hero/heroine is that main character which undergoes an internal transformation due to external actions or consequence.
The key element here is “internal transformation due to external actions”, because the action-oriented character is driven to be a certain way (his internal philosophy) due to circumstances in his life.
Below I identify three traits that adhere to the definition given above –
1. If the external actions occur prior to the reader/character relationship, we are often told about those actions either through flashback or dreams, but in any case, the information is given to us through exposition, not dialogue. So Trait One of the Action Hero – Exposition/Narration reinforces the present philosophy.
2. If the external actions occur during the reader/character relationship, we see the starting-state of the character to often be divergent from the proposed philosophy. Trait Two of the Action Hero – The character experiences an upward or downward character slope overall, not a sine-wave.
3. The Action Hero is more than the sum of the problems, but is known for how he handles a particular problem, one that the audience is often referenced to or hears about secondhand in exposition. Trait Three of the Action Hero – The past plays an important part for the hero, but the reader is only given full access to the present. Any past at all is lensed through the perspective of the Hero at the time.
Let’s identify each one in-depth
Trait 1 Exposition/Narration reinforces the present philosophy – Whatever the character is experiencing presently in the story (I mean presently as whatever page the reader is on, not the specific tense), is going to reflect, demonstrate or be expressed through the character’s philosophy.
If the character is hard-boiled, with a dislike for women, then the experiences with women (should and) will show this. In the first-person, the narration should not to outright say “this is how I feel about X” but that feeling about X should be able to be picked up by the reader without too much effort or too great an inference.
Granted, we want this character to grow and arc through the story, even in the slightest margin, so over the course of the plot, and as consequence or by-product of his actions, the philosophy will change, and as a result, the nature of the character changes. This change need not be some massive Freudian accomplishment, it can instead be something simple or even the start of change, but change will occur and it will result in a changed character.
A character that lacks change can still be heroic in nature, but if the character does not change, then the story and the plot may not hold sufficient challenge as to clearly test the character. Remember: at the very least, the character is tested. It’s hard to be heroic when you’re not breaking a sweat or risking anything.
Trait 2 The character experiences either an upward or downward trend, not a sine wave in terms of progression. I refer here to the character arc, and in its largest, story-wide setting, not the individual chapter progression (if any is written or plotted). What I am discussing here is an overall trend in film, and how to avoid it in writing – in film now, the focus is on the average, or slight average character discovering extraordinary circumstances (like having to fight the seven evil ex-boyfriends or having to travel across country to woo the woman he loves), these are “safe” characters, as their character arcs are clipped – the character sits within a wide z-score, the sweet spot of the bell curve so that the character’s low moments “aren’t so bad” and the high moments “aren’t too unbelievable.” A character like this is neutered, jacked up on Thorazine and is only compelling in situations or saved by single lines of dialogue. This character development is a recent evolution and goes as follows:
80s nerd -- Had to face the jock (usually) and overcome adversity to get the girl
90s nerd -- Had to survive a series of trials (get into college, fight the preppy kid, pass math) in order to be “good enough” to get the girl. The girl is no longer the reward for accomplishment, it becomes a meritocracy, and the hero has to jump through hoops to get what he wants.
Current nerd -- The character’s negative traits (shyness, anxiety, virginity, etc) are amplified and exaggerated so that the character is heroic in name only. There is no profound in the character, the traits do not wither or recede, and it seems as though the events happen despite the character’s faults.
In short – the character is no longer tested, and by definition is the hero of the story, but not a heroic character.
Trait 3 The character is known for how he handled one problem in the past, but furthers his “legend” in the current story. This is most true in the Action/Adventure genre, when past exploits are often mentioned by secondary or tertiary characters as a way of demonstrating how badass the main character is. While this is not always true of main characters (especially for fish-out-of-water or young characters), there are invariably a number of heroic leads this can apply to. In fantasy, it’s the all-powerful wizard or warrior who assists the main character. In detective stories, it’s backstory, how the detective managed or bungled one case and it’s labeled him a success or failure. The “legend” is usually only broken out to educate the reader, and is often poorly done in dialogue. If the legend can be told in part, or told through a particular point of view, it’s far more effective and compelling, without “giving too much away too soon”.