The Heroic Hero of Heroism: How to Write a Hotshot Who’s Not Too Hot

Wizards first rule Terry Goodkind Cover

I’ll get to this in a minute…

Hello everyone! Tis I, EriktheReddest here to grace these hallowed halls of literary whatsits with my particular blend of typically science-fiction related writing helps and general critiques. Today’s topic: the hero of the story. While the viewpoint character in a story is not always the main mover of plot (often depending on what voice you’re using), if you intend to write a central heroic character who exhibits extraordinary characteristics, you need to be careful not to overdo it.

We’ve all come across these show-off’s before. They’ve got it all: good looks, rippling muscles, skill with a blade (or blaster, or space ship… heck, why not all three?) and generally are so awesome that it’s a wonder that anything happens to them that’s actually a challenge. It’s already hard enough to make normal characters relateable, but tack superpowers or “Chosen One” status onto chiseled features and uncanny martial prowess, and your reader’s not going to have much in common anymore, which makes your job a lot harder.

Some writers create such heroes that are all that and a bag of chips and try to counter it with (*GASP*) personal problems! Symptoms of an Heroic Hero of Heroism (or HHH for short) include:

  • Moodiness (“Nobody understands me…”)
  • Trust Issues (“I don’t understand anyone…”)
  • Mild Depression (but not too mild, you know, just enough that he/she sighs a lot and gazes dreamily into the sunset)
  • Self-Doubt (“I don’t think I can do this… Me? The Chosen One?”)
  • Overconfidence (“I can do ANYTHING! I’M THE CHOSEN ONE!”)
  • Reluctant Hero Syndrome (“Sure, I’m the Chosen One and am practically unbeatable in every way imaginable, but I just want to just be a simple farm boy!”)

Needless to say, simply slapping on character flaws to try to make your HHH seem more human will not only fail to illicit sympathy or understanding but confound plot, interactions with other characters, and generally make it very difficult to write a good story when everything that happens is so tied up in one character.

You may be asking if I have a particular character in mind when I talk about the tragic effects of HHH, and the unfortunate answer is yes. In fact, this hero became something of a case study after I realized just how much I disliked him.

Richard Cypher: A Study of HHH and It’s Effects On the Reader

Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule is honestly a charming and decent fantasy book, if a

Legend of the Seeker Richard Cypher

So basically, he’s like the Hulk with a sword powered by ANGRY…

bit cliched. I began reading the Sword of Truth series upon the recommendation of a fellow classmate… in Calculus I (my first warning sign, unheeded). My expectations were relatively low, and at the time I was still a Computer Engineering Major, so I had few standards that I held so dear that I would turn my nose up at a story or character for having a few flaws. Here’s a little about Richard from the Sword of Truth Wiki page:

The primary protagonist in Wizard’s First Rule is Richard

Richard Kahlan and Scarlet by SwordOfTruthClub

…with various powerful pet monsters and a wife with mind-powers… [Click for source]

Cypher, a young woods guide. Richard lives in an area of the world known as Westland, which is the only part of the world that at the time contained no magic. Westland is separated from the other lands by a dangerous magical boundary that prevents anyone without powerful magic from passing through it. On the other side of the boundary lie many sovereign nations, jointly known as the Midlands, and the empire of D’Hara. Richard works as a woods guide leading important political figures and travelers through dangerous forests, while his brother’s interests lie entirely in politics.

I don’t think I have to point out the number of cliches present here just in the premise of the book itself, but Richard seems kind of normal at least, right? Not for long! In the first book alone, Richard turns out to be:

  • The Son of the Dark Lord Emperor, taking over for him after defeating him to
    The Legend of the Seeker tv series poster

    Good news! A New York Times Best-selling mediocre fantasy novel is now a quickly-forgotten low-budget miniseries!

    become the Emperor of D’Hara, a nation of enormous and highly skilled warriors (basically Vikings) that have all but conquered the Midlands under the rule of the Dark Lord Darken Rahl (no that is not intended to be a pun).

  • The One True Seeker of Truth, a wielder of the powerful Sword of Truth who acts as a sort of judge and check against the powers of the world
  • The son of a wizard (Darken Rahl), and therefore a wizard himself, to be trained by his good buddy Zedd, who turns out to be his Grandad all along (what a twist!).

He goes on in later books to become/discover that he is:

  • The husband to the Mother Confessor, a political and magical powerhouse that becomes co-protagonist, giving him instantaneous universal clout with any kingdom across the world that recognizes the Confessors’ power and authority (this is, let me remind you, on top of being the emperor of the largest nation on the continent).
  • A super-human sword fighter who wields the skills of all previous users of the Sword of Truth and its indestructible blade that can cut practically anything, including magic itself. He also learns to shoot a bow and arrow with his magic so that he basically can’t miss.
  • The first War Wizard to be born in over 3000 years, gifted with both halves of magic and therefore the only one who can breach the magical boundaries of the world, use numerous magical artifacts, enter the fabled Temple of the Winds, and eventually save the world from the evil Emperor Jagang by banishing him to the World Without Magic

I’m pretty sure I’m missing a few things (aside from the typical rock-hard abs and charming smile that could stun a crowd of women into awed, swooning silence), but I think that’s more than enough to illustrate my point.

Richard has far too much going on. Terry Goodkind could have packed that much

Richard Rahl and Mord Sith The Temple of the Wind Terry Goodkind

…and an elite assault team of BDSM female assassins. Any questions?

awesome into five characters and it still might have felt like a bit much. Aside from that, Richard grows very little as a character beyond the first book, and his biggest flaw as a person is that he never grows out of the “Reluctant Hero” faze and instead constantly doubts himself. Aside from that, Richard has many other personal problems to angst about, but all of them seem silly and trite in the context of just how awesome he is and his direct importance in world events.

Please. Learn from this. You should not try to make one person the answer to every problem in your world. Doing so makes it impossible to construct a realistic character and creates a frantic escalation as you struggle to create conflict for your HHH to tackle with his arsenal of awesomeness. The result is at best contrived, at worst utterly boring.

Well, that’s it for today! Since this post turned into an argument by negative example, next week will focus on a positive one from the science fiction realm, Ender Wiggin of Orson Scot Card’s Ender’s Game. Until then, where have you encountered the tragic HHH disease? Let me know in the comments below!

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About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on December 5, 2012, in Authors, Characters, Characters, Cliches, Erik Marsh, Fantasy, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Richard Cypher, Terry Goodkind, The Sword of Truth Series, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Eric, have you read David Weber’s Honor Harrington series? Some would argue that Harrington went overboard in this same fashion, but backwards – she starts off in the first book as a competent but self-doubting Navy Commander but ‘levels up’ to every increasing heights of Heroic Heroism while continuing to be self-doubting. A number of books later, she’s an Admiral and a Duchess (in two nations) with killer martial arts moves and Improbable Aiming Skills. Between that and Writer’s Bloat I lost interest in the series after 6 or 7 books.

    • Bob, that’s almost exactly when I finally had enough in Terry Goodkind’s books. I haven’t read the Honor Harrington series, but it sounds like Weber’s hero is suffering from HHH syndrome just as badly as Goodkind’s. It was interesting for a while, since the world was fairly well built and I was not the hound for cliche that I am now, but after about book 3 I was only reading because I was invested and curious how far things would go. It was the same sort of morbid curiosity that makes you rubberneck on the highway to get a better look at that nasty car crash that held you up in traffic.

  2. Tolkien understood this. Gandalf is a great wizard but makes mistakes (trusting Butterbur with the letter; trusting Saruman period, early on). Aragorn is a great ranger and swordsman but is scruffy-looking. And even given their greatness, the Quest is not achieved apart from Frodo’s weakness. Peter Jackson doesn’t get it, though he thinks he does. He superficially sees characters like Aragorn as too good to be believable, and so he gives them half your list of compensatory flaws, whether they are consistent with their actual characters or not–so that the movie versions of them turn into caricatures of your HHH. Good grief!

    • I think your comparison of Tolkien’s and Jackson’s interpretations of Aragorn hits the nail right on the head. Jackson tried to use Aragorn to add sex appeal to his movie and in the process misunderstood just about everything that makes Tolkien’s character so engaging and deep.

  3. Goodkind tends to philosophize a lot on in his books. One of his favorite topics is communism vs democracy & freedom wrapped in a fantasy cover. Sometimes commonplace dialogs between characters seem to be prepared speeches of some kind of world leaders preaching their philosophy. The worst thing is though that Mr. Goodkind sucks at philosophy. Sometimes he presents something as an obvious truth yet the topic is debatable or he is even obviously wrong (at least from my point of view).

    • Well, there is certainly something to be said about executing political messages and social commentary well, and I think we’ve already established in this post that Goodkind’s writing isn’t stellar. While I don’t have a problem with him taking a political stance in his writing, he does tend to bash you over the head with it (even if I’m inclined to agree with him).

  4. I am an aspiring author and having trouble with writing characters so I have been searching the web for advice and tools. This post and the other one is awesome! Thanks for writing it. I have put it in my notes not to make my character(s) too awesome.

    • You’re welcome, John! This lesson seems almost obvious, but it’s so easy to keep stacking cool ideas on your main character until you’ve got something truly unmanageable. Just think about how Tolkien did it- he had Frodo, but it wasn’t *all* about Frodo. Aragorn was pretty awesome too, but he’s still just mortal. Tolkien made sure that the many characters of his Lord of the Rings trilogy didn’t steal all the spotlight, making each instead play an important but limited role in the progression of the story. Once again Tolkien schools us on great writing!

  1. Pingback: The Heroic Hero of Heroism: Learning From Ender Wiggin | Lantern Hollow Press

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