One of my critique group members asked me what a “reluctant hero” is. You hear that term a lot. Many good books have a hero who doesn’t want to dive into the action.
The question is, how do you write such a hero? (Or heroine; for the purposes of this discussion, “hero” is gender-neutral.)
The thing is, a hero (in popular fiction, more mainstream or literary fiction is not so constrained) must always be a hero.
A “reluctant hero” is one who is reluctant to start the quest, begin the journey, tackle the problem, or whatever it is he has to do to achieve the main story goal.
Reluctant heroes are everywhere!
Think Indiana Jones in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE. Indy consistently refused to help with the quest to retrieve the grail…until he found out that his father was missing.
He took on the task for his own reasons, and had to be persuaded to do so, but once on the quest, he never looked back, never quit, never NEVER was passively waiting for someone else to tell him what to do next.
Think Sam Neill and Laura Dern and even Jeff Goldblum in JURASSIC PARK. All of them had to be persuaded (okay, bought off) to get them to go to check out Jurassic Park.
Once there, however, all of them were fully engaged in the process of getting out alive.
Think of Arnold Schwarzenegger in PREDATOR (one of the few movies he’s made that I actually like!). He and his little band of commandos are unwilling to take on another govt task until persuaded to do so by a friend who still works for the govt.
Once in, however, they’re not in half-heartedly…they’re in it all the way.
The point is, reluctance only applies at the start of the story. Once the hero commits to the story, that commitment never stops.
If you’ve ever read up on the “hero’s journey” (you can read about it if you like in Chris Vogler’s classic book THE WRITER’S JOURNEY), one of the most common steps in the quest all good heroes take is the “Call to Action.” That call is very often (though not always) followed by the “Refusal of the Call,” which in turn is followed by “Advice from Mentor” and “Acceptance of the Call.” These are all classic elements of the standard myth identified by Joseph Campbell.
Maybe it’s inconvenient for the hero to go right now.
Maybe it’s not what he wants to do.
Maybe it’s just too scary for the hero to take part.
The stronger the reason the hero has to not start on the quest, the stronger the persuasion has to be to make him do it anyway. That persuasion can be positive (you get $1,000,000 in cash if you do this) or negative (I’ll kill your kid if you don’t do this).
Start on the quest and you’ll save the whales.
Start on the quest or you’re ruined economically.
Start on the quest or I take your wife and kids.
Start on the quest and you’ll become immortal (if you don’t die in the process).
Whatever. The greater his reluctance, the more powerful the persuasion.
Think Katniss in THE HUNGER GAMES (of course you knew I’d bring up her!), standing in the reaping and praying, “It’s not me. It’s not me. It’s not me.”
The ONLY thing that could possibly persuade her to go to the games is either to have her name drawn (It isn’t her.) or to have her beloved baby sister’s name drawn…nothing short of that calamity could force her to go into that arena.
It’s not me. It’s not me. It’s not me.
Her reluctance was HUGE…the persuasion was MASSIVE. But by the time she was walking out of the Justice Hall toward the train, a mere hour later, she was already planning her strategies to try to stay alive. She might not have wanted to compete, but once she was forced into doing so, she was completely focused on trying to win. Even though she believed her chances were poor to none.
And that’s the point.
Once the hero takes up the quest or challenge, as hero, he’s in it 110%, all the way.
The (reluctant) hero: An active over-achiever
Your hero cannot be constantly second-guessing himself, acting passively, etc. A hero is never a wuss.
While a hero can certainly have personal problems that cause him concerns and worries, and he may even be uncertain about what is happening or what to do next, the fact is, he’s decisive. He’s going to make up his mind about what to do, and then, by God, he’ll do it. He can ask for advice, ask for assistance, but the one making the plan is the hero of your book.
Why? Because the hero is the most interesting character in your book—that what defines the hero.
The most interesting character almost inevitably is going to be the decisive, active doer, not the wussy, indecisive, passive, tell-me-what-to-do-next person. Any moments of self-doubt or indecision are mere moments long…and soon he’s back on track figuring out what to do and rallying his friends and allies in a bold new plan to rescue everyone—and save the world while he’s at it.
If you write wussy, angsty heroes, you’re writing literary stuff. You’re writing Woody Allen. You’re not writing mainstream popular fiction. You’re not writing Stephen Spielberg. And the market for your fiction is a fraction of the size it could be.
What do you want to write? Woody Allen? Or Stephen Spielberg?
I’ve seen up-close a number of really good writers who tend to have the passive, wussy hero type…and they are invariably the nicest people in person you’ve ever met. That’s the thing. Nice people don’t like to write heroes who are mean and badass. It’s outside what they personally would do, and therefore they don’t envision their heroes acting like that either.
But that’s wrong. You have to have a really interesting character as your hero. And wussy, wishy-washy, indecisive people are not as interesting as those who take charge, who move forward (even if in the wrong direction) and who act decisively.
Nice people are easier to live with in real life. Take-charge heroes are more interesting to read about.
And about those villains…
Just as a side note, the best villains have these exact same qualities as heroes. (Though they rarely refuse the call to action!) Villains have their own goals, and those goals threaten the world physically, economically, or in some other major way. “World” in this context can mean anything from the local community to the entire universe. (Yes, I’ve read a few SF novels where the existence of the universe itself was at risk!! Now, how big are those stakes???)
Remember that if some guy you’ve never heard of gets insanely rich, it doesn’t affect anyone else except maybe his creditors. So “getting rich” isn’t enough of a bad-guy goal. He has to have some nefarious purpose to which he’s going to apply all that money and power…he has to have a plan to Take Over/Destroy the World (Bwah-haa-haa!!!).
Don’t make him a cartoon, but do give him Evil Plans that the hero has to thwart.
- He’s going to use that money to destabilize the government.
- He’s going to corner the market on blow-up sex toys. (Hey, that’ll ruin a lot of people’s days!)
- He’s going to release his new strain of the deadly LCM Virus which will make everyone in the world addicted to watching Larry, Curly and Moe 24 hours a day.
- He’s going to force everyone in the world to get Mohawk haircuts.
Whatever this evil plan is, it has to be big and scary. (Well…maybe not as scary as universal Mohawk haircuts. There are limits, you know!)
The hero might not even realize what the ultimate intention of the bad guy is until midway through the book—that gives him additional encouragement to stay the course if he’s had some huge setback and is thinking about giving up.
The (not-so-reluctant) hero
The point is, no matter how reluctant your hero is to start on the quest, he has to lose that reluctance and accept the quest he’s on with total enthusiasm. Once he’s in, he’s in. Even if you give him the chance to back out later, he can’t take it. He’s so committed to the quest, it’s now an obsession, and he won’t stop until it’s completed–or he’s dead.
And the same goes for your villains. Whatever their goals are, the villain can’t back down either. Only when you have two completely committed opponents, going head-to-head, do-or-die against each other can you possibly have a final confrontation and battle that is worthy of your efforts. Only when the hero overcomes tremendous odds to win in that unfair battle is he proved to be a true hero. Reluctant or not.
And, just a word of encouragement from Effie Trinket (THE HUNGER GAMES):
May the odds be ever in your [villain’s] favor!