Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Irene Latham: Top 5 Character Traits for Heroes

Once LEAVING GEE’S BEND had moved to the copyedits phase of publishing, my editor sent me a questionnaire from the marketing department. One of the questions I struggled with was the one about listing comparable titles.

I could say, the book’s kind of like LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, but not filled with those very detailed passages about how to do things like churn butter. Sort of like OUT OF THE DUST, but not written in verse. Filled with adventure like THE BLACK STALLION, but no horse. A survival tale like HATCHET, but not in the Canadian wilderness. A slice of Southern life in the 1930s like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, but no court case.

So I deferred to my editor, who said,” this is often a struggle with literary novels” but finally listed Coretta Scott King Honor Book THE RED ROSE BOX by Brenda Woods. When I read THE RED ROSE BOX, I could say, yes, my book includes a similar journey and loving family, but the issues of race relations are not the focus.
Then the book was released. And I got to ask my readers for their answer to that question.

Turns out, all of the above titles have been mentioned by readers. But another theme emerged – not of plot or theme or genre, but one of character. Specifically, the HERO. Readers related to courageous, determined Ludelphia and repeatedly sent me to three books with similar main characters:

Delphine from multiple award-winning ONE CRAZY SUMMER by Rita Williams-Garcia (seriously, the book has so many stickers, you can hardly see the cover!), Isabel from National Book Award finalist CHAINS by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Jonas from Newbery winner THE GIVER by Lois Lowry.
While the premises of these books vary greatly – from the 1950s Black Panthers movement in California to New York City during the Revolutionary War to a dystopian society – all the heroes are independent-minded, curious, deeply attached to family members, with an intense desire to understand the world around them.
AND. These characters go to extraordinary lengths to not just survive, but to change their lives, to create the lives they desire.

The authors of these books do many things right, and I am honored that anyone would put me in their company. The heroes in these stories each fulfill my

TOP FIVE CHARACTER TRAITS FOR HEROES

1. Brave – the hero has got to be actively trying things, working toward a goal that seems insurmountable. In CHAINS, Isabel is a slave. Yet she constantly defies Madam in order to protect sister Ruth, protect Curzon and ultimately free herself.

2. Relateable – readers must pull for this character all the way. Even if the character is not particularly likeable, the reader needs to understand why the character is like she is and root for her anyway. In ONE CRAZY SUMMER, Delphine is the oldest of three girls. Even if she tends toward the bossy and overprotective, we understand she’s motivated by her desire (and the family expectation) that she as The Oldest will keep the younger siblings safe.

3. Determined – the hero must want something really REALLY bad. So bad that he will go to extraordinary lengths to achieve it. In THE GIVER, Jonas cannot abide by the community’s rules when he discovers the elderly and the imperfect infants are euthanized. We understand when he concocts a risky plan for escape that he will do whatever it takes.

4. Flawed – the hero needs to get in her own way sometimes. This builds on relateability and makes the achievement of said goal all the more satisfying to the reader. In LEAVING GEE’S BEND, Ludelphia is just disobedient enough to get herself into all sorts of trouble. Plus her isolated life has made her naïve. Then there’s that eye patch…

5. Open/Independent Spirit - readers want to experience change with a hero, so that hero mustn’t be wired so tightly that he can’t grow and learn. In THE GIVER, at first Jonas doesn’t question the community’s rules. But as soon as he meets the Giver, he’s eager to know more. By the end of the book he has completely rejected the community’s structure and belief system. The potential for this change requires a certain curiosity.

For more on creating Heroes, visit the Ten Rules for Heroes as listed at The Script Lab (one of my favorite sites for writing). And give the above books a chance – they’ll inspire you to write even better heroes.

2 comments:

  1. I love this, Irene and will actually be teaching the Hero's Journey in the fall! Thanks for this link and list :)

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  2. Great definition of the hero, Irene. Do you have a similar list for what makes a villain? I sometimes struggle with creating a good bad guy.

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