Modeling Protagonists After Real Life Heroes

21 Dec

by Susan Dennard


Heroes.  Real, genuine heroes — the people who live and breathe like the rest of us, but somehow stand apart.  Stand taller.  Earn our admiration and respect.
In Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Donald Maass starts off by asking you to list your heroes.  Why are they are your heroes?  What about them is heroic — what qualities do they possess?

Then he goes on to tell you to try to infuse your story’s main characters with these qualities.

Can you do it?  Can you name your heroes?

These are mine:

  • Isaac Asimov
    • He devoted his life whole-heartedly to the things he loved: writing and science.  He wrote over 400 books, was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, and paved the way for sci-fi writers of today.
  • Gichin Funakoshi
    • He was the father of modern karate.  He devoted his life to “being a better human being”, to raising his family, and to developing Karate-do. (His autobiography is AMAZING, by the way.)
  • My parents
    • They’re generous, warm, and believe 100% in following your dreams.  Mom & Dad are both devoted to doing the right thing and living their lives with happiness and love. (I know you’re groaning that I’ve listed my parents.  But for realz, they’re cool people.)

Notice that all of my heroes have one thing in common: DEVOTION.  Their lives revolved around what they believed in.  They were productive and never gave up.

When I set out to write my own heroes (usually of the “heroine” persuasion), they always possess that one quality.  No matter what, my protagonists will not give up.  They are devoted to their goals, and they will keep trying, keep acting, keep working despite the obstacles before them.

In The Spirit-Hunters, my main character, Eleanor, is in waaaaay over her head.  She’s a sheltered, high-society girl who’s spent most of her life chaperoned.  Now her brother has been kidnapped by a necromancer, walking dead are lurking in Philadelphia, and she has no idea what to do to make this all okay again.  But, she’s devoted to her brother; she’s devoted to rescuing him; and she’s devoted to doing whatever needs to be done.  And because of that one quality, she’s a hero.

Who are your favorite heroes in novels?

You can look to your favorite story characters for inspiration too.  You can no doubt guess that my favorite heroes/heroines are the ones that are devoted to TAKING ACTION!  While I enjoyed Twilight, Bella Swan’s passiveness was not my style…  All the same, the girl was 100% devoted to Edward!  Now Katniss from The Hunger Games — that’s my kinda hero!  Devoted to her family and to protecting the weak.

Of course, the protagonist needn’t be a tough-tamale like Katniss to appeal to me.  One of my favorite heroines of all time is Anne Elliot from Jane Austin’s Persuasion.  Anne is a soft-spoken sweetie, but she’s devoted to doing what’s right and being true to herself.

What about you?

Tell me your heroes — both real life and fiction.  What qualities make them heroes?  Do your own protagonists have these qualities?


18 Responses to “Modeling Protagonists After Real Life Heroes”

  1. Kelly December 21, 2010 at 12:21 AM #

    Hey, we have similar heroes!

    My first one would probably be my parents. They are perfect in some aspects, imperfect in others but I love their values and the way they live their lives and I’m proud to call them Mom and Dad 🙂

    Next up would be Katniss from The Hunger Games. I was shocked by her love for Prim – I know this sounds really bad, but from time to time I’d doubt my love for my siblings and whether or not I’d risk my life for them. The book helped me realize that yes, blood is thicker than water. And I realized that at the end of the day, if I was in Katniss’ shoes, I’d do the same X)

    Also, despite her many flaws, I think of Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind as a great hero. She managed to get over her shallow tendencies and assimilate into life during the civil war. She grew into a calculating woman who could manage, in those conditions, a fairly good lifestyle for her family and that really does deserve respect.

    • sdennard December 21, 2010 at 5:14 AM #

      Great choices!! And Scarlett O’Hara — you’re right that she doesn’t instantly spring to mind, but she does have a lot of heroic qualities! Definitely deserves respect.

  2. Sammy Bina December 21, 2010 at 12:29 AM #

    I was just thinking about this today, actually. The MC of my current project is very devoted to one thing at the beginning of the book, but as her priorities shift, she realizes there are more important things in life to focus on, and I think *that* understanding is what makes her a hero. Granted, I’m still working on actually incorporating that into the book, but you know what I mean 😉

    And for the record, I think Eleanor is a GREAT example of a hero.

    As for my own personal heroes…

    1. My parents. Without a doubt. They are the most encouraging people I’ve ever known. But the best part? They let me make mistakes. I think that’s really important. They’ve always been supportive of me, even when they knew what I was doing wasn’t going to turn out the way I expected. I can’t thank them enough for that.

    2. My best friend. She’s always doing stupid things and being crazy, but she gets away with it. It works for her. And when I’m with her, I feel like I can do anything. Of all the people I’ve known throughout my life, she’s the one who’s followed her dream, wherever it took her. She’s always done whatever it takes, and then some, to make sure her dream came true. And while she’s still working on it, I have no doubt in my mind she’ll pull through.

    Awesome article, Sooz ❤

    • sdennard December 21, 2010 at 5:16 AM #

      Yay for all the parental love! 🙂

      Wow, your best friends sounds CRAZY COOL. Larger-than-life — definitely someone you can model your protagonist after (or yourself!)

      And that’s a great way to show a character arc — having your MC devoted to one thing, and then as she learns, have her priorities shift. I mean, I guess that kinda happened to Eleanor… Without spoiling the story, she had to majorly shift who she was devoted to after the whole dynamite explosion at the Exhibition. (Was that a vague scene description or what?)

      • Sammy Bina December 21, 2010 at 8:36 PM #


        Very vague.

  3. Marc Vun Kannon December 21, 2010 at 10:13 AM #

    I wish I could say that I had a real-life hero, but I don’t. I had exemplars, of course, people who gave me good examples, bits of advice, or some other sort of learning experience. But to me a hero is someone who does the right thing regardless of the cost to himself. There is no heroism without sacrifice. While I have read about people whose actions are undoubtedly heroic I have not met any of them.

    • sdennard December 21, 2010 at 11:22 AM #

      Wow, I’m kinda sad to hear you don’t know any people like that…

      I can name a few people I know who sacrifice to do the right thing!

  4. Savannah J. Foley December 21, 2010 at 10:28 AM #

    I think you hit the nail on the head, Susan. Heroes are defined by devotion. Definitely something I’ll keep in mind as I work on the next novel…

    • sdennard December 21, 2010 at 11:23 AM #

      I’m pretty sure you can make great protags without consciously thinking about it, Sav!

      (BTW, I ❤ NAMELESS!)

  5. Rowenna December 21, 2010 at 11:48 AM #

    Awesome post! It really got me thinking…and I thought so much I wrote a blog post about it! You’re so right, too–devotion can certainly define a hero. I came up with a few others in my post. I wonder–is it the characterstics we identify most strongly as heroic that help us to write a character others can see our passion through? Thanks for sharing!

    • Susan December 21, 2010 at 5:11 PM #

      That’s great, Rowenna! I’ll head over to your blog post ASAP.

      I think yes, we do use infuse our characters with what *we* consider heroic — what we respect and admire. It definitely adds passion to the page!

  6. Melissa Gill December 21, 2010 at 12:00 PM #

    The first book hero that comes to mind is Atticus Finch. He stands up for the underdog, even though he knows that it will be an unpopular and dangerous decision.

    I also agree with Scarlett O’Hara- she was very single minded in her persuit of whatever she wanted, but she was devoted to her family and her home.

    • Susan December 21, 2010 at 5:12 PM #

      Atticus Finch — great one! He’s definitely heroic. So is Scout in her own, more innocent way.

  7. Meredith December 21, 2010 at 12:57 PM #

    I completely agree with you. I am not a fan of the wussy, passive heroes who just seem to stumble into greatness. Give me a Katniss willing to fight for what she wants any day.

    My personal hero has to be my late grandmother. Her husband walked out on her in the early 1960s, leaving her with 4 kids to raise, but she didn’t sit around and cry about it. She picked herself up, got a job, got a master’s degree, then a PhD. And then once all of her kids were out of the house, she decided it was time to live for herself, moved to Europe, studied a while at Oxford and just lived the life. She was awesome.

    • Susan December 21, 2010 at 5:13 PM #

      Oh wow! Your grandmother sounds like she was an amazing woman. Strong, tough, and clever — my kind of hero all the way. I can see why you look up to her!

  8. Julie Musil December 22, 2010 at 5:37 PM #

    My real life hero is my husband. He works hard, he never gives up, and he loves his family above all else. All worthy traits in books AND in real life!

    • Susan December 22, 2010 at 5:46 PM #

      Awww! That’s so sweet! He sounds like an amazing man!

  9. Madeleine December 28, 2010 at 1:36 AM #

    I think the thought of devotion is one that I love, too. I also can’t call anyone a hero who sacrifices their values or virtue. I just can’t take it. 😀

    I love it when people are willing to do what must be done, what is for the better of even everyone *but* themselves. Those people are heroes.

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