Writing Tips: How to Motivate a Hero

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In last week’s post, I began a multi-part series on how to start a Hero’s Journey story. Our goal is to include these elements in the opening scene:

  1. Grab the reader’s attention with a hook beginning
  2. Raise questions that the reader wants answered
  3. Provide a goal for the protagonist
  4. Show the protagonist’s qualities and flaws
  5. Set the physical scene with only essential details
  6. Begin building a bridge to the back story
  7. Establish a feeling that a crisis of some sort is coming
  8. Complete the journey toward the initial goal by showing success or failure

To illustrate each element, I provided an example from my book Reapers (See previous post), and we are now on #3.

3. Provide a goal for the protagonist: “Someone in my territory would die tonight, and I had to find the poor soul.”

Exploring the protagonist’s ordinary world is always more interesting if the character has something important to do, in this case, to find who was going to die. He might accomplish this goal early in the story, or he might fail, and then we will replace that goal with a bigger one (a method that I will explain in detail in a future post).

Readers enjoy following a character through a series of actions when they understand the protagonist’s goal. They cheer the character toward that end. They feel the tension when danger approaches. They understand what is at stake. They sense the pain of loss if the character fails.

Without a known goal, the action feels like aimless wandering, and any character traits we are trying to develop or back story elements we are trying to explore result in a tedious experience for the reader. In a word, the opening is boring.

4. Show the protagonist’s qualities and flaws:

“Reapers like me always stayed on call.” From this we see that the protagonist is dedicated.

“She was a ghost, probably level two, far too opaque to be newly dead and glowing too much to have wandered for more than a couple of weeks.” This tells the reader that the protagonist is skilled and experienced.

“I had to use all my senses to figure out who was about to die.” He is passionate about completing his goal. He likely has empathy for the dying person.

“I rose from my moth-eaten reading chair, blew out the hanging lantern’s flame, and stalked across my one-room apartment to the window, guided by light from outside.” The protagonist noticing the bad condition of his chair indicates that he is not satisfied with his environment. The verb “stalked” (and later “shoved”) indicates possible anger. Although he is dedicated, he probably doesn’t like his job, which can be interpreted as a flaw. In this story, his other shortcomings are revealed as the opening continues.

For the Hero’s Journey structure to work, the protagonist needs to be a character that readers want to cheer for. He or she has to be likable because of one or more admirable qualities. It is also important to show at least one weakness in the protagonist so readers can watch him grow as the suffering that results from the journey polishes the rough spots.

I think it’s important that these flaws be deficiencies in maturity, wisdom, experience, or skill rather than moral flaws. In the Hero’s Journey, if the protagonist is immoral, it is more difficult for readers to believe that he would be willing to endure the sacrificial suffering that is typical of such journeys, since immoral people usually lack selfless motivations and are guided by self-pleasing drives rather than altruistic ideals. Of course, this is my opinion rather than a writing rule, so take it for what it’s worth.

That’s enough for part two. Next Monday in part three, I will continue with element #5.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them.

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23 replies

  1. I think that was vary interesting and educational.

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  2. How can a writer tell when they are beginning too far back in the storyline, instead of beginning in the action? Reapers begins at a point where a lot of back story already exists, and something is already happening.

    Thanks.

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    • The best place to start is in the protagonist’s ordinary world just before the crisis event. There will always be back story … always.

      In Reapers, collecting souls is Phoenix’s ordinary world, but the crisis is coming, that is, when Alex shows up and takes the family into custody.

      If the crisis event doesn’t come fairly soon, then you might be starting too far back.

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  3. What size beginning are you talking about? The first X number of pages? First scene? First chapter?

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  4. For me, the beginning includes the events from the start to the crisis that alters the ordinary world. It can be quite short or quite long. It’s all a matter of feel.

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  5. I usually have between one and two chapters for the beginning before the crisis comes.

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  6. So this doesn’t exactly have to do with beginning a story. I am in the middle of planning a story and I’ve know everything that happens up to this point (or rather my characters told me). And they’ve told me what needs to happen in the end but not how. So I am rather stuck at the moment and unsure of how to continue. Do you have any advice?

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    • Anna, I never plan my stories in advance, so I have no experience with that kind of situation. One thing that might help is having a goal that seems so important that the protag can’t rest until it is achieved. It absolutely MUST be done.

      Come up with a way for your character to keep striving for that goal. Keep raising seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and keep him overcoming those obstacles.

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    • @Anna – I’m kind of a hybrid when it comes to the storyboarding process. I tend to wind up with a list of things that must happen and a list of possibilities for each point, and sort of decide based on what looks best.

      One thing a friend taught me is that if I can’t decide how to get the protagonist to Point X, to essentially start there and work backwards. So, like, at one point I couldn’t decide how to get my protagonist in a particular fight with a character, so he had me map backwards, essentially. In other words, if you’re asking “how”, sit down and come up with various reasons “how.”

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  7. Alright, thank you. And my MC is a girl.
    Do you just have an idea and start writing? Do you do any form of planning or character profiling?

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  8. Do you have any more tips on character flaws? I admit, I have trouble coming up with them since I don’t want my characters sinning. (Right now, I’m trying to use bitterness as a flaw for my MC.) In my last story, the character’s issue mostly came from falling in the wrong crowd, and being raised so she didn’t realize how much trouble she was in. (This was a different character.)

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  9. Do you have any tips on how long the character should be left in the ordinary world before the inciting incident?

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    • I like to start the hero’s journey as early as possible. Knowing when is more of a feel than anything. Once you have established the character’s qualities and the other elements we have talked about and will talk about in future posts, then bring on the crisis. I try to raise it before the end of the second chapter, which, for me, means within the first 5,000 to 10,000 words.

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  10. Good post as always, Mr. Davis. ^ ^ And I second what Jessi asks. I’m really curious about that.

    Stori Tori’s Blog

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  11. Mr. Davis, thank you for these posts. They’re a great resource, for all writers — I’m certainly planning on using them as another guide for evaluating the opening scenes in WIPs.

    How much do your opening scenes change in your later drafts? Have you ever realized the questions you’ve raised or the flaws you’ve indicated are the wrong ones for your story and character?

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    • Holli, my opening scenes often change. Since I don’t outline, the story comes to me as I write, so ideas occur to me that don’t fit with earlier scenes. If I am more fond of the newer ideas, I go back and make changes, including significant (sometimes drastic) character changes and questions that are raised.

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      • Thanks for the prompt reply. =) What has been the most drastic character change yet? I remember Bonnie wasn’t part of the first draft of Raising Dragons, but have there been others?

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      • Reapers had some huge, drastic changes. When I first started, my protagonist, Benjamin, was a medicine smuggler who tried to help the sick and the dying, and the Reapers were the villains who tried to stop him so they could more easily collect souls. As you know, the protag became Phoenix, a Reaper who rebelled against the system.

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