What Makes a Character Heroic?

As a newcomer to fiction writing (many more years ago now than I care to admit) I studied craft with a wonderful teacher I’ve mentioned here before, Peggy Moss Fielding. Peggy has an uncanny ability to close her eyes as a student reads work aloud,  recall nearly word for word the passage, and tell you right away why it will or won’t work. One of the passages I read to her concerned the hero of a novel I was working on, a man who was unsure of what he really wanted out of life. After listening to my work, Peggy said, “This might work in literary fiction, but not in commercial fiction, and certainly not in romance. A romantic hero must have a noble goal and be committed to achieving it.”


That triggered more thinking about both my hero and my heroine, and over the years I’ve boiled the essence of my two main characters down to a few important questions I must answer for myself before I sit down to bring them to life. Here they are:

Heroine: What qualities does she possess that make her likable? A sense of humor? An ability to laugh at herself? A passion for helping others? What is it about her that would make you want her for a friend?  What career or job would make her unsympathetic as a heroine?

Hero: What qualities would make you fall in love with him? Some women prefer the quiet intellectual, others an action-oriented, rugged outdoorsy type. Personally, I’m smitten with lanky, blue- eyed Texans who speak with a soft drawl and who are confident without being arrogant. Other swoon-worthy qualities: a man who can pilot a plane. Order a meal in French. A man who is a sucker for tiny children and big slobbery dogs. A man who is comfortable in his own skin.  Your list may be entirely different but you get the idea.

Not that these two people are perfect. To be believable they must have flaws. Flaws that lead to trouble. Otherwise readers won’t care about them. But the trouble must be the result of a noble motive. A man’s business may be  close to failure not because of his stupidity, but because he hired his troubled brother out of a sense of familial duty, and the brother has made unwise decisions.  Your heroine may be about to lose her job, not because she is incompetent, but because she spread herself too thin covering for a colleague, to the detriment of her own performance.

Imperfections in your hero and heroine not only allow them to grow over the course of the story, but allow your readers to identify with their struggles.

Your turn: What qualities would your ideal hero or heroine possess?