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Never the Heroes: Designing a Hero

When I first started writing, I thought giving characters flaws was like pinning a tail on a donkey. I figured it was just a matter of deciding that one character drinks too much or that another likes to screw around behind their partner’s back.

It’s not that simple. Just as a character must earn their virtues, so must their flaws also be justified. Furthermore, a character’s flaws must not be anything trivial like shyness or being Hollywood ugly (the kind of ugly that can be fixed by taking off one’s glasses and letting one’s hair down). Instead, a character’s flaw must be of the kind that in a tragedy would be considered their hamartia, the fatal flaw that condemns them and theirs to misery, despair, and destruction.

It is with this understanding that I began to consider the protagonist for my next novel, an attempt to reboot my Starbreaker saga using knowledge I’ve gained from writing Without Bloodshed and Silent Clarion. Being the sensible sort who would rather not waste material if I can salvage it, my first move was to reconsider the protagonist of my first novel, Morgan.

One would think that Morgan has it all: he’s a biological android capable of manipulating energy with rapid healing who works as a government agent and moonlights as a rock musician (he plays a mean bass). He’s in a relationship with the band’s founder and violinist (and there’s some serious romantic tension between him and the band’s vocalist and keyboard player, too). If he did brain surgery with proper tools instead of using a .45 he’d be a regular Buckaraoo Banzai.

Rather than just “give him a flaw”, I had to think through the implications of his advantages. The guy’s a superhero doing his best to live a semi-normal life, but what if he took his Clark Kent act so far that it became harmful?

What if it was preventing Morgan from living an authentic life? What if his selfish desire to fit in was cheating him of becoming the man he could be? That’s a problem, but not enough for a story.

If the only consequence of Morgan’s fear of embracing his nature is that he spends his life in the closet, so what? The world’s full of closet cases. I’ve got to think bigger, and widen the circle of concern.

What if Morgan’s inauthenticity poisoned his relationship with his girlfriend and caused the band they were in to break up? What if, to keep suspects from testifying that they had been busted by a guy who could dodge bullets or halt them in midflight, he killed them as soon as they drew a weapon? What if his bosses took advantage of his willingness to murder accused criminals to preserve his secret, and used him to silence critics?

Now his physical advantages have enabled a serious moral flaw and fucked up his personal relationships. Worse, they’ve broken up a popular rock band. Worst of all, Morgan’s caught in a web of corruption in high places. Now, what would happen if somebody publicly accused the agency he works for of murdering critics, fingered the Morgan as the guy the agency sends to do the wet work, and the accusation went viral?

Worse, what if the accusers used to do odd jobs for the same agency, got thrown under a bus for various reasons, and know that the agency will send my main character to die off the loose ends they represent with a gun? What if they all think of themselves as heroes for their own reasons, but have been treated as disposable tools?

Now I’m getting somewhere. I’ve got the beginnings of a plot and a rough outline of a character arc. All I had to do was think things through.