The Secret Weapon of Crafting Effective Heroes

I promise this isn’t a sermon. 

This isn’t even remotely religious, other than this short snippet of scripture – as in, THE Scripture – which sets the stage.  It’s from First Corinthians 13:13, and it sticks in the brain as much as it rolls easily off the tongue:

But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

True that. You may have heard this one at a wedding or two.  Say what you will, those guys could write

If the Apostle Paul had been a writing teacher – picture it, a distinguished white-bearded dude wearing a tweed jacket speaking confidently during the keynote at a writing conference about how to craft your hero in a way that injects incredible narrative power into your story — he might have said this:

You’ve been told since your freshman writing class about hero complexity, likeability, and even sympathy. All good.  But if you really want to jack your story into a higher gear, consider “rootability” and empathy.   Hey, abide them ’em if that’s your thing.  But know this: the greatest of these, all of these, is empathy.

Behold… the gospel truth for storytellers. 

Think of this as the 13:13 of storytelling effectiveness.

In this age of the antihero, the darkly complex protagonist, the tormented main character… the usefulness of “likeability” has been rendered moot, if not entirely antiquated.  Good when it suits the story, but certainly no longer the benchmark your first writing teachers told you it was.

The real essence of effective drama is putting your hero in harm’s way, or at least, dangling a goal and then tormenting them by keeping it tantalizingly out of reach.  The level at which we root for the hero in that quest – whether we like them or not — is the measure of the story’s inherent potential. 

It’s story physics.  It’s the new math of storytelling.

But there’s an even more powerful literary steroid that surpasses even “rootability” in its power to transform a story into a vicarious experience.  And that is empathy.

It’s a double-edged deal: empathy for the situation the hero is in… empathy for the person the hero IS in that situation.

You don’t have to have empathy in play to put “rootability” in play.  That said, if you can do both, you’ve lifted your story to the highest level of impact.  And if you pay attention, this is precisely what bestsellers and hit films do.

Let’s say your hero is a doctor who is being fired because she ignored instructions from the Chief of Surgery and administered an experimental drug that saved a patient’s life, even though it exposed the hospital to liability had it turned out otherwise.  Very heroic.  We root for her in this situation.  But… do we empathize with her?

Maybe.  But we certainly empathize with her IF the patient in question is… her daughter.

That, we can relate to.  That, we can feel.  Deeper and more vicariously than looking on from a grandstand seat and rooting for the good guy.  When the good guy could be us, and when we can feel the heat of the moment because it touches us in a personal, vicarious way… the proximity of danger, the sweet scent of approaching success, the stakes

… the story just works better.

The good news here: the difference is totally something the author controls.  Simply by making a choice about the dynamics of the situations into which their hero is plopped.

The Genius of The Hunger Games

Did we root for Katniss?  Certainly.  But, did we also feel – did with empathize with – the situation she was in?  Yes we did.  Much more so than, say, the dilemma of a college student trying to get into a good sorority. 

We can root for that, but empathy isn’t the first word that comes to mind.

And empathy is the greatest of these things what we can feel.

And, that we can craft as authors.

The Sunday school writing lesson here is this: craft your stories with a view toward jacking the stakes and optimizing the underlying story physics.  One of which is hero empathy, which quickly leads to another, vicarious journey.

Make us feel that empathy for your hero and an entire new level of story potential is suddenly yours.

Stay tuned for a staggering opportunity to have your story physics and potential evaluated, for a miniscule fraction of the investment required to have an entire manuscript critiqued.  Even before you’ve written it, if that’s where you are.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

16 Responses to The Secret Weapon of Crafting Effective Heroes

  1. Marcia Koelln

    Hi, Larry, it’s high time I commented on a post, because I read every blog you write… and have read, underlined and tried to practice the principles in STORY ENGINEERING since I got it about a year ago.

    By jove, I think I’ve got it, but I’ll be first in line to take advantage of the “staggering opportunity to have my story physics and potential evaluated, for a miniscule fraction of the investment required to have an entire manuscript critiqued.” Enough with the teasers–or let me be part of the pre-trial!

    Thanks for caring about the development of good fiction writers. You’re doing a great work.


  2. Thanks Larry, this is what I needed to hear. My hero isn’t very likeable at the beginning of my story but as the story progresses, we start to feel empathy.
    I’ve been told several times that my hero isn’t likeable by readers who’ve only read the first chapter. To that I reply, “Yes.”

  3. “It’s a double-edged deal: empathy for the situation the hero is in… empathy for the person the hero IS in that situation.”

    I LOVE that. Thanks for giving me the epiphany I needed to boost my story to the next level. Again.

  4. @Larry. So a simple question to ask myself when I evaluate a scene other than 1) what’s happening. 2) What is the hero trying to do or, doing? There is a difference in “trying to do” and “doing.” Each of those questions belongs to different parts of the story structure. And now 3) What is the reader feeling or experiencing?

    It sounds like exercising readers emotionally is the name of the game. That is probably why we are asked and will suspend our disbelief all the way up to and maybe just past the point of absurdity. It f e e l s so good.

    However, anything can be over done.

    There is a tub full of difference in what the first Indiana Jones movie and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” asked you to believe. I stopped “suspending” and “emphasizing” when Doom finally wore me out. 🙂

    There is a point when the viewer / reader will no longer supply the energy to suspend disbelief or empathize.

    Exercise but don’t exhaust the reader? I’m thinking readers just get bored and put the book down and can’t really tell you why.

  5. Despite Larry’s (and my) promotion of Craft as a basic, if you’ve got a ripping good story and characters whose shoes you wear during it, readers will forgive a lot.

    We will plough through those empty paragraphs describing the veins of the fall leaves, the 20-page essay on the street urchins of Paris (Les Miserables), and skip grammar/punctuation critique just to see if those shoes we are wearing temporarily will get us out of the jam we’re in.

    Do the Craft and do it well. If you’ve got a high-enough concept and can convey the emotions of the characters (empathy!), you at least can ante up in the game.

    Now go write something great.

  6. HI Larry,

    I think you just gave me a new mantra for my blog: “It’s hero empathy, stupid!” Thanks. Now, to make that happen in my posts without any ego–easier said than done.

  7. Larry, stop TEASING US! I want to know more about this story evaluation thingy!

  8. Wow, really interesting. This really caps in nutshell what makes different protagonists “work.” It also begins to explain why sometimes reader will decide to pin their sympathies on the antagonists instead. When you start empathizing with the baddies more than with the hero, it becomes awfully easy to start rooting for them…

  9. Larry, great post! You can go Biblical any time; I Believe we must sit at the feet of the masters. I too, am interested in this ‘manuscript critique deal’ you keep mentioning…what’s up with that?
    You were wonderful at the Willamette Writers Conference last weekend. Mindy

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  14. Wonderful, succinct, and compelling blog, Larry. Thank you for posting it.
    As I read this, the empathy comes from common values in action. We all understand, for instance, caring for our families. Much can be forgiven (think of Michael Corlene) if the hero demonstrates this.
    It reminded me of Simon Sinek’s TED Talk about how to inspire people. (See )

  15. I really loved this post, and it’s got me thinking more about my current work in progress, about how I can up the stakes a bit. Thanks for posting!

  16. Kathryn

    Hi Larry, A friend gave me your Story Engineering book raving about how wonderful it was. I’ll admit, I was a little sceptical till I read it, but she has converted me and I have been following your blog for some time. Thank you so much for all your advice and understanding.
    I have a question which has been bugging me in my own attempts at novel writing. My main character is fairly likeable, and I think fairly easy to empathise with, but I am having major problems establishing the stakes in Part One. As it is a fantasy novel, she crosses from one world into another and spends half of the book trying to return before realising that for various reasons she wants to stay and accept her destiny. How I do establish stakes early on that will become moot after this realisation. Her life is in danger when she crosses over, but other than that, which seems a little basic, I cannot see how to get around this. Any advice for me please?