PIcking the hero

Picking the hero in your story

Picking the hero is the first step in planning your story. If you want to get started now, download a free Who’s Your Hero Worksheet. You can also read the rest of the post for insights into how your hero changes your story!

We use hero’s names to refer to stories in many fairy tales: Cinderella, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood. A hero’s name can refer to an entire series of stories: Harry Potter, Frodo, or Laura Ingalls Wilder.

What is a hero?

Many people mistakenly think the hero is the character who gets everything right. While technically, the hero is the focus of the story, in terms of character, they are the one who transform. A story is always about a hero’s internal or external transformation.

The hero plays an important role mediating the story for the audience. Lots of people have written about heroes. Christopher Vogler, author of the Writer’s Journey, dedicated a full and clear chapter to the qualities and role of the hero. It’s concise, coherent, and useful.

According to Vogler, “the dramatic purpose of the hero is to give the audience a window into the story.” In other words, the audience experience the events of the story through the experience of the hero. Audiences sympathize with the hero and share their journey. When John McClane walks on broken glass in his bare feet, the audience winces. The audience identifies with the hero and the hero’s perspective.

The hero shapes the story

In Cinderella, Cinderella is the hero. The high and low moments in the story are determined by her experience. She loses her mother, and gains a mean stepmother and two equally cruel step-sisters. Then comes the ball and the fairy godmother and the dancing and the shoe and the happily ever after. The audience feels Cinderella’s peace, pain, and ultimate joy.

But what happens if the step-sister is the hero? Then you get Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Maguire told the Cinderella story from the perspective of the younger stepsister. In her version of the story Cinderella figure, Clara, is petulant and over-protected before her mother’s death. From this perspective, the stepsister is aware of being plain, makes Cinderella’s ball outing possible, and starts a promising conversation with the prince before Cinderella arrives. She is misunderstood.

Picking the hero matters because it determines the story and the audience’s point of view. How do you choose the hero in your story? Sometimes it’s obvious. If you’re talking about your career ambitions, you should be the hero of the story. If you’re telling an anecdote about a friend who discovers purpose herself on a solo trip through the jungles of Borneo, then that person is the hero.

Picking a hero

But what if you’re talking about a research project or a new business? Those choices are more challenging.Each hero offers an opportunity to tell a different story. You have to consider non-traditional choices as well.

For a story about medical research, is the hero the researcher, a medication, or perhaps a unique methodology? If you’re an entrepreneur, are you the hero, or is your product, or perhaps the consumer?

To pick the hero in your story, consider two things: agency and change.

Agency is the ability to make choices for one’s own life. It’s being active instead of passive. A hero has agency, they make things happen in the story. According to Vogler, “The Hero should perform the most decisive action of the story, the action that requires taking the most risk or responsibility.” Another way to describe this is that the hero makes things happen in their world.

The hero must undergo a personal transformation during the course of the story, they are “the one who learns or grows the most in the course of the story” writes Vogler. The journey described in the story has to fundamentally change the hero so that their interactions with the world and people that were familiar at the beginning of the story are changed by the end of the story.

Try different heroes

You might pick different heroes and sketch out your story to see how the story takes shape. Remember to keep your perspective consistent from the beginning to the end of your story.

How does this approach translate to picking the hero in an academic or business storytelling?

In medical research, a researcher hero sees a problem, sets out to understand or fix it, and has positive or negative resolution at the end of the study.

A medication hero is active in the body or blood stream, acting on cellular level. When introduced, it is full of potential. Through the course of a study it encounters obstacles and has triumphs. By the end, it is either a success or relegated to the bin of failed projects.

A methodology hero starts out as a newcomer in a field of well-tested methods. If it can survive the trials of scientific rigor, it can change the way an entire field works.

In business, entrepreneur heroes are those who are driven to make a change in the world. They face external and internal obstacles and emerge (hopefully) victorious.

A product or service hero can change the way people interact with their environment if it can overcome the challenges of design, production, and finding its niche. Some products, like the iPod or AirBnB, will change an entire market or the way society interacts.

The consumer hero can change their own lives and possibly the lives of their family or business by using a particular product or service, if they are willing to take the chance.

Picking the hero who will lead your story matters. They will be associated with the story, a singular image or individual that refers to the story you want to tell.

Who’s the hero in your story? Use this free Who’s Your Hero Worksheet to learn more about your hero!

updated 23 March 2022

Posted in Story Structure and tagged , , , .

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