In my opinion, Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the greatest movies of all time. The main reason for that is the well-defined and crafted lead character of Indiana Jones.
Back when George Lucas & Steven Spielberg were creating the character, they had wanted him to be like James Bond, but in the vein of the old 1930s/40s serials that they grew up watching in the movie theaters and later on TV.
But they knew they had to make this character much different than Bond, if it was to truly be original. In their brainstorming sessions, they realized that Bond was kind of a “superman” one-dimensional character. He was skilled in the spy trade and cool in everything he did.
Most of us aren’t like Bond. We have insecurities, weaknesses, character flaws and other imperfections that make us unique as individuals. We also try our best to mask these flaws as best as we can.
But in the realm of storytelling, these flaws are what gives a character dimension. Flawed heroes seem more relatable to us. Why?
Because deep down, we recognize many of the same insecurities in us…even if we try to hide them. There’s a subconscious “rooting for” those protagonists that makes them more likeable.
Does your protagonist need to be a “hero” type? Not at all. They can be an “Anti-hero”, someone who you may not be rooting for in the story, but through whom the story is told. But for the sake of this article, I’m talking about a hero protagonist.
Indiana Jones fits the bill. His main Achilles heel is his fear of snakes, obviously. But he’s also vulnerable to the point where several times in his adventures, it’s not quite clear whether or not he’ll make it out alive. One of my favorite lines from the original movie is Indy’s “It’s not the age…it’s the mileage,” right after that epic truck chase sequence where he took a major beating before capturing the Ark. (Only to lose it again…)
Granted, this being a Lucas/Spielberg collaboration, it was a safe bet he’d be around in the end. If Raiders was written by George R.R. Martin, then, well…
But I digress.
Other character traits of Indy that make him more relatable include his complicated romantic past with Marion Ravenwood, his attachment to his trademark Fedora, and his skill with the bullwhip.
We all have something we’re good at. Whether it’s martial arts or the accordion, by the time we’ve grown up, we probably have a hobby or skill that we’ve developed to a high degree.
The hero’s weaknesses come to play in the story as obstacles that keep them from their goals. That way, the successful ending (if that’s what you’re writing towards) is earned rather than “Deus Ex Machina”-ed (literally “God in the Machine”…when the hero is “supernaturally” saved) into the narrative.
When writing my protagonist Brian Baldwin for Cyber Fighter, I wanted to give him a transformative story arc. So I wrote him as clumsy and physically awkward. That way, when he acquires the fighting skills from the MSDC program, he’s almost instantly transformed, much like a superhero’s origin story.
But just because you suddenly get new power, you don’t just erase all of the demons and ghosts from your past. Brian also has a lot of insecurity buried deep down. He thinks that with his new skills, it will be suddenly purged, but there are various times in the book where he faces an opponent who is much stronger/faster/better than him and it shakes him.
Only by confronting these demons and overcoming his fear (and with a little help from his new friends), does he survive.
So how do you, as a writer, come up with a more interesting hero/heroine? Here are my top 3 techniques:
1. Load them with a physical or psychological flaw. This flaw will make the obstacles they face that much harder to overcome.
2. Give them a skill that they’re really good at — one that can come in handy at the right time in your story. This could be a physical skill, or mental ability — even a wicked sense of humor.
3. Make sure that the goals they achieve are earned — they need to work for them instead of being “saved” by other forces. If your story has a bittersweet ending, have them learn something from the adventure.
Now, a caveat… not all stories need or benefit from this type of protagonist. But you can pick and choose some of these traits for an anti-hero, and even for a memorable villain or antagonist!
I’d love to hear your thoughts on your own characters. And if you’re interested in reading more about Brian Baldwin’s adventures in Cyber Fighter, click HERE to get the novel in Kindle or Paperback on Amazon!
If you’re partial to audiobooks – click HERE to get the Audible version of the novel!