When I was training as an actor, my director and mentor Sandra stressed one thing in the creation of character above all else: negative goals will get you nowhere. The same is true for writing and for life in general. Using positive action verbs, we can reword and refocus what you’re trying to accomplish. Instead of focusing your writing and character creation on avoiding cliches, turn around your purpose; what you’re really looking to do is create an original hero who is 1) believable and 2) doesn’t come off as a caricature of heroism. Why make that distinction? Simple: because now we can look at tropes.
Tropes get a bad rap because a lot of young writers don’t understand what to do with them. Tropes are tools the writer can utilize when they’re building their world and designing the roles of their characters and how they play into their plot.
Heroism and the traits that define a hero are not inherent; they are the results of the hero’s journey, and they grow and adapt throughout the character’s individual story (independent of your actual plot), and you have to keep that in mind. It is difficult to define solely heroic traits, because a trait is made heroic by the context. Reticence is not inherently a noble trait, but in the face of an interrogation upon which the fate of a village of innocent people lies, it becomes the defining trait of your hero.
The hero’s journey is a trope-ic progression both for plot and self discovery. Without going too far in depth on it (though I can, if you need more guidance), it’s an archetypal story pattern defined by Joseph Cambell (in The Hero w/ a Thousand Faces) and, later, Vogler (in The Writer’s Journey) and easily identifiable in stories throughout written history.
You aren’t falling into a cliche by following the hero’s journey; you’re writing well. Good writers can use, and do use, the same moral discovery structure over and over without it becoming tired, because the circumstances, the stakes, and the starting point change, regardless of the end-game. The Hero’s Journey in specific, in all forms, generally consists of:
- The Departure: the Hero leaves the familiar world behind.
- The Initiation: the Hero learns to navigate the unfamiliar world of adventure.
- The Return: the Hero returns to the familiar world.
So, to make your character stand out, you need to take that progression and create something unique from it. Whether you choose to move the entire hero’s journey inward, a mental conflict and resolution that takes place entirely within your character’s head, where his heroics are defined entirely by his denial of his own urges, or instead choose to focus on grey morality where your hero’s series of horrible, immoral action is justified and made heroic by his protection of humanity, the specifics are what makes your writing your own and cannot be dictated for you. Through the use of the Hero’s Journey as a premeditated plot device, however, you can convince your reader of the most important thing: Whatever your hero’s actions were, they must be justified. It doesn’t matter if a hero’s actions are proven just by the universal truth of your universe or by their own misguided belief; in order those actions to be considered heroic, the reader has to believe they were justified.
If you remember nothing else, remember that, and begin your own journey into Heroic writing today.
Useful and related tropes: