A grand adventure needs an inspirational hero. Not just a cool person in a fancy suit, but someone to believe in. It's not quite true that a science fiction or fantasy story is only as good as its hero, but the hero's greatness is certainly a limiting factor. Here are 10 essential qualities a hero ought to have.
Top image: Flash Gordon by Al Williamson.
1) Being Unique in Some Way
And no, this doesn't have to mean that the good guy is "the chosen one," or the subject of a particularly juicy prophecy. The hero could just be the youngest captain ever to command a starship, or the only human ever to take on a particular mantle. Or maybe the "good guy" is just the smartest man or woman in the room, or the one person who stops to ask the tough question before rushing into a situation. Something has to make this person stand out, from the beginning.
2) Being an Underdog, or Outgunned
Even if your hero has the coolest gear or the best superpowers in the universe (see item #9), we can't really root for someone who doesn't face impossible odds. There's a reason why "Caves of Androzani" is still considered the best Doctor Who story of all time, or why the most popular Judge Dredd stories involve him crawling through the Cursed Earth or dealing with an overwhelming force attacking Mega-City One.
Heroes save lives, including the lives of ordinary people. And caring about the vulnerable people who get in harm's way during all the heroics is part of what makes someone a hero, as opposed to an anti-hero. When we see that someone has compassion for people who are in trouble, and this forms part of his or her motivation for action, this helps us invest in the character. Honestly, the bridge scene where Spidey rescues that little kid was probably what sold me on Amazing Spider-Man, despite some reservations.
4) A Sense of Enjoyment
You know, having fun. Enjoying fighting bad guys and saving people, and doing stuff that most of us can only dream of doing. There are two problems with a hero who doesn't ever seem to be having fun (even in a grim fashion) with the heroism: 1) It reduces our ability to enjoy his or her exploits vicariously. 2) It's less realistic. If you or I strapped on a jetpack and zoomed around, we'd be bloody thrilled. Terrified, but thrilled.
5) Beliefs. That are Tested
A real hero believes in something, has principles — and yes, subscribes to an ideology of some sort. Even it's just "With great power comes great responsibility," or whatever. Even if we disagree with some aspect of a hero's beliefs, we respect someone who believes in something. Lately, it feels like there's been a move to strip big corporate-owned heroes of their last vestiges of ideology, so that the hero never makes any definitive statements of what he or she stands for. This is a mistake, because it winds up just making the hero another random combatant.
6) Loyalty to Someone or Something
Likewise, it's pretty important to see a hero showing loyalty. Not necessarily loyalty to a country, or to an organization — but loyalty to someone or something. An anti-hero might double-cross his or her friends, but a hero probably won't. We have an easier time admiring someone who is loyal, and imagining ourselves as that person. But also, you want to be able to fantasize that if this hero really existed, he or she would be loyal to you.
7) A Goal, or Mission
A hero who doesn't have a goal is, by definition, just going to be reactive. Until the villains do something to further their own agenda, the hero is just sitting around drinking weirdly colored drinks and trying to get laid. Kind of a boring person, in other words. The best heroes have their own agenda, or have a goal they're trying to achieve, which goes just beyond "Stop Lord DarkHeart from blowing shit up."
8) A Line He or She Won't Cross (But Might Dance Along)
Again, this is something that separates a hero from an anti-hero, probably. Maybe your hero won't kill, or won't sacrifice innocents to achieve his or her goals. Or maybe killing is okay, but there's something else the hero won't do. Seeing what the hero won't do is just as important as seeing what he or she can do. And there's automatically more suspense in seeing people make a bad situation worse, because they won't take the easy way out. At the same time, seeing the hero almost cross a line, or dance up to it, is also a fascinating prospect.
9) Cool Gear or Abilities
A truly escapist hero is someone who embodies our fantasy of being able to do some great things. Like flying without an airplane, or knocking down buildings, or teleporting ourselves across long distances. You can't really be a great escapist hero without having some awesome powers or some neat gear.
10 A Fascinating Sidekick or Posse
And finally, a hero needs cool friends, or a great supporting cast. A fighter for justice and truth who doesn't have any interesting backup is automatically less memorable, as well. That common state of affairs where the hero's sidekick or funny supporting cast is more interesting than the hero? That's actually the sign of a great hero, because those interesting, funny side characters are all resting on the hero's shoulders. And in turn, they're making the main character seem more interesting.
Like Max Landis says, sometimes superheroes have a tendency to be too much "super" and not enough "hero." So here are some ideas for the qualities that we'd like to see our heroes have.