The problem with heroes (and I’m including female heroes in that) is that next to the mecurical, alchemical, charismatic villan of the piece, they often seem a little bland.
I’ve been reading Edwin Drood. Several men could be seen as the hero of the book, and they’re all very nice. But the character I want more of, the character I’m fascinated by is the villan, Jasper John.
Even Mr Rochester and Heathcliff only really work because, with their dark brooding looks, violent tempers and mysterious pasts, they are pretty much villans in disguise as heroes. (As is Sherlock Holmes, to a certain extent.)
So to make a hero interesting, perhaps he should lean towards the dark side. My favourite graphic novel hero is John Constantine, who maybe on the side of the angels, but only just, and who is so steeped in villany it’s hard to tell the difference between him and the bad guys.
Heroes should have flaws – usually a could-be-fatal flaw. Shakespeare’s best heroes do. Romeo’s overwhelming, blinding passion and hastiness, Hamlet’s prevariaction, Othello’s jealousy. A flaw that could drive them close to the edge, or even over it. A hero who is his own worst enemy is always good. (Although if I have to read about one more alcoholic detective, I may turn to actual crime myself).
And a weakness. Not necessarily a flaw, but a weakness. Poirot’s weakness for fine food, Miss Marple’s weakness for gossip. Not terribly heroic traits, but very human. Even a liking for fine antique furniture or cheap prints of Paris. Something that you or I could have a weakness for too.
And importantly, (I think) a hero should have a sense of humour. Not necessarily laugh-a-minute, roll round on the floor jokes, but humour. They understand a joke, or the ridiculousness of the situation they are in. They sometimes crack a joke themselves – it doesn’t have to be a good one. One of the most appealing things about Thursday Next is her ability to tease (especially people who call to the door claiming that Marlowe was Shakespeare) and generally, have fun.
And they should love. Even the most cold-hearted, cynical, closed-off hero should love with all their heart and soul, at least once. James Bond does it. George Smiley does it. Even Sherlock Holmes loves, in his own way (you just read The Three Garridebs). Love can be their weakness, their fatal flaw, or their salvation – but love like that (especially if it is unrequited, for a while at least) is what makes the reader’s heart beat faster, their breath catch, makes them want to read on just to see if they get the one they love.
In short – heroes should be like us. Not perfect, not untouchable, but a mass of contradictions and doubts and passions and temptations and weaknesses and sudden, unexpected strengths.