Heroes… or protagonists… (yes, we heard you the first time, Sherlock!) must be unique. They must stand apart from the common herd in some way or another. Whether it’s shooting walls, being able to kythe, being able to resist the corruption of a Ring for well over a thousand pages, being an orphan, or the mentor of the Chosen One who is quite the Master in his own right, a hero is distinguished. A hero is idiosyncratic. A hero thinks for himself and doesn’t necessarily care (at least, by the end of the book!) what other people think about him or her.
Now, fellow authors, we are the lucky ones. We don’t have to make our characters look different from other people in the book (though, this can be a bonus at times), because we can use personality, ways of speaking, the thoughts running through their funny little brains, and so forth in millions of different ways to set our characters apart. They may be comparable to other characters and people in real life, but they actually stand alone when it comes down to just sheer feel. Movie writers don’t have this same advantage. They can’t go inside people’s heads in quite the same way that we can. Acting and television and plays for screen and stage present a very separate set of challenges. They have to set their characters apart visually and auditorily, using things such as hair color, limps, injuries, scars, having one person who’s obviously Irish among a crowd of Germans, having one Caucasian amid a crowd of Arabs, separate languages, and/or accents. These things can be an advantage to us who write books, but we don’t need them as desperately as those who write screenplays.
Sometimes, though, we must be careful of making our characters too unique, or overly powerful, or even the most sad and downtrodden. We’re trying to be realistic, so we really can’t afford to overdo it. This is one of the cases when less really can be more. One or two originalities? That’s good. Two or three? Just fine. But five or ten? That just might be too much.
Sometimes, it can just be enough to have the protagonist have a moral compass, especially if everyone around them is compromising their morals left and right. It may be enough to just have the protagonist be the most passionate when it comes to The Cause. It may be enough to have them love their family.
Even heroes need a reason.
I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for a moment that I am one of them.–Sherlock