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Confessions of a Ghostwriter: Recipe for a Hero


A ghostwriting client (hereafter, ”Murphy”) hired me to write a coming-of-age fantasy. He’d written a proposed opening scene in which the reader meets a heroic character Murphy described as a combination of Gandalf the Grey and Obi-Wan Kenobi, both of which were appropriate to the role he was to play in the book—wise mentor to a young princeling. The feedback Murphy had gotten on the piece (which I later learned was from the professional writer who taught his creative writing class) had indicated that it had issues. I was to fix them and then continue writing the rest of the book.

There were a number of issues with the work, but the most crucial one was that the Hero at its center was nothing like Gandalf or Obi-Wan. He was surly, arrogant, demanding, self-aggrandizing and a showoff. He treated the people around him as if they were piece-scenery to be chewed upon then put in their places. My mandate was clear: I rewrote the opening scene and the protagonist according to the description Murphy gave.

Murphy hated it. The hero, he argued, must first appear in a literally heroic pose, standing at the bow of his ship looking to the horizon. He must be ”quietly but clearly in command” until some dock workers drop a crate of high-tech weapons into the shallows. Then, he must become a ”hawk, barking” at the men for their incompetence and assuring them that the weapons are worth more than their pathetic lives. They should appropriately quake with fear. Our Hero would demonstrate the destructive power of the weapons to make it clear to all that he was not to be trifled with.

Murphy characterized this as heroic behavior.

He further specified that the characters surrounding Our Hero—from his business steward to the master of his caravan—must be incompetent and buffoonish so as to make Our Hero look more masterful. For example, the caravan master couldn’t know the best route to their destination; Our Hero must tell him. Why? Because he must establish himself as the only character in the novel with attributes befitting a commander of men. 

The rationale, which came from the many ”how-to write” books Murphy had consumed, was that the stupider and more timid his underlings were, the smarter and braver Our Hero would seem by comparison. All other characters must be in awe of him—and we must tell the reader they are in awe of him at every opportunity. Only once in a long while should Our Hero show glimmers of subtler, warmer humanity.

Murphy had described this character to me to me as a larger than life man, outside of his times, a wise man who was watchful and used his power to great effectiveness, yet the behavior he insisted I portray made the character a bully who used his power arbitrarily to intimidate.

What’s wrong with this portrait of a hero? Lots.

  1. But if the reader is judging a character by his behavior (i.e. what you show them, rather than what you tell them), they might very well interpret the behavior of this character as a signal that he’s not a hero at all, but a villain. They might well decide in the first chapter that they must be intended to dislike and distrust him. Obviously, that’s going to affect the way they see him in his interactions with other characters or evaluate what they suppose to be his motives.
  2. The portrayal ran completely counter to Murphy’s characterization of the hero as Gandalf-like. Gandalf didn’t bluster and roar at people. Gandalf’s rage, when he showed it, was effective BECAUSE he so rarely showed it. He was also inclined to regret his anger as when he snaps at Pippin for being careless in the Mines of Moriah.
  3. If the protagonist is the only person onstage with an iota of self-command (think Captain Kirk in some of the early Star Trek episodes) everyone else is reduced to a piece of scenery . . . or worse. 

That last point is, to me, the most important: The idea that if you weaken the other characters it will make your hero look more heroic may work in a cartoon where you have to resort to shorthand to say “this character is strong.” But in a novel—or even an epic film—it sucks the texture right out of the work and reduces ALL the characters to two dimensions—including the hero you’re trying to build up. 

It works against what you’re trying to accomplish. 

Moreover, it risks making the hero too powerful and invulnerable, which makes him darned difficult to put in dire jeopardy.

Consider what it suggests about Our Hero if you reduce his lieutenants to comic relief. It suggests that this supposedly wise and great man hires buffoons to work for him. Would a wise and masterful individual really employ a caravan master who didn’t know the trade routes he relied on for his livelihood? 

Murphy was the owner of a small but successful firm, so I asked him if he would hire someone to oversee his business who wasn’t at least as competent as he was. Would he not hire the best and the brightest people he could? (He never did answer that question.)

Here’s the $100,000 question: How do you craft a believable, relatable hero? 

My answer: By understanding that an excellent leader surrounds himself with excellent people and wins their support and loyalty by being someone who values them and their abilities.

If you want a man to appear stronger you make him the master of men and women who are as strong as he is, or even stronger in their specialized abilities. The reader respects the character more because HE commands the respect of other accomplished people. 

Look at Gandalf. The once great Saruman was terrified of him. He commanded the respect of Galrond and Galadriel and Theoden. One of his most loyal companions was Aragorn—aka, Elessar, King of Men—who was himself great enough to inspire incredible loyalty and love in men and women as great as Boromir, Theoden, Eowyn, and Arwen. These are not comic relief characters or weak characters. They are all strong, vivid, excellent people.

If you craft an unlikable hero, your reader may not like him enough to finish reading your book. If you make him two-dimensional, he will not stand up under scrutiny, and the reader may wonder why other characters care about him or follow him.

In Murphy’s case, I expressed my willingness to make the character darker and more taciturn and to keep the shape of the scene with the loss of weapons. BUT I proposed (strongly) that we make the value comparison not between the weapons and the lives of the porters, but between the weapons and a casket of gold and jewels that also takes an ill-timed plunge. I begged Murphy to let me make the protagonist more subtle than the swaggering, roaring, bellowing bully he had written in an opening sequence he admitted was flawed. I also begged him to let me give the caravan master the smarts required to be a caravan master in the first place. I reiterated that consigning him to the role of plucky comic relief would only make Our Hero a master of weak, stupid men, which is not nearly as impressive as if he is a master of strong, smart ones. 

“Trust me on this,” I said. “Or, if you don’t trust me, trust JRR Tolkien.”

Did he trust me? That’s a theme for a future article.


2 thoughts on “Confessions of a Ghostwriter: Recipe for a Hero”

  1. Typical behavior of the tyrants and dictators who fail: they surround themselves and appoint to all the important posts those whom they believe incompetent enough to not challenge their own power and authority, and thus make them — and their own bullying — safe. See, o, for instance, VPutin, the racketeer, etc.

    1. I tried to make that point with Murphy—that the behavior he saw as heroic dovetailed with what he also saw as despotic or narcissistic or bullying. In fact, there was just such a character in the book whose behavior was uncomfortably similar to Our Hero’s in the opening scene. I’m not sure that Murph ever really understood the problem with that. I think it bears noting that the only difference between your Hero and your Big Bad cannot be merely which team they play for.

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