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Creating A Series Hero, by William Dietrich

Robin Hood is a skilled archer. Sherlock Holmes is brilliantly logical. Katniss Everdeen is courageously resourceful. James Bond is suave. Jack Reacher is an unstoppable Achilles. Indiana Jones has wit. Frodo is self-sacrificial.

Each of these characters is also rooted in, and reflective of, their historical time and place, even when that history is fantasy. The Merry Men would look silly in West Side Story, and Sherlock would be appalled by Dexter. James Bond is continually reinvented, but is forever rooted in the Esquire magazine and Playboy Advisor era of the late 1950s and early 1960s when the urban male looked to fictional spies who knew what to wear, drink, shoot, and bed.

I’d like to claim I carefully thought through my own Ethan Gage character when I started a series of Napoleonic-era novels, but in fact I didn’t have plans for a series at all.  He sort of happened, developing as I wrote.

Ethan’s self-deprecating sense of humor is inspired by fictional models such as George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman or good ol’ Indy, but I really just wanted a character whose wry views would help bring readers into the drama of the French invasion of Egypt in 1798. Then he wanted to come back, and I liked his voice. As an American outsider who can migrate between warring sides, Ethan becomes the ultimate insider, our historical witness.

If one is constructing a historical hero who will wear well, he or she must be good company. Common ingredients are intelligence, wit, a sense of humor, courage, athletic skill, attractiveness, and grace, which sounds like a check-off list for a dating website.

They certainly don’t need all these. Inspector Poirot was no stunner. Frodo was a shrimp, and Harry Potter a boy. But you need a character readers can admire and want to hang out with. They usually have moral courage, physical courage, or both, plus something interesting to say.

One thing that helps is an ethical center we can relate to. Reacher and Bond are killing machines, but the one is often saving a town and another the world. Ethan can be a scamp and opportunist, but he’s often the moral center around whom the more ambitious historical figures revolve. Merlin, Obi Wan, and Gandalf are ethical guides to a dark universe.

Another thing that can work is to make them figures of sympathy. Comic book heroes are often tortured loners uneasy with their powers but who become the last resort in a crime-ridden city. Their doubts make them human.

We like heroes with a skill. Ethan is a sharpshooter and knows something of electricity. Hans Solo is a good pilot. Carrie Mathison, the nutty CIA agent on television’s Homeland, is intuitive and driven. Her obsessions let her see patterns other miss.

Hannibal Lecter is terrifying, but he’s a clever psychiatrist whose skills become pivotal. Columbo is a dogged interrogator. MacGyver can improvise.

Is your hero young enough to age through a series? Or will she be ageless? Are the skills plausible? If your mountain man quotes Latin, what’s his backstory? Make their development plausible, and their personalities quirky.

And make them fun.


William Dietrich’s author website:

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Napoleon's Pyramids (Ethan Gage Adventure)The Rosetta KeyThe Dakota Cipher: An Ethan Gage AdventureThe Barbary Pirates: An Ethan Gage AdventureThe Emerald Storm: An Ethan Gage Adventure    KyddThe Twisted Root: A William Monk Novel

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Well said, Bill. And yet, even knowing the recipe for a strong series character, it’s like magic when they come alive like your Ethan Gage.

    January 1, 2013
  2. It’s complex, isn’t it, what makes a character enduring. As you say, it’s not necessarily tall-dark-and-handsome, but I suspect there has to be something likeable about them – Holmes would be nothing without the endearing Watson to be our representative in the stories. And although we may despair when Ian Rankin’s Rebus ballses up his private life again, we also forgive him, because he’s a knight errant in his professional world…

    January 2, 2013

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