for writers: 16 characteristics of a hero on a journey

Ya gotta start with an interesting character.



Really not what I meant.

My project ideas usually start with a premise or concept, but I can’t write the story until I have a picture of the main character.  (mc)

I wish I was like Jack London, who reputedly wrote his stories down once, in longhand, and sent them to his publisher.  We mere mortals have to write…and write…and revise…and write…and then revise some more. 

Because the interesting thing is…while your hero journeys…he changes, and not always in the ways that you expected he would.  Or he may end up where you planned for him to go, but he veers off course for awhile.

Of course, your hero can be a girl, or a dog, or a toaster if you are so inclined.  I will use the pronoun “he” because it’s the easiest to type.  (Excuse me: “keyboard.”)   

Remember, I’m talking about the hero’s journey as it pertains to writing.  While these criteria may be hard and fast for ancient myths and sagas, we writers can play fast and loose with the rules.  IT’S GOOD TO BE A WRITER!!!

And now, without further ado or disclaimers…


1. He is the mc.  No way around it.  He is the protagonist, the causer of action, at least for most of the story.

2. Often has an unusual birth.  He might be the child of royalty or a god or the president.  He might have been switched at birth or been born in secret.  He might float into bull rushes, be the son of Zeus or Brittany Spears.  Poor kid.

3. Sometimes he is told before the main body of the story that he will be or do something unusual.  Perhaps a scarfed gypsy tells his new mother that her child will save the world, or a piano teacher tells him he will revolutionize music.

4. He might have a unique talent that makes the reader like him, and sets him apart from the crowd.  A supernatural green thumb.  Plays the nose flute.  Talks to dogs.

5.  Must be capable and resourceful.  If he’s not, you’ve got a comedy.  Or a mess.

6. Is often overly confident.  We all know where that will lead.

7. He can’t live by your rules, Baby.  That doesn’t mean he has to be obnoxious about it, but he is the one who shakes things up.  He’s a rebel, but there’s reason behind it.

8.  Usually a stoic.  Slap him, whap him, make him bleed from his body or his proverbial heart, he can take it.

9. Can have a smart mouth, stemming from that rebel, stoic thing.

10. Brimming with courage, or learns to brim with courage along the way.  That’s pretty much the point of a HERO’S journey.  Who the heckfire wants to read about a sniveling coward?  Buck up, Pops!

11. He is successful at his job.  This goes along with competence and courage.  If our hero can’t master his own livelihood, we’re not going to believe that he can complete his journey.

12. He is often so goooood looking.  Manifesting his inner qualities on the outside.

13. Conversely, he is maimed in some way or wounded in his soul, before the journey starts or along the way.  He may be a hero, but he’s also human.  The reader MUST identify with his suffering.

14. Sometimes he’s physically superior in some way.  No, numbers 13 and 14 are not mutually exclusive.  Superman runs faster, jumps higher, stops a speeding bullet, etc., but kryptonite renders him a quivering lump. 

15. He might have a special mark on his body.  Harry Potter, anyone?

16. Lastly, our hero must have idealistic motives, at least somewhere in the journey.  He will sacrifice himself for others.

So go ahead and write you mc’s bio.  Make him unusual, interesting, apart from society.  When he’s someone you wish would walk in your front door, you’re ready to start his journey.

Next time:  What happens BEFORE stuff happens.


About Lisha Cauthen

Lisha Cauthen writes YA novels for guys that girls like to read too.

Posted on August 28, 2008, in childrens' literature, hero's journey, writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on for writers: 16 characteristics of a hero on a journey.

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