Think back to your favorite story. Picture the main character, the one that led you across the journey from the safe beginnings to the chaotic ending. Remember the grit and determination of that heroine (or hero). Now, in 1500 words or less, explain why they are such a great character.
Just kidding. This isn't English 101. This is FtW, and the only homework you have is to write your gorram face off every day.
What makes a character memorable? On the flip side, what makes them forgettable? How do you prevent your protagonist from ending up in the trash pile with all the other cookie-cutter action heroes of the past? Well, let's take a look at two amazing leads to see what made them compelling characters to follow.
John McLane - Die Hard Series
First, let's address the elephant in the room. I am only talking about the first three Die Hard films. We're just going to pretend that the rest don't exist. Why? Because they are garbage. We can argue that out later.
Take a look at Detective John McLane. He's brash. He's tough. He's relentless. When terrorists take over the Christmas party of his estranged wife, he is separated from his loved ones, his gun, and his shoes. It is literally his worst nightmare come true. To make matters worse, he's a New York cop in Los Angeles, and no one believes him. Even worse, it's the 80s, so he can't just take a video of what's happening and SnapChat the cops.
What makes him a compelling hero, though? It's not his rippling abs (he doesn't have those) or his long locks of golden hair (he's going super bald). It's the fact that he is human.
One of the reasons Die Hard is incredible and Die Hard 7: We're Not Even Trying Anymore is a sack filled with double-stuffed diapers is the fact that, in the first film, John is just a regular guy. He doesn't win his fights easily. He can't just shrug off wanton acts of carnage and terror. He gets scared. He gets tired. He wants to give up.
The most iconic scene is John McLane in a bathroom, pulling shards of glass from his bare feet. He's in incredible pain, broken mentally, and ready to just die. He talks to his only friend, Reginald VelJohnson, and breaks down. Things aren't going to go his way, and he knows it. This is where he will die, and he just wants his family cared for.
In screenwriting terms, this is the Dark Moment of the Soul. The hero faces their greatest defeat and has the chance to give up. By making the decision to carry on, despite KNOWING the risks ahead, our heroes become even greater. They are accepting the chance of death because to do nothing is far worse.
John McLane was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He wanted to give up. He wanted to die. But he rallied. He unleashed every last reserve of strength and took on monsters, saving countless lives. He was a hero because he chose to overcome his fear of failure.
Ellen Ripley - Aliens
You could write novels about Ellen Ripley. In fact, some people have, but that's not why we're here. Ellen Ripley is the protagonist of the Alien franchise. She's an engineer and a space-trucker, doing a blue-collar job for a faceless corporation. She is also a "wrong-place-wrong-time" kinda gal, but there's even more to her.
While Alien was a "monster in the house" movie, Aliens takes the franchise to a whole new level. It is, in many ways, the best sequel ever performed. (In another way, Terminator 2 is the best sequel of all time, but that's a list for another day).
Awakened from cryosleep, Ellen Ripley learns that she has been adrift for over half a century. Her family is gone, all of her loved ones are dead, and she is alone in a new and terrifying universe. Worst still, a colony has fallen out of contact in the same zone where her nightmares began. She is asked to lead a team of Space Marines down to investigate.
I don't want to spoil the movie in case you've been in a cave for the last 30 years, but this is the beginning to one of the best movies ever made. Ellen and her team discover a colony destroyed by xenomorphs. The penis-faced monsters pick off the leathernecks one-by-one, eventually separating Ellen from the lone-survivor/surrogate-daughter Newt.
Now Ellen is no softy. She faced her fears in the first film, taking out the titular monster while wearing only her skivvies. But this is a war against the aliens. She needs to up her game. Luckily, one of the handsome Marines takes a liking to her and teaches her the ways of war. She's no John Rambo, but she can hang with the best now.
But remember, the aliens are literally the source of her nightmares. She cannot handle the horrors she's seen, and is constantly fighting off the paralyzing fear of death at the hands of these demons. But when Newt is in danger, Ellen draws upon cryonically frozen reserves of mom-strength. She duct-tapes a flame thrower to an assault rifle, wades into the alien Queen's lair, and start F'ing S right the F up.
Let's be honest, though. That's not the scene that cemented Ripley as the heroine we all wish to be. At the end of the film (damn, I am just a spoiler machine today), Newt is cornered by the Alien Queen. The Marines are dead or knocked out, and only Ripley can save the day. But she has no weapons...except for a mechanical forklift/body suit. She straps into the mech, charges into the room, and stares down a fifteen-foot-tall hellbeast.
"Get away from her, you BITCH!"
This was a moment that elevated Ripley beyond just being a good character. She was a true hero. She wasn't just facing down her fears, she was challenging them to a punch off. She entered the arena and thought to herself: I'm going to win.
On Thursday, we're going to dive deeper and look at just one character, following them on their "Hero's Journey" so we can deduce what really makes a great character.
Until then...STOP READING. You need to be WRITING!