I’ve had two suggestions about characteristics that are non-negotiable in heroes (of course that term is fraught with difficulties, but for the sake of expediency I’ll continue to use it for the moment). From Karen:
How about a rock-solid moral core? The hero can (and probably must) have serious flaws and weaknesses, but some fundamental part of the character, even if deeply buried, needs to recognize right from wrong.
But then there’s Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley — does he count as a hero?
and from Stephanie:
I think a sense of humor is pretty essential. Not that the protagonist has to be wisecracking through his dialog, but he should at least recognize things that are absurd.
I think these are good characteristics to start with as basics (again and always, for me personally, when I’m reading or writing).
A character can have a fairly serious demeanor most of the time and still be capable of playfulness (crucial, in my view). Personally I’m also drawn to a dry sense of humor, which probably follows from the fact that the Mathematician is a Brit. When the Girlchild was about ten, we rented Monty Python’s Holy Grail. She asked him if she could watch it, to which he said: “Can you watch it? You must watch it. It’s your cultural heritage.”
The issue of a moral core is a little more complicated. I think I know what Karen means by “rock-solid moral core” — I know what it means for me, at least. For other people it may mean (it almost certainly does mean) something else. More important, I think the main point for any writer to remember is this:
the fuel that drives any story is conflict, which has to exist both external to the main characters (to move the plot along), and within them (to move the characterization along).
Let me see if I can say that any more clearly. You can have a main character/protagonist/hero who is rock-solid morally, but you have to poke him a little, or there’s no drama. In my own story, Nathaniel has not one set of morals to live by, but two that are very different — one European in its nature, the other Native American. Elizabeth’s strong moral convictions are a source of conflict for her because she is torn between a rational world view and the religious beliefs that permeated every aspect of the culture in which she was raised.
As far as Ripley is concerned, he’s an interesting character specifically because he is amoral, but in a thoughtful and quite dramatic way. For me personally he can’t be a true hero, but no doubt other people see him as such. Then there’s somebody like McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, who is quite scary in a number of ways, whose interpretation of personal property is pretty lax, but who is driven by instincts that are (at least in part) admirable: he likes people, and prefers to see them happy; he dislikes authority, and prefers to challenge it.
I’m still thinking about other characteristics for my list of absolutes. I may take a break to write a little about the difference between story and plot, which somebody asked me about just recently.
I think that a character can only really be called a hero after they have gone through some sort of trial. They must be tested, so that they can prove themselves to be a true “hero”. Physical, mental or emotional, the test itself can come in many forms, but in nearly every great novel there is some hard trial or test of character that the main character(s) endure. If they can come out on top of that test, or at least not let it crush them, then they have proved themselves to be the hero everyone is looking for. The test to find out what makes a character a hero is more subconscious than conscious. They must have strength of character, and know what they stand for, but they must also be human enough for the reader to relate to and real enough to believe. A dry wit is good because it shows both intelligence and humor, which are both important. I believe a hero can be amoral as long as they believe in what they are and are able to always stand by it. There is no set definition for a hero, but there is a finished product that must pass the subconscious test of the readers.
I think you’re right that for the most part — and for the majority of readers — the evaluation of characters as heroic (or not) is a complex subconscious process. But of course if you also write, you can’t leave it at that, you’ve got to dig in, down deep, and figure out what the subconscious is really up to. It’s actually one of the sacrifices you have to make, I really do think, if you want to write. You give up some of the mindless pleasures of reading.