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Why I Hate Your Hero

April 21, 2012

This post contains swearing.


This will probably be the first of a series. There’s a lot of things I hate about heroes. So this shall be hesitantly titled:

The Teen Edition

This is a list of problems that crop up a lot – in both published and unpublished fiction. Some are just personal bugbears, most are just bad writing; all of them make me lose any sympathy I had for your protagonist, and thus, your story.

1. The Mirror

Oh, God, the mirror. Thank God for the mirror, huh? How else would I be able to get a list of your character’s facial features? Every single one. As if, just this morning, they have finally noticed their own avatar they’ve been using their whole lives for existing on Planet Earth. Gee, thanks, Mirror.

If it’s a girl, don’t forget to mention how she think she’s not exactly pretty – but she hears other people talking about how sexy she is all the time. Because, of course, if she admits that she does think she’s sexually attractive, that would make her a skank. You don’t want her to be a skank, do you?

Don’t stop at her raven locks, though. I need to know what she’s wearing! If this were the early 2000s, I’d be expecting Hot Topic – but luckily, time has moved on. It’s all corsets now! Some people say she’s a goth, but she doesn’t think so. Because labelling is dumb. And this pushes her boobs out. Which is awesome. But not too much because then she’d be a skank.

Speaking of her boobs – they’re pretty big. Which is amazing, considering she’s skinny as a rake. But also curvy. Yeah – curves in the right places, skinny, boobilicious. Totally like a real human being, and nothing at all like Barbie. Except those girls with huge tits. They are skanks.

Guys – you’re largely free of this step. Count yourselves lucky. However, even you can’t escape the next part…

2. Birthmarks – The Mirror Strikes Back

Also, tattoos, weird symbols, scars, etc…

Firstly, I get this. I do. This step is not bad of itself. It’s just handled horribly.

The hero is branded (no, not that kind of branded…). It’s a mythic thing, part of the hero’s journey. I can go with that. The hero is special. That’s why there’s a whole book about them.

Oddly-shaped scars a la Harry Potter, I can deal. Birth-marks in the shape of a perfect star/moon/fuck-knows-what which no one finds a bit odd? At least Harry’s scar was magical. And everyone kind of dealt with that. Because magic. If your character isn’t the Chosen One, and this is not some scar of an earlier event, stop it. There’s plenty of time later in the adventure to get scars. Heroes get cut up all the time (see: Frodo and That Cave Troll They Brought in Moria). Try something interesting.

More subtle versions of this trope are nice to see, though. For example, Garion, of The Belgariad fame, has a shiny-looking burn scar on one palm which he keeps covered in dirt and grime because hey, he grew up in a kitchen and probably touched something burning hot as a toddler, right? Wrong, this is a huge Chekhov’s Gun that will kick ass later (like, several books later) which at least I didn’t see coming.

Bonus points if they run their finger over said mark whilst examining it in the mirror. Even though they’ve had it all their lives. And have never once questioned it.

3. First-Person Perspective – Return of the Mirror

Of course, this description whilst the character stares gormlessly at themselves is all in first-person. It doesn’t have the side-effect of having them come across as narcissistic douchebags with nothing pressing to do this morning. And it definitely doesn’t look like you modelled the character on yourself- excuse me, your dream self.

Even with the best of intentions, it’s hard to shy away from this implication when using first-person perspective. And some teenagers are genuinely narcissistic, and you’re trying to get that across. I know. Just be self-aware, and you should get the balance right.

If you were looking for advice instead of a sarcastic rant; I tend to use another character’s perspective to describe my protagonist – using their impressions to help the reader form their own, before diving into the hero’s mind and learning about them from the inside too. This is decidedly shaky, as opening your novel with a character who is not your protagonist Does Not Always Work. Patience, grasshopper.

4. Look At All This Stuff!

Wow. Your character has loads of nice clothes (which, hopefully, you have lovingly described previously in front of that mirror). And that new phone they IM people on. And their own TV. And loads of games for the Xbox.

What’s that? Those are souvenirs from a trip to Disneyland?

Damn, and their house is so modern and spacious too. And the garden. They must love it here. I bet their parents have a pretty good income.

“No, shut up – my parents totally suck! They don’t do anything but invite snobby friends over and get drunk and have lots of sex, and they never do anything for me.”

Huh. My mistake.

5. “It’s not just my parents; everyone sucks!”

This is not Teen Angst. Teen Angst is totally acceptable (in, you know, measured doses) for this genre. Parents don’t understand them. They hate being the unpopular kid at school. Little siblings are the manifestation of the Devil. This is fine.

If your character bad-mouths people for, essentially, not being them – this becomes a problem. Something horrible happens to a guy at school? They don’t care because “He’s a jock who plays on the football team, so he’s probably a total jerk.” Um.

People try to be friends with them? “No. No one understands. How could they want to be my friend? I bet they’re just using me. I. What? Bonus points if your character is just paranoid; but none at all if they turn out to be right. Either way, I’m bored of this protagonist.

As you may have suspected from above, this trope in its worst incarnation falls on lady characters. That’s right – The Skank. A girl at school is popular. She has a boyfriend. Maybe several. She’s outwardly sexually attractive, and she knows it. Hey, even…promiscous.

Not only does our cleavage-touting corset not-goth of a main character find this repulsive in the female specimen; she finds it justification for said girl’s life getting screwed up. In pretty much every way. Including rape. I wish I was joking.

Usually, the Skank doesn’t even need to be a bully to our heroine (but it helps). Also, she’s stupid. Must be all the space in her brain getting squashed out by her massive skank breasts. Women who are loud, attractive and confident are Evil; girls who are quiet, monogamous, and less busty are Good (both Heroine and Best Friend, usually) but still attractive, just in a less ‘showy’ way. Girls who are flat-chested, plain, or fat don’t exist, or else they’re basically boys. Or rather, they’re basically unattractive boys – so why pay attention?

Bonus points if your hero and your skank act almost identically re: sexual activity; but one is considered great and empowering, and the other is considered slutty and lacking any dignity.

Wait…did I say points? I meant, bonus smacks around the head.

If Skank is skanky purely because she’s chasing hero’s Love Interest with her breasty, sexy ways, and hero knows she’d be right for him (and chases him with the same conviction, but without all that dirty, promiscuous business), then congratulations, you get all the bonus points and can NEVER WRITE AGAIN.

6. Kick the Dog / Save the Cat

Another thing the screenwriters will doubtless explain better in the comments below. Save the Cat is the moment early on when your protagonist does something nice. Or at least, something not douchey. Gives a homeless guy some money. Sticks up for the geeky kid at school. Helps his sister with his homework. Whatever.

It’s pretty well telegraphed – even people who don’t ‘know’ this part, know this part. They’ll feel it coming.

If your character misses this, if he strolls on by, he’s dead to me.

I am not exaggerating. This is where we go ‘Huh, he may be a jerk, but he’s good somewhere. I can relate to him long enough to keep going.’

Doesn’t matter how reprehensible he is before or after. Give us one moment.

Even worse than walking past saving the cat, is Kicking the Dog. Making your hero do something douchey straight off. Laughs at the fat kid. Trips someone up. harasses a young women. Whatever.

This is fine if he’s Jerk Hero who learns to change his ways. But be careful.

7. Orphan / Everyone Leaves In The End

Yeah, being an orphan probably sucks. Being orphaned since childhood probably sucks really, really hard. And it’s a forgivable trope. It’s not so much overused as just a staple food by now. It fixes problems: the hero can go have adventures with no limitations, less characters to flesh out, automatic woobie, no drive for hero to want to Go Back To How It Was Before. OK.

First off – the Dickensian Orphanage. I don’t know what they tell you about England – but it is not full of stern grey mansions waiting to deliver children into rainy misery. It is full of grey, mansions, and rain, though, so you’re half-right. To my knowledge, orphanages (or their modern-day equivalents) are no longer run by nasty ancient women who use the cane, they do not serve broth, and this is not Jane Eyre. Stop it.

Similarly, I don’t think they let you become a foster parent if you’re a neglectful fuckface who drinks a lot and beats kids and has several nasty fuckface children who are likely to bully Orphan. I’m sorry. Cinderella was a long time ago.

This stuff may well happen, but probably only occasionally, and definitely not enough to warrant every hero ever coming from this broken foster home, ‘nobody wants me’ background. It’s not a pet shop where the one drabby-looking kitten is left behind whilst its cute brothers and sisters get sold to nice couples.

If you’re writing historical fiction, of course, go right ahead. That shit was brutal.

“But wait – there was this one person who was the only foster parent to ever be nice to me. And I called them Mum/Dad, and they were so cool and gave me loads of stuff and taught me everything I know, but they died horribly and now I have to go back to the orphanage and…”


“And because of this previous hurt, I have decided to trust no one! Even when it would make this story significantly easier. Because the plot demands it! And I’m wounded!


Also, as a side-note: Harry Potter. Dead parents, sucks. Nasty aunt and uncle, bullying cousins, cupboard under the stairs…yeah. He fulfills your poor little orphan.

Remember how he grew up to be a misanthropic little bitch and never let people help him and was so standoffish and cool?

Yeah. Me neither.

8. “Also, I can sing.”

Oh, fuck off. Unless this story is all about singing, and your character is a singer.

“I can sing so well it brings people to tears.

No. No. Off you fuck.

9. “My life has always sucked. But TODAY, I will change it.”

Rule of Plot: Your opening sets up the situation your character is in. If things do not significantly change, your character will die, physically or spiritually. The story opens at a critical moment, even if your protagonist does not know it.

If your protagonist’s life has always been shitty, and today is equally shitty, and they’re the kind of person who does nothing to combat the shittiness, I find it hard to believe that this day, of all the others, they suddenly sit up and go “You know what? Now I will take life into my own hands!”

Wha? Where did that motivation come from? It takes a certain kind of person to be a hero. And that kind of person does not sit around for months/years before thinking ‘Gee, if only I changed my situation, I’d be a fulfilled human being.” Heroes can’t stand that. They have to fix things, they have to be active. They have a motive.

That sounds like a nasty chunk of re-writing, but never fear. This is simpler than you think. Today just has to be the shittiest day so far. They can snap. They can say ‘You know what? I just cannot fucking take this.’ The last thing they were holding onto crumbles underneath them. That’s all it takes for them to rise from Everyman to Your Hero.

But it has to be something. Today has to be different.

Don’t think all these above examples are limited to fan fiction; I have seen this stuff published. Published.

As always with these kinds of things – everything above has been done successfully, rules are made to be broken, these things aren’t bad themselves, yadda yadda. Just be aware before you stomp all over them.

When I get the chapter two, I want to be invested. I want to care. Make me love them.

What’s an early turn-off for you character-wise? Specifically teeny would be nice, but any genre.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2012 3:13 pm

    My biggest “hero turn off” is the overconfident, reckless, womanising, wisecracking, smug “badass” 20 something. Like Kirk in the newest Star Trek film. They need to fuck off and die screaming with sharp things in their heads.

    I don’t mind those characteristics individually or together, but they never give them proper flaws, just how people don’t see how /wonderful/ and badass they are yet. Grrr. It’s like they never want these people to struggle with anything other than fighting their way through the action scenes and getting everyone to realise the universe revolves around them.

    Take Tony Stark, he’s pretty all those things I listed except “20-something” but he’s a recovering alcoholic guy who’s putting his life on the line everyday for no reason other than it’s the right thing to do even though he could live the ultimate life of hedonistic pleasure. Yes. And he’s kind of a jerk and plenty of people in universe don’t/didn’t like him because of it. Also he has proper reasons to be smug. He’s really badass.

    OK, that was kind of completely not what you asked but what the hey. To be honest, I’m not much of a fan of teen characters in genre fiction. I never really believe they can survive and win when the badass mentors always drop like flies and the experienced supporting cast do bugger all. Except Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. They are bamfs. Also Zidane.

    • April 21, 2012 4:09 pm

      Yeah – I could just about stand Nu!Kirk because I suspected (OK, hoped) it was character development. Like – if he acts the same way in the next film, then I will be pissed. Because then this wasn’t about how he learns to tone-down being a jackass and use his flaws/characteristics EFFECTIVELY; it will have been about how no one understood how GREAT he was all along, and that’s why he’s a good starship captain.

      If he learnt from the 20-something douchebag phase, I can cope. Because the other characters kind of saved that movie. If he continues to be a prick, I’m just going to assume he learnt nothing, and none of those things were considered real flaws so much as ‘Look – he doesn’t know how to talk to women without trying to get them in bed. Isn’t that cute?’

      Yeah, I always panic when the mentor dies and the hero is Not Ready (as far as I am concerned). I’m like ‘How are we going to get through this now? Why the fuck didn’t you listen to your training, Protagonist?’

      And then they muddle through anyhow by using douchey character traits from Before instead of stuff the mentor taught them. And I call bullshit.

      • April 21, 2012 4:27 pm


        I could forgive douche Kirk, but I was /really/ annoyed at the end when they gave him command of the Enterprise permanently. Um…why? He was a disgraced cadet that had snuck unboard the fleet flagship (surely that’s a Court Martial right there), got thrown off the ship and then snuck back on board (thanks to Spock and Scotty ,not anything /he/ did) and emotionally browbeat the Acting Captain and basically stole control of the ship, then showed no leadership skills or strategy and decided to go down with ONLY Spock, the only person on the ship actually qualified to command it, in a suicidal mission to defeat ALL THE ROMULANS who have phasers that’re like, 200 years more advanced. Instead of, y’know, the security staff. Or Sulu, who has advanced combat training.

        That wasn’t good leadership. It was luck, abuse and piss poor decision making. Why not give an /actual/ Captain the /flagship/?! Or just Spock! At most, Kirk should have got a medal and a pat on the back with a commendation on his record. Nu!Kirk doesn’t have charisma or leadership skills. They could have made the next film about Kirk actually becoming Kirk, instead of letting douchey, untested. Kirk essentially be the MOST IMPORTANT CAPTAIN IN ALL OF STARFLEET. //endrant

        I bet Nu!Picard wouldn’t stand for Kirk’s shit. He’d be all like “Tea, Earl Grey, hot.” to the Replicator, take a sip, then throw it in douche Kirk’s face. //reallyendrant

        • April 21, 2012 4:45 pm

          No – I do agree. I only forgave the wallbanger plot ending because, really, we knew this film was setting up This Is The New Trek Universe Now. And accepting that Kirk was going to be the captain was just part of the deal – however stupid the plot got.

          However, your alternative sounds quite appealing. Medal for being thoughtful/useful, even if you did fuck up protocol – go away and be a real cadet, also well done on that Kobayashi-Maru thing.

          I could totally believe it if film two opened with ‘Look, Kirk went back to the Academy, and now he’s an officer and he worked his way up the ranks and now he’s a captain and NOW they have given him Enterprise because everyone remembers he was a bit of a BAMF last time.’ I can buy that as having happened in the interim, and now Kirk is…you know, KIRK.

          I mean…at least he didn’t get the girl (yet).

          If there’s a love triangle subplot between him, Spock and Uhura, I will vomit in the cinema.

  2. April 21, 2012 3:29 pm

    What turns me off? Aside from EVERYTHING you’ve mentioned here? Well…

    Boarding schools for teen vampires. Boarding schools for teen ‘not-too-showy-but-boobalicious’ vampires, sepcifically.

    Teens who have no motivation other than sex. No. Other. Motivations.

    Sterotypes of teens rather than actual teens. The Gay One. The Black One. The White One Who Wants To Be Black. The Texan. The Derp. The Beautiful But Not Too Boobalicious Hero Who Doesn’t Know HOW Popular She Is.

    English teens who are either “YEAH, YOU KNOW? RIGHT. YEAH.” and get drunk because they’re British and it’s cool. They’re messy, loutish punks. Or the bookish Brits who are schollarly and perfect gentlement/ladies because, well, England is still living in the 18th Century, right? English school kids live in libraries and speak Olde-like, right?

    Mostly: The House of Night series. It needs to just… Ugggggggggggggh.

    • April 21, 2012 4:12 pm

      Yeah – the more ranty I got at the top of this post, the more I realised I was just angry about House of Night. Just, all of it.

      I think what annoys me is that Boarding School For Teen Vampires could WORK. I believe in it! But, dear God, no.

      I hate when their motivations are covered up as something else – but if you follow it back far enough you realise OH WAIT IT IS JUST ABOUT SEX. I wonder if these people have ever met a real teenager, or if they just WERE that narcisstic as kids :/

      I think most interpretations of Brits on anything makes me angry. Especially if their family owns a mansion. I just stop listening.

      • April 21, 2012 4:29 pm

        I believe it could work, too! But as of yet, I have not seen it done well. It makes me weep a little. Mostly because this shite is popular anyway. I still don’t understand the bashing of Twilight over The House of Night series. Twilight is MASSIVELY popular because, unlike THoN, it’s really not that bad. It’s really not. And yet, THoN series still glares down at me from every teen bookshop shelf ever. Every single one. It’s difficult not to tear them down and say: THIS IS WHAT WE SHOULD NEVER WRITE EVER AGAIN. READ THIS ONLY BECAUSE YOU WANT TO WEEP AT THE STUPIDITY AND CASUAL RACISM/OFFENSIVENESS TO ALL PEOPLE.

        I don’t think I’ll stop being angry about it.

        • April 21, 2012 4:55 pm

          I mean…I hate both – so I’ll put it in perspective.

          I don’t like Twilight. I read book one, it really wasn’t my thing, I didn’t like the relationships, and I *personally* didn’t find Meyer’s writing to be very good.

          Am I surprised it is popular? No. I know exactly why people like it. I am not offended by its existence on the planet. (I am slightly offended by the really really rabid Twihards. But I am offended by most rabid fans of stuff I LIKE).

          Do I think some of the messages regarding young women in relationships were concerning? Yes. The audience is not a sponge, but I wasn’t too cool on the ideas being put across. Not my thing. Whatever.

          In comparison, THoN is one of those things were I go ‘How the fuckity fuck did this get published? Who thought this was a good idea? Who even managed to write these words without vomiting?’

          It’s not promoting slightly worrying messages to teenage girls, it is blatantly misogynistic. “Girls who display sexuality are dirty and horrible and deserve horrible things. Except me. Because I don’t display my sexuality DISGUSTINGLY.”

          It’s this other kettle of fish. I don’t know how someone can own it on their bookshelf. Twilight at best, really popular, and at worst a guilty pleasure. But if you enjoy THoN, I think you don’t understand the universe you live in. Or sex. Or, really, anything to do with social encounters.

  3. May 2, 2012 9:13 am

    I love this post, I love this blog, write more, write forever, and I will read every single last word.

    And yes, do I hate this shite. My main character thinks he is a competent badass…but he’s too busy being an incompetent moron to act on this assumption.

  4. May 17, 2013 2:09 pm

    Reblogged this on Lemon City III and commented:
    An old post but one that is still grand. Read the rest for amusement and thought-food.


  1. “JFGI” Needs to Die in a Hole | Lemon City III

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