There are four critical pieces of character information that should anchor every character-driven story. Once you've learned to quickly and clearly define these key hero characteristics, writing the story itself will become much simpler.
And getting them wrong can derail your story before you ever start writing it (and maybe even lead to costly revisions).
In today's article, we'll explore all four of these ultra-important hero characteristics and talk about why they are essential to your story arc.
But first, because the words "hero" and "characteristics" can mean different things to different people, let's be sure we're on the same page about those definitions first.
Then, I'll share my top tip for making the smart choices that will shave time off your first draft.
What are hero characteristics?
One of the most satisfying things about writing romance is having the freedom to borrow elements from nearly any literary genre. We excel at crafting stories that bring hope and happiness because we focus on positive transformations. Only our creativity can hold us back.
Whether you're writing a romantic hero in the traditional literary sense, a Byronic hero, a tragic hero, an antihero, or just an everyday Jo, there are four specific types of traits your hero's characterization must have.
For our purposes in this article, a "hero" is defined as any character who becomes a better or worse version of themself during the on-page story. (Anyone who has any kind of growth arc, even if it's a fall arc.)
That means these hero characteristics are important for not only your main protagonist, but also potentially for your other romantic lead(s) and antagonist(s).
Every person is the hero of their own story, so understanding the essential traits of all your key players will help you build a rich, layered plot and story world for readers to immerse into.
Characteristics are simply strong feelings or beliefs the hero possesses during their transformation in your story. Or, in the case of one very special trait, something they are missing. We'll talk more about that one later.
In my work as a fiction editor and storytelling educator, I call these four hero characteristics the Essential Core Values.
Grab a pen and some paper real quick. As you read through today's article, jot down a short list for each of the Core Values below. If you're struggling with a current work-in-progress, these lists may illuminate what you've been missing. If you're brainstorming a new story, your list items can start you out on the right track.
The first of the four Essential Core Values—the most story-relevant and sometimes most difficult to correctly identify—is the character's Need.
Every person alive needs something. (Usually, we need several things all at once.) Physically, we need air to breathe, water to hydrate, and food to sustain us. Without these, we will die. Our physical needs are required for our survival. That's what makes them needs and not simply desires.
But humans have other needs too, and these emotional and psychological needs are just as important because living is about more than maintaining a heartbeat (even if you're writing a vampire).
The pyramid below shows some examples of different tiers of human needs. Each builds on the layer below it, so we have to fill our needs from the bottom up.
For our story purposes, Need is the characteristic that pushes the hero past their Fear and enables them to become their best self.
As romance writers, our characters' needs are the juiciest, most consequential piece of their story. Need is what directly drives the hero's entire growth transformation (even when they experience a fall arc and become a worse version of themself by the end). In order to grow and evolve, our characters must understand their most urgent need and either fill it or avoid it altogether.
The second Essential Core Value your story must have is what the character is afraid of. Just as every person alive has needs, we also have many fears. And our fears range in severity from things we'd rather not to experience to things we would die to avoid.
Fears can also be physical, emotional, or psychological. And as a storyteller, you can harness one or all of these types of fears as part of your character's goals, motivations, or conflicts.
Finding your character's Root Fear for any given story can be trickier than it seems.
Click here to learn 2 quick techniques to tell the difference between a Surface Fear and a Root Fear (and examples of how different Root Fears can vastly change the direction of your story).
From a story perspective, a hero's Fear is the thing they dread most at a particular point in their life. It is what holds them back from fulfilling their Need and finding true happiness just before and during the story's time frame.
Fears are often rooted in a person's Void—more on this below—or Wound.
Wound is a Supporting Core Value that is important enough to deserve its own dedicated article.
Click here to learn how to choose the right Wound for your character (plus, a really fun resource that will make you smile!).
Desire is a tricksy hero characteristic that sometimes confuses writers.
It seems simple enough—what does a person want?—but fears and needs can sometimes present themselves as desires. Does the character want to feel something? Acquire something? Accomplish something? Avoid something?
Identifying what a character Wants against what they Fear or Need can be challenging. When you start listing out your character's desires, ask yourself these questions:
Because all the Essential Core Values are so closely intertwined, it's easiest to identify Need first, then work outward. But if you already know the hero's Want or Fear, you can use that to work backward to figure out their most relevant story Need.
To complicate this particular hero trait even more, there are two different types of desires: internal and external.
External wants are usually tangible or measurable things the character aims to acquire or accomplish, like getting a promotion at work or winning a race. Internal wants tend to reflect what the character craves emotionally, like feeling loved or useful.
If you're struggling to identify your character's GMCs for a story, keep in mind that the Goal should be measurable and achievable within a specific time frame. So avoid using internal desires as Goals and focus on tangible external wants instead.
The three previous Essential Core Values are easy to understand. As humans, we know what a fear feels like. We understand what it is to desire something. And we have personally experienced how needs can be vastly different from (or confused with) wants. But Void isn't so straightforward...
A character's Void is their emotional gap. It is the basic human experience they are lacking.
Void is something that we have up-close and personal experience with but that can also be difficult to identify. Because we don't usually think about what we're lacking. We instead focus on what will fill that gap (want or need) or ways to avoid acknowledging that gap (fear) altogether.
But as storytellers, we have to look at emotions analytically. And Void is the heart of every single character-driven story. It is where Need comes from. It inspires Fear and Want. And it can be really freaking hard to nail down.
Using my Need examples from earlier...
There are different ways to fill the Void for every situation above. Some of those story choices may lead the hero to darkness and some to enlightenment, some to happiness and some to despair.
Your hero may choose an easy path early in their story, then realize the healthier path is actually the harder one (an example of growth arc). Or, vice versa, the character may start off taking a healthy path to fill their Void, then decide the darker route is easier or faster (an example of a fall arc).
Needs are situation-specific, where Voids are higher-level concepts. You should be able to express your hero's Void in a single word. Here are some additional examples of possible character Voids:
A character's Void is the foundation for their story transformation. When you can't dig any deeper into a character's psyche to expand on the real root reason they Want, Fear, or Need something, you've found their Void.
Wants, fears, and needs can be directly mapped to story or character Goals, but Voids are the underlying motivation that drive every choice.
How hero characteristics (Core Values) anchor your story
A person cannot achieve happiness on a psychological or emotional level while they have unmet basic physical needs.
If you don't have a place to sleep or access to clean water, finding a forever partner or becoming a respected influencer is probably not high on your list of priorities.
If you struggle with financial security and worry you'll lose your home, being in top physical shape isn't going to drive your day-to-day decisions.
So when (in a character's life) a story is set matters. This is the most important decision you will make when you're creating your character's story arc.
Because what a person needs early in their life may vary drastically from what that same person needs later in their life. Your story is a snapshot of a phase in your character's life, so their Core Values should reflect what is most relevant during that time.
The easiest way to denote which of your hero's many characteristics matter most for their on-page story is to define their Essential Core Values with a capital letter.
Start with their full list of the 4 critical types of hero characteristics—have you been jotting them down on your brainstorming list?—then narrow that down until you've identified the one or two for each type of trait that are most important to their on-page story transformation.
All their needs -> Their story Need
All their fears -> Their story Fear
All their desires -> Their story Want
All their emotional gaps -> Their story Void
As we dig deeper into the topic of character Core Values—especially when we talk about they tie into a character's growth arc—all of this will make more sense. For now, the most important thing to understand is that these four crucial hero characteristics—their needs, fears, desires, and emotional gaps—are the foundation of your story itself.
So you should consider making a list of them (and ranking that list) before you write (or finish) your first draft.
Thoughts and comments
This was a pretty heavy article, so let me know what questions you have or if you're confused about anything I talked about above. These Core Value definitions are essential to building a character and story that resonate with purpose, feeling, and relatability, so it's super important to really understand the differences between the four crucial hero characteristics.
Because Core Values are high-level concepts, they can be difficult to understand until you see them mapped to actual story examples. As you work through your current WIP, writing courses, or self-paced learning resources and make new discoveries about crafting powerful character transformations, feel free to revisit this article to reinforce what you've learned and glean even more new insights.
Core Values take some time to truly grasp—especially the difference between Need and Void—so be patient and kind to yourself as you wrap your brain around these core concepts.