Every good story has a protagonist. That’s the guy or gal you root for. In crime fiction this person may be a professional (policeman, detective, spy) or an amateur who get pulled into an extraordinary situation unexpectedly. Either way, this person is sometimes just a protagonist, but I prefer to read about a hero.
In my class on creating characters I discuss various character traits, including strong or weak character (yes, I used that word with three different meanings in the same sentence. Sue me.) I point out that villains can have strong character because a good villain has the courage to pursue what he believes in despite the possible consequences. Most of the hero’s character traits can turn up in villains: intelligence, toughness, bravery, loyalty, determination, patience, etc. Eventually someone will ask how we can tell our heroes and villains apart. I then point out what I believe is the one signal difference - the single important discriminator.
The hero will sacrifice for the good of others. The villain works primarily to promote his own ends. That’s it. Selfish vs. selfless. Regardless of all else, that’s what sets them apart.
Now it’s true that in some mysteries and thrillers the protagonist is simply a victim who fights back. “The Fugitive” is a crime story that starts with the protagonist just trying to avoid taking the rap for a murder he didn’t commit. An interesting idea, but I wasn’t having much fun until his objective switched to finding the man who murdered his wife. Still, I prefer Indiana Jones. The sequel to “The Fugitive,” “US Marshals” put Wesley Snipes in a similar position, but I much prefer the Blade movies.
When I created fiction private eye Hannibal Jones I decided to show that he is a hero even when he’s not solving a murder or saving a damsel in distress. So Hannibal is mentoring a young boy in his neighborhood. He volunteers at a nearby homeless shelter. And he never misses a blood drive.
Is it important for a fictional man to do this stuff? I don’t really know. But when I was a younger fellow I know how strongly I was influenced by Tarzan, Batman, James Bond, Doc Savage and even little Frodo. So maybe on some level I’m hoping that young people reading my books will absorb the subliminal lesson that anyone can be a hero, even if they never meet an actual villain. Hannibal is a hero in ways everyone can follow because real heroes need to set the standard for the rest of us.
If you’re a writer, I challenge you to make your protagonist a hero. If you are a reader, let me know who you think is or was a great fictional hero.