Heroes. We all write about them. They’re kind of necessary: They propel the story, readers identify with them, they are the way we write stories that provide some kind of cathartic resolution to implacable problems. (For both our readers and ourselves.) Heroes: can’t live with ’em, can’t write without ’em.
Wait–“can’t live with ’em”? Yeah, because heroes are larger than life. It wasn’t because Superman lives such a dangerous life that he couldn’t marry Lois–she got into as many scrapes as he did–it was because he would never have any time for her. And as hard as heroes are to live with, they’re just as hard to write.
To be interesting, to be believable, a hero has to be flawed. All of us are. Somebody like Superman or Doc Savage, we can admire them, live vicariously through them, but we can’t relate to them. That’s why they have associates, assistants, friends. Watson is our way in to Holmes’s world. Even Godzilla movies have some kind of human story going on alongside the mayhem.
That’s one way to humanize a hero, although it’s not direct. The direct way is to make him more like the rest of us, scrape away some of his superhumanity. Batman has a tragedy in his past. While we can’t relate to putting on a mask and a cape and swooping in on armed bad guys, we can understand loss. But if you go too far, you risk making your hero–not a hero. How far can you go before your hero is no longer heroic? Where is the line between hero and villain?
It’s interesting that if you actually go way beyond that line, you reach anti-hero territory. Superman kills Zod, and the public screams. (I, for one, won’t watch that movie.) If Batman machine-gunned the Joker and his entire gang, his readership would vanish. (Okay, probably not completely. There are people out there who will read anything.) But let John McClane commit a mass killing, his movie gets three sequels. You skip over “villain” altogether.
So we go from hero through villain and end up at (quasi-) hero. With such a broad spectrum available, where do you fit in the “he’s just like us” part? It isn’t easy. But if you want a relatable character, you have to find a way.
Ironically, if you try to humanize a villain, you do it exactly the same way. And then things get really interesting.