From Apprentice to Master, part I

Surprised and delighted, the simple stable boy picked up the elegant sword in one hand and the tome of magic in the other. The quest awaited him, and he was only too eager to prove himself.

***

In many stories, the hero doesn’t start out a sword-swinging, spell-casting warrior already well-versed in the ways of war. Often, he’s just an average person who was thrown into something extraordinary. He’s got to leave his quiet life behind and grow into someone strong, bold, and brave. No matter how it happens, prophecy or tragedy, circumstance or happenstance, one base element remains the same: It has to be believable.

And that’s a really hard thing to do.

But yet, it’s been done, and many times. Authors are constantly throwing their poor laymen into situations that call for champions. They have the challenge of making someone who shouldn’t be very courageous or skillful into someone who can handle whatever fate throws at them. And there seem to be a lot of ways of doing that. Take these four methods, for example:

  1. Practise, practise, practise: practice makes perfect, and that means weeks, months, or even years of commitment. In Eragon by Christopher Paolini, Eragon learns sword fighting and spell casting through weeks of gradual training. This method takes a lot of blood, sweat, and time lapses.
  2. Magic knows best: sometimes, heroes don’t need to gain the required skills on their own. Magical artifacts or special powers might tell them what to do and guide their hands. In Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe, Wataru doesn’t need to worry about mastering swordsmanship or magic–his sword tells him exactly what to do at just the right moment.
  3. What can I say? He’s a Natural!: if the training or the external guidance isn’t your thing, your character can always just be what we call a natural, possessing an innate aptitude for things that usually require a lot of learning. In the movie The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Dave demonstrates the traits of a natural when he casts a spell without the aid of his ring.
  4. What they don’t do won’t hurt them: literally, if you don’t put your character in a situation where they need special skills, then they won’t actually need to learn those special skills. Skulduggery Pleasant: Sceptre of the Ancients by Derek Landy does just this. Stephanie can rely on good old Skulduggery when it comes to the serious fighting and magic, leaving her to do the simpler (but still important) tasks.

There are a lot of different ways to teach a character to be a hero, and it all depends on what the author is capable of writing. Being good at the option you choose is pretty important, because it can be hard to get a reader to believe in natural talent if there isn’t a valid reason, and no one will be interested in pages and pages of agonizing training–or be very convinced if you get fed up and squish a month of training into one sentence.

As a writer, I’ve had to face this daunting task before. My solution? I used a combination of 1, 2, and 4. I put my character through training, but gave her plenty of opportunity to rely on magic or else let others do the work. Sometimes, there isn’t a clear-cut path and you’ve just got to make it up yourself. This is what my gut told me to do, and it really works for me.

Turning an average Joe into a superhero is a tricky thing to do and doesn’t always turn out right, but I think it’s well worth it. I enjoy the inspiration that comes with believing that anyoneanyone at all–can become something of a hero.

As a reader, what do you think is the most believable way of turning an average person into a hero? And as a writer, what works best for you?

May all your heroes feel real and believable, no matter their heritages.

Alex

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