Sometimes the character who makes a mark on your soul isn’t the hero. It’s someone talked about or on the periphery. The character may act heroically and even be the protagonist, but something needs to be withheld or it becomes too easy to put the character into a box.
I could argue that humanized characters (in both fiction and nonfiction) are easier to emulate, but truly inspirational characters, those who fire us to go beyond imitation, have a mystery about them. If you seek to put wonder in your stories, knowing how to create these characters can be valuable. I’ve been putting together some ideas on what might work, and I thought I’d share them:
Mystery - The easiest way the character can break out of frame is if he or she has elements (usually in the backstory) that aren’t revealed. These are often hinted at. Think of the gossip about Gatsby’s war record and how he acquired his wealth.
Accomplishments - It can’t all be rumor. There needs to be evidence of capability and achievement. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch’s legal skills are on display. But a moment of action that creates wonder is when he shoots the rabid dog. Here’s a talent that was hidden to Scout but implies worlds of possibilities.
Courage - I love characters, like Dorothy, who can face down a wicked witch. But the ones you never see sweat provoke a different response. When I was a kid, this was the typical silent cowboy hero. (Clint Eastwood played this character a lot.) And, for an eleven-year-old, James Bond could do the job. Many historical heroes (Lincoln, Columbus, Teddy Roosevelt) fit this model before revisionist histories became a thing. I’m still in awe of Hannibal because he brought elephants across the Alps to take on the Roman Empire. And I know nothing about this foibles.
Contradictions - As long as the story still feels authentic and classically heroic, it’s fine to have moments that are difficult to explain. The point is to open doors, not close them. Like a koan, two pieces that don’t quite fit can imply something bigger. As Whitman said…
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Most importantly, an inspirational character needs to be larger than life. Something about him or her must reach beyond normal talent, behavior, or capability. And this must be demonstrated.
There is a sideways approach, where the character is humanized, then made inspirational. These are creation stories that end with the character with new, untested powers. Lots of comic hero origin stories have this coming of age aspect that adds to their power. As long as they end before too much is revealed, there can be wonder. I’ll note that many of these creation myths begin with something humble or miraculous — born in a log cabin or of a virgin. Somehow, setting the character apart or spared (the one who lived) suggests greatness. Elvis Presley, a man from humble beginnings and also the twin who lived, got off to a fine start.
Mythmaking is ripped apart in our culture… and also indulged in. Don’t be afraid to have an anecdote about your inspirational character chopping down a cherry tree or splitting rails. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to include fate or a prediction.
Some things to avoid…
Don’t make the inspirational character the viewpoint character. Both Gatsby and Finch have their stories told by someone else.
Be careful about showing doubt or internal struggle. Inspirational characters may evoke complex emotions, but they tend to be simple. Feet of clay will only limit the possibilities.
Resist the urge to use humor in a way that could undercut the greatness of the character. Humor is a great leveler, so it is dangerous to these characters. Go ahead and put humor in the draft, but be ready to cut it.
The ending for an inspirational character eliminates possibilities. There is a temptation to make these character into martyrs. Generally a bad idea. Unless they come back to life.
Overall, lean more toward Greek Mythology than toward Christianity. Men becoming gods (or demi-gods) beats a God becoming a man for THIS purpose. Again, not in terms of moral guidance or identification. (I’m not trying to make a statement on how to live. I’m just presenting a writing choice.) Wonder transcends the ordinary, and an inspirational character may be just what you need to tell your story.