What Makes a True Hero? Announcing the Winners of the Writing Fantasy Heroes Contest

What Makes a True Hero? Announcing the Winners of the Writing Fantasy Heroes Contest

Writing Fantasy HeroesThree weeks ago, we asked Black Gate readers to tell us about their ideal hero in one paragraph or less. It could be a fictional character, or a general description of those qualities that make a hero ideal.

In return, we offered to award a copy of the new book, Writing Fantasy Heroes, edited by Jason Waltz and published by Rogue Blades Entertainment, to three lucky winners.

Those three winners will be randomly drawn from the list of all the entrants.

Before we announce the winners, let’s have a look at some of the best entries. As much as we’d like to, we can’t reprint all the entries we received, so we’ll limit it to the 20 we found most insightful, well written, or original. We’ll start with Daran Grissom, who tells us an ideal hero is:

Someone who, when confronted by the possibility of adventure, enters into it reluctantly, but with determination. A man or woman with a unique trait or skill who is delivered, by fate or vocation, to a place where he or she chooses to go above and beyond what is reasonably asked of them. An exceptional person, in exceptional circumstances, doing exceptional things. That is a hero.

A fine summary, and we’ll see plenty of examples in the next 19 entires — including Han Solo, Conan, Kane, The Gray Mouser, and of course John Wayne.

Han SoloBrandon Blackmoor invokes Han Solo, Sanwise Gamgee, Conan, and Fritz Leiber’s Gray Mouser:

The most interesting heroes, in my mind, are unaware that they are heroes. Heroes do the right thing, but they rationalize their motives. The end result of such a hero’s actions may be grand or epic, but their motives are not. They may act out of what they believe to be self-interest, like Han Solo, or loyalty to their friends, like Samwise Gamgee (or Han at the end of Star Wars), but they rarely if ever have their eye on saving the world. So one of the key aspects of a hero is a lack of awareness of their own motives. A secondary trait important to heroes is a willingness to violate social norms. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” This is true of heroes in general. Han Solo was a smuggler. The Grey Mouser was a thief, as was Conan. Samwise Gamgee was a gardener, but Tolkien was deliberately playing against type in making Frodo and Sam the heroes of his epic. Finally, a key component of a hero’s personality is empathy. Empathy is the key attribute that distinguishes a hero from a villain. Heroes and villains actually have a great deal in common (a willingness to use violence to solve problems being chief among them), but it’s empathy that really sets a hero apart. It’s empathy that makes a hero defend someone being attacked. It’s empathy that keeps a gardener from giving up when it looks like all hope is lost. It’s empathy that makes an avowed scoundrel return to a battle and put his life and livelihood at risk to fight a hopeless battle against impossible odds. So a hero has three primary traits: a lack of awareness of their own heroism, a willingness to violate social norms, and empathy, but the greatest of these is empathy.

Magi'i of CyadorLee Kemp references two volumes of L.E. Modesitt Jr’s Saga of Recluce for his entry:

Author, L.E. Modesitt Jr., has written two books (Magi’i of Cyador and Scion of Cyador) whose main character is named Lorn. Lorn represents the ideal hero to me because he believes in something greater than himself and will fight for that ideal. In his case, it is the empire of Cyador that brings light and prosperity to dark, barbaric lands. He does whatever necessary to preserve this empire from both internal and external enemies and, in the process of the two novels, rises to become Emperor. His progression requires him to overcome ruthless plots against him, political intrigue, and impossible military campaigns. His success reveals a man who becomes a hero by putting the greatness of his land before his own greatness. Such devotion and singular purpose to something greater than oneself can potentially make the world a better and brighter place.

Gru’ud Squinteye brings the argument back to the idea of an internal code:

To me, regardless of stripe or strength, the Ideal Hero must have an internal code that they follow, one that is inviolate and steady; who always prefers what is right to what is legal. He (or she) may feel occasional temptations to stray from this path, may sometimes wonder at the value of their rigid adherence. But in the end they will do what is proper, even to his (or her) own detriment. Such heroes often run afoul of whatever Liege or Law may rule the lands that they travel, but can sleep soundly in their shackles knowing they have done what is right. Anyone, from cutthroat to king, can be this type of hero, if they have the will for it.

Here’s J.A Woods:

Well, I like a bit of variety in my heroes, but I’d have to say I’m most drawn to the mundane, almost grim kind. Heroes that aren’t born or divinely ordained to save the world. The sort of hero that is essentially an every day Joe or Jane, who find themselves tossed into extraordinary situations and find their own way to do what they think is best for better or worse – preferably letting their sword lead the way.

Conan the philosopher, on what is best in life
Conan the philosopher, on what is best in life

Chris La Tray gave us the inevitable movie quote to describe his idea hero:

He crushes his enemies, drives them before him, and listens to the lamentations of their women.

David Roach tells us there’s nothing special about true heroes:

A true hero is someone who has made a decision that others wouldn’t normally make. A true hero chooses to try when the odds are against them. A true hero is morally conflicted, and will do things that aren’t so good for the greater good. A true hero is no better than the opposing force, no stronger than the general populace. A true hero is nothing special, just a person who made a choice.

Here’s Anthony Simeone:

A real hero knows that self-sacrifice is overrated. What good are you to the helpless masses if you’re dead? Heroes need to stay alive long enough to actually become heroes. This means they’re not just skilled at swinging sharp pieces of steel or weaving reality into foe-rending spells. They’re also resourceful when it comes to the mundanities of existence. So a hero is probably just as good at hunting, cooking, sheep shearing, and the gamut of other practical skills just like the common folk they protect. Therefore, heroes are pretty much like you and me. They’re just a little better at saving the day.

No list of heroes is complete without John Wayne
No list of heroes is complete without John Wayne

BG blogger Barbara Barrett was the first (and only) person to reference John Wayne:

John Wayne once said: “Courage is being scared to death – but saddling up anyway.” My hero or heroine is not a fictional character. It’s each one of us who climbs back in the saddle to face head on whatever comes our way.

Author Sean T. M. Stiennon’s entry is:

My ideal hero is the man Don Quixote believes he is: The Knight of the Woeful Countenance, a man standing in contradiction to the corroded spirit of his age, pursuing his heroic path without regard for the opinions or prejudices of others. His actions are measured against a golden standard of virtue, not by the fluctuating standards of convention and social approval. Heroism is easy if it means only doing what will earn praise from others. It’s hard if it means doing things that are right in themselves, even if pursuing them means being mocked and scorned. Also, every hero needs a sidekick like Sancho Panza, for a steady supply of folksy proverbs and slapstick hijinks.

John McCollum writes:

My ideal hero is flawed. This may sound strange, considering we’re talking about an ideal here, but I believe I have a sound case. Heroes are often shown as paragons of whatever field they choose to specialize in, be it wrestling monsters like Beowulf or slinging spells like Gandalf, and it is cool to imagine them doing their thing and looking spectacular in the process. However, it is when those paragons show weakness that they become truly interesting to me. Beowulf faced a dragon when he was older and less sound physically, and Gandalf had to duel Saruman, by all appearances a superior wizard in skill and rank. These heroes were not entirely successful in meeting those challenges, but without their sacrifices and setbacks their stories would become dull and uninteresting to me. This stems from the fact that it is hard for me to relate to a perfect hero, because he is so different from me with my own foibles. I look to the imperfect hero then, not strictly because of his weaknesses, but because he can inspire me to be like him in trying to overcome personal flaws. I think this is the root of true heroism, not in the perfection of deed or in show of strength, but in the ability to inspire others.

Kane in Dark CrusadePeriklis Begzos mention some classic anti-heroes, including Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane:

I’m thinking of K.E.Wagner’s Kane or T.C.Rypel’s Gonji. They wear different shades of morality, carry their swords on different hands (Kane is always presented left-handed), come from entirely different cultural backgrounds, but both represent the Outsider (and to a lesser extent the outlaw). They’re also agents of resolution in their fictional universe or in Gonji’s case, an agent of Destiny.

Stuart Roe writes:

A True Hero does what needs to be done, despite having every reason not to.

Concise, and hard to argue with. I like it.

Christopher Heath sums up the ideal hero this way:

The ideal fantasy hero is equal parts brains and brawn, cunning and capability. He is one who considers his choices with the weight of consequence, and while interested in self-gain, is guided by a secondary moral compass —- which, more often than not, gets the hero into more trouble than he would like. Magic is regarded with suspicion, but also as a tool to be used, to temper steel and strength, to vanquish enemies stronger than mortal humans. The ideal fantasy hero is one who is an outsider, even among his own, and haunted by his past in some form or another, but struggles nonetheless to make sense of the world and himself, usually questioning the roles of fate vs. choice.

Here’s Barbara Blackburn, who for years was my editor on my long-running review column in Knights of the Dinner Table:

One of my favorite heroes is a character I’m running in a Hackmaster game – a female dwarven cleric of The Face of the Free, who is dedicated to fighting slavery. Since being marooned on an island, she has risen above the desperate condition, and gathered other stranded refugees to free at least 26 slaves held by various powerful factions. She is not beautiful or what someone would think of as a hero, but, she has heart that drives her. The first thing any hero needs to have, in order to be a hero, is a cause or belief in something bigger than himself, something that motivates him to give and fight and sacrifice more than he would for his own good. He has to be someone with compassion for those who need help. That’s why I like playing in roleplaying games, to feel like a hero, the kind I admire the most.

Guillermo Cantu tells us:

My ideal hero has a strong core of values and beliefs, most of which fall within was is usually considered good, but he’s been hardened by the world and doesn’t look at it trough rose-colored glasses, thus making him sometimes seem cruel or cold to more idealist people. His main motivation derives from his values and/or beliefs, not by personal gain. He’s a driven person, willing to stand up and act for what he believes is right. He’s a natural leader, and though he doesn’t look for positions of power, he tends to be placed in them by those surrounding him, and he doesn’t shy away from the responsibility. And finally, for better or worse, he always sees things through to the end.

The Silver SpikeTony Den, from Pretoria, South Africa, points us toward Glen Cook’s The Silver Spike:

My ideal fantasy hero would be someone who combines the virtues of strength of character, confidence and a personal code of ethics. He need not be perfect (boring Lancelot types) or extremely strong – although being able to muscle out of a difficult situation usually helps – so too does guile. Conan I believe embodies these attributes and is still the arch type hero. However in modern days the anti hero has become popular, as well as the more fallible type of character who grows to become a hero. So in a nutshell the modern fantasy hero should eventually become the arch type hero but should start with somewhat humbler origins, either as a villain who becomes a hero or as the less popular type who grows to become one. A good example of the latter would be the one character, whose name I forget, in The Silver Spike by Glen Cook. He starts as a pretty stupid thug but over the course of the novel changes and becomes a likable guy who can be identified with, a hero because he evidences that one can grow and change and develop a conscience.

Here’s Daniel J. Davis:

In fantasy literature, heroism is usually violent work. There are dark lords to be vanquished, monsters to be slain, and evil hordes to be routed. Dress it up in any kind of language you want to. The bottom line is that before things are over, lots of people are going to die on the end of a sword. Those who have walked in such bloody shoes are always different for the experience. They exist in a world apart. To the reader, the greatest fantasy heroes feel like they belong in that world. No, they don’t all have to be hard-bitten mercenary captains. They could be farm boys setting out to protect their loved ones, with all of the fear and uncertainty that entails. But by the end of their journey, they have to feel like veteran adventurers. They have to feel like the kind of people that would take risks and fight battles that the rest of us would run from.

Logen Ninefingers on the cover of Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself
Logen Ninefingers on the cover of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself

Here’s a pithy entry from Bob that invokes a character from The Blade Itself:

My Ideal Hero is the flawed hero. Someone who is not perfect. Logen Ninefingers is the prefect hero. He’s so screwed up, yet he tries to do right.

And finally, here’s James McGlothlin on altruistic actions:

A true or ideal hero is an individual that is able to accomplish something that most would consider to be an important task (or tasks) that many of us could not accomplish either because of our lack of physical or mental ability or due to a lack of character of some sort such as a lack of fortitude. However, it must be emphasized that a true hero is more than one who simply accomplishes such difficult endeavors and thus merits our praise due to his or her amazing performance. In addition, a true hero performs such feats for the good of others. And moreover, such altruistic actions are done by the ideal hero naturally. In other words, the true hero desires to accomplish such tasks, despite their difficulty, because he or she wants to help others. The true hero does not overcome obstacles out of duty but purely from of a virtuous character.

And thus we come to an end of our selections of the best entries in our “What Makes a True Hero?” contest. I hope you’ve learned something. I sure have — including the fact that I need to read The Silver Spike, and watch more John Wayne movies.

But now we turn to the winners of our competition. All valid entries in our contest were listed in a spreadsheet, and then we generated three numbers using the only scientifically-proven method of true random number generation: D&D dice.

We are pleased to announce that the winners of a copy of Writing Fantasy Heroes, compliments of Rogue Blades Entertainment, are:

Lee Kemp
James McGlothlin
Chris La Tray

Congratulations to the winners!

All three winners, experts on heroes as they are, are invited to read their copies of Writing Fantasy Heroes and share their thoughts in a brief review here on the Black Gate website.

We’d like to thank Jason Waltz and Rogue Blades Entertainment for providing the complimentary copies.

Writing Fantasy Heroes is edited by Jason M. Waltz, with a forward by Steven Erikson. It was published by Rogue Blades Entertainment and is available from Amazon.com and other fine distributors for $14.99 in trade paperback. The terrific wrap-around cover is by Dleoblack (click on the cover for a bigger version). You can read Sarah Avery’s review here.

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Hey John, sorry I missed this. Since I agree with a lot of what was said above, I’ll just add a little personal color. Alan Dean Foster in his Star Wars novelization he wrote as “George Lucas” produced one of my favorite quotes about heroism as an opening epigram:

“They were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Naturally they became heroes.” – Princess Leia Organa

I think that’s the one common thread in many of my favorite heroes. Given other circumstances, they would have led ordinary lives and been remembered only as the neighbor who pitched in that time the tornado tore the roof off your house. But they happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Max Rockatansky would have been a good, probably decorated, highway cop, the world just happened to fall apart on his watch. If it weren’t for the Napoleonic Wars, Horatio Hornblower would most likely have been a schoolmaster somewhere whose big achievement in life would have been a math textbook he wrote become a standard, allowing him to live quietly as a country gentleman. Most of Hitchcock’s heroes made one tiny decision that ended up putting their lives in jeopardy, like Melanie Daniels taking a drive to deliver some love-birds as gesture half-kindness and half-defiance. “Shalako” Carlin was a cavalry scout who was damned sick of fighting Apaches, and if he had to go on reservation to keep a bunch of trespassing dilettantes from starting another Indian War, by God he’d do it. I could go on, but I won’t.

I really enjoyed reading your selections’s thoughts. Thanks!

[…] came across this article at Black […]


Woo hoo! I guess I can’t say, “I never win anything!” anymore, can I?


I’m honored to be picked. I even got on above the fold! And in such good company, I’ll be thinking about some of the other responses for a while.

I look forward to seeing the winners reviews, and I’ll have to pick up a copy for myself.


I would like to echo darangrisom. As one of those you chose to publish (I am Tony Den in the article) it was great fun to write and very interesting to read. I look forward to buying the book soon.


I’m more than honored to be a winner in this contest. All of the entries were so good!

Thanks to Black Gate Magazine for holding the contest and thanks to Rogue Blades Entertainment for providing the prizes.

I look forward to reading and reviewing Writing Fantasy Heroes.

Wow! Again I say ‘Wow!’ What a post! Some very astute and provoking explorations here, each has something particularly pertinent to offer.

My thanks John, for hosting the contest, for agreeing to post reviews from the winners, and for featuring Writing Fantasy Heroes on the Black Gate site so many times (as Sarah points out) this last two months!

Much congratulations to Lee Kemp, James McGlothlin, and Chris La Tray as well! If I may say so myself, you’ve won one of the best prizes Black Gate has ever offered. 🙂 I look forward to sharing the book with you and learning what you think of it.


Congratz to the winners and kudos to the commenters.

I’ll be ordering a copy today.

[…] to pick. Meanwhile, if you haven’t already taken a look at all John O’Neill’s post collecting Black Gate readers’ definitions of what makes a hero, check it […]

[…] of Jason M. Waltz’s Writing the Fantasy Hero, (there’s another installment today) and John O’Neill’s announcement of the winners of the “Writing Fantasy Heroes Contest”, who answered the question […]

[…] What Makes a True Hero? Announcing the Winners of the Writing Fantasy Heroes Contest […]

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