Wordy Wednesday: Heroic Amateur Characters

Hey there! I’m back in Michigan after a whirlwind weekend in southern California, for a family wedding.

My sister and I flew to Los Angeles Thursday night to meet our parents, who had already been there on vacation for a week. We spent Friday touring Hollywood and the surrounding areas and I literally teared up multiple times, because I am SUCH A HUGE FILM GEEK (if my Screen Arts & Cultures minor doesn’t give that away) and I’ve been dreaming about Hollywood for forever.

Friday night, we drove to Downtown Disney (outside Disneyland), where we watched the fireworks, toured the shops, and ate SO MUCH FOOD.

Saturday was the day of the wedding! We spent the morning at a beach in the San Diego area, where El Nino (aka: Really Big Storm of Doom) was rolling in. We watched a surf competition, ate too much ice cream, and got thoroughly soaked.


This photo is not in greyscale. It literally looked like that.

Then, Saturday afternoon and evening: the wedding! One of my cousins was getting married. Everyone looked gorgeous, the venue was beautiful, and one of the appetizers was mini grilled cheeses dipped in tomato soup. (Basically: best wedding ever.)

Sunday we hung out with relatives, explored the coastline a little more, and continued to eat way too much food.

Then, Monday we flew back to the frigid tundra that is Michigan. (Lol jk it is literally in the fifties today thanx global warming)

Things have been pretty busy since we got back too: Yesterday was Sammy’s ninth birthday! Today I had my senior audit (which means I am now 100% set to graduate)! Tomorrow is Ch1Con Chat and before that WE’RE ANNOUNCING OUR FINAL SPEAKER OF 2016 AHHH!

Aaand yeah. That’s what I’ve been up to. (Sorry this part of the post got so long!)

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

So, I’m currently in three literature classes. (If you’ll recall, I was planning on dropping one–or, you know, two–but that didn’t end up happening because they’re all fantastic.) One of these classes is spy fiction.

So far we’ve been focusing a lot on the early history of the genre (nineteenth and very early twentieth century stuff), but this week we started moving into the more modern spy novel, with The 39 Steps.

I love spy stuff. All of my novels so far have been mysteries/thrillers, and three out of five of them are explicitly spy stories. (The one I’m working on right now isn’t an outright spy novel, but draws heavily from the genre.) So when my instructor started talking today about the heroic amateur trope, I was in Thriller Writer Heaven.

The heroic amateur is essentially a vigilante. The “ordinary” character who sees that something is wrong and decides to take matters into their own hands in order to fix it. It’s someone acting without orders, generally breaking the law in “minor” ways in order to fix the larger issue, and going up against both the law and the villain in order to save the day. (Basically: think more Jason Bourne than James Bond.)

These are all pretty obvious characteristics, all of which I’ve used heavily in my own writing when utilizing the heroic amateur trope. However, my prof had a few others he’d picked up on as well. So, without further ado: Characteristics of the Heroic Amateur Trope. 


Whether this means the character knows people in high places or is filthy rich (or both), the heroic amateur is able to do what they do because they have more resources than the average person. (Hence the “ordinary”–you know, in quotation marks–above.) Because the heroic amateur isn’t a member of an official spy network, they have to rely on their own resources in order to get the job done, from weasling information out of powerful allies to being able to pay for all the gadgets and traveling saving the world requires.

Batman is a wonderful example of this one. He’s both mega wealthy and knows all of the most powerful people in Gotham City, which makes it easy for him to piece mysteries together and to get his hands on the gear that allows him to be, well, Batman.

Working with the Law (to an Extent)

The heroic amateur tends to break a lot of laws in getting the job done. This is one of the most attractive traits of this character (the fact they are above the law and thus can do things that those who do have to abide by laws–like the police–can’t do). There’s a lot of freedom and fun involved with this.

However, again: this character’s M.O is LITERALLY DOING ILLEGAL STUFF. No matter how talented a spy/vigilante/whatever the heroic amateur is, they still have to face the law at some point. (But obviously this character can’t go to jail because, like, that’s not a satisfying ending, right?) So this character has some sort of connection with the law enforcement. Maybe they befriend someone in the police (like Batman) or are someone in the police (like the Flash) or understand the law well enough to know all the loopholes (like Daredevil). Other good examples of this weird relationship: National Treasure, Sherlock Holmes.

Still, this relationship will always be full of tension. It’s a constant push and pull of the law enforcement being grateful that the heroic amateur is getting stuff done, but also being upset that the heroic amateur is doing illegal things and feeling obligated to bring them in. The law enforcement people are willing to work with the heroic amateur while everything’s going right, but they’ll stop supporting this person the moment things start going wrong. (Hello! Update from July 7, 2020: I’d like to also note that often within these narratives, we see a corrupt and/or just generally ineffective police force–which is often why the heroic amateur exists at all. The police aren’t protecting the people they’re supposed to–and often instead work to the public’s detriment–so the heroic amateur sweeps in to Fix Things. I’m honestly not sure how, like, morally sound this is–I mean, the whole point of this trope is that the character and their actions exist within grey morality–but yeah.)

Set Up as Foil to Villain

This is also such an important one. While protagonists are generally portrayed as foils to antagonists (basically: two sides of the same coin), this is especially brought into focus with the heroic amateur. Because the hero breaks laws (aka: does “bad” things) themselves, it’s the author’s job to really showcase how the villain is a worse person in order for the audience to root for the protagonist.

So if the hero kills people (a la Jason Bourne), the villain has to kill more people, more maliciously. If the hero manipulates people (a la Jessica Jones), the villain has to be so, so, so much worse. Everything is set up as a comparison. Everything is set up in shades of grey.

The biggest difference between the hero and villain is their motivation. The driving force behind their actions decides, more than anything else, how the audience feels about them. So if your protag is doing everything for the greater good, in order to protect those they love, the audience is much more likely to be okay with them stealing and lying and hurting (whereas, on the other hand, the villain is likely doing everything for the opposite reasons, like for personal gain or out of something petty like jealousy).

A good example of this dichotomy is, once again, National Treasure. The protagonist in this scenario does terrible things, but he does them for what the audience perceives as the right reasons, and that makes all the difference between him and the bad guys.

And there you have it: some of the key traits of the heroic amateur character trope. Are there any others you can think of?

Thanks for reading!