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On SF Signal Mind Melds, we’ve discussed Anti-Heroes, Villains, and
Sidekicks. It’s been a while since we tackled straight up heroes.So, this week we asked about heroes:
This is what they had to say…
For me, a hero is someone who actively works to achieve a goal for the good of others when there is a risk of losing something, ranging from a peaceful existence to their own life. Perseverance is critical; a hero persists in their heroic endeavour far beyond the point where most people would give up. Most wouldn’t even try in the first place.
As for whether a hero is old-fashioned; no. The portrayal of heroes (i.e massively flawed as opposed to nothing more than bravery in a bap) changes to fit the needs and sophistication of the audience. However, the basic need to see someone being more than we are – but everything we could be – is eternal.
I’m going to approach this topic “back to front”, starting with the second question first: i.e. “Is the idea of a straight up hero old fashioned or out of date in this day and age?” And from there, move to: “What makes a hero (or heroine) a hero instead of merely a protagonist?” (To simplify, I’m going to use “hero” as a gender and species neutral term.)
So: old fashioned and out of date… My first response was, “Really?” My second was “Hmm.” Then I thought about the lead-in: “… we’ve discussed anti-heroes, villains, and sidekicks” because the implication of that order could be that heroes are somehow less worthy of discussion. That can also be the impression one receives from what appears to be celebrated in contemporary genre: that dark, self serving and even downright evil characters are necessarily more interesting. And even if a person may initially appear to be altruistic and even – shock, horror – striving to do good, the story will inevitably reveal his or her feet of clay.
Is that, I then wondered, because our fiction reflects how we currently see the world: that most people are venal and self-serving, and that even when they act for the benefit of others it is primarily because of self interest? Plus that notions such as duty and service-before-self are not only old-fashioned, but in fact we’re much too savvy to be taken in by that sort of scam anymore…
Besides, villains and antiheroes get to have more fun because they can dive into the action, adventure and violence without wrestling with such bothersome notions as what constitutes truth, justice, right and good in any particular situation, let alone having such antiquated values as compassion and mercy tempering the deal.
And because they get to have more fun that means they are necessarily so much more interesting, right?
Um, hold on, I thought – really not so sure here. Druss in David Gemmell’s Legend, Aerin in Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, John Sheridan in the TV series Babylon-5, John Aversin in Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, Pyanfar Chanur in CJ Cherryh’s Chanur series – I’m not sure I’m game to call any of them “uninteresting.” But they are all, in their own individual ways, heroes. They are all caught up in circumstances larger than themselves, and faced with difficult if not impossible odds when they would really rather not be the protagonist in the hot seat (with the exception of Druss who has chosen to be at the defense of Dros Delnoch because that’s “who he is” and “what he does.”) All have the opportunity to do what is expedient at some stage, but instead all choose – to paraphrase John Sheridan toward the turning point of Season 2 in Babylon 5 – to work to preserve or create the kind of world they want to live in. They also keep their eyes on a larger horizon, rather than focusing on the dirt at their feet because they may have tripped up once or twice.
So yes, I do think heroes can be every bit as interesting as villains and antiheroes. I certainly don’t think the sorts of choices that the heroes I’ve discussed are called upon to make are at all old hat: they may in fact be more relevant than ever in today’s world.
Writing heroes well, though – I do feel that is more difficult than writing almost any other class of character. That is not because considerations of what constitutes truth, justice, and right behavior are boring, but because we know from real life just how difficult they can be. Addressing those dilemmas within a character’s development while “keeping them real” and someone with whom readers feel engaged, e.g. neither stuffy nor remote, is quite an art. Evidence of this difficulty may be those stories where the balance appears most convincingly achieved with secondary characters, such as Faramir in The Lord of the Rings or Papewaio in Daughter of the Empire.
Yet looking at the heroes I’ve discussed, they have all charted an interesting and compelling hero’s journey through a novel length work. The authors have used a variety of techniques to make them work effectively as characters: the multiple points of view in Legend ensure that we are not always with Druss – he is juxtaposed with a range of other characters. John Aversin is the Dragonsbane and one of the story’s two central protagonists, but we see him primarily through the eyes of his lover, Jenny Waynest. Aerin pursues the most classical of the hero journeys in The Hero and the Crown, but she is also the “protagonist alone,” which helps maintain the hero’s mystique. In The Pride of Chanur, the sheer pace of the action makes Pyanfar a heroine making vital decisions on the edge of the knife – there is no leisure for introspection here.
But what makes these characters (and any other) a hero rather than simply a protagonist? I have already discussed concerning themselves, willingly or unwillingly, with such bothersome notions as what constitutes right action, justice and good in their particular circumstances, and making choices based on duty, service, and a higher good, rather than personal expedience or gain. All the heroes I have mentioned, in some way or other, take on odds that it will be difficult if not impossible to overcome. Yet they hold to their course, not because they feel no fear or doubt, but despite it – and because, like John Sheridan in Baylon-5, they are trying to preserve the values and create the world they want to live in.
I believe the qualities of fear, doubt, and self-knowledge are vital in developing a heroic character, because it is the character’s “humanity” that makes them interesting. But it is undertaking the difficult, or impossible, or terrifying task because it needs to be done, and also because it is the right course of action – whether it’s John Aversin fighting a dragon he’s unlikely to be able to defeat, or Pyanfar Chanur refusing to trade in sentient beings – that makes the protagonist a hero.
If I am right though, and all this is at least something of what it means to be a hero, then yes – villains and anti-heroes probably do have more fun.
“There are heroisms all around us,” according to the narrator’s muse in Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912): which may be true within the worldview of the text, and is certainly true for the book itself within its own context, shelved among its kin. The Edwardian adventure story is not exactly the last bastion for the hero in popular fiction, but it is still the exemplar that later generations look back to. Our ideas have grown more complicated, while the essentials of storytelling – and our reactions to them – remain the same. Each iteration has to overleap more and more accumulated intervention; we ask more of our heroes, a century on from that model. Nuance, perhaps, is expressed as a function of time.
The thing about heroism, of course, is that it never was simple derring-do. Heroic action is by definition disinterested; if you’re in pursuit of personal advantage – wealth or power, fame or sex or whatever – then you can only ever be a protagonist. (Unless you change horses in mid-stream, of course, which is the classic trope for the hero malgré lui: cf Han Solo et al.) Heroism is about self-sacrifice as much as punching straight from the shoulder. In the British mythos – which classically memorialises our greatest failures – Captain Scott may have lost much of his lustre, but “Titus” Oates will always be a hero. That disastrous expedition was 1912 again, giving that neat hundred-year perspective on a time which seemed to offer heroic opportunities in real life and fiction both. They had heroisms all around them.
The Great War changed things, inevitably: or initiated a process of change, rather, which is still ongoing. These days it’s hard to write a hero without irony – which may be why my archetype for a hero in-genre is Frodo Baggins, from a book nearly sixty years old. He is perhaps an easy pick, but not an idle one. That’s the thing about archetypes, that they stand out over time. “I will take the Ring to Mordor, though I do not know the way.” That would be the essence of a hero, in my lexicon: facing the darkness without resources or expectations, only because it seems the right thing to do. And it brings us neatly full-circle, because Tolkien may have been writing through the second world war, but his boyhood – and his own lost world – was thoroughly Edwardian.
In other news, no man is a hero to his valet. Which being true, it is probable also that no character is a hero to their author. We know too much: their inner drives, their hidden yearnings, what actually makes them step forward into the night. No one’s motives are ever really that clean, that simple, that self-negating. Which means in the last analysis they’re probably all protagonists after all.
I’d say a protagonist is someone at the center of the story, period. Nothing else is necessarily required of her other than being the lead character, the person through whom we see or experience the story. She might not grow or change. She might not act upon fate, or even attempt to do so; or she might try, fail, and never try again. The protagonist may be someone very flawed whose story is about indulging in those flaws and spiraling into self-destruction, rather than overcoming them. Her goals may be lamentable or narcissistic. She’s the center or spine of the story, but not heroic. This type of lead character is far more common, I think, in literary fiction than in genre fiction.
By contrast, a hero is a protagonist who meets challenges, pursues goals, triumphs over adversity, acts on fate, takes charge of (in so far as she can) her destiny, and often changes or positively affects the world around her (ex. by solving a murder, slaying a dragon, etc.). She faces her demons, she grows and changes, and if her initial attempts at taking action or changing the circumstances or solving a problem fail, she eventually tries again—and keeps trying until she triumphs. This sort of lead character is pretty central in the storytelling conventions of fantasy, mystery, and romance protagonists.
A protagonist is just your main viewpoint character. There’s nothing inherently heroic about them other than the fact that you’re more likely to sympathize with them because you’re getting the story filtered through their eyes. A hero, on the other hand, is someone who does the right thing even when it would be a lot easier — and miles smarter — to walk away.
That’s not to say that heroes don’t or shouldn’t have flaws. For us to be able to identify with them, they need to have troubles, doubts, and problems that we can recognize and see reflected in ourselves. It’s how the hero overcomes those issues to do the right thing that makes them worth reading about.
For me, it’s all about choices. True heroes make difficult ones. Their heroism isn’t defined by birthright or destiny — or even by their actions (sometimes, heroes fail) — rather, it’s in their choice to be in that situation in the first place.
It’s the difference between Frodo and Aragorn.
There’s nothing special about Frodo, except for the choices he makes. He isn’t born to take the ring to Morder, he chooses to. He’s flawed. He trusts the wrong people, he makes bad decisions, and he falters when it matters most. But you know what? He didn’t even have to be there. Aragorn (who I love and adore, don’t get me wrong) has destiny, and a special sword and special strengths. He was born to be a part of this fight.
In fantasy, we love our prophecies and birthrights and destiny. But for me, a true hero doesn’t come with any of these things. They have to earn their heroic status, and they do that by making choices. Hard ones, and usually when no one else will.
So, if that’s what we mean when we say traditional hero, then they’ll never go out of style. That’s what real-life heroes are, after all. However, if the traditional hero is muscle-bound, unemotional, flawless and prophesised, then I’ve had my fill of them already.
What makes a hero a hero, rather than merely a protagonist? A sticky question, to say the least. It it perfection? Must a hero be a paragon, an archetype, a cardboard cutout stand-in for all that’s decent and correct? I think not — because if he or she were, they’d hardly be a character worth reading; they’d be nothing more than a straw man for arguing the very concept of a hero is antiquated, passe.
You might expect such a straw man from me. I write noir, after all. Fantastical noir, but noir nonetheless. And there ain’t many heroes to be found in the noir canon. But I for damn sure think they have their place — so long as they are fully fleshed.
It’s no secret to those who’ve read me that I worship at the feet of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. My protagonist, Sam Thornton, takes his name from their respective middle names. My books, Dead Harvest and The Wrong Goodbye, riff on their titles. Dash was the real deal, a detective-turned-writer who laid down the blueprint for all that followed; Chandler was the poet, the master stylist who had a way with words I’ll never on my best day manage to match. So I leave you with the latter’s thoughts on what it takes to be a modern hero, cribbed from his essay “The Simple Art of Murder”:
“…down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.
If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.”
Heroes define the story. I’m a big believer in the power of the hero. Even the “traditional” hero model of the Luke Skywalkers and Superman, the kind of heroes who seem boring and vanilla, do-gooder boy scouts. They represent an ideal, something to aspire to and this is how they differ from being merely a protagonist. Like G.K. Chesterton said, “For the man of action, there is nothing but idealism.” Heroes can’t just sit idly by and, by their nature, upset the status quo. This brand of hero gives us the example and vision for how to “fight the good fight”. Heroes are mythic and romanticized, and rightly so. They are people who we want to be, though we see ourselves through a much more rogue lens, thus loving the Han Solos and Batmans of our stories. Heroes drive the story. The “cause” and thus, the story are the burden they have to bear as they overcome trials and temptations. Heroes sacrifice themselves, from their personal happiness to their very lives, but through them there is redemption. And, ultimately, we see ourselves in them, which is why we’re all the heroes of our own stories.
I love this particular question, because I love heroes/heroines — and by heroines I mean women who are heroes, not just “the girlfriend who has top billing right after the guy who is the real hero”. I mean Linda Hamilton/Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 or Sigourney Weaver/Ellen Ripley in Aliens.
As far as I see it, a hero/heroine is someone who does what’s right, whether or not the decision to do right is a popular or safe choice. They protect the innocent, the underdogs, and those weaker than themselves. Many times the hero is an underdog himself, sometimes the heroine starts out weak but becomes strong by the end. Heroes are willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good or to protect those they love. They save the day, and they don’t think they deserve a medal for doing it. The saving needed to be done, and they were there to do it, and can we now just all get back to our lives? Heroes aren’t necessarily braver than anyone else — they’re just more willing to shove the fear aside
I personally enjoy the Ordinary Hero — someone who, until a specific situation or event happens would never be considered, or consider themselves to be, a hero. But once that event happens or they’re thrust into the situation, they surprise everyone, sometimes even themselves, and become the hero of the story. In my Alien/Katherine “Kitty” Katt series, Kitty’s a regular person who gets thrust into a situation it turns out she’s got the skills and moxie to survive. She’s also a protector by choice and instinct, but before the event that changes her life, she’d never have told you she was a hero.
There’s also the Everyday Hero — the person who because of their job will be in danger’s way and have to deal with heroics regularly. Police, fire, Army, Navy, Marines, and those in similar professions fall into this category. In a story, simply by having someone involved in one of these professions identifies that there’s hero material hanging about. In The Night Beat, Victoria Wolfe is both an undercover policewoman (and werewolf) for Prosaic City PD and a Major in Necropolis Enforcement. It’s a given she’s going to be heroic, because her jobs demand it of her on a nightly basis, and you don’t go in for these kinds of jobs unless you’re a protector. But Victoria would say she’s not a hero because she’s just doing her job.
And there’s the Unsung Hero — the person who’s actually the driving force behind another individual’s or group’s success. Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is, for me, the ultimate unsung hero. Without Sam, Frodo never has a chance of making it out of the Shire, let alone to Mt. Doom. Frankly, I could make a case for Merry and Pippin as unsung heroes, too (yes, we argue about this in my household all the time) because at different times they both do brave things that go against their own safety and security for the good of others and they save the day by doing so. But if there can be, as we’ve been told, only one, then that one is Sam, the backbone of the Fellowship and the only guy who really couldn’t care less about the ring’s power. But Sam doesn’t see himself as the hero — he was just helping his friends.
But this is me, and you know there’s no way I’m not going to talk about comics and comics-based movies somewhere along the line. And that time is now.
For me, the best straight up hero movie of the past couple of years was Captain America. You can’t get a better example of what a hero is and should be than Steve Rogers, and the movie portrayed that perfectly. Then The Avengers turned the heroism up to eleven.
I think the success of Captain America and, even more so, the massive success of The Avengers (Best. Superhero Movie. EVER.) (And I’m a Wolverine fan girl of the highest order.) proves that straight up heroes will never go out of style. Sure, the best lines belonged to Ironman/Tony Stark. But the leader — the HERO — of the movie is, again, Captain America. Without Cap to lead by example and straight-out heroism, the rest of the Avengers wouldn’t gel into the team they needed to be.
There are a lot of heroes in The Avengers, and not just the superheroes or the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. The old man in Germany who stands up to Loki is also a hero, and in some ways, a braver hero because he has no superpowers and no way to escape Loki’s wrath — he just has the belief that doing what Loki wants is wrong, and the courage to say “no.”
So I don’t think heroes and heroism will ever go out of style. It may be an old fashioned concept, but as Agent Coulson tells Cap in The Avengers, people might just need a little old fashioned.
To talk about a protagonist (“chief actor”) usually tells us very little about a story’s characters, the structure of the underlying story, or the characters’ relationships to its themes. It has the same descriptive value as to say that a book is written in words: factually correct, but who cares? But if we can discuss the shape and dimensions of a character’s heroism offers us far greater insight.
What do Tolkien’s Frodo Baggins, Howard’s Conan of Cimmeria, or Lucas’ Darth Vader (original trilogy, please) have in common? Their narrative arcs are centrally concerned with their choices relative to a moral code, whether that code is stated or unstated. That’s what makes them heroes: Frodo is an aspirational hero, who we watch struggle to Do The Right Thing. His (tragic) journey culminates in his failure to live up to his own ideals, but that in no way diminishes his aspirations or the importance of his struggle. Conan is an observational hero, who we watch apply his moral code in story after story for good or ill. The effects of Conan’s choices on Conan are less interesting than their impact on the world and people around him. And Vader is a consequential hero: we get to watch the consequences of his (bad) choices, culminating in his redemption.
Heroes don’t need to be good guys, though: look at the Brothers Grossbart in Jesse Bullington’s The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, Mervyn Peake’s Steerpike in the Gormenghast trilogy, or that most reprehensible of monstrous heroes Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Heroic can be evil and horrendous – but so long as a moral yardstick exists against which they are measured, the characters remain heroic.
Characters unconcerned with moral values – like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, or Sinclair Lewis’ George F. Babbit in Babbit – can at best hope to be protagonists: they might be the chief actors in a story, but their role at the its center has little bearing on its moral implications. The story is not necessarily weaker for that, but it is concerned with different priorities.
Exploring morality through fiction is one of the main reasons why we tell stories, and that’s why straight-up heroes and heroines will always be relevant. By experiencing a character’s struggles to live up to their own ideals, by watching those ideals applied, or by seeing the consequences of their choices we gain insight and perspective into our own morality. We use stories to learn about the better and worse parts of ourselves, and that is why straight-up heroes will never get old.
Well, let’s first get some horsecrap out of the way. It’s not about swashbuckling. It’s not Dudley Do-Right. It’s not iron-clad ethics or the absence of flaws. I think, probably, most writers and readers know all this. But, y’know, just to be explicit about it. So, then, what IS a hero. I think of it in terms of: someone willing to sacrifice for a friend. Or to go a step further: one person being willing to sacrifice for someone they _don’t_ know.
Making a selfless decision doesn’t mean the person/character who is doing the deciding is always so gracious. In fact, a fine second point would be that the “decider” is making the choice in the face of doubt and fear. A solid corollary to all this is that bravery isn’t something that belongs to the fearless. Instead, I tend to think of bravery as the thing you have when you move forward even in the presence of overwhelming fear. For instance, a kid showing up for the first day of school, when nary a worry ever crossed her mind . . . that’s not brave. But a kid showing up when she spent the night before crying and anxious and paralyzed with fear, not sleeping, weeping all the way to class the next morning . . . but by hell going in anyway. That’s brave.
So, heroes. No, they’re not out of date. In fact, I think we could use a bit more heroism. There’s a whole discussion as to whether that’s a reflection of our culture, but there’s not enough room for that in your melding of minds. But here’s the thing: I think we want to be our finer selves. Sure, that’s sappy. But hear me out. We’re all plodding along, wrecking all kinds of stuff. And the baser part of us is putting a little ruin on peoples’ lives. But I’ll contend that there’s some good stuff in each of us, too. It’s the part that gets choked up when all those players come in to the Notre Dame coach’s office and each tells him to give Rudy his jersey for the final game. It’s the part that sees George Bailey give up his dreams so that others can attain theirs, and wants to give Jimmy Stewart a big fat high-five when the money pours in at the end. And the obvious one, but it’s when Sydney Carton takes Charles Darnay’s place at the guillotine in Dickens’ classic.
Closer to everyday life–and I’ll risk lapsing maudlin here–it’s a mom or dad getting up and throwing themselves at a big, scary world each morning; when they’d rather not be doing the thing their doing, but know that their families need them to do it. We don’t read those tales. They’re not always so exciting. But for my money, they’re every bit as heroic.
Protagonists may be doing right things sometimes. Heroes–even when it’s damn hard and not their everyday nature–do right things in the interest of others. If that’s out of date, then leave me to my bubble, ’cause I don’t like the alternative.
I think a hero differs from a protagonist in that the protagonist is simply someone who drives the main thrust of the narrative– someone to whom the plot happens– whereas a hero chooses to undertake the narrative direction, and certainly believes in the righteousness of their actions. To pick an obvious example, Luke Skywalker is a hero because he wants to join the Rebel Alliance, he wants to fight the Empire, he wants to make a difference: he initiates action with a definite belief in his ability to affect positive change in the status quo; whereas Han Solo, at least in the beginning, is someone who is engulfed by the flow of the narrative– he undertakes action, rather than initiates it, not because he wishes to enforce positive change but simply because reaction is forced upon him– but for one tractor beam, he’d have been out of there long before he has to face the choice. A hero may be conflicted within his or her self, and is always in conflict with an antagonist, but they are rarely in conflict with the righteousness of their appointed task, whereas a protagonist can bitch and whine all the way to Mordor if they’d rather be at home playing golf.
I don’t think the notion of heroism is outdated, but I do think it has to be handled carefully when constructing a narrative. The singular nature of the hero’s belief can easily be portrayed as monomania or simple-minded naivete. Modern audiences tend towards cynicism when faced with a purity of intent, and it’s easy to see righteous self-belief in those terms. Audiences aren’t comfortable with singular trains of thought. It’s too easy to equate them with simplicity, with a lack of nuance. We’re more comfortable with a character who displays, or at least acknowledges, the validity of doubt.
I definitely have a preference for the anti-hero. It comes from years of creating flawed, damaged characters in my own fiction. Give me Captain Jack Sparrow over Will Turner any day of the week! Mind Meld has posed the interesting question Is the idea of a straight up hero old fashioned or out of date in this day and age? Well, if out of date equates to not as relevant – then possibly … yes. Today’s fiction audiences (in all mediums) are extremely sophisticated consumers who demand a meaningful connection with their protagonists. Perfect heroes might be fun at one level but they don’t speak to us, stay with us, change us. We need our protagonists to have faults, foibles, idiosyncrasies, failings … and then they want them to prevail or at least make hard, informed choices. Much more satisfying, interesting, intelligent. I would say that anti-hero is the new hero.
Traditionally, I think, the Fantasy hero – the hero’s journey kind of hero – follows a fairly straightforward trajectory. Half of his or her work lies in waking up to their inevitable destiny; the rest involves hitting things with swords. Sometimes swords might mean spells, or even sharp problem solving skills or a quick tongue, but the challenge has as much to do with uncovering and marshalling their inner resources, realising they’re capable of being a hero, as it lies in overcoming whatever needs overcoming.
It’s a template that’s very old, very flexible and much overused – and it seems to me that, unless it’s done well, something of closed loop. The hero is heroic because they’re the hero, and because they’re the hero they’re heroic.
I’ve made a point of never referring to my protagonist Easie Damasco as a hero. Damasco’s a scoundrel and a thief, and as anyone who’s ever fallen foul of them will attest, thieves are not nice people. Damasco often behaves atrociously. Then again, over the course of my debut Giant Thief and its just-released sequel Crown Thief, he does start to see beyond his own needs and wants, to realise his actions have consequences, and eventually to put himself in jeopardy for the sake of those around him. None of this comes easily to Damasco who, after all, has been a criminal for most of his life. Sometimes he backslides; often he does more harm than good. And though he undoubtedly becomes a better person, if only by small increments, he never stops having doubts or thinking of himself.
Then again, many of the other characters, who on the surface do more good and for more noble reasons, don’t exactly get it right. There’s Marina Estrada, the mayor who stands up against one tyrant only to unleash another; guard-captain Alvantes, whose bravery and loyalty often slip into stubbornness and arrogance; and Castilio Mounteban, the semi-reformed crook who tries to liberate his country for all the wrong reasons. In their own ways, these characters struggle to do the right thing. But all of them eventually discover that good intentions aren’t enough on their own, all of them have to deal with unexpected consequences of their well-intentioned actions.
Partly that’s because one of the questions I set myself in Crown Thief was, what happens after the heroes do whatever it is they’ve strived to do. How do they respond once they’ve discovered everything hasn’t turned out at all like they’d planned? Because I had my concerns over whether standing against an insane invading warlord was heroic, or if it made them basically decent people coping as well as they could under desperate circumstances. Is it heroic to do your job? Brave, maybe, but when you’ve accepted a role that might involve protecting others and then things go south in the worst way, can holding up your end of the bargain be called heroism? Similarly, for me, the bravest character in both Giant Thief and Crown Thief is undoubtedly Saltlick, the gentle giant who endures all manner of torments and yet never gives up trying to solve his problems without matching violence to violence. Yet as much as I admire that, Saltlick is only staying true to his peaceful nature. I don’t know if that can be called heroism either.
Taken from that perspective, while Damasco is definitely no hero, is it possible that there’s something more commendable in his more modest acts of goodness? He has least responsibility, least vested in the conflict, least hope of reward. He might not always or even often get it right, but when he does it means overcoming years of habit, and it usually costs him dearly. He doesn’t follow any hero’s journey because he was never meant to be the hero; he just muddles through, slowly becoming a slightly less flawed human being, steadily learning to get it more right than wrong.
I guess, then, that while I’d struggle to define exactly where the line lies between hero and protagonist, I do think the notion of heroism has a useful function in fiction. Because as a word and a concept, in worlds both real and fictive, it often gets thrown around too lightly. It gets old fashioned and devalued, easily and quickly. But complex heroes – or antiheroes, or even near misses like Damasco – let us, as writers and readers, challenge that process of oversimplification. By creating complex characters and putting them in complex situations, in moral mazes without clear exits, we actually get to stop and think about what the word “hero” means.
That’s a pretty generic definition and on the surface, it seems like a good enough definition. The trouble is, the hero has to have enemies. And what if the enemies are the good guys? What if they have their own heroes? And then, which side is the best side? Who’s wearing the black hats and who is wearing the white? And what if there are only green hats?
My point is that heroes are more than the sum of what they do. Let’s face it, of all of King Arthur’s nights, Sir Galahad was the least interesting. He did all the right things and was absolutely perfect. If you’re sitting in trouble and hoping for a hero, he might be the one you’re wishing will show up. But if you’re reading a book, my guess is he’s the snooze fest. He’s the one you’re hoping will get a little bit roughed up and who’s goodness will be challenged so you can see him struggle, change, and overcome.
For me, a hero is someone who doesn’t always make the right choices, who sometimes gets tricked, who sometimes doesn’t know which is the right side or doesn’t always want to do the right thing. A hero struggles with what to do. A hero often is stuck with impossible decisions—Sophie’s choice. A hero is often pulled in opposite directions, or forced to do terrible things in the name of what’s right.
What makes them heroic to me is that they willingly take on the burden of what they do, knowing the cost. That they are trying to make the right choice, that they are willing to sacrifice their souls for the sake of others. Maybe they anger their friends or end up isolated and lonely. Maybe they protect their friends even if that means other suffer. Maybe they let their friends die in order to serve the greater good. But whatever happens, their motivations are largely unselfish and they want to do good things. And they keep fighting all the way to the bloody end.
They are not perfect. They are flawed. They are sometimes broken. But they are interesting. They are not outdated. I think we always want to connect with someone struggling and see them not only succeed, but overcome and even dominate.
When I think of the heroes I have loved most in epic fantasy, they include Alessan and Dianora from Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, Paksenarrion from Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion, and Seyonne from Carol Berg’s Rai Kirah trilogy. I can’t even begin to name all that I’ve fallen in love with. But I’m curious what your favorite heroes are and why. What makes a good hero for you?