Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Hero Hunger

     I’ve harped on my determination to provide readers with genuine heroes more than once. There’s a distinct hunger for them in the fiction marketplace, which is part of the reason for the popularity of all the comic-book movies of recent years. While the reader is free to dissent from my conception of a hero, of course, there can be no dissent from the essential characteristic of a hero as a person who acts to uphold and defend what’s right and just, at least within the context of his story. The “gray wave” that overtook speculative fiction from about 1970 onward tried to displace that notion of the hero by “flooding the zone” with antiheroes and persons of deeply compromised values who stumbled into acts of heroism without ever quite intending them.

     Thus it is gratifying in the extreme to read that another writer of ability feels the same way:

     I grew up with heroes. I grew up with comics during the late Silver Age, Superman was the Big Blue Boyscout, when Batman wasn’t the cowled psychopath, when Robin was starting solo adventures with Batgirl (and while I knew I could never be Batman, I thought maybe Robin was achievable). I wanted to be the hero, dammit, or if not the hero, at least a competent sidekick.

     Then I grew up and got “respectable”. But a part of me never quite grew out of that.

     And so I like to write about heroes that are really heroes because I figure that there are other people out there, like me, who want to read about them.

     I gave up on comic books, not because I outgrew them but because they “outgrew” (if you can call it that) me. In the interests of being “real” and “relevant” and “real” they wanted their heroes to be “flawed” by which they meant “scarcely better than the villains”.

     I saw it in prose fiction as well. Bleah people living bleah lives with not a hero to be found.

     A compact expression of the hunger I sensed. It’s pleasant to see that another writer senses it as do I. But how is hero hunger to be served?

     Heh, heh, heh!

     There are two approaches to the concoction of a hero-figure. One is to make him human in scale. The other is to make him larger than life in one or more dimensions. In either case he must possess a high moral and ethical character, even if he must struggle with its counterpoise to his personal interests and desires. If this seems “obvious,” you might be surprised how poorly figures of either sort are represented in conventionally-published fiction these days.

     The absence of such figures from contemporary fiction as it emerges from Pub World is notable. Everyone in their stories is compromised. Everyone disdains the notion of objective standards of right and justice. The Left rejects the notion of absolute moral and ethical principles, and Pub World has been completely colonized and conquered by the Left.

     Indies create better hero figures, but even in the independent-writers’ movement there is a tendency toward the “gray” protagonist: the Riddick figure animated by his will to survive and his desire to avenge himself on his enemies. Such characters can make for compelling fiction, especially in a movie, but they don’t satisfy the hero-hunger David Burkhead and I have in mind. Much closer to the moral-ethical conception of a hero is Boss Johns, who rescues the beleaguered Riddick at the end of the film, despite considerable risk and no reward.

     The usual disparagement the Gray Wavers pour on the moral-ethical hero figure is “unrealistic,” or sometimes “Boy Scout.” They have no idea of the condemnation they inflict thus on their own works.

     A hero doesn’t necessarily spend all his free time fighting crime, or opposing tyranny. He might have a job, family, debts, and a bone to pick with a neighbor who keeps borrowing his tools and “forgetting” to return them. But when a moral-ethical crisis is put before him, he rises to the occasion. He may indulge in some agonizing and dithering, or searching for a “middle way” that will preserve more of his interests. He may regret what he must sacrifice in the name of justice. But ultimately he steps up. That’s what makes him a hero.

     Double credit goes to the writer who can surprise his readers with a “hero out of nowhere:” the character who seems largely secondary through most of the story, but who stands forth when the need for a hero arises. This is a tough move to pull off: so tough that I can’t name an example of it in anything I’ve read recently. If you can cite one, please mention it in the comments.

     For examples of heroes of the sort I prefer, consider these characters:

     All praise to the writers who show us figures we can honestly admire!



Safe to assume you've read Campbell's "The Power of Myth" among others?

Lord Squirrel said...

So I scanned through my library looking for books with heroes that match your criteria. I have lots of books with heroes, but relatively few that fit the given requirements. Here are a few that stand out to me:

Lord of the Rings (of course) - Samwise is the real hero of the story as he is the only person in the entire world who is able to resist the lure of the One Ring (Tom Bombadil doesn't count as the One Ring doesn't affect him at all).

Terry Pratchett's Carpe Jugulum, a Discworld novel, has a key moment at the end with the awesome quote, "Let's make it one." The newly minted hero swings his newly blessed axe to behead the villainous vampire.

David Eddings' Belgariad series has Durnik, who mostly follows along the adventure because he is in love with one of the main characters make a heroic sacrifice at the end that turns the tide in favor of the hero.

Finally, we have Coll Ohmsford from Terry Brooks' Scions of Shannara series. He's mostly along to support his brother, who possesses real magic while Coll has none. However, Coll is the only one who can wield the MacGuffin in the series and thus plays a pivotal role in the climax.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the reference. Of course what I like to read also colors what I tend to write. My characters can be gray or driven by simple motives like survival. But I do like to write heroes who do heroic things for heroic reasons too, folk like Kreg and Kaila form my Knights of Aerioch, or Dani from Dhampyre the Hunter, folk who, when it comes right down to it, will step between the defenseless and those who would do them harm simply because it is the right thing to do.

Whether I succeed or not, is for others to judge, but I do try.

Pascal said...

There is a hero that fits your criteria. He exists in one very popular novel. But because I think it is clear the author did not intend for him to be seen as one, I need to name him: Eddie Willers.

A long while ago I specifically criticized Ayn Rand for it. Too bad most all those who so adore her fail to see the significance that her intended heroes were almost as cold-blooded titans as the elitist she came to be.

Had any fans gone to their deaths defending her novels as Willers did defending Dagney's railroad, she would hardly have acknowledged them for anything but fools. You see Rand had the decent, hard-working and loyal Willers torn to shreds by a mob as he defended his boss's railroad not knowing Dagney had abandoned it as she didn't bother to inform her childhood friend and closest employee not to bother on her account.

Rand was a powerful writer, but that deliberate act of callousness is a horrid one -- to the extent that her influence could be deadly for those who might live under the thumb of one of her acolytes. Consequently one ought to hold a healthy wariness of her movement and foundation.

Despite what Rand intended to convey with Atlas Shrugged, I think Willers fits your criteria of the lesser character who acted heroically. In a way he still is a strong unintended hero -- serving as a warning against Randism.