Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Heroic Fiction

First, as a follow-up to the other day when I mentioned giving myself reality checks on the viability of celebrity crushes, that doesn't mean I'm giving up on my local anchorman. A guy who lives in the same area and who went to the same school isn't quite the same as a Hollywood actor, and being with him (you know, if I ever manage to meet him) wouldn't require a significant change in my lifestyle or location. So that doesn't count. A terminally single woman needs to be allowed to keep one crush going, and this particular crush is actually my most enduring relationship so far. I know of marriages that haven't lasted as long as this crush (next week will be the five-year mark).

Then, there's another follow-up. I mentioned Friday in my post about the book The Anatomy of Story that I had one quibble with the author's theories, and I think that mostly has to do with the difference between "mainstream" fiction and "genre" fiction (mostly fantasy, science fiction, romance and action-adventure -- basically, what you might consider "heroic" fiction). The author asserts that in addition to the main character having what he calls a "psychological need," which is something he needs to learn about himself in order to prevail and live a more complete life, he should also have a "moral need" that is something he needs to learn and change about the way he treats other people. The main character at the beginning of the story needs to be acting in such a way that he harms or hurts others, and then through the course of the story, at crisis points he then responds with an immoral action (preferably one that relates to the moral need). As things get more desperate, he acts more immorally, until he realizes what he's doing wrong and changes, and then he prevails.

The two examples used throughout the book were Tootsie and Casablanca. In Tootsie, the main character's moral need is the fact that he treats women badly -- he lies to them to get what he wants and doesn't respect them. When he dresses up as a woman to get an acting job, the whole thing is a deception that keeps getting bigger as he takes it into his personal life and builds lie upon lie, until he finally tells the truth. In Casablanca, Rick has bitterly shut himself away from the world. As he puts it, he sticks his neck out for nobody. He turns a blind eye to the evil and injustice around him. When Ilsa comes back into his life, he wants to have her for himself, even if that could harm the greater good, and when she rejects him, he insults her. He also holds onto the letters of transit that could do good for people in desperate need. Then he has his big realization, sends Ilsa off with her freedom-fighter husband with the letters of transit and becomes a freedom fighter.

I've been trying to figure out how this might apply to any story I like beyond Casablanca, and I'm coming up short. I don't really want my heroes to have a flaw that causes them to treat people badly, and I don't want them to take immoral actions on their way to their goals. Sarah in The Terminator (yeah, I refer to this a lot, but I love the story and with the TV series it's top of mind right now) wasn't really doing anything to hurt others before a killer robot from the future came after her. She was kind of wimpy and let people walk over her, but she wasn't really behaving immorally. Harry Potter wasn't crazy about his relatives, but I wouldn't consider that a moral flaw. In fact, I'd consider him morally flawed if he liked those people. The moral need pattern might apply to the fifth book, where Harry wasn't willing to trust the adults in his life, and he kept getting himself in more trouble by striking out on his own without telling anyone what was going on. And that's my least favorite of the books. I suppose Mal in Firefly kind of fits the Rick from Casablanca pattern, where he used to be idealistic and has withdrawn into his own little world that he controls, where he sticks his neck out for nobody, and then in the movie, he decides to get involved and stick his neck out big-time, then at the end he flies off into the clouds, more or less telling River that this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship (gee, I never realized before that Serenity maps so well to Casablanca). However, if you go with the Robin Hood moral structure of the setting, where it's not bad to steal from the bad guys, then Mal doesn't actually take a lot of truly immoral actions, in either the series or the movie. He's more likely to get himself deeper in trouble by trying to do the right thing. I think his real issue is the more psychological need, where he tries to see himself as a bad guy, when he really isn't. He's lying to himself and trying to be something he isn't -- and he isn't really fooling anyone else.

This author does recognize stories like this, listing among his "other story types" the "Good vs. Evil" story in which the hero has a psychological need but no moral need, and where he may make mistakes along the way, but he doesn't act immorally. This is where a lot of genre fiction falls. The author seems to be of the opinion that this is a "lesser" kind of story because it's black-and-white and simpler, and he devotes maybe half a page to it. I wonder if this is what editors and agents meant when I was trying to write chick lit and they said it wasn't "edgy" enough. I wasn't giving my main character a moral failing (and the one time I tried doing that, I was told that the character was hard to relate to). I was trying to write heroic fiction in a mainstream genre.

But I don't think the good vs. evil story is automatically simplistic or isn't emotionally complex. There are ways to pull it off. I think one way is to make the hero's psychological need strong enough that it's almost moral, and that the hero not dealing with that need could have repercussions on the big picture. Quite often in heroic fiction stories, the hero at the beginning is mostly just not living up to his/her potential. He's living an ordinary life, totally unaware of what he's really capable of, and while he's not doing any harm, by not living up to his potential, he's in a sense cheating the world out of what he could do -- a sin of omission. Back to my Terminator example, Sarah may let people walk all over her, but she's not hurting anyone but herself. However, if she doesn't overcome that and become the kind of strong woman who can bring up the child who will help the human race fight back against the killer robots in the future, then mankind will be in big trouble. Luke Skywalker isn't acting immorally (unless you count the whining), but he's mostly talk about his dreams of adventure -- when he actually gets a distress signal, he starts coming up with excuses for not doing anything about it. But if he doesn't find his inner hero and ultimately be good enough to bring his father back to the right side, the galaxy is in trouble.

I think you could also do a quasi-moral need, where it's more a moral weakness that results in inaction than an outright immoral act. So, say there was another waitress who was being picked on, and Sarah Connor not only didn't stand up for herself but also didn't stand up for the other waitress, and part of her growth arc was her learning to not only stand up for herself, but also to defend others. That didn't come into play in what was essentially a survival story, but you get the idea.

Meanwhile, if the hero isn't failing in his attempts to achieve his goal and defeat the villain because he's choosing the morally wrong approach, you generally have to make the villain more powerful to give the hero a reason to fail. Yeah, the hero may fail sometimes because he makes mistakes, but you don't want him to be too stupid to live from making too many mistakes. In heroic fiction, training is often a part of the story, so while the hero might fail against the villain at first, gaining more skills during the story makes it possible for him to win. Gaining allies is another way the hero can overcome the powerful villain, and often the willingness to trust others and look for help is what the hero has to learn (like the Wolverine story in the first X-Men movie).

In other news, tonight on Ghost Hunters International on the Sci Fi Channel, they're investigating the local castle in the town where I used to live in Germany. It gets a lot of attention because it's Frankenstein Castle, but it has nothing to do with the Frankenstein story other than the name, and because of the name people tend to look for an eeriness that just isn't there. Well, no more so than with any other ruined castle. The first airing is opposite the Mythbusters MacGuyver show, and I'm not missing that, so I may check out the later repeat because I'm curious to see what they try to dig up. I never heard anything about it being haunted, unless you count the German-American club setting up a haunted house there for Halloween to raise money for charity. Mostly, I want to get another glimpse of my old hometown and the first castle I ever visited.

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