Thursday, March 31, 2011

Holding Out for a Hero

It turns out I made a major strategic error in part of the stuff I wrote in my Tuesday binge. I made a story decision that made sense at the time, but when I went a little further in the story, it turned out that it sapped a lot of the urgency from the following events. Something I did to get my characters out of one sticky situation ended up meaning they could pretty much stay out of sticky situations for the rest of the book (note to self: invulnerability is great for villains, horrible for heroes). So yesterday I had to figure out another way to get them out of the sticky situation so they could still stay in trouble for the rest of the book. I won't have that much that needs serious re-working, since I figured out the problem pretty quickly.

Something said in the comments of a post last week triggered a rant I've had building since a panel I was on at a convention last month, and then a fun link I found also fit into it, so I figured now's as good a time as any for it.

What happened to the heroes? I mean real heroes, not anti-heroes or heroes who are "heroes" only in the sense of being the main character. Real good guys, white hats who aren't almost as bad as the bad guys they're up against. That complaint came up in the things people are wanting in books but not really finding, and it came up as a digression in a panel on religion in fantasy when Tim Powers mentioned that there seem to be fewer main characters who live up to the ideals and values that might come from religion -- the virtuous people who are willing to lay down their lives for others or for the cause without having to be ironic about it. They are out there, but they're not really the vogue at the moment.

I think some of this trend dates back to the cynicism of the 60s and 70s when it became uncool to be earnest and sincere, and anyone who was earnest and sincere was probably a bad guy. This mindset has infiltrated the literary world and seems to come from the same place as the idea that happy endings are unrealistic. Likewise, they seem to believe that real heroes are unrealistic and don't exist anymore, if they ever did. We even get the deconstruction impulse, where heroic figures of the past have to be re-evaluated and all their petty sins exposed to show why they really weren't so great. See, there aren't any real heroes, after all, because even the people you thought were heroic were actually pretty bad.

But I read the newspaper every morning, and just about every day there's a brilliant example of the kind of heroism I like to see in characters. Not too long ago, there was the rookie cop in this area who'd responded to take a domestic violence complaint when the abuser abruptly returned home with a gun, and this young cop put herself between him and a young girl, so the child survived even though the man killed his girlfriend, the cop and himself. Or there's this story out of Japan, in which a man put on SCUBA gear immediately after the tsunami and dove into the tsunami waters to go find and rescue his family (profanity warning in the linked article -- the writer has a colorful way of expressing how impressed he is). Or a story last week about a little girl who allowed herself to be hit by a car in order to protect her little sister. Or a local news story a week or so ago about a man crashing his car due to a medical issue and the man in a nearby house who rushed outside and pulled the dazed man from the burning car before it exploded. These are all the kinds of people and deeds that the cynics would call "unrealistic," but they happen every single day.

The other impulse that seems to be at work here is the idea of making yourself look or feel better by looking down on other people rather than by improving yourself. That seems to be the appeal of so much of reality television -- hey, look at those idiots. I'm so much better than they are. Even on the competition shows that are supposed to be about rewarding excellence, there are all the ironic "vote for the worst" campaigns to keep truly untalented people on the show for more mocking opportunities. That seems to have spilled into fiction, with the loser or anti-hero as main character, giving the reader someone to look down on. Traditional heroes are aspirational -- they're smarter, braver or more skilled than most of us are, and they give us something to look up to.

That doesn't mean heroes are perfect. They can have flaws and weaknesses. They may be reluctant. They can make mistakes. They can stray from the path and be tempted to do the wrong thing or to take advantage of a situation for selfish gain. They may not even realize what they're capable of because they've never been tested. One of my favorite fictional tropes is the unlikely hero, the seemingly ordinary person who gets thrown into extraordinary circumstances and then discovers what kind of person he really is. I'm even a fan of the honorable thief, the Robin Hood type who robs from the rich and crooked to help the poor and helpless, or else the reformed thief who learns to use his skills for good. These are people with pasts who have been bad or who are in opposition to the status quo, but they are still highly skilled, and they still act honorably, in the grand scheme of things, even if they might not be following the letter of the law. In general, the heroes I like are basically good people who have the right motives in spite of their flaws, pasts, weaknesses and mistakes.

And that brings me to another side of this issue, moral relativism. I'm totally on board with developing villains as real characters and not just mustache-twirling cardboard cutouts. I agree that they should have some motivation -- but not to the point where they come across like some Dr. Doofenshmirtz evil scheme backstory, where everything they do is justified by some sad thing in their past (I expect the villain to justify and excuse himself, but I don't like it when the story or author seems to do so, when I feel like I'm supposed to feel like his past justifies his actions). And I accept the idea that the villain sees himself as the hero of his own story, that he's not doing these things just to be evil but that he has a purpose that he thinks is totally justified, even if that purpose is extremely selfish. But I keep hearing in writing seminars or panel discussions where authors will say that really the only difference between the hero and the villain is a matter of perspective based on whose story it is.

Uh, no. Sorry. If the only difference between the hero and the villain is whose point of view the story is in, then you don't really have a hero I want to read about. The bad guy and the good guy should be doing different things for different reasons, and even if they're doing some of the same things, they should be doing them in different ways and for different reasons. The good guy may have to kill people, but I would expect that he'd try to avoid hurting innocents while he's killing bad guys, and I would hope that he's doing all this for some greater good, that perhaps in the big picture more lives will be saved by defeating the bad guy. Meanwhile, the bad guy is more likely to kill indiscriminately and to do so for selfish motives. The good guy may not always follow the letter of the law, because the law can hide a lot of injustice and can be manipulated, but he's doing the things he's doing for reasons beyond himself or without darker motives like, say, racism or revenge.

If the protagonist of your story isn't heroic in this sense, he's still a villain even if he's the main character, and I want him to lose. Think about Macbeth -- Macbeth is the main character, but he's still the villain of the story because he does bad things for bad reasons, and he's ultimately defeated. He isn't a hero, in spite of being the main character and in spite of the story being told mostly from his point of view.

All of this was a big reason why fantasy fiction appealed to me in the first place. I wanted white knights on fiery steeds vanquishing evil. I wanted innocent farmboys who rose to the occasion when they were dragged into great events. I wanted to imagine that if such a thing ever happened to me, I would be able to live up to those examples.

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