Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Flawed Hero

First, a correction on yesterday's post. The title of the book I was discussing was The Demon Lover, not The Dark Lover. That was a brain glitch on my part, since the book was RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF ME. I wasn't doing that from memory. I was actually looking at the cover. I guess I slotted the author's name into the title. I even recall thinking as I proofread the post that the author had picked a pseudonym (the author bio says it's a pseudonym) that was a little on the nose with the title of the book. You'd think that would have been a clue.

In various online discussions I've been involved with lately, in convention panels and in articles about summer movies, the topic of heroes and what makes one has come up. I thought that would make a good writing topic, so for the next month or so I'll be addressing heroes.

The term "hero" usually applies to the protagonist, though not all protagonists are what we'd call "heroes." A real hero is a good guy, someone on the side of right who's maybe a little better than normal people -- more skilled, braver, more honest, more likely to make the right choice. That doesn't mean a hero is perfect or always does the right thing. And there are shades of grey regarding heroes. There are flawed heroes, reluctant heroes, dark heroes and antiheroes.

This week: the flawed hero

Really, this should apply to all heroes because a perfect person with no flaws is a boring character. With no flaws, there's no room for a character arc because the hero doesn't have anything to learn and doesn't need to change. You occasionally see the perfect hero in superhero stories, and then you generally need a sidekick to take on the usual heroic arc of growing and changing, or else you need to keep the story really simplistic and in short doses, like a single comic book adventure (with limited continuity between adventures). One of the complaints I've seen about the recent Superman movie (I haven't seen it) was that it went overboard in making Superman, who was one of those perfect heroes, a little too flawed, but I'm not sure how interesting a Superman movie would be for today's audiences if Superman remained perfect and pure. The Superman tellings that have made it work have used his Clark Kent persona for the character growth arcs, where Clark has lessons to learn, even as Superman has remained an ideal.

How flawed you want to make your hero depends on your story, but I think it works best if at least one of his major flaws has something to do with the plot, where that flaw is what holds him back at the dark moment when all seems lost, and then finally learning his lesson about that flaw is what allows him to prevail at the end. "Flaws" like, say, an addiction to chocolate fall more into the category of quirks. They're important to shape a character, but an otherwise perfect person who can't resist chocolate doesn't make for an interesting character arc unless you're writing a story set in Willy Wonka's factory. Interesting character flaws that lend themselves to arcs include things like a lack of self-confidence, too much self-confidence, attachment to material things or inability to trust. A flaw can also come out of the character's driving need -- someone who's driven by a need for love and belonging may have a hard time making the right choice if that need gets in the way. If he's found something that feels like a home, he'll be reluctant to leave that home or let that home come to risk, even if the greater good is at stake.

A flawed hero can make bad decisions. He needs to have something to overcome at the end, and sometimes it's more interesting if he's at least partially responsible for the things he has to overcome. He can still remain heroic if his bad decisions and screw ups are done with good motives, though if you're writing a darker hero who might be more of an antihero, then he can also screw up through more questionable motives. A hero may jump the gun and try to take on the bad guy before he's ready for it, resulting in some disaster. He may have questionable priorities, such as choosing the well-being of one person (not himself) over the greater good. He might listen to bad advice or be misled. He may ignore good advice and try to do things his own way.

One of the better examples of this is Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, who leaves Jedi training before he's finished to directly confront Darth Vader because he believes his friends are in danger, ignoring Yoda's warnings that it's a trap and that taking on Darth Vader before he's ready could jeopardize any later chance to defeat Vader and the Empire, once and for all. It was a bad decision, since he did nothing to help his friends and nearly got himself killed, but was it a morally wrong decision? Was the desire to save his friends wrong? Would we have sympathized much with a hero who was willing to sacrifice the people he cared about for the greater good? It's a moral dilemma sympathetic enough that we can forgive Luke for screwing up because we have to admit that we might have made the same choice. That's key in letting your hero make the occasional bad choice. At least part of the audience should feel like they might have done the same thing in his shoes. There will always be people who don't agree and who can't accept failure in a hero, but if you feel like you can justify your hero's actions (and you aren't a sociopath), then you can probably convince most of your audience.

However, the real measure of the hero is how he recovers from his mistake. If he's a decent person, he's going to feel remorse for messing up. He may become depressed. He may even retreat from the cause for a while to lick his wounds. The former hero found drunk in an alley has become something of a cliche. But he eventually pulls himself together and tries again. He may need one of his sidekicks to pull him out of his despair and remind him who he is, maybe even give him a swift kick, but he will come back. He'll learn what he needs to know, listen to the right advice this time and make the tough choice that's needed for him to win. This is much of the point of the "Resurrection" stage of the hero's journey, for the hero to die to his old self by being willing to die -- literally and metaphorically -- for his cause. That's when he can leave it all behind and move forward as a new man.

And I don't know about you, but I find a story a lot more satisfying when the hero has something like that to overcome than when he never takes a wrong step along the way and all his problems are the villain's fault.

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