Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The Reluctant Hero

I'm still talking about types of heroes, and this week the spotlight is on the reluctant hero.

In a way, every hero should be at least a little bit reluctant for at least part of the story. A refusal of the call to adventure is even a part of the hero's journey. Being a hero is difficult. Not just anyone can do it, and showing the hero wrestling with the decision helps demonstrate that this isn't something that can be taken lightly. But there are varying degrees of reluctance.

Some of the more "comic book" style heroes -- the larger-than-life superheroes -- may show little reluctance. They've accepted that heroism is their calling, and they leap into the fray when they're needed. Even so, the origin stories for these heroes usually involve some moment of reluctance, refusal or self-doubt before they take on the cape and tights in earnest. Today's audiences may be a little less accepting of this kind of hero, though. The more recent superhero movie adaptations have put more emphasis on the heroes wrestling with or running from their fates. Even James Bond in his latest movie spent some time just hanging out before he was forced back into action. Being "relatable" is important in today's fiction, and it may be hard for many people to relate to a hero who doesn't at least stop to think before taking on the role of hero.

The "refusal of the call" may also come at different parts of the journey. An eager, naive hero who desperately wants to be a hero and have adventures may jump at the chance, with no hesitation, only to waver when things prove to be more difficult than he expected. He may even try to back out and return home, only to find that it's too late, that he's in this up to his ears and has no choice but to complete the journey, so that he spends the rest of the story, up to the final turning point where he learns a valuable lesson, reluctant.

Another common reluctant hero trope is the hero who just wants to be left alone. He may have already had his moment of heroism that wasn't as glorious as they make it out to be, or he may have suffered a great loss, and now he wants to look out for himself, without having to worry about anything else. When something happens that makes him needed, he tries to avoid it. He tries to stay out of the way and claims it's none of his business. He may try to play mentor and coach someone else into taking on the hero's role while staying out of it, himself. But eventually his better nature and sense of duty win out, and he joins the fray. We see this a lot in Westerns, where our loner hero is usually an embittered Civil War veteran who lost his family and who has moved out west to be left alone, until the nearby town is threatened by bandits, etc. Or there's The Road Warrior, in which Mad Max would prefer to be left alone but gets drawn into the fight to help save the community. At the end, this hero may join the community or continue his loner ways until he's needed again.

This may also happen with someone who feels he's a failure -- he tried being a hero but failed, or his efforts backfired. Now he doesn't want to get involved because he's afraid he'll fail again or fears he's no good for anyone. The last person he tried to help died, and he doesn't want to risk that again. He'll fight getting involved because he really does believe that it's better for everyone that he stay out of it. This kind of hero may take something extreme to get him back in action, like a dire situation that only he can deal with combined with a swift kick in the pants from a sidekick. His story becomes a redemption story as he makes up for his past failures with his heroism and emerges reborn as a changed man.

The reluctant hero can verge on being an anti-hero if he's a person who would normally be doing non-heroic things but who finds himself going against his own nature to help others. This is the Han Solo type. We're told that he was a smuggler, but during his entire time in the story, he's doing heroic things, even though he keeps insisting he's only doing it for money until he can't help but come back to join the final battle.

I think the reluctant hero is popular because he reacts the way we might imagine we'd react in a crisis -- we might complain and resist or be afraid, but when we're really needed, we might pull ourselves together and do the right thing. There's also a lot of potential for a growth arc, where we can see the hero be transformed. If he's already perfect and willing at the start, there's nowhere for him to go.

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