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Why a well written hero matters to me
Posted at: Jul/12/2018 : Posted by: Mel
Related Category: Perspectives,
I read on a regular basis and have for most of my life. I have read biographies, historical accounts, drama, science fiction, science fantasy, crime drama, westerns, and just about anything else you could find on a bookstore shelf excluding romance. While many readers have a specific genre they favor over anything else, that’s not a big concern for me. I will read historical accounts because I want to learn about an event or time in history. Reading as much fiction as I have, I have come to appreciate that a good hero has the same features whether in a book, a movie or a TV show. The authors who get me coming back for more understand that “character is king,” and the best character is a hero.
For most of human existence language has been about telling the truth. Many anthropologists will tell you that written language likely first evolved to record trade and agreements. Clearly that’s a place where truth would be valued. Somewhere along the line fiction started and we began burning out brain cells on people who never existed and events that didn’t actually happen. On the surface, fiction appears to be a complete waste of time, but it is so prolific that we must deeply desire it. I suspect this desire is tied to a need to be consoled because the real world is rarely more than satisfactory for meeting our dreams and aspirations.
In real life you may sit in a food court at the mall and see a beautiful young lady. Truth is you aren’t going to dinner with her, you aren’t going away for the weekend with her, and you aren’t going to be living happily ever after with her. Nevertheless, in popular fiction all that happens. The same is true for crime stories. In real life, if your house gets burgled or your car gets ripped off, they aren’t going to find the bad guys and most of the time you aren’t going to get your stuff back. Even if you are bullied at work, there is likely very little that can or will be done about the obnoxious behavior. But in a book, something can be done about it, and people enjoy reading where it actually happens. They love it. It’s closure, albeit vicariously for the events of our daily lives.
While plot matters, good fiction for me is mostly about the main character or hero. In a standalone story the hero’s journey works well for me. Odysseus in the “Odyssey”, Thor in “Citizen of the Galaxy” or Luke Skywalker in the original “Star Wars” (episode-4) are all good examples of the hero’s journey. The heroes all began as modest characters who, while facing a series of ever growing hurdles, are ultimately capable of defeating an overwhelming adversary. Each of the challenges these heroes faced in sequence helped them grow the skills and knowledge that would be needed for their ultimate battle or enemy. Real life growth may seldom be like this. The pleasure in fiction is that each of us can experience that growth with the character as the story progresses and feel that we were there as well.
The other kind of hero is the one who appears in a series of novels. For the author, this is obviously the greater challenge. Since the reader gets to know the hero well, there is an expectation for consistent behavior and back story. If the author gives too much detail in the first book, the character is overly predictable from there forward. If the hero is the “tough guy” type, it is often easier to look for all the deep complexity in the villain. Traditionally, the hero in these stories at least once will walk into a room and get hit over the head from behind. The Philip Marlowe character penned by Raymond Chandler and the Sam Spade character by Dashiell Hammett have a tendency to get beat up or bruised a couple of times before they finally get ahead of the bad guy and wrap of the case. These detectives were considered “hardboiled” because they generally got beat up along the way and had to mete out their own justice when the legal system failed or was corrupt.
Regardless of how ethical it may seem, we all get a little vicarious satisfaction in knowing that bad guys ultimately got what was coming to them. Some people would argue that this makes the hero overly predictable. I find comfort in knowing who the hero is from the beginning to the end. The adventure comes with reading how the hero deals with different villains and new challenges.
As bad as it sounds, I find myself somewhat drawn to the outlaw characters of good fiction. I like the cleverness and ingenuity that a complex villain brings to a story. I like the promise of intriguing revelations. A stupid criminal only rates a detective third-grade going out and arresting the obvious suspect; where’s the escapism in that? I dislike a hero who is generally blundering and stupid for the first three-quarters of the story only to set up the final action. Heroes who are smart throughout the story while contending with a challenging villain are just a little bit more special to me.
One of the character types I find most interesting is the disenfranchised or alienated hero. The “dime store” western novels of the nineteenths century are the simplest example of this type of story. Imagine the dusty character who rides into a town, only to encounter some injustice. Rather than ride on to the next hamlet, the rider stays to right the wrongs and mete out justice within his simple code of right and wrong. When peace is brought to the town, the rider moves on without settling down, receiving a reward, or waiting for appreciation. Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, Luke Short and a host of others wrote hundreds and maybe thousands of stories in this format. It would be easy to say that the theme of a lone person entering town and staying to right a wrong while handing out justice to what might be a rough personal code is unique to westerns, but that is not true.
The westerns were preceded by hundreds of stories from the thirteenth to the fifteenth-centuries of the knight-errant. These were stories of medieval knights who would wander the country in search of adventures and the opportunity to perform chivalrous acts. So why does the knight search out wrongs to be righted, maybe partly because of the term “noblesse oblige.” “Noblesse oblige” means “nobility obligated” and is a French chivalric concept meaning that people of high rank and birth are obligated to be generous and responsible to those of lesser position in life. It is difficult to guess how many of the tales of the knight-errant are true, or creatively adapted from actual events. Obviously, when there is no war to fight in, someone trained in combat and educated in a code of conduct would be prone towards wandering the countryside seeking adventure just to avoid boredom. This was also a side effect of the laws of progeniture. With the oldest son inheriting the family responsibilities, middle and younger sons were basically surplus in case the oldest son died.
As mentioned, the lone rider of nineteenths century western novels is still a dominate hero archetype. While many of the stories may be fiction, the character type was based on a very common and true circumstance. After the American Civil War, many young men found themselves unable to return to the lives they had before taking up arms. Going west represented adventure, or at least a new beginning. In the west of the eighteen-hundreds, what little law there was only existed in the widely dispersed towns and villages. Where there were no laws, men fell into two categories. One group were those who did not respect property and would steal almost anything from a horse to a sack of beans. The other group were those cowboys and frontiersmen who lived by a simple personal code in lieu of any available laws. In later years the authors of those early dime novels learned of these codes and called them the “code of the west” (first reference: Zane Grey 1934). There are many iterations to these codes, but they generally included ‘riding for the brand’, ‘open hospitality at the campfire’, ‘respect for personal property’ and a very simple version of right-wrong-justice.
Hero characters in recent years have developed a host of frailties’ and flaws. Heroes became smaller, realistically afraid, and physically unexceptional. On the emotional side they became battered, they were alcoholics, recovering alcoholics and traumatized by professional mistakes. Many of these new heroes project an overwhelming feeling of incipient failure and depression. These flawed heroes are a refreshing change from the lantern-jawed heroes of the past. A psychologist would likely point out that, in our imperfect lives, it is easier to relate to a leading character with a lifetime of accumulated baggage too numerous to fit in the back of the car. I have met lots of people in my life, but have yet to shake hands with that mythical perfect person. On the other side of the coin: while I can’t personally relate to being an alcoholic, heroes with realistic flaws and infirmities are easier to relate to. Who remembers the Lone Ranger? Everybody. Who remembers any actual Lone Ranger story lines? Almost nobody. For fiction to be good for me, character matters, and the character of the hero matters even more. When I look back on many of the books I have read, I struggle to remember the plot, but the well written characters are easy to remember.
When seeking vicarious closure to the frustrations of daily life, there is a clear satisfaction in a little simple justice. At this point in my life I am over the simple “white-hat” hero. There is something satisfying about the socially disenfranchised hero. Whether a knight-errant, a lone drifter off the western plains, or a contemporary drifter alienated from society like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, all these heroes share a common ancestry. They all struggle to participate in the society of their times. They don’t tolerate being pushed around. Each of them stands up for the little guy even when that little guy is a stranger. Most of all, each of them lives by a personal code that gives them the strength to exact justice regardless of any established laws.
There is a sense of nobility from solving other people’s problems with no expectation of reward. Clearly, good fiction is escapism, and escapism is a means to move past the frustrations of the real world. There is a definite vicarious satisfaction when a well written and relatable hero ensures that the bad guys get punished.