Sunday, November 15, 2009

Musings on Heroes

The "hero" is the underpinning of genre fiction. Fantasy can't live without the heroic guy or gal thrust into the soup and forced to rise to the occasion. The type of hero doesn't matter: the noble prince, the humble farmboy, the good witch, the barbarian warrior princess. We want to identify with the good guys (usually) so we can cheer their success. We like it when they attain glory and bask in the reflected glow. But pursuit of glory wasn't what hooked us. Just the opposite.

What makes a hero a hero? It can't just be about stepping in and saving the world. It can't just be about having the right gifts to apply at the right time, be they courage or awesome magic. I've been mulling this since critting a friend's manuscript, and I finally put my finger on something that's perhaps blindingly obvious to everyone else but nevertheless something I am finally arriving at consciously, after applying it subconsciously to every book I've ever written. The heroes we remember are the ones who had something to lose beyond just their lives.

I begin to see why some of my short stories, especially some of the more hurried SSIAW ones, don't stick even in my own mind. In them, the hero has nothing much to lose. In my books, the hero always has something to lose. Something huge. Something underpinning his or her whole life. Without that most basic requirement, heroism is just another act in a normal day. Otherwise society would give medals to every firefighter who ever set foot in a burning building. Sure, they all have life and limb at risk. But what defines a heroic act over the commonplace?

Cops, firefighters, and soldiers risk their lives daily in the course of the jobs they get paid to do. They volunteered for this; nobody pressed them into service. We mourn when they die, but not everybody gets a medal for doing the job they agreed to do. The extraordinary act comes when "maybe I'll get hurt" turns to "it's almost certain I'll get hurt." This is why I take such vehement exception to the media trend since 9/11 to overuse the word "hero," cheapening it to just another valueless bit of hype. Everybody's a hero to our bored and increasingly facile and shallow crop of journalists, from the guy who catches a stray dog to the man who throws himself in front of a train to save a stranger.

The acceptance of risk above and beyond what is expected is the essence of heroism, but it doesn't need to be life or death. Heroes can risk other things of equal value: personal reputation, relationships, social standing, wealth, honor, children--the list is infinite. I loved the ending of The Crucible, when honor and a good name became more important than life. Living with a falsehood was more intolerable than death. Thus is a hero born. Better yet, a memorable hero.

My point is that when writing, make sure your hero, even if thrust into the action like Frodo being chased by Black Riders, has a painful and powerful choice to make in pursuit of the quest. Frodo has his peaceful, contented life in the Shire--and the Shire itself--to lose. He saves one but loses the other as he is irrevocably changed by the quest. Yet he does not turn aside from struggling toward the aptly-named Mt. Doom.

A character acting heroically without something potentially life-changing hovering over his head is pretty blah. Answer yourself these questions when pondering the whys and wherefores of your plot:
  • Who or what is left behind to follow the quest?
  • What will happen to the character's life, moral character, or outlook if these things are lost?
  • Why is the quest more important than these other things?
  • What gives your character the strength to turn his/her back on them? Is it strength or cowardice?
  • Is the quest an escape or a dreaded duty?
All of these things will define the emotional impact of that all-important decision to leave those precious things behind, and with it, the level of impact on the reader. We want to cry fully as much as we want to cheer. Whatever your character stands to gain must be equally balanced by whatever it is he or she has to lose.

Just sayin'.

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