Who writes your stories is just as important as who is in them. Do you think soft, armchair-theorizing men who have had little experience with life, who have small and shriveled characters, and no spiritual inclinations can craft bracing, exciting, meaningful, and purposeful stories that inspire? Or are our stories written by spiteful mutants who hate all that is beautiful, good, and true? Who find anything aspirational to be “foolish” and “old-fashioned,” and who want nothing more than to deconstruct and subvert?
Who are these people anyway, and why is their understanding of heroism so twisted?
You know who they are: they are the resentful mediocrities we talked about last post. The kind of slothful poseurs who are upset they aren’t as well-liked as Chad the quarterback and Britney the head cheerleader, but instead of putting in the work to improve themselves, they’d rather bring society down to their level and normalize their own bizarre neuroses so they don’t feel like the weirdo anymore.
They want Chad and Britney to be seen as the weird ones, while of course writing twisted freaks like themselves in as the heroes.
That’s who is in charge of our stories! That’s who is in charge of our heroes!
These are not aspirational stories; because after all, it doesn’t take much imagination for one who has lived a life of relative comfort and ease to devise exciting stories of derring-do undertaken by men and women of great moral character and courage.
And yet . . .
The term “hero” has been bastardized to a certain degree, so much that the idea of someone doing heroic actions in pursuit of a good end has been warped to mean someone doing whatever it takes, no matter how vile or brutal to achieve a good end.
One might say, in agreement with C.S. Lewis, that courage is the spring from which true heroism stems:
Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.C.S. Lewis
Sometimes this means doing what is right as opposed to what is lawful. Sometimes this also means making the least-bad decision when there are no objectively good ones, as long as that decision gets one closer to an actual, ultimate, verifiable good.
One must be careful though—the philosophy of needing to break a few eggs in order to make the proverbial omelet has been elevated to sacred status. Long gone are the “boring,” “bland,” and “vanilla” heroes who do the right thing no matter what. That’s lame! We need heroes who kill, steal, torture, lie, and cheat to get what they want, even if what they want cannot be objectively classified as good. Because believing in an actual, objective good is lame, right?
Let’s take a step back, though, and get at some of what makes a hero.
The Boring Part
In the classical sense, a hero is a normal person who has some great talent, quality, or characteristic. We can go all the way back to one of my favorite wells, Greek antiquity, to see characters like Odysseus who aren’t even demigods, but nevertheless contain a greater quantity of some attribute than most other people; in Odysseus’s case, that would be craftiness. The dude is clever. Sherlock Holmes might be considered another of this type of hero.
But not everybody is super-good at something, right? This brings us to another common type of hero, the everyman. Think Paul Kersey as portrayed by Charles Bronson in the Death Wish movies. Or even Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry in The Lord of the Rings. These are completely ordinary people driven to do extraordinary things either by circumstance or out of a sense of duty. Kersey wants to avenge his family’s murder. The quartet of hobbits knows that if they fail in the task assigned to them, Middle Earth is doomed. These are very attractive types of heroes because they allow the audience to play the role of “What if”: What if I were in this situation? Horror movies are full of these kinds of heroes.
How about the reluctant hero? This is an overused trope, the guy (it’s usually always a lazy male) who doesn’t want to be hero because it’s too hard or inconvenient or whatever, but is goaded into reluctant heroism and doing the right thing—usually by a strong, sassy, independent woman who chides him and his masculinity—to ultimately save the day. This trope can work if the reason for a hero’s reluctance is compelling, but it’s often just a lazy trope.
Ditto the chosen one hero. This is your Harry Potter: someone marked from birth to be great. Harry, at least, acts like a hero who wants to do the right thing because it’s right, but the fawning “you’re so special” nature of such heroes can grate and lose its luster very quickly. I have not read anything by Patrick Rothfuss, but I have heard that the main character in his book is a particularly egregious example of this type of hero.
Another type begging for consideration is the superhero. This could be, say, Aragorn or Legolas from The Lord of the Rings; these two clearly possess superhuman abilities. Comic book superheroes, the sort we are inundated with, are the obvious type of superhero hero: they literally have magical powers, and most of them are born like this! Other superhero types might acquire their magical powers through study and training as well. Or they’re just total archetypical badasses like all of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s characters in the action movie heyday.
And then there’s the anti-hero. I touched on this earlier, but this is the take-no-prisoners, doing-the-right-thing-the-wrong-way-for-the-wrong-reasons type of hero. Some call comic character The Punisher an anti-hero, but I disagree—mowing down bad guys without trial is awesome. You see a mugger or a gun-runner or a drug-dealer or a rapist doing something evil, you shoot them dead. A sane society would see The Punisher as a legend.
Anyway, I try to avoid anti-heroes. So there’s, I guess, that show Dexter about a serial killer some cop uses to capture and torture other serial killers. It just sounds needlessly sadistic and depraved, but then again it’s puked up by Hollywood which loves nothing more than to “push boundaries,” which is just weasel-speak for “piss on beauty, nobility, and good taste.”
The Important Part
There’s that word!
A recurrent motif . . . a typical example . . . or a template to be imitated.
We are all archetypes in some way. If you’re a parent, you are the archetypical man or woman for your sons and daughters. And so on.
This is important!
If you are in any position of authority or responsibility, you look for examples you can choose from. Maybe it’s Jesus Christ. In different situations, maybe it’s an Old Testament prophet, or a holy martyr or a church father or a saint.
World religions are full of archetypes.
So are world stories.
Who our archetypes are says a lot about us. If you’re of an economic bent, a member of the Mammon mob, you probably think that anything not involving dollars and cents and the acquisition thereof is a stupid waste of time. That’s where you’re wrong, oh so dead wrong.
Culture is far more important than economics. All of that prosperity the Mammon mob thinks was a result of seeing man as an interchangeable economic widget is actually the result of a culture and morality that allowed people to build a prosperous economy built on mutual trust and the predictable expectation of fair dealing.
But if you put mutant outsiders and hateful goblins in charge of the system, guess what? It all falls apart.
The new archetypes are the venal, the hateful, the spiteful, the bigoted, and the haters of success.
Forget just success; they hate anything that’s awesome.
They put themselves as the archetype.
The Exciting Part
No matter what type of hero you choose, there are important considerations that go into it, basic storytelling conventions like characteristics, motivation, and lines they will and won’t cross.
Despite what you’ve just read, I’m not writing about a hero checklist. I’m more interested in the broad philosophy of heroism.
Take a look at this sculpture:
This is called Breakthrough, and it’s by an Antwerp-based English sculptor I’ve recently become aware of named Fen de Villiers.
Look at this guy, this flagbearer. In de Villiers’s words, “The flag bearer is the first one to break through the line and push forward onto new ground.”
That’s what I’m talking about. That’s the kind of creator we need to try to be.
Action-oriented. Dynamic. Powerful. Fearless. Dominant.
Decent men who can be dangerous if need be. Men who will fight the monsters, kill the bad guy, and save the world. Men who might have a bit of the rogue about them, or the pirate or cowboy or outlaw. But men who aren’t evil—they give it to those who deserve it.
I want more of our creators to be like this:
We will see these ideals, this mindset, and these experiences in the creation.
Stories that hit you like a jab to the face while being doused in ice-cold river water, the ocean spray and motorcycle fumes in your nose mingling with that of a beautiful woman’s perfume as you avoid corrupt cops and crooked federal agents and soldiers of despotic foreign governments out to take what is rightfully yours . . . but hey, they stole it from you in the first place.
I want stories about heroes like this, but more than that, I want stories written by heroes like this.
This isn’t just pie-in-the-sky thinking: if we want to improve our stories, we have to improve ourselves. By having more experiences. By doing more things. By reading more books. By experiencing more beauty, and danger, and peace, and transcendence. By imbibing more life. There is no substitute for this, as we see in what passes as adventure, science-fiction, and fantasy.
The hard times are here and they’re only going to get harder. I only hope I am around to see the stories written by the heroes who will carry us through these times.