Alexander Hellene

Heroes and Villains II: So You Want to Be a Hero

The Introduction

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 Set-Up

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

Archetype.

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.

– Alexander

10 thoughts on “Heroes and Villains II: So You Want to Be a Hero”

    1. Raymond,

      Agreed.

      Alexander pretty much touched on some points I wanted to broach, but there’s one I’ll expand on: the reluctant hero.

      Yup it’s been overused by the gammas and other lazy types as a cheap way to become a hero without the effort (like some isakei stories). But I want to rehabilitate the reluctant hero trope. If you look at Sam from Lord of the Rings, he’s a bit of a reluctant hero but embraces his role without too much emo.

      My take on the reluctant hero is one who tried to be heroic or chad or alpha but got badly burned. So he’s the archetype of the twice bitten and shy hero. So I’d have him suffer from a touch of acedia and understandable reticence. Yet, from the support of the chad/heroes/alphas as well as from the love interest, he embraces his modified heroic calling by mixing and matching the 4 cardinal virtues and their associated characteristics.

      He’s not the super alpha chad snake eating commando but more like Sam, the stalwart, methodical guy who grinds through the challenges staying loyal and persevering until he participates in the boss fight and plays a role in defeating it.

      Sam has always been a favorite hero of mine and has deeply shaped my understanding of the hero and reluctant hero. I guess when I write protagonists, I’m subconsciously work with Sam with different virtues and vices as my archetype reluctant hero trope. Merry and Pippen too but to a lesser extent.

      Again, I think DnD can be very helpful in generating different type of heroes using a chart system or spoke and hub alignment with the 4 cardinal virtues+associated characteristics+7 capital sins.

      In summary, I want heroes to be inspiring, uplifting and an exemplar where you too can be a hero even if’s not at the heights of Aragon, or Doc Savage, etc. And always win, get the girl and dispense justice to the bad guys.

      xavier

      1. Xavier –

        Yes, heroes need to be a character for the reader/viewer to look up to as a positive example. And that’s why indie creators are the only way to go for recapturing the Hero Trope. Mainstream ‘creators’ have abandoned the trope by the wayside to be picked up, dusted off, and burnished to a fine sheen by more capable talents.

        Hollywood is inherently incapable of presenting either the Iconic Hero or the Aspirational Hero. They either have no background in understanding the tropes, or they are crippled by satisfying the mentally incontinent.

        The Campbellian Hero Cycle has been beaten to death in the last 60 years by C-average film students, and most mainstream creators are just copying copies of a copy like bog-standard cargo cultists. These ‘creators’ have little more understanding of the cycle than your average tree frog. This is a major reason why movies became nothing but a long string of reboots and placeholder nostalgia fantasies.

        The woefully broken ‘reluctant hero’ is an immediate turn-off for me and guarantees I’ll never watch the film again, and may just eject me before I’m done with the first viewing. The weakness and cowardice inherent in this trope marks most stories featuring it in a manner similar to a post-2000 AD Hugo Award: “Just STAY AWAY!”

        1. Raymond,

          Agreed. My biggest beef is contemporary creators are just plain lazy. They simply don’t want to regress and read, if possible, legends/myths in the original languages. Worse, is their school of fish mentality because of wokeism which arrests any independent thinking.

          Campbell’s hero of a thousand faces need a rest for now. We need to regress and re read the old myths, saga, legends, etc and then create our own heroes.

          My take on the reluctant hero is that he’s down and out, nursing his wounds. He was burned and need to recuperate. One idea I have bouncing around my brain:
          1) Hero is an Indiana Jones with manuscripts. His last adventure burned him really badly and suffers a nervous breakdown.
          2) He refuses to cooperate with the mental institution and convinces his bosses (a chad husband/wife couple in the same line of work) to let him restore traditional rural housing that’s national policy.
          3) Meantime, bad guys guffaw at the imprudence of the other chad adventurers stopping hero from hiding manuscripts. The ones he was trying to hide have secret directions to object of desire(tm) but no one believes him(Still don’t know what I want to be)
          4) Hero is steadily recovering and gets along with the villagers and is attracted by one of the local girls whose family runs an ironwork factory.
          5) Other adventurers start cluing in that something’s up; start investigating.
          6) Eventually, they come to hero, but he and the former realize he’s still in no shape to participate.
          7) Action and mayhem ensues, forcing chad adventurers to regroup and revise plan.
          8) Hero volunteers to lead bad guys on a wild goose chase to entrench main bad guy’s obsession hero hold the key allowing chad adventurers time to find the
          9) Adventures and action ensues again and hero plays a small role in thwarting bad guy’s plan.
          10) Success and the hero goes home content he played his role but completely overlooked for recognition (but he really doesn’t care)
          Epilogue: married, kid on the way, and authorities correct the error and belatedly recognize hero. He’s appreciative and now he has some more options he didn’t have before but will give priority to his forthcoming family for now.

          xavier

          1. Xavier,

            Your reluctant hero at least sounds like he’s an interesting character with an interesting past that makes sense in the context of the adventure story. Also, he does not sound like a jerk, but like an actual good, decent fellow.

            1. Alexander,

              Thanks. I’ve put a lot of thought about the reluctant hero and his character. I didn’t want him to be a whiny, emo prissy brat where the reaction is to smack him with a 2 x4. I wanted a protagonist who was burned and suffered, is understandably reluctant but is willing (but sullenly) to come to terms with what he is. Mind you, he’ll have bad days when he’s a bit of a prick but no one tolerates this and straightens himself out with support.

              And he’s a bit aspirational because he shows that no matter how down and out you are, there are people willing and wanting to help. Reach out, be vulnerable, but be willing to reconstitute yourself with help. Especially for the guys whose depression and cries for help tend to be overlooked.

              I’m currently working on a chapter by chapter outline for this story which will help me overcome one of my difficulties: to organize the plot and moving forward. Secondly, I really want to make this protagonist likeable despite his behaviour (again, not a jerk suffers occasional prickism which will be severely dealt with.)

              I want people to route for the hero and know they too can be heroes even if it’s not the super ninja snake eating commando. It’s OK not to be the Shadow nor Doc Savage but you can still be at your best and live a good life too.

              xavier

              1. It sounds like this character is going to be a lot of fun, actually. So many types of people–from the extraordinary to the ordinary–can be heroic. It is not necessarily all about superior brains or brawn, but courage.

        2. Raymond,

          The “Aspirational Hero” is a great one that has been underused and, quite frankly, abused when it is used. How often do we see the “The Christian/pious/goody-goody character seems too good to be true because they are too good to be true–they’re either total hypocrites or the real villain!”

          These people can only write what they know. And since writing rooms in Hollywood, rosters of tradpub, and elsewhere are full of spiritually corrupted, bug-souled people, is it any wonder these are the types of characters they create and lessons the vomit forth into the culture?

      2. Xavier,

        You hit what I was trying to say: the reluctant hero trope isn’t bad per se, but it’s been made bad by writers who saw a movie or TV show with that whiny and/or nihilistic type of reluctant hero, and thought of it as the only type of reluctant hero. It’s like the “manic pixie girl” trope, where a certain kind of person–let’s use the terms “gamma” and “blue-hair” just for argument’s sake–were like “It’s me!” and ran with it. Boring.

        All tropes, whether they be character archetypes or story structures, can work. One must a) know what they’re doing, and b) try to do something at least a little different or unique with it.

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